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Tips for the Compleat Gardener The blue cowl of monks peeks through the shade


Seasons are in flux, leaves dropping day and night, the landscape altering moment by moment, color by color, taking your breath away, at least mine, as I drive through the autumn countryside.

Roadside wildflowers are resplendent in golden and purple. Grasses are bursting with bloom, swishing in wind, sounding the passer-by with grass songs, sibilant and celebratory.

The gardener bemoans the presence of deer in the borders, the disappearance of hosta and farewell to impatiens, until now growing happily under her care, in an overnight rampage the annuals are gone.

You would be cutting these things down now, or soon, anyway, so let the deer do the garden clean-up. Hunting season has begun and they are afraid of the woods. Enjoy the blooming of things herbivores won’t touch, which do exist.

I just took a tram ride through the woodlands of Winterthur to find it all abloom with native wood asters and eupatoriums in a sea of pachysandra, a native groundcover.

The woodlands were bordered by wide beds of plumbago, (leadwort) ceratostigma, a high-performing, spreading perennial not usually enjoyed by deer but sometimes feasted on by mice. The word ser-at-o-STIG-ma is Greek and describes the flower of the plumbago as having a horn-like growth on the stigma of the flower whereas its other appellation, ‘plumbago’ from the Latin for lead, plumbum, is thought to indicate it was used medicinally to treat lead poisoning.

In any case it is a great, deer-resistant perennial for sun or shade, blooming in sky-blue from mid-summer on. Then the show changes as the leaves turn red for fall. The plant turns to brown sticks in winter and does not re-emerge until May so small, spring bulbs do well planted in and around these plants.

A good choice for early bulbs include chinodoxa, species crocus, anemone blanda, iris reticulate, miniature narcissus and grape hyacinths. Deer usually leavethese alone though squirrels can sometimes dig them up.

Off on a distant hillside at Winterthur one could see a mass planting of the autumn crocus, colchicum [Kol-chik-um], thought to originate on the shores of the Black Sea and the source of the drug colchicines which was once used to treat arthritis and is still used to treat gout.

I always wish I planted this more often. It grows from corms usually planted in late summer. The deep reddish lilac flowers, resembling tall crocus, bloom in autumn and the leaves show up in spring to feed the corms for fall bloom. The leaves look so different than one expects being a foot tall and several inches wide, that the gardener often fails to recognize what they are.

Aconite is one of my favorite autumn performers – the flowers will be 2-3 feet in the air. Also called wolfbane or Monkshood ak-o-NYTE actually means poisonous herbs in old Latin, according to A.W. Smith, and the flower is the shape of the cowl worn by monks.

“Bane” added to a word usually indicates a repellent quality – in this case wolves go the other direction. The whole plant is poisonous, though and must be handled with care. The vibrant blue and purple hues of this late-bloomer are well worth the risk of alkaloid exposure so wear gloves.

Enjoy the changes.

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