Summer comes with softness and warmth as the cool nights give way to heat and humidity. Bolder colors come into focus. Fruits ripen. Insects of every variety take control. Rain barrels are tapped. Talk centers around the high temperatures and rain. This is a time of vibrancy of colors and aromas, deep reds, oranges, bright yellows and blues. The focus in the garden turns to deadheading spent blooms, harvesting flowers, fruits and vegetables, and conserving the gardener’s energy, using cooler morning and evening hours. Vacations end and with cool evenings comes a new season.
Fall shows us a wide range of deep, rich colors. We are surrounded with pumpkins and mums and garner the last of the flowers, herbs and vegetables from our gardens. Evenings come earlier and are cooler.
Winter arrives as the outside world slows down. The daylight hours shorten, the color show changes to browns, grays, and drabs. Each season seems to perfectly lead into the next. To better understand winter and its garden interest we need to look more closely at fall.
Fall is the time of harvesting, but also of clean up and evaluation. Some prefer to leave seed heads in the garden for birds and wildlife and others to clean up and fill the compost pile. A nice mixture of leaves, plant material and green material such as plants and grass in your compost yield a good mixture of nutrients (green material is nitrogen rich). If you are unable to turn your compost pile, you can use an iron rake and pull off the top layers, use the composted layer, then fill up the bin with the pulled off material for further composting.
The composted material (black gold) can be placed around shrubs and trees, spread on gardens and used to fill any low spots in your yard or garden. Keep all compost or mulch away from the base or trunk of plants so it will not cause rot or harbor any damaging critters over the winter months. Compost will decompose and feed bulbs, perennials, trees and shrubs as well and improve the water retention of your soil.
This is a great time for evaluation. Stroll through your garden with a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening. Note plants that were wonderful, or may need dividing, or those that did not live up to your expectations, or live at all. Plants do die. Think of this as space for more!
Clean out pots with soap and water and a splash of bleach. Store ornamental pots where they will not freeze. Wheeled bases are helpful for large pots for the ease of watering, storage, and transporting the planted ones that will be inside the house for the winter. Use an insecticide on the plants and pots you wish to bring into the house for the winter. Check with your extension office or garden supply for an all purpose non- toxic spray. When moving pots inside, make sure they are clean and insect free and that the temperature outside is comparable to the inside temp on the day of the move. Pots can be staged by moving them onto a porch or garage for short periods of time before the move into the house. Placement in the house should match their needs for sunlight. Be aware of drafts or placing too close to drafty or cold windows.
This is the time to aerate your lawns. Plug aerators are best and are available at rental centers or by borrowing from your neighbor. Many neighborhoods share rentals. Over seed your lawn and fertilize. Fall is the recommended time of the year for fertilization for best results. Low nitrogen slow release fertilizer is generally the best application. Soil test kits are available through the extension offices. Virginia Tech will send you a report so you can clearly know what fertilizer and soil treatment you need. Nitrogen, the first number on the bag, is unstable. It is easily washed into our water systems. Once in the water system, it causes algae bloom, which lessens the amount of oxygen available to our fish and aquatic creatures. It is also expensive so buy only what your soil needs.
This is the time to harvest your herbs and flowers for drying. Herbs cut back throughout their growth are more flavorful. They can be dried by simply hanging upside down in an attic area, or frozen. If freezing, wash and pat dry, place in a plastic bread wrapper evenly, and bind off with a twist tie or rubber band in serving sizes, and freeze. The serving size can be snipped off while frozen, wrapper peeled off and added to winter meals.
What is left in the garden—seed heads, the showy bark of trees and shrubs, berry producing shrubs, and trees—is all considered “winter interest.” So if you meant to get it cleaned up and ran out of time, just refer to it as winter interest!
Winter interest can be structures, winter safe birdbaths, statuary, evergreens and berry bearing trees and shrubs.
Look for Holly (Ilex) in both tree and shrub form. Some ilex are evergreen and others deciduous exposing berry covered branches for winter color. American holly (Ilex opacca), a native, is abundant in the tidewater area. Winterberry (Ilex verticullata) is deciduous, shedding its dark glossy leaves and exposing branches bright with red berries for winter.
Willow (Salix), shrubs as well as trees, prefer moist soil, and some shrub varieties surprise the winter viewer with yellow or red twigs that are showy in winter. These varieties show their best color when cut to the ground in early spring. Salix discolor, native to tidewater, is a true willow.
Dogwood (Cornus), have red twig, shrub varieties as well. Cornus Florida, is our native dogwood and with beautiful fall foliage and red berries, a really showy addition.
Black gum trees (Nyssa slyvatica) have small black fruit in the fall followed by red foliage on an even oval-shaped tree.
My favorite is the native blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). This is a native in zone 7, Virginia. Both high bush and low bush offer all season interest. In spring they have tiny white bell-shaped flowers followed by green leaves. In summer they are blue with rich, antioxidant fruit. In fall the foliage turns deep red and in winter the twigs can be cut and brought into the house and placed in water. The twigs show well against lighter walls with their reddened winter color and soon force their white flowers as well. I head up (trim up lower twigs) on the high bush variety to expose the interesting Oriental looking branches. What could be better than that?
Groundsell (Baccharis halimifolia), also called saltbush, is most showy in the fall when it blooms and then puffs out soft white seeds in the breezes.
Bayberry another native has berries, used in candles for their aroma, and the distinction of being not only evergreen, and fast growing, but when you spend a day in it, whacking it back, you come out smelling better than when you started.
American Beauty berry, (Callicarpa Americana) is a real surprise. Its foliage is bright green with berries, clustered along the branches that turn vibrant lavender in the fall.
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), whose blooms open in January, may be stretching the winter interest theme, but is the Virginia Wildflower of 2009, according to Nick Ferriter, past president of the Native Plant Society of the Northern Neck.
No winter walk in Hickory Hollow Park, Lancaster County, Virginia, is complete without poking under leaves for wild ginger barrel-shaped flowers in January and February.
Native plants are superior because they are adapted to our environment and do not take special care or chemicals to exist. Special care means more work and chemicals mean lower quality for our environment. Be selective when deciding to remove vegetation, it can not only help filter toxins from run off before it enters our water, but makes a nice addition to your landscape.
Winter interest can be short lived. The arrival of a flock or two of migrating birds, hungry from their travels and feasting for the many miles they have to go, may turn your berry-covered shrubs and trees from laden to digested. Your plans for gathering limbs for wreath making and home and holiday decorating may be redirected to other sources or you may find yourself picking quickly in a bird filled environment.
Taking a careful look around you helps you to better appreciate the seasons and winter may not be so bad after all. Remember spring is next!