Garden Notes: Summer’s decline

It’s time to sow fall crops — already.

Stands of dogbane attract a wide variety of insects, such as this resting monarch butterfly. — Susan Safford

Beach roses are ripening their hips, and the foliage of poison ivy gleams in the shore’s crystalline light. Soon the fruit of beachplum will be harvest-ready. Illumination Night, the Ag Fair — the season has turned.

We have moved on. The promise of spring and early summer, their beckoning aspect, is past. (What beckons now is the schoolhouse or ferry door.) It is no longer the time of ultraviolet light and burgeoning growth; now is all about fulfillment, ripening, harvest — and leaving.

As you head for these last days at the beach, look for the coloring native switchgrass, perhaps accompanied by stands of improbable, flamingo pink marshmallow in damp spots. Panicles of seed heads create a gauzy cloud above the grasses, especially lovely when backlit. Improbable too are the tiny birds to be seen fueling up, clinging to one of those gossamer panicles, delicately picking off, one by one, the minute seeds.

Shore zones are living labs for wildlife and flora. This is a plea to leave the vehicle and walk: little of this can be observed from the car.

Butterfly Watching

These August days are high butterfly season. Many here on the Vineyard are reporting encouraging 2019 numbers of monarch butterflies. The association of monarchs and their larval food plants, milkweed family members, has been well publicized, as has been their shrinking habitat. However, monarchs, though striking and diminishing in numbers, are not the only butterfly species. Look around and notice many others.

A common plant of open, non-landscaped places and meadows is dogbane, Apocynum cannabinum, in the greater family that includes milkweed. If you would like to observe pollinators, a stand of dogbane is a good place to start, although it is considered a noxious invasive weed.

In a land-clearing or landscaping project, stands of dogbane would be one of the first plants to be demolished, a pity since it supports many other nectar gathering insects and butterfly species. Dogbane is the larval food plant for two species of clearwing hummingbird moths; it may also be a larval food plant for American lady butterflies. A gardener I know cites a fine hedge of dogbane flanking an Island driveway.

Many excellent field guides to insects exist, for both children and adults, but some of the more worthwhile information concerns the unappealing caterpillars that are the future glamorous butterflies. What is the use of admiring the adult butterfly if its larvae are considered obnoxious or repulsive, or their food plants destroyed?

Vocabulary for butterfly enthusiasts includes several distinctions such as “larval food plants” and “nectivore.” A larval food plant is one that larvae of certain species require to hatch and develop properly. “Nectivore” is the term for animals, such as insects or hummingbirds, that sip nectar.

Tithonia for Pollinators

One of the most rewarding annuals to include in the garden is tithonia, or Mexican sunflower (Tithonia speciosa). I bought this season’s seed from Pinetree and have been surprised by the variation in my row of plants. Some are tall and tree-like; others short and squat. (All parts, stems, leaves, and flowers, are velvety.) The flowers range from fiery scarlet to a more muted golden orange. All blossoms, somewhat resembling single dahlias, are centered with golden, pollen-filled discs covered with insects. As cut flowers, vivid tithonias are not subtle; they make cheerful bouquets with rudbeckias, sunflowers, zinnias, snapdragons, orange cosmos, dahlias, and verbena bonariensis.

In the Garden

It is definitely time to sow fall crops. Get one more row of bush beans in the ground. I have another tray of beet seedlings to plant out in the garden (if I could warp time to write simultaneously about gardening, and actually do it). There are modules of ‘Beira’ Portuguese kale to set out, and rapini to sow.

Time to harvest onions is when tops fall over. Remove to a shaded, not too hot place, like a shed, to cure for storage. I sowed ‘Patterson’ this season, which are reasonably nice, but I hope ‘Copra’ will become available again in the future.

The Allium tribe is indispensable for cooking, but is a funny one, with a variety of reproductive strategies. Gone-to-seed leeks will have one or two small white bulbs at the root end when pulled. These may be separated and lined out on their own and will become leeks in time, or may be used as a milder substitute for garlic.

Prep soil for later fall garlic planting. I intend to use a poorer part of my vegetable garden where tree roots and chipmunk tunnels influence the soil but where nevertheless I have previously grown good garlic crops. I plan to open the soil with the broadfork, scatter Pro Gro 5-3-4 soilfood, rake it out, and cover with as much straw as I can find. Suppliers ship seed garlic at proper time for planting.

Cutdowns of plants such as salvia and nepeta help them flush again and keep them showing color. Deadhead echinacea and coreopsis. If daylilies have gone by, de-stalk/cut down foliage. However, only groom but do not cut down foliage of remontant types.

Tyranny of Zucchini?

Is the relentless yield overwhelming the culinary repertoire? Zucchini Fritters may vary the fare.

Grate one and a half pounds of zucchini, toss with 1 t. salt, and drain in colander for ten minutes. Twist in clean dish towel and wring out as much moisture as possible.

Mix together, in large bowl, 1/4 c all-purpose flour, 1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese, one large egg beaten, two cloves garlic minced, salt and pepper to taste. Stir in zucchini. Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in skillet. Drop batter by a tablespoon into hot skillet and fry until golden brown, about two minutes per side.

See you at the fair!