Between the flamboyance of autumn and the silvery finesse of winter, New England squeezes in another season: late November-early December, a gray and unloved time. Unlike its cousin at the other end of winter – Mud Season – this one has no name. And while Mud Season at least brings maple syrup, this one offers little to cherish. Most people just try to endure it, eyes averted, until the snow comes and hides the brown ground, and the world is beautiful again.
I may be one of the few who actually like this odd time of year. Why? More important than it being the end of my busy work season, whew, a time to catch my breath and clean up the office, an opportunity for introspection and quieter forms of creativity…beyond these nice relaxing benefits, the big appeal of this season is that now I, as a landscape designer, can clearly see what’s going on outside: nature’s patterns and processes.
No fluff. No intrusive foliage or distracting blossoms. Just form and structure. Clear sightlines. Open views. The shape of the ground, the curve of a hidden stream, how high the September flood actually rose, the colors of naked tree bark, what fruits and seeds remain as winter food on which species, how many mosses are still chugging brightly along in the low light, who in town has been “tidying up” (i.e. removing nutrients from) their forest…fascinating stuff. Now is when the landscape reveals a huge treasure of information – and countless new questions – about how things work.
One major discovery at this time of year has to do with invasive plants. Many non-native species get a competitive advantage by leafing out earlier, and holding their foliage later, than their native neighbors. In New England, burning bush (Euonymous alatus) is a big winner in this contest. If you didn’t notice its insidious spread all summer long, you surely can’t miss it now.
Same with oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculata), which has spent the summer creeping up, over, under, between and around every nearby tree, shrub, fence and shed. Now is a great time – when the vines and their familiar bright berries can be clearly seen – to go bittersweet-hunting, to locate and tag plants for spring removal, after the sugars that were stored in the roots over winter have been depleted by the leaf-out process.
Note: fortunately, bittersweet is banned from sale in many states (although this hasn’t kept garden centers and farm stands from selling disastrously berry-loaded bittersweet wreaths).
By contrast, English ivy (Hedera helix), which is equally or perhaps more aggressive than bittersweet, is still eagerly being planted in gardens across the country. This despite its classification as a noxious weed in 46 states. Only Oregon has banned it from sale. In early winter, you can see English ivy happy as can be: no competition for sunlight and plenty of room to move!
There’s more to this season, however, than just bad news. My favorite thing about late fall is the opportunity to notice how all kinds of plants arrange themselves. Because these patterns of distribution reveal what nature does on its own, they inform my thinking about what’s possible in my designs, as I work to create landscapes that will thrive with the least need for outside materials and energy. Below are three beautiful patterns that showed up during my recent walk in a nearby conservation area.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is the only holly grows wild in my part of western New England. That this plant holds onto its gleaming red fruits far into winter doesn’t come as news to most gardeners. Neither does the fact that ilex is a dioecious species. (For more great detail about this plant, read Ellen Sousa’s recent post.)