Perennials dress up off-season gardens on Martha’s Vineyard

Extending the color of the fall garden with perennials: regal fern (Osmunda regalis) glows orange-brown in pre-storm light. — Photo by Tony Higgins

Whatever I write ahead of the storm will be entirely beside the point by Thursday when it appears in print, if Hurricane Sandy fulfills dire predictions. Possibly my efforts will even be lost to history through power outage. So I take the opportunity to amuse myself and remain light-heartedly ironic.

Waiting for the storm

They had promised Monday, but now maybe we must wait until Tuesday for the Storm: so say the meteorologists. This is a long while to Wait For The Storm. What kinds of things do people do while they Wait For The Storm? When they write columns while they Wait For The Storm, they write, lose, re-write, and lose, as the power flickers on and off.

Normally there is a frantic period of preparing for storms, comparable to visits from in-laws. But with this Storm, it’s more like suspended animation, because it has been a Long Wait. We must sit at home and Wait For The Storm, as in a pregnant-yet-vacant state, like time spent in the airport departure lounge, neither here nor there.

How do people Waiting For The Storm imagine it will be like, when The Storm arrives? Complete devastation? Hoping we’ll probably squeak through? Is it fear that arises, is it paralysis, is it anticipation, denial, diligence? I hope you are enjoying yourself while you Wait For The Storm (surfers included) and that all here on the Vineyard come through it in safety.

Perennials for fall color

Even without storm damage, flower power is dwindling fast in autumn gardens. A little of the glory lingers on, though, in foliage of trees, shrubs, and certain perennials that color well in autumn, provided conditions are right. Some that easily come to mind are hostas; platycodon; selected peonies, ferns, hardy geraniums, and epimediums; ceratostigma; and richly colored cultivars of grasses such as panicum and schizachyrium.

A dash outside into the wind and spitting rain shows me some additional prospects for fall foliage effects. Large clumps of sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, have turned a striking bronze while shivering their decorative and dangly seed heads, commanding attention. While the regular Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum) remains quite green, the variegated form has bleached out into a luna moth shade that also calls attention to itself in the weird, stormy light.

The strongly clumping Amsonia tabernaemontana and hair grass, Nassella tenuissima, are thrashing about kinetically making a nice picture with nearby mounds of pink and salmon garden ‘mums.

Shade-loving bracken fern has become curled and brown but was until recently a decorative tawny gold, quite effective in flower arrangements. Backed by hardy cyclamen flowers in white and pink, and their ivy-leaved foliage, are the orange-brown fronds of the royal (or regal) fern, Osmunda regalis. The two plants of autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’, are still growing strongly and have a way to go before turning bronzy-rose. By comparison, the neighboring sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) is worthless for fall color, having turned dry and brown weeks ago. It is not called sensitive fern for nothing.

The hardy geranium, G. macrorrhizum, colors dependably if unevenly, but then I have not employed it as a dense groundcover, but rather more sporadically. In those gardens where there are wide swathes of it, this geranium provides heady, glowing red, pink and burgundy foliage effects. Another hardy geranium with dependable fall foliage color is G. sanguineum, the bloody cranesbill. The one I have here, the white-flowered ‘Album,’ has not colored up yet, leaving me with some things to look forward to after this storm mess is behind us.

Likewise, I have not applied myself as assiduously as I might have in spreading my ceratostigma around. Looking it over now I realize that increasing the planting belongs on my endless and growing “must-do” list. Ceratostigma, or hardy plumbago, is a creeping groundcover up to about 15 inches high now displaying its colors, and bright blue blooms too. It is a joy wherever one encounters it, with spoon-shaped leaves in delicious salmon and pink.

Other perennials bearing colorful fall foliage include bergenia, Amsonia hubrichtii, and euphorbias. Platycodon planted where the leaves receive good sun may reward with a blush-tinged clear gold. Colorful named grasses include Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah,’ and ‘Rotstrahlbusch.’

The next time you are buying perennials, consider not only what the plants look like in bloom, but also how they might add foliage color in fall. With some planning, perennial gardens can hold their interest through spring, summer, and fall, and in the aftermath of the storm may provide some cheer in unexpected places.

Deer ticks

Deer tick adults are prevalent in all parts of the Vineyard now, and as people work outdoors clearing away storm debris, they must beware of them. The adults are much larger than the nymph forms; however, they are still initially small before becoming engorged with blood, so are easy to overlook. Investigate every itch and do tick checks before bedtime.

I have two small dogs to go over, and they have been crawling with ticks. Although experts contest the method, I personally find that giving the tick a slight twist as I remove it usually makes it detach cleanly and intact, with a faint pop. In removing ticks from oneself, if it is hard to see, get assistance from someone else. Do not douse the creature with anything to “make it let go.” Doing this may result in the emptying of the tick’s stomach contents into the host.

Barn Raisers’ Ball

The 20th Barn Raisers’ Ball, commemorating the great barn-raising at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society’s then new fairgrounds, will be held this Saturday, November 3rd, from 7:30 to 10 pm. Bring a dessert for six to share.