Cleaning up, leaning ahead

Sweet peas, a mix from Thompson & Morgan, prefer cool weather and are unexpected flowers at Labor Day. — Photo by Susan Safford

Work now, and enjoy the results in next year’s garden. There is much to be done in early September, and throughout autumn, but the tasks lack glamour. Mostly, it is grunt work: digging, dividing, lugging. You will reap the results in 2014, however.

Digging in the border is hard, and there is always the danger of infringing on nearby plants, or slicing into a cache of “no-trace” plants, typically bulbs or spring ephemerals. Likewise, digging and screening compost to replace or augment soil when resetting the divisions is heavy lifting. Prying apart crowns of perennials, whether with back-to-back spading forks, taking a serrated knife to it, or chopping with shovel or ax, sounds violent and often is, accompanied by grimaces or expletives.

For those who like the reassurance of how-to-do-it books, I recommend “Tending Your Garden: a Year-round Guide to Garden Maintenance” (Norton, 2007) by the well-known garden designer and writer Gordon Hayward and his wife, Mary, which details what they and their assistants do to maintain their extensive Vermont gardens. It features a season-by-season, month-by-month breakdown of garden tasks accompanied by plenty of excellent color photographs illustrating the operations.

“The Complete Gardener’s Guide,” (DK , 2011) subtitled “Everything You Need to Know to Create and Care for Your Garden” is just that — answers for everything, on an encyclopedic scale.

When a perennial is ready for division, it may yield more crowns than there is space for. One large clump of phlox, hosta, or daylilies may split into eight or nine crowns with three-to-four stems. While you are deciding how to deploy this abundance, cut the divisions back and plant them up in plastic nursery pots — to be found as trash beside every Island road — water them, and store in a protected place to recuperate. They will do well and even over-winter, after which you can share them with friends or design new plantings to accommodate them.

Preparing and cleaning up the winter quarters of houseplants — and cleaning up the plants themselves — before frost is another tiresome, lousy chore and best not put off. Protracted, mild Island autumns can bewitch us into putting off today what could be done tomorrow, until frost threatens and all the work has to be done pell-mell with headlamps in the dark.

Holiday plants such as Schlumbergera, including formerly Zygocactus, and Hippeastrum (amaryllis) are often treated to a rest period of darkness and dryness to initiate bloom. Now would be the time to place them in unlit cellars or closets.

Unfortunately, dahlias store best when allowed to be frostbitten before they are dug, so this task must wait a while. Take the time to ID them before distinguishing characteristics are lost; unmarked tubers are relatively worthless when color and height are unknown.

Propagate plants, such as pelargoniums, ivies, and begonias that you plan to use next season.

As is well known, deer are fond of apples…. I sprayed the apple and pear trees with Liquid Fence, and while I was at it, anything else that might appeal to curious deer looking for a seasonal change in their menu.

Empty sections of vegetable gardens may be sown in cover crops. In November 2012 I used a combination of oats/field peas in some sections, which were supposed to winterkill. Safely blanketed by the persistent snow cover, the cover crop emerged green and growing in the spring, not what I had planned. I had to take the mower to it. If you must leave your Island garden soon, a fast-growing choice would be buckwheat, which will be killed by frost but remain as debris over the winter, keeping topsoil in place and discouraging weeds and erosion.

Autumn effort, spring reward

Place orders for fall-planted bulbs and seed garlic now, if you have not done so already: the choice is diminishing daily. As I make my way through this gardening life I find that “small and subtle” increasingly fits the bill. I am currently enjoying the miniscule show put on by hardy cyclamen, practically invisible among the Carex pensylvanica beneath an old white oak.

Another modest bulb I plan to add this year, recommended often for naturalizing by Ellen Biddle Shipman, as quoted in Judith B. Tankard’s masterful “The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman” (Sagapress, 1998), is the old-fashioned Narcissus biflorus (now N. medioluteus). It is available, web only, from Old House Gardens,, along with many other treasures that combine beauty and simplicity.

Inscrutable sweet peas

One of the traditional fall projects for gardeners in mild winter areas is the planting of sweet peas. It is hard to tell if we are mild winter gardeners now or not: we seem to fall somewhere in between. Sweet peas in my garden, which were sown indoors in February and planted out as seedlings, have taken their time to bloom. This has never before happened.

Far more usual is to find that these cool weather lovers collapse and shrivel away in July and August after a floriferous early summer show. Now, however, mine are finally covered with frilly flowers, which are fragrant and showy. An added curiosity is the early morning spectacle of hummingbirds picking off, one by one, the fat aphids that cluster on the flower stems. (Note: the whole plant is poisonous — do not use sweet peas as ‘edible’ anything.)

To keep the blooms coming one needs to deadhead the seedpods religiously. For seed saving, one needs seedpods, period. I have had two pods only — two! — so far. Small bumblebees cover the nearby raspberries, so they must not be the means of accomplishing pollination of sweet peas. One Internet source states that sweet peas self-pollinate before the flowers actually open.

Polly Hill Arboretum

Meadowscaping, with designer Theresa Sprague, Saturday, September 14, 1–2 pm.