Life After Frost: Gardening Is Not Over

Frost was late this year. It was nearly mid-October before we had a hard frost, one that murdered the zinnias and blackened the basil. For me, hard frost is a day to mourn a little, to spend a few moments missing the summer that passed, for the tomatoes that brought me such great pleasure and the flowers that graced my table.


But autumn is grand, too. I still have plenty of garden veggies to harvest and process, and those fall days full of sun and a few monarchs are full of surprises and delights.


Common witch hazel

I’m always delighted by plants that bloom now –especially woody plants. I have two witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) that bloom subtly each fall. The blossoms are not obvious because they are small, yellow, and their leaves are yellow (and green) and have not yet fallen. But those curly blossoms will persist even after the leaves have dropped. Witch hazel is a native tree that lives in shade or part shade. It’s a small tree or a shrub, depending on the variety. It blooms either now, or in very early spring.


Another interesting shrub in bloom now is disanthus (Disanthus cercidifolius). Although most books describe the flowers as “insignificant”, I disagree. They are small – just half in inch across, and close to the stem – but they are in pairs, back to back, each like a small purple starfish. I‘ve had my disanthus for 4 years, and this is the first time it has bloomed, or at least the first time I have seen it bloom. So I yelped with excitement when I first saw the blossoms.


Disanthus flower

The best thing about disanthus is the leaf color. The leaves are deep red and purple, and have been so for many weeks. The color is better than that of the now prohibited invasive, burning bush (Euonymus alatus). But unlike burning bush, disanthus doesn’t litter the countryside with babies like a stray, unspayed dog. It stays in one place, and grows slowly to a 6 to 10 foot height and width.


In the flower garden my fall asters are about done, but I still have one Rudbekia or black-eyed Susan looking great. It is Rudbeckia subtomentosa, a variety called ‘Henry Eiler’. It’s taller than I am. Its petals are very delicate and are spaced apart in an airy fashion. The stems of this plant are quite thick, but not thick enough to stand up to fall winds without staking.


Grasses are nice now, too. They generally bloom in fall, producing subtle green flowers that most people don’t recognize as flowers. My favorite grass is a Chinese feather grass (Miscanthus sinensis), a variety called ‘Morning Light’. The leaves have a central white stripe and each stem stands up 4 to 6 feet, or even more. This grass will look good all winter waving above the snow.


Each stem of feather grass has 20 or so thin strands of flowers that will produce seeds. This plant does not reproduce from seed, however. The clump gets bigger each year, and can be divided to create more plants. I’ve read that the time to divide it is in the spring, not now.


The milkweed plants I started from seed this year stayed small and did not flower. But I will harvest some seeds elsewhere and plant some more. The seeds need a cold period before they will germinate, so planting outside now makes sense. Last spring I planted seeds in flats indoors, then put them in the fridge for 6 weeks before they would grow. The red milkweed I planted the year before did great this year, blooming and attracting pollinators. I will plant some of their seeds when I see the pods are ripe and ready to burst open.


Henry Eiler Rudbeckia

I’ve cut down some of my perennials, and pretty much all are ready for the knife or shears. I’ll leave things with stiff stems and interesting seed pods for winter viewing and as food for the birds. But the more I can do now, the better. One landscaper told me she figured that every hour of fall clean up reduces spring work by three hours.


One of my last tasks each year is to run over the lawn with my lawnmower, chopping leaves into perfect mulch. I rake it onto a tarp and pull the tarp to my vegetable garden where I spread the leaves over the by-then weeded beds. It keeps weed seeds from germinating in the spring, and adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down and is eaten by earthworms.


My gardening friend and fellow garden-book writer Sydney Eddison of Connecticut always saves her chopped fall leaves in contractor bags and uses them in the spring on her flowers. I have filled up 6 huge plastic bags with grass clippings and leaves another friend gave me, and have stored them in the barn for use in the spring. Sydney Eddison has the best soil I’ve ever seen after mulching with chopped leaves for 40 years or so.


