October 29, 2010

October Surprises

Ever since my firstborn showed up in October, a month before his due date, I have found myself surprised by what each October has to offer.  It's been 30 years since that first wondrous surprise, and he's grown now.  But I still am easily startled by the transformations of October.

From the first early summer-like days of the month to the cold end of the month when winter can be smelled in the air, everything changes.
The fothergilla is just coloring up, beneath a redbud still in its full green cloak in early October.
The same scene along the walk just a few weeks later.  The redbud is a timid lime yellow, but the fothergillas are bold and bright.
The wild and floppy young bottlebrush buckeyes, Aesculus parviflora, turn yellow with a real sense of drama at the end of October, and they ramp up the weak early light of an autumn morning.  They are nothing like Margaret Roach's aesculus at A Way to Garden (3rd slide in her slideshow), but mine are still a startling sunshine yellow .
These are young shrubs, just in their third year in my garden, growing all helter skelter right now, but they will get large and moundy, and hopefully be consistently yellow in the fall.
And what is this?  A wayward iris, blooming at Halloween.  Scary!
'Immortality'. She bloomed in spring, and now again in late October
This is also a little scary: the buttery golden hue of a Hamamelis vernalis, spring witch hazel, is at odds with the rosy soft apricot of the Sheffield Pink mums. 
It was a lovely combination when the hazel's leaves remained a mid-green, but suddenly the witch hazel went golden in late October and the combination got weird.
 I'm working on creating a destination view as you walk down the bluestone path along the side of the house.  I was surprised to see the late fall vignette is kind of nice!  It's getting there.
That maple in the distance is the focal point of this sheltered walkway.  In another few days it will be fiery red.  Stay tuned and I will post a picture of it in its glory in November --- even though it's called 'October Glory' (Acer rubrum).
All of a sudden Amsonia hubrichtii is a flashy yellow, a beacon, a headlight, a bright beam from the front of the house.  Amsonias take three years to establish, and this second-season one is in the toddler stage, flopping all over the ground having a tantrum.  I think of amsonias as shrubs because they take a few years to grow to maturity, they have a lovely shape over winter even though there is no woody branch structure, and unlike most perennials, they color up in fall.
Amsonia hubrichtiis have a sticky white sap that is just awful when it gets on your hands.  To take this picture I had to stake the plant upright a little, and yuck .... sap all over my hands.
Another amsonia, but in a paler soft yellow.  This one is 'Blue Ice' and it is a small mounder beneath the spreading doublefile viburnum 'Shasta'.  A red patch of fleeceflower 'Dimity' shelters below the amsonia.  I just love perennials that have fall color.
The flowering dogwood at the corner of the garage amazes me every time I turn into our driveway. 
Dogwood flowers are an icon of spring, but its best season may be late October when the leaves turn a saturated crimson.
October surprises me.  Suddenly new vistas appear, colored in a whole different way.  Attention shifts.  Nothing looks the same, and familiar parts of my garden and my world are changed, altered in dramatic ways.

And 30 years ago this month my life was altered dramatically on one glorious October day.

October 27, 2010

Dahlias in Pots?

The Connecticut Dahlia Society has a display garden at Elizabeth Park in Hartford that I look forward to seeing every year.  The society holds a dahlia show in late August, but I thought it was a big disappointment this year, as the plants were barely a foot tall then, and the blooms were nowhere to be seen.  I'm not sure why they were so late this year.  By mid October, though, they were spectacular.

I don't know much about growing dahlias, but I'd like to have these snazzy eye catchers in my garden.  But I don't want them lined up and staked in a display garden, I want them scattered in my borders adding color and flash to the rest of the plantings. 

What I do know about dahlias is that they have to be dug up and stored over winter here in zone 5.  Digging around in established borders is disruptive, and it just seems like a lot of unnecessary hands-and-knees work on a cold November day.

So, can I grow them in containers?  Move the containers around the garden to fill spots?  Just pick up the pots and put them in the cool basement over winter, leaving the tubers undisturbed?  Can I start them indoors in early spring so they actually bloom in the summer?

The American Dahlia Society says I can, and provides some good instructions, including how to stake the bigger ones in their pots as they grow.

