Garden Dirt

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by Ray Greenstreet

Gorgeous Autumn

Gaarden Dirt--black gum fall
The Black Gum tree explodes in Fall.

You don’t need to look at the calendar to know the seasons are changing. Just take a look outside. Nothing puts you in the mood for hot cider and pumpkin pie more 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.

This annual rite of Mother Nature is a colorful science.

Throughout the long days of spring and summer, plants absorb water and carbon dioxide which sunlight turns into oxygen and glucose, a process known as photosynthesis. 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.

Real firepower in the nandina.
Real firepower in the nandina.

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 spectacular. A beautiful tree year round, its dark glossy green summer leaves turn 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.  A landscape workhorse with excellent year-round color is nandina. The largest variety “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” and “Obsession” don’t have showy berries but their tri-colored leaves become more vivid in the fall. “Firepower” – the smallest nandina – gets its name from its siren red foliage.

The oak leaf hydrangea
The oak leaf hydrangea

Viburnums are hefty shrubs with showy late spring flowers and deep green summer foliage that turns crimson in the fall – with deep 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.

Complete your autumn landscape with any number of fall-blooming perennials. 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.

Sedum is a solid choice for fall color.
Sedum is a solid choice for fall color.

Create vivid contrast to deep fall color 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. An added plus is their winter interest; just cut them back in March to allow for healthy new growth later in the year.

Add pansies, mums and a few rotund pumpkins – and put the cider on the stove. Fall has arrived on our doorstep.