YOU HEAR very little about the fall foliage of Tidewater Virginia, but a great deal about the display of colored leaves in New England, and this is because New England is handy to New York and, of course, Boston. No other reason.
Recently I was in York, Gloucester, Henrico and suchlike counties and I find it hard to imagine a more colorful countryside, reaching its peak Oct. 21.
The great tree there, for the production of fall color, is the sweet gum, which is variable from tree to tree, but commonly is painted red, yellow, bronze, purple and orange. It is everywhere, along the sides of roads, at the edges of pastures and meadows, in river bottoms, and everywhere it is glorious.
Equally fine, probably, is the native red or swamp maple, which is mainly red with some yellow but not purple or bronze.
One of the most exciting trees, when it colors well, as it often does in the low country, is the American hackberry, with elm-type leaves that turn a pale, sometimes intense, chartreuse.
The hickory and yellow poplar, both clear and determined yellow (the hickory more tawny but surprisingly brilliant) contrast well with everything, especially pines.
Sometimes I wandered through clumps of the native sassafras. It often colors after the others are past their climax, and it boasts very rich oranges. Also a bit on the late side is the persimmon, gorgeous red.
Sometimes you see the early-coloring glossy red sour gum, holding on in full splendor, into the season of the later-coloring trees.
The shrubby sumacs are flame red or crimson, depending, and this year the oaks seem to me a bit on the early side. Various members of the red oak group are more rich than brilliant, usually, decked out in bronzy reds, but sometimes you see an individual almost as bright as a maple.
My own view is that by driving from Newport News to Richmond you can see foliage as lovely as anywhere in America, and it's a lot less congested than New England.
Here is a fall project, since you have nothing to do in the fall: You can prepare a site for planting daffodils next September and October. How is that for being ahead of the season?
Of course you can still plant daffodils and other spring-blooming bulbs, the sooner the better. But I am thinking, when I recommend this little project to prepare for next fall, of something that disturbs me: people sometimes complain their daffodils do not look like the ones they have seen at the great daffodil shows.
My own daffodils do not look any too magnificent, either, partly because I do not get round to preparing for them as well as I shall advise you, and partly because I am so easily satisfied with daffodils that I do not require them to be as superb as I know they can be.
As an example, I prefer the waxy elegant white trumpet, 'Rashee,' to be on the distinctly small side. It is, even superbly grown, a relatively small flower compared to the large white trumpets. But I like it even smaller, so I have often starved it a little. This would never do for a show, but it suits me well.
On the other hand, I get quite nervous if most daffodils are not grown to their proper size. For one thing, if they are substandard in size of bloom, they are almost invariably substandard in other ways, like smoothness of texture, and texture is as important -- I almost said more important -- as any other quality of the narcissus.
One year, when I was living in the country along the Mississippi River on rich Delta land, I planted a couple of thousand daffodil bulbs one September. I thought I might as well do it right, and I did.
Months before, I broke up the earth (an old pasture) with a middle-buster, a glorious machine indeed, to the depth of 30 inches. Weeds grew abundantly, of course, during the summer, but in August I went over the land again, breaking it up to about a foot. Then it just settled for four weeks or so.
The bulbs went in a foot apart, covered with about four inches of earth.
The following spring I was rewarded with flowers of a quality not often seen in town gardens. And this was my lesson that the greatest "secret" of daffodil culture is really thorough and really deep digging. You can forget your fertilizers, if you have old pasture land to play with. If you have only that acid tenacious clay that some of us deal with in city gardens, even so, the digging has far more to do with glorious daffodils than any fertilizer.
Try making a small bed for next year's daffodils now. Dig as deep as you can, at least 14 inches and preferably deeper. Then let it just sit until Thanksgiving. On a mild day, dig trenches in this already-dug earth, about 14 inches apart and six inches wide and a foot deep. When you do this, and throw the earth to the side of your little trenches, you will make ridges, so you wind up with a corrugated effect.
Once the earth freezes hard, perhaps in January, cover the ridged earth (without disturbing it) with a three-inch layer of strawy manure. It does not have to be well-rotted, it can be fresh. Just leave it on top of the frozen earth.
In spring, when it is comfortable to dig (we are not in a desperate hurry, since we are well ahead of ourselves) dig the manure in, to a depth of about a foot. You do not bury it a foot, you simply dig with a fork or a sharpshooter spade to the depth of a foot or so, working the manure in, so it no longer sits in a layer on top.
In May you can plant out zinnias or anything else that pleases you, and let them grow until September.
It is well, in another part of the garden, to make great piles of leaves this fall (if you have space for this) and let them rot down. You will be surprised, if you haven't done it before, to see that a pile four feet high will settle down to a few inches by late spring. You can add a bit of chemical fertilizer, if you like, to these leaves and turn them over with a fork once or twice during the next few months when you have nothing else to do.
Then, since your leisure is unbounded, you may work these rotted leaves into your daffodil bed about the time you plant your zinnias. Or whatever. If they do not seem as rotted as you think they should be, you can leave them on top, not digging them in at all.
