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Garden journal - all of 2014

 

Dino in action
January 05, 2014. Since I'm the gardener type in the family, the novelty green gifts come my direction at our Christmas gift exchange. Last year Amy gave me a create your own crop circle kit (which I admit I haven't actually started). This year, it was a dinosaur plant, which came as a shriveled ball of dried-up mossy material, with promises of a spectacular rejuvenation when watered. And sure enough, dino did not disappoint. I neglected to take a picture in the fully dehydrated state, but the photo at left was taken just seconds after wetting the plant in some lukewarm water. The photo at right is after a few hours, when green color and a semblance of lushness have returned. Nice!
The informational materials and the accompanying website were good enough to describe the paleo-history of my plant, but didn't tell me what the plant actually was. Luckily, modern search engines leave no stone unturned, let alone a novelty item like this – so I quickly found out that I likely have an individual of species Selaginella lepidophylla, which is in the spikemoss family. It supposedly likes to dry out completely every now and then, which is fine by me – that's what happens to many of our houseplants anyway :-)
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January 19, 2014. Spitterfrog enlivens our little patio pond year round: the water he squirts from his mouth (with a little help from an electric pump) fills the air in our back yard with a constant splashing sound. In the summer, the forceful jet sometimes peters out to a dribble, due to algae or pond muck stopping up the pump filter – but in the colder months, the filter stays clean, probably because algae don't grow and fish aren't active to stir up the muck. So spitterfrog just keeps on going – until it gets really cold. This morning was one of those times when things just got too nippy...
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February 13, 2014. Snow day! We've had more than our usual share of flakes since earlier this winter, but this week really clinched it, with a good foot of now falling on top of almost a foot that hadn't yet melted from the last storm. It was hard to find a surface not covered in white fluff when I strolled outside during a lull in the storm. But the pump in the big pond keeps on going, and the spots where the water has some velocity are those where the snow doesn't persist. The pond proper is covered with ice and snow, but the bog filter from which the water overflows is partially clear. See Mr Crane just peeking out over the snowline?

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my single clump of Galanthus elwesii doing its cheerful thing
March 22, 2014. Right on cue, there she is: Spring 2014. This winter was long, snowy, and cold. Most years, there will be the occasional warm spell in winter, but there wasn't too much of that this year – so the snow that fell in February stuck around for quite a while. But then, all of a sudden, even though it didn't seem like the mercury was particularly rising, the snow started to recede. By early this week, it had disappeared from our front perennial border, and behold: the snowdrops did exactly what they're supposed to do. There they were, popping their blooms to announce the new gardening season. And even though it was still cold for a few days after that, today was truly one of those lovely early-spring warm days, beckoning gardeners to return to their passion. And so I took up the call. Not overly ambitiously, just yet, but some of last year's perennial stalks are trimmed away, the out-of-control Knockout roses are pruned back, and I even got around to transplanting two small trees in the back yard, which I decided were too close together (and too close to other nearby trees) after I dug them in last spring. They'd better be happy with their new locations, because I'm not moving them again! Hopefully, from here on out there will be more to report here at Rob's Plants...
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a view of the completed rock garden not shown on the project page
April 12, 2014. The past two weekends have (finally!) featured lovely weather, drawing me into the garden after a long, cold, wet and snowy winter. Just in time to execute a project I've had on my to-do list for a while now: my periodic overhaul of the rock garden. I describe the project in more detail on a separate page, and hope to be back with updates on how the new arrangement is working out in future posts to this journal. For now, it just feels good to be back in the swing of a new season of gardening. One that will feel cramped, with kids soccer, my cycling hobby, family vacations, and other obligations all competing for those few hours of spare time. So I'm glad that at least it got off to a pretty good start.
On a side note: no plant sale this year. Spring started about two weeks late, and there is no way I can make up two weeks of potting up in the remaining few weeks till early May when I'd normally have the sale. So let's hope for next year...
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'Leonard Messel'
April 13, 2014. Magnolias never fail to surprise me. Even though I should know by now that they pop quickly on one of the first warm days in spring, I still find myself rounding a corner in the garden and being startled by a sudden display of flowers. So too this year: the front-yard specimens (a M. stellata and a M. x loebneri 'Leonard Messel') were strutting their stuff by late afternoon on this warm and windy day. The back-yard specimens will follow suit soon, I'm sure.
