Garden Notes: Bulbs. tubers, and plans for spring on Martha’s Vineyard

Dahlias take you right up to season’s end. Here, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ accompanied by ‘Beira’ kale, continues to light up the vegetable garden after last weekend’s wet, chilly blow.
Photo by Susan Safford

Dahlias take you right up to season’s end. Here, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ accompanied by ‘Beira’ kale, continues to light up the vegetable garden after last weekend’s wet, chilly blow.

Eighteenth annual Barn Raisers’ Ball, Saturday 7:30 to 10 pm at the Ag Hall. Bring a dessert to share and dance to Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish.

The shift over to bone-chilling weather is met grudgingly. On an October day with temperatures in the forties the blood remains unremittingly sluggish, while on such a February or March day we would be skipping about and enjoying the warmth. Last weekend’s appalling weather, though we were spared snow, added to the growing stack of “wind events” that have blustered the Island this year. My unscientific impression is that we are experiencing more high winds, more often.

Wind is nature’s pruner. In locations where it is unrelenting, wind sculpts all vegetation into the iconic swooshes of the oaks, beeches, and beetlebungs of Cedar Tree Neck, or the massed forms of an Allen Whiting painting. In the shelter of the garden it still finds every weakened thing, be it tree, shrub, loose screen, or vulnerable flowerpot. It lodges leaves everywhere, blanketing objects carelessly left on the ground.

Garden work can seem doleful in fall. The days are no longer golden and pleasant, and what has not previously been done must, regardless of conditions, be finished nonetheless. Foundation plantings and other shrubs close to houses often damage screens by rubbing on them as they rustle in the wind. Prune the plants and store the screens.

Clear gutters now, before winter. They accumulate debris that may impede the flow of run-off, creating potential ice dams. Let fallen leaves remain in shrubberies and beds where earthworms can break them down harmlessly over winter and add a layer of protection to the soil, but rake them from lawns to give the grass air and light.

Dreaming of dahlias

The plant that gives the garden great color and the house great cut flowers, from summer through killing frost, is the dahlia. These flowers take you right up to the end. At the memorial for Ozzie Fischer on October 29, I was dazzled once more by his gorgeous flowers, especially the dahlias, collected, arranged, and displayed by his family everywhere on the buffets and mantel. He had an eye for the subtly shaded and glorious ones.

I am often asked about end-of-season treatment of dahlias. If they have not been frosted, hold off on digging them just yet. Those that have experienced frost can be cut back and carefully dug; frost sends the plant’s energies down into the tubers and prepares them in some way for over-wintering. Lift the clumps and cure a while in a protected place, then bag or store in boxes, milk crates, or plastic bags.

Some experts recommend washing off and turning the clumps upside down while curing, allowing moisture to drain from hollow stems. In an ideal world, all tubers are tagged or somehow identified, which makes sharing the extras next spring even easier and nicer.

Most mail order catalogues will be offering a selection of dahlia tubers for next summer, but for the broadest possible choice, go here: dahlias.net, the Directory of North American Mail Order Dahlia Suppliers, where one finds more links to dahlia categories, sizes, and colors. Have fun!

Achieving something on the same order of obsession as dahlias are tulips, magical spring color therapy that must be planned for, now. Quickly order by mail, or scout out the local suppliers, and put some tulips in, somewhere. More and more tulip varieties are described as “perennial,” meaning they are capable of repeat performance in the garden over a period of years, rather than being one-season wonders. The Giant Darwin Hybrid tulips, often with “Impression” in the name, are one such category. However, one is advised not to cut them for bouquets if one wants them to come back. Deeper planting also seems to improve repeat for some of my tulips.

Plant bulbs — garlic included — in late fall, between the period when the weather cools (so bulbs won’t start to grow) and a few weeks before the ground starts to freeze (so bulbs can form roots to give them nourishment they need to bloom well in the spring). This is usually right after the first hard frost in most areas.

Deer are fond of tulip shoots in spring. Protective cages or your vegetable garden may provide better security for them. Or, experiment with container-planted bulbs, placed out of reach on porches or decks.

Deer ticks and other fauna

Contrary to what many believe, adult deer ticks are a fall and winter presence. Be forewarned: they are abundant now, with each dog at my house collecting dozens when we go for walks. They move fast and can dig themselves in quickly.

Brown marmorated stink bugs, western conifer seedbugs, and hybrid Asian ladybugs are all waiting for the opportunity to enter houses for a warm, sheltered winter. These animals are all recent arrivals that appear to be expanding their territories.

Originating in eastern Asia, the brown, shield-shaped marmorated stink bug is almost as wide as it is long. It first appeared in this country in 1998, and it has become a major agricultural pest. The western conifer seedbug is native to the western part of North America but appears to be expanding its range eastward rapidly. It resembles other so-called leaf-footed bugs and their relatives, the squash bugs. All the above are true bugs, in the order Hemiptera. They possess piercing proboscises, with which they puncture plants to suck out their juices.

Hybrid Asian ladybugs, however, belong to the order Coleoptera, and became prevalent in the northeast around 1994. They are ravenous predators of aphids, often benefiting agricultural crops, and then becoming a mixed blessing when they pile into houses in great numbers, an unnerving experience.