Plants Know What Time It Is

Deciduous trees will eventually begin to defoliate.

Even without significant cool weather, the garden knows that it is now autumn. Most of the late summer blooming flowers are finishing their last bloom phases. Leaves of some of the deciduous trees, shrubs and vines are changing color, and some are already falling. Perennials that are dormant through winter are starting to deteriorate.

One of the several difficulties of living in a climate with so few difficulties is that autumn and winter weather is so very mild. Just as so many warm season annuals and vegetables want to continue to perform when it is time for them to relinquish their space to cool season annuals and vegetables, many other plants that should go dormant in autumn really want to stay awake as long as they can. Some semi-deciduous perennials even start to regenerate new growth before they shed their old growth.

Where winters are cooler, such plants generally shed the growth that developed in the previous year; in other words, they die back. They then stay dormant through the coolest part of winter, to break dormancy and regenerate late in winter or early in spring.

Beard tongue (Penstemon) can really look bad as the last flower spikes deteriorate, and the foliage gets spotty and grungy. It will be tempting to cut them back early. If possible, it is better to prune off only the deteriorating flower spikes, but wait until later in winter for major pruning. Premature pruning stimulates premature development of new growth that does not mature as well or as fast through winter as it would in spring. Such growth can be discolored, sparse and less vigorous until it gets obscured by later growth.

Marguerite daisy, ginger, canna, some salvias, most begonias, the various pelargoniums and all sorts of other perennials will likewise seem to be rather tired this time of year and through winter, but do not necessarily need to be pruned back just yet. Simply plucking or shearing off deteriorating flowers should be enough for now. Ginger and canna should not need to be pruned back until the foliage deteriorates enough to be almost unsightly. Begonias and pelargoniums, particularly common zonal geraniums, will be better insulated from potential frost damage through winter, and may not produce so much sensitive new growth if not pruned early.

Early Bulbs Start Even Earlier

Daffodils for next spring start now.

Crocus, daffodil and narcissus are among the earliest of the popular early bulbs to bloom at the end of winter. Hyacinth, tulip, freesia, anemone, ranunculus and some types of iris bloom shortly afterward. That process should begin in February or so, about five months from now. Early bulbs are seasonable now though. This is when they go into the garden.

Early bulbs, or spring bulbs, take commitment. While dormant, they are not much to look at. There is less to look at after their internment into shallow graves, where they disperse their roots secretly through winter. They will not make an appearance until they bloom in spring. Fortunately, their performance is more than adequate compensation for the effort.

Early bulbs go into the garden now because they take time to get ready for spring bloom. While dispersing roots, they also begin to develop foliage and floral stems. Such growth remains safe and invisible below the surface of the soil until the weather is warm enough for it to emerge. Until then, chilly and rainy weather helps bulbs adhere to their schedule. 

Whether they are true ‘bulbs’, or they are corms, rhizomes, tubers or tuberous roots, early bulbs are specialized storage structures. They contain what the particular plants need to grow to maturity and bloom within their preferred season. They should resume dormancy afterward, to repeat the process as perennials. However, few modern cultivars will do so. 

Realistically, extensive breeding for the development of the more extravagant of modern early bulbs has compromised their vigor. Consequently, some are not reliably perennial. Some simpler crocus, daffodils and narcissus can naturalize as perennial in comfortable situations. Otherwise, more of the later bulbs, like canna, cala and dahlia, are perennial.

Whether they naturalize or not, most early bulbs bloom just once annually. Planting them in phases prolongs bloom. Ideally, a subsequent phase begins to bloom as its preceding phase finishes. The length of bloom determines the frequency of phases. For example, if tulips bloom for a week, phases can be weekly. Winter annuals cover nicely when done.

Cooler Weather Is Slower Weather

Cooling weather can damage new growth.

Weather is not quite as warm as it had been. Warm days do not last quite as long as they did earlier in summer. Afterward, the longer nights get a bit cooler. Technically, autumn is only a few days from now. Although seasonal changes are mild, and a bit later here than in other regions, they eventually catch up. Plant activity has already been getting slower.

Seasonal changes keep gardening interesting. Plants that are now growing slower than earlier may need less attention. However, some need more attention, precisely because they are growing slower. Some of the work that was so important through summer should conclude until spring. Some of the work that will be important through winter begins now. 

