Garden Notes : Going native
As the season turns and the sun's rays noticeably lengthen into infrared range, in September things often heat up while the air remains cool. Pots and newly installed plants dry out really fast. We might receive a bonus shot of rain from the hurricanes lurking about, but do not count on it. To ward off defoliation, salt (salt spray carries far inland in aerosol form) must be rinsed off specimen plants immediately if the Island gets high winds without accompanying rainfall.
Dept. of found food
In late August I froze a nice supply of plump dangleberries, which were extra plentiful this summer. Also called blue huckleberries, dangleberries are Gaylussacia frondosa, belong in the Ericaceae along with their blueberry cousins, the Vacciniums, and are one of several species of huckleberry that grow on the Vineyard. The characteristic that distinguishes the fruit of huckleberries from that of blueberries is the crunchy nutlets the fruit contains. The resulting seediness causes some gourmet types, but not my family, to sniff and write off huckleberries as inferior to blueberries.
To write this section I checked numerous Internet sites and two reference books, "The Flora of Martha's Vineyard" and "Native Trees, Shrubs, & Vines" (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) by this weekend's guest presenter at the Polly Hill Arboretum, Bill Cullina. There is a discrepancy between the descriptions of Gaylussacia frondosa: according to "Flora..." G. frondosa is found in dry oak forest, mesic woodland; and according to "Native Trees..." in swamps, thickets, and rich woods. The typical variety forms the woodland understory from New Hampshire south along the Atlantic coastal plain to South Carolina, so is adaptable. Below is my understanding of Vineyard dangleberries, with help from the above sources.
On the Island, G. frondosa commonly mingles with other species of huckleberry, so that blue and black-fruited plants are found together in thickets from knee- to waist-height. The Gaylussacias tolerate drier habitat than most Vacciniums do. The bushes themselves form mats of vegetation by sending out shoots into the layer of wood's duff.
Photo by Susan Safford
Here in Christiantown, dangleberry colonies constitute most of the puckerbrush, but they are interspersed with lowbush blueberry species, Vaccinium angustifolium and V. pallidum, and black huckleberry, G. baccata, here and there. Another plant of dry woodland, Carex pennsylvanicum, the sedge I like, often grows under or around the edges of the dangleberry colonies. G. frondosa leaves are somewhat round-tipped, a glaucous bluish-green in spring, becoming a mature leathery mid-green; it flowers from June to July on thin twiggy spreading branches. Its berries are a dark bloomy blue and are found dangling - hence the name - on short, drooping stalks, which make them nice and easy for children to pick.
Gaylussacia frondosa has high wildlife value: dangleberry thickets provide important cover for wildlife and are an important food source for it (even turtles!), especially for birds. Dozens of bird species either utilize the stands as cover, including mourning dove and eastern towhee, or as food: cedar waxwing, scarlet tanager, and orchard oriole.
I rushed to pick the fruit I froze. During the fall migration, gales of blackbirds blow through our woods with a rushing sound like wind, devouring every berry in sight and stripping those bushes clean. By October the deciduous foliage of the dangleberry colonies is a mass of flaming raspberry-red-to-cerise foliage. Dangleberries' fruit and fall color make them candidates for ornamental permaculture. Though the plants are not common in the nursery trade they might be sourced at nurseries specializing in native plants. The Polly Hill Arboretum plans to propagate dangleberry from seed in the near future. Or find your own clump in an out-of-the-way spot and dig it carefully.
In the garden
Speaking of the Polly Hill Arboretum, the arboretum's signature daylily in my dooryard garden, Hemerocallis x 'Polly Forever,' is still in golden bloom as I write, well into the month of September! I divided the original plant and now have two hefty crowns, each of which threw three sturdy, branched, and bud-loaded stems. I am not familiar with another full-size daylily with such an extended season of apparent non-stop bloom. While technically a late season, re-blooming tetraploid, there has been no break in flowering since the plants started their display in early July.
About late sowings of lettuce, arugula, spinach and radishes: yes, by all means. Keep in mind that the sun itself is lower in the sky so there is less light than in May and June. Things grow more slowly. You might want to start lettuce and spinach in flats in a cold frame or indoors and plant out when they grow several true leaves. Direct sow radish and arugula. Other left over seeds may be stored carefully in a cool dry place and used next year. Territorial Seed Company's fall catalogue contains good information about cold weather crops; or go to them online at territorialseed.com.
Lagerstroemia: late-summer beauty
"One good thing about climate change..." is an introductory phrase frequently heard when gardeners gloat about a once chancy, longed-for plant that now survives in our hardiness zone. So it is with crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) and me. Summer family visits in the Middle Atlantic States were always enlivened by the beauty of these graceful shrubs and small trees decorating the humblest to the stateliest of southern homes, but they were not hardy.
A combination of milder winters and hybridization work has produced advances in hardiness and ornamental qualities. Blooming in white and all the candy colors of garden phlox, crapemyrtles grow as single- or multi-stemmed small trees and shrubs. Their neat, clean foliage glows with radiant fall color, pink to flame to purple, and the bark peels and mottles in a highly decorative way for winter interest. Give plants a sunny location in moist, well-drained soil.