My Alabama autumn: pleasure and pitfalls of the waning – Part 1

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Fall in Alabama is a time of great beauty that combines the colorful, falling leaves with the last flowers of the season. Fall is also a time to prepare the garden for next year, by weeding, seed-collecting, mulching and bulb-preparation.

Bittersweet October. The mellow, messy, leaf-kicking, perfect pause between the opposing miseries of summer and winter. Mornings some of them) start off foggy, the cold, soaked bumblebees buried, immobile, in the flower faces or maybe bumbling around in the mulch, dirty and barely able to crawl, like drowsy drunks. Along the creek hordes of just-back-from-somewhere starlings converse squeakily and incessantly as they breakfast among the hackberries. The wind comes up with the sun, batting away the fog and driving the ash leaves down, shower after golden shower, onto the lawn and into the street, where they hiss along the pavement.

The Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’, which looked so frail and hopeless when I planted her in March, has a few holes in her leaves, but she proudly waves a half-dozen pearllike flower buds and at least as many ivory-skinned blossoms. Shows how much I know.

Roses revive, blooming as if they’re convinced May has come again. A wild, anarchistic beauty seizes the neighborhood. The dry leaves blow where they will, even onto the neatest lawns; an army of leaf-blowing landscape technicians couldn’t deter them. The crape myrtles (surely they must be tired from all that blooming) turn russet orange, and, like Cinderella at the ball, the common mulberry, so drab and unappreciated the remainder of the year, suddenly briefly) glows brilliant yellow, a beacon of splendor.

In the late afternoon sun the mountain above us is a rusty amalgam of old-gold hickory, ruby-red dogwood, fire-lit sugar maple, pink and orange persimmon, and the frult-basket hues of sassafras. The smoke trees along the winding roadsides are all fire and no smoke now, while nearer ground level Salvia azurea, as intensely blue as the October sky, mixes with the reblooming butterfly weed and prairie coneflower.

In the fields Queen Anne’s lace blooms anew with the golden aster. The velvet-stemmed staghorn sumac discards its red and purple leaves but holds the cones of furry, blood-red fruit, to be meted out to the birds once winter settles in.

Vines for fall

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All of the grapes, both domesticated and wild, take on wondrous fall coloring. The native muscadine, or scuppernong (Vitis rotundifolia), conceals a rusty chainlink fence as well as any vine alive, provides luscious red-purple fruit for man and beast alike (another acquired taste), and gives radiant yellow fall color. The grapes are rampant woody vines, ultimately as big around at the base as a person’s arm, and so will likely need pruning in all but the wildest settings, particularly if ample fruit production is a consideration. They grow more vigorously in sun than shade but do well enough in either, as they do in most soils that aren’t actually under water.

My favorite vine for October color is never seen in catalogs, though it hangs like a curtain from many a southern roadside tree. Carolina moonseed vine, or coralbeads (Cocculus carolinus), is a twining vine whose faintly fuzzzy yet glossy leaves vary from heart- to ivy-leaf-shaped, even on a given stem.

The vine is dioecious, that is, the elongate panicles of insignificant male and female flowers appear on separate plants. In October, just as the leaves begin to yellow, the clustered berrylike drupes on female plants turn a brilliant, lacquered red, presenting a rich, tripletone effect. The fruit is savored by birds, which is how I’ve come to have several of these handsome and i think) mannerly vines along our back fence.

Mum’s the word

October doorsteps sprout pumpkins and potted chrysanthemums as damp logs sprout toadstools. Since chrysanthemums are troublesome little buggers to grow properly, many of us just pick up a pot or two at the garden center in September, when they start to come into bloom. (I suppose one could save money by simply removing them from someone else’s front steps, but this is tacky and, besides, the selection is limited.) Such fall-purchased mums are often root-bound and, if set into the garden, seldom become established before freezing weather and are thus lost over winter.

Irritatingly, the taxonomists, who came to this planet strictly to wreak turmoil among garden writers and make our $ 13 5 copies of Hortus Third obsolete even before we’ve torn up the dust jacket, have raked up nearly all of the herbaceous perennials we’ve come to know and love as members of the genus Chrysanthemum and dumped them instead into a new genus, Dendranthenza. (Our old hybrid friend the Shasta daisy now resides in the genus Leucanthemum.)

