Our warm and dry autumn came to an abrupt end this week as Old Man Winter made his presence known. The good news is that the prognosticators promise a warmer and drier winter. Of course, you know how easy it is to predict the weather.

Whatever the weather, this is a great time of year to pause and reflect on what has happened during the growing season.

Warm days and cool nights brought us some of the best fall color we have seen in recent times. Japanese maples made a great show in gold, burgundy and red. The scrubby turkey oak lit up the pine barrens in shades of maroon and burgundy. And, one of the more reliable fall color performers – ginkgo – was ablaze in golden yellow.

Many ask why we don’t have great fall color every year. The leaf color is masked during the growing season by the green chlorophyll. As the growing season fades, the chlorophyll goes away to reveal anthocyanins and carotenoids that give us the yellow, orange and red colors. When the nights are warm, the plants use too much energy cooling themselves so the color doesn’t develop well. That’s why higher elevation areas like the mountains – where the nights are considerably cooler than the days – have more reliable fall color.

The recent cold blast brought an end to one of the best seasons for the reblooming azaleas. Encore varieties that usually don’t bloom a lot in the fall like Starlight have put on a small show. Reliable ones like Empress, Sangria, Angel, Sundance, Coral and others have been so nice that maybe we should have a fall azalea garden tour. I’m sure the hardworking people in the Cape Fear Garden Club may take exception to that.

The Bloom-a-thon azaleas have also been gorgeous since Labor Day.

If the great show has you motivated to add some of these azaleas to your garden, remember that they are still azaleas. That means they need acidic, high organic matter, well-drained but moist soils. Pine bark fines and a rototiller should be a part of the bed preparation.

Years like this one reinforce that, with the fall-blooming azaleas, camellias, ornamental grasses and some of the salvia selections, autumn is one of the most colorful times in our gardens.

I’ll get another chance to check in with you before the “big day,” but I did get a question about “living” Christmas trees last week. These are plants in containers or balled-and-burlapped that, theoretically, can be planted in the garden after the celebration ends. Sounds like a great idea, but it doesn’t work well in our climate.

The most popular tree is Frazer fir which only grows in the higher elevations of the mountains. White pine might live for a few years, but will eventually succumb to root rot. You may have a better shot with red cedar, Leyland cypress or arborvitae. Even with these better-adapted species, the tree should only stay in the house 10 to 14 days. The dry air inside your heated house isn’t good for plants.

Your priorities during the busy holiday season probably aren’t on your lawn and garden. But, if you have problems/concerns, our Plant Clinic is still open 10 am to 4 pm weekdays. You can also check out our website http://ces.ncsu.edu, where you can post your questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Extension center - Pender County 259-1238; New Hanover County 798-7660; Brunswick County 253-2610.


Al Hight is the extension director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in New Hanover County. Contact him at 910-798-7666.