Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Fall's Second Season

Even though all the blossoms are gone there are still sights to delight the eye in the fall garden.  Rather than the purples and golds of aster and goldenrod flowers, we get whites and silvers from the seeds and seed heads of many of these same plants.  The lower angle of the winter sun magnifies this effect, causing them to nearly glow with reflected light.

This photo was taken on a mid-November morning.  Some of the plants from
left to right are little bluestem, New England aster, purple top (grass) and Canada goldenrod.

Sweet everlasting, Pseudognaphallium obtussifolium, has a particularly long-lasting presence in the garden.  Even after the seeds are dispersed the white, star-like sepals remain intact well into January.  This plant is an annual and depends on this seed finding a spot on the ground to continue its presence in the garden.

The spent flowers of sweet everlasting show off well in front of a dark back ground.
Mixed in here are the seed stalks of the native grass, purple top, Tridens flavus.

Virgin's bower, Clematis virginiana, is one of our native clematises.  It has a very long vining habit, growing to about 20 feet in sunny location in one season.  Many consider it weedy because its thin stems go just about anywhere.  I like it because it does a good job of covering  fences  with foliage without becoming heavy and damaging like the exotic sweet autumn clematis.  The flowers in the second half of summer are small and rather subtle compared to many cultivated clematises.  Where this plant shines (or glows) is in the fall when the feathery seed heads form.  

After the fluffy white seeds of New York ironweed are dispersed
these rust colored capsules will remain for several months.
Another fall star is New York ironweed, Vernonia novebaracensis.  By the end of October the magenta flowers are all gone, replaced with the rust-colored seed heads.  As winter wears on these breakdown and become less fluffy; however the star-like sepals remain into the new year.

Besides all these flowering plants, the grasses also make a graceful contribution to the fall and winter garden.  Last fall I wrote a blog post about fall grasses.  I won't go into a lot of detail again, only to say that some of them really do use the winter light to great effect, such as pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capilaris) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Little bluestem also takes on a distinct copper hue that makes it easy to spot at a distance.  Northern sea oats (Chasmantheum latifolium) also has a distinctive form with its dangling seed heads and rich brown hues.  Also on the property I have several large patches of deer tongue grass (see last fall's post).  What I noticed this year was that, while not particularly beautiful in form, the stiff dried leaves made a very pleasant rustling sound when there was just a little breeze.

While leaving perennials and grasses standing over the winter offers some visual interest to an otherwise flat landscape, it is also a good practice for the ecologically minded gardener.  Seed heads left standing provide food for migrating and non-migrating birds.  Standing twigs provide winter cover for many small animals and insects.  The larvae of many butterflies over winter in the leaf litter.  Many insect predators overwinter in the ground cover.  By providing space for them you will have a leg up come spring on your pest control.  (There are situations were fall clean up is advised, particularly for plants battling a fungal or bacterial infection where spores can overwinter in the leaf layer.)

Appreciating plants in the fall is not just an outdoor activity.  We brought in a few to enjoy as a table center piece.  While pretty this has proven to get a little messy.  The seeds  on the little bluestem stick quite tightly to the table cloth and the hosta seed head is still shedding seeds.  Our biggest problem is that our cat likes to get in and rearrange things, even the spiny branches of the invasive wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius).
Some of the plants from left to right, Northern sea oats, a wineberry stem, little bluestem,
false indigo pods, tall ornamental garlic, hosta and wild bergamot.