Gutters Collect Falling Autumn Leaves

Fall color will soon fill gutters.

Autumn is also fall for a reason. It is the season during which most deciduous foliage will fall. Some deciduous trees that lack good fall color may look neater without their shabby old foliage. Sadly though, the splendidly colorful deciduous trees must shed also. All that collective debris that succumbs to weather and gravity gets messy, and can clog gutters.

Evergreen plants shed too. They are just sneakier about it. Some shed old foliage during spring or summer while simultaneously replacing it to stay evergreen. Some shed slowly but steadily for several months, rather than concentrating the mess within a brief season. Many shed during autumn though, as wind and rain dislodge their lingering older foliage. 

Whether deciduous or evergreen, various plants shed at various rates. Monterey cypress shed so steadily through the year that they are never caught in the act. Fruitless mulberry can defoliate in just a few days if frosted suddenly enough. Sudden defoliation seems to be messier, but can be an advantage. For example, gutters may need cleaning just once. 

Weather is also variable. Rain began a bit early this year. The associated dampness can accelerate defoliation for some species. Other species respond more to temperature. An early chill may accelerate their shedding. It is therefore impossible to predict when it will be necessary to rake fallen leaves or clean gutters. There are simply too many variables. 

Unfortunately, the weather that causes leaves to fall is the very same weather that makes raking and cleaning gutters so unpleasant. No one wants to work in the garden while it is cold. Nor does anyone want to get onto a dangerously wet roof to clean gutters. There is no need to rake or clean gutters before rain and cool weather cause debris to fall though. 

It should be obvious when it is necessary to rake leaves from lawn, pavement and street gutters. Bigger leaves tend to be more problematic by clogging drainage. Smaller leaves may just as easily stain pavement or decking though. Roof gutters are not so visible, but probably need cleaning while raking is necessary nearby, and hopefully before clogging. 

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.

Fall Color To Fall For

Fall color develops with seasonal changes.

Autumn is also fall here. Actually, ‘fall’ is the more popular name. It had been the popular name in England during the Sixteenth Century. The (generally) French name of ‘autumn’ became more common there during the Seventeenth Century. Yet, both names remained in use in the American Colonies. That is why autumn foliar color is more simply fall color. 

The natural fall color in New England, the Appalachian Mountains, the Rocky Mountains and the Great North Woods is famously exquisite. So many of the native deciduous trees develop remarkable fall color in response to local weather conditions. These same trees might not get sufficient chill to develop comparable fall color in milder climates of Florida. 

In most regions of California, natural fall color is limited by the ability of native species to develop such color. Bigleaf maple and the various poplars turn bright yellow with a slight chill, but are not abundant. Even when chilled, the foliage of most other native deciduous trees simply shrivels and falls without much color. Most of the native trees are evergreen. 

Therefore, most of the best local fall color is provided by exotic (nonnative) tree species. Such trees not only develop remarkable fall color, but do so in response to minimal chill. Sweetgum, flowering pear, Chinese pistache and ginkgo are four trees that most reliably develop brilliant fall color where winter weather is mild. None are native. All are popular.

Ginkgo turns brilliant yellow. The other three display various colors that range from bright yellow, to fiery orange, to rich red and burgundy. Their colorful foliage lingers longer than that of other deciduous trees. Sweetgum and flowering pear might retain fall color until it succumbs to rain in winter. Of course, these are not the only options for reliable fall color. 

No tree is perfect. Although very colorful in autumn, sweetgum is notoriously structurally deficient, and produces obnoxiously spiked fruiting structures. Flowering pear is innately susceptible to fire blight. All deciduous trees drop leaves, which need raking. Trees must conform to their situational limitations, as well as their particular landscape applications.

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.

Autumn Color From Deciduous Foliage

Deciduous foliage can get delightfully colorful.

Autumn does not get cool enough locally to prevent everything from blooming. A few plants can bloom sporadically all year except only during the coolest part of winter. A few plants naturally bloom in autumn. Cool season annuals begin blooming before warm season annuals finish. Flowers can potentially provide plenty of autumn color if necessary. A mild climate can be a major advantage.

It can also be a disadvantage. Minimal chill causes deciduous foliage to start to get messy before it starts to get colorful. Some deciduous plants shed completely before getting chilled enough to develop appealing autumn color. A few others do not even get cool enough to defoliate completely. They instead retain their shabby old foliage through winter until new foliage replaces it in spring.

Nonetheless, several adaptable deciduous plants get sufficient chill to develop impressive autumn color here.