I like how 'Leonard Messel' opens from rich pink buds, is bi-color when it first opens, then fades to a very faint pink.
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mostly dead
April 14, 2014. Regular readers of these pages may recall my experiments with hypertufa troughs from last year. This was my opportunity to bring all those delicate rock garden plants through the winter in our unfavorably wet climate! When fall conditions turned for the worse, right after the first snowfall, I brought the majority of the troughs into the garage, on a table near a window, and protected them from mice with a hardware cloth cage. That worked like a charm: no critter damage. When spring finally sprung a few weeks ago, I put the troughs back outside on our patio table, hoping for an enthusiastic display of regrowth. But alas, most of those little divas are dead. So I'll still need to work on fine-tuning my approach. Not sure of the cause of death – for some it may have been overly dry conditions (I didn't make my way out to that corner of the garage with a watering can too often), but I'm not sure if that's the whole story. Experimentation will continue.
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April 29, 2014. This time of year, flowers are still at a premium in the garden. Sure, there's the clumps of daffodils, minor bulbs, a few primroses, and flowering trees are out in force – but most of the garden is still either brown or green. I favor green over brown, so I value plants that send up their foliage abundantly this time of year. An exuberance of tidy fresh leaves can be just as pleasing as flowers! One excellent example is Aconitum carmichaelii, the only monkshood that has thrived in our garden. It won't send up its tall stalks with hooded purple-blue flowers until October, but you'd never guess that it's a late bloomer by how quickly its clump of frilly leaves establishes itself in early spring. It will continue to look good throughout the season; I wish all perennials had so much all-season appeal!
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May 04, 2014. Our Japanese painted fern is always a sight to behold as it emerges from a deep hiding place in the soil in mid spring. This year, somehow it struck me as especially ghostly, perhaps because of the contrast with the bright white flowers of false rue anemone. This is either the common variety 'Pictum' or one named 'Regal Red' that we acquired more recently – they are fairly similar, and I've lost track of which is which. In any case, it will soon unfurl its fronds to where the stark lead-black coloration turns to a colorful combination of silvers and blue-greens (and perhaps some red).
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May 11, 2014. You may recall that we broke down and purchased a lotus last year. It did nicely in our big pond last summer and fall, so I've been eagerly awaiting its return this spring. And getting a little concerned, when by early May there was still no sign of life. So one of the first things I did upon returning from vacation today was take a look at the big pond. And the news was good: a single lotus leaf floating on the water's surface, with evidence of a few more coming. Now I know that lotuses awaken a lot later than waterlilies, and I won't need to be so concerned next year! Meanwhile, I hope to see the lotus get bigger and better this year, now that it has settled comfortably in its new home.
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Last year's growth makes a convenient handle!
May 15, 2014. Our native weeds, er, wildflowers are marvellous creations! Take this American pokeweed: obviously very well adapted to its native conditions, because it grows just about everywhere along roadsides and fields – and consequently makes for a powerful weed in the garden, especially if it's left to do its thing for a bit too long. That was clearly the case with this mighty specimen, which found the perfect place to grow: in the secondary pile of county compost that I keep behind our shed for those mid-season soil amendment needs. I must not have had many such needs last year, because this lady obviously had lots of time to grow without human interaction, building a most impressive root system. And because its chosen home was such loose soil, it came up easily with all roots intact – much unlike most pokeweeds, which are hard to extract and typically leave their roots behind when yanked. Looking at the structure of these roots, it's easy to see why. I can't help but admire a plant like this – even though in the end, it will still wind up being composted itself.
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May 17, 2014. First skipper sighting of the year! It was soaking in the sun in our nursery area, with its wings spread open – so I did not recognize it as a silver-spotted skipper until I examined my pictures a little more closely: the silver spot is on the underside of the wings. It won't be long now before many more butterflies will make their appearance in the garden :-)
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May 25, 2014. The nice thing about growing plants in troughs (especially if you keep those troughs on your back patio table, as I do – much to Amy's dismay) is that they invite up-close inspection almost every day. So you notice your plants in the morning, afternoon, and evening, as they go through the things that plants like to do during their work-a-day life. Take this Arenaria tetraquetra, raised from seed this spring: it looks like an unassuming, hairy little bit of nothing during most of the day, just biding its time till it can burst into bloom next spring (stay tuned for that!). But in the early morning, it exhibits its amazing ability to trap dew from the cool night air – it is literally a soppy mass of tiny droplets captured in the dense hairs covering its leaves. Some of those droplets are coalescing, and will likely fall to the ground before the morning sun burns them off. So my guess is that this is a moisture management strategy on the part of this little sandwort. Impressive, eh?
