Garden Notes: A sea of brown

Put ‘points of fire’ in your landscape.

Unreal flash of red: Cornus alba ‘Minbat.’ — Susan Safford

The landscape around us has become fuscous and very brown, thanks in part to the end run produced by the flash-freeze events earlier in the fall. Garden owners, accustomed to reliable color from plants designed to glorify their fall gardens, have been cheated this year. They (plants, not owners) were frosted out of exhibiting the bang-up, end-of-season climax.

However, a modest tree, still youthful in my landscape, has been a pleasant surprise, and has come through the frost vicissitudes with shining, leathery foliage and deep burgundy color, unlike everything else nearby. It is the Chinese quince, Pseudocydonia sinensis. I hope it proves to be hardy here; it is rated to zone 5 and 6.

Winterberry, a deciduous holly. – Susan Safford

Most dreary have been the overabundant flowerheads of mophead and panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, H. paniculata), which bloomed in an over-the-top fashion in 2017; now we are stuck with over-the-top masses of brown deadheads. And yet:

“I liked the quality of browness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat-streams of the North. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-colored chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness.” —G. K. Chesterton, “A Piece of Chalk.”

‘Points of fire’: red twig dogwoods

“Pick out points of fire” and put them in your landscape. Our eyes cannot get enough of them in these low-light days. The deep healthy green of evergreens, the pale trunks of birch, soft glow of little bluestem grass, and the incomparable fire of red twig dogwoods appease the eye and stand out from late autumn’s dun-colored background.

When planting gardens for winter interest, an open setting where winter’s low light can strike and illuminate the plants produces the most dramatic effects. Page through the “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” (Michael Dirr, Stipes Publishing); this guide yields much more information on the many other colored-twig Cornus (dogwoods) than I can include here. If you do not own this indispensable reference, ask for it at your library.

The species to check out are C. alba, C. amomum, C. sanguinea, C. racemosa, and C. sericea. First Editions’ Cornus alba ‘Minbat’ (Baton Rouge) is an outstanding flash of red, as is the blue fruited C. amomum ‘Cayenne.’ Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ never fails to catch the eye. Dirr writes that ‘Midwinter Fire’/‘Winter Flame’/‘Arctic Sun’ are possibly all the same; certainly their cultivar names are much too similar for me to keep reliably straight.

The red twig dogwoods are naturally well adapted to damp to wet acid soils, and are good choices for such conditions. They are also used in wetland mitigation and rain gardens; however, they also grow well in reasonably dry situations, providing there is good light and soil. After an initial period of establishment, prune them back in late winter to produce new growth that has the most brilliant color.

‘Points of fire’: winterberry

Abundant fruiting winterberry has been splendid this year. Apart from indoor decoration for the winter holidays, winterberry in the landscape is a satisfying choice for Island gardens: the Ilex verticillata species is native here, along with evergreen hollies. In native plantings, winterberry usually forms thickets, since they are naturally stoloniferous. The height is usually between five and eight feet. It makes a lovely natural hedge behind a fence or stone wall.

Dirr cites 43 I. verticillata cultivars and hybrids worthy of notice in “Manual,” of which some are gold- or orange-fruited, or regionally adapted; one can see there is a lot of choice. Although the straight species is often very good, notable cultivars of winterberry to acquire are ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Sparkleberry.’ These deciduous hollies require a male pollinator, just like the more traditional evergreen hollies. Choose ‘Apollo’ as their pollinator, if local male pollen is unable to fulfill the role.

Proven Winners markets two winterberry introductions, ‘Berry Nice’ and ‘Berry Heavy.’ These require a different male pollinator because their bloom time is a little earlier; pair them with ‘Jim Dandy.’

Finally, the dwarf form of winterberry ‘Red Sprite’ is a low-growing plant really useful for hedges and specimen plantings in smaller landscapes and spaces. ‘Red Sprite’ is also paired with ‘Jim Dandy.’

Plants of ‘Red Sprite’ that I have manage to fruit without a dedicated male pollinator. A tremendous amount of winterberry grows in natural areas of the Vineyard, especially wetlands, although the plants remain inconspicuous until the berries light them up; the males recede into the thickets and are hardly ever noticed.

Clean them!

Quality birdfeeders come apart for cleaning, as do many inexpensive models. There is a reason for this. Over the course of the year, the wind, rain, and snow, plus temperature fluctuations, can wring quite a lot of fermented gunk from the feeds we put out, putting birds at risk for nasty microbes. Do scrub feeders and water sources for cleanliness.

In the garden

I am finally getting around to clearing away the debris from beans and other passé crops in the vegetable garden. It is easier when they have dried and shriveled somewhat. Spent flowerheads of leeks have laid carpets of seedlings for next spring’s crop.

Garden soils always seem so fabulous at this time of year: dark, friable, moist — weeding is just a matter of having them practically jump unassisted into one’s bucket. It is easy to congratulate oneself on what lovely soil one has created. Trouble is, summer’s heat and dryness change all that, and during “action time” it tightens up, sprouts a tenacious weed or two, and glares back at the trowel. Cover it with something, a cover crop or mulch.