Sweetgum, Chinese pistache, flowering pear and ginkgo are likely the four best deciduous trees for autumn color locally. Sweetgum and Chinese pistache produce the most impressive ranges of vibrant colors. Flowering pear is comparable, but with less yellow, and more rich deep burgundy red. Ginkgo lacks such range of color, but develops the brightest and clearest yellow autumn color.

Boston ivy, crape myrtle and persimmon get about as colorful as sweetgum, even if incidentally to their primary duties. Crape myrtle is popular for its abundant and richly colorful bloom in summer. Persimmon is a fruit tree. Boston ivy obscures graffiti and helps muffle sound on freeway soundwalls. Cottonwood and black walnut turn bright yellow, but in the wild rather than in refined gardens.

Even for the locally mild climate, there are plenty of deciduous plants that provide foliar autumn color. Trees are the most familiar. Vines and shrubbery are also popular. Because this mild climate is marginal for some of them, color is likely to be variable from year to year. Unfortunately, some that perform satisfactorily for inland locations may perform less satisfactorily in coastal conditions.

Deciduous Trees Defoliate Through Autumn

Too many fallen leaves get messy.

September 22 was the equinox. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, days will get slightly shorter as nights will get slightly longer. The intensity of the sunlight will diminish as the sun moves farther to the south. The weather will of course get cooler. In this particular climate, the rainy season will begin. Deciduous plants, as well as some evergreen plants, will respond accordingly to the changes.

Deciduous plants defoliate as they go dormant for part of the year. A few defoliate through hot and dry summer weather. Otherwise, almost all deciduous plants defoliate for dormancy through cool and stormy winter weather. They are more resilient without foliage that is sensitive to both frost and wind. While days are short and sunlight is diminished, foliage would not be very active anyway.

The foliage of many deciduous plants gets remarkably colorful during defoliation. Sweetgum, pistache and ginkgo are famously colorful. However, many deciduous plants, such as valley oak and silver maple, are not impressively colorful. Regardless, all deciduous plants that defoliate for winter will eventually start to do so, or have started already. Several evergreen plants shed debris too.

Gravity is a force that is more reliable than weather. It pulls foliar debris downward onto roofs, roadways, decks, patios, lawns and whatever happens to be below deciduous trees.

The timing of defoliation is ironic. Gutters and downspouts that were empty all summer now collect debris as the rainy season begins. They may need cleaning more than once if deciduous trees above defoliate slowly. While patios and decks get less use, they need more raking to avoid staining. Fallen leaves promote rot in turf grass and ground covers, and inhibit penetration of sunlight.

At this time of year, it is difficult to believe that evergreen trees are generally messier than deciduous trees. Deciduous trees tend to defoliate only once annually, although some drop bloom or fruit separately. Evergreen trees drop about as much debris, but do so for a longer season or continuously throughout the year.

Leaves Are Starting To Fall

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Falling leaves are messy before colorful.

Autumn color is different every year. Sometimes, early and sudden cool weather after a mild summer promotes good foliar color that lingers longer while relaxed trees slowly realize that they should probably start to defoliate. Sometimes, early wind and rain accelerate defoliation of otherwise good color. There are a few variables that trees must adapt their performance to.

Warm and arid weather two weeks ago started the process of defoliation suddenly and a maybe slightly early this year. Even before the weather gets cool, deciduous trees are already starting to shed the oldest of their foliage that they do not need in order to hold their youngest foliage a bit later into autumn. Evergreen trees do the same to limit desiccation.

Slightly breezy weather that was so pleasant after such heat was just enough to start dislodging deteriorating foliage. Now, leaves are already starting to fall before they develop much color. Redwoods and pines are likewise dropping browned needles. Fortunately, trees that are the most colorful in autumn tend to hold their foliage better until the weather gets cooler.

It is impossible to predict how colorful trees will be this autumn; although if storms are as healthy as predicted, the mild temperatures may inhibit color, while wind and rain dislodge colorful foliage. Regardless, it is already time to start raking falling leaves and needles. They can get messy, and when the rain starts, they can stain pavement and clog gutters.

When more foliage falls later in autumn, it will need to be raked from ground cover, surviving portions of lawn, and any other plants that collect it, so that it does not shade out the sunlight.

Elephant Ears

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The origin of taro is vague.

Taro was grown as a vegetable in ancient Egypt. It was grown in India before that. A few hundred varieties were cultivated in precolonial Hawaii. Taro was likely native to southeast Asia, but has been in cultivation for so long that it is difficult to know where it originated from. In modern American gardens, it is known as elephant ears, Calocasia esculenta, and grown for its striking foliage.

