Garden Notes

A Bertie Ferris hybrid lily: Photo by Susan Safford
A Bertie Ferris hybrid lily in all its orange glory. Photo by Susan Safford

Hydrangeas are at their spectacular best

By Abigail Higgins - July 20, 2006

Whatever we have to say about the summer of 2006 when it has passed into garden history, we shall remember how spectacular the hydrangeas were. Wet weather shortened the spectacle of peonies, delphiniums and astilbes, but how it has favored the happy hydrangeas!

We are actually on the downhill side of summer now, as unwelcome as that observation may be, and it behooves us to get our successional fall vegetable plantings in the ground. I am indebted to Alan Wilder for a sowing of Macomber white winter turnips. The seed originated locally in Westport and was saved there by a friend of his. In addition to turnip and rutabaga, cole crops for fall are cabbage, kohlrabi, collards, mustard, and turnip greens, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Keep going with sowings of bush beans, carrots, radicchio, and beets.

Dill, peas, lettuce, and other greens like arugula are a little more challenging during the heat of the dog days because they want to bolt in a flash. (Floating row covers, cooling mulches, and ample water may all help.) But they are really happy in the fall garden provided it continues to receive enough light as the daylight hours shorten, so they need to be sown. Order garlic and shallot bulbs now.

Most of us with even a small garden are able to harvest bouquets now. The annuals such as zinnia, cornflower (bachelors' buttons), snapdragon, cosmos, dahlias, and many more are all coming in, in abundance. To keep them that way, deadhead regularly or pick and give away as many bunches of flowers as you can. Scratching in a light side dressing, with fertilizer or blood meal, will perk up annuals' performance if they seem to have become exhausted.

On the other hand, biennials and short-lived perennials, the plants such as digitalis, gloriosa daisy, lychnis, certain poppies, and hesperis (dame's mantle) do need to set seed in order for their presence to continue effortlessly: a little less tidiness with them!

The need for staking with some of these will become apparent too. The precedent this year of heavy rainfall and windiness could spell trouble for blossom-laden tall plants, such as sunflower and tithonia, dahlia, and mature cosmos. With the unrelenting things we all must do, like go to work, cook meals, housekeeping and bill-paying, keeping the garden flowers perfectly staked and supported is likely to come in last. Still, the heartbreak upon viewing cracked and broken garden wreckage is great: so lay in a supply of stakes and twine and try to do a bit here and there.

Nurture your perennials

In the perennial garden it is time to deadhead the early astilbes and aruncus, whose presence in the garden was sadly cut short by wet weather. Perhaps the later ones will fare better. Daylily season is coming on in a big way. Deadhead them to avoid the dangling "used Kleenex" effect of mushy, passé flowers. (An insect update for this week from the UMass Extension Turf Program, submitted by Dr. Pat Vittum: watch for large flights of Oriental beetles. The adults have been prevalent on daylily blossoms. For details, see: )

Many of the wonderful daylily hybrids available now have a habit of extended periods of bloom, or are remontant. They may also throw new leaves more or less continuously, in which case the older, outer ones will become brown. Deadleaf these to improve the looks of your clumps; ditto the outer leaves of rhizomatous iris. Sidedress with fertilizer too as daylilies are heavy feeders.

From time to time in this column I have mentioned the international movement, Slow Food, and how its aims intersect with those of many gardeners, hunters, fishermen and cooks - in short, all those who like to grow, catch, and savor their food and drink. Slow Food MV, our local chapter, with the help of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society, is pleased to invite those with similar appetites to a community potluck dinner at 6:30 pm at Agricultural Hall, Thursday, July 27. The after-dinner speaker will be Joan Nathan, the well-known cookbook author who is a seasonal Island resident.

In her latest book, "The New American Cooking" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2005, 447 ppg, $35) Ms. Nathan pays her respects to American food and cuisine with a volume composed of recipes and food stories from all over the country. (A story about Ms. Nathan and her book appears in Calendar, page 2.)

It is great reading entirely apart from the cooking aspects, because Ms. Nathan writes so engagingly about the history, personalities, and provenances of the foodstuffs, their producers, and the cooks. Likewise, she tips her hat to Martha's Vineyard with numerous mentions and recipes. One of the many parts I liked was about oysters. In a sidebar/interview about farmed oysters with Roy Scheffer of Edgartown, she quotes him:

" 'From Newfoundland to Texas, you have the same American oyster,' Roy explained to me. As for the old wives' tale about not eating oysters in months that end with 'r,' he added, 'It used to hold weight, but that was before the big 'r' for refrigeration.' Great news for someone who, like me, was unaware of this development!"

So, now that we have year-round oysters, I hope someone will take the hint and bring an oyster dish to the Slow Food MV potluck dinner. A gardener might bring this great sounding dish (of New Orleans origin):

"Stir-fried Turnip and Mustard Greens with Kale"

4 medium onions, halved

1 cup water

4 lbs. mixed kale, turnip, and mustard greens

1 stick salted butter salt & freshly ground pepper to taste hot sauce.

Put the onions in a large Dutch oven or a heavy saucepan. Pour water over them and set on low heat. When the water starts to simmer, cover the onions with the greens (if all the greens don't fit, add only half at first. Cover the pot and simmer for 10 minutes, then add any remaining greens.

Drop in the stick of butter, cover the pot, and continue simmering slowly, stirring the greens every 15 minutes or so, until the onions are very soft, about 1.5-2 hours. Add additional water if necessary. When the onions are completely soft, add salt, pepper, and hot sauce to taste. Giving everybody a half onion and some greens, turn out into individual shallow soup bowls with some of the liquidincluded, or serve them on a plate with a cup of liquid on the side.