Garden Notes : Before winter arrives
Embankments are often spectacular sites for displaying ornamental plantings, or put another way, ornamental plantings on embankment sites are often spectacular, but fiendish too: slopes are precarious to work on, create potential for erosion, and are simultaneously hard to water properly to establish the planting.
A year ago we planted a steep embankment in full sun with a naturalistic assortment of asters, goldenrod, stachys (lambs' ears) and ornamental grasses. The plants used are 'Purple Dome' and 'Hella Lacy' asters, miscanthus and switch grass, Stachys byzantina, and Solidago sphacelata 'Golden Fleece' and Euthamia tenuifolia goldenrods.
The site had been somewhat prepared and mulched by landscapers. The planting used a lot of individual plants (mostly divisions) and was trying, due to the angle of the slope. One year on, dewberry, bramble, and poison ivy, from underlying rootstocks that escaped the landscapers' attention, have resurfaced. Gaps in the planting had occurred when critters, maybe deer, pulled newly set divisions from the soil and left them drying out and dying.
Seen today in brilliant warm sunshine, however, with a multitude of diverse butterflies - monarchs, American ladies, red admirals, and possibly pearl crescents and American coppers - flitting over and feeding on the billowy blue, purple and yellow flowers, the planting looks enchanting and far better than ever imagined. Bee-like pollinators, which may actually be true honeybees, and other insects, are busily working over the flowers alongside the butterflies.
The planting mix has a pleasant scent that carries on the air, probably the Euthamia tenuifolia (also known as slender fragrant goldenrod). The asters, goldenrods, stachys, and grasses have fibrous, spreading root systems that are great bank-holders. So, while only a year old and sure to become much better with time, this bank planting seems successful.
Taxonomy: name changes
It can be irritating to master botanical names, only to have them change into something not even remotely similar to the previous ones. There have been many changes in the taxonomy of the Compositae, the large family of which goldenrods and asters are only one part. These reclassifications have occurred, as botanists are able to peer deeper and deeper into the chromosomes and DNA of their plant subjects and to separate with exquisite accuracy what formerly looked like one large genus into distinct genera.
So it is that the slender fragrant goldenrod is no longer in the genus Solidago but is now in Euthamia. Similarly, asters are now botanically reclassified Symphyotrichum and Eurybia. More on these confusing changes among the Compositae, for those who like to follow up, can be learned from the excellent website, Wikispecies, the free species directory: species.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
Autumn: bed care and creation
One of the inconvenient things for Island gardeners is Island autumn: waiting to put gardens to bed. Despite the seasonal beauty that we all enjoy, having to endure the long wait until it is over has caused me to do some things differently, including mulching. This used to be a cold-weather activity; it now takes such a long time for the leaves to fall and final rake-out to take place that it seems smarter to do it before the leaves even start to drop. So mulch or top dress now.
A technique I originally picked up from one of the Taylor's Guides is the easy way to make a bed, eliminate perennial weeds, or improve the tilth and friability of an existing bed. It consists of sprinkling the ground one wishes to improve with gypsum, laying down wetted sections of newspaper, and covering with composted woodchips to a depth of three to four inches. The gypsum is for opening up the soil (and adding calcium without changing the soil pH), the wet newspaper is for laying a thick smothering layer of something biodegradable in close contact with the soil, and the composted woodchips are for adding "the biology," bringing in the micro-fauna and -flora to inoculate your bed.
Especially good for new ground, the above method is equally good if there is a section of your garden where weeds have gotten away from you over the course of the summer. After a winter's mellowing, the bed should be loose and easily dug, turned, or opened up with a broadfork. The last is what I am doing, having happily acquired a broadfork (one of the much heard-about tools that Eliot Coleman has perfected.)
Already, some plant debris may be cleared away from vegetable gardens, and top-dressing, with compost, manure, or anything of an organic or humus nature, begun. Over-sow with winter rye or other cover crop. It is imperative to clean chimneys now, before cold weather arrives. Save all accumulations of tar, creosote, and carbon on a tarp and spread on gardens. Keep after weeds; they are furiously trying to set seed in a race against time; but save seed of annual vegetables and flowers when possible. October will see seeds of beans, tomatoes, peppers, zinnias, basil - whatever - maturing. The cost of seed will have increased by next year.
Though still early for frost where I garden, it has already occurred in low-lying or flat places around Martha's Vineyard, and can happen suddenly and drastically any time from here on out. I have cleaned out my greenhouse/sunspace and am starting to lug the potted hibiscus, citrus, amaryllis, pomegranates, and the like, back indoors. When you do this, check the bottoms of pots for slugs and earthworms, and give a shake to dislodge any pill bugs, daddy-long-legs, or other fauna that might be strolling through the greenery.
Some plants to be wintered over may be pruned before coming indoors: fuchsias, geraniums, and the shrubs. Others, like clivia and agapanthus, Thanksgiving cacti, begonias, and ferns, are not trimmed, but may surprise by drying out quickly. The air indoors will have less humidity, compared to the outdoor atmosphere; monitor plants until they acclimate.