Fall Color in Your Backyard

Quaking aspen

Soon I’ll be hiking in the Sierra among the native dogwood and hoping I”m not too late to see fall foliage. Last year I enjoyed the display of Quaking Aspen near Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4. Did you know that a massive grove of 47,000 aspen in Utah is one of the largest organisms on the planet? They all share the same genetic material and a single root system. There is a contender for this renown in Oregon where a honey mushroom measuring 2.4 miles across lives in the Blue Mountains. Interesting stuff.

Bloodgood Japanese Maple

Around here I’m just starting to see some trees and shrubs put on their coat of many colors. In my own yard, I have a Bloodgood Japanese maple that has been in full color for a couple weeks now. None of my other maple varieties are showing any color but that’s okay as I’ll be able to enjoy the upcoming show for many months. That is, if strong winds don’t dry out the leaves prematurely. I’ve watered well hoping this won’t happen. Weather conditions play a major part in the intensity of fall color. The time of year is nearly consistent but some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool, but not freezing nights.

Crape Myrtle

The vivid colors in a leaf are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll which is busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines. Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode and their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leaf falls to the ground it is colored only by natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

Forest Pansy redbud

California native, Cercis occidentalis (Western redbud) turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other native plants like spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Edibles that turn color in the fall include blueberries, pomegranate and persimmons.

Trees and shrubs that do well in our area and provide fall color include Easterm redbud, Chinese flame tree (Koelreuteria bipinnate), ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, dogwood, locust, cherry, crabapple, oakleaf hydrangea, barberry and smoke tree.

Now through late fall is a good time to shop for trees that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be.

Fall Bulbs

Tulips welcoming spring

Last year I dropped the ball. Thinking that the daffodils in pots from last year would bloom enough in the spring to satisfy my spring fever I didn’t get any new ones. Well, I was wrong and I’m not making that mistake again. Although it’s a little early to plant bulbs in our area, I have several bags of daffodils and tulips ready and waiting for the ground to cool.The selection of bulbs is always best early in the fall.

My garden is shady all winter and most of spring so my growing conditions aren’t the best. That’s why it’s worth it to me to get some new bulbs each year. Sure, there are a smattering of daffodils that have naturalized on my hillside but it’s a meager display and when spring fever hits, well, you know how hopeful and eager we all are.

Deer resistant daffodils

A word to the wise, squirrels, mice and moles are observant and crafty. Once they discover newly planted bulbs, they’ll assume it’s food. Just disturbing the earth is a tip off for them. Daffodils and narcissus bulbs are toxic but if they dig them up then leave them exposed with just a nibble taken, so much for any spring flower display. Protect your bulbs with wire baskets or spray them with foul tasting repellent, letting the spray dry before planting. You can also bury the bulbs with ground up egg shells. Another way to foil squirrels is to plant the bulbs deeply, This only works if you have good drainage, however. Next year, if the squirrels start nibbling the foliage as it emerges try spraying it with hot pepper spray.

Valthemia bloom for a very long time.

One of the more unusual bulbs I grow in pots is Forest Lily (valthemia bracteata). I got several bulbs over 25 years ago and each fall as the bulb re-emerges I look forward to it’s months-long blooming season. The handsome foliage lis thick and wavy, looking somewhat like a succulent but it’s the huge, showy dark pink flower spikes that bloom from February to May that I love. I grow them light shade and allow them to go summer dormant. Valthemia are native to the northern Cape area in South Africa where it grows on rocky slopes along the famous Namaqualand Flower Route.

Another bulb I’ve wanted to grow for a long time is Ixia viridiflora and now I have the chance. A friend divided hers and gave me a handful of bulbs a couple months ago. They need to be completely dry in summer so planting in pots will be perfect for this most striking and unusual bulb. Few plants can beat it for sheer brilliance of flower. Each flower is a brilliant turquoise green with a purple-black eye in the middle. The dark eye is caused by the deep blue sap of the cells of the upper epidermis. The green color is due to the effects of light being refracted from the cell wall and granules embedded in the pale blue cell sap. Amazing flower. I’’m looking forward to photographing my own next year.

What about bulbs in the shade? Bulbs that will bloom in light shade are crocus, scilla, tulips, grape hyacinth, leucojum, snowdrops, chionodoxa and lily of the valley. Many from the daffodil clan, including jonquils and narcissus will grow, bloom and naturalize year after year under tree canopies or other lightly shaded areas.

