Garden Notes: Fall in full

Anemones are a plant to consider for autumn color.


Farewell to summer ’23, and welcome to fall. The autumnal equinox occurred on Sept. 23. The remnants of Tropical Storm Ophelia coincided, bringing 2.5-plus inches of rain. This, in addition to Sept. 18’s 2.6 inches, brings the Vineyard to a good place for fall planting, lawn repair, and water-table recharge.

Deer populations also welcome fall; the rut, their breeding season, commences now. Drivers are warned to watch for bucks chasing does and running into vehicles, especially at dusk and dawn.

Another aspect of fall: the height of hurricane season, and prepping for it. Whether one is a gardener tending annuals, an orchardist, or a farmer with an extensive planting of commodity crops, being able to predict or count on the rain and weather makes it possible.

That is the ‘why’ of meteorological recordkeeping: to look for patterns and to make sense of normal fluctuations, although those normal fluctuations and patterns are now being shot to shreds on every continent.

Pushy plants?

Or functioning natives? Even when plants are natives, about taste there is no disputing. Starry swaths of white woodland aster, Eurybia divaricata, cover shady roadsides and pathways now, to often-magnificent effect. However, my friend, an accomplished and sensitive gardener, who shall remain nameless, claims it’s a thug, and she hates it!

How can this be? Another person, who shall also remain nameless, detests the handsome, aromatic sassafras, its groves now beginning to glow with fall color. Both these native plants do share a way of colonizing into areas occupied by desired plants, sometimes elbowing them out of the way.

The Aster groups, along with their relatives the goldenrods, possess ground-covering habits, bare soil being uncommon in nature. They do a good job, as the swathes of white, yellow, blue, and purple attest in late summer and early autumn. It also happens that their prodigious amounts of pollen support an entire eco-universe of arthropods and pollinators.

Sassafras, along with Eastern red cedar, black locust, and sumac, has the assignment (“habit” is the term) of becoming a pioneer, or nurse, species, which prepare the way for woodland succession. Do not imagine that woodlands and entire forests can spring up out of open ground without some sort of babysitter first providing a microclimate of shelter, fungal allies, and shade.

Can we accept and work with these and many more native plants, as performing the functions assigned to them in nature?

Questioning lawn, again

Speaking of acceptance, Meadow-for-lawn* may be a goal too far for some. How about just easing back on the lawn fetish?

The Vineyard lawn can look just fine! The lawn pictured is maintained, but minimally: fertilized in spring with low-number organic fertilizer, and mowed. A flock of turkeys combs it for ticks, and a flock of geese grazes there, adding more organic fertilizer with droppings.

Yes, skunks work lawns nightly for grubs now, but highly maintained lawns are not skunk-exempt either; skunk odor is on the breeze in the most manicured Island neighborhoods. Every grub eaten by a skunk now is one less beetle in next year’s garden. If necessary, the lawn can then be overseeded and repaired in the cool and rainfall of autumn.

Our home environs directly influence our health, and that of our children and pets. In turn, the condition of water in our wells and ponds — clean or contaminated — correlates to what infiltrates down into them.

Fred: ‘Keep the green side up!’ 

It will soon be time to dig the dahlias, which reminds me of Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm, and Fred S. Fisher Jr. (1924–98). He died in early October 25 years ago, too young at 74; but his legacy continues today, and that legacy is not dahlias, but people who farm.

Fred’s larger-than-life personality, outgoing nature, and audacious, politically incorrect wit made him an icon. For someone with a seemingly provincial background, Fred’s appeal was unusually cosmopolitan. He befriended and debated scores of customers at Nip ’n’ Tuck, including worldly professionals and Greenwich Village artists.

The raw milk was wonderful (not to mention the heavy cream) — it grew families like the Murphys, the Vanderhoops, the Francises, many others, and mine. We loved the cows, draft horses, fresh hay, and fresh corn. A generation of “charlies,” “alices,” and “scabs” came to Nip ’n’ Tuck as willing hands.

As Nip ’n’ Tuck’s name implies, family farming was and is a continual struggle in the high-stakes, global Big Ag era. Add in climate instability, and that makes growing of any sort precarious. Yet in spite of that, Fred, possessing neither trust fund nor portfolio, persisted. Fred was an influencer, in the era before we had the ones over on Instagram.

What are we going to eat? And who can afford it? Why would anyone become a family farmer today? Fred shared what he knew, and inspired a cohort of young people to follow the farming life and give it a go.

Anemones and more

Dahlias join phlox, vernonia, lespedeza, and pycnanthemum for sunny late season gardens now, with Montauk daisies and garden chrysanthemums capping the show.

Anemones are arresting in partial shade; their blooms on tall, slender stalks in white or shades of pink beguile legions of pollinators, and us as well. Their display begins in August, and extends into late summer and autumn. Anemones thrive in partial shade and moderately moist, fertile soil.

The strongly growing A. robustissma forms large colonies suitable for naturalizing. The ‘Swan’ series originated with the work of U.K. breeders Elizabeth and Alasdair MacGregor, and are distinguished by bands of color such as blue to lilac on the petal reverses. These and hybrids of A. x hybrida, so-called Japanese anemones — including whites such as ‘Honorine Jobert’ and pinks such as ‘September Charm’ and ‘Pamina’ — are moderately resistant to deer, rabbits, and voles.

In the garden  

Change and compost henhouse litter.

Erect deer netting around susceptible plants. As part of the rut, bucks mark territory by buck-rubbing: using small-size trees to scratch off their new antlers’ velvet. Place trunk protectors around young trees that may be targets for the behavior, which can girdle trees and cause their failure.

* “Meadows 1-2-3,” offered by Native Plant Trust at Polly Hill Arboretum, with Kathy Connelly, is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 1.