Garden Notes: Does it really need mulch?

And the garden year in review.

Beech tree shimmering in the tawny, burnished moment. —Susan Safford

The end nears for the foliage season: We return to standard time, and dark November. Woodlands are in the fleeting transitional moment: tawny, burnished, shimmering — and then, poof — gone! One windy night or heavy rainstorm, and all are laid out on the ground or choking the gutter.

Give leaves back to the soil, not the dump. Left to themselves, natural systems do that. We, living less naturally, can still assist with the process. Garden cleanup may or may not include mulch, but should include leaf harvesting and composting. Can you make it a point this year to let your property retain and digest the biomass it generates?

Mulch selectively

Take into account whether it is a “rock garden” or dry-land type of planting before laying mulch. Some of the great plants we can grow here in hardiness zone 7A require perfect drainage to survive the up-and-down aspects of Island winter.

The protective soil covering called mulch consists of various materials, usually biodegradable and biological in origin: leaf mold, seaweed, garden compost, composted wood chips, and various blends and products sold in bulk as “dark mulch.” Fallen leaves run through a chopper or mulching mower have a light texture. Composted chips or bagged mulch products weigh more, and hold greater amounts of moisture.

Stones and oyster shell also serve as mulch. Plants requiring perfect drainage might be mulched with them. These include lavenders, santolinas, sedums, perovskia, blue fescues, rosemary, bearded (rhizomatous) irises, mat-forming plants such as dianthus, or other plants in danger of rotting from biodegradable mulch’s moisture-holding ability.

Mulch would likely be harmful to the above plants. As a rule of thumb, plants with gray foliage are moisture-averse. They have evolved in low-moisture environments, where the minute hairs on the foliage, which make it gray, exist to trap every tiny particle of moisture.

Cover cropping is the mulching that is done in vegetable gardens over winter.

2018 review

Observations on some successes and some failures of the 2018 season: The timing of things has been curious; and many plants were seemingly taking forever to come into bloom or to bear.

The striking, ultra-purple tibouchina (Tibouchina urvilleana) houseplant failed to bloom as usual in late summer. Instead, just like many Vineyard cosmos and hydrangeas, it grew taller and taller and more sprawling, and it was only in early October that it finally began to bloom.

We experienced a late-season blitz of tomato hornworms, a second crop of them. There had been just a few earlier, all of which were parasitized. The wasp that lays the eggs resembling grains of rice stuck to the caterpillar parasitized only one of the later ones. Did it have anything to do with the tomatoes’ extended season? (We are still eating and cooking with them.)

I usually freeze multiple pints of red raspberry ‘Heritage,’ as well as eating lots fresh. It is a dependable producer and easy to grow. The 2018 season disappointed: late, few, mushy, and dropping too easily. The canes may be cut down any time over the winter, and the bed top-dressed. Use anything to suppress weeds and enrich the bed’s soil. Raspberries can be quite invasive; remove by pulling or digging offshoots that spread to other parts of the garden.

Sweet peppers had a poor year. ‘Red Bell’ did not impress: set few fruits, which grew unevenly. I had planned to freeze the excess by placing them whole in freezer bags, following the advice of Essex Farm’s Kristin Kimball, but never had enough. On the other hand, we have a freezer full of whole frozen tomatoes in bags.

The home garden grew two crops of lovely beets in 2018. My husband’s recent kidney stone has taken them off the table for a while, but the rapini I started in September has proven a new and enjoyable addition to the menu.

Rapini, also known as cima di rapa, or broccoli raab (which can probably be grown almost year-round on the Vineyard), is basically turnip greens. Stewed and boiled turnip greens are a staple of Southern cooking, but the Italians use a wider variety, with greater flair, in many different recipes. Follow this link to learn more about this healthful green:

Most of us use at least a few annual plants purchased in four-inch pots for beds or containers. A variant of Proven Winner’s lobularia ‘Snow Princess’ (alyssum), the lavender and white ‘Blushing Princess,’ grew great in containers and as bedding, an excellent performer. I hope to use more of it next season.

All the verbenas we used in 2018 were good; they handle the heat and hot, drying locations better than many other annuals. For blue flower lovers, Superbena ‘Royale Chambray’ is strongly violet-blue.

Zinnias had a good season in 2018, and are still blooming in several gardens, the Benary’s Giants and Profusion series in particular.

Angelonias were indispensable in the 2018 season, both ‘Angelface’ regular and super types.

I can never say enough to extol the pole bean ‘Fortex,’ even as I acknowledge that almost every home gardener has his or her own favorite. If you have not grown pole beans yet, start with ‘Fortex’; you won’t be disappointed. Harvested as filet beans, or at a larger size, the beans are sweet, juicy, and brittle; the supports lend form and architecture to the gardenscape; and the plants yield until absolutely done in by hard frost.

To do

Clean henhouses and replace bedding for winter — nesting boxes as well. As they grow feathers, molting hens need feed that is higher in protein and lower in calcium than layer blends.

Continue to cut back perennials as they go over.

Head back whippy growth on evergreens, such as yew and box. It is a liability in snow.