A beautiful parting gift from summer

We’ve finally had our first hard frost here in central Virginia and the growing season is officially over. But, one last rose bloom managed to hang on!

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The noble oak, hiding in plain sight

Even for a plant geek like me, I have to admit that there are some perennials/shrubs/trees so commonplace that they fly below my radar, that I take for granted in spite of their fine qualities. The oak would be at the top of my list of overlooked, under-appreciated plants. Which is unfortunate, because they not only make good shade trees and are easy to grow, but they are hugely beneficial for all manner of wildlife, and a great number of oaks show off good color in the fall!

Of the 400 or so species of oaks that inhabit the world, 90 are native to the United States. Oak trees belong to one of two groups: white oaks (characterized by rounded lobes on their leaves) and red oaks, which feature pointed lobes on theirs. White oaks produce a lighter, less consistent crop of acorns, but the acorns contain less tannin and are therefore more palatable to wildlife, though wildlife will still consume red oak acorns in years when white oak acorns are limited in availability. The red oak group takes two years to mature their acorns, but are more consistent and produce a heavier crop.

White oak group (species common to the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern states):

Red oak group (species common to the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern states):

While I always knew oak trees are good sources of food for birds and squirrels, I didn’t know until recently that oaks support over 500 species of butterflies! And many produce nice fall color, particularly the scarlet oak and northern red oak, with fiery reds, though most other oaks do show at least some color. The ease of growing oaks from seedlings depends on the species, some are difficult to transplant because of a deep taproot, while others are easier because of a more fibrous, spreading root system. Most oaks are not particularly fussy about soil, though I have read that some don’t like high pH (alkaline) soils.

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Apples of my eye!

Just got home a little while ago from spending the day in and around Charlottesville, Virginia. It was our annual trek to Carter Mountain Orchard to do some apple picking, and as always, the view was spectacular from the top of the mountain!

photo

Afterwards, we decided to head over to Albemarle Cider Works, about 20 minutes to the west, off Route 29. Albemarle Cider Works produces dozens of hard ciders made from vintage, heirloom apples like Albemarle Pippen, Suncrisp, and Idared, among others. Additionally, they sell the apples AND (my favorite part) young heirloom apple trees!

Once you’ve tasted an heirloom apple, it’s hard to go back to the ubiquitous Gala, Fuji, Red/Gold Delicious, etc. The flavors of these heirlooms is like nothing I’ve ever tasted, and almost impossible to try to describe here.

photo (1)

Nice to see apple history being preserved and continued. If you want information on growing heirloom apples, may I recommend a great book on the subject: Apples of North America, by apple expert Tom Buford.

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Unsung heroes of fall color

As I wait for autumn’s best colors to reach my neck of the woods here just to the northeast of Richmond, Virginia, I can’t help but reflect on my favorite plants for fall colors. I’m certain I’ve already done a post on this topic, but I neglected to mention two plants that are just stunning in the peak of fall, yet for some reason don’t get the attention they deserve.

Aronia (Chokeberry)

A small tree/shrub native to the eastern United States, often taking on an upright vase shape, growing to 5-10 feet. Produces an abundance of red or black (depending on species) fruit in late summer/early fall that benefits wildlife, and foliage turns various shades of red/crimson. Tolerant of various soil types, does best in partial to full sun. Drought tolerant once established.

Aronia melanocarpa_leaf fall color, fruit

 

Oxydendrum arboreum (Sourwood)

A medium to large tree (30-50’) of pyramidal habit, Sourwood produces fragrant tassels of tiny white, bell-shaped flowers in mid-summer. Lustrous green leaves turn brilliant red in fall. Does well in acid soils in part to full sun. A good specimen tree for an open space in the yard.

Oxydendrum arboreum_leaf fall color, fruit

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Garden work update: winter rye planted

Finally relaxing after a long day in the field behind our property, getting it ready for next spring. I’ve been ripping out as much Bermuda grass as its roots will yield, tilling the soil a bit, and planting winter rye seed for a cover crop, to help build the soil and smother weeds. The rye should grow to about 4 or 5 feet tall, then in spring I’ll cut it down and let it lay as mulch and transplant into it. So, nothing to show just yet for all the work I’ve been doing, but soon enough.

In the meantime, my mom emailed me this photo she took of a Camellia in her garden. It’s an Ackerman hybrid, very cold hardy, called “Winter’s Joy” I believe.

camellia

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Bad plants and better alternatives

With the arrival of the cool weather of fall, we enter another prime time to plant hardy perennials, shrubs, and trees! But not all plants sold at the nursery should be planted, as tempting as they might be. Prime example: Euonymus alatus (aka Burning Bush). Besides the nice red color, it produces copious amounts of seed in late fall, which are picked up by birds and deposited around the immediate area and beyond. These seeds germinate and grow thick stands of new plants that choke out native plants on which wildlife depend for food and shelter. It has landed Burning Bush on the invasive plants list in several states. The same story is true for many Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.) varieties. Below is a chart of good native alternatives to popular (though invasive) shrubs. I’ve grouped these plants by similar characteristics.

Invasive plant

Native alternatives

Euonymus alatus (Burning Bush)

  • Itea virginica (Sweetspire)
  • (Aronia arbutifolia (Chokeberry)
  • Fothergilla (Witch Alder)

Lonicera japonica (Japanese or asian honeysuckle)

  • Gelsemium sempervirens (Carolina jessamine)
  • Lonicera sempervirens (Coral honeysuckle)

Celastrus orbiculatus (Oriental bittersweet)

  • Bignonia capreolata (crossvine)

Elaeagnus species (Russian, Autumn Olive)

  • Ilex verticillata (Winterberry holly)
  • Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon holly)
  • Viburnum nudum (Blackhaw viburnum)

Hedera helix (English ivy)

  • Hydrangea anomola sub sp. petiolaris (Climbing hydrangea)
  • Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny spurge)

Albizia julibrissin (Mimosa, Silk tree)

  • Cercis canadensis (Eastern redbud)
  • Oxydendrum arboreum (Sourwood)

Miscanthus sinensis (Chinese silvergrass)

  • Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass)
  • Muhlenbergia capillaris (Pink Muhly grass)

Nandina domestica (Heavenly bamboo)

  • Physocarpus opulifolius (Ninebark)

 

 
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Time for cover crops

As we head into the fall, it’s time to think about getting your garden ready for next spring and summer. A great way to revitalize the soil is to plant cover crops. Cover crops serve multiple purposes: they smother weeds, attract pollinators, control erosion, build up biomass/structure in the soil, fix nitrogen and other nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to garden crops, and many are edible, producing seed that can be used to make flour. My former sustainable agriculture professor has put together a terrific DVD on how to use cover crops to keep your soil and garden healthy:

http://www.homeplaceearth.com/3.html

View a preview of it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9pcJQK9LrA

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