Deciduous Trees Are Not Necessarily The Messiest

This weird Euphorbia is one of the few small evergreen trees that drops no foliage.

Contrary to popular belief, most deciduous trees, those that drop all their leaves in autumn, are not as messy as most evergreen trees. There are of course a few exception; such as cacti that lack foliage completely, or Italian cypress that drop their finely textured foliage straight down within a very narrow drip-zone, where it decomposes and disappears unnoticed. Very few leaves fall from a big silver maple through winter, spring and summer, so that almost all of the raking is done when almost all the leaves get shed in autumn. However, a big Southern magnolia generally drops leaves throughout the year, so that raking is always necessary.

The problem is that when deciduous trees get to be messy, they are very messy. Also, they get to be messy at the worst time of year, when their leaves mix with rain to clog drains and gutters. Unraked leaves become hazardously slippery when they get wet and start to decompose. It is amazing how something that can be so appealingly colorful through autumn can so quickly become such a nuisance.

Leaves of deciduous trees somehow seem to be better for composting than those of some of the evergreen trees. Anyone with a Southern magnolia knows how slow the foliage is to decompose. Foliage of camphor, bay, carob and various eucalyptus certainly decompose slower than various maple, ash, poplar and birch. Many of us outfitted with green waste bins or curbside collection of green waste prefer to recycle the less desirable evergreen foliage, and compost primarily deciduous foliage. Those of us who do not compost but need to rake under large or many deciduous trees may fill bins for several weeks, or leave very big piles of leaves at the curb.

Small leaves, such as those of most elms, or finely textured compound leaves, such as those of silk tree, jacaranda or locust, may not need to be raked if they fall onto lower shrubbery or ground cover. Small leaves or the small leaflets of disintegrating compound leaves simply sift through the lower plant material to decompose below. However, large elms may produce such an abundance of foliage that some may need to be removed. Maple and other large leaves are not so easy to ignore. They can shade lawns, ground cover or bedding plants, so need to be raked as they fall.

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.

Evergreen Foliage Has Distinct Advantages

Evergreen foliage is shady all year.

Gardening was easier before suburban lifestyles became so passe. Now, larger modern urban homes occupy smaller urban parcels. Modern fences are taller to enhance privacy for such densely situated homes. Garden space is both minimal and shaded by so much infrastructure. Ironically, shady evergreen foliage is now more practical for such gardens.

Deciduous trees are still practical for single story suburban homes on suburban parcels. They provide cooling shade for summer, and allow warming sunshine through for winter. Smaller evergreen trees and shrubs closer to fences obscure unwanted scenery beyond, without shading homes during winter. Such strategy is facilitated by sufficiency of space.

It is not so practical for confined and modern urban gardens though. Space is insufficient for big deciduous shade trees. Smaller trees can not get tall enough to shade roofs of tall modern homes. Insulation of modern homes is fortunately so efficient that summer shade and winter sunshine are not as advantageous as they still are for older suburban homes.

Therefore, most trees in modern home gardens primarily obscure unwanted scenery and provide privacy, rather than merely provide shade. Not only should they be proportionate to their gardens, but such trees should also retain evergreen foliage as low as the tops of associated fences. Some of the more practical options are actually evergreen shrubbery.

Large evergreen trees, such as Southern magnolia, California pepper, camphor, various palms and some eucalypti, are too big for some confined modern home gardens. English laurel, New Zealand tea tree, hopseed bush, various arborvitae, and particularly various pittosporum function as small evergreen trees that are proportionate to confined gardens.

As practical as evergreen foliage is for modern urban home gardens, it requires as much maintenance as other forms of vegetation. Contrary to common belief, evergreen foliage sheds. It is just sneaky about doing so slowly throughout the year. Additional foliage also innately adds shade to already shady situations, which can complicate other gardening. To become compact evergreen trees, shrubbery requires directional pruning.

Evergreen Tendencies Are No Mistake

Evergreen foliage is resilient through winter.

Evergreen plants retain foliage throughout the year. Deciduous plants defoliate for part of the year. That is the simplest explanation. The various reasons for shedding or retaining foliage are not so simple. Annual plants die after their single growing seasons. They can not live long enough to be either evergreen or deciduous. Some plants just may be both.

Foliar color, to some extent, conforms to preferable environments. Monterey cypress and Monterey pine have richly deep green foliage. It maximizes absorption of sunlight within the foggy coastal regions that the trees inhabit. Blue spruce has glaucous bluish foliage. It reflects a bit of sunlight to protect from sun scald within severe high mountain climates.

Similarly, deciduous plants generally defoliate for environmental situations. Most go bare for winter, in order to be less susceptible to damage from wind and snow. Bare stems do not collect as much heavy snow as foliated growth. They are also less resistant to wintry winds. If foliated, they are more likely to succumb to wind or overburdening snow weight. 

Evergreen plants may retain their foliage because they are from climates in which winter weather is not so harsh. Wind may be no more extreme than it is in other seasons. Snow may never occur. Plants from tropical regions may be unfamiliar with colder weather and shorter daylength associated with winter. Their evergreen foliage might function all year.

Some tropical plants that are evergreen within their native environments may defoliate or die back as a result of even mild frost. Some recover as if deciduous. (Those that can not survive local climate conditions are not very popular here.) For example, canna die back to the ground after frost, but regenerate later. In tropical climates, they can be evergreen.

Evergreen species from mountainous regions or extreme northern latitudes are generally uncommon here. They prefer harsher weather. Although evergreen, they are remarkably resilient to wind and snow in the wild. They are likely evergreen to always stay receptive to limited sunlight whenever it is available, though wintry weather is possible at any time. 

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.