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Notes from the Garden - August, September, October 2012

by Harvey Cotten

Summer is definitely here with its heat, humidity and intense sunshine. These high temperatures have us looking for some relief, but fall is just around the corner. The Garden offers places of respite from the heat, and then the chance to witness our plant displays mark the changes from summer into fall.    

August: Ferns
    As the heat continues to beat us down, the Fern Glade offers a wonderful break from the high temperatures as you stroll the paths under the canopy of oaks, maples sycamores and black gums. The dramatic the difference in what we feel the temperature to be as we move from the sunny spots in the Garden to the welcoming shade of our woodland areas is truly amazing. The Fern Glade is one such area that offers an incredible plant display during the heat of the summer. The Glade is home to more than 100 different hardy ferns, some native with others exotic, some deciduous with others evergreen, but all are great perennials for a shady spot in your garden. The diversity of foliage color, size, habit, and texture offers a beautiful garden display without having to rely on flowers to get the impact you desire. 
    Some of my personal favorites include the very delicate Southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) and the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’) as groundcovers to the Royal fern (Osmunda regalis) and the Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamonea) for larger statements in the landscape. Two of my favorite evergreen ferns include the Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) and the Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosa) for year round effect. Come out and enjoy the Fern Glade and pick out your favorites for this wonderful display of hardy ferns.

September: Ornamental Grasses
    While the temperatures may still be high during the day, the nights are getting longer, and this triggers many plants to start blooming before the onset of winter. Ornamental grasses are one such group of plants that really begin to shine in the fall of the year and the Garden is home to many of these decorative plants. Two of my favorites include the Muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and the Switch grasses (Panicum virgatum), both of which are native to North America. Pink Muhly grass is a true crowd pleaser when the light, airy pinkish-purple flower plumes seem to hover over the two foot tall plants like smoke. It is very showy as this graceful grass dances in the afternoon breeze. Just recently we have added a white flowering form (‘White Cloud’) to the Garden and are looking for other selections to plant in the landscape.
    Switch grasses are a large group of taller growing grasses that are native throughout most of the US. The species grows about three feet tall and has been used in the new Parking Garden landscape. The cultivar ‘Northwind’ is an excellent selection for most landscape situations and can be found in our new Entrance plantings as well as in the Children’s Garden. For a big show, try ‘Cloud 9’. Growing over nine feet tall in bloom, this cultivar makes a large statement in the landscape where size matters. 
    While we have used many ornamental grass selections throughout the Garden in our designs, the new parking Garden offered some unique landscape situations that limited the type of plants that would be successful. In the rain gardens, Variegated Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’), Cord grass (Spartina bakeri), Leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchananii) and Rush (Juncus inflexus) were used for their ability to thrive in both wet and dry conditions. These tough, durable grasses are both attractive and functional as they comprise a large portion of the Parking Garden landscape. 
    Make a point to walk the Garden this September and see the great variety in size, texture, color and bloom type in these very versatile landscape plants - the Ornamental Grasses.

October: Camellias
    What in the world am I talking about Camellias in October for – it is way too early to have our winter blooming Camellias in flower. While it is true that we are several months away from bloom time on the Camellia japonica cultivars, we are right in the middle of the flower show for the fall-blooming camellias, Camellia sasanqua. To me, this Camellia and the fall blooming hybrids that carry its parentage may be the easier and more showy Camellia for us to grow in North Alabama. Often, just as our winter blooming cultivars are bursting open with beautiful flowers, a cold snap comes through and turns them all to mush. With the fall-blooming C. sasanqua selections, we often can get four to six weeks of blooms before the first killing frosts comes to visit. 
    Over the last several years I have been greatly impressed with a hybrid C. sasanqua cultivar named ‘Snow Flurry’ that has hundreds of pure white flowers covering the plant that look like snow as litter the ground after falling.  This particular Camellia has a more spreading growth habit growing eight feet tall and six feet wide. In the Central Corridor Garden you will find a beautiful hedge of C. sasanqua ‘Rosea’ and C. sasanqua ‘Cleopatra’ that have been growing for years, providing an evergreen screen with spectacular fall flowers in shades of pink. Neither of these hedges has needed to be pruned regularly as we often have to do with hollies. My favorite red-flowering C. sasanqua selection is ‘Alabama Beauty’, a semi-double bloom with a slight fragrance. Come out and see these beautiful fall blooming camellias and many other cultivars as our Camellia collection continues to grow. 

Notes from the Garden