Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Shrubs, mums bring fall color into a garden

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It was many decades ago that I scolded my son for cutting down a burning bush (Euonymus alatus) at the edge of our woodlot. That was before there was an awareness of the scope of non-native invasive plants and their negative impact on native ecosystems. I was never enamored of the plant except for its exceptional fall foliage color, the characteristic from which its common name was derived. Despite its invasiveness, I do owe that plant something of value; the loss opened my eyes to other shrubs with exceptional fall color.

With the brilliant fall foliage displayed by red and sugar maples, white ash and other trees in forest settings receiving the bulk of our attention at this time of year, it is easy to overlook the impressive color of leaves on shrubs in our home landscapes. Luckily, with the demise of that burning bush, I came to appreciate the blueberry bushes in the side yard since their crimson foliage easily matched that of the invasive shrub. Once my attention was drawn to them, I began to notice other shrubs with attractive fall color. These included: Red chokeberry (scarlet), northern bayberry (burgundy), smokebush (red), sumac (scarlet), oakleaf hydrangea (reddish and bronze-orange), fothergilla (scarlet), witch-hazel species (yellow, orange, and red), viburnum species (reddish bronze, crimson, and purple), redvein enkianthus (deep red with yellow and orange tones), and spicebush (yellow). There are others, but this brief list will give a taste of the range of colorfully foliated shrubs suitable for home landscapes. Frankly, it'd be easier to create a colorful fall landscape with shrubs than it'd be to duplicate a forest — and there's still time to plant such shrubs.

MUM'S THE WORD

While on the subject of fall color, hardy mums are quite prominent around many homes, most often as potted plants. Not surprisingly, many people don't realize that the potted mums they buy at this time of year can be grown on as perennials in their flower gardens. I see many potted mums displayed on porches and patios and later relocated to the garbage can ... they don't do well there.

To grow mums as perennials, remove them from their pots and plant them in the flower garden now while the plants are still looking spiffy. The plants need some time to establish their roots before the onset of winter. The critical element for good establishment and winter survival is moisture. The ground must be kept moist — not wet — until it freezes. Afterward, apply a mulch of straw, salt marsh hay or pine boughs over the plants to keep them from heaving out of the ground during winter thaws.

Studies in Germany have found that the mums will do better if their stems are not cut down in the fall. The spent flowers, however, may be removed.

So, be kind to your mums! Plant them in the garden and treat them as perennials, and they'll reward you with beautiful floral displays for many years.

WAIT! CHORES AREN'T OVER

Enjoy the rewards of performing these gardening tasks:

- Dig up sweet potatoes before frost. Though not many gardeners grow sweet potatoes, perhaps because they are viewed strictly as a southern crop and not suited to the much shorter growing season of the cool north, they can be grown quite successfully here, but that's a subject for next spring. Those who are growing sweet potatoes should allow the potatoes to air dry for an hour or two after digging. The potatoes should then be stored in a cool, dry area of the basement. If you need incentive to try growing sweet potatoes next year, I can tell you that we just harvested about 100 pounds of the sweeties from the 24 plants set out last June.

- Prepare to extend the growing season for bush beans, peppers and other tender vegetables by placing floating row covers, readily available at garden centers, over the crops and securing the sides. Depending on the thickness of the row cover, tender crops may be protected from frost down to temperatures of 28 degrees or a little lower.

- Try drying flowers to create floral arrangements for displaying this winter. Strawflower and cockscomb can be dried by simply hanging bunches of stems in the attic or a closet for a few weeks. Fleshy flowers, such as zinnias, marigolds and asters, are best dried in silica gel. Do this by placing cut flower stems into a plastic shoe box or something similar and covering the stems with the silica gel. Drying will take place in about a week to 10 days.

- Don't be too hasty to remove volunteer plants that have popped up in the landscape. Whether birds, wind or other natural factors delivered them to the garden, they may prove to be desirable plants — and free of charge. I have a number of ferns, wildflowers and even woody plants, e.g. witch hazel, that have found a home in my yard. They are welcomed!

- Collect fallen pine needles and use them as a mulch in flower borders, but don't apply the needles until the ground has frozen ... that's a chilling thought!

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