Garden Notes: No accounting for taste

And don’t sweat the fall webworm.

A branch of kousa dogwood hosting harmless fall webworm infestation

The season has turned. Daytime and nighttime temperatures are dropping. Elements of Hurricane Florence’s large system finally brought rain to the Vineyard, although not all areas received equal amounts. Beetlebung trees stand out from the general greenery by taking deeper, purple tones. Migrating flocks of birds are practicing their flight routines. Mornings are shadowy until almost school-bus time. Welcome, fall!

Garden symposium

The rewarding program arranged by the Sakonnet Garden in Little Compton ( in mid-September was titled “Elastic Gardening: The Art of Re-Invention.” It featured three creative personalities from the world of plants, design, and gardens: Jonny Bruce of De Hessenhof nursery in the Netherlands; Emily Thompson of Manhattan’s Emily Thompson Flowers; and Taylor Johnston of Little Compton’s nursery and design studio, issima. Emily Thompson ( tossed off witticisms while simultaneously constructing seven improbable, gravity-defying arrangements from materials sourced earlier right from Sakonnet Garden. Things that drooped or towered: plume poppy and thalictrum stems, shrub holly, variegated comfrey leaves, devil’s club aralia flowers, viney tangles — all these and more became usable and stable in her hands, and spectacular or beautiful in the offbeat containers she used.

Taylor Johnston reviewed her career of challenging and interesting assignments in horticulture, and brought the audience to where she is now, in partnership with nurseryman Ed Bowen, the founder of Rhode Island’s legendary Opus. Their new gambit is Issima Nursery and Design studio ( An array of extraordinary plants, landscapes, flowers, plus spilling the beans on her interesting CV, made Taylor Johnston fascinating in spite of her post-lunch schedule placement.

The seven am boat could not get me to Little Compton in time for the start of Jonny Bruce’s presentation, but the remainder was absorbing. De Hessenhof ( is an innovative Dutch nursery in Ede, known in part for hellebores, which is run organically. No pesticide, no fertilizer, no peat. De Hessenhof is unusual in today’s nursery world in that it propagates its own plants from collected seed, grows them on, and sells them, all in nursery-produced soil based on leaves and leaf mold, and dosed with nursery-produced compost tea. From the slides it is clear that the nursery is also an aesthetically beautiful one.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the program. Grateful as I am for the work I have, here on the Vineyard I sometimes feel isolated from the stimulation of gardening and design trends taking shape on the “greater” continent.

Garden choice, garden taste

Cited several times at the garden symposium was Christopher Lloyd’s quip: “That awful phrase, ‘good taste.’” Who knows why we like what we do? There are a number of perfectly good plants I find I avoid using in gardens. Plants I don’t like and don’t use. Garden types and layouts, too, that appeal, and others I find dreadful. I do not like them. Why? There is no accounting for taste, and our idiosyncrasies and individualities, and this is what makes having a garden so rewarding for many, across a wide range of incomes and social standings.

Some elements I find common, and then a very bad trait, innate plant snobbery, kicks in. Red-foliaged Norway and Japanese maples, variegated weigela, pennisetum grasses. Of course these can be used to beautiful effect, by others. Some I simply do not “get.” Cannas. Weigela. Malva/Alcea. Lysimachia clethroides. Rose ‘The Fairy.’ Hemerocallis ‘Stella d’Oro.’ Japanese spirea.

While variegated foliage can be strikingly attractive, many variegated plants do nothing for me, and strike me as looking sickly. For others I lack the confidence as a grower or designer to use. The gold and green variegated comfrey with foot-long leaves Emily Thompson found in the Sakonnet garden to use in her arrangement? I probably have not evolved to the point of confidence and flair to utilize such a plant. I would feel like a poseur in attempting to. Hah — maybe next year.

And some I simply have not learned to love, yet. Considering the stupendous numbers and varieties of ornamental plants that exist, there is something for everyone. Gardeners’ time is unlike regular time, and fortunately the longer one is around plants, the more chances one has to grow and change one’s mind about the formerly disliked and avoided.

Fall webworms

If a branch of your favorite tree or shrub has extensive webbing covering it now, it is likely you are seeing the work of the fall webworm, Hyphantria cunea. The photo shows webbing disfiguring a branch a kousa dogwood. The timing makes identification easier and eliminates confusion with the eastern tent caterpillar of spring.

I found the fall webworm in “Garden Insects of North America,” by Whitney Cranshaw. The moth of the fall webworm is a medium-size, strikingly white creature, while the caterpillars themselves may be fuzzily white or reddish brown.

The infestations of the fall webworm are seldom truly harmful to the plant hosting them, according to reassurances on one of my favorite sites, “Naturally Curious with Mary Holland” ( This site contains an alphabetical listing of all the natural life its author has mentioned, making it a handy, concise source of information.

“If your favorite tree has one or more fall webworm nests in it, there’s no cause for alarm. These caterpillars may defoliate a tree occasionally, but rarely kill it, and usually only build tents on a handful of branches, if that. The larvae have more than 50 natural predators and 36 parasites that help control them. Also bear in mind that fall webworms do not eat the buds of next year’s leaves, and the leaves they are feeding on will soon to drop to the ground. Next year leaves will appear on the currently affected branches, with no sign of last year’s damage.”