Garden Notes: The signs of the season

Getting ready for colorful autumnal gardens and landscapes.


Scenery and gardens are taking on ruddy autumnal hues as foliage colors deepen, and many hydrangeas make the surprising transformation to russet and ruby red. The oxblood of beetlebung colonies stands out from still-green surrounding oak and beech. ’Mums and asters are the signs of the season; leaf harvest begins.

Here, we are grateful Hurricane Ian’s path spared us what Florida and South Carolina experienced, although Ian influenced our weather, causing a bountiful rainfall (nearly four inches cumulatively over several days), rolling thunder, and dumps of leaves and branches from the turbulent conditions.

Beautiful runaways

Spring- and summer-flowering leads to hips, berries, drupes, and pods: fruits that add so much beauty to autumnal gardens and landscapes. These are, of course, the result of pollination.

And pollination, augmented by animal-assisted dispersal, converts many from desired garden plants into some of the most troublesome, frequently encountered garden pests — what I call beautiful runaways, since there are really no bad plants.

Some plants, such as sweet autumn clematis (C. paniculata), transform their blankets of flowers into blankets of fluff, ready upon ripening to float away on the wind and lodge elsewhere to become new plants. 

Others, such as oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), are so bright and attractive, to human and animal alike, that the seeds are spread by being eaten as food or collected as decoration.

Porcelain berry vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is another, an impossibly beautiful decoration on a wall, arbor, fence, or gateway, laden at summer’s end with plump, glossy berries in shades of white, purple, turquoise, lavender, and azure, with the allure of Venetian glass. Foliage resembles elegantly cut grape leaves, because it is in the grape (Vitis) family. 

With gardening on Martha’s Vineyard, it behooves everyone to take a closer, longer look at these beautiful runaways, plants that dazzle when doing “their thing,” but which become annoying and invasive in their efforts to reproduce.

Animal-assisted reproduction leads seedlings to emerge under trees, hedges, and shrubs. Birds, primarily, which have eaten the fruits and seeds, roost there and then poop them out, to germinate adjacent to convenient support. Rodent burrows also contribute a share of unwanted plants. Once established, many are difficult to eradicate.

Currently, moist soils make it slightly easier to grub out these beautiful runaways. Shrubberies and below trees are where one is likely to find seedling Virginia creeper, English ivy, catbriars and greenbriars (Smilax spp), poison ivy, bittersweet, and porcelain berry, sweet autumn clematis, and the several invasive honeysuckle species that have proliferated all over Martha’s Vineyard.

There are “woodies” as well: sumac, multiflora rose, autumn olive, black locust, and wild grapes. Fall cleanup is a great opportunity to tackle them to keep your garden as you planned it, not as some random dear little birds planted it for you.

Magnolia and hawthorn

On the other hand, it can be a thrill for gardeners when a coveted plant blooms and produces seed. Most of us have a plant or plants we have been watching over for unreasonable years, maybe even decades.

“First they sleep. Then they creep, and then they leap!” This miraculous growth and seed production is what throws many amateurs into the ranks of growers or plant breeders. Why not snug these embryos into some gro-mix, and see what happens?

The pink hybrid star magnolia, ‘Leonard Messel,’ had been a coveted plant for me ever since we planted one for a client many years ago that was disappointingly white-flowered when it bloomed. That one is on South Road, and has one outstanding attribute: It grew phenomenally, and is now a large and spectacular tree visible from South Road when covered in — sigh — white blossoms.

The small ‘Leonard Messel’ I planted for myself in 2009 has bloomed exuberantly for several seasons, but this year was the first time I noticed developing seed pods. They have now split open to reveal the brilliant red seeds, which I shall put into some pots and leave to their own devices.

A blooming hawthorn has a lot of myth and magic attached to it; when the beautiful rusty red haws take the stage instead, there are lots of blue jays, cardinals, and other birds, “attached” to it. Ours is a volunteer, of unknown parentage, that I recognized and fostered early on in creating the landscape here.

Evaluating hoses

Supplemental watering came to the fore in this 2022 summer of drought. Long-planted trees and shrubs, which might have been assumed to be well-established, instead began to visibly struggle, and were likely actually struggling before it became obvious. Lawns too needed spot watering to augment irrigation deficiencies.

I bought hose for different gardens, and have two new faves. For the very civilized town garden, the XHose, in 50-, 75-, and 100-foot lengths, is great. It has a two-part construction, with an expandable membrane within a silky woven outer sleeve: stretchy, very lightweight, easy to use. The brass end fittings are well-made, and the male end has an integral shutoff valve.

The expandable XHose membrane expands with water and enhances the available water pressure; when the water is turned off, the hose shrinks back to a manageable, soft, snakelike thing. It piles itself up — no coiling, ever. The primary drawback is that a rose thorn, sharp pebble, or any other item that can snag and pierce it easily holes the XHose.

On the other hand, the ZeroG hose comes with a durable woven covering that protects the inner membrane. It must be coiled, is heavier and sturdier than the XHose, and lacks its stretchy feature. It is available in multiple lengths; the end fittings appear to be aluminum alloy — well-made, but less corrosion-resistant (less desirable for seaside climates). The ZeroG hose would be the preferable choice for settings in rougher terrain.