As a master gardener, I’m frequently asked questions pertaining to plant health. Plants can tell us a lot about their wellbeing—but, first, we must learn to read our gardens. All gardens have specific rhythms and it is by learning to distinguish these rhythms that we can learn much about our plants.
My elm tree, one that I relish, always starts to lose some leaves in August. It is only by making note of this that I learned this is how my elm behaves. It prefers to lose its leaves gradually until one day I realize it has no leaves at all. In contrast, my pin oak (Quercus palustris) sheds its leaves over a period of eight long months—in my mind I have named it the “eternal shedder.”
Because the hot summer nights force my old garden roses to work through the night, I look forward to the first cool night when I see a perceptible relaxation, making me realize what a toll our summer heat places on them. For this reason, I know now that it is better to plant my new roses in September when nights can fall into the mid-60s than it is to try to establish them in late March or early April when the hot nights will quickly descend. My newly planted fall roses had a delightful autumn whereas some of my older roses were tired and obviously looking forward to their winter rest.
At the first frost Lantana ‘Miss Huff’ loses her leaves and hurriedly says goodnight for the winter while the camellias perk up. The tea camellia (C. sinensis) is the first to bloom, even when it’s still quite warm; C. x ‘Snow Flurry’ tells me in September that fall has arrived just as ‘Lavender Prince’ (C. japonica) always informs me that spring is here. Sometimes the camellia japonicas fool me: both ‘Lady Clare’ and ‘Berenice Boddy’ decided to put on a show in November instead of during the usual February—why I have no idea. Usually ‘Debutante’ is the first of the japonicas to bloom—and she always waits until December.
My hostas that bloom early in the growing season are the first to become ragged whereas those like H. plantingea that bear their flowers in August manage to hold their shape throughout the summer. For this reason I have decided to concentrate on hostas (H. plantingea) that bloom later in the growing season. These can still look pleasant during the early fall whereas my early blooming hostas are bedraggled and forlorn.
The hellebores stir to life in late September; this year, because we had such a moist summer, their leaves are more intact than usual. Against all advice I cut the old leaves, leaving the new leaves to emerge. Despite my love-hate relationship with them, I have never lost a hellebore and even enjoy the rosettes formed by the new leaves.
My large Japanese maple—unknown cultivar—bears maroon leaves in the spring and brilliant red leaves in the fall. I cherish these leaves but in late November they will suddenly disappear seemingly overnight.
It is only by observing the customary rhythms in the garden that we can determine what is normal—and more importantly what isn’t. I know that my weeping cherries will lose all their leaves before my elm but that the elm is the first to start the process. I now see how tired my established roses are from working throughout the hot, humid summer. I observe which plants are eager to begin their winter slumber and which plants delay it as long as they can. Some answers I’ll probably never know but meanwhile with each passing year of reading my garden, I’m learning more and more.
And, I will keep my eye on C. japonica ‘Lady Clare’ and ‘Berenice Boddy’ because their out-of-bloom cycle was not normal.
A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener.