It’s Labor Day

And even your flowers know it.

Keep windowbox containers growing well with grooming, feeding and cutting back. This robust example is at CB Stark in Vineyard Haven. -Photo by Susan Safford — Photo by Susan Safford

Labor Day weekend nears; a seasonal turning point approaches. Whether or not it penetrates the conscious mind, everything senses it at the cellular level, including plant life, animal life, and higher vertebrates. It marks the imminence of autumn.

Daylight is now rapidly diminishing (emphasis on d-i-m), while the sun’s arc across the sky is noticeably lower and more southerly. The first day of the fair, two weeks ago, sunrise was at 6 a.m. and sunset occurred at 7:41 p.m.Today those figures are 6:15 a.m. and 7:18 p.m.

Chickens are molting, pets are shedding, vegetables, ornamental annuals, and perennials are ripening their seed or fruit. “Time’s a-wasting away,” and winter will be here before we know it: exercise forethought and try not to put anything off.

Architectural perennial

Echinops (globe thistle, in the Asteraceae) has long mesmerized me, going back to the late 1950s, when it featured in some of the flower arrangements at the fair with the most flair and charm, which were often the work of Alice Matthewson or Ted Meinelt. It is the quintessential flower arrangers’ plant.

My friend’s mother had a large clump of echinops beside her Edgartown barn that grew seemingly effortlessly, year after year. Bold and blue, they were a paragon of rustic style, backed by the simple, white-painted shingle wall, and were probably the form of E. bannaticus, ‘Taplow Blue,’ that was the most available cultivar at the time.

I now know that echinops are indeed trouble-free, almost effortless perennials that shine from July to summer’s end, growing perfectly in well-drained, sunny Island perennial gardens and mixed borders. Deer-resistant and drought-tolerant, echinops’ popularity is increasing, as I found it impossible to acquire more plants after July this year — all my sources seemed to have sold out.

A mature ‘Taplow Blue’ may top out at just below six feet, and will need staking unless grown lean and hungry. The ones I grow are a generally smaller, shorter-growing echinops, E. ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue,’ (about 36 inches high), prized for good reblooming qualities. A friend gave the plant to me some time ago; I have managed to increase it to five repeats in my sunny bed.

Transplanting mature plants is usually discouraged, as, similar to oriental poppies, echinops grows a deep taproot that is easily injured. Propagating is done by waiting until plants are strong enough to produce offsets, and then carefully separating them from the parent plant and replanting. A few echinops come true from seed, such as E. ritro ssp. ruthenicus ‘Platinum Blue.’

  1. bannaticus ‘Blue Glow’ is a recommended introduction, with globes of intense blue (and a reputation for self-sowing). There are about 120 species of ornamental thistle, according to the American Horticultural Society’s “Encyclopedia of Perennials,” not all of them blue, either. E. sphaerocephalus may grow to above six feet, and sports globes of ghostly white. These are most easily acquired from seed, and add architecture to gardens.

Echinops attract large numbers of insect pollinators; seeing them combing over the flowers will gladden your heart. Flowers harvested for drying keep their blue color if they are dried in a warm, dry place; best results may come from harvesting before flowers open.

Dead-leaf echinops to keep plants looking tidy, but leave foliage intact over winter; cut back in early spring. Grow in well-drained soil for best results. Goldfinches and other seed eaters pick over flower heads if they are left to stand.

In case you were wondering …

The August 27 edition of UMass’s Vegetable Notes contains the following information about temperature and ripening of fruits such as tomatoes:

“Steve Reiners, Cornell Cooperative Extension Vegetable Team leader and

horticulture professor writes, ‘Light conditions have very little to do with ripening,

but when temperatures exceed 85° to 90℉, the ripening process slows significantly

or even stops. At these temperatures, lycopene and carotene, pigments responsible

for giving the fruit their typical orange to red appearance, cannot be produced. As a

result, the fruit can stay in a mature green phase for quite some time.’”Cover cropping

The same edition of Vegetable Notes contains information about cover cropping: “Cover crops planted in the fall, preferably before Sept. 15th, are an excellent way to capture and store nutrients for your crops in the following spring … here are some general guidelines for fall-planted cover crops and their spring contributions of plant-available nitrogen (PAN) per acre:

Legume cover crops provide up to 100 lb PAN/a. To maximize PAN contribution from legumes, kill the cover crop at bud stage in the spring.

“Cereal cover crops immobilize up to 50 lb PAN/a. To minimize PAN immobilization from cereals, kill the cover crop during the early stem-elongation (jointing) growth stage.

“Legume/cereal cover crop mixtures provide a wide range of PAN contributions, depending on legume content. When cover crop dry matter is 75 percent from cereals and 25 percent from legumes, PAN is usually near zero.”

In the garden

Supplement chickens’ diet with a higher-percentage protein feed, such as chick starter, or black sunflower seed, as molting proceeds. Egg production tapers off during molt, unless lights on timers are employed. Many growers use them, but others, such as Joel Salatin, claim that the individual hen has a finite number of eggs to lay — you can get them quicker and burn her out, or you can pace them, and eat a nutritionally superior egg when you do get it.

Keep containers growing well with grooming, feeding, and deadheading or cutting back. The nutrients in typical “container mix” are gauged to last a season — about four months — and then may leach out through watering. Supplement with soluble seaweed fertilizer and/or slow-release granules. Seasonal accents such as ornamental peppers, mums, and asters, or small evergreens, can freshen the look.

Dahlias, the September garden mainstay, appreciate extra water and feed now.