Winter Berries Attract Migrating Birds

English hawthorn is like deciduous firethorn.

Bloom and colorful foliage provide most of the color besides green within home gardens during spring and summer. Deciduous foliage becomes more colorful for autumn. Winter berries and a few other lingering fruits become more colorful as deciduous foliage sheds through winter. All this color adheres to precise schedules within a collective ecosystem.

Many plants exploit wildlife. It is how they compensate for their immobility. Many provide incentive for the services that they desire from the wildlife that they exploit. For example, after enticing pollinators with fragrance or color, flowers happily exchange extra pollen or nectar for pollination. Many plants provide edible fruits in exchange for seed distribution.

It is no coincidence that so many different winter berries ripen through autumn for winter. They provide sustenance to many migratory birds who rely on them. Overwintering birds who compete with migratory birds appreciate their efforts as well. Such winter berries are small but abundant, for ‘grab and go’ convenience. Bright color is the best advertisement.

Some people appreciate how winter berries attract birds and squirrels into their gardens. Some appreciate the seasonal color of such berries more than the wildlife. Unfortunately, wildlife decides the outcome, and such outcomes are variable. It is impossible to predict if berries will disappear as they ripen, or linger as they deteriorate through most of winter.

Firethorn is likely the most familiar of the winter berries here. It seems to be more prolific with its brilliant red berries than any other species. Some old fashioned cultivars produce bright orange or perhaps even bright yellow berries. Some sorts of cotoneaster resemble firethorn, but with subdued rusty or orangish red display for less refined woodsy gardens.

Toyon, or California holly, is most prolific with winter berries where it grows wildly without pruning. It gets big though. Real hollies, which are more popular in other regions, do not produce many berries locally, particularly since male pollinators are uncommon. English Hawthorn is a small deciduous tree that displays berries that resemble those of firethorn, but on bare stems.

Debris Fills Gutters During Autumn

Falling leaves eventually become abundantly messy.

Autumn foliar color certainly is pretty while it lasts. Although less prominent locally than it is where cooler weather begins earlier, it is an asset to many home gardens. It generally appears a bit later within mild climates here, but might also remain suspended a bit later. Ultimately though, with enough wintry wind and rain, it eventually becomes foliar debris.

Evergreen foliage also contributes to the mess. It is likely less abundant than deciduous foliage is during autumn, but only because it sheds through more extensive seasons. For example, Southern magnolia sheds mostly through spring, as new foliage replaces older foliage. It then continues to shed additional debris throughout the year, including autumn.

Regardless of its various origins, foliar debris becomes more of a concern during autumn for two simple reasons. Firstly, and obviously, more of it accumulates during autumn than during any other season. Secondly, since autumn is the beginning of the rainy season, it is the most inconvenient time of year for such debris to accumulate within home gardens.

Roadside gutters, eavestroughs and their downspouts should drain efficiently. However, foliar debris can interfere with their drainage when it becomes most important. Roadside gutters are more accessible, so are easier to observe and clean. Eavestroughs and their downspouts may be beyond reach, but may need more cleaning if defoliation continues.

Foliar debris is unhealthy for turf, groundcover and shrubbery that it accumulates over. It inhibits photosynthesis by obstructing sunlight. It can also promote proliferation of fungal pathogens. This is why prompt raking is very important. Foliar debris can stain pavement and decking, and may be hazardously slippery. Behind chimneys, it can promote decay, and possibly become a fire hazard.

Autumn Foliar Color Begins In October

After blooming so colorfully for summer, crape myrtle foliage turns bright orange and red for autumn.

Why do so many from other regions comment on the mild climates of the west coast of California as if pleasant weather is a deficiency? If horrid summer heat and frigid winter cold were worth bragging about, not so many people would have been so eager to migrate here.

Contrary to popular belief, the four seasons, although considerably milder than in other regions, are enough to keep our gardens productive, dynamic and even colorful in all seasons. All sorts of deciduous plants and fruit trees get just enough chill in winter to bloom reliably in spring. The warming weather between winter and summer that gets most plants to bloom is what spring is all about. Summer is then warm enough for fruit and vegetables to develop. Then there is autumn, when so many deciduous plants turn flashy colors before winter dormancy.

Although the mild weather limits the choices, there are still a few plants to provide autumn foliar color. Actually, autumn is not so colorful locally primarily because the potential for color is not exploited like it is elsewhere. There are just so many other plants that do not turn color in autumn to choose from. Really, Vermont would be less colorful if palm trees grew there!

