Garden Notes

Pruning lavender branches. Photo by J.W. Smith
Pruning lavender branches. Photo by J.W. Smith

Autumn abundance, food and flower

By Abigail Higgins - September 14, 2006

The Island's woodland highways and byways are lined with a beautiful array of September asters and goldenrods. It is worth taking a closer look for inspiration in working with shady areas in one's own garden. An extensive drift of Aster divaricatus, the white wood aster, can be found alongside Christiantown Road. No one planted this miniature galaxy; no one tends it. It is sited in morning shade but receives afternoon sun. Aster divaricatus is well adapted to the increasing shade that occurs as gardens mature or in the less-formal areas of one's property beyond the garden.

Rick Darke, in his beautiful book "The American Woodland Garden " (Timber Press, Portland, Ore., 2002) has well documented the premise that we already live amidst a garden, that of our native woodlands. All we need to do is to look with a knowledgeable eye and to lightly edit. To quote from "The American Woodland Garden" on the subject of Aster divaricatus: "These are tough, widely adaptable, and durable plants, valuable for the groundcovering qualities of their foliage as well as for their flowers.... Though adaptable enough to withstand nearly full sun if conditions are moist, white wood aster is also able to grow in the dry shade below shrubs."

Look for plants of Aster divaricatus in starry bloom on your property from late August on and well into October. They transplant well and individual plants could be moved to create a swathe such as the photo shows.

Lavender pruning

I have received feedback concerning lavender pruning in a previous column (17 August Garden Notes). I wrote, "...deadhead lavender and prune it too. The mounds will become denser and harden off their new growth before winter." This apparently led to confusion, for which I apologize. Let me clarify.

Deadheading means to cut off flowering heads, stems, stalks. In the case of lavender, the flower is on a stem that arises from the leafy, shrubbier growth of the body of the plant. Please do not confuse the use of the word prune to mean something like "stooling-back the plant to the nibs"! Sub-shrubs like lavenders need the protection of their old wood to winter over safely. So first, take off the part of the lavender with the flower, cutting at a node near where the stem changes from green to brown. Once there are no flowering stems, the entire plant can be shaped ("pruned," "given a haircut") to improve and tighten the mounding form.

Some shorten back branches individually with pruners, as the photo illustrates. Some do this with hedging shears, and, if there are a lot of lavender plants, that would be quicker. However, unless one wants balls or other uniform shapes, it is better to do it by hand so each lavender plant can express its individuality.

One further caveat: it is now mid-September, not mid-August. Lavenders in certain locations may not have time to harden off properly before cold weather if pruned now. But even if you think it is too late to prune your lavender, it is not too late to put down a layer of coarse sand, crushed scallop shell, pea stone, or other free-draining gravelly material around the base that will keep the plants drier and free of rot over the winter. This can be done at any time.

Bean harvest

Moving to the vegetable garden, I want to mention green beans. We grew pole bean 'Blue Lake' and a good three-crop succession of bush bean 'Provider.' The bush beans are a bountiful crop with a solid, workman-like flavor but they are nowhere near as flavorful as the pole beans. There is no question about the superiority of the pole beans, to our taste. And wouldn't you rather harvest standing upright instead of bending or crouching?

I have been putting a good quantity of both kinds in the freezer, both whole and frenched. (Frenching, slicing by drawing beans through a cutter with sharp parallel blades, is also how one can utilize beans that grow several days more mature than is ideal.) Carbon steel vegetable peelers from four or five decades ago came with a bean-frencher at the end of the handle, but the manufacturers of the less satisfactory modern versions (often with dull stainless steel blades too!) have in their wisdom eliminated this feature. Sometimes the older peelers with the bean frencher turn up at rummage sales or thrift shops. Special bean-frenching gadgets can sometimes be found in suppliers catering to old-time lifestyles, like Lehman's or the Vermont Country Store.

The pole beans are on a bean teepee and on the high fence surrounding the garden. A teepee is made at the beginning of the garden season by planting five six-foot (or longer if available) bamboo poles in a circle about 40 inches across and lashing the ends together at the top with garden twine. Three seed beans, covered in inoculant, are planted at the foot of each bamboo pole. Remember that pole beans take about 70-plus days to maturity, compared to the shorter 50 to 60 days of bush beans.

An ornamental bean, the lablab or hyacinth bean, can be grown this way too, on a high fence or a teepee, to jazz up your vegetable patch. It is a dramatic focal point, with fragrant lavender and white blossoms on strong growing vines to ten feet or more. (The shining purple pods, similar to lima beans, are actually edible when small, though I am usually not all that hard up for beans.)

After we have eaten a certain number of dishes of fresh buttered green beans, I start looking for other recipes to vary the harvest. Here is one for frenched beans that is casserole-like and tasty. Other garden vegetables, like shredded cabbage or broccoli flowerets, can be substituted and it can anchor a light supper.

Green Beans Supreme

2 pkgs frozen frenched green beans or equivalent amount fresh
2 T. butter
1/3 c. chopped onions
2 T. flour
1 t. salt, 1/4 t. pepper
1 c. sour cream
1/2 c. sharp cheddar, shredded

Cook beans as usual and drain. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the onions in it until tender. Add flour, salt, and pepper, mixing well. Carefully blend in the sour cream - do not boil - and heat thoroughly. Stir the sour cream mixture into the beans and turn into a casserole or gratin dish. Top with the shredded cheese. Bake for 15 minutes at 350F. Six to eight servings.