Seasonal clichés

Anemones soak up some sunshine. - Susan Safford

This fall seems to be one with exceptional foliage effects. Do I say this every year? I must — I love autumn. Earlier in the 20th century, autumn on the Island was not much to exclaim over: mostly dull oaks, or worse, trees stripped of foliage and salt-burned from the more frequent tropical depressions that passed by us then.

Along up-Island roadsides the garlands of fiery Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinqueifolia), one of the native vines of Vineyard woods and thickets, are spectacular, justifying the existence of this plant that everyone loves to hate. True, birds spread it wantonly by eating the deep blue fruits, and three-leaved seedlings may be taken for poison ivy, but at this moment its charms outshine the negatives. Let it grow over a lichened boulder.

Seasonal clichés shape gardens

It may be cliché, but the way a garden is planted is often influenced by when the planting is taking place. With spring garden planning or creation, it is hard to ignore nursery displays bursting with spring-blooming shrubs, such as ‘PJM’ rhododendrons, forsythia, and azalea, or bulbs, peonies, and iris.

The garden created in autumn features lots of shrubbery with colorful foliage, ornamental grasses, and late-blooming perennials. Container composition follows similar tropes. Likewise, when we are out shopping for a little something to plant in a gap or a spot that needs reworking, the season influences what is available, what material looks fresh and attractive, and consequently, what we choose.

Right now, ornamental kales, cabbages, and pepper plants, succulents, grasses and sedges such as nassella and carex, and of course asters and ’mums, give you what you need to enhance October — and pumpkin décor — in your garden.

Red and white

Recently I was shopping for plants at Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA); in terms of high autumn effects and color, the influences mentioned above, it was difficult not to want everything in sight. Viburnums, aronias, grasses, disanthus, physocarpus, perennials — in fact, the entire arboretum is bright with color. Red has a sanguine attraction for our human eyes, and I left with enkianthus, Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides, disanthus, hollies — and returned later for aronia. These all bring color to the fall garden.

Floriferous and late-blooming, nothing is finer to pair with fiery autumn foliage or to set off a row of evergreen hedging than dazzling white hybrid Japanese anemones. Graceful and charming, they remain in bloom for months, from August onward. Their bright white flowers signaling summer’s end carry the garden through to its conclusion and the decay and death of winter. For this reason, in China the anemone was traditionally one of several long-lived, ethereal plants used to commemorate the dead.

For offsetting fall foliage, in my opinion the whites are best, although there are equally charming pink to rose forms of hybrid Japanese anemones that fit well with other garden schemes. ‘Honorine Jobert’ is an heirloom, but in my opinion it remains the quintessential white form. ‘Andrea Atkinson’ is a slightly shorter, smaller cultivar with the same overall effect as ‘Honorine.’ Other white flower forms are quilled; I have a cool response to these (just my personal taste).

Windflower anemones will be happiest with, and prefer, some shade and cool, moist soils. They associate well with other plants sharing these preferences, such as hostas and hydrangeas.


As with garden planting design being influenced by the season in which it occurs, so tree and shrub selection is too. It is autumn, and we are having a vivid one, and so it follows that trees that color well should be highlighted. Among the standout trees at PHA at present is the magnificent oxydendrum specimen in the Border, alongside State Road. Quite large and stately for this species, it is a ruddy column, and a species not commonly seen here.

Oxydendrum arboreum is a North American native, but its natural range lies considerably to the south of us, being usually found south of Pennsylvania throughout the southeast, and west to the Mississippi. However, there is no reason not to plant it here. Oxydendrum requires acidic soils and, according to Wikipedia, is frequently seen as a component of the oak-heath forest complex, which see (we can meet the requirements!). According to Dr. Michael Dirr, it is a great choice for infertile, acid soils.

William Cullina also extols oxydendrum, and writes that in open settings, oxydendrum “get to a comfortable 15 to 25 feet and just stay there, slowly growing wider but still retaining their single trunked figure” (“Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines,” New England Wild Flower Society).

It is a splendid ornament for the small garden, eventually achieving a pyramidal shape after a slightly formless youth, and with shining elliptical leaves, deepening and reddening with each October week, and in summer forming drooping clusters of delicate, persistent white flowers at the ends of the current year’s growth.

Also, I am happy to learn that, according to Wikipedia, it is a shallow-rooted tree (I had mistakenly thought it was taprooted). However, there are difficulties in propagating and growing oxydendrum commercially, and also in moving it, according to Dr. Dirr, and so it is best to find a small, container-grown specimen. I found one to plant here eight years ago; it is about 15 feet tall and a continual source of pleasure in my home landscape.

In the garden

Deer are coming out of the woods more boldly now. Wrap, spray, and otherwise protect plants that they, and you, like. They will not hesitate to come in close.

The takeaway from 2016 is that having to cut back vitex and buddleia after the damaging spring cold shocks was scary, but made no difference. They grew and looked well during the subsequent warm months.