The Sounds of Autumn

It’s beginning to look a lot like fall….

I am not sure why, but this year, in addition to noticing the lovely fall colors, I am hearing the changing of the seasons as well in a way that I have never noticed quite so much before.

I always associate summer with the dog day cicadas and the songs of the katydids. But I have never quite noticed how vocal the crickets become in the fall. In late afternoon and early evening, their song is so vocal that it rivals the early spring peepers. It’s really something!

And there is the change in the birdsong as well. Spring of course brings the cacophony of bird song as every bird tries to outdo all the others for mates and territory.

In fall, it’s a different thing. For one thing, there are fewer birds and different birds. I no longer hear the robins and wrens calling and singing–but the blue jays are outdoing them with their strident calls.

The chickadees–one of the first birds to start singing in the spring–are singing again now, but it’s different now. I can’t tell you how. Perhaps it just sounds different because it’s now blended with the nuthatches and the titmice.

And while the red-bellied woodpecker is still scolding me every time I walk too close with the dog, now I see the downy and hairy woodpeckers back from their summer sojourn up north (or up higher in the leafy canopy out of my eyesight!)

And finally, there’s the sharp “crack” when the acorns clatter off the oak trees hit the hard driveway, roof or something else solid.

There is a beauty to every season–we just need to slow down a bit to appreciate it!

Thinking About Shade…

My very shady backyard in early spring

Because I have been thinking so much about trees, I have also been thinking about shade. So many of us garden under trees here in New England, so we are very familiar with shade gardening. In fact, I remember distinctly a couple of decades back now (although it seems like almost yesterday) when my Mom bought a house, she asked for me to help with the landscaping.

Well, she was blessed with full sun. And I had been gardening in shade for almost a decade by that point. I had to completely reverse my thinking to pick out trees, shrubs and perennials for her. In addition, she was at the beach and had very sandy soil–not my heavy clay. It was really a total switch for me. Luckily we found some good garden centers where we could choose some plants.

But it always shocks me when I start thinking about shade–and how I might describe shade, for example–for a lecture I am giving. You come across the descriptions of “part-shade” as 4 hours of sun. That’s totally shocking to me because there are areas which get 4 hours of sun in my yard and I call that “full sun!”

For the record, “full sun,” is described as at least 6 hours of continuous sun. There are very few places in my yard that I have that–in fact, I think the only place that I do have 6 hours of sun is around my mailbox where I grow my roses.

Crotons–which normally love the sun–sit here in an east exposure

But shade has its own advantages. The houseplants–even those that normally sit in my south windows all winter–prefer a partially shaded site once they’re outside and getting the benefit of true sunlight. And those that like less light prefer it under the shade of my dogwood, which actually throws quite a bit of shade, but still permits some early morning sunlight to get to the plants (before they roast on these midsummer days!)

Houseplants under the dogwood where a shaft of morning sun is just starting to break through to them

True shade houseplants actually sit on my front stoop where the shade from the house protects them. Shade from a building is of course total shade–all light is blocked. Some ambient light filters to them from the front, but nothing gets to them from the rear–and they are completely happy and growing like that.

Houseplants–and ferns–in the protected shade of the front porch

So all shade is not created equal–it helps to remember that whether you are gardening in containers or in the ground!

Lately I Have Been Thinking About Trees

Bucolic image–with a few dead trees

This lovely image, above, is from the office park where I see my retina specialist. But really, it could be just about anywhere in Connecticut. We are a heavily forested state.

I am sure that that comes as a shock to many of you reading this. For those of you who know your geography, you know that Connecticut is a relatively small state–the third smallest in fact–and that it is located along the east coast roughly equidistant between New York and Boston.

So to hear that it is heavily forested must come as a shock. How is this possible?

Of course this wasn’t always the case.

When Dutch and other European settlers arrived, the land was already being farmed by our indigenous peoples. The European settlers further cleared the existing forests and piled up the rocks that they found in our soil to form the stone walls that still exist today. Hiking trails in our woods occasionally follow the stone walls of the old farmsteads. Our local roads will also wind along these beautifully constructed walls that have stood for hundreds of years.

But as we abandoned agriculture for manufacturing, the forests began to regrow. It is estimated that Connecticut has 80% more trees now than it did when it was settled in the 1600s.

