Garden Notes: Passages

From summer to winter, colors make way to textures.


These mild early November days have had gardeners out working busily in 60-plus degree sunshine, simultaneously enjoying them but also anxious about when and what our climate “should” be doing.

Why trees shed leaves

Leaves fall because the deciduous trees no longer need them, and in climates with harsh winters, they are a liability. Trees reabsorb everything nutritious from the leaves first, through root storage, before shedding them. Learn more about the actual process here:

and then go out and harvest them! Leaves, collected by mulching mowers, or raked and piled in surrounds and composters, are sources of the most valuable soil building components that gardeners have easy access to.

Seasonal pruning

Corrective pruning of many trees and shrubs is easier once leaves have dropped and they are dormant. Without flowers or foliage, some may become more difficult to recognize that should not be pruned now. These include plants that flower in winter or spring, as they have already formed their flower buds.

Weigela, forsythia, kerria, mahonia, deutzia, winter-flowering witch hazel (Hamamelis), magnolia: prune all these next spring after they have finished flowering. Avoid pruning Hydrangea macrophylla and buddleia, or other plants that need the protection of old wood. Maples, mulberry, and dogwood need to be fully dormant because they bleed.

Waiting for ‘Heavenly Blue’

For unknown reasons, in the last 30 years it has become almost impossible to bring ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories to bloom before October. This, in gardens in various Island locations — for that matter, same thing with Sensation cosmos. They continue growing, getting taller, but not blooming. Good soil, lean soil — I scarcely even bother to try anymore.

In one garden Clematis ‘Betty Corning’ did a much better job of covering the trellis with blue, although of a less riveting shade. This year in my own “garbage garden” I tried again, three plants on supports. By mid-October they had begun to bloom, and I caught a brief sight of that indeed heavenly blue. There is nothing quite like it; but was it worth the wait?

Native grasses for autumn gardens

Although I have planted Miscanthus, I have never planted Pennisetum. Once I had learned from those who knew much more than I did about the weedy, invasive tendencies of these two Asian grasses — overused to the point of cliché — I tried to expand my use of equally beautiful and rewarding North American native grasses instead.

Along with ferns, the grasses (Poaceae) are a difficult tribe to learn, unlike annual and perennial flowering plants with easily identifiable blossoms and foliage patterns. Some of them are not even grasses but sedges, a grass lookalike. “Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have nodes from the top to the ground!” is a jingle that helps to memorize the distinctions.

The passage of gardens from summer into winter redirects one’s appreciation: forms, shapes, and subtler coloration come to the fore and reassert their textural and structural role. The hazy glimmer of many native grasses is something indescribably seasonal, as we look down the long arc to approaching winter. When color and flowers have left the scene, grasses catch and amplify the low, waning light. They move and dance as wintry winds accelerate through the landscape.

Muhlenbergia capillaris, or pink muhly grass, is one of the penultimate autumnal pleasures from the world of grasses. Looking like a typical clump of thin, blue-green, nondescript grass all summer, at the very end of the season muhlenbergia erupts into a sublime, cotton-candy haze of shimmering luminance. Position it and other ornamental grasses where they can be admired backlit. Most are tolerant of drought and poor soil.

There is much to learn about grasses, and doing it can be confusing. Resources, such as encyclopedias of grasses, apps for identifying, and visits to Island garden centers to view and compare, reward investigation. Hoffman Nursery, grows a wide selection of grasses (including other non-natives and species not listed in their catalogue) and supplies favorites: molinia, muhlenbergia, panicum, schizachyrium, and sporobolus.

Know your property before you make changes

It is imperative that landowners learn about their property before embarking on large-scale, disruptive improvements, and work to develop a feel for what makes Martha’s Vineyard so biodiverse, beautiful, and beloved. Otherwise our special Island place risks becoming nothing more than a cash cow and wooded suburbia, likely the type of barren environment many of our new residents and pandemic refugees are fleeing.

This link is to, a comprehensive list of attractive native plants assembled by Neil Diboll, prairie ecologist and nurseryman, that could be used in almost any Island garden or landscape.

The Ecological Landscape Alliance (ELA) and other conservation minded organizations exist to advocate for biodiversity and responsible stewardship: they are our partners. The protection of surroundings and soil and water resources benefits a high quality of life (not to mention real estate values), for today and for our children in future generations to come.

In the garden

Native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, and flowering buckwheat support late-flying pollinators, while wan sunlight drains color from dahlias’ last blooms.

Asparagus ferns are still green, later than ever; however, cut down and compost when finally yellowed. Cool weather weeds chickweed, henbit, and spitting cress, proliferate.

My compost tumblers are rolling. I have added four buckets of lobster carapace, shell, and guts; one ashcan each of fireplace wood ash and chimney carbon; and many, many cubic feet of leaves and garden debris.

I taped and stockpiled larval deer ticks I found on myself in 2020, as an experiment in numbers: 35. It is quite likely other Island gardeners have accumulated far more. Right now, nymphs and adults are prowling about.