The big and broad leaves are held as high as six feet on long petioles (leaf stalks), and flare out as broadly as three feet, although many varieties get half as tall and broad. Some varieties have weirdly dark foliage. Others have green leaves with colorful veins. A few are simply jade green. Any of the deciduous foliage that lingers into winter should be cut back before spring.

Since they are naturally bog plants, elephant ears likes very rich potting soil and plenty of water. Muddy clay soil that will not float away works fine for pots submerged in ponds. (Ick!) Partial shade is important. Leaves can get roasted if too exposed. To propagate, corms can be divided while dormant in winter. All parts of elephant ears are toxic until cooked.

Why Autumn Is Also Fall

50923thumbNow that leaves are falling, they need to be raked. Large leaves, like those of sycamore and fruitless mulberry, can shade out lawn, shallow ground cover or dense shrubbery. If shade is not a problem right away, mildew can be after only a bit of rain. If abundant enough, finely textured silk tree or jacaranda foliage that typically sifts harmlessly through shrubbery and most ground cover, can accumulate and damage lawn, dichondra and the densest of ground cover. Walnut foliage has an herbicidal effect on sensitive annuals and some perennials.

Foliage is only beginning to fall. Cooling weather causes deciduous trees to shed more. Rain and wind bring the foliage down even faster. Even evergreen trees that naturally shed throughout the year will likely shed more through the upcoming wintry weather. Some trees start to defoliate early in autumn. Some hold their foliage until frost. Some trees that seem to be evergreen hold their foliage through winter, and then only drop their older foliage as it gets replaced by new foliage as winter ends.

Pavement and decks should be raked of leaves, not only to avoid staining, but also because rotting leaves can become dangerously slippery. Curbside gutters are too visible to get neglected for too long. However, heavy rain can quickly deliver to the cleanest of gutters a mess of fallen leaves as well as any other debris and litter that happens to be up the road. Strong wind can be filtered through hedges, leaving drifts of blowing leaves.

Leaves should also be cleared from roof gutters and downspouts, and may need to be cleared away again later in the season. More debris may need to be removed from awkward spots where it might accumulate, such as behind chimneys. Flat roofs may need to be raked.

There are a few exceptions to the need to rake fallen leaves. Where they get absorbed into coarse ground cover like Algerian ivy, falling leaves are generally not a problem. Pine needles and cypress foliage can be left if it happens to be useful for the natural suppression of weeds. Mature coast live oaks and valley oaks that are accustomed to a layer of their own fallen leaves over the surface of the soil actually want it to stay. For them, the foliar debris is a mulch that adds organic matter, insulates the soil, and retains moisture.

Colorful Foliage Needs No Bloom

90227thumbThere is no shortage of color for the garden here in our mild climates. If we want to, we can grow various flowers to bloom at various times throughout the year. If that is not enough, we can grow plenty of colorful foliage too. Evergreen sorts can stay fresh and resilient to minor frost all winter. A few deciduous plants and warm season perennials with colorful foliage will refoliate in spring.

Besides the various shades and hues of green, foliage can be variegated with white, cream, gray, chartreuse, yellow, gold, red or pink. Such variegation can be stripes, blotches, spots, margins or lacy patterns. New spring growth of some variegated plants is blushed with pink or red. Plants with blue, gray, silvery, bronze or purplish foliage are mostly monochromatic, without variegation.

Just as most popular flowers became less efficient at their primary function of attracting pollinators, as they were bred and developed to be bigger and more colorful than they naturally were, most colorful foliage is not an an advantage to the plants that produce it. After all, foliage needs chlorophyl for photosynthesis. Variegated portions of leaves lack chlorophyl, so are much less efficient.

In fact, many variegated plants originated as mutant growths, known as ‘sports’, that appeared on unvariegated plants, and were cloned. Many try to revert back to green by producing their own unvariegated sports. These green sports grow faster with more chlorophyl, so can overwhelm variegated growth if not pruned out. Monochromatic blue or gray foliage is not mutant growth, but is instead a natural adaptation to extreme exposures, mostly at high elevations, so is not prone to reversion.

English holly, English ivy, euonymous, silverberry, New Zealand flax, mirror plant and various pittosporums are some of the more popular variegated plants. Purple leaf plum, purple smokebush and a few cultivars of Japanese maple are popular plants with purplish or bronze foliage. Blue spruce, American agave, Arizona cypress and various junipers have exquisite bluish or gray foliage.