Garden Notes: Enjoy the garden now, before…

The “55 mph plant” in the Polly Hill Arboretum display garden is Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar.’ It shares space with ornamental grasses, perennials, and the dark-leaved ninebark, ‘Diabolo.’
Photo by Susan Safford

The “55 mph plant” in the Polly Hill Arboretum display garden is Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar.’ It shares space with ornamental grasses, perennials, and the dark-leaved ninebark, ‘Diabolo.’

Late summer! Its last few days before the autumnal equinox contain a tension similar to that of New Year’s. One finds one’s thoughts flickering back and forth between the summer drawing to an end, its successes and disappointments, and the season to come, hoping always for better gardens, and much more, to take shape.

Impressive flocks of blackbirds have been visiting the oak woodlands nearby. When the flock moves overhead, or shifts from one set of trees to another, an accompanying murmuring of twittering birdcall, as if a strong wind had suddenly sprung up, enlivens the sound. The flocks appear to be composed mainly of grackles, however birds spotted with shorter tails must be starlings, and perhaps other “blackbirds,” such as cowbirds, join these migratory flights. I suppose, since the huckleberries have gone past, the objective must be gorging on the abundant crop of white oak acorns to gain fuel for migration.

Wood, field, and garden are stirring with spiders and caterpillars; or rather, the caterpillars are stirring and the spiders are mostly sitting in their webs, patient and still. I had an amusing encounter at the Fair in August with a girlhood friend. She recounted to me her seriously unpleasant episode with a stinging, bristly Lo caterpillar. She had identified it via the Internet, and did I know it?

Although I did not know the Lo caterpillar, from her vivid, unmistakable description — large, bristly, chartreuse — it quickly became apparent that my friend was speaking of the Io moth caterpillar. We had a good laugh over her misreading of the “I” for an “L.” (If we had been watching the cattle show instead of the horse pull, I might have reminded her of the Greek myth of Zeus and the nymph Io, turned into a heifer by jealous Hera.)

The Io caterpillar, whose beautiful moth is one of the Saturniidae (giant silkworm moths), is capable of causing a painful sting, akin to being burned with acid, should its setae brush against the skin; and it is not the only caterpillar of our woods and fields able to do so. Check clothing, and laundry coming in from the line, for random caterpillars that, unseen, drop down from out of nowhere.

Early holiday shopping

The UMass team produces an attractive, useful item with their UMass Garden Calendar. The 2014 edition is ready to order, with free shipping and handling for up to nine calendars on orders received before November 1. It is aptly designed and laid out, with “eye-candy” plant images for each month; each day’s space containing moon phases and time of sunrise and sunset; and daily gardening tips for Northeast growing conditions. Today’s tip, good to know, is “Ripe apples will snap off the tree if held in the hand and lifted upward.” To order, go to www.umassgardencalendar.org.

Plant of the moment

Experienced garden designers often suggest that each season in a garden should have a “bang” or high point. In late summer, the yellow, golden, and orange flowers are monarchs and rule the eye: species of rudbeckia, heliopsis, helianthus, goldenrod, tithonia, and zinnia, to name some. Where does this leave the yellow-free gardens, when these shades are not part of the color scheme? At a disadvantage.

Let me introduce you to the lespedezas, also known as bush peas. Take a drive to West Tisbury and, as you pass the Polly Hill Arboretum, take in the vision of rich, rosy red, billowing and spilling over the picket fence. This is the “bang” that lespedza can bring to season’s end in your garden.

Being leguminous and fixing their own nitrogen in soil, lespedezas prefer infertile, warm, well-drained sites — typical Vineyard sand plain conditions. No wonder then that rare, wild lespedeza species are found here: “The Flora of Martha’s Vineyard” lists 11 known or historical ones. According to the “Manual of Woody Plants,” (Michael Dirr, Stipes Publishing, Champaign, Ill.) the principal species of lespedeza for garden use however are L. bicolor and L. thunbergii.

L. bicolor includes three named selections: Li’l Buddy, compact, rose purple, three feet after four years; ‘Summer Beauty,’ rose mauve, extended bloom time, to five feet; ‘Yakushima,’ 12-18 inches, tight mounding form. The plants showcased in the Polly Hill border are L. thunbergii ‘Gibraltar.’

Other selections from L. thunbergii include ‘Albiflora,’ a white-flowered, more upright form; ‘Edo Shibori,’ rose-pink and white on a four- to six-foot shrub; and ‘Pink Fountain,’ gracefully arching, up to five feet. An introduced form of a Japanese species, L. liukiuensis, is sold as ‘Little Volcano.’ It is upright with cascading branches, to eight feet high and wide, with fuchsia/red flowers.

Unlike their leguminous cousins the brooms, which are mostly to be had in shades of primrose-to-mahogany in spring, the garden forms of lespedeza are mostly white to bicolor pink to deep rosy red and fit in well in late summer gardens where yellow is banished. Lespedezas harmonize well with dahlias, sedums, Michaelmas daisies, other species asters, and grasses, and they enjoy the same levels of light and attention from bumblebees.

Lespedezas display particularly well on slopes and make a magnificent backdrop to plants in the forefront of the border or garden. Allow for plenty of room unless planting a compact form. Although classed as shrubs, lespedezas may winterkill under some conditions and are generally cut right back to within four or five inches of the ground in early spring.

In the garden

The first to-do commandment is: be out in it and enjoy it, as much as time allows, for summer is coming to an end. Build up your reserves of vitamin D! The rest of the year contains plenty of opportunity for garden work and productive effort, but it is long and humdrum compared to the golden warmth and sunshine of late September.