One of the oddities of recent Island weather is its spottiness, with different towns receiving a shower or downpour while others are blanked for rainfall. Irrigation, despite its advantages, is nothing like natural rain. Last week’s timely 1¼ inches washed foliage, settled dust, and cooled the air. It appears that the weekslong Island drought and heat wave is abating, although not breaking.
I have to plant the things that will do well in the circumstances I have. Having to think about many gardens belonging to other people during the rush season, thinking about my own often gets the short end. I am frequently surprised to miss something, such my 40-year-old gardenia in bloom, or sweet peas hiding behind tomato vines. Worse are the fully mature weeds bullying desirable perennials that elude my too-quick once-overs.
What is important to me? What can I realistically care for? How can I strategize to get results that are not an embarrassment, and still have free-range chickens?
The work gardens receive attention, while the home one receives triage. I find that my vegetable garden is most important, probably because it is a different kind of gardening from the day’s work. Plus, it is like my grocery store. Moreover, finding ways to get results that economize the time I put in challenges me. This means labor-saving, and recognizing and setting crops and ornamentals that self-sow: arugula, cilantro, leeks, lettuce, radicchio, even some tomatoes, plus biennials such as lychnis, foxglove, lunaria, and poppies.
The work gardens for the most part are planned for flowers and color. At home what gives me some of the greatest pleasure is the placement of Japanese maples, seedlings I planted 35 years ago, whose foliage performs as a dynamic tapestry cooling the grounds and screening the road. They supply plenty of color come October.
My self-help innovation has been using cardboard mulch in the vegetable garden aisles. Print-free cardboard is abundantly available, suppresses weeds, holds moisture, and becomes a platform for on-the-spot weed composting. I have henhouse bedding to add, accelerating the breakdown process.
The work gardens mostly have irrigation systems, which we take for granted and depend upon. However, there is nothing like drought to reveal their Achilles’ heels. Knowing the plants your garden can support without extraordinary measures is worthwhile knowledge, but is acquired by trial and error: Almost everyone has wished-for plants they cannot grow, but it is often learned the hard way.
At home, bulb lilies have long been reliable, eye-catching color, with fragrance as a plus. This year, however, deer decapitated most before I could spray repellent — there are no side sprouts on monocots! I am left unhappily with a few awkward pompoms of dramatic color arising from beds of greenery.
Some perennials are more dependable performers than others, and those prove their worth. I can supplant with ornamentals in containers and in the vegetable garden for cutting. The reliables can be padded out with annuals. At my dry, unirrigated garden, reliables include verbena bonariensis, irises of many kinds, hemerocallis, peonies, rudbeckias, phlox, platycodon, lespedeza, and salvia. They still depend on repellent protection.
It is worth respecting the trees you have, too. This year’s drought has demonstrated the power of tree roots to outcompete perennials, groundcover, and grass for moisture. On the plus side, several mature trees can provide unparalleled air conditioning. Avoid planting those with shallow root systems if they are to co-exist with a garden. Lindens and catalpa provide some of the best shade.
Gardeners are by nature optimistic, though, and one season’s shortcomings stand as topics and challenges for next year.
Perennial Plant of the Year 2018: Allium ‘Millenium’
This year’s Perennial Plant of the Year (PPY) is a desirable, long-season performer for full sun. It combines heat and drought tolerance and extended bloom during that late-summer flat period, July-August, when many gardens quiet down and lack color.
Allium ‘Millenium’ is well worth looking for and paying the premium price. An onion relative that could be described as fancy, long-blooming chives, ‘Millenium’ has shiny, deep green, strap-like leaves that form a neat mound. Out of it emerges a succession of flowering stems bearing long-lasting, two-inch rose-purple ball-like flowers. Once started, they keep on coming throughout the rest of the summer. Unlike chives, however, these plants do not self-sow. ‘Millenium’ is deer- and rabbit-resistant, and makes a wonderful addition to the dry garden.
Deer-resistant! Colorful! Attracts butterflies! Quite often I hear people enthuse how they just love buddleia and helping butterflies. Likewise, many landscape designers recommend ornamental grasses as a one-stop solution to landscape quandaries.
As with my PPY endorsement above, many plants enter the landscape trade strongly recommended and promoted. Plants seemingly best adapted to Island conditions have become unintended escapees. Sometimes they sprout unanticipated characteristics and become headaches. The pair pictured are growing in the wild along Christiantown Road.
Buddleia is able to thrive in dry, sandy soil, all while providing colorful, nectar-rich flowers that lure adult butterflies and setting thousands of seeds per plant. Warm-season grasses Asian miscanthus and pennisetum (fountain grass) are largely drought-tolerant, and are left alone by deer and rabbits, while supplying dynamic grace and movement in naturalistic gardens. The wind floats their seeds.
Both grasses and buddleia have become common nuisances, appearing in pavement cracks and byways all over the Vineyard. Buddleia is annoying when it sprouts in hardscapes. The grasses are regularly seen growing on roadsides.
Increasingly one sees the phrasing “great native grass substitute for miscanthus” in catalogues and websites, recommending substitution of native North American grasses, such as panicum and schizachyrium.