Autumn snuck up on me. One minute we were frying and the next it seems we slid into one of the loveliest of all seasons. The trees here seem a more brilliant phenomenon than ever and lose their leaves at a faster rate than I remember from past years. The theories about this range from: signs of a cold winter ahead; to signs of a warm winter ahead; to making up for the lousy show last year.

Of course autumn colour is totally dependent on the shifts in the chemicals existing in the leaves as new and even more glittering chemicals emerge with the change of light. That’s why it’s so freaky to see a sudden snowfall resting on brilliant red leaves (and of course why we rush out to preserve this moment on film).

I don’t want to sound like a broken record but it’s absolutely imperative to mulch this year. Even if you haven’t done it before, do it now. We’ve had two record breaking, miserable winters. Trust nothing. Mulch. Just about everything in your garden is vulnerable.

And mulching will protect vulnerable plants. So even if you can afford to buy the material to create a mulch, don’t waste any leftover leaves. Bank them up around plants but don’t toss any out. They will compost down if stored in plastic bags (with a hole for air circulation). Next spring spread around and they can finish composting down where it will do the most good: in the garden.

The mulch I use is a well-composted pine bark. For my area of the country, I’ve found this to be almost a magic bullet if there is such a thing in gardening. It doesn’t blow about, looks totally natural as though it’s meant to be there (unlike dyed mulches); and it is an organic blanket for the soil. Mulch keeps subsoil temperatures even. This is what drives plants into a frenzy: if moisture in the soil freezes and then thaws and freezes, plants get pushed out of the ground and exposed to the winter beyond endurance and usually croak.

I tend to get anthropomorphic about plants as well as the garden itself. But then I also walk through my own talking to them. As a wise friend said: when they answer back you know you’ve lost that last marble. What I’m actually doing is observing who needs what. When I speak to a plant, I’m focusing on it, so not quite crazy yet.

It’s the perfect time of year to observe, plan, take pictures. The scents: are there enough? Should you have more artemisias for instance or asters or aconitums. They all carry such a delicious odor that it’s important for you and the insects to have them around.



Make sure the soil is well watered before you put the mulch on. This is important if the rains are not coming in the usual November fashion. The mulch will help hold that moisture in the soil which is critical. Evergreens especially need lots of autumn moisture because they keep on transpiring all winter long.

Just fling mulch all around trees, shrubs, but make sure to move it back a little way from the trunks to avoid creating a nest for insects or wee animals so close to a vulnerable plant. Don’t worry about covering up perennials. Do put it over any spot you’ve disturbed by planting bulbs. Those squirrels love disturbed soil and they will dig it up even if they hate the bulb.

One of the strange things happening right now is the browning of evergreens. They are molting old needles and starting new growth on the interior of the plant. It’s coming late in the year. But get out your clippers and nick away at the dead stuff if you can. You may end up with something weird like this:

It started out looking like Cousin Itt and has ended up as an elegant side swept hairdo.


My place has been cut back as much as I like to cut things back. All the perennials are left alone. But I do like getting things pruned properly and this is a good time of year to do it. It leaves a feeling a real satisfaction. Monique was in here for a day with her magic secateurs and I feel better so the garden looks better. Derek came in to take out the trees that died because of the flood. Some are growing back from the base so it will be interesting to see what happens.

You can prune evergreens now, dogwoods will really look so much better, we even tackled the Japanese maples. A good pruning can transform even the most pedestrian garden and give it some zip. Any garden benefits from a good eye and sharp secateurs.

This is the time of year to consider serious changes in the garden. Removal of trees, addition of new shrubs and trees. Where to put new evergreens. Most gardens don’t have nearly enough evergreens any more. Too many grasses and perennials and not enough plants to really give a winter treat. Your eye should be led all through the garden by the solid sensuality of evergreens.


I happen to like just about every chamaecyparis and for the most part they do well here in Toronto. But recent winters have been playing hell with them. So I’ve moved on to dwarf spruces, firs and of course hemlocks. Experimenting with evergreens is a bit of an expense so be sure to do your research well before investing.

This is where having a great nursery nearby comes in handy. A good nursery person will know what works well in your area, can give you good advice on planting and maintenance.

Evergreens must be deeply watered before frost remains in the ground. Use a bucket, slowly empty into the area not just at the base but around the plant. Then get that mulch into place. If you’ve already mulched, make sure the water is percolating through that lovely stuff and getting where it’s needed.

You should not have to wrap plants after a couple of years. If they haven’t adjusted, perhaps you’ve got the wrong ones. I tend to never wrap plants because it looks awful and I look at my garden all winter. But last year I planted Albizia ‘Summer Chocolate’ which is a Zone 7 plant and I live in Z6B. It is tiny but it survived floods and odd weather patterns so this little baby is going to be swaddled. It’s a gorgeous plant which we put into one very protected garden and it grew below the graft into a 2.5M tree in one season. Unbelievable. Alas it doesn’t have the chocolate hue but the ordinary ferny foliage is still absolutely gorgeous.


I made a huge error this summer by not chopping some of the larger perennials back in July. Lespedeza ‘Gibraltar’ tagged as growing to 1.2M ended up like this in full bloom:


What it was hiding was this:


A totally dumb move on my part. Next year I will move the lespedeza or cut it back at least twice during the growing season. Stick that in your garden journal if you have one of these plants. It’s magnificent but the one-year growth is astounding and no one really knew what it was going to do. According to the tag, this cultivar was supposed to be a lot smaller than the species. Not.

As you know I don’t bother with cutting perennials back and leave the garden pretty much alone except for hostas. They go all mushy and I prefer to whack them back once the temperature tumbles. And what a lot of interesting plants they expose: Arum italicum and hellebores among my favourites. It’s another bit of magic of this season.

I’m heading off to have hip replaced Friday the 13th so expect I will be much perkier in the coming months and will be much more assiduous about getting blogs and newsletters out in a timely manner.

Yours Marjorie
November 2015