Marjorie's eLetter for Autumn 2010

Autumn 2010 E-Letter
By Marjorie Harris

The air is intoxicating and the soil is still warm enough to keep on planting in parts of the country not yet crushed by frost. Shrubs and trees, if you can find healthy specimens, are ideal to be planting right now.

I love this time of year, not just for the scents that hang in the air, but for the vibrant action of insects and the changing chemicals in leaves setting the whole garden into flames.


The garden just before it turns to autumn's riot of colour. Left is a long view and beside it a close-up of a mix of colours and leaf sizes.

This shot was taken this week and lot of plants have been moved in and out of here. Garden on the move doesn't begin to describe what's happened. I took out at a big old lilac which dominated the left hand border and in a bulky and increasingly irritating way. It's been replaced with a fernleaf beech also on a standard, a rather more graceful presence. It will, however, be a lot of work because it grows quickly, but I'll keep whacking away at it to keep it at the volume I need for privacy, while not letting it get out of hand and shade my neighbour's garden.

ClematisBettyCorning The standard with Clematis 'Betty Corning'. This vine is amazing. We pruned it right to the ground in September and look what it's doing now in October. I'm going to try this again next year with half of it to see what happens. With a plant this vigorous, no need to pussyfoot around. The others around the garden are all bulk no bloom.


This is a good time to move things as well as introduce dishy new plants into the garden. You'll find plants on sale that no one else wants and that could mean something new and unusual.




I found this magnificent Metasequoia 'Matthaei Broom' sitting all by itself. Maybe no one recognized what a little beauty it is (it grows to 1.2m). It's deciduous, which means it loses its needles so the form of the plant is particularly important for winter interest.

Prowl around and see what treasures you can find. But don't buy just for the sake of buying. If something is nasty and diseased-looking, you'll be bringing trouble into your garden. It's not worthwhile nursing sick plants, satisfying as that may be when they happen to survive.

Plant carefully, with the hole as deep as the roots system and twice as wide, but make sure to water even deeper than usual. We're having weird weather patterns which means either such intense rains, plants barely stay in the ground, or it's not raining nearly as much as we expect. Compensate by adding buckets and buckets of water. Leave the hoses running for as long as you think safe (an hour, maybe more) around each major plant.

This is especially true for evergreens which transpire (lose moisture) all winter. They'll suck the living daylights out of themselves and turn brown if you don't water.


Mulch is the garden's magic bullet. This year in my new business MARJORIE HARRIS GARDENS, I've done two things new to me. One is to add mycorrhiza to the soil when we plant. It's expensive stuff but you need only a small handful for a large tree and it really does help with plant health. The other is to mulch with duck compost in all the new gardens.

This stuff has been fantastic for prepping soil. We've noticed how well plants grow with its help. By adding another layer on top of the soil at this time of the year (a bit later in warmer areas) it is just the thing to protect plants for the winter. It means that when spring thaws come, the compost will be ready to break down into the nutrients emerging plants will need.

Otherwise, I go with my usual routine; very finely ground-up composted bark plus compost which I add from my own garden. It's good-looking, not like composted bark that resembles a heap of sticks. Please don't use stuff that hasn't broken down enough, it leeches nutrients and moisture out of the soil and, though it will protect the soil from freeze-thaw cycles, it won't break down quickly enough to feed the soil.

All this effort may be a bit more expensive but, in the long run, it will turn out to be a thrifty choice because all good prep is an investment in the future health of the garden. One thing I've learned in this year of non-stop garden installations is just how sloppy many landscapers are with this important step. We found land that had an inch or so of triple mix topped with bark chips no matter what the circumstances -- usually on top of clay soil heavy enough to throw pots. We also saw plants plunked into what could only be described as concrete tubs lined with a little soil or compost. No wonder the poor clients were in despair about their trees not doing well.

If you use professionals, make sure you grill them about what they mean by prep: How deep will they excavate the soil? What is the soil replacement going to be like? What will the top dressing be? The answers depend on your own circumstances, but the answers should be: At least 8 inches; a combination of black top soil and compost (keep away from peat moss); and a combination of compost and composted bark. Ask to see samples of soil and mulch and not only feel them but smell them. They should be glorious and sweet.


Cut back some of the worst or untidiest of your perennials but leave alone anything that looks handsome or has berries or seeds on it. Birds need this food and we have a responsibility to supply it as naturally as possible. Don't be fussy about cleaning things out unless they will harbour slugs, earwigs or other insects. That would include hostas or other plants with big lush leaves that turn even mushier with the cold. They should be pulled off to ground level.

Get rid of diseased leaves. Pile up the rest to make a comfy blanket for evergreens or add them to your mulch. I get bags and bags of leaves and slowly add them to the compost over the winter for an optimum volume that will keep temperatures high enough for the decomposing to continue. It also looks after the red wrigglers. Don't ignore adding green kitchens scraps all winter.


Everyone I consulted said they will prune right up to and including the winter. Now is a great time to hire a professional since they are not as busy as they are in spring. At least get a consultation and estimate done now. Make sure you hire a certified arbourist, who will know the difference between good trees and weed trees (Manitoba maples, mulberries and Tree of Heaven in central Ontario...curses on all of them). A poor arbourist will start pruning these trees, which only encourages them to grow at an even more rapid rate resulting in expensive removals down the road. Identify these trees and get them out of your garden when they are saplings.

So wander around your garden and look at what could use a little clip for shape. You are creating something that should look good all winter long.

What's in bloom right now:


It's hard to believe that Phlox 'David' blooms merrily onwards. This means something like three months of action from one plant. And no problems with mildew.
















Aster 'Little Carlow' is great in the spot shown here, but in another area looks spotty and will have to be trashed.

Along with several other people I've talked to, my Monkshood have been hit with a yucky-looking black fungus. They too had to be taken out of the garden.











SciadopitysSciadopitys verticillata with Helleborus 'Silver Lace' and Ophiopogon planescans 'Black Knight'.

This is my favourite combination. I ran it with my final Globe column (probably forever given the new design), and a reader sent a picture of his 20-foot Sciadopitys verticillata (mine's about 2 ft). Of course it was growing in B.C. Plant envy broke out in spades. It's another case of it size depends on light, soil and where you live.







Alas, they must be cleaned out and washed and stacked upside down. Stick pieces of newspapers put between them so they are protected and easy to part in spring. That is, unless you've invested in high-fired pots that will withstand severe winter conditions. If they have a salt build-up on the outside, be sure to scrub it off with a soapy brush and lots of fresh water. You might have to renew the soil in the spring. But for now just get them cleaned, make sure they are off the ground and water the plants deeply right up to the possibility of frost.

If you are bringing tender plants into the house, make sure you give them a really good shower to get off any lurking bugs. A fog setting on your hose should do it. Put them indoors on really cold nights until they are hardened to the much warmer drier air of the house. Then don't over water them.


I'm still searching for original information on being a thrifty gardener. If you have anything you'd like to share please send it to me before the middle of November: email me.

I'm having fun with this book and some of the ideas you'd sent in so far are amazing. Thank you so much.


If you need my services:  email me.

Yours Marjorie



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