Down to earth – garden on …

… with colorful shrubs for fall. Originally published in East Bay Life, October 31, 2012.

It breaks my heart to dismantle any part of the garden that’s still being used by pollinators and visited by birds but a few days ago I realized I had to cut some stuff down after all just to get a better view of other stuff I planted especially for fall color. And to tell the truth, even though there have still been a few monarchs bopping around, I’m relieved to see the Verbena bonariensis go, and the goldfinch will just have to make due with fewer black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) seedheads to snack on because I had way too many.

Besides, they stole my focus from a pretty black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa). It only has a few bright-red eye-candy leaves left but plenty of shiny black berries dangling like temptation. The birds will eat them only after they’ve gobbled up everything tastier, which means I should get to enjoy them for a couple more months at least. It’s a pretty great native shrub (happy to grow a gangly 3-6’ tall in full sun to partial shade, and dry or boggy soil) and as far as I can tell from my walks around town in spring when its rose-y white flowers are out, and now when it’s bedecked in fruit, it’s an underused one. Don’t let the common name put you off. It’s only called chokeberry because they’re tart, not because they cause asphyxiation. As a matter of fact, they’re a healthy snack, high in anti-oxidants and supposedly super tasty baked in muffins or pie or processed, with plenty of sugar no doubt, into jam.

I might have to add moving my Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’) to my spring to-do list because I didn’t realize that, in my garden, it might actually stay the 2’ dwarf it’s meant to be. (Everything grows bigger and better at Blithewold. I try not to take it personally.) If Little Henry wasn’t crammed behind a still-blooming dahlia and the 3’ tall beebalm that I planted more for its winter-interesting seedheads than its summer flowers, I would be held in thrall by its translucent red autumn blaze backlit by a slanted sun right this minute. Come to think of it, I don’t remember having a very good view of its drooping flower sausages in early summer either. And it’s another terrific native shrub that should be at least as common in foundation plantings as that ubiquitous invasive thug, burning bush (Euonymus alatus), but isn’t. The cultivar ‘Henry’s Garnet’ grows a little taller and its fall color is just as dazzling as the gem it’s named for. Give either full sun to partial shade and moist soil if you have it, and transplant some of their tightly colonizing suckers whenever you have another fall-color hole to fill.

I already moved my Fothergilla gardenii ‘Blue Mist’ where I can see it color up from this very chair but I also planted a huge view-obliterating four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) right next to it for the hummingbirds. Although my fingers are crossed for one more hummer to stop through, I’m also secretly hoping that we get another frost soon that will spur me into digging the four o’clock up for winter storage and cause the fothergilla to begin its shift to yellow-orange-red from its summer color of foggy-blue-teal-green. I wonder why I don’t see more of this little shrub around too. It flowers best (little greenish-while bottle brushes before the leaves come out in spring) in full sun but doesn’t mind a little shade and average, everyday soil.

It’s hard enough for me to let go of the garden at the end of the season that I’ve decided just this minute to plant (next spring) a few more fall colorful shrubs at regular intervals throughout. I’ll need a Chinese indigo (Indigofera kirilowii), which turns bright orange yellow. And Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Little Honey’, which starts the summer in a yellow blaze and ends it purple-red. Because tidying and opening the views to plants like these might just help me keep the garden from looking like I let it go.

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