Garden Notes: Find the color in deep fall

And warm yourself with your harvest.


Vivid backlit foliage and low sun gleam fleetingly. Frost has visited some Island gardens. The wren chirps loudly at dusk, “gather-in, gather-in,” her inclination and ours too. The days of least light lie before us, when plants and gardens and the living outdoor world sink into apparent quietude and dormancy.

It is also the runup to Thanksgiving, the national harvest festival, these days viewed primarily as a prelude to the “festival of junk” holiday buying spree.

Cooking and eating: Autumn vegetable garden

Do gardeners grow what they cook? Or cook what they grow?

Dill, arugula, and cilantro prefer cool weather. They self-sow, and are emerging in vegetable gardens now, as do lettuce and mache (lamb’s lettuce). Look for them.

If you have not planted garlic yet (also spring-flowering bulbs), do so soon. Kales and all members of the brassica family enjoy a reprieve from larvae of the cabbage-white butterflies; light frost gives them a sweet boost.

A friend’s father’s leek-filled potager in France remains in memory, although I also love leeks just because they are so beautiful. The seedheads of last summer’s leek flowers supplied all the seedlings needed to fill four trenches that will grow over winter and produce a supply of gourmet kitchen staples.

As mentioned above, cool-weather weeds also are germinating now, in the interval where we await real cold. And the big question actually is, Will there be any truly freezing, real cold weather this year? From past years’ examples, the really cold weather may not arrive until we think, impatiently, that winter should be almost over.

Chickweed and spitting cress are cool-weather “weeds” that love my vegetable garden. Foragers from Euell Gibbons onward have extolled these as edible salad greens. Dandelions grow in some of the client gardens, and while they are not the culinary varieties sold in the Johnny’s catalogue, they make a delicious salad, especially “wilted” salads paired with bacon.

The following are two uncomplicated garden recipes, good for cooking and eating at this time of year, Nigel Slater’s Pumpkin Hash, and Colcannon.

Pumpkin Hash
Enough for 6.

3 cups pumpkin, cut 1 in. square
2 med. onions, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 sprigs rosemary

Peel the pumpkin (or substitute butternut squash), and cut the flesh into cubes roughly an inch square. Peel and roughly chop the onions. Warm the butter and olive oil in a cast iron pan, add the pumpkin and onions, and let them cook, with a regular stir, for about 10 minutes. Chop the rosemary, add to the pan with a little salt and black pepper, then cover with a lid and leave to cook over a low to moderate heat for about 15 minutes. Check the mixture occasionally to make sure it isn’t browning too much. It is done when the pumpkin is soft and easy to crush between your fingers.

Enough for 8. This is adapted from the Smith & Hawken “Gardeners’ Community Cookbook” and “A Taste of Ireland,” by Theodora FitzGibbon. 

1 lb. kale, stemmed and finely sliced/chiffonaded
2 leeks, or about 1 lb. trimmed, washed, thinly sliced
⅔ cup cream
3½ lbs. russet potatoes, peeled and halved
1 stick butter, melted
steamed shredded cabbage

Place kale in a large pot of boiling water. Cover and cook until tender. Drain into a colander.

Combine the leeks and cream in a saucepan, and simmer over medium heat until leeks are soft, about 10 minutes. Put the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with water, and boil until fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and shake dry. Mash the potatoes, or put through a ricer. Stir in the kale, the leek-cream mixture, and salt and pepper to taste.

Mound the potatoes in a warm serving dish, and make a well in the center for the melted butter. Accompany with steamed cabbage.

Plant (mostly) natives for fall color

As garden makers, we face a need to use native plants where possible. Not only do we desire to make a dazzling garden, but we also have a responsibility to care about North American landscapes.

There is a lot to choose from, if vibrant color is on your list of garden features, but let me remind you that contrast is an amplifier: yellows and golds, in addition to the iconic oranges and reds.

Many of the plants cited below achieve best fall color when planted in sun.

For a better understanding of the processes behind fall coloration in plants, go to

Categories, the layers of a garden or landscape, can be further delineated: natives, whether perennials, shrubs, or trees; and gardenesque, exotic specimens.

Swamp maple (Acer rubrum) and beetlebung (Nyssa sylvatica) make good tree choices for moist sites. North American native trees sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and oxydrendrum turn shades of red. Trees also include Island native sassafras, Sassafras albidum; North American natives dogwood (Cornus florida); smokebush (Cotinus obovatus); and two stewartias, S. malacodendron and S. ovata. Additionally, an excellent list of mostly full-size trees is at

Flame-colored shrubs include highbush blueberry, huckleberry, and shadbush, vivid Island natives. North American native oakleaf hydrangea, and Island native aronias and sumacs. Island native clethra and North American native fringetree’s yellows glow in low light. Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), Fothergilla gardenii and F. major; fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) all produce good color.

Choice but nonnative for fall color: hybrid witch hazels, parrotia, disanthus, crape myrtle, and Lindera glauca. Some azaleas acquire orange to red foliage at season’s end.

Lesser-known herbaceous perennials to plant for long-lasting, late-season color: Amsonia hubrichtii; North American grasses Sporobolus heterolepsis and Muhlenbergia capillaris; native ferns: cinnamon fern; regal fern.

Botanic and public gardens, such as Polly Hill Arboretum, are some of the best ways to meet identifiable plant resources.