By Mel Bellar
Fall continues to be my favorite time of the year. This year only reinforces my commitment, as I write this looking out my window onto the hills painted in shades of yellows, oranges and reds splattered with patches of greens from the oaks and evergreens. I love the way the leaves blow in the wind, swirling along the road in front of the car as I head down Palmer Hill or wind along with Bryant’s Brook past Canada Hollow. The beauty of the season always overwhelms me so…yes… here I am writing about it again.
My Fall love affair is not only with the fantastic foliage. A huge plus in my book is that the weeds and grass stop growing so fast! You have less work, but you can still enjoy the garden, at least for a while. It is as if nature is just relaxing in the beautiful filtered light of the evening after a hard day of work, just before going to bed.
Oh, and in Fall, the weeds in the garden and even along the side of the road don’t look so bad to me. They merge better with the landscape and everything appears more cohesive—not so messy. With all the variations of browns, yellows and textures, even the more odious weeds start to blend in.
For example, there is a bank behind my house that I am developing to have a nice meadow effect by editing out things I don’t like and adding things I do. During the Fall it looks great…the weeds mix in and the whole effect is very pleasing. Many dormant garden plants become extremely striking during this time, featuring carcasses with seed heads and stalks. I usually leave some of these up: black-eyed Susans, ironweed, coneflowers, blazing stars (liatris), blue star (amsonia) and all of the grasses.
Ahh! the grasses! They are my real favorite part of fall! Ornamental grasses don’t resonate with everyone.. Some folks think they aren’t “traditional” enough for cottage or Catskill gardens and that they seem too California or “landscapey.” Poppycock! There are many ornamental grasses that are native to the northeast and the Catskills and are a natural fit for our gardens. To me they are indispensable, adding incredible texture and structure to a garden, especially in the Fall. Many of the warm season grasses don’t even bloom until September and are really at their best starting in October and into the winter. Their plumes catch the afternoon light as they lilt and rustle in the wind. What’s not to like?
Let’s not neglect plants that can be added to enhance the Fall garden beyond nature’s free contributions. There are several shrubs that I admire for their Fall foliage that one would not normally think of as “Fall plants”. I love all of the varieties of the smoke bush, native and non-native. There is a purple-leafed Asian one that many folks are familiar with and have in their gardens that is great all season. There is a native green version of the smoke bush that is rarely used that I love, Cotinus obuvata, that has an elegant shape, is very hardy and has striking Fall color. Also the native bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, has amazing bright yellow leaves in the Fall. The palm-like forms of the leaves are great looking all season and the plant has a beautiful open habit. It sports attractive bottlebush-like flowers that appear in July. But they don’t last very long. Another great shrub for fall color and very early spring interest is the Fothergilla. Fothergilla does have a common name, witch-alder, but I have never heard anyone use it. Fothergilla is not only fun to say, it has wonderful Fall color running from yellow to red and morphing through the shades between. It also has lovely little white flowers with a nice fragrance in the early spring before the leaves emerge.
This article would not be complete without paying homage to the hydrangea. There is a large group of hydrangeas, the paniculatas, that do really well here in the Catskills. The most common and old-fashioned variety in these parts is the Pee Gee hydrangea, which is nearly always in a tree form. They start blooming in late Summer or early Autumn and sport their large conical blooms until the new growth pushes them off the following Spring (or until the tidy gardener cuts them off). They start out white, slowly change to a deep rose color and eventually brown out and remain on the plants adding interest through the winter. There are dozens of varieties of this species of hydrangea that bloom at different times and have slightly different bloom characteristics, ranging from lime green to very pink, from tighter blooms to looser panicles. They are all great for the Fall, and I love them all. I will sign off by listing a few of varieties: Pee Gee, Limelight, Little Lime, Pink Diamond, Tardiva, Quickfire, Strawberry Vanilla, Little Lamb and Bo Bo. Check them out!~
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.