The past week's cold snap brought an end to many garden annuals. Montauk daisies seem to bring light, an air of brilliance, to everything in their proximity, while garden 'mums deepen the palette of autumn gardens. Vineyard woodlands have remained remarkably green for the middle of October, but that is all about to change as trees teeter on the edge of fall color. The season marches onward.
Autumn berries: Dogwood fruit
While the foliage of trees is undergoing the changes associated with autumn color, the berried fruits of trees and shrubs also move forward into prominence and, suddenly it seems, the dogwood, skimmia, winterberry, viburnum, and hollies have become noticeably decorative, reminding me that the Holly Society's programs start today and run through October 25 at the Mansion House.
The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), known as the paramount native ornamental, is prized in the garden and the larger landscape for its multi-season value and displays. Its mention brings to mind, first and foremost, images of cloud-like white or pink bloom in May, arranged on a pleasingly horizontal framework of slender branches. In the winter landscape the branches and over-all habit are beautiful and interesting. They are especially so when there is a heavy set of flower-containing buds, which are prominent and ogee-shaped.
Throughout summer in green leaf, however, the dogwood seems to slip out of focus, unless it is housing a nest of vociferous catbirds. As cooler weather reappears, dogwood's foliage returns it to prominence, slowly becoming a rich, ever-brighter assortment of reds. This fall coloration is so brilliant that the glossy fruits, or berries (actually "drupes" containing one or two seeds), may be overlooked; but as the photo shows, a good fruit set on Cornus florida is showy in its own right.
There is much concern about disease in Cornus florida, primarily an anthracnose, Discula destructiva. Some go so far as discouraging its planting at all and recommend instead Cornus kousa, a relative from another branch of the family (also a fine plant). While it is a tough time in general to be a tree, with diminishing air purity a pervasive problem everywhere, it seems that C. florida does well on Martha's Vineyard, if its role as an understory tree is respected.
The trees of the understory constitute a lower, smaller layer in and on the fringes of deciduous woodland. Other examples with similar requirements are redbud, witch hazel, and amelanchier. Shady or partially shady settings in moisture-retentive, humus rich soils are generally what understory trees choose for themselves. If we do likewise in siting them within our gardens and landscapes, dogwoods will have fewer problems.
If flowering dogwood is an understory tree, so might the Eastern bluebird be described as an understory bird, preferring as it does, the open edges of woods and pastures, and eating berries and insects. Programs of bluebird encouragement are widespread in our state, based on nesting boxes and habitat restoration. In learning more about the fruiting aspects of Cornus florida I have read that, not surprisingly, the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) is particularly fond of dogwood fruits.
The flesh of dogwood fruits is higher in fat content than many berries. The berries are the favored autumn food of Eastern bluebirds. They may be collected and stored under refrigeration, to be fed later on to over-wintering bluebirds. If not collected - and this would be done right now - flocks of other species, cedar waxwings or robins for instance, will come through and strip the trees overnight.
Before I attract criticism from partisans of robins and cedar waxwings, let me hasten to affirm my affection for these species as well. Maybe the larger point is that our gardens can and should be oases not only for ourselves but also for as many layers of life as we can make provision for. Sending off flocks of migrating birds as well fed and fit for their journey as possible is a contribution every gardener can make. Providing habitat and winter fodder by means of garden design and planting for species that over-winter here adds to our hobby's productive usefulness.
I utilized a break in the weather to broadfork and cover crop one quarter of the vegetable garden. The rest is still occupied, although sometimes I want simply to tear everything out and be done with it! I restrain myself, as I know there are still plenty of good eats out there.
My fall soil test indicated that all values were high and that the only adjustment necessary is on-going manure/nitrogen. I made a light sowing of winter rye, over-sown with nitrogen-fixing red clover, which must be rained-in by now and on its way to germination. The idea is cover crop/green manure. The cover crop germinates and holds the soil in place over the winter, displacing weed growth, and is then mowed and cultivated in, before the garden is returned to use in early April. Its breakdown feeds and conditions the soil, the "green manure" component of this plan.
Tender perennials: Vacation's over
My unused greenhouse/sunspace accumulates unbelievable amounts of dirt over the course of the summer. I vacuumed it well after emptying it at the start of "outdoor summer vacation;" nevertheless, it needed a thorough cleaning once again before I could replace the plants. Bringing plants indoors involves cleaning sides and base of soil, checking for acorns, slugs, earthworms, or pill bugs; and cutting back top growth. Occasionally it is imperative to up-size pots; or, better but more work, prune the root ball and replace part of the potting mix in the cleaned container before the root ball is returned to it. This is usually accompanied by trimming back the top parts of the plant.