In the Garden – November


Gardeners are intimately familiar with change. In particular, they share with many other enthusiasts a sensitivity to the rhythm of the year and the march of time and science.

In November our gardens are starting to fall into their annual slumber. Conifers have almost finished their flagging, shedding excessive foliage. The same is true of deciduous trees and shrubs, with essentially only the oaks retaining their expired leaves tenaciously. Annuals are winding down their lifespan, and many perennials have become dormant.

In contrast, some others like some hellebores and cyclamen are actually sending up their flowering shoots to brighten the winter garden. In a few months, lengthening days and increasing warmth will awaken most plants and the natural rhythm of growth begins anew.

Of course, not every year is the same. I love when Facebook and OneDrive pop up on-this-day photographs of my garden. Wow! Tulips really popped that year! What happened to them? Are they already done because of a mild winter and early spring, or delayed because of the inclement weather?

Sadly, they might have run out their natural lifespan. While old-fashioned tulips bloom year after year, modern varieties generally have shorter lifespans, leading many gardeners to treat them as annuals. Dedicated gardeners with space subvert this by lifting the bulbs each year and transporting them into a nursery to nurture the bulblets for a future year’s display.

Different perennials will have different natural life spans. To gardeners, perennial does not mean forever. An ornamental tree might well outlive the youthful gardener who plants it, but other plants might live only for a handful of years even under ideal conditions. I personally love perennial blue flax, with its delicate flowers and understated foliage. When first ordering some, I was struck by a reviewer who wrote, “It broke my heart.” Well, that’s what it does. It absolutely delights for about three years, and then it is done.

Of course, not all plants die by their own internal clock. Many suffer the abuse of pests, be they animal, bacterium, fungus or virus. I’ve written about voles before. These native lemming-cousins have boom and bust cycles and can strip a garden clean of their personal favorites in a boom year. Tulip bulbs are a favorite, as are the roots of sea thrift. And speaking of tulips, they are irresistible to deer and rabbits, who can easily wipe out your entire flowerbed.

Moving on to six-legged beasts, bronze birch borers have killed many birches in the lower mainland. Both British Columbia and Washington State are now on high alert for invasive Japanese beetles that can devastate plants like roses.

Physical damage can take its toll also. I once lost a lovely bronze Harry Lauder’s walking stick corkscrew hazel to “southwest injury.” The thin bark split from temperature fluctuations one winter and the young tree never really recovered. Many of the ceanothus on Tyee Drive will be removed because they will never recover from last winter’s erratic hard freezes.

Of course, many changes are positive. Plants grow! They fill in spaces; they creep and flourish. A bare landscape can fill in nicely or even become overgrown. Few lush gardens began that way. They began with a few structural plants and fillers here and there. These plants grew. They were supplemented over the years by plants that later proved to be too enthusiastic.

Garden advice changes too, ever towards to the most scientifically grounded best practice, which of course changes with ongoing research. One example is tree and shrub pruning. As Chuck Norwich of Western Arborist Services has repeatedly counselled Point Roberts Garden Club members, improper cuts can open a pruned limb to all sorts of damage and gardeners are now counselled to examine a limb carefully and then cut as close to a branch collar as possible — and of course to use sharpened clean blades.

Another change covered in a recent column is to not overdo autumn cleanup, and to leave garden debris where it lies rather than removing it. The exception, of course, is still to rake leaves off grass and not allow debris to accumulate close to a residence where it could pose a fire risk.

Finally, removing or moving a plant can cause dramatic changes to a garden as well. In our generally hospitable climate, many plants can outgrow their predictions and warrant removal. Or a plant that has disappointed might as well be relegated to the compost bin. Although it pains some gardeners to remove a plant, sometimes it is the only real viable action to maintain a vibrant garden. You don’t have to go full minimalist unless that’s your style. Think of Marie Kondo. Sometimes the change your garden needs is to be more tidy and balanced, with each plant playing its role in a pleasing scheme.


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