I'm going to try a mix of different dahlias in containers next year and see if it's easier than planting, staking, digging up and storing.

Has anyone tried it?

October 23, 2010

World Class Garden: Villa Carlotta

World class gardens have something to garden against.  A man made structure.  A wild area to contrast with the tamed garden.  A wall.  A backdrop. 

At the Villa Carlotta in Menaggio, Italy, the gardens have the ultimate backdrop --- a sparkling alpine lake ringed by mountains.  Lake Como.

This is how we got to the public garden for a visit: the lake ferries transport residents between all the little villages that cling to the steep hillsides up and down the lake.

When you step off the ferry and enter the grounds, you realize you will be climbing.  The garden spills and cascades over precipices and the villa is built right into the hillside.

The lake is the backdrop, and the steep terrain adds an element of tension that the garden "tames" with its beautiful tended plantings.

The villa was built at the end of the 1600s for a Milanese marquis, and later owners turned it into a must-stop on the Grand Tour of Europe for art lovers and high society.  Masterpieces of painting and sculpture filled the halls, and a romantic park was created out of the hillside with azaleas, rhododendrons, pathways hedged in boxwood, and overlooks to view the lake.

Georg II of Saxen-Meiningen
In the mid 1800s, after various owners, it was given as a wedding present to a Prussian princess named Carlotta, and it is known as that today: Villa Carlotta.

She and her husband Georg II of Saxen-Meiningen enhanced the gardens with rare and unusual plant specimens, but really let the villa and the art collection go.  There is a picture of Georg on the Villa Carlotta website, and he's a little intense looking.  But apparently he was a plant lover.


Things got a little iffy in World War I, when a Prussian villa owner in Italy was considered a big problem, but the gardens and the villa survived, later taken over by a public trust.

Now the gardens have wonderful features like a bamboo forest, Japanese garden, a rock garden, paths lined in massive rhododendrons and a garden of mounded azaleas that must be stunning in spring (their web site has descriptions and pictures of each garden area, including photos of the azaleas in bloom).

There are grottoes to discover, and waterfalls and hidden spots, all packed together in a very small space. 

There are some flowers, but English style mixed borders are absent.  Instead, this garden relies on the bones of its incomparable lake views and steep enclosed paths to lure you up and down the hills. 

After touring (and climbing) the garden, lunch was at a hotel across the lake in Bellagio*, looking back toward where we'd been.

Dinner was at our own hotel back in Menaggio, looking across the lake to the lights turning on in the towns, and the celestial light of a gentle sunset over the Alps.
This is what you travel the world for.

*yes, the same Bellagio where George Clooney has a villa, and yes it's right there on the water, and yes he was staying at it the days we were there.  No, we did not see him, but I'm pretty sure he saw us zipping by on the lake ferry.

October 21, 2010

The Softer Side of Fall

I am always dazzled at this time of year by the vibrant colors in the woods all around me.  But there is a softer palette of dark complex reds and pale pink hues that autumn uses, and I like that too.

My garden has gotten rosy and restful after a summer of blooming high color.

The Sheffield Pink hardy mums are an old favorite, a very pale apricot.

I like the soft pink mums below the deep wine Stewartia foliage.

But why do the rabbits insist on helping with the pinching?  This is just not necessary.

A patch of Geranium wlassovianum is fiery red purple when it catches the afternoon sun, but in the morning shade, it softens to a deep dusky plummy color.

Itea virginica is saturated in red, but it is such a deep, clear garnet that is is calming.

Sweetgum mixes brick red with shiny green, and it looks softly dappled from afar.

They're not white, they're not pink, but they are cloudlike... Sedum 'Frosty Morn'.

And of course, the dusty rose of panicle hydrangea, H. paniculata 'Tardiva'.

I like the deeper softer side of Fall.

October 20, 2010

Butterscotch Hickories

Some years the fall color in our part of New England is full of the fiery reds of red maples, and some years it's overrun with the hot oranges of the sugar maples.

One year the Norway maples filled the forests everywhere with clear bright yellow.  They're an invasive tree crowding out everything else in the woods, but the sparkling light yellow was cheerful and sunny.

Apparently every year the sylvan spirits convene and decide what the fall color of the season will be.  It's different each year, it really is.

