Gardener’s Corner With Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel

My second favorite time of the year is autumn.  Even though I know what is coming afterward, I just love the feel of this season.  More moisture in the soil and cooler air gives relief from the hot summer.  Plants are still growing roots and moving their sap and energy down the stem.  This is, of course, a good time to put plant material in the ground.  Here on top of the mountain we abbreviate fall planting period due to how quickly it turns cold.  We don’t want our smaller plants being frost-heaved out of the ground during the winter because they did not get a chance to develop roots that will hold them in place.

Another fun thing about fall is seed production, allowing us to collect seeds from select species.  Harvest, being the oldest name for the season, is when I enjoy collecting seeds and pods in the fall, ensuring that there is plenty to do for staff and volunteers.  The Pinkshell azaleas will be the first azaleas to produce seeds, then Flame azaleas soon after. Azalea seeds do not require any special treatment to germinate, so a few weeks before spring, we clean or remove the seeds from pods, and then sow them in seed flats.

In April, Bartlett Tree Experts looked at four mature red spruce trees that were planted here many years ago.  Over time, these four trees had grown thin-looking and developed a lot of lichen on the branches.  Basically, the trees were lagging behind the pace of the lichen’s growth.  Bartlett recommended (and kindly donated!) air-spading, which uses a tool that has a strong jet of air to break up the soil, like a gentle tiller that doesn’t damage roots. They also incorporated nutrients and other amendments into the freshly loosened soil.  Bartlett also mentioned that mountain soil will typically require nutrition being added for trees to really thrive.  They incorporated Vermacompost 1.0-0.5-0.5 NPK and Biochar bagged products.  These are both made of natural products with no synthetic fertilizers.  Low levels of Nitrogen Phosporus and Potassium ensure you are not over fertilizing.  The biochar is a trending product now, and we have used it when we grew some Torreya taxifolia from seed.  We planted seeds in four different soil mixes to compare results and as expected the seeds we planted in a mix with biochar grew and performed the best.  Biochar gives microorganisms a place to live.  It has microscopic crevices that they use as homes.  The plant roots get the benefits of being near the biochar and accessing the nutrients.  We will report on the reaction the spruce show to this treatment later next year to allow time for them to absorb the nutrients and grow.

Fall can be a busy season for garden tasks, similar to spring.  With temperatures fluctuating and the dormant season around the corner, we focus on prioritizing tasks in the garden.  For example, as practioneers of ecological gardening at the Reserve, we focus on deadheading specific species and leaving others for insects and birds.  With the help of volunteers, we have deadheaded Solidago in our Wildflower Labyrinth to reduce the seed heads and the number of potential new plants.  We purposefully leave the seed heads of Echinacea, or coneflower, for the birds to eat. Migratory birds depend on these seed heads as they make their journey down south for the winter.

Leaf cleanup is a very time-consuming task at the Reserve and we prioritize areas where leaves need to be removed such as turf and moss.  We preserve the leaves in woodland areas as much as we can, and those that are collected are shredded and quickly returned to the garden rooms as mulch.

“When the world wearies and ceases to satisfy, there’s always the garden.” Rudyard Kipling