Garden Notes

Argiope aurantia, the black and yellow garden spider, feeding on a moth. Photo by Susan Safford
Argiope aurantia, the black and yellow garden spider, feeding on a moth. Photo by Susan Safford

Autumn chores and tastes

By Abigail Higgins - August 31, 2006

Labor Day means the end of summer for some on the Vineyard but, officially, this does not occur until Sept. 21, the autumnal equinox. There is plenty to do in the gardens, and I hope we are able to do it on warm sunny picture-book days. A prominent partner in the fall garden is assisted by such weather:

Everyone who gardens seems to have had the experience while working in the garden of suddenly coming face to face with a gigantic garden spider. One day in August, there they are, appearing in the garden seemingly out of the blue, a couple of inches across, dramatic black, white and yellow markings, hanging face-down on their "zipper" webs. These are Argiope aurantia, the colorful black and yellow garden spider. Like Charlotte and her web, they are members of the orb weaver family of spiders, meaning that their webs are the classic, circular construction with radii. Argiope ("ar-GUY-o-pee") aurantia ("o-RAN-tia") build their webs in sunny, sheltered spots in the garden. The web is spun afresh every day, and then eaten at night. The presence of these beautiful creatures is a beneficial one and they need to carry out their life's mission in the peace and quiet of your garden.

Tomato harvest at the Farmers' Market. Photo by Pat Waring
Tomato harvest at the Farmers' Market. Photo by Pat Waring

Having had the just-past summer to observe the garden and make notes, the gardener might seize this time of the garden year to "edit and revise." If plants are growing well, there must be a few in need of being lifted and divided due to size increase. Conversely, plants that have seemed to be short on bloom or vigor may be overgrown; they might benefit from division too. It is a great help to have well-prepared additional space in which to place blocks of the newly created divisions. Lacking that, the gardener will first have to enlarge the bed or make a new one (perhaps it should be phrased "edit and re-trench...") to make room for the divisions.

Bed making is a labor-intensive job amply described in most garden books, so I won't describe it here. I will state categorically that it is always worthwhile to improve the tilth and fertility of your garden soil, in new or existing beds, whether it is ornamental or vegetable. Even with bed space already available, it is worthwhile to take the time to improve it with additional compost, humus, and fertilizer. There will be less transplant shock and less watering required, and the new plants will take off and grow next year.

In addition to all this lifting, dividing, and re-setting of plants, many gardeners are incapable of resisting the purchase of a plant they have fallen in love with. Over time beds and borders become more congested, lose their definition, and become a visual hodge-podge. It has become time to make some painful decisions. What goes and what stays?

Most of us have a garden consisting of one or two borders that must provide multi-season interest. We also usually prefer that they not appear congested. In terms of design and congestion, a typical conundrum is being completely taken with what is currently in bloom, wanting more of it, and relegating "to the back burner" what is passé.

For example, peonies, poppies, bleeding heart, and iris are mainstays of the spring garden; the big astilbe show is over midway through July. I have a heart-stoppingly beautiful turquoise Siberian iris, of which I want a repeat of several more clumps in my dooryard bed. (Can I sacrifice one of the asters or phlox that is doing such a good job right now?) By late summer these are mute in the garden. Nonetheless, they must be provided for; we can't just kick them out.

A partial solution is making an effort to get as much bang for the buck from each plant as possible. Do investigate remontant iris; many are superb additions to the garden, both spring and fall, with a wide range of colors now available. Do choose peonies that exhibit deep fall color in their foliage. Do carefully plant long-season performers like dahlias as close to the crowns of spring bloomers as you dare. Do investigate leaving perennials with interesting deadheads standing, such as rudbeckias, sedums and grasses. They add a lot of fall and winter interest, as well as being a magnet for seed-eating birds like goldfinches.

Ceratostigma plumbaginoides is having its season in the garden now. The low-growing groundcover plant, sometimes called leadwort or plumbago, is about six to eight inches high; a tough wiry little stem topped by small, bright blue flowers the size of a dime. The buds of unopened flowers, which are reddish, supply colorful contrast and in a few more weeks the foliage clinging to the stem will sport a lovely pinkish-red fall color too.

Ceratostigma is happy in sunny sites to part shade. It possesses mildly invasive tendencies where it is happy, but overall is easy to control. I have it in a rock garden sort of situation, knitted with ivy and mat-forming junipers, where it has hung out successfully for many years. This is a plant that will not need to be "edited out of the perennial border," because it can be grown or naturalized in so many other spots.

Tantalizing tomatoes

For first-hand exposure to the properties of an array of heirloom tomatoes, please plan to attend the Tantalizing Tomato Tasting at Polly Hill Arboretum, Saturday, Sept.2, 2 to 4 pm. Although our tomatoes were disappointingly green for the Fair, and I couldn't get a nice matching five among all the disparate pepper varieties we have growing out there in the vegetable garden, they have all hit their stride now and are presenting us with a great crop. It is a pleasure to be able to put them in the freezer in the form of a vegetable stock I first learned to make from my mother-in-law, Marjorie Higgins of Landenburg, Penn. I have printed the recipe in this column before but I think something this useful bears repeating from time to time. It can also be canned or frozen.

Garden Special

Put in a deep stainless steel kettle:

6 sweet peppers, green or red, cut in pieces and seeded
1 qt. diced onions
1 qt. diced celery, coarse stalks and leaves included
1 qt. water or tomato juice

Cook 20 minutes. Add

4 qts. ripe tomatoes, peeled and quartered
3 T. salt
2 T. sugar
1/2 t. pepper

Bring to a boil and pour into hot jars. Process in boiling water 40 minutes for quarts, 30 minutes for pints. Yield: 10 to 12 pints.