November is the ultimate transition month in temperate Mid-Atlantic gardens. Though it often starts gently, with the slight bite and color of October, by the end of the month we remember what we had forgotten during the growing season – quiet, naked woodlands; spicy, earthy scents, cold – not cool – mornings, and the landscape gently covered with white frost.
I have spent the first part of November at a bulb planting symposium at Great Dixter in the UK, off-grid and off my head with the excitement of getting back home and approaching the two crates of bulbs that need planting with more consideration than I have done in the past.
(For those who are unfamiliar with the garden of writer Christopher Lloyd, I urge you to dig into his writing and enjoy the humor, the occasional bite, and of course the incomparable insights into horticulture he gave us during his lifetime.)
Bulbs should be thought of as another layer in the garden, rather than as a spring Shock&Awe rush — and the symposium, under the instruction of head gardener Fergus Garrett, helped attendees to understand the many elements that need to be considered in order to do this successfully. It’s not about timing and color as much as it is about naturalistic spacing and sympathetic planting, where bulbs play throughout beds and borders without smothering or otherwise negatively impacting the permanent planting.
If you are intrigued (and I hope you are), you can find several of Fergus’ Zoom lectures to rent at the Great Dixter website. Packed with slides, instruction and important information, they’ll help you get well started – especially if you still have bulbs to plant, which almost everyone does.
I can’t wait to lay out one or two new schemes, but this will have to wait one more short week as I am delighted to say that I have been shortlisted for the British Garden Media Guild’s Garden Writer of the Year award for my In Defense of Gardening column with the American Horticultural Society, and will be attending an exciting luncheon at the Savoy Hotel in London on Friday the 17th. I am so looking forward to meeting fellow members in person, as COVID put a damper on the festivities when Tropical Plants and How to Love Them was shortlisted in 2021.
Back On Track
Luckily, before I left I took care of the tropical migration into storage. I like to push my ‘Best Friend Plants’ (the tenders that go into dark, frost-free storage) until after they have been well frosted but not frozen. I do this even for those that I have decided not to keep.
This is not to create more work for myself, but to allow the temperate garden to continue shining. Unlike many temperate plants, the rapid response of tropicals and subtropicals to freezing temperatures is not a pretty one, nor particularly valuable to wildlife. As these tropical textures are usually quite large in leaf, they can also overshadow all the wonderful things going on in the temperate garden in late fall.
Even if you have decided that it’s the last year with your banana, or that you don’t need the 126 cannas that have reproduced themselves over the summer months, I recommend removing those plants from beds and borders and filling the compost pile. Make it easier still and cut them at the base, leaving the roots, rhizomes or tubers for the soil. In the spring, mushy, slimy, cold and wet foliage will only annoy you as you struggle to deposit it in the same place. Better to do that now.
There are many bright sparks to November, starting with Fuji and Pink Lady apples and ending with the promise of the Advent season. Wrap up warm and don’t let a bit of cold stop the good outside habits you’ve built up over a long summer and fall.
“I should have planted that!” for the November garden
Disappointed with your fall garden? Carefully observing neighboring gardens right now allows you to successfully increase your display without having to experiment too much with regional timing. Make a note of the plants you love and keep it with you when you go plant shopping during the next planting season. Maybe even right now.
For this November, how about considering….
Hydrangea quercifolia (oak leaved hydrangea) USDA Z5-9 – Many hydrangeas have good autumn foliage, but when it comes to Hydrangea quercifolia, the oak leaved hydrangea, there is no comparison. The oak-like leaves of this native shrub are absolutely saturated with color from October almost through to Thanksgiving in the Mid-Atlantic, and depending on the cultivar you choose, you can have a stately (8ft +) shrub or a nice mid-sized accent in the border. Between the arching candelabras of developing foliage in the spring, the conical panicles of blossom in summer, the outrageous, saturated foliage in autumn, and the cinnamon-colored peeling bark in winter, it provides something special during all four seasons.
First things first. H. quercifolia blooms on old wood, but it is remarkably hardy to Z5. So if you have a hard winter within those zones you are unlikely to lose spring/summer bloom. The foliage is so good that even if you square up with your too-tall hydrangea in spring and decide its got to be knocked down a few pegs (to the cost of summer blooms), you won’t be devastated. Best time to prune is directly after flowering – but it is tough to make that cut as those large panicles persist into autumn and are hard to cut back. Cut them for the house and call it a win-win.
In the early to mid-spring, the tiny tufts of bright green foliage frosted with white hairs that emerge on terminal shoots give this plant the look of a candelabra rising above all those wonderful emerging herbaceous plants and bulbs.
