Garden Notes: Chrysanthemums reign supreme

Kindly omit leaf blowing from your autumn tasks.


Now that gardens are settling into the subtler phases of autumn and the end of the season, it is a good point to evaluate what works and what you like. Cleanup, which reveals the ground plan, makes for new visions and realities in the garden and landscape.

Seasonal decor

The winter solstice is a little over two months away. Chrysanthemum family plants, along with asters, reign supreme for fall gardens. Along with our beloved dahlias, they are short-day sun lovers, and the days are really shorter now. While the asters are cultivated, but native on verges, the fall chrysanthemums are strictly cultivated, gardenesque plants.

The chrysanthemum family is enormous; more than 100 species are recorded. Some of these are known to have been grown in China thousands of years ago. To quote from Allan Armitage’s “Herbaceous Perennial Plants”: “As happens with plants [over a long time] in cultivation …  breeding efforts have changed the natural form and size, so that some species exist in habits, colors, and flower shapes quite different from the species.”

To make a further distinction, fall chrysanthemums divide into those called “garden ’mums,” which are a part of the perennial planting; and cultivars, manipulated and covered with hundreds of flowers and buds, that are principally grown and sold in pots for the fall decor trade (“’mums”).

Montauk daisies, although a separate species, Nipponanthemum nipponicum, are in the garden ’mum group. They are stealing the show now: gleaming white, oversize daisies topping mounds of shiny, bituminous-scented foliage. They are happy in full sun or at the shore, and make enough of a statement to become stand-alone plantings, such as those fronting the cottages that line Seaview Avenue in Oak Bluffs.

To get that look with Montauks, it helps to pinch out the growing tips in spring, maybe even doing so twice. Lots of attention, yes — but left unpinched, the plants are capable of more than three feet of height and spread, which by season’s end results in splayed-open plants with lots of brown stem exposed.

Much the same effort with garden chrysanthemums, cutting back several times before August, results in more flowers and tighter plants. Chrysanthemums increase vigorously with offset growths; these can be separated from parent plants and grown on individually as new plants.

Ornamental grasses in the garden, being light catchers, achieve prominence in autumn’s low sun; it is serendipity that chrysanthemums go so well with them. The four grass species I am currently enamored of, or their cultivars, are all sun-loving North American natives: Sporobolus heterolepis, Panicum spp., Schizachyrium scoparium, and Muhlenbergia capillaris. Hoffman Nursery ( is a good source.

Bringing realism to landscape
So, how about dividing and repositioning existing plants to make more pleasing compositions, or bigger visual impact? How about a rethinking of the ways that inputs and ’codes may be reduced, while still resulting in something beautiful? Or ideas for runoff control and water saving? How about accepting designs and practices that accommodate more of our natives (even the pushier ones)? Is the amount of light, or shade, correct for the plants you desire?

Ours is not really a gardening nation; we seem to prefer “put and take” landscaping over gardening’s practical arts: sowing, growing, propagating, and nurturing. Maybe impatience is a national trait. Or is it more like an “anything is possible” attitude, including instant garden? The public is very susceptible to the influencers and their images, which present unreal habitats, always Technicolor and always immaculate, to emulate.

Despite also acceding to those tides of taste, Island garden centers do a very good job of stocking and promoting wide ranges of native plants. When you go to the garden center, look more closely at the display plantings that demonstrate the uses of a variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials. Take advantage of informational signage and pot tags.

Fall leaf harvest

Fall is here — fire up the leaf blowers! (Not.) Trees make their own mulch, and they like it. This relentless, remorseless removal of biomass from our landscapes really benefits no one, except some business models. Neighbors definitely know they dislike the noise and emissions when the mow ’n’ blow crews arrive. Trees and ecosystems also find that the harm is more than idle speculation (

Lawn reduction and groundcovers

Gardening reference books, including some print catalogs, that are well-edited and well-illustrated, are usually the best sources of solid information. I have already referenced “Herbaceous Perennial Plants,” above. (I often Google questions on garden matters, and the Internet is also an immense, if sometimes unreliable, resource.)

As it happens, lawn reduction is on many garden owners’ minds; we were recently asked to remove a large amount of ground cover-type material from a garden. Its owners will not necessarily turn to me for what will be the replacement, but it made me want to see what could possibly be used instead.

I checked into David S. MacKenzie’s “Perennial Ground Covers” for ideas. It is a good reference for homeowners and gardeners contemplating a reduction in lawn or other open stretches. There are others: Go to the library, and check out the reference shelves.

In the garden

Trim yew overgrowth and put up deer protection.

Prep summering houseplants to return indoors. Wash with insecticidal soap for insect hitchhikers and pests. Some plants have typical pests: scale on citrus; whitefly on fuchsia and hibiscus. Repot if needed: Shave off the outer half-inch of rootball with an old kitchen knife, clean pot, and replant with new potting soil, tamping with a batten to remove air pockets.

Prune and overwinter figs in garages or sheds. Potted rosemary may overwinter in similar circumstances, if kept on the dry side. Clivias, hippeastrum (amaryllis), and holiday cactus are more reliably brought to flower by being rested in low light for a period.

MVAS Harvest Festival

Saturday, Oct. 21, from 10 am to 3 pm, the annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Harvest Festival is a celebration of all of the best things about living locally, from the land and sea, on the Island.