Don’t forget to plant your spring bulbs now, too. You can plant into November, but it will be cold by then, so get going!


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Books by Sydney Eddison

Photos: K Day Designs


Sydney & Phoebe

I’m a fairly simple person. I like dogs and flowers and good food. Having friends is important. I like to grow vegetables from seed, and I revere trees that have survived longer than I have. And when it comes to poetry, I like it simple and direct, poetry that evokes images of nature and emotions I can understand. So it was a great pleasure when my friend the garden writer Sydney Eddison sent me her new book of poetry, Fragments of Time: Poems of gratitude for everyday miracles (Pomperaug Valley Press, 2016).


Fragments of Time is a lovely book of poems, many that focus on Ms. Eddison’s gardens and her love for the outdoors. But a few are love poems about her late husband, one is a sad reminder of the Newtown School shooting which occurred in her town. Others are happy memories of children, dogs, squirrels and seasons changing. These are poems I have enjoyed reading out loud to loved ones.


You might relate to this fragment of a poem:

Dandelions, bold and unapologetic,

     seize empty spaces between perennials                                                  

     and drive down taproots.                                                   

The lines are drawn.                                                                                    

Let the battle begin!


I know Sydney Eddison best as a gardener and garden writer. I first visited her in 2000 after I read her book, The Self-Taught Gardener: Lessons from a Country Garden (Viking/Penguin, 1997) and knew she was someone I wanted to meet. The book taught me much – even though I was at the time already writing a gardening column and considered myself a fairly accomplished gardener.


Thumbing through it now, I see I can learn from it even now – and should re-read it. For example, she points out that most silver-leafed plants do best in dry soil. I never thought of it that way.


Eddison garden.

When I first visited Sydney in her garden in Connecticut it was in the middle of a ferocious drought. There was a ban on watering plants and washing cars, and had been for six weeks. Yet the soil in her flower beds was fluffy and lightly moist. Oaks in the woods were showing signs of stress, but her gardens were not. Had she been cheating, I asked?


“Not a bit,” she replied. She explained that for decades her husband, Martin, had been chopping up fall leaves with the lawn mower and storing them in the barn in bags until spring when she used them as mulch. The 3-inch layer held in moisture and protected the soil from the summer sun. Earthworms love them, too, she said. Like all her advice, this was given out in the spirit of a friendly auntie who wanted the best for you. I’ve been mulching with chopped leaves ever since.


Her book The Gardener’s Palette (Contemporary Books, 2003) taught me the basics of color theory. Among other things, it explains the importance of the color wheel and understanding the principles of contrast and harmony. It has color photos on nearly every page to illustrate her points. I agree with her final synopsis:


“With nature providing an abundance of soft, neutral tones and peace-keeping green leaves, no gardener with keen eyes can go that far wrong. And at the risk of oversimplifying a complex subject, I still maintain that color for gardeners isn’t so complicated after all.”


Then in 2005 Sydney came out with Gardens to Go: Creating and Designing a Container Garden (Bulfinch Press, 2005). As she explained in the beginning, “In terms of design, a container garden should have boundaries, bone structure, and geometry, just like any other garden.” She added, “As you will soon see, a container garden is the real thing, a living three-dimensional picture, rich in plant material every bit as exciting as an in-the-ground garden.”


Cover Fragments of Time

Sydney’s most recent gardening book, Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (Viking Press, 2010) is, perhaps, her final gardening book. Written as she approached the age of 80, she recognized that she was no longer strong as on ox and able to wrestle boulders out of the ground. That a paid helper in the garden is good, if you can afford one; that it is all right to accept imperfections and to use lower-maintenance plants – even if it means giving up some old favorites.


I feel honored that I have been included in Sydney Eddison’s group of gardening friends. Her books, some of which are (or should be) in your library, are all worth reading. What a delight to see a friend develop a new skill, publishing poetry now, in her ninth decade of living joyfully on this earth – with fabulous gardens and always with a Jack Russell terrier at her side – or zooming ahead.


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