Although evergreen, photinia and pittosporum hedges do not do much between now and next spring. If shorn too late, new growth develops slowly, and may become shabby as a result of cooler and rainier weather later. Late pruning of citrus stimulates vigorous newer growth that may be sensitive to frost through winter. Lemons are particularly susceptible.

Conversely, dormant pruning can begin as deciduous foliage starts to fall. Although most roses and fruit trees supposedly prefer to wait until winter, they may soon be too dormant to notice if pruning is a bit premature. This is partly why autumn is the season of planting. Mostly dormant plants are more resilient to discomforts than they would be while awake.

New Zealand flax, lily of the Nile, African iris and other rugged perennials are conducive to division now. They will soon be about as dormant as they get, but will want to disperse roots for winter anyway. They resume growth before winter ends, so want to be ready for it. Once rainier and cooler weather resumes, they will need no watering until next spring. 

Fertilizer should be passe soon also. Most plants consume less nutrients through cooler weather. Besides, many nutrients are less soluble, and therefore less available to plants while the weather is cool. Turf, cool season vegetables, cool season annuals, and some small palms are a few exceptions that could benefit from minor applications of fertilizers.

Late Summer Bloom Until Frost

Some flowers bloom at odd times.

Seasonal changes keep gardening interesting. Like colors of a rainbow, seasons are not as distinct as their dates on a calendar imply. Each evolves into the next. Spring evolves into summer. Late summer is presently evolving into autumn. It happens like red evolves into orange on a rainbow. It is amazing that plants can monitor the changes so precisely.

Even if plants could monitor calendars, they would not. They are too busy monitoring the daily duration of sunlight. That is how they identify primary seasonal changes. Of course, they monitor the weather also. That is how they know more precisely when to react to the seasonal change. Plants are aware that it is now late summer, and they know what to do.

Most but not all plants bloom during spring or summer, so finish by late summer. By now, they prefer to prioritize seed production. Some continue to produce fruit to entice animals who eat it and disperse its seed within. However, some plants prefer to bloom late. Some bloom during autumn or winter. Some are so late that they are early during the next year.

Therefore, there is more to provide floral color through late summer and into autumn than cool season annuals and late blooming perennials. Butterfly bush, plumbago, bee balm, lion’s tail, Saint John’s wort and various salvia are now blooming for late summer. Some might continue into autumn. Oleander and euryops might bloom sporadically until winter.

Strangely, some flowers that bloom for late summer or autumn are from tropical climates. Because equatorial or tropical climates are not as cool during winter, or may lack winter, shortening days are not such a deterrent to bloom. However, many tropical plants bloom sporadically, rather than profusely within a particular season, and may be unpredictable.

Princess flower, mandevilla, hibiscus and angel’s trumpet may bloom at any time prior to winter chill, but may not. Those that do so may not repeat the process annually. Fuchsias are a bit more reliable for late bloom with flowers that are generally more interesting than colorful. Blue hibiscus looks more tropical than it is, with potential for late summer bloom.

Color Wanes As Summer Ends

Summer blooms will be finishing soon.

Black-eyed Susan, sunflowers and a few of the late warm season annuals and perennials are still blooming, and a few will continue into autumn. By that time, cool season annuals can move in; and some of the deciduous trees, shrubs and vines that turn color for autumn will be doing so. Realistically though, this can be the leanest time of year for color in the garden. Even some of the foliage that is colorful through spring and summer has faded.

There are certainly plenty of flowers in season now. However, not many are colorful. Honeysuckle vine is pleasantly fragrant as it bloom in random phases until the weather gets cooler, but the flowers are only pale yellowish white. Some melaleuca trees bloom profusely enough to make a mess, but are just as pale, and do not even provide fragrance; although some have pretty light pink flowers. Abelia flowers are pink and abundant, but are really not all that flashy against their bronzy foliage.

Some of the more colorful flowers are not quite as reliable. Princess flower, hibiscus, blue hibiscus and mandevilla certainly can bloom in late summer or autumn, but sometimes bloom earlier than expected, so have nothing left for later. The bright red flowers of blood red trumpet vine are quite impressive, but only if they are not obscured by the accompanying foliage. Some roses bloom in phases as late as the weather will allow, but actually, most are done by now.