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May 26, 2014. Six weeks have passed since the overhaul of the rock garden, and by golly, it's starting to look nice. I stuck just about all second-year plants from our nursery area that were suited to the conditions into the newly expanded rockery. Even though it still looked sparse at the time, the plants have expanded by now, and just as importantly, have started to bloom. We're at the height of columbine bloom, with various species providing a full spectrum of color. Sedums and a small oenothera provide bursts of yellow, aethionemas are sporting their pink flower clusters, and the penstemons are about to do their thing, too. There are still a few pockets with room for more – so I managed to find some space for a few succulents purchased from Point Phillip Perennials yesterday. It's fun to walk around the rock garden and watch the progress at this time of year. The display should be even better in 2015!
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May 27, 2014. The perils of gardening, they are many! I encountered several during this evening's post-thundershower activities, which involved mainly pulling some weeds around the waterfall area. Peril #1: my first sighting of poison ivy of the season – a good-sized plant, too. I'm horribly allergic, so I left it alone for now, with plans to return properly armed to dispose of it. Still, part of the plant was severed, and I couldn't be sure I hadn't touched it inadvertently... Peril #2: the skeeters, out in force in the warm, humid air as dusk was setting in. Funny how some actual mosquito bites combined with the mere thought of poison ivy makes you itchy all over! But peril #3 dwarfed the other two today: I decided to cut back on some ornamental sedge whose tattered last-year leaves were still in place, which made for a decidedly unpretty picture. So I was in there with my pruners, just grabbing and cutting, when a happened upon a wad of old dead leaves. Thinking nothing of it, I pulled it out so it could join the fresh-cut leaves in the compost bin, when OW! I got stung. Buzzing all around. Quickly retreating, I still got pursued and stung by at least one other angry bee. Their nest, now laying exposed on top of the sedge mound, was abuzz with the fuzzy insects. I'm not sure what they were – obviously a social bee of some kind, and equally obviously unhappy with their recent treatment. I left them be for the evening, much like the poison ivy.
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May 31, 2014. An entry in the double-take series – while walking around the garden early this morning, before the sun's rays reached the area I was approaching, I spotted what seemed like an otherworldly apparition, some hideous pink thing emerging right from the soil. Closer inspection set me straight: it was merely an oriental poppy about to burst out of its bud, its stem for some reason trailing along at ground level instead of held upright as I'm used to seeing them. Good for a chuckle, and a quick photo.

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June 14, 2014. Forgotten corners of the yard can be wild and woolly places. Our garden has several of them: areas where tall weeds and semi-weeds run rampant, sufficiently out of sight that they escape the eye of the gardener, who prefers to devote his efforts to more visible parts of the landscape. One of them is the back side of the hill behind our big pond. The waterfall, if the pump feeding it were actually running, comes down from the top of that hill along the front side, but the back side is a very different place. At one point, I referred to the area as "the tall zone", where I allowed taller-growing plants to duke it out. Several of those plants still grow there, including motherwort, cup plant, oriental goat's rue, and wingstem. I think of them as semi-weeds: I put them there on purpose, but they are too vigorous for a traditional garden setting, so now they are at best tolerated. This week, while yanking out some of those weeds and semi-weeds by the armful, I came upon these magnificent specimens of burdock. A weed for sure, but you gotta admire a plant that makes giant leaves like that. I decided to let them grow, at least up to the point where they want to set seed.
