I was driving through Eastborough on Aug. 31 when a wind current full of maple leaves came sweeping down ahead of my car. It was my first experience of fall 2014, causing me to wonder the day before Labor Day: Is this in fact the last weekend of summer, or is it rather the first weekend of autumn?
Then as I was changing my calendars to September, for the first time ever I noticed that the word “ember” was part of the month. Fitting for the transition month to fall, I thought. Embers are one of my favorite parts of the season. Fire conveys the light and warmth that are part and parcel of summer.
Other hints of fall also are upon us. Cool weather this weekend, of course. And Ward Upham of K-State reports in the Horticulture 2014 newsletter this week that “we are seeing a number of trees, especially maples, that are showing fall colors early.” The color isn’t necessarily seen in the whole tree, but often just in sections, Upham wrote.
“As a rule, we consider early coloration as bad news, as it often means the tree is under a great deal of stress,” Upham says. But this year, many of the coloring trees appear to be healthy.
“We think what has happened is the trees have come through a cooler than normal early summer and never hardened off to hot temperatures. Also, many areas are very dry, including some that had heavy rains in June. Now that the weather has changed, the tree is simply entering dormancy early.”
I’m kind of wondering if the same thing didn’t happen to people. I never felt like I got entirely acclimated to summer this year.
Good news for the trees: They have had enough time to store energy reserves to survive the winter, so early turning of the leaves shouldn’t hurt them.
“So, do we need to do anything?” Upham asks. “Yes, we do. Keep the soil moist, as many trees have had root systems damaged from the last couple of years. We need to give that root system time to recover. This is especially important for areas that are still experiencing drought or ... had so much rain earlier in the summer that soils were saturated for a period of time. Lack of oxygen from saturated soils is just as damaging to a root system as lack of water.”
Not all trees that are turning color this early are healthy. My friend Meg notices every year that a bellwether of fall is a stand of maples on West 13th between 119th and Maize, on the south side of the road. Usually they turn beautiful colors, she says, but this year they’ve gone straight to brown.
That’s one reason it’s important to keep adding trees to our landscape. Planting trees in the fall is one of the most satisfying things you can do for the yard. Not only is it a healthy time to get a tree established, it gives you something new to look at out the window in winter. And to think about how new life is just waiting there to break out in the spring.
If your yard is needing some fall color, go to garden centers this autumn and look for trees that are turning the colors you are looking for, so that you’ll be sure to get what you want.
Now how about us? Have we stored up enough energy to get ourselves through winter? Planting trees is one way to do so.
How to buy a tree for fall color
The best way to ensure a tree will produce reliable fall color is to buy and plant it in the fall while it is displaying its potential in the real world. Catalog or online photographs are unreliable, as they can be too easily altered to appear brighter than normal. If you visit a nursery during the fall-color season, you’ll see a tree’s performance.
Planting fall-color trees in autumn is ideal. It gives the young tree all winter and spring before it must withstand the rigors of a hot or very dry summer. If you can plant but one tree, take your time to find just the right one or select a named variety for the color intensity you have in mind. If you get it right, that tree will set off your home landscape reliably each year.