viburnum nudans, autumn berriesNovember often starts with gentle frosts and easy, Instagrammable scenes, but by its end, winter is unofficially upon the Mid-Atlantic.

Lawns have taken on a muted, tawny shade and the deciduous trees will stand naked by December 1st. Hopefully you have planted some colorful stemmed shrubs and trees to make this transition exciting.  

Maintenance is definitely on the agenda, but Daylight Savings Time will negate any chance of knocking out a quick task or two before heading to work each morning. Weekends will be busy for the gardener.

However 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

Carefully observing neighboring gardens month-to-month allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season 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.

Pallida witch hazel hamamelis

A juvenile hamamelis ‘Pallida’ in winter

Instead of feeling down about the end of the growing season, how about celebrating it with small, shapely trees that hold onto their colorful leaves through much of November?  How about a witch hazel? (Hamamelis spp.)?

Witch hazels (USDA Zones 3-8) are traditionally thought of as winter trees due to their fascinating, often fragrant flowers blooming in the coldest months. In fact I’m sure I’ll highlight them in winter months to come. However, those who grow them know that their colorful amber foliage is one of the stars of the fall garden, and that it remains long after the leaves of forest giants like tulip tree, sycamore, maple and beech have fallen.

Furthermore, our native H. virginiana blooms in the fall, against those yellowing leaves, adding the bonus of a sweet fragrance. Another North American species H. vernalis blooms in the spring, with smaller flowers, but a powerful fragrance.

hamamelis witch hazel

A young ‘Rochester’ against the evergreen of Allegheny viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophylloides ‘Allegheny’.)

Some cultivars hold onto their leaves for a very long time (such as the H. x intermedia cultivar ‘Rochester’), which can compete with the eventual winter blossoms and send some gardeners out to clip off individual leaves in December (!), however I find the contrast between the tawny leaves and the fresh, spidery blossoms to be gorgeous.

Witch hazels are small trees (10-20′ tall depending on species/cultivar), and they come in many shapes — vase shaped, spreading, upright, rounded and weeping.

They always make good specimen trees, but the vase-shaped species and cultivars work beautifully in a mixed border where their branches are held high above the surrounding plants, and will emphasize an area that is planted specifically for winter or fall.

They are loved by deer, who will nibble the blossoms and leaves that they can reach, so be sure to protect them when they are small.

How to grow Hamamelis

Witch hazels prefer a full sun location, but can tolerate partial shade, particularly in hotter summer climates.

They are very tolerant trees that draw the line at wet feet — good drainage is essential. Their preference is for a loamy, slightly acid soil if you’ve got it, if not, provide them with a good dressing of organic material when you can and make sure that drainage is excellent.

A terrific source for witch hazels is Rare Finds Nursery  — a retail and mail order nursery in Jackson, New Jersey.


november leaves in the garden

A selection of fall leaves from small trees in mid-November, including the large, lovely leaves of H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’ (top) and ‘Rochester’ (bottom)

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.

beautyberry, callicarpa dichotoma

Callicarpa dichotoma

♦ 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 your canna, colocasia, caladium, dahlia, gladioli etc… and store appropriately.

♦ 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.

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 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 occassionally.

♦ Organize the area in the garage or basement where you threw the dormant caladium, 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 December 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