Dying spruce

So just about everywhere you look, you will see trees, and mature trees as well. But lately, within the mature trees, I am seeing a disturbing number of dead trees–not dying trees, but dead ones. What has happened? Several things, unfortunately.

Dead trees at the edge of a small woodland

We have had several summers of drought–and this summer is turning into another of those. We have had several winters of unusual weather, with periods of warmth followed by abrupt cold and no insulating snow on the ground. Woody plants and larger plants like trees struggle with these sorts of changes. They might be able to endure a year or two of this, but they cannot endure it forever. The stress takes a toll on them and they die.

It’s always upsetting to lose a tree. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be something to get used to.

Make Your Summer Exotic

Variegated lemon tree–with lemons

I am famous for saying that Connecticut doesn’t have seasons–just Winter and July. So needless to say, when “July” arrives–or whatever passes for warm weather here–I am very anxious to make the most of it! I suspect that’s why I grow all manner of tropical plants that really have no business growing here in Connecticut.

Of course, I grow lemons so that when winter really gets bad (as in this past winter, which was so icy that I had to park at a neighbor’s at the bottom of the hill and hike up my lawn!) I can say that I will just make lemonade!

Olive tree

And something else that I grow, which is a very fun and undemanding plant is a little olive tree. I am probably stunting its growth horribly by keeping it in this tiny pot, but as you can see, it even fruited for me last year!

Here’s a great infographic all about olive trees if you would like to know more from the folks at Trees.com

Croton

I also love these croton plants–nothing exotic for most people, but here in the frozen north, their color is like a tropical party, especially when they are inside in the winter and the snow is falling behind them outside!

Flowering maple (and croton)

Even this flowering maple (abutilon) which I over-wintered for the first time last winter is really colorful with its drooping yellow bells. A warning to those of you who don’t like “messy” plants, however–this one drops leaves and flowers quite a bit. Some people don’t want to put up with that!

So these are just a few common–but “fun”–choices to liven up your summer. Try one–or all of them!

Let’s Get Tropical!

Herbs and evergreens

According to our meteorologists, it’s going to be in the 70s or perhaps even 80 this week here in the frozen north! That’s the point where I start thinking “tropical plants,” and what will I grow outside this year and “can I really bring my house plants (aka tropical plants) outside for the season?

Those are really a bunch of different questions of course, with several different answers. So let’s start with the most important one: what do tropical plants need to live outdoors in a climate where they might not normally do so (in other words, when is it safe to bring your house plants–or plants you purchase from a greenhouse–outside) and how do you do it?

Generally what you want to keep your eye on are the night-time temperatures. The lowest night-time temperature that a tropical plant will generally tolerate for any period of time is 50 degrees. Yes, certain plants–some annuals, for example, and citrus, and some plants that might be grown as outdoor trees or shrubs in other parts of the world (bay, rosemary, and olive are some that I have that come to mind immediately) can tolerate temperatures lower than 50)–but as a general rule, I try to keep to the 50 degree temperature rule so that everything pretty easy to remember.

Next, you will need to transition whatever plants you are bringing out from the inside to the outside. If you are familiar with hardening off seedlings, think of it like that. Or, as I tell the Spoiler, we certainly cannot go stand in the sun, after a winter indoors, all day without any sunscreen and just think that everything is going to be fine. Why do you think I can just plunk the plants outside in the sun like that?

An easy way to transition the plants is to set them outside in the shade of a large tree, if you are lucky enough to have one. I generally set all the house plants out under trees for a couple of days, and then gradually move them into the sun (for those that like sun).

Those that like shade, I generally leave under the shade of a large dogwood. That works pretty well. They might get a little early morning sun, but generally the tree provides dappled shade all day for them.

Honestly, it’s harder for me to find sunny spots for the plants than shady spots–but even outdoor shade is brighter than indoor light for the plants so I don’t feel too sad for them coming outside.

And for those of you that say “aren’t you worried about bringing in bugs when you bring the plants back in?” let me ask you about your homes. I am not sure about you, but I always have spiders and a few creepy crawlies around inside–so no, I am not worried about bringing bugs inside! The bugs are already inside! I just give the plants a nice wash off with a hose and that’s that!

On Friday I will talk more about specific tropical plants.