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June 15, 2014. Queue the thriller music – there's a mysterious intruder roaming about! The crime scene is pictured in the photo, which doesn't do it much justice. It shows a section of our pond's filtration zone, which has about 6 inches of standing water inhabited by a mix of watercress, lizard's tail, bullrush, and a few other aquatic plants. They grow fast and tall, so it was a striking sight to see a sizable swath of the vegetation suddenly flattened one day. Close-up inspection ruled out thunderstorms or other weather phenomena as the source of the disruption: this was clearly the work of a tromping being of some kind. Could it be Maddy, out mutt-dog? Unlikely: she's not a water-dog, and has never been observed in the filtration area. Although Maddy chasing some smaller animal is still a distinct possibility. The cat is even more unlikely. We seldom observe deer in the direct neighborhood, and I doubt deer would select such a wet place to lie down in any case – our garden provides better options, I think. The same goes for other mammals that make their home in our area of Pennsylvania. So what could it be? No bird is big enough to do this, although a family of geese could be the culprits I guess. If only the frogs could talk... (They do, actually – I just can't make out what they're saying)
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yesterday's find: a midge with some seriously feathered antennae
June 20, 2014. The past week has been fertile ground for spotting insects and spiders in the garden. Whenever I'm carrying my camera around the garden, documenting new flowers or other interesting features of the garden flora, I'm especially alert to unfamiliar new animal life forms as well. As soon as I spot an interesting portrait candidate, I go into photographer mode, flipping up the flash (insect photos nearly always turn out better with flash) and trying to get as close as I can without scaring my subject off, often taking a half dozen or more pictures in hope of getting at least one or two decent ones. I won't know until I'm back at my computer to download the images. If they turn out OK, the next step is usually to attempt identification. I own several books and field guides on insects, but I seldom succeed in identifying the portraittees myself. Luckily, there's BugGuide, whose identification feature is a wonderful online resource. Dozens of experts in various insect areas routinely help with identification, so that I can usually at least narrow things down (it's a cranefly, not a long-legged bug) relatively quickly. Once I know where my finds should be classified, I add them to one of my critter pages, which feature an ever-growing collection of my amateur photos. New arrivals go into some logical position on the page, so it's not necessarily obvious that there's something new on any particular page. To highlight the latest shots, I decided to make a new page that shows off just the ten most recently uploaded photos in the critters section. So when you're bored, or tired of looking at flower pix, just cruise on over to that page, and have a gander at the amazing life forms that inhabit our gardens, often right under our noses without being noticed.
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June 26, 2014. For some reason, birds have taken a liking to a little corner in our garage, on a shelf full of paint cans above the door into our laundry room. One year it was a pair of doves who decided to build their nest there; this year, it's a husband and wife team of Carolina wrens who are raising their babies in that spot. Little cheep-cheeps betray their presence. We're trying to allow mom (or dad) a fair degree of access by keeping the overhead garage door open as much as we can, but really, this isn't the best choice of real estate, Mr. and Mrs. bird! Judging by the faces they make at my camera, I think your babies are hungry, so get to it!
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July 06, 2014. Our driveway bed is a long narrow strip of plants that can tolerate heavy snow loads in winter and scorching reflected heat in summer (without much supplemental watering). Of the scores of species I've attempted to establish, only the toughest ones have survived – but they make quite a show of themselves in summer. In this picture, the liatris have just started to bloom with their purple spikes, Shasta daisies sidle up against purple coneflowers and perennial sunflower, some meadow cranesbill is nearing the end of its bloom, and evening primrose peeks out with its pink cup flowers in various places. Baptisia is done, but the hardy hibiscus is still some weeks away from displaying its in-your-face flowers. It's not the tidiest part of our garden (I say euphemistically – our garden really doesn't have any tidy areas), but I enjoy it quite a bit.
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July 10, 2014. Well that didn't take long. As I mentioned on my page about the this spring's rock garden overhaul, strong-growing plants quickly fill in the sparseness of a newly (re)constructed rock garden. This year was no exception: Dianthus giganteus (a plant not purposely reintroduced, but tolerated in a few places where volunteers popped up) is doing its zoom-up-and-bloom thing, the tall sedums are starting to muscle out their smaller neighbors, various penstemons are reaching for the sky, the butterfly milkweed that refuses to die is contrasting nicely with its exuberant lavendar neighbor, and a few sprawlers are sprawling. So far, the smaller-growing plants are holding their own, but I'll have to be vigilant lest they shrink from the garden, bullied by an army of likeable thugs.
