Sunday, November 22, 2015

Deciduous Delights

Sweetgum leaf
People often seek out evergreen trees and shrubs for their landscape. The reasons are varied: for privacy reasons, because they like to have something green all year or perhaps as shelter for birds. 

All those reasons are good, but this time of year is the perfect time to realize that deciduous trees and shrubs are the ones that wow us in the fall. We should definitely include some of them in the landscape.
A sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) provides a red highlight
For weeks and weeks in the fall, deciduous woody plants stop producing green chlorophyll in their leaves and reveal amazing colors. As you may have learned, the exact color that the leaves turn has to do with the chemicals within them. Carotenes and xanthophyll pigments give us yellow, orange and brown colors while anthocyanin pigments give us reds and purples. Some of them even go through several color phases before they fall.

Landscapes with multiple colors catch your eye
The ideal fall combination is composed of plants that have fall color in all the categories: yellow, orange, red, purple and russet-brown. Include a few evergreens as well to provide the contrast. At minimum, you’ll want yellow, red and green. Now that fall is almost done, you might have realized that you were lacking in certain colors. I have previous posts that list some of our native choices for those colors: yellow and orange/red/purple. You can find some evergreen ideas here.

In addition to trees, there are some native shrubs with outstanding fall color: Viburnum, Fothergilla, native spireas (Spiraea), blueberry (Vaccinium) and huckleberry (Gaylussacia), and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). Mix some of those in with your evergreen shrubs for a strong fall finish (plus they have great spring blooms).

Fothergilla, perhaps 'Mt. Airy'
Hydrangea quercifolia fall colors can be bright or muted as here

When the leaves are done falling, celebrate the free mulch and fertilizer that they provide while birds search for worms and tasty beetles beneath them. Deciduous woody plants are truly wonderful things to have in the landscape. If you didn’t have enough this year, I hope this post and the others linked here will give you some ideas for planting.

A deciduous forest offers so much to see

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Last Hurrah

Canada goldenrod (Solidago altissima)
After over a week of rain, the ground is covered with wet and mostly gray-colored leaves. Half of our fall color-watching-season seems to have been washed away. 

I was thrilled to come upon this bright field this week, merrily sporting a knee-high sea of blooming Canada goldenrod (Solidago altissima).

Normally this species would have been much taller and the blooms would be finished by now. Someone must have mowed this field mid-summer, forcing the goldenrod to regroup its energies and put out all new growth. Mixed among the goldenrod are the bright red leaves of sumac (Rhus) at the same height.

As we finish out our fall and head into winter, this last burst of floral color is a happy sight. I hope that some of the monarch butterflies migrating southward might spot this field and stop by for some nectar. Someone did them a favor when they mowed this field for a change.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sumac – Roadside’s Rowdy Rhus

This time of year is when our native sumacs light up the roadsides with spectacular fall color. Any other time of year, these plants will not be noticed (or worse they will be removed as “weeds”). It’s a shame to see these plants so unappreciated. Let’s examine their qualities and perhaps we can convince a few people to let the suckering sumacs do their thing.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)
I am speaking here of plants in the Rhus genus. This does not include plants with sumac as a common name such as poison sumac (which is Toxicodendron vernix) or stinking sumac (which is the non-native Ailanthus altissima). The sumacs that are native to Georgia include fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and the uncommon Michaux’s sumac (Rhus michauxii).

Winged sumac (Rhus copallinum)
Of all these species, the two most likely ones you would encounter in Georgia are winged sumac and smooth sumac (easily distinguished from each other by the wings on the leaves of the first one). 

Both are large shrubs that spread by suckers and have striking fall color. The compound leaves have numerous leaflets. They also produce upright bundles of red fruits that birds adore, so without leaves they might be a bit hard to tell apart.   

Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) on Stone Mountain

Fragrant sumac is a lowing growing shrub with only 3 leaflets and looks very similar to poison ivy. Like the other two species, the fruits are red although there are fewer of them. The red fruits help to distinguish it from poison ivy which has white berries. Like its Rhus cousins, fragrant sumac has great fall color too. In the winter, the presence of male catkins at the branch tips helps to identify it.

Beyond human aesthetics, sumac is beneficial to wildlife. During the growing season, at least 54 native moths and butterflies use it for a host plant for their eggs. The clusters of tiny flowers attract numerous pollinators. In the fall and winter, birds and small mammals eat the fruits.

Fruit of Rhus glabra
All 3 of these common Georgia species are tough, dependable plants. Their tolerance of average to poor soil makes them suitable for hard to grow areas and their suckering habits help to hold slopes and stabilize poor soils. 

While they might not be appropriate for a small garden except perhaps in a container, these adaptable shrubs can find a place in many larger landscapes. At the very least, let's hope they can continue to decorate our roadsides.