Little Mouse’s Ears

Oak leaves and flowers

What are you looking at? (And why do I keep having to ask that question at the beginning of my posts? It’s unnerving, even to me!)

This is an oak tree twig, with some tiny leaves and even some flowers, if you know what they look like. They’re not even showy–they’re like birch flowers–long strings of unremarkable chartreuse florets. And like birch flowers, they put out a remarkable amount of pollen too. So if you are sneezing, there’s probably a birch or oak tree nearby.

Every year I do a post like this because while Professor Doug Tallamy loves oaks because they feed so many pollinators, I love oaks because they herald the last frost. Once the oak leaves are the size of “little mouse’s ears” (and you can see that these leaves are significantly larger than that!), you have had your last frost!

I am not quite sure when I first heard this old-time farmer’s saying but it’s been decades now since I have been paying attention to it and the oak leaf saying has never failed me.

Now, am I going to go out and plant tomatoes and basil because the oaks have leafed out? Of course not! But when the TV forecasters are saying “cover your plants, there might be a frost tonight, ” I just look to the oaks. If they have leafed out, I don’t worry about a thing. I know that whatever is out there isn’t going to be harmed by frost because at least at my house there won’t be any frost.

The wonderful thing about these so-called farmer’s sayings is that they were developed for a reason. Long before we had “science” to tell us when to plant, we had to look to signs in nature. And in a sense, we are still doing that–it’s called phenology, which is the study of seasonal natural phenomena.

You may have heard of it a lot more in relation to climate studies–they are studying when trees are leafing out–if they are leafing out earlier, whether pollen and allergy seasons are lasting longer, how migration is being affected–things like that.

But before we had to worry so much, well, we still had to worry, because our forebears still didn’t want to plant too early and lose their precious crops. And that’s how the “oak leaves the size of little mouse’s ears” sayings–and others like them–came about.

So if you are in a cooler climate like mine, find an oak near your property to monitor and you’ll never wonder about your last frost date again. You’ll always know for sure by the timing of that oak’s leaves. Try it for yourself!

Springing Ahead

Glory of the snow–chionodoxa bulbs

Spring in Connecticut is always a “one step forward, two steps back,” sort of thing. This week we have actually had a few days of sustained warmth, which has been lovely.

Snow fountain cherry tree

It’s allowed some of the early spring flowering trees to bloom. For those of you that think late April is a strange time for “early” spring bloom, we have very strange springs here in Connecticut. While autumn has become an extended period of warmth, spring has not changed accordingly. Instead, it is an extended period of cool weather, sometimes dry, sometimes wet, sometimes snowy even. It’s not a very pleasant season at all.

Pieris Andromeda–blooming since mid-March

But one thing that the extended cool weather does permit is an extended bloom time as well. Bulbs that might bloom for days in warmer temperatures are lasting for weeks.

Forsythia

Flowering trees and shrubs–even that old stalwart, forsythia–also bloom for close to a month!

And the less frequently seen forsythia border

So while we may shiver for a longer period of time up here in the frozen north, we also get to experience our early blooming trees and shrubs for quite a long time.

Since I hate the cold, I am not sure the tradeoff is worth it. But then again, since I am always so grateful to see the first flowers and color, perhaps it is.

Expect the Unexpected

Shattered tree and part of the clean-up

You might have heard that the northeast had some strong winds recently. This really isn’t unusual for us. We regularly get strong winds above 50 mph in the spring and the fall as fronts come through.

And unfortunately, because we are a heavily treed state, with large, mature evergreens, someone, somewhere will lose a tree–or two. You can see my neighbor’s woodpile in the photo behind what is soon to be more timber. He stacks his logs in between our upright pine trees.

As the above photo shows, one of our pines took a hit in these most recent winds. The top half came off, flew across the yard and landed on the roof with a thud so loud it woke me from a sound sleep (not an easy thing to do!) and shook the whole house.

Siding ripped off down to the insulation

Once it bounced off the roof, it slid down the side of the house, taking off the siding.

The end where it was attached to the tree

This is the “small” end of the tree. The larger part is in the top photo. I missed the “good part” yesterday where the branches were up to the second story windows.

And one of the sad things is that it shattered a lovely granite bench into several pieces, beyond repair.

But here I am, telling you all about it–so there’s nothing truly sad about this at all really. Because this could have been so much worse!