How to grow Hydrangea quercifolia
I find it best to give this shrub a partial shade location, to conserve moisture in the soil and allow a good amount of morning sunlight for a good bloom. Though it can exist in shade, it becomes spindly, rapidly, and blossom is poor. Slightly acid soils are preferred, but as long as the pH isn’t too high, H. quercifolia will do just fine. White blossoms are unaffected by pH, unlike H. macrophylla or H. serrata. I have also seen it doing very well in much more sun, though the chartreuse ‘Little Honey’ will burn if in direct hot sun in hotter climates.
Moisture makes this plant very happy. Not wet, not dry. You know what I’m talking about. The kind of soil a lot of shade-lovers love.
Thankfully, it is extremely easy to find H. quercifolia – perhaps even more so due to its native plant status. Most reputable nurseries carry them, and old favorites can be struck from softwood nodal tip cuttings taken in the spring or hardwood cuttings in early fall. I’ve had successes and I’ve had failures – the latter mostly with the ones I really really wanted, like the gorgeous double ‘Snowflake’ . H. quercifolia is a little more particular in its propagation.
My favorites: ‘Ruby Slippers’, ‘Little Honey’, and ‘Snowflake’. The straight species can get very tall, so give it the space it needs and you won’t have to get nasty with it.
Outside Tasks for The Garden in November:
♦ This is a great month for incorporating aged manure into your soil for extra organic content and some nutritive value, or simply top dressing beds with compost.
♦ It’s still a good month to keep planting container shrubs and trees – although camellias, magnolias and other zone marginals are best planted in the spring and buried in their pots in a large compost pile or mulch pile for protection (see below).
♦ Organize the containerized plants that haven’t been planted yet, and that will possibly ride out the winter in plastic pots. Make sure that everything there is at least a zone hardier than your zone or you will probably lose it (see below). I find one of the easiest ways to organize my pots is to keep them on wooden pallets. It keeps them in one place; it keeps them slightly off the ground to prevent drainage holes being blocked up by leaves and debris; and it is ‘collapsible’ — meaning I can stack pallets on top of each other as the collection dwindles (then spread them out again when the spring sales begin!).
♦ Re: the zone-marginal plants in that collection. Put them into a cold frame or dig temporary holes for them to inhabit over the winter. If you have an idea of where they will go, dig a hole and plunge pot and all into it with some insulating mulch. Yes, I know…why not just put the plant into the ground? The aim is to not disturb the roots right now in order to give the plant the best chance of survival over the winter. The quickest way to make a cold frame is to use four bales of straw as walls and cover with an old window or glass door. (Venting the frame on hot days is imperative!) Covering them in a blanket of thick mulch also works well.
♦Dig up the last of your canna, colocasia, dahlia, gladioli etc… and store appropriately. Or cut the foliage off at soil level for those you don’t want and compost it.
♦ November is usually the month you can find half-price fall bulbs for sale, and if you are not too picky, plant them. Even if you are picky, buy tulip and hyacinth bulbs right now in order to store in your garage and force indoors in February next year. One of the loveliest gifts you can give a friend in late winter is a glass with pebbles and a couple bulbs.
♦ Fertilize older areas of spring bulbs now with a top dressing of compost or well-rotted manure.
♦ Make sure those spigots are turned off.
🍃Opinion columnist @ahs_gardening 🍃Contributing editor @gardenrant 🍃Advocate for Curiosity, Courage and Joy in garden building. Virginia, USA, Z6b.
Inside Tasks for the November Garden:
Start as you mean to go on with your indoor plants. They should be inside by now, and if you just threw them inside, it’s time to sort them out properly:
♦ Make sure there is a water-proof saucer under each pot. Water-PROOF. Terracotta saucers don’t count (as my floor will tell you). Ceramic-glazed saucers don’t count (as my floor will also tell you). What you need are the plastic, overpriced, flimsy-but-useful, saucers. Another option is to hunt through the local thrift stores and find large round platters or old plates which are usually better quality than a ceramic pot saucer and will last much longer than the plastic ones. Seriously, don’t skip this step – it’s expensive to fix ruined floors and furniture.
♦ Make sure you have some water soluble fertilizer under the sink with a convenient watering can nearby in order to easily take care of plants that need it over the next few months. Most plants that went outdoors during the summer months and were fertilized through the season will not need feeding, but if you’re seeing chlorosis, or keep plants indoors all year, you may need to feed them occasionally.
♦ Organize the area in the garage or basement where you threw the dormant canna, musa, colocasia, etc… The “rougher” and less-organized this area looks, the more it resembles a trash-heap and the less you are likely to look after it.
♦ Buy amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs for winter forcing.
♦ Buy tulip and hyacinth bulbs for February forcing. Make sure you give them at least 10 weeks in a cold garage or basement first.
No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
– Thomas Hood