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In Good Thyme

"It's late October, and Whidbey Island gardens are ablaze with the hues of autumn. If you want more of that great fall color in your garden, this is the best time to visit local nurseries to see for yourself which perennials, shrubs and trees are true late-season superstars. Here are a couple of intriguing candidates.During a recent nursery stroll, I was attracted to the brilliant foliage of a tree toward the back of the property. As I approached, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was (ITAL)Rhus typhina, or staghorn sumac. Where I grew up on the East Coast, sumac was a junk tree that sprang up in vacant lots, scrap yards and untended gardens. It had a bad reputation and an unpleasant odor, somewhat like burnt toast. Yet what I was seeing now was a very attractive tree with tropical-looking leaves in dazzling red and orange fall coloration. I sniffed the leaves; they didn't have that awful scent. Perhaps it's been bred out, or the wild sumac tree of my childhood is another, similar-looking variety. This civilized sumac is a hardy and decorative mid-sized tree that can grow to 20 or more feet. Sumac is a distant cousin of the infamous poison ivy and poison oak, but this (ITAL)rhus will not make you itch. It's drought-tolerant and does well even in the poorest of soils. Believe me, if it can thrive in a New Jersey junkyard, it will be positively gorgeous in your Western Washington garden! Right now (ITAL)Sedum Autumn Joy is bringing joy to many Whidbey Island gardeners. This succulent perennial gives color and texture to the garden from early summer through November. Another nice feature is that it's a low-maintenance plant rarely bothered by insects or disease. The best time to introduce Autumn Joy to your garden is spring. It prefers well-drained soil, but will make do in less-than-perfect soil conditions. Joy does insist, however, on as much sun as you can give her. Otherwise, she'll become leggy and you'll need to prop up her fleshy stems. Over-fertilization also promotes floppiness.The nursery tags may tell you that this sedum grows to two feet, but in some settings, Joy is more exuberant. It may be cut back to keep it compact. This should result in a bushier plant with more stems and flower heads. The cuttings can be easily rooted to produce more Joy.Flower heads usually appear in late June as flat, pale-green palettes composed of many tiny flowerets. As temperatures rise, the color warms to pale pink, deeper pink, then red. When temperatures drop in fall, the flowers darken to shades of a good Merlot. Even when finally browned by frost, Autumn Joy adds sculptural interest and texture to the winter garden.During the past month I've experimented with drying Autumn Joy flowers. I use the same method that's been successful for me in drying mophead hydrangeas. I cut a good, long stem and pick off all the fleshy leaves, place in a vase half filled with water and let the water evaporate, which takes about two weeks. At the end of that time, the flower is dry. I've only attempted this with one bunch, but so far, it's worked well. Try arranging them in a copper container with dried burgundy-colored hydrangeas and wild grasses; it makes a nice autumnal display.Last week I received a query from Chris Burton of Coupeville, who wants to know if he can grow chestnut trees on Whidbey Island. He's interested in edible varieties, as in chestnuts roasting by an open fire. It is, indeed possible to grow chestnut trees here. The American chestnut, (ITAL)Castanea dentata, was almost eradicated in the early 20th century by blight introduced with an Asian chestnut. The American chestnut is still subject to this blight and never recovered in much of the United States. However, according to Michael Dolan of Burnt Ridge Nursery and Orchards, which specializes in unusual nut and fruit trees, chestnut blight isn't a problem in Washington state.Washington has the largest surviving American chestnut trees in the world, says Dolan. Any chestnut should do well on Whidbey Island, providing the site is sunny and the soil is reasonably well drained. Burnt Ridge also stocks many blight-resistant varieties such as Colossal and Nevada, which are very popular in Washington and elsewhere. Two trees are required for cross pollination (and resultant fruiting). For a catalog, write to Burnt Ridge Nursery, 432 Burnt Ridge Road, Onalaska, WA 98570, or e-mail burntridge@myhome.net.--------------Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service.If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail wnt@whidbey.net. "

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