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Fall 2020: Mother Nature's Art Festival


We have moved into December and it finally feels like it. I really loved the fall we just experienced. Any gardener would. Coming from a nursery and landscaper viewpoint we couldn’t have written a better script. With the relatively warm and dry conditions that we had in October and November, we were able to pull off some outstanding crops of fall blooming plants in our greenhouses. The gardeners who came in to Mississippi‘s garden centers had great selections and great weather to get the plants started in. With the warm temperatures, the fall bloomers had plenty time to get the roots established before our colder temperatures arrived this week. Getting the roots established is the key to having healthy plants all winter and I think it helps the plants hang in there longer when the spring warm-up begins in April.

Another great thing that came along with the perfect weather is that gardening never had to slow down. Our landscape crews never missed a day this fall due to weather. People had our crews adding lots of beds to their yards. We built vegetable gardens, swimming pools, outdoor kitchens and other projects that reflect people are ready to stay home and enjoy their outdoor living spaces. Maybe that is one of the good things that have came from the pandemic that is showing no signs of relenting anytime soon. Our yards are the one place that we can be with no stress or fear or rules dealing with this mess.

These past couple weeks have been so colorful and beautiful with fall colors. I don’t remember a more showy fall than this one. I’m taking notes of my best fall color plants so I can add more to my world. We had the perfect recipe for great fall color this year. In August, the days were sunny and the nights were steadily cooling. This allows for trees to manufacture sugars, and sugars stimulate the leaves to make anthocyanins, which are the red pigments that make red maples, dogwoods and oaks so breathtaking. The trees that turn red produce this red pigment that is key in readying the tree for next spring. The red pigment acts as a sunscreen, protecting the leaves from bright seasonal light when it gets cold outside. The yellows and oranges that are dominant colors in tulip poplars, green ash, beech, some maples and oaks are from compounds called carotenoids, just like in the color of carrots. The yellow and orange compounds are there year round but are dominated by and covered up by the green chlorophyll associated with photosynthesis. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures cool, chlorophyll degrades and goes from green to colorless, allowing the oranges and yellows to show up. All of this comes from the signal when the days get shorter and there’s less sunlight. The tree knows it would use up too much energy trying to make chlorophyll without the help of abundant sunshine, so it gives up, drops its leaves and seals the spots on the branches where the leaves had been attached.

I believe that August is the month to watch if you want to know if we will have a good fall color year. Too many clouds, too much rain, or too much heat in the eighth month can make for a more dull fall. Drought is the other enemy of a good fall. The trees have to be in a healthy state, not water stressed. We had the perfect setup this year heading into the fall season. Driving down Mississippi’s highways gives us a chance to see native plants showing these colors, as well. Chinese tallow, wild pears, sumac, sycamores, wild persimmons, sweetgums and otherwise hidden dogwoods and even poison ivy are having their moment this year. As Max and I are delivering Christmas trees to every neighborhood in the area we are getting to see the ornamental trees having a banner year for color. The Bloodgood Maples are crimson red, and the Coral Bark Maples are bright yellow. The Japanese Persimmons are fire orange. Boston Ivy is spectacular, and Chinese Pistache, Drake Elms and even Bradford Pears and Crape Myrtles are having their moments. Hydrangeas and Forsythia leaves are having a little party before they drop their leaves to take a rest. I never realize how many Ginkgo trees there are in Mississippi until fall when they look as if a bright light is shining on them. They are absolutely stunning this year.

Another great thing happening this fall is that the blooming of the Camellia Sasanquas is as heavy as it can be. I am seeing tree form Sasanquas dripping with color and hanging heavy with blooms. The dwarf version of Sasanqua, the Shi-Shi, are blooming so heavily that I can barely see any green on the plants. The Pyracanthas and the Hollies are berrying so heavily they can barely hold up their branches. I think the berries will last well past Christmas, giving plenty opportunity for some great holiday arrangements. The native possumhaws, that can be seen in the wild, usually on fence rows and edges of woods, will be striking this year. A friend of mine has deducted that the heavy blooms and berries this year are a result of last year‘s 17° snap that we had in November. The snap wasn’t good for last year‘s blooms but caused more buds to form for this year‘s camellia bloom to be so heavy. The time to prune the fall bloomers is after the last bloom has fallen off. They can be shaped up during the year but I have found that the end of July should be the last time to prune a Sasanqua or you will risk fewer buds in the winter.

All of this demonstrates how important it is to keep the health of the plants in mind the minute spring arrives. Slow release fertilizers, well drained soil, and proper pruning are the basic ways to help plants achieve maximum health. After this biology lesson, you can see how the things we do or don’t do in our yards, months in advance, have an effect on what we get back from our plants. It takes regularity and lots of notetaking, advice from your favorite garden center, and getting down and dirty to have the plants ready for those years that Mother Nature decides to show us her best artwork.

I would suggest taking a ride through some neighborhoods so you can see some some of the plants that are giving the best fall color show so you can incorporate some of the plants that turn you on into your yard. This is a great time to plant shrubs and trees, while the nurseries are still stocked up and it’s fresh on your mind. Like anything in life, your health, relationships and finances require constant maintenance, and your garden world will pay off down the road if we pay attention to its maintenance. It’s a great time to focus on all of these things while our world is stuck on pause. When we get to our new normal, we may begin racing around again, without enough time to focus on these things that have turned out to be the most important in life, which need constant maintenance.

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