Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
November, 2011
Regional Report

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'Alabama' coleus warms up every planting for months.

Southern Fall Color

Nobody organizes bus tours to see the autumn foliage in our zones, but there is plenty to see. Hikers and campers get a good look, but so do tailgaters and us regular gardeners, too.

The How of Leaf Color
From red dogwoods to yellow abelias and rusty hydrangeas, we see leaves change color in fall. As the production of chlorophyll, which gives leaves their green color, slows and then stops with the change of the season, other hues appear that can be subtle or quite bold. Depending on the particular plant, its leaf mineral content and state of hydration, one may see yellows and oranges as carotenoid pigments are unmasked and reds and purples as anthocyanin pigments are produced. Some species simply turn brown. The leaf is used up and drops to the ground, sometimes overnight if there is the slightest breeze or with the next storm. Some trees, like red oak, seem to hold their brown leaves for months just to frustrate rakers.

Warm Up To Fall Color
My Mississippi grandmother loved fall weddings almost as much as she loved sewing our school clothes in fall colors. The warmth of golden yellows and oranges, brilliant reds and purples, and every shade of rust and brown filled our closets, if not our ceremonies.

We do not have aspen trees like Colorado, but there is plenty of bold yellow in native trees and well-adapted imports. You will see it in river birch, ginkgo, and some varieties of crape myrtle. The orange of sassafras and the beautifully evil poison ivy light up the woods as their colors change. We appreciate natives like purple wild ageratum and perennial sunflowers, but also cultivars such as 'October Glory' maple tree. Plenty of deciduous trees and shrubs shift into high gear as they prepare for dormancy, so we see red in some dogwoods and Japanese maples.

One particular exotic species has escaped cultivation and become dangerously invasive, but its fall transformation delivers riotous effect. Tallow tree, aka popcorn tree, chokes our wetlands and the native plants that live there. Sadly, it also screams purple and red in autumn and is a rampant reseeder. People like the dratted tree, which is not long-lived but survives for decades in its seedlings. They come up in my garden now, even though the mother tree was cut down long ago.

Favorite Fall Plants
Gardeners can bring the warm and comforting colors of fall into public and private spaces. It can be as easy as continuing to water and fertilize orange impatiens, yellow justicia, and both coral and golden shrimp plants. Sun coleus offers as many fall tones as croton plants, and can be left outdoors along the Southern Coasts for several more weeks without injury.

When you are adding plants to the garden, do not overlook those that will provide strong fall color. Shades of red and purple are ours in calico plant, taro, and red Abyssinian banana. No October is complete without candelabra tree in full bloom with puffy golden flowers stacked up into glowing candles. And football season would not be the same if fans did not fill garden beds and pots with garden mums in school colors. At my house, there is always one big pot full of yellow and purple pansies sitting next to my concrete tiger, a fitting tribute to my alma mater.

Look around as the weeks pass to see the changes in our color palette, both natural and gardener-created, and bring them home. Our fall colors may not be found on postcards, but they are here for the looking and growing.

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