In our climate, zone seven, days shorten, the sun sinks slowly in the sky and moderate weather can be enjoyed well into November. This is the time of finishing yard chores with a quick cast for rockfish off the dock.
The change in this spectrum of color is caused by the chlorophyll exiting the leaves of our deciduous trees and shrubs. Chlorophyll, a chemical that assists in photosynthesis, causes the green coloration in the summer. Plants use sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose (a sugar) to feed the trees. The way plants turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar is called photosynthesis (putting together with light). The leaves are nature’s food factories. During the wintertime there is not enough daylight for photosynthesis. When the days shorten, the chlorophyll drains out through the petiole, or stem of the leaf. The remaining color and its intensity are dependent upon the species of tree and the moisture content of the soil. When choosing shrubs and trees for our landscape, the fall color is as important to consider as the spring and summer bloom.
This botanical transformation is triggered by the length of the daylight hours and not the temperature. Trees and shrubs have the amazing ability to preserve themselves. This is often seen by the early loss of leaves due to drought, prolonged heat and stress, such as inconsistent watering, compaction or disease.
Dogwood leaves become a rich deep red which compliments their berry production. Black gums leaves turn burgundy with black shiny fruits that call out to winter migrating feeders such as cedar wax wings. Virginia fringe trees exhibit delicate gold foliage. The oaks, not only regulate their acorn production according to need, but hold on to their leaves of rich saddle brown, some species well into the winter. The brown color of oaks is caused by waste left in the leaves. Swamp oak or black jack is adorned in large mitten-shaped, rich brown leaves until the spring push of new foliage. Maples exhibit varying colors according to their specific types. Sugar maples are fall-adorned in brilliant red which is a result of leftover glucose in the leaves. Other varieties display gold and brown coloration. High bush and low bush blueberry turn a deep burgundy and bring a dramatic glow to the shade and partial shade where they like to grow. Beauty berry is laden with lavender berries along its branches and golden foliage.
Complimenting the fall coloration are the ornamental and native grasses in full bloom. Seed heads of summer bloomers, left in the garden for foraging birds, add to the texture of our views.
Don’t be too quick to clean up the leaves. Children and yes, some adults I know, love to shuffle and jump in them. They can be mulched (chopped) using a lawn mower, added to the compost pile and dug in gently around all plants in
every garden for some magical decomposition during the winter. This process adds important nutrients to the soil. Once you begin this process there will never again be too many leaves. Remember to alternate green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) material when adding to your compost pile for the best results.
If you decide to use the leaves from a neighbor or a municipality (some offer free compost to residents), be sure you check that the lawns they were deposited upon were not chemically treated.
The gift of fall does not end with the leaves as they remain on trees and shrubs. Colorful collections can be arranged on table tops. Bountiful branches can be gathered up and displayed in colorful glass bottles in the corners of your rooms or by the front door or back porch, the possibilities are endless. They will curl up and drop, but not for a couple of days and if you wish you can get out the wax paper and press the really memorable ones and share them with children. Or remember using a screen with leaves on top to spatter paint? Done on white shelf paper this makes wonderful wrapping paper. Live a little. Children sometimes have all the fun!
This area of the world is rich in forest. Our woods are reported to be in greater abundance than in the nineteenth century, despite development. Leaving an area previously mown to grow naturally not only is good for our environment but provides a diversity of plant material. Lawn mowers are some of our greatest polluters. Meadows can be planted using meadow seed or left to grow in naturally. Purchased seed for meadows needs to be specific to the area in which it will be growing. An amazing variety of plants grow naturally in these spaces. Natural meadows provide the sounds of insects, birds and seasonal color. When left undisturbed tree seedlings appear, deposited by bird droppings and the wind. Trees and shrubs are filtration experts assisting in our efforts to keep our waters clear of pollution from the land. Meadows can be living classrooms for all ages with a mown path to a bench and an all-weather field guide available for perusal. The loblolly pine is king of the forest. Known to grow from a tiny seedling to over 6 foot in height in 5 to 7 years it soon towers over other trees. Maples, black gums, tulip poplars and the slower growing oaks give a show of wonderful green in the spring and summer with shade and fruit for wildlife. They are the promise for the future of the blaze of autumn.