Fuchsia and angel’s trumpet likewise bloom in a few phases once they get started, but unlike the many cultivars of roses, they are much more reliable for a late bloom phase. Escallonia blooms late with small but colorful flowers, but only if they have not been shorn in the past few months. Shearing deprives them of the blooming stem tips that they had worked most of the year for.

Butterfly bush, tree mallow, cape plumbago, bee balm and several varieties of sage and salvia are among the most reliable plants for late summer or autumn bloom. Even without multiple bloom phases, they just naturally bloom at the end of their growing season, before winter dormancy.

Seasonal Changes Keep Gardening Interesting

Oleander continues to bloom into autumn.

Gardening is work. The extent of such work is proportionate to the techniques and scale of the gardening. Substantial gardens likely need substantial work. Fruit trees, roses and vegetables need more specialized work than lawns and wildflowers. Seasonal changes demand a strict schedule. It never ends. It is ironic that so many enjoy gardening to relax. 

In some climates, gardening is less work through the harshest of winter weather. No one wants to be outside in harsh weather anyway. That is no excuse here, where the garden remains active throughout the year. Perhaps that is a disadvantage of such mild climate. Furthermore, seasonal changes, regardless of how mild or slow, are reliably continuous.

Another month of summer remains. That may seem like enough time to stay on schedule for summer gardening, and maybe take some time to relax. However, it is already time to begin preparation for autumn gardening. Gardening should progress as efficiently as the seasons do. Seasonal planning facilitates this process. It will be autumn in only a month. 

Warm season annuals and bedding plants are still in season. Most will remain in season until cool weather in autumn or perhaps the first frost. Nonetheless, cool season annuals for autumn begin to grow from seed about now. If started early enough, they will be ready for planting into the garden at the proper time to replace their warm season counterparts.

The same applies to vegetables. Many warm season vegetables can produce until frost. A last phase of corn should still have time to mature. In the meantime, some cool season vegetables can begin to grow from seed. Broccoli, cabbage and larger types can start in cell packs or flats. For direct sowing, root vegetables may need to wait for garden space.

Some of the many plants that bloom through most of summer bloom less later in summer, even though the weather remains conducive to bloom. Some prefer to divert resources to seed production as the days get shorter. Old fashioned oleander with fragrant bloom can get shabby with seeds. Modern sterile types lack fragrance, but bloom until cool weather. It is a good time to collect seed from formerly seasonal flowers.

Six on Saturday: Frozen II

Contrary to popular belief, there is a bit of chill during winter here. I was surprised by how many were surprised by my pictures of slight frost last week. The stone fruit that used to grow in the Santa Clara Valley could not have produced without adequate chill. Some deciduous trees color well for autumn, and all defoliate. We do not use much firewood, but some of us use some.

It may not look much like autumn to outsiders. Nonetheless, I find the local climate to be more than satisfactory for what I grow. In some regards, I find it to be ideal. Rhody just stays in by the stove.

1. Sycamores are trashy. Because of anthracnose, they dropped leaves in spring. They dropped more after the Fire. Now they are defoliating for winter. A bulldozer is used for all the leaves.

2. Bald cypress colors well by simple local standards, even if it is merely orangy brown. Bald cypress is rare here, perhaps because of the climate, or perhaps because of its buttressing roots.

3. Dogwood fruit is messy through winter. Surprisingly, wildlife is not particularly interested in it. I should make jelly with it for competition at the Harvest Festival next year (if it happens).

4. FreeBay is how we refer to small piles of bay firewood left on roadsides for neighbors to take away. Vegetation management has become a priority, and generates firewood as a byproduct.

5. Canna behave as outsiders expect them to here. They try to continue blooming until they eventually get frosted. The minor frost they experienced so far was insufficient to stop them yet.

6. Minor frost seems to evaporate as readily as it thaws when exposed to sunlight. This sure looks like autumn. I somehow sort of believe that this is what autumn looks like in other regions.

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

https://thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/six-on-saturday-a-participant-guide/

Six on Saturday: Frozen

It was unusually cool yesterday morning. Deciduous trees are a bit more colorful. Some are defoliating. It is looking more like autumn. The soil is still damp from a little bit of rain more than a week ago. Although there is no more rain in the forecast, this rainy season could start at any time now. This is the time for autumn planting, and will soon be the time for dormant pruning.