Perhaps I lack sensitivity, but to me the chrysanthemum – er, dendranthema – as fine and rich in variety as it is, is just another excellent fall garden flower. But in some gardeners mums inspire a kind of lunacy that crowds out all thoughts of spouse, kids, cats, dogs, and dinner at 6 p.m. sharp.

This foolishness which, I warn you, is contagious) started centuries ago, probably in China, and has swept, plaguelike, across many cultures clear around the world. The result has been the development of an unprepossessing daisy into a panorama of elaborate floral forms (spiders, spoons, pompoms, quills, etc.) and downright acrobatic habits cushiony mounds, spheres, treeform standards, and the topiarian Japanese cascades, fans, fountains, and umbrellas). The color range now spans the spectrum save for true blue.

Chrysanthemums are easily moved, even in bud or bloom, so that a cool-colored summer bedding scheme might suddenly be converted into a warm toned autumnal display by the removal of spent annuals and their replacement with bright-hued mums. just be sure to water the chrysanthemums well before and after the operation.

Cushion mums can be grown from cuttings three to a pot in an out-of-the-way sunny spot and plopped onto the porch or into the garden in September, where they’ll bring down-to-earth solidity to an airy mix of salvias and wild asters. A minimum of six hours of full sun daily is needed for good flower production, but, once the buds have been set, they’ll go on and bloom just fine even in shade.

Chrysanthemums set their flower buds in response to decreasing day length and, to some extent, night temperature. Exposure to artificial light sources, such as streetlights or even car headlights, may prevent or delay bloom.

There are two things that make chrysanthemums more bothersome to grow than most other garden flowers, the first being that, for best results, the clumps must be dug up every spring and new plants started from cuttings or outside shoots, and, second, all but the low-growing, self-branching cultivars require repetitive pinching back to achieve the desired fullness and/or staking to keep the eventual blooms from wallowing in the dirt.

The moundlike cushion mums, which require little pinching or staking, are best for landscape use and pot culture. Mary Lou McNabb, who grows the finest chrysanthemums in these parts, recommends several particularly effective combinations of cushion mums. The triple-toned yellow ‘Jessica’ shares the same height and an early October bloom period with Tracy’, a frosty white. The bronze Denise’ blooms with the lavender ‘Lynn’ in late October, while the brilliant yellow ‘Sunny Morning’ blooms for six full weeks. It is attractive with the bronzyred Bravo’.

Mary Lou is convinced that chrysanthemums are more likely to survive winter if they are not cut back until spring. She never mulches her mums but dresses them generously with rich, coffee-dark homemade compost in April or May. The only other fertilizer she uses is muriate of potash (potassium chloride). One teaspoon per plant applied around the first of August helps, she says, to develop vibrant color and strong stems.

You can, of course, fertilize mums, preferably with a low-nitrogen procduct and then not too close to season’s end, when new, tender growth may prove frost-susceptible. Certain soils, particularly sandy, acid ones, are deficient in magnesium, a constituent of chlorophyll. Yellowing of the lower leaves is a symptom. One-quarter pound of Epsom salts dissolved in a gallon of water is the remedy, according to Roderick Cumming in The Chrysanthemum Book.

Mums are shallow-rooted and fairly thirsty but must have porous, well-drained soil, since they are prone to winter rot. A pH of around 6 or 6.5 is about right.

In April Mary Lou takes four-inch cuttings, which she roots in Pro-Mix or sand and perlite. These go out into the garden on 18-inch centers in May. Chicken wire strerched across the beds a few inches above the ground discourages her dogs from digging up or trampling plants and provides the mums with support, preventing them from flopping open in the center after a heavy rain.

All but the most compact cultivars benefit from pinching or shearing back. Shearing plants to six inches also temporarily eliminates the black aphids that congregate near the stem tips.

Local lore dictates that one should pinch mums back until the Fourth of July and prune no more after that so that plants will have time to form buds and bloom before frost. Cumming allows the upper South to pinch until August 1, the middle South (that includes Zone 7, 1 presume) until August 15, and the lower South until September 1. I believe one may safely pinch back some varieties later than others. My most enduring mum, ‘Yellow Jacket’, a dwarf, bushy mop of shaggy yellow flower heads, often blooms well into November, resisting frost and the first few freezes. ‘Sunny Morning’ does the same, according to Mary Lou. Mum beds can be covered with Reemay (spun-bonded polyester) for added frost protection.