Garden Notes

Aster bush. Photo by Susan Safford
It has been a good year for asters. This white beauty is a Monte Cassino. Photo by Susan Safford

Autumn reflections

By Abigail Higgins - October 12, 2006

Thanks to all who helped make the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society's Harvest Festival Sept. 30 a success. Beautiful weather, a mellow mood, horses, antique engine sound effects, and a communal meal and dance helped to usher in autumn properly.

The October full moon came and went under windy, cloud-filled skies, which probably spared many Island gardens from frost. Monarch butterflies have been congregating in large numbers and feeding heavily upon asters and buddleia, presumably readying for their long migration south. We were able to count 15 on one patch of deep purplish-blue aster 'Hella Lacy' with more fluttering overhead in the air. What a picture!

It has been a great year for asters, cultivated and wild. With the timing of the precipitation we had in September, they have lasted a long time and held up well. Of course, they complement mums, which lack real blue tones, but asters are also good permanent additions to the garden in their own right. I would encourage gardeners who wish to extend the season of their gardens to use more of them.

Sumac leaves. Photo by Susan Safford
Colorful sumac leaves.

Many gardeners plug mums into all the spaces that have become empty one way or another, and then heave the mums onto the compost pile once their job is done. Asters too can be used that way, but they do so well in Island gardens, and seem so at home here, that I would like to see them left to grow. Asters may be prone to mildew and the billowing tall-growing varieties may lean. My advice is to water well, apply an anti-desiccant, and pinch or shear back the plants throughout the early season. Mildew appears on many plants, in addition to asters, at this time of year, because of the cooler nighttime temperatures, heavy dewfall that leaves foliage wet, and generally dry soil conditions. Even well-grown plants belonging to above-average gardeners have been known to mildew at this time of year.

I like the Wood's series ('Wood's Purple,' Wood's Pink,' 'Wood's Blue,') low-growing asters with daisy flowers about the size of a quarter. Another low-grower is aster 'Purple Dome' which is appropriately named. A later one, an enormous fleecy cloud of white, is Aster pringlei 'Monte Cassino.' I have it in my doorway garden where it is worth the end-of-season wait. Look too for a less-known aster, A. oblongifolius 'Raydon's Favorite,' two-feet tall with fragrant foliage and showy blue to lavender flowers. SBS had pots of Chrysopsis falcata, the sickle-leaved golden aster (of sandplain habitat) for sale this year.

Sumac berries. Photo by Susan Safford
Bright red sumac berries. Use the berries to make tea.

Chores and treats

Continue to cut back and clear out what has become spent, in both vegetable and ornamental gardens, unless you intend to leave seed heads for finches. Deadhead Montauk daisies (Nipponanthemum nipponicum) when blooms have gone by to prevent seedlings popping up all over the place next year. If you are cover cropping, it is perfectly fine to sow a section at a time, as the space becomes available. Owners of mint patches may want to check the expansion of these aromatic invaders over the past summer: "a little mint goes a long way." Pull up the extensions, which grow just under, or at, the surface -preferably when the soil is moist. Then they will pull right up. This is a good time to collect the leafy parts to dry for mint tea. I tie them into bundles and hang them in the overhead. They dry out quickly and are better than store-bought. And speaking of beverages: I meant to bring up the subject of sumac lemonade a couple of columns ago but ran out of space before I could fit it in. Trudy Taylor of Stonewall Pond is a great cook and exponent of culinary lore. She introduced me to sumac lemonade. The sumac is now coloring up brilliantly in waste places and roadsides so the red cones of berries may be passé for making the delicious astringent drink; but they are probably okay. According to the Vineyard's late Nelson Coon in "Using Wayside Plants" (Hearthside Press Inc., New York, 1969) "The element of the sumac in which we are interested is in the berries which, because of their malic acid content, are the source of a pleasant and pretty drink.... A drink so made resembles pink lemonade and is refreshingly palatable."

Sumac lemonade

Soak a stalk of tightly packed red sumac berries in cold water overnight. Strain through several layers of cheesecloth to remove the berries and their hairs. Sweeten to taste with sugar or maple syrup.

I am sowing a few things now, among them a fall crop of dill, greens, and leek seed. My permaculture way with leeks is to leave the seed heads from old leek plants laid down on the soil; they will germinate like a wild green hairball. Let the little plants grow on for a while, until they are big enough to handle easily. Then line them out in trenches to grow over the fall and winter, gradually drawing in the soil to fill the trench. They will make pencil leeks this year, which are fine for soup making and flavoring. Next year most of them will be fine fat leeks too, although some will bloom.

I have yet to receive my seed garlic order, placed during the summer. Presumably it will be here shortly. The cloves are separated and planted about two inches deep and four inches apart in double rows about four to six inches apart. Plant them in good fertile soil. They send up a little sprout or two. That is all you will see over the winter but early in the spring they will leap into growth and continue to grow until harvested in July.

Likewise, lift and divide narcissi for replanting now. If you have not done so already, place orders for spring blooming bulbs.

On Saturday, Oct. 14, from 1 to 3 pm, join Holly Bellebuono of Vineyard Herbs for a salve-making workshop at the Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA). This is Holly's 10th year as a medicinal herbalist. Having recently relocated to the Vineyard, she has reopened the herbal business she ran in Boone, N.C. Her fun, hands-on workshop starts with a walk to identify medicinal weeds and herbs on arboretum grounds. Then Holly will lead the group in making oil infusions and beeswax-based ointments. Learn practical knowledge on when and how to use herbal salves and take home your useful creation. Supplies are included. The cost is $40 or $35 for PHA members. To register, call 508-693-9426.