As much as I like enjoy this weather and this time of year, I can understand why people get annoyed by it in climates where it starts sooner, lasts longer, and gets significantly cooler.

1. Frost on the windshield is not uncommon during winter. It is uncommon prior to winter though. It is also uncommon in the relatively warm (less cool) area where this vehicle was parked.

2. Frost on the roofs is a bit unexpected so early as well. It had covered this roof thoroughly, but is melting now that the sun is coming up. The weather really did not ‘feel’ as cold as it looked.

3. This contraption does not seem so ridiculous now. It insulates an exposed water main, to hopefully protect it from freezing. Water pipes seldom freeze here. Nonetheless, it is a possibility.

4. Dogwood colors well for autumn, even when the weather is not so cool. The species does not perform so well in the Santa Clara Valley, just a few miles north. Notice the frosty roof beyond.

5. This young birch is already defoliated! Actually, it is a formerly canned specimen that is a bit distressed from planting on November 8. Other birches are still wearing bright yellow foliage.

6. Turkeys return annually, precisely on the morning after Thanksgiving, after disappearing for about two or three weeks. Who knows where they go? Their stupidity might be exaggerated.

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

https://thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/six-on-saturday-a-participant-guide/

‘Green’: The ‘Other’ Autumn Color

The color is better this year than it was when this was written three years ago. Nonetheless, foliar color here is not as impressive as it is where weather is already cooler.

Tony Tomeo

P71202After reading so much about the exquisite foliar color that most everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere gets this time of year, I must admit, I can get rather envious of those who experience four seasons instead of just two. The abundance of spring in the Southern Hemisphere does not help. Why have I not found a garden blog from Ecuador or Indonesia so that I have something to point and laugh at? It just isn’t fair.

Well, now I have something to brag about.

I found this bright red leaf on a crepe myrtle in town. Isn’t it pretty? Go ahead, you can tell me. It is gorgeous, RIGHT? Go on; say it! Say it NOW! LOUDER!

Soon, all the foliage behind it will be turning red and orange with maybe a bit of yellow. Can you see it? I think some of those leaves are starting to consider…

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Collect Fallen Leaves Before Winter

Falling leaves will soon be accumulating in gutters.

The problem with all the colorful foliage that adorns so many of the deciduous trees in autumn is that it does not stay in the trees too long. Combined with all the other less colorful deciduous foliage, as well as whatever evergreen foliage happens to fall this time of year, it will become quite a mess by winter. Rainy and windy winter weather will only make it messier by bringing down even more foliage!

Contrary to popular belief, many evergreen trees are just as messy as deciduous trees are. Instead of dropping all their foliage in autumn or winter, most evergreens drop smaller volumes of foliage throughout the year. The mess is less obvious since it sneaks up slowly, but can accumulate over a few months. Only a few evergreen trees drop much of their foliage in more obvious seasonal phases.

Debris from evergreen trees is actually more likely to be a problem for plants below. Pines, cypresses, firs, spruces, cedars, eucalypti and many other evergreen trees produce natural herbicides that inhibit the emergence of seedlings of plants that would compete with them in the wild. In landscape situations, this unfortunately interferes with lawns, ground covers and annuals. Besides walnuts and deciduous oaks, not many deciduous trees use this tactic.

Regardless, any foliar debris can be a problem if allowed to accumulate too long. Large leaves, like those of sycamore, can accumulate and shade lawn, ground cover and some dense shrubbery, and can eventually cause mildew and rot. Finely textured foliage, like that of jacaranda or silk tree, can sift through most ground covers to the soil below, but can still make a mess on lawn.

Before rainy weather, debris should be cleaned from gutters and downspouts. Because some foliage continues to fall through winter, gutters will likely need to be cleaned again later. Flat roofs and awkward spots that collect debris, such as behind chimneys, should also be cleaned.

Gutters at the street are more visible and accessible, so do not often accumulate enough debris to be a problem, but may need to be cleaned if they become clogged with debris washed in by the earliest rains. Fallen leaves should be raked from pavement so that it does not get dangerously slippery, or stain concrete too much.