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Teucrium botrys at the end of its bloom period
August 03, 2014. My memory is failing me! This weekend, I managed to identify TWO plants that I had grown in years past that volunteered in our garden. A few years after first growing them, I knew they looked familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on just what they were. The first case was a mystery that had been evolving all season: in early spring, I noticed the first seedlings come up in my nursery area. I recognized them as something I had grown on purpose, but didn't recall the species. Were they scutellarias? Salvias? I seemed to recollect that whatever they were, they had turned out to be annuals, not returning the following season. So I placed a few of them in the rock garden for observation, and weeded most of them out. A few months later, they were blooming, and didn't look like skullcaps. Hmm... Definitely lamiaceae, and the seed structures that started developing in recent weeks looked like salvia, but those flowers? Finally, after I collected seed and really wanted to put the correct name on my seed envelope, I took my question to the Name That Plant forum at GardenWeb, and soon enough, I had my answer: it was Teucrium botrys. Oh, yeah, now I remember... I had first grown them 3 years ago, in 2011, and they didn't return in 2012. What possessed those seeds to skip two more years and then germinate en masse in 2014? Was it the very cold winter we had? Do the seeds need several cold/warm cycles? I may never know.
The other mystery volunteer snuck up between the flatstone pathway alongside our swimming pond. Unlike the Teucrium, which I'd been watching all year, this one just suddenly seemed to appear, in full bloom. It looked like a cleome, but it wasn't like the big Cleome hassleriana we grew years and years ago. Yet it was so familiar... Another foray to the forum produced a second hit: this was in fact a close relative of that cleome, Polanisia dodecandra. Its incubation period was the same as the Teucrium's: I last grew this wildflower near that area in 2011.
Am I losing my mind, or is it inevitable that some plants slip away from my consciousness, with well over 2000 of them featured on these pages? I hope it's the latter – and I'm glad to have the internet to help me rediscover the identities of volunteers returning to our garden after a few years' absence.
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Halt! I've got a stick and I'm not afraid to use it!
August 06, 2014. Birthdays and Christmas are always good occasions for my dear wife to bestow objects of garden art upon me. So it was again, last month, when not only did I get my second flavor of metal flying pig (perhaps to be featured on these pages some other time), but also this marvellously grouchy guard gnome. I like his finish: instant ancient! And his fearsome mustache should give visiting rabbits pause – perhaps they will avoid this patch of candy carrot. Even if rabbits and other nibbling creatures pay him no attention, he's sure to bring a smile to my face whenever I walk by the curve garden where he's stationed.

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The ghostly peony
August 22, 2014. A couple of years ago, I moved the poor peony that used to flourish in our side garden out to a sunnier area of the garden: the side garden has gotten progressively shadier through the years, and is now quite a dark spot indeed. Somehow, one bit of the peony survived, even though it will never bloom in the low-light conditions. And as if to show just how unhappy it is, it picked up a royal case of powdery mildew this summer. Which actually makes it look kind of cool, as it pops strikingly into view between the dark greenery that surrounds it. Still, I guess it's time I put it out of its misery. Soon...

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August 24, 2014. I saw Sedum telephium 'Red Cauli' featured prominently in a magazine article on garden designer Piet Oudolf years ago. I don't often get cases of plant lust, but for some reason I decided I'd really like to grow that plant. It took a bit of searching to find a source, but a little while later, I had my own small mail-order 'Red Cauli' growing in the garden. After its original location proved unsuitable, it has made its home in our 'rock garden annex', between the front walkway and the driveway, so it has quite a prominent position. But for years, it just didn't seem to live up to my expectations. The flowers in fall were nice enough, the burgundy stems did their thing – but it just didn't have that wow presence I was hoping for, based on Piet Oudolf's gardens. Finally, this year, the magic seems to be in place. The flowers are richer in color, the foliage has held up nicely – but perhaps most importantly, its neighbors, through no particular design on my part, complement the sedum nicely this August. When the liatris was blooming purple a few weeks ago, it looked good with the sedum flowers as they were just starting to open in a duller shade of purple. By now, the liatris is done but its spent flowerstalk still goes nicely with Red Cauli's flower, which has taken on a much richer shade of reddish pink. Add in the interesting seedheads on the alliums, and the frilly pink flowers of a late-blooming dianthus, and I finally have a tiny little vignette that reminds me why I took to the plant so much when I first glimpsed its picture all those years ago.

