Garden Notes: Self-seeding

Some biennials and short-lived perennials can provide us with flowers for next year.


“As long as one has a garden, one has a future; and as long as one has a future one is alive.” — Frances Hodgson Burnett in “The Gardener Says”

We admired the last of the intense fall colors, its images engraved in spirits and minds and a backward glance, as we enter drabber seasons. Hard freezes have occurred over much of the Island; and much of it received almost two inches of rain earlier in November. In addition, an impressive overnight windstorm blew the 15th.

As soils remain dry, rainfall notwithstanding, continue to water newly planted and mulched trees and shrubs. Their going into winter with roots and tissues fully hydrated is a large part of successful establishment.

Evergreen leaves continue to transpire throughout the winter season. Anti-desiccants (also known as anti-transpirants) help prevent moisture loss and subsequent winterkill. They are especially helpful to newly planted conifers and broad-leaved evergreens. Spray while conditions remain above 40F. These products also extend the life of holiday trees and wreaths.

For the gardener on your list

My husband made plant dollies from cedar cut-offs and sets of castors. They have simplified the shifting around of large-sized plants, and would make a nice homemade gift. They work best with the weight directly over the wheels; size should be relative to the pot they carry.

Schlepping plants back indoors: many of them benefit from a dormant period — little or no water or feed — during this period of lowest light. Indoors, they undergo a period of adjustment to less light and lower humidity. Almost all of them benefit from reduced watering and feeding; plants simply cannot handle too much at this point, when metabolically they are just barely ticking over.

Bringing inside, I place two tropical hibiscuses into dormancy — no water — for a month. When all the leaves have dropped it is close to the winter solstice, after which they are slowly brought back into growth.

Bring your own blanket

Thanksgiving cheer to all! Thanksgiving week is going to see much grouping around fire pits or outdoor heaters, bundled up. It is a sportive way to offset indoor coronavirus exposure — like living in an L.L Bean catalogue. And it can be fun, as long as fire hazard awareness is observed.

Please — never operate your chiminea or fire pit under any overhead construction or under trees. Maintain a safe distance from overhead construction, walls, or rails. Be aware that sparks may shoot upwards or be blown towards flammable substances. Maintain safe operating distances from buildings and landscaping, including intense rising heat that blisters sheltering trees and shrubs. Have a bucket of water or a hose for handy access nearby.

National Garden Bureau plants for 2021

Each year the National Garden Bureau selects one annual, one perennial, one bulb crop, one edible, and one shrub as their “Year of the” crops. For 2021 they are beans, hyacinths, sunflowers, monarda, and hibiscus. I mentioned sunflowers in the Oct. 28, 2020 Garden Notes column.

Beans are largely finished for us, since they are warm weather crops. However fava, or broad beans (Vicia faba), are sown in early spring and prefer cool weather. According to Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogue, “where winter lows remain largely above 10F, broad beans are sown August through September.” Try some in 2021?

Even the Native Plant Trust (formerly New England Wild Flower Society) is promoting beans in its “Climate Change Can-Do: Eat More Beans,” writing “That’s right, legumes — including peas, beans, and lentils — are ‘climate smart’ because they can adapt to rough weather and restore degraded soil, reducing the impact of agriculture on soils.”

Thanks for eco-services

Highway crews are paid for this, but what an awful job it would be for humans to have to remove ALL the stinky stuff, everywhere, that crows, seagulls, and vultures take care of!

Vultures are able navigators of air currents and thermals, and kettles of them were once a unique symbol of rural Southern skies. However, the soaring birds have been slowly expanding their range north — and eastward. Their seasonal appearance in Island skies in late February to early March is a dependable sign of spring. They, plus their allies, crows and ravens, are an interesting part of biodiverse Martha’s Vineyard.

Here in our area, we now have two species of vultures, which are federally protected: turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), with featherless red heads that give them the “turkey” epithet; and black vultures (Coragyps atratus), whose heads are dark greyish or black.

Crows are doing a great job of road-kill pickup. With that, deer season’s field dressing offal, and scalloping season’s debris, there is good reason to applaud all these animals and their habits. They are vital members of nature’s cleaning service.

In the garden

Clear away collapsed plant remains. Per plantsman Allan Armitage, cut back perovskia (now Salvia yangii) to 12 to 18 inches after a hard frost.

If self-seeding biennials and short-lived perennials is a garden goal (free plants!), then be sparing with mulch. The application of mulch — doing what mulch is supposed to do — smothers seeds and prevents germination. Some self-sowing plants: lychnis, verbena, rudbeckia, and foxglove — although many more self-sow freely, including annuals.

Newer cultivars of rose-of-sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) are bred to be sterile, while older varieties are loaded with seed capsules once bloom has finished. To prevent a blitz-carpet of hibiscus seedlings next year, deadhead the capsules now, but leave further pruning for spring.

Recognize oriental bittersweet vines by the colorful orange and gold seedheads. They could not be prettier; some like to bring stems indoors as seasonal decorations. By all means do so, but take steps to dispose of them in a way that does not spread it. Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is a powerful strangler that rapidly acquires heavy mass. You may like it, but hedges, shrubs, and even mature trees are disfigured and pulled down by its weight.