Parrot tulip

Whatever you bulbs you choose to try this fall, you will be happy you planted some bulbs come spring. And to help them bloom again the following year fertilize them at the time of planting with bulb food or bone meal worked into the soil a couple inches at the bottom of the hole. Mature bulbs respond to an early spring feeding with the same fertilizer.

Why Plant Cover Crops?

Cover crop mix

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese increased their soil’s fertility and protected it from erosion by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. Planting a cover crop is another way to improve and retain your soil.

A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.

Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume. Growing a cover crop also increases beneficial soil bacteria.

Cover crops are called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil, however, as you can ruin the structure of your soil.

Orin Martin shows the extensive root system of bell beans

Recent research now recommends planting a mixture of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch, which are the best legumes for our area, grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.

There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but nowhere near as efficiently as bell beans. Crimson clover seed is more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.

You don’t need to use innoculants on legume seed. Our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.

Work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds should be already cleared but this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area should be raked again lightly 1-2 inches down and covered with 3-4 inches of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything. Water in lightly.

Groundcover on Slopes

California native ceanothus goundcover

Now that we’ve had a bit of rain – and I’ll admit .37 inches is not much to write home about – it’s time to get serious about planting groundcover to protect that valuable soil on your slope.

Living ground covers add beauty to the garden while holding the soil in place and preventing erosion. They contribute to soil health by encouraging microorganisms. A garden wouldn’t thrive as well without groundcovers.

There are many attractive plants that work well for erosion control. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. California natives are among those well suited to this job.

Calycanthus occidentalis

Common native shrubs that fit the bill include ceanothus and manzanita of all types. Ceanothus maritimus, ‘Heart’s Desire’, ‘Valley Violet’ and ‘Anchor Bay’ are good groundcover that are not attractive to deer. Spicebush (calycanthus occidentalis) has fragrant flowers in late spring blooming well into summer with a spicy fragrance. The foliage is aromatic when crushed and changes from a spring green color to pale golden in autumn. Decorative woody fruits last into winter making this shrub attractive year round. It thrives with infrequent to moderate watering. Combine with coffeeberry and deer grass in sunnier spots or with Douglas iris and giant chain fern in shaded spots below trees. All these plants have deep roots and control erosion.

King Edward VII Flowering Currant

Flowering Currant (ribes sanguinem) is another show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. Choose from white flowering ‘White Icicle’ or ”Barrie Coate” and ‘King Edward VII’ with spectacular deep red flower clusters. ‘Spring Showers’ has 8 inch long pink clusters. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and is a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, matilija poppy, western elderberry (sambucus nigra and mexicana) and baccharis.

Bush poppy

Bush poppy (dendromecon rigid) is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Common Snowberry or Creeping Snowberry (Symphoricarpos) will hold the soil on steep banks. This native tolerates poor soil, lower light and general neglect. Evergreen Currant (ribes viburnifolium) and creeping mahonia also tolerate shady conditions.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose and salvias including ‘Bees Bliss’.

Low water-use non-native ground covers like cistus salviifolius, grevillea lanigera, rosemany prostratus, rubus pentalabous, correa and sarcococcas are also good low-water choices.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one – not around the stem – to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does not build up around the stem.

It’s time to enjoy the fall weather and cover that ground before winter.

Autumnal Equinox

The autumnal equinox will arrive on Monday, September 23rd this year. It’s the official start of fall when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward. The earth’s axis of rotation is perpendicular to the line connecting the centers of the earth and the sun on this day. Many people believe that the earth experiences 12 hours each of day and night on the equinox. However, this is not exactly the case.

During the equinox, the length is nearly equal but not entirely because the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator – like where we live. Also the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations as it does not set straight down but in a horizontal direction.

With the changing of the season, take advantage of fall planting weather. It was a hot summer and I’m ready for fall. This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage while soil temperatures are still warm creating an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees, even broadleaf evergreens, are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the new root systems should be well established.

I had hoped to spend some time at the UCSC Arboretum earlier this year when the showy pincushion and leucospermum protea were flowering but I never made it. Because anytime’s a good time to visit the arboretum I dropped by recently. There is always something in bloom there and the hummingbirds know it. Here are just a few of the spectacular fall blooming plants that you might want to add to your own garden.