Smooth sumac on Lookout Mountain in North Georgia

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Growing Native Plants in Difficult Spots

People occasionally remark that they have trouble growing plants in their landscape because they have difficult conditions: pure clay, rocky soil, wet soil are the 3 most common reasons. This week’s blog offers some thoughts on that subject.
Aster that planted itself in a crack

First of all, native plants are well adapted to all the soils we have. Even nasty urban clay soils, stripped of the nutrient-rich top soils that they used to have, can support some of our tough-as-nails native plants. The solution is a matter of what you choose and how you plant it.

What you choose

Choosing potted plants from most nurseries and big box retailers is not the answer. These plants have two strikes against them: they are usually non-native and they have been grown in pots with soils that are optimal for growth (but not optimal for survival in your landscape). If you’re truly interested in having more success, pass on those.

Sourwood seedling in clay
Seeds are the way to grow plants in difficult spots, especially clay soils and rocky soils. Seeds put down a tiny root that grows and adapts to the conditions, even changing direction if needed. If you’ve ever seen a plant growing out of a crack, then you know how seeds can plant themselves and be successful.

Even so, the conditions must be right. You must do your research on what will thrive in your conditions: is the area sunny, shady, wet or dry?

Gather seeds when ripe

Once you have selected your target plants and obtained your seeds, do more research! Seeds have specific germination requirements: some want cold treatment before they will sprout, others need ample light (so don’t bury them too much) or warm soil temperatures … or even all of these things! It’s not complicated, so don’t be intimidated, but do pay attention.

Special note on seedlings: ask your friends if they get seedlings of plants that you want (and you know they have). They may offer you some of their extras.

Some of you won’t be willing to go the seed route and that is understandable. The next best choice is to select young plants that were grown by people that care about selling you good plants and having those plants actually live in your landscape. Smaller, younger plants have a better chance of getting settled into their new space if planted properly.

Special note when deciding: Plants that have a suckering/spreading habit will help you get more coverage, especially on hard-to-plant places like slopes.

How you plant it

There are so many ways to go wrong here. First, match the plant to the spot: sunny, shady, wet, dry. Next, dig the right size hole. The hole should not be any deeper than the plant’s pot (you don’t want it to sink later) and no wider than twice the pot's width. Gently tease apart any roots that are crowded.

Do not add amendments to the planting hole and definitely don’t replace the native soil with new soil. The plant needs to get used to this dirt. Some people even rinse off some of the dirt from the pot, but I don’t like to disturb the roots too much. Press the dirt into the hole afterwards to ensure good root-to-soil contact and remove air pockets.


How you treat the plant afterwards is important too. Native plants are tough, but they need water until they get established. Water the plant as needed and use organic mulch to help retain water around it (chopped leaves, pine straw, undyed hardwood mulch) and to provide nutrients as the mulch breaks down. Keep the mulch far enough away from the stem to avoid smothering it, but close enough to keep the ground from drying out.

Special note: Group plants with similar water needs together, just like nature would do. That way any watering you need to do can be done together.

I hope these ideas might have helped you to see a path towards using more native plants in what might seem to be difficult areas. Nature always finds a way and you can too.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Great Georgia Trees: American beech

American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
Native to the Eastern US and throughout Georgia, the tree known as American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a great tree to have if the conditions are right. Its smooth, gray bark is one of the most recognized among casual hikers, even if they don’t always know its name. In established woodlands with good moisture, large mature specimens can be found on slopes adjacent to streams and creeks.

American beech is rather shade tolerant which allows it to thrive in woodlands.  A mature tree can reach over 100 feet. The Georgia co-champions easily top that. One of Georgia’s co-champions can be found in Lullwater Conservation Park with a height of 122 feet and a circumference of 149 inches.

Fagus grandifolia nuts

Beeches take years to mature enough to produce beechnuts. Once they do, the small triangular nuts are enjoyed by a variety of wildlife: squirrels, chipmunks, and a variety of birds as well as deer and even bear. 

Beechnuts have nothing to do with the gum sold as Beech-Nut gum, so don’t try chewing them as gum (although they are perfectly edible).

An American beech starts to show its fall colors

As a landscape tree, it is a beautiful addition.  Young trees have a pleasing habit with strong horizontal branching. The foliage is very handsome and, despite supporting over 120 insect species as a host, rarely appears damaged. In fall, the foliage transitions from yellow to gold, hanging onto the branches as long as it can. Young trees often retain their faded leaves through the winter, appearing to be draped in a cloak of old lace.

Winter appearance of a young American beech
Now is a good time to plant trees in Georgia and if you’ve got room for one near a moist woodland edge, consider adding American beech to your landscape. It will probably outlive us, but planting for the future is the best reason to plant.

Note: Over the years many folks have carved messages into soft beech bark. Please refrain from doing so as the carving creates openings for bugs, fungi and diseases to damage the tree.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Planting in a Post-Wild World (the book)

A new design book was published recently about landscape design for today’s world. As the title might imply, today’s world is one in which there is little wild space, especially in the spaces where we live. The premise of the book is that we should stop trying to recreate what no longer exists and embrace “a new way of thinking” about design.

