November is for color!

Camellia sasanqua in full bloom. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

One of the best reasons to live in the Carolina Piedmont is the month of November, a spectacular month in the garden – if you have planned it correctly. In the spring when we usually design our gardens, we typically fail to consider the fall foliage of a particular plant; some offer an added enhancement while others, such as crapemyrtles, simply shed their leaves, taking on very little color, before falling asleep.

The Smoke Tree, Cotinus coggygria always surprises me as it sort of sneaks into my consciousness in the spring when it smokes and in the late fall when it turns into a brilliant reddish-orange. In between these two seasons, because it does little to grab the eye, I tend to overlook it. A native from southern Europe, it is not only easy to grow, its smoky period envelops the mature tree in a waft of pinkish clouds caused by loads of small hairs.

Because it takes somewhere around four years before it really smokes, it requires a bit of patience on the part of the gardener. My advice is to persevere as it turns a lovely autumnal color even when young. And after it’s established, it takes very little effort to maintain it.

The roses have been spectacular this month, making me realize what a hard time they have coping with our summer heat and humidity. The shrub roses in particular are a mass of blooms – and their foliage is relatively clean of blackspot. ‘Spice’ and ‘Ducher’ in particular have been spectacular.

The real stars of the autumn garden are the Camellia sasanquas, however. There is very little I can offer camellias in the way of robust criticism as they are handsome creatures even when not in bloom, serving as the backbone to the garden in winter. Their flowers are long-lasting – ‘Snow Flurry’ is now on its sixth straight week of blooming – and they blend in beautifully with the roses. What more can you ask for?

Ampelaster carolinianus, aka Climbing Aster. Photo by Kit Flynn.

If you don’t have a climbing aster, Ampelaster carolinianus, mark your calendars to plant one in the spring. Site it in the sun, give it a trellis or an archway – and let it do its thing. Niche Gardens always cut theirs back every spring whereas some years I have just left it. The blooms began to appear towards the end of October and have brightened its spot throughout November. The brief frost we had in October failed to inhibit it. Plant Delights offers it if you have trouble finding it.

The rather bizarre flowers of both Fatsia japonica and Fatshedera lezei are still blooming but what is wacky to my eye is not shared by the bees who lovingly hug these blooms. These flowers have been far more prolific this year than usual, for reasons I confess I do not understand. My fatsias exist for two years in large planters by my front door; after two years they should be placed in the ground as they want to spread their wings, achieving sometimes six feet in height.

Japanese maples are famous for their autumnal color but be aware that cultivars change their color at different times. My large one reverts back to red in October whereas Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa yatsubusa’, aka the most expensive plant I ever bought, is still green at Thanksgiving. I also have a Japanese maple that has just turned a lovely reddish-orange as I write this.

The garden is also capable of surprises. One of my gorgeous daylilies, one that doesn’t rebloom, decided to take a page out of the ‘Stella d’Oro’ playbook – and put forth flowers in the middle of the month, thereby taking one and all by surprise.

A non-reblooming daylily in full bloom in November, well out of season. Photo by Kit Flynn.

All this now brings me to the subject of leaves as leaves are definitely a fall theme. I no longer buy many bags of mulch as I let the fallen leaves serve as mulch. My principal tree is a pin oak that spends all winter expelling its leaves. These leaves are small so I do not have to worry about their turning into an impenetrable soggy mass as that is what you want to avoid.

Some leaves, such as the pin oak, supply perfect mulch. Other leaves have to be helped. Those that fall on the lawn should be mowed, which cuts them into smaller pieces. Then either rake or blow them on your flower beds. Do not leave them on the grass as they will smother the grass. The theory is to let the leaves decay in your flower beds, providing a much-needed layer of mulch.

Be aware that there are some leaves that decompose so slowly that they are useless to use as mulch. The leaves of Magnolia grandiflora are so thick that they would make a terrible mulch. It is also highly recommended to refrain from using the leaves of the black walnut tree. Suitable leaf information is widely available on the Internet.

Does my garden look as neat and tidy as it did when we applied a yearly level of mulch to it? No, it doesn’t. However, I have come around to the fact that a neat and tidy fall yard is probably not the best route to go, that it might be best to work with nature and the leaves she provides for us every year.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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