Leaucadendron Jester

The Leaucadendron ‘Jester’ (Sunshine Conebush), another type of protea, were loaded with brilliant deep wine-red bracts. This evergreen shrub grows to 5 feet tall and is very pest and disease resistant. Deer aren’t interested in the showy bright pink, cream and green foliage and it’s quite drought tolerant once established. You can cut the branches as they are prized for use in floral arrangement. People think that protea are hard to grow but really it’s a plant-it-and almost-forget-it kind of plant. They need good drainage and don’t like phosphorus fertilizer preferring poor soils with minimal care. Sounds like a winner to me.

Epilobium ‘Mattole Select’

A little further down the trail I came across another easy to care for plant. California fuchsia have undergone several name changes over the years but whether you call them epilobium or zauchneria they are in bloom now. The ‘Mattole Select’ cultivar forms tidy 6 inch high mats of beautiful silver foliage. Late summer through fall brings orangey-red tubular flowers which attract hummingbirds. Spreading by underground rhizomes, this epilobium increases size a little less vigorously than the others. It’s more shade tolerant than most California fuchsias and needs just a bit more water but it’s still quite drought tolerant. Pruning plants down to a few inches in late autumn helps rejuvenate them for the following year.

Grevillea junipera ‘Monoglo’

As I followed the hummingbirds around the arboretum I came across another groundcover that both the birds and the bees favored. Grevillea juniperina ‘Molonglo’ (Juniper Leafed Grevillea) blooms with a soft yellow flower unlike most grevillea. This fast growing evergreen forms a mass of dark green soft needle-like leaves and bears an extremely profuse show of light golden yellow flowers from late spring to winter. This tough hardy drought tolerant plants is the perfect groundcover for large areas and will cascade down slopes and walls.

I’m looking forward to another visit to the arboretum this winter as the Australian garden will be in full bloom then.

Ornamental Grasses & Grass-like Plants

Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ with convolvulus trailing over side.

Looking for plants that require minimal care, only occasional grooming, just enough water to meet their needs and are deer resistant? Plants that add beauty, movement and sound to your garden? You may already have some ornamental grasses and grass-like plants but this is a good time to add a little more pizazz and beauty to your landscape.

Diseases and insect pests are rarely found on grasses They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. Grass-like plants such as lomandra, dianella, cordyline, carex, restio, phormium, Japanese Forest grasss and liriope are some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. A garden just isn’t complete without the architectural qualities they provide.

Pheasant Tail Grass

There’s a reason old favorites like Karl Foerster feather reed grass is so popular in landscapes. It doesn’t get too tall or overpowering in the smaller garden and its upright habit is neat and tidy. Pheasant Tail grass is another popular grass that is carefree and long-lived. It grows to only 3 by 3 feet, is not fussy about soil and looks good anywhere you plant it. It combines beautifully with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage and is extremely drought tolerant once established.

I like variegated plants and two-tone grasses combine well with many other garden plants. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ is an especially refined and elegant ornamental grass. Fine leaf blades are green with clean, paper-thin, white margins that give the plant a silvery cast when viewed from a distance. It is luminous when backlit by the early morning or late afternoon sun. Morning Light tends to keep its upright shape better than some other cultivars and rarely flops. The reddish bronze plumes that appear in late fall are spectacular.

Libertia – a grass-like plant

A grass-like plant that I think should be used more often in gardens in libertia. Narrow, rigidly straight leaves form compact clumps that are especially useful i poolside, accent planting and thrive as well in containers. They require only moderate watering and can add a warm punch of color,

Dianella combined with loropetalum, pieris and primula
Dianella with loropetalum, pieris and primula

Another plant that is finding a place in the low maintenance garden is dianella. With 18 inch clumps of soft blue leaves, light blue flowers with lavender-purple fruits dianella cerulean ‘Cassa Blue’ is just one of this group of perennial flax lily that makes a great addition to the garden. Dianella intermedia grows fast with whitish blossoms during the summer months. The berries which follow are deep purple-blue and highly ornamental They can be especially attractive filling a shady nook though this plant can thrive in either su or shade.

Caring for grasses is easy. As a rule of thumb, if it browns in winter then cut it back before new growth starts. If it’s evergreen by nature just clean up outside leaves. Most like well drained soil and are tolerant of a wide range of garden conditions. You shouldn’t fertilize heavily because an excess of nitrogen can lead to lush, soft growth that tends to flop. Mulching with 2 inches of compost yearly will keep the soil and your plants in good shape. Water grasses regularly during their first year to help get a good root system established. Even grasses that are normally touted as drought-tolerant require a season or two to become fully established.

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