Sweetgum, Chinese pistache, flowering pear and maidenhair tree are the most reliable trees for autumn color. Maidenhair tree turns remarkably bright yellow. The others get the whole range from yellow to orange to red. Sweetgum also gets burgundy, and has the added advantage of holding foliage until it gets knocked off by wind or rain. Where the big, bright orange (and yummy) fruit that hangs through winter is desirable, Japanese persimmon is as colorful as Chinese pistache. (Persimmons are horribly messy if not harvested.) Various poplars, tulip tree and black walnut can almost get as bright yellow as maidenhair tree.

Crape myrtle and redbud are shrubby plants that provide good autumn color. Redbud turns clear yellow. Crape myrtle though, can also get bright orange and brownish red. Several of the Japanese maples, although not always as reliable, can actually get even more colorful if the weather is right. Boston ivy (which is actually related to grape) is the most colorful of climbing vines, but because it attaches directly to whatever it climbs, it is best on concrete walls that it will not damage.

Collect Fallen Leaves Before Winter

Fallen leaves can clog drainage.

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.

Six on Saturday: New England?

New England is even farther away than Williamsburg. Although I have never been there, I sometimes think that some of the vegetation here resembles vegetation there, particularly as foliage and berries get colorful during autumn and winter. Autumn is a bit later here, and does not last as long. The associated color is relatively subdued. There are not as many colorfully deciduous trees. I do enjoy showing off what we get though. There is so much more to California than boringly evergreen palm trees and redwoods; and redwoods happen to make an excellent backdrop for New England style fall color! I will brag about various palms later.

1. Rio Grande turkey was intentionally naturalized here a long time ago, but only began to invade local home gardens since about the 1990s. To me, they look like they belong in New England.

2. Lantana camara makes these weird black berries, which the turkeys are not interested in. Just like turkeys, colorful (or just black) berries in autumn remind me of gardens in New England.

3. Moss, which had been rather grungy and brown through late summer, is now rich and vibrant green from rain last Wednesday. I suspect that moss such as this is common in New England.

4. Tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, is native to neither Maine nor New Hampshire, and was extirpated from its two native counties in Vermont, but is native to other parts of New England.

5. Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is coincidentally extirpated from the same two counties in Vermont that tulip tree formerly inhabited, and is also native to other parts of New England.

6. English holly, Ilex aquifolium, is from England, which is the original or Old England. It is naturalized here. Just like the other five of these six, to me, it looks like it belongs in New England.

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

Gardens Show Their True Colors

California gets autumn foliar color too.

Contrary to popular belief, good autumn foliar color, or ‘fall color’, is possible on the West Coast. Mild weather only limits the options for trees, shrubs, vines and perennials that color well. Besides, autumn foliar color simply is not a popular priority in western gardening.

Boston ivy must be the best climbing vine for color in autumn. Unfortunately, it is too aggressive for refined urban gardens, and clings with ‘holdfast discs’ that damage the surfaces that it climbs. It is better for freeway soundwalls and interchanges. Grapevine is a more docile option, and also produces grapes, but most cultivars (cultivated varieties) are not too remarkably colorful. Wisteria can turn an appealing shade of soft yellow where well exposed, but its best asset is still the colorful and fragrant bloom in spring.

Eastern redbud, crape myrtle, smoke tree and currant are some of the better shrubbery for autumn foliar color. Of these, Eastern redbud develops the most subdued shade of yellow; and crape myrtle develops the most brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red. Both are incidentally considered to be small trees. Smoke trees that have purplish foliage in summer are typically less colorful in autumn than those with green summer foliage. Some of the Japanese maple trees that display good color in autumn are smaller than some of the larger shrubbery.

The North American and European maples that are so colorful where autumn weather is cooler are not so impressive here. Even if the color is good, the foliage does not linger very long, but instead falls as soon as the weather gets breezy or rainy. Silver maple and box elder (which is actually a maple) which are so pretty and green through summer can actually look rather dingy as they yellow for autumn. Fruitless mulberry, tulip tree, black walnut and the various poplars and locusts can color well if the weather is just so, but display only bright yellow without orange or red. Maidenhair tree impresses with the same limited color range only because it is so reliable, and the yellow color is so very brilliant.

Really, the best trees for autumn foliar color are still sweetgum, Chinese pistache and flowering pear. They do not need much cool weather to display impressively brilliant blends of yellow, orange and red. Where the messy fruiting structures (maces) and aggressive roots are not likely to be a problem, sweetgum is a tall and elegant shade tree. Sweetgum trees innately hold their colorful foliage well, and some sheltered trees sometimes hold their foliage through most of winter. Chinese pistache is neither as messy nor as aggressive as sweetgum is, as it forms a broad and low canopy that is likely to need pruning for adequate clearance. It is becoming more popular as a street tree in many municipalities. Flowering pear is perhaps the most cooperative of the three if pruned to improve structural integrity while young, but stays smaller than the others. It is actually quite proportionate to smaller gardens of modern homes.

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.