Garden Notes: Fall gardens

Autumn comes very slowly to Island gardens.

Gloriosa daisy (rudbeckia) and ‘Toscano’ kale: beautiful in a fall vegetable garden. — Susan Safford

A week ago an impressive dragonfly flight was swarming soundlessly over a wide, sunny up-Island lawn that would mostly qualify as a “Vineyard Lawn.” “Vineyard Lawn” is the education program of Vineyard Conservation Society to promote ecologically informed lawn practices that protect wildlife, aquifers, and watersheds. (

The dragonfly migration takes place in late summer and early autumn. These large insects are avid mosquito predators, thought to consume individually as many as thirty mosquitoes an hour. Their amazing spectacle would not occur over properties that have been sprayed for insects.

Garden helpers

During the summer, in July one early morning, I watched as a downy woodpecker and tiny sparrows picked striped cucumber beetles from the undersides of cucumber vine leaves. The plants were grown on trellis; I had just noticed the beginnings of a striped cucumber beetle problem on foliage undersides.

In another year I had seen hummingbirds harvesting aphids off sweetpea flower stems. Last week, a toad hopped out of my way near the cabbage row. Could it have been eating slugs? Hoping that is the case, for slugs have been destructive on both cabbages and broccoli.

As should be obvious but perhaps is not, a high fence such as the one we have is appreciated. It provides perches for birds to survey the garden and keep a watchful eye out, for both danger and something to eat. Surrounding the garden, the fencing often hosts hummingbirds, sparrows, catbirds, diminutive wrens, and wood peewees, all using the lookout feature at different times of day. A birdbath is a feature that brings birds into gardens. Presence of insect life is another lure. The birds all nest nearby and feed their young with insects from the garden.

These episodes with wildlife help sustain my fascination with it and the way it benefits us in gardens, because we are all too familiar with the annoyances — raccoons, skunks, rodents, and insect pests — caused by it.

Autumn garden

Island autumn stretches out. It comes very slowly to Island gardens, and is a cause for impatience, especially if gardeners have other things they want to focus on. Some years leaves do not fall (“abscise”) but freeze right on plants. Perennials continue in growth, albeit more slowly, until the holidays.

I start with cutdowns of perennials that will not rebloom. This simplifies garden layouts that will have grown full-to-obscured over the summer. There are always a few surprises, usually mature weeds that escaped discovery, but recently, a dead juvenile osprey turned up under bushy perennials in a harborside garden.

Peonies can be a source of attractive autumnal foliage colors, but are just as likely to show darkened, splotchy leaves: cut these. Shorten irises to fans about four to six inches high. Centranthus, asters, and salvias make tufts of new basal foliage, as do tall lobelia, and then the old stems can go. If phlox have finished, cut; but if still pushing out new leaves and flowers, then deadhead as usual.

Depending upon light levels and other factors, annuals, such as cosmos, nasturtiums, and marigolds, may still be going strong; most pull quite easily once the plants have become passé. Petunias, calibrachoa, nicotiana, and pansies may revive in cooler weather, if trimmed back.

Once this more open and orderly view is achieved, then cultivating around crowns and weeding is more straightforward. It may show plants in need of dividing, or relocating. Members of the mint family, such as pycnanthemum, and some garden chrysanthemums and asters, produce growth that spreads readily. Keep an eye on runners at or just below soil level.

Some perennials have a second act after their bloom phase: thinking of Amsonia hubrichtii, with clear golden stands of foliage; hostas that sometimes pass from green to attractive tawny while still intact; Euphorbia corollata; and stems of platycodon that color well. These are an unexpected bonus.

Saplings appeal to bucks that are rubbing velvet from their new antlers; protect trunks with tree wraps.

Indoor plants and containers

Houseplants generally thrive when brought outside for the warm months, but now they must be returned inside before unexpected cold snaps. You may wish to take cuttings of container material to insure a supply for 2022. For me, that is an array of pelargoniums, fuchsia, tender plumbago, and begonia. I root them and then grow them in small pots, to save room.

Pruning after bloom is generally recommended. Longer growing time confuses plants, continuing to do their summer thing in mid-October, so it may not be clear when to prune. You will have to prune anyway to fit them back indoors if plants have grown too robustly. Try making more plants from the cuttings. Wipe and brush off pots to remove as many pillbugs, tiny slugs, and algae as you can.

Vegetable growing tips

The following is quoted from “Vegetable Growing Tips” from Home Garden Seed Association (HGSA,, because the 2022 vegetable garden really begins now with soil prep.

Start with the soil. “Good garden soil is crumbly and full of organic matter. It is home to an array of organisms, including helpful bacteria and fungi, and insects of all sizes. It retains water yet drains well. Grab a handful of your garden soil and squeeze it. If it holds its shape, yet crumbles easily when you drop it, you’re off to a good start. If it stays in a ball or crumbles as soon as you open your hand, add compost. This will correct drainage, and help your soil retain water and nutrients. Add about three inches of compost to your problem soil, and gently work it in with a garden fork.”

Native Plant Trust

Native Plant Trust (formerly New England Wild Flower Society) has published its educational programs for Fall 2021/Winter 2022. Go to