Meadowsong is cranking, and the roadside stands of goldenrod are like nothing so much as ground-level sunshine. Drought persists. Trees, understory, and perennials all exhibit the signs: dull or drooping leaves; early fall coloration; or worse, suddenly dead limbs or entire trees. Yet, surprisingly, overall the Vineyard looks remarkably green.
Some like it hot
Surprisingly, considering how hot and dry it was here this season, there were plants that have had a wonderful run: the flourishing, almost chest-high zinnias, tagged as three-footers, which more typically fall prey to one foliar spot or another; the tomatoes that are still bearing perfect fruit after almost two months of continuous production; the best ever cucumbers, with virtually no cucumber beetles. Wow!
Edgartown School’s Farm and Garden program deserves praise for achieving its funding goal of replacing the storm-damaged greenhouse. The greenhouse makes possible a greater year-round curriculum for this well-led program.
School gardens are a source of absorbing curriculum opportunities and hands-on activities that reach elementary school students at a fine developmental moment. Is it key, or an afterthought, that they augment school lunch programs? Either way, students benefit.
Was it the drought? It seems to be a good year for large, showy butterflies. In several gardens where we work, monarch larvae and butterflies, always spectacular, seem plentiful. These gardens contain the larval food plants butterfly weed, milkweed, or dogbane. Other large striking species, such as black swallowtails, seem present in numbers as well. Lesser butterflies of many kinds, skippers, hairstreaks, and coppers, ladies and admirals, sulphurs and whites are much more numerous but less remarked upon.
Most people would rather encounter a moth or butterfly than a caterpillar, but nature does not produce the former without the latter. We found a bayberry bush in a garden defoliated by what appeared to be a large cluster of red-humped caterpillars, or something very similar. Unless feeding damage in noticeable, larval stage lepidopterans are often entirely unobserved.
When there are many worms and caterpillars in general, there is more food in the food chain, including for birds. Pesticide spraying decimates this foundation. The “ecologically aware,” complete garden contains larval food plants as well as ones with nectar for adult butterflies and moths, and reduces or eliminates spraying.
More garden fauna
Usually the everbearing ‘Heritage’ raspberries produce a large harvest that starts in mid-August and continues until frost in mid-November, enabling us to put many pint and quart bags of them in the freezer. Ravaging Japanese beetles typically feed upon the plants’ leaves and blossoms, but this year there were few. Instead, our raspberries are being almost entirely eaten by yellowjackets. A dozen insects or more swarm each fruit, which soon leaves it a ragged red mush.
From the UMass Landscape message comes this background on yellowjackets (Vespula spp. and Dolichovespula spp.): “Oftentimes, when we think that we have been ‘stung by a bee,’ the true culprit is some type of yellowjacket. Yellowjackets frequently interact with humans at the end of the summer due to a shift in their foraging behaviors. Early in the season, they can act as beneficial insects, as they are predators of many pest insects such as caterpillars. These protein resources can be useful to them when rearing their young. Later in the season, they may switch to foods high in carbohydrates or sugars.” To learn more, go to bit.ly/gardenfauna.
Last weekend I attended Dan Jaffe’s talk, “Making Life Easier with Native Plants,” at Polly Hill Arboretum, sponsored by the Dukes County Soil Conservation District. Jaffe, New England Wild Flower Society’s nursery propagator, is a speed talker — if he could propagate as fast as he talks, NEWFS would be overflowing with native plants! — and crammed a lot into his presentation. He is the co-author with Mark Richardson of NEWFS’ book “Native Plants for New England Gardens.”
This lovely little book, with Jaffe’s color photographs, contains many ideas for native plant combinations in the garden landscape. The idea of native plants is to use materials that take care of themselves, in ways that mimic nature and create ecological support. Each plant entry has suggestions for ways to use our native plant wardrobe to clothe our garden spaces.
To do this in a skillful way does not mean giving up anything in terms of beauty and gardenesque design; but one may be creating a landscape that allows for fewer inputs in terms of time, labor, and resources. Jaffe cited the typical planted garden as having perhaps nine plants per square meter, while a square meter of “nature” may have as many as 125. He urges that we use three times as many plants as we thought we needed, and that no bare earth shows. (“Native Plants” Appendix A contains “top plants” lists for various conditions or objectives.)
In his talk, Jaffe extolled goldenrod, that bane of farmers and landscape gardeners, in all its forms as supporting the greatest numbers of beneficial insects in New England. Asters in all their complexity come next in terms of ecological support. Aster was once the botanical name for a number of plants that have been broken down into new genera: now we must learn symphyotrichum, eurybia, and ionactis. Their season is upon us. If we visit island conservation areas to scope them out, we can perhaps understand their use better.
Eurybia divaricata is the useful and attractive (to me anyhow) white woodland aster. It is adapted to shade and dry soils. Find the large-flowered purple New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) in open meadows with moist soil. S. cordifolium is all around our house, and maybe yours too. Give it a chance to show you how pretty it is.