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September 14, 2014. It all started with Boy Scout summer camp – apparently some company had unloaded lots of no longer wanted rope for scouts to take home. So Max and Ben stuffed their foot lockers with as much as they could lay their hands on. Once home, on one of those lazy summer days when boredom set in, all those lengths of rope needed a purpose – and what better to do with it than to build a great mess of tangles in our poor nectarine tree? The lower trunk and major branches of the tree have been devoid of leaves for some years now, which provides an excellent framework for ropistry. Supposedly there are chairs and hammocks that provide marvellous comfort and utility, but somehow, the boys never returned to their creation once it was made. So now, weeks later, it's still up there, no doubt upsetting our poor ironfish, who is constantly air-swimming in the direction of a giant net. Hopefully we can convince Max and/or Ben to undertake the task of undoing the knots and untangling the structure – which will most likely take longer than putting it together in the first place!
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September 29, 2014. OK, I couldn't resist putting another picture with Sedum 'Red Cauli' up here, although by this time, the Colchicum 'Giant' is decidedly the show stealer. We're into autumn now, which means I can legitimately enjoy the burnished colors and somewhat tattered state of things around the garden. The summer poinsettia whose leaf is at top left in the photo is still going strong though. I don't have much time to enjoy the scenery, with soccer coaching duties taking up most of the daylight hours outside of my day job – so it's good that this little scene unfolds right along the front walkway, impossible to ignore.
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October 19, 2014. There's not all that much left blooming in the garden (unless you count the plumes on ornamental grasses): the knock-out roses are still doing their thing, Sedum sieboldii is in prime form, fall-blooming crocuses are looking nice, and quite a few annuals and late-blooming perennials are soldiering on with some new flowers alongside the more prevalent developing seedheads. But the greater source of color right now is definitely the autumn leaves. Mostly the trees and shrubs (I'm enjoying the flowering dogwood, various viburnums, blackgum, among others) – but when you look a little closer, many of the lower-growing perennials are also very colorful in leaf right now. Take the Eastern beabalm shown here: the shiny leaves gleam in purple splendor, making a nice contrast with the fading seedheads. I should spend more time outside this time of year, but it seems like I don't get around to leisurely walks around the garden very much. When I do, I'm distracted by all the plants that are sporting their ripe seeds, prompting me to run to the garage for a suitable container to collect some into. Those society seed exchanges are expecting their donation shipments any day now...
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October 26, 2014. A final photo of the rock garden, from about the same angle as on May 26. By now, the plants are somewhat dilapidated, and the usual thing has happened: a bit of thuggery has allowed some denizens of the rockery to take over more terrain than I planned on allotting them, at the expense of the less robust species. I'll have to remember to reassign their territory come spring. For now, I'm just enjoying the last of the blooms (a lot of which come courtesy of the linarias that volunteered, grudgingly tolerated by yours truly).
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November 16, 2014. I ventured out into the garden one afternoon this past week, armed with my camera to catch some of the seasonal color: the firy leaves of the Kwanzan cherry, Virginia sweetspire, red chokeberry, and any others I could spot. I expected to find yellows, oranges, purples, and reds all around me – and I did. But one sighting took me by surprise: the profusion of yellow flowers on our 'Kumson' forsythia. We mainly grow this one for its variegated leaves, although it does provide the same yellow flowers as common forsythia in early spring. To tell the truth, ours is tucked into a mostly shady, out-of-the-way corner of the garden, so it doesn't get much attention. Maybe that's why it decided to go all out on this late-fall day and strut its floral stuff. It's not even like we had very odd weather – sure, we had a few mild days following a few colder ones, but nothing out of the ordinary for a Pennsylvania autumn; not like a stretch of seventy-degree weather in January, like we had a few years ago, which really messed up the garden's sense of time. And it's not like a couple of flower buds got confused and opened prematurely, as sometimes happens on our nectarine tree on a warm day in winter – no, 'Kumson' went all out, producing a full bloom, which probably means it won't repeat the act come spring. And that's OK – I'd rather be surprised once in a while than be treated to the same predictable displays year after year.
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