This year the hickories won, and their rich butterscotch tans and tawny golds are the dominant color in the landscape.  I've never seen so many standout shagbarks and pignuts and butternuts and mockernuts.  The woods everywhere are a warm delicious brown sugar color.


Dahlia 'Gingersnap' echoes this new color trend in fall styles.

I can't stop thinking of butterscotch pudding.

Or ice cream, or blondies, or those Nestles butterscotch chips for baking.

Or caramel sauce on top of stuff.



Help me, help me.

October 17, 2010

Fruit of the Gods: Persimmon

Today my eye caught something bright yellow-orange waving to me from the tall weeds in the meadow.  Everything out there looks tired and dry and done for the season, but there was a little beacon calling to me to notice.

It was the persimmon sapling I had planted four seasons ago.  It is a tiny little thing out in the meadow, never before seen above the level of the tall weeds.  And there it was, rising above the ragweed and spent goldenrod.  For the first time I could see it, and to celebrate its gangly adolescent growth, it was in full orange blaze, all excited about finally getting to be this tall.  Lookit me!

In 2007 my gardening / traveling companion Becky and I visited Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, in Kentucky.  It's outside Louisville, and I practiced all week to say it correctly; "Luhvull" or something like that.

Even though the area had been under a long severe drought, we had a great tour.  At the end, of course, we visited the gift shop and checked out the plant sale.  And there, in little one gallon pots, were two sprouts of American persimmon trees:
Diospyrus virginiana.  Dios = God, Pyrus = fruit.  Fruit of the Gods.  Oh my.

from MissouriPlants.com
Becky told me about eating persimmons as a child on her family's farm.  A persimmon fruit is incredibly mouth puckeringly tart, until it ripens and sweetens up.  And then it is incredibly mouth tantalizingly delicious.  Because it ripens so late, particularly here in the north, it is often assumed that it's the autumn frost that sweetens the persimmon, but really, it just needs to be ripe enough for the astringent tannins to dissipate, and that is very late in the season.

Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony offered a good description of unripe and ripe "pessamins" as the native Americans called them: "If it be not ripe it will drawe a man's mouth awrie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock."

I bought two saplings, and then had the problem of getting them home.  They were only one gallon plants in plastic pots, but I had flown to Kentucky to visit Becky and had to transport them home on a small commuter flight from Lexington to Hartford.

The best I could do was put the pots in a plastic shopping bag, wrap the ends of the bag around the spindly stems, and bring the bag with me as a carry on item.  It had to be stuffed under the seat in front of me, and although they were little trees, they didn't fit.  I got the pots wedged partly under the seat, but the trunks and leaves reached around my knees and flopped in my lap and reached over into my seatmate's lap too.  No one at the airline or on board raised an eyebrow as I flew home sitting in a little leafy forest.

They arrived home with me, a little bedraggled.  I planted them out in the meadow as part of my personal reforestation project to reclaim the scrabbly dirt hill that the bulldozers left when the builder was finished with our site.

I rarely saw them after that.  They were so tiny and the weeds were so tall.  One did not make it through the second winter.  The other one did, but it leafs out so late in the spring that I keep thinking it's gone too.  But it isn't.  It's growing.  And there, in the autumn sunshine it wanted me to notice.  It's the little blob of yellow in the dead center of this photo.  Not much, not yet. 

But it will be a tall tree some day and a stand out in the fall.  Already it is showing me its glorious fall color.  Diospyros is in the ebony tree family, and it will some day have thick blocky bark and strong dark wood.  Golf club heads are made of persimmon wood, although I don't intend to harvest mine for that purpose.

It will set fruit one day, and I can't wait to taste the fruit of the gods --- if I can be patient enough to wait until after the frosts of late fall.  I surely don't want to sample one too early and have my mouth go all awrie with much torment.


photo from "Bernheim Ablaze"
By the way, doesn't this program at Bernheim look interesting?  It's a photography workshop specializing in fall landscapes.  I'm too far away, I don't even own a digital SLR, and I can't go, but if anyone else does, I'd love to hear about it.

I wish I could attend, though.  There's no question I could do a better job showing you the glowing light of my little persimmon on this fall day if I had a little photography instruction.