Sep 26, 2019
by Roger Raiche David McCrory, Planet Horticulture
Fall Ahead. We, humans, love to draw clear delineations between almost everything, and the seasons are no exceptions. However, in our area, our seasons are more subtle with shifting elements gradually accumulating into what we think of a Fall. The daytime temps will be getting colder, with the nights much more so; the rain may appear at any moment, and plants and gardens seem ready to shed the burden of summer.
Anyone traveling down our backroads experiences drifts of leaves flying hither and yon, tints of red and yellow in the trees and underbrush, and that exhausted look of once golden grasses giving their last gasp in beige.
Gardens. We may feel this exhaustion too in our gardens, or how they look. But that is not all bad, it’s time to slow down. Don’t rush to cut everything down or heaped on the compost pile, allow some of the late fruits, seeds and such to feed the wildlife whose very lives depend on how they can stock up. Consider letting some of your fallen leaves remain on the ground to help develop the soil.
Fall flowers. Many late-flowering annuals and perennials will continue into the first frosts (if you are in a frosty area), or the days just get too short even in mild areas. Of course, you’ll see dozens of enticing varieties of chrysanthemum (“mums”) in every market until the New Year, but generally, these do not return well if put out into gardens, so consider them disposable color. An excellent perennial for dazzling late golden yellow is Helianthus angustifolius, narrow-leaf sunflower from the Eastern US that thrives here if given summer irrigation.
For those in mild areas with no or minimal frost, many of the salvias (giant sages) from Central America are unparalleled for fall/winter flowering – often becoming a crucial source of nectar for hummingbirds. Some of these can get huge but really are stupendous garden plants. A few names to ask for at your local nurseries would be Salvia mexicana, S. gesneriflora, S. ionantha, S. involucrata, and S. elegans.
Fall foliage. Perhaps the most widespread image of autumn is brightly colored foliage, which can be on perennials, shrubs, vines, and trees. If one wants to amplify the intensity of dazzling foliage color in the low light, it’s an excellent time to evaluate what your garden or landscape has, and how to make it better. It’s an excellent time to visit nurseries to see precisely what they have. Plants like maples can be very variable in their colors and intensity, so seeing them in color is the best way to know what you’re getting.
Natives. Some folks may enjoy taking an outing this month to see fall color in our mountains – the golds and orange of the aspens (Populus tremuloides), is a sight to behold. But even here we’ll have a few months of color. Deciduous shrubs and trees are especially common along streams and rivers and more abundant in cool N-facing slopes and canyons. Our preponderance of evergreen oaks, bay, Doug fir, and coast redwood, make those trees that color up even more dramatic, most being with leaves in variations of yellow. Bigleaf maple and Oregon ash are two common native trees that will be in peak soon, glowing vibrant yellow when hit by the sun.
Poison oak has a long drawn out season of colors, our best native scarlets as well as strawberry-pink and creamy yellows and peach tones. While it tends to be a dread, it is one of our most widespread plants, and you don’t have to touch it to appreciate the color on your drives, biking, or walking jaunts. It is also a critical plant for wildlife.
Timing is variable depending on when and how frequently cold nights occur, but perhaps the most massive fall color displays regionally are from our dominant type of agriculture. The vast, usually geometric swarths of wine grapes, often different varietals with different fall colors being in adjacent fields, each field in strips, giving an expansive patchwork quilt color effect, all exaggerated by sun and shadow. No one would deliberately create such a fall color effect, yet we get to enjoy it for free.
Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ is one of our favorite garden plants. A hybrid between California grape and European wine grape, this cultivar was discovered in Healdsburg in the 1980s by our very own Roger Raiche. This grape is a rapid grower that has excellent disease resistance. It produces prolific fruit, of modest size, that humans and wildlife enjoy. Roger named the plant because of its bold red color, different than the standard golden yellow fall color of grapes. This cultivar has proven hardy and versatile, growing horticulturally from San Diego to Del Norte – so you can grow it anywhere in Sonoma County.
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