Living Local Harvest

Dahlias grown in vegetable garden. -Susie Safford

Tomorrow night kicks off the annual Living Local Harvest Festival at Agricultural Hall, with Susan Klein from 6 to 8 pm sharing a program about “back in the [Island] day.” Saturday, Oct. 1 brings a daylong program of demonstrations, local vendors, and music, followed by a community dinner and dancing. Please go to for more information about this wonderful event; Friday evening’s and Saturday’s daytime events are free.


Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) is in full sway and causing misery in many allergy sufferers who persist in the belief that goldenrods and asters are to blame for it.

The distinction between them is that ragweed, and grasses also, are wind-pollinated, releasing pollen easily, while goldenrod and asters, both in the Asteraceae, are insect-pollinated, meaning they don’t throw their pollen around!

What that means is that plants such as asters and goldenrods are dependent for ensured pollination upon pollinating insects to carry their pollen from one flower to another. Ragweed’s pollen is airborne, and thence, irritatingly, goes right into your nasal passages, sinuses, and lungs.

According to “Weeds of the Northeast” (Uva, Neal, and DiTomaso), common ragweed is prevalent in most cultivated crops, landscapes, roadsides, and waste areas. Indifferent to soil preference, it does not tolerate frequent mowing, so is not a lawn problem. Ragweed is nondescript, but learn to recognize it if you have allergies at this time of year. Then you can eliminate it.

Seasonal garden effects …

Seeds, berries, and foliage effects eventually take the place of floral ones in the fall garden, but first the color palette seems to climb to an apogee of yellow and gold in late September, with many members of the large Asteraceae family of composites, such as rudbeckia, heliopsis, coreopsis, dahlia, and helenium, in glory. The purples and blues of many aster cultivars, along with those of many ornamental cabbages and kales, contrast beautifully with these warm, glowing colors.

Many of you may have aronia and switchgrass already growing on your property, in an outlying or less gardened section, but these should also be considered as cultivated plants to be placed and planted for extended-season beauty. They form a combo of my favorite plants for autumn color: the shrub aronia (Aronia arbutifolia, and A. melanocarpa) faced down with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum): these are native here on Martha’s Vineyard.

Starting intermittently in August, aronia, especially A. arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima,’ is a source of brilliant red leaves, until the foliage rivals burning bush, or euonymus, later in the fall, while switchgrass ages to various complementary shades, from blond to burgundy, and masks the sometimes leggy growth habit of the aronia.

Especially colorful switchgrass cultivars include ‘Shenandoah,’ ‘Ruby Ribbons,’ Rotstrahlbusch,’ ‘Rehbraun,’ and the extremely tall ‘Warrior.’ Look for them at garden centers and nurseries.

… And more

As plants’ dark-colored pigments, anthocyanins, have penetrated the consciousness of researchers always on the lookout for additional sources of antioxidants, aronia fruits are receiving a closer look. Aronia melanocarpa contains some of the highest levels of anthocyanin in any fruit or vegetable, according to a table in Wikipedia ( These antioxidants are thought to scavenge free radicals and contribute to the healthful qualities of foods that contain them. Other high-anthocyanin foods include eggplant, cranberries, cherries, blueberries, plums, and grapes. A Czech friend describes aronia cordials and wines as being popular in Middle and Eastern Europe, and thought of as health beverages.


Dahlias are one of the colorful and bright spots of the fall garden; their popularity is currently returning from the outer realms of 20th century taste. The garden arbiters had banished them decades ago by decreeing a palette of tasteful, quiet whites, pale pinks, lavenders, and blues. Where would a riot of hot fuchsia, orange, yellow, scarlet, and screaming pink — topping four and five feet — fit in?

As it turns out in re-evaluating dahlias, there are plenty of entrancingly subtle shades and hues in them, if that is what one desires, but the 21st century garden does seem to appreciate something more assertive. And since dahlias are among the best cut flowers, growing them in the vegetable garden is an option to maintain tasteful decorum in the garden proper, if necessary.

My dahlias mostly live in rows in the vegetable garden, tied to stakes that are planted at the same time the tubers are, while shorter ones, such as ‘Firepot’ and ‘Terracotta,’ grow in borders. I start these in bulb pans and dampened Pro-Mix as early as I can, ideally at the beginning of April, when sometimes it provides indoor work during bad weather. Each tuber gets a label that stays with it all the time it is in the ground, so its identity is known when it is dug and stored over winter.

By this time in the season, many of these plants are large, and get quite top-heavy. The top-heaviness may require a good deal of support and trussing of the plant for it to remain intact during windy weather. When deadheading or picking a bouquet, cutting stems back by several nodes better contains size, because the laterals will bush out from lower down. You might sacrifice several buds, but dahlias are accommodating, and the laterals will grow new ones quickly.

In the garden

Cutdowns — removing all the foliage down to plant’s crown — have commenced. Some of these that are perennial, such as daylilies, may regrow a tuft of new basal foliage. Others, such as phlox or peonies, will not. The fastidious and orderly gardener marks all these plants’ locations now that their identifying characteristics and locations are less clear, but many gardens are just fine without this extra step. The action of frost on markers is usually to leave them on the soil surface before winter is over, anyhow.