Garden Notes: North and south

Plants once only found in the south are now growing well on the Island.


Weather-titillation buildup? As I write, it looks as though New Orleans is headed for another fearful, Force 4 bashing. Simultaneous with this column’s appearance, H. Ida or its remnants may be tracking nearby us.

Going by past tropical storm-event remnants, Martha’s Vineyard may expect good rainfall, wind and rain damage, and surf advisories, with attendant shore erosion. The garden corollary: the inevitable misery of storm damage.

Was H. Henri forerunner of a new paradigm: where instead of forming in the Caribbean and travelling up through the continent in a NNE direction, tropical depressions form in the Atlantic, eastwards off the U.S. coast? If so, that could mean more future tropical storm action for Massachusetts’ south coast.

In any event, this kind of thunderously heavy rain may weigh down or break weakened branches, floriferous border perennials and annuals (dahlias, tall zinnias), and blossom-laden shrubbery, such as rose-of-Sharon, mophead and peegee hydrangea. Eventually and happily, for the most part they right themselves. And Island water tables can use replenishment.

In the wake of Henri, the non-hurricane, I had to confront firsthand how casually I had staked my dahlias — or actually, not staked. Most consisted of damage where I had let more than one stem grow. Big mistake. Reminder to self: Next year, grow dahlias into single stem plants and remove secondary sprouts.

Others in very protected gardens may want to try the pre-made tomato towers that are available; my experience is that in open settings they do not support a heavy, multi-stemmed dahlia plant in a blow.

I sowed fall turnips in modules and finally got them into the ground in time for the Henri-associated rain, which was modest, considering the weather-titillation build-up the storm received. Then came Monday’s overnight downpour: over two inches!

Garden gaiety

As indicated in the photo, a crape myrtle in full bloom manages a great deal of flower power. Most of us enjoy a flash of garden gaiety, even outright gaudiness, in small doses, from time to time. Flouncy crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica and hybrids) give gardens just that and they are doing their thing, as we head for Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah.

Long a cherished part of Southern gardens and landscapes, crape myrtles on the Island are a horticultural gift of climate change, as I have mentioned in previous Garden Notes, along with camellias, figs, and gardenias. It is a lemons-into-lemonade thing. Northern gardeners visiting the South would ogle these unbelievably showy and handsome small trees — to be seen everywhere throughout the south — only to learn that they were not for Northern climes and gardens.

Now however, thanks to hybridizers and a U.S. National Arboretum (NA) breeding program, plus the march of climate shift, lagerstroemia of all sizes and colors, from watermelon red and Schiaparelli pink to ghostly lavenders and whites, can be enjoyed here and elsewhere, up to zone 6a. NA introductions bear the names of Native American tribes. Recent advances include groundcover and container-sized selections.

These are not plants for eco- or naturalizing contexts, their rightful place being gardens and domestic settings: they are highly gardenesque, even formal. That said, I cannot think of a more rewarding privacy planting or small tree for the compact or in-town Island garden, as long as there is sun and adequate moisture.

One of the intriguing aspects of crape myrtles is how they manage to provide multiple chapters of pleasure, year-round. After the eye-popping floriferousness of late summer, the neat, glossy foliage turns lovely shades of pink, orange, scarlet, to wine in autumn; and after that show comes the graceful form and sinuous, mottled bark of the tree’s winter and spring silhouette.

Similar to doublefile viburnum or kousa dogwood, the form may be manipulated by careful pruning to become either a multi-stemmed or single trunk tree. Visit Island garden centers for in-person choices, or go to reputable sources such as the Crape Myrtle Company, where cultivars are fully described and indexed by color, form (height and spread), and cold hardiness.

Saucing the harvest

Bluefish with chimichurri sauce? Late summer and harvest time bring seasonal feasts to the table, including more emphasis on shell and finfish, squash, and corn. Go to the garden for the fresh ingredients for condiments to accompany (pull out the blender or food processor for easier prep). Below: the Argentinean-origin chimichurri sauce, a family favorite, and Martha Stewart’s breakfast salsa, each with four garden-grown ingredients.


1 ½ cup chopped plain parsley
½ cup chopped red bell pepper
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ cup white vinegar
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
½ cup water
½ tsp. cumin
2 Tbsp. dried oregano
3 Tbsp. fresh oregano
1 tsp. salt

Mix all ingredients in a blender, check seasoning, and refrigerate for at least six hours before using. Makes about one quart; use for marinating, dipping, grilling, or saucing.

Breakfast Salsa

½ cup chopped scallions
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 red bell pepper, minced
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
½ Tbsp. peanut oil
¼ tsp. Tabasco
salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and check seasoning. Makes 2 cups.

Looking ahead

Woody plants have made astonishing growth this year. Since the Island has been blanked by most of the rain that fell on mainland Massachusetts, I attribute this to excess Co2 that woody plants are utilizing and sequestering.

Think ahead and consider the broadleaf evergreens in your garden and landscape. How will they handle snow and ice that may occur over winter? Trimming off or pruning unbalanced or overhanging parts now is better than finding major breakage the morning after a winter storm.