Fall color in the trees has been odd this year, beginning is a quite disappointing way but winding up fairly colorful if not brilliant as could be hoped.
I count it a good year when the hackberries (which often do not turn color worth speaking of) shift to a surprising acid chartreuse as they did this year, and when the willow oaks, which usually just turn brownish, turn lustrous yellow-bronze, a very unusual color much admired this year on 46th Street, which is lined with these oaks.
On the other hand my own pin oak has been disappointing, coloring less than in any year I recall. Perhaps it is dying. It is too fine a tree for me to cut down, but if it died there would be more sun.
Another tree we should be thankful for is the silver maple, which in most parts of the world is weedy and short-lived and drops its leaves without color. But in Washington it makes enormous trunks, lives to some age -- indeed is one of the largest trees we see about the city -- and turns a shocking silver-yellow before leaf-fall. The fact that it is a "worthless" tree in much of America does not mean it is worthless here. Though God help any gardener with this tree, since its roots are ferocious and its seed crop is fantastic, so the gardener spends much of the spring pulling out young maples.
Some years the sassafras is one of the most brilliant of trees, while this year it is more subdued, though the colors are equally varied and rich. I think we all like the years in which fall leaves appear to give out their own light, while this year the light merely falls on them. Still, not as bad a year for fall color as we all thought in late September.
As for leaves, most people rake them, because otherwise they blow about and look messy. I never get rid of a leaf, and always fetch in a good many of the neighbors' because I value them (leaves) for compost.
Some years I have worked them into azalea bushes two feet deep, keeping an eye out in the spring if they haven't settled down as much as they should. I once piled leaves four feet high in the fall over a garden bed, and when I planted irises there the following July, they had rotted down to almost nothing, but the irises bloomed the succeeding May with unusual luster.
It is impossible to have too many rotted leaves, or even enough.
Mid-November is a good time to dig up tropical water lilies from the pool to store them over winter in the house. Just dig up the roots with as much mud attached as naturally hangs on, and let them dry out for a week. Then wrangle the dirt off the roots with your hands, taking care not to miss the resting tubers (sometimes no bigger than almonds) at the base of the plant. These tubers may be stored in glass jars with medium-damp (not soggy) sand and the top screwed on. Just set them on a bookshelf in a bedroom, and plant them in an aquarium in March, in four-inch pots, setting them in the outdoor pool on June 1.
Sometimes there are tubers larger than a fist and these are exciting, but often they rot in storage, and even when they don't they are sometimes quite slow to make good plants the next year. But small nut-sized tubers almost always store perfectly and make excellent plants for next year.
Gardeners complain of fish kill in their pools. Theoretically, if a pool is 24 inches deep or deeper the fish should pull through without any protection at all. The usual cause of death is not the cold, but gas from decomposing leaves that have blown into the pool. Such gas rises and is trapped beneath the surface ice, past which it cannot escape. Often the worst damage is done in February or even early March, when nature comes alive and the leaves rot in earnest.
Usually I get in my pool about Dec. 10 and scoop the leaves out with my hand. I have used rakes, but find it's easier to do it by hand in a small pool. Even so, enough organic stuff is left to cause mischief from gas in late winter. One solution is to install a heater, such as farmers sometimes use to keep a horse trough of water unfrozen in a pasture. You only need a small space (my frost-free area is only two feet square) kept ice-free. The gas escapes and fish do not die. You get the heaters at feed stores, and they use no electricity to speak of since they only go on when the temperature drops to 34 degrees or thereabouts. Be endlessly careful with the wiring for such a heater, which of course must be waterproof and designed for the purpose.
People who have planted their tulips on Nov. 11, as recommended, will now feel smug, and may even go out and buy a handful more bulbs. Others, who have not done their planting yet, should try to get the tulips in the earth by Thanksgiving. Early December, at latest. January in an absolute pinch.