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Garden Dirt | A Homegrown Autumn

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You don’t need to look at the calendar to know the seasons are a-changing. Just take a look outside. Nothing puts you in the mood for hot cider and pumpkin pie than a sugar maple in full fall foliage. Maryland may not share New England’s foliage fame, but we’re no shrinking violet for autumnal color. All around us, woodlands are starting to shed green for yellow, gold and red.

The changing of the leaves. This annual rite of Mother Nature is a colorful science.

Throughout the long days of spring and summer, plants absorb water and carbon dioxide. Sunlight turns water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose, a process known as photosynthesis – which means “putting together with light.” Chlorophyll, the “green” present in plants, assists with photosynthesis. With fall’s shorter days and less sunlight, photosynthesis slows and the green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves. Yellow and orange colors that were hidden by the green begin to show. In some trees, like maples, glucose trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops turns red. The brown foliage of oaks is produced from waste left in the leaves.
And fall color has arrived.

With a few additions to your landscape, you can bring autumn’s full glory to your yard.

Maple trees are fall’s most famous players with their bright yellows, golds and reds. But maples don’t reign supreme on the fall stage. Our native Black-gum tree is pretty darn spectacular. A beautiful tree year round, its dark glossy green summer leaves glow yellow, orange, bright red, purple and scarlet.

Great fall color doesn’t come just from trees. Many shrubs put on a fabulous autumnal display of their own.

Most of us are familiar with the winged euonymus – or “Burning Bush” – its red fall foliage common in our area. If you want to skip the obvious, choose a Virginia sweetspire. These outstanding native shrubs are covered with fragrant white flowers in July and their brilliant reddish-purple fall color lasts for weeks.  Sweetspire will stay fairly small making it well suited for residential landscapes.

A landscape workhorse with excellent year-round color is nandina. The largest variety commonly called “Heavenly Bamboo” is multi-colored with its light green, yellow and red leaves. Its clumps of small white flowers give way to bright orange-red berries lasting well into winter. Compact varieties like “Gulfstream” don’t have showy berries but the green, yellow and reddish leaves are more vivid come fall. “Firepower” – the smallest nandina – gets its name from its siren red fall foliage.

Viburnums are hefty shrubs with showy late spring flowers and deep green summer foliage that turns crimson in the fall – with contrasting purple berries that are lovely to the eye and even lovelier to the birds. The oakleaf hydrangea is a sprawling, large-leafed, white-flowering hydrangea that turns yellow, red and burgundy in the fall. For pure berry delight, choose a winterberry with its bright orange-red berries that persist right into Thanksgiving. But remember that these are not self-pollinating – the females produce the berries and they need a male pollinator planted nearby.

Speaking of berries, don’t overlook the multi-beneficial high bush blueberry. A large plant, it produces abundant, sweet blueberries in the summer and come fall, turns brilliant crimson. As with most blueberries, you’ll need at least two plants – preferably of different varieties – to get the best fruit.

Use fall blooming perennials to complete your autumn landscape.

Sedum thrives despite neglect – and its late summer flowers last well into fall. The rosy hues compliment the deep red and burgundy fall foliage from surrounding shrubs and trees.

Create vivid contrast to deep fall colors with the bright yellow flowers of goldenrod. This lovely perennial is often mistaken for the sneeze-inducing ragweed – they bloom at the same time and are both yellow. But that’s where the similarity ends. Another perennial that compliments traditional fall hues is Russian sage. Prolific blue flowers atop silver foliage of this semi-woody garden staple. It looks great planted with just about everything.
Ornamental grasses are all in full fall feather. White plumed miscanthus, purple tinged pennisetum, or frothy pink muhly grass are all great choices for a fall landscape. And they stay looking great all winter; just cut them back in March to allow for healthy new growth later in the year.

Any one -or more- of these outstanding plant choices will provide year round excellence in your landscape.
Add pansies, mums and a few rotund pumpkins – and put the cider on the stove. Fall has arrived on your doorstep.

 

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