I have heard both authors speak about this topic at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference (Thomas Rainer in 2014 and Claudia West in 2015) and both presentations were excellent. Claudia’s discussion on creating interlocking layers in the landscape to mimic the natural process was fresh in my mind as I opened the book.  It’s about time that someone helped us get away from meatball shrubs anchored in a sea of mulch and weeds.

While the authors advocate using native plants as part of the design, their approach is not about using only native plants. They recognize that what we’re dealing with are fragments and long-disturbed sites. There is no going back to original. Native plants can be part of the solution - and a lot of them are featured in the pictures and text - but they may share the space with well-behaved non-native plants.

The purpose of the book is to outline a method and a framework for “designing resilient plant communities.”  The authors encourage us to realize that, in urban and suburban spaces, humans are designing and managing these spaces. If considered properly, we can make choices that connect the plants to the place, the plants to people, and the plants to other plants in the space.

Four main chapters present the concepts in clear text, abundant photos as well as graphs and drawings. Chapter 1 presents the Principles of Designed Plant Communities.  This chapter presents their essential principles. Even those of us who are not designers can take away key points from this chapter such as cover the ground densely like nature does … or nature will do it for you (in the form of weeds).

An everyday example of a design which is not a community and which will be plagued by weeds.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Inspiration of the Wild,” and here we are encouraged to interpret nature rather than imitate it. Plant layers found in nature help us understand that we can design with layers in a way where plants are not in competition with each other but rather exist in a supportive way. I like how the book includes sections about problems to avoid and guidance on handling the edges of the space.

A nature-inspired sweep of dense native perennials

Chapter 3 presents the design process and three essential relationships: the plants to the site, to the humans that interact with it, and to the other plants in the site. These relationships are covered in great detail. Special areas for consideration are noted and the chapter is rich with design concepts. Echoes of Claudia’s talk at Cullowhee are in the overview of several tested plant strategy systems.

Creating and managing a plant community is covered in Chapter 4. There is an extensive section on site preparation, both for understanding the site and for making choices in order to be successful. Installation considerations include timing, choosing healthy plants, planting techniques and more. I particularly liked the details covered in Managing and Monitoring, including an extensive management outline as well as how to shift goals over the lifetime of the planting, an important consideration.

I liked this book because I think it presents concepts that allow us to create landscapes that are beautiful, functional, and long-lasting. Native plants should be a part of the design, but we must acknowledge that disturbance is here to stay. Design approaches can reflect that understanding so that we create a more successful mix of old and new, using beautiful native plants and functional exotic partners.

Ultimately it is up to each of us to decide how many native plants we use. Certainly we need enough native plants to support the ecological functions needed, but does that mean we have backyard habitats and front yard exotics? The ideological war of native vs. exotic plants needs a way to meet in the middle. This book offers that middle.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Double Duty Trees

Everyone likes to get twice as much for their money or their effort. You can do that with some of your landscape design choices too if you plan ahead. Since now is a great time to plant trees in Georgia, here are a few trees that give you two benefits for one effort: good looking flowers and great fall color.

Dried flower capsules decorate a colorful sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

A very early spring-blooming tree is the red maple (Acer rubrum). Last year I posted pictures of it blooming the first week of March. It has a long spring season of interest because the flowers are replaced by seeds that are quite pretty. In the fall, the red leaves are one of the natural standouts throughout the Southeast.

Multiple leaf shapes on Sassafras albidum

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is another early blooming tree, often blooming before the leaves appear. Male and female flowers appear on different trees so you have to have a female to get the showy blue berries, but everyone is guaranteed a fabulous show in the fall.

It’s also a fun tree to show to kids because 3 different shapes of leaves can be found on the same branch.

Amelanchier arborea in spring

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) blooms in April with clusters of soft white flowers. Berries form shortly thereafter and ripen in June (another nickname for this medium-sized tree is Juneberry).

Be prepared to fight the birds for them if you want a snack. Fall color is a mix of burnished yellows, oranges and reds. This makes a great accent tree in the front yard.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) has long been a popular flowering tree in the South, but did you know that it has great fall color? I only realized it several years ago when I noticed a cherry red color in the landscape and realized it was one of my dogwoods. Of course the brilliant red berries, a favorite with birds, make it even more attractive as a choice.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) in fall

If you have enough spring trees, choose the summer-flowering sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). Just when you’re wishing for flowers, long sprays of tiny white flowers will appear to light up the garden. Then, early in the fall, the leaves will start to turn, offering a spectacular show of pinkish-purple hues with a touch of orange. It’s a combination that Mother Nature has perfected to delight you.

The summer blooms of sourwood are favorites of bees too

By the way, one of the more common non-native spring-blooming trees is the ornamental cherry, especially the cultivar ‘Yoshino.’ Have you noticed that those trees drop their leaves early in the season with no color display – what a one-hit wonder they are in the Southeastern US! If you have one, consider replacing it with one of these choices.