The mild temperatures and balmy breezes of Indian summer have temporarily rekindled the gardening spirit for many South Shore dirt diggers.
The mild temperatures and balmy breezes of Indian summer have temporarily rekindled the gardening spirit for many dirt diggers.
Although the warmth is destined to be fleeting, weeding, planting and cultivating seemed appropriate during this momentary flashback to summertime. I wandered from garden to garden, planting bulbs and squeezing orphan shrubs, trees and perennials into tight spaces unfit for them to prosper, knowing they would most likely have to be moved next season, but with my garage now filled to capacity with tender tropical plants and dozens of similar refugees, the soft earth in my borders seemed the best alternative for overwintering my overflow.
Weary from hours of trimming, raking and hauling, I paused for a few moments to soak in the sun’s warmth and savor the sights and sounds of a glorious November afternoon. Overhead, the familiar high-pitched whistles and twittering of a small flock of cedar waxwings could be heard.
As they drew near, these gregarious crested avian visitors swooped down in unison to roost among the branches of my Zumi crabapple tree laden with clusters of bright red berries. Moments later, they were joined by an equally vocal gathering of robins. During the next few weeks, they will systematically devour the bounty of shiny fruits as finches, cardinals, flickers and a multiplicity of smaller birds join the feeding frenzy and scour the dense canopy for juicy tender tidbits.
As I hauled another tarp of garden refuse across the front lawn, I noticed a pair of male downy woodpeckers scaling up and down the branches of my Stewartia tree. Dressed in their speckled black and white tuxedos, highlighted by a tiny patch of red down on the back of their heads, they appeared to be engaged in a game of leap frog as they hitched around the slender branches.
From time to time they could be seen acrobatically clinging to seedpods, pecking at the outer shells to expose seeds or insects that might lie within. A male cardinal, its stunning red plumage ignited by the sun, perched in the branches above them and subsequently descended to probe the brown capsules for similar rewards.
Although November is typically the gloomiest month of the year, we have enjoyed milder than average temperatures, drier conditions and plentiful sunshine, extending the flowering of some of our sturdiest plants.
Along my protected back walkway, a narrow strip of annuals continue to offer occasional splashes of color. Deep indigo blue spires of Salvia "Victoria" linger well into the fall accompanied by cheerful coral pink snapdragons and the persistent foliage of silvery dusty miller. Soft fuzzy clusters of tall lavender-blue ageratum produce sporadic blooms while nearby, the small white daisy-like blossoms of feverfew flower intermittently throughout the growing season, seeding about my gardens from year to year with reckless abandon.
Much to my surprise, on the opposite side of the walk a Christmas rose, Helleborus "Jacob," is covered with pure white satiny buds atop fleshy, red-speckled 8-inch stems against a backdrop of the deepest evergreen palmate leaves.
New to my garden a year ago, it started blooming last November but I assumed it was just out of sync since it was newly planted late in the season. Throughout last winter, its clusters of dazzling white blossoms could be seen each time the snow melted right into the month of April. Further research online indicates that November bloom is typical of this and several other introductions in the Helleborus Gold Collection series and I hope to locate more of these stunning hellebores, which now include several semi-double and double-flowering cultivars.
The feathery plumes of ornamental maiden grasses (Miscanthus), now beige and fluffy at season’s end, sway to and fro in the gentle breeze atop delicate strands of arching leaves that rustle with each puff of wind. Clumps of fountain grasses (Pennisetum) continue to offer textural interest in our borders with their attractive flowers that resemble fuzzy caterpillars or bottle brushes. Blue fescue (Festuca glauca) and blue oat grass (Helictotrichon) form tidy mounds of blue-gray foliage that maintain their color well into the winter months.
Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) are a sentimental favorite of mine, rekindling fond memories of the dunes of North Carolina, with clusters of dangling oats that appear in August. Tolerant of a wide range of soils in sun or partial shade, this 3- to 5-foot tall clumping grass seeds about and might be considered by some to be a nuisance but I transplant or weed out the excess while cutting dozens of stems that provide attractive, golden-colored oats for a long-lasting dried display.
In the shady border, Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) has donned its fawn-tinted autumn garb but continues to sway in the breeze like the undulating waves of the sea, a constant source of motion, texture and winter interest when the ground is free of snow. The family of sedges (Carex) includes many evergreen cultivars including the gold and green striped "Evergold," delicate green-and-white striped "Snowline" and "Silver Scepter," and a sturdy variegated ground cover "Ice Dance."
In open winters some of the foliage may turn brown, but plants can be given a haircut in spring, quickly filling out with new growth and resuming their handsome appearance.
As I raked a final load of leaves and debris from the garden, several clumps of Johnny-jump-ups were uncovered revealing dozens of little purple and yellow faces that seemed to be smiling brightly up at the fading sunlight. I smiled back knowing that I would see their faces again when warmth and sunshine return next spring.
Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.