During the summer, as you keep the weeds out of the zinnias, the rotted leaves will gradually be worked in, without your making a special project of it.
In late August or early September, cut down the zinnias and lightly dig the soil, a foot deep if you feel like it. You will be pleasantly surprised how easy it is to do this digging. It will not be difficult, as the first digging may have been.
Let the earth settle two or three weeks.
Then open shallow trenches, eight inches deep, and set your daffodil bulbs in, spacing them a foot apart, if you have endless room, otherwise six inches apart. Close the trenches. Water well.
It will probably be a hot day in September when you do your planting. Or it may be mid-October, or even November. Whenever it is, as soon as you have planted the bulbs, water the bed. This means soaking it. Let the garden hose run until the earth is really wet. Test it, by wiggling your fingers down eight inches below the surface. If it is nice and soppy down there, you can stop watering. The aim of this exercise is not to permit you to say you have watered, but to get the earth really wet all around the bulb and beneath it.
Then do not water again, ever if it doesn't rain for ages.
This initial watering will inspire the roots to sprout. The bulbs will be vigorously rooted before heavy frost. Not that you should poke about to ascertain this. Once the bulbs are covered with soil and watered, you do not disturb them in any way.
If you have fireplace ashes (from wood, not coal; do not use coal ashes) you may sprinkle them over the surface in late January, a powdering of ashes like snow, maybe three ounces to the square yard, though this is not really necessary. It's a nice way to use ashes, however, if you happen to have them.
During the winter some weeds may grow. Chickweed, in particular, flourishes in cold weather. It is just as well to scrape it off. When the ground is frozen, the light application of the hoe on the frozen surface will do the job nicely. You can just leave the chickweed sitting on top of the frozen ground.
Or, if you prefer, you can get in there and pull it out by hand in March. Or, if you think you have been slaved to death, you can leave it be. It is not all that much a problem, though you may be dismayed to see the tremendous vigor of chickweed on magnificently dug and enriched soil.
Sometimes I have left it -- it dies out with warm weather -- and did not see that it hurt the daffodils at all.
If it should be dry in March, water the bed, through which the daffodils are sprouting vigorously, with the garden hose. Usually we have more than enough water, just from rain. But you want about five inches of rain a month, from the first of March until the first of June, and if the heavens do not provide it, the garden hose will.
A straw mulch applied in March will do something to prevent mud splattering the flowers when they appear towards the end of the month and in April.
For some gardeners it may be a revelation what daffodils look like under this regime. Incidentally, you may leave them right in place for another year or even two years, or even three, without disturbing them in any way.
During the summers you can grow zinnias, or whatnot, right over the tops of the dormant bulbs, without disturbing them in any way.
I think even a small bed treated this way, beginning now for planting the bulbs next fall, will be an eye-opening experience for many gardeners. It was for me, when I first tried it nearly 40 years ago.
In town now, I squeeze daffodils in where I can. There are peonies and daylilies and so on, so I cannot manage the deep digging that I know is best for the daffodil.
But I see many gardens in which there is ample space for a bed four feet wide and 10 feet long, which would hold 50 bulbs with luxury, or 80 or even 100 if space were limited and you needed to plant as closely as possible.
Nothing surpasses the joy of planting daffodils (or anything else) in earth so friable you can virtually plant by hand, scarcely needing even a trowel.
Another great merit of a project like this is that you know exactly how many bulbs you can fit in, and can plan accordingly. One bulb each of 40 or 50 varieties can be a great joy. The varieties need not be the most expensive you can find, either.
Indeed, one reason gardeners are so impressed with new varieties of daffodils is simply that they are not growing their old sorts at all well.
One year, with high culture, or at least in a bed prepared as I have described, I was embarrassed to see an old and out of date yellow trumpet daffodil produce a better flower than Lionel Richardson's flashy new sort. Daffodils are surprisingly (and distressingly) variable. I have had 'Easter Morn' and 'Silver Salver,' (old outmoded short-cup whites) produce better flowers of higher quality than an ill-grown 'Verona,' which is decades later in its introduction date.
I am almost sure that for city gardeners, a small bed worked as I describe and planted with a handful of high-quality varieties will give infinitely more pleasure than 10 times that many bulbs of coarse clumsy varieties stuck in any which way beneath forsythia bushes.
Not that I want to discourage anybody from ramming a few daffodils under the bushes (or at the edge of them) since even with poor culture, even in unfriendly earth, they will bloom and seem glorious enough. Ram a few in now.
But resolve to treat yourself to joys quite unknown by preparing a bed, a very small one perhaps, for planting next fall. I think in the spring I shall feel obliged to list a number of cheap daffodils, costing no more than those you find at hardware stores and shopping centers, that are vastly more beautiful, and I shall list specific sources for them.
There is no point hoping the shopping centers are going to exert themselves to sell really beautiful sorts like 'Ceylon' when it is easier for them to sell whatever the Dutch wholesalers happen to provide them with. Those daffodils that I shall suggest should be ordered in May, and when they arrive in September or October you will be all ready for them. And spring will never be the same again.