Enjoying end of this garden year with an eye on next

Posted Nov. 06, 2009, at 7:47 p.m.

It has been an exceptional October in Marjorie’s garden, the leaves of some native shrub species just starting to turn, rich autumn color lost in recent years to early hard freezes. Summersweet clethras first turned from dark summer green to softer pale green as chlorophyll faded, and then some leaves, moving faster toward their end than others, turned to tarnished yellow. Now each plant is a tapestry of pale green and freckled gold.

Tarnished yellow and gold are hues shared by several native plants that turn late, including meadowsweet, Spiraea alba var. latifolia, and rough-stemmed goldenrod, Solidago rugosa. Golden branches of tamarack glow among the dark green firs. Yellow leaves of Virginia rose reflect sunlight beneath naked birches.

Recent wind brought a gift to the garden, a leaf of quaking aspen, twice the size of most. I found it lying at the bottom of the porch steps, its wax-covered lamina painted gold and red, ebony blotches along its margin. It must have floated on the wind for miles, as there are no aspens nearby. Or was it dropped at our doorstep by one of the garden’s crows?

As we say goodbye to this remarkable season and move firewood under cover for the next, our thoughts are already drawn to the coming spring. The first announcements of new varieties for 2010 have arrived by e-mail and soon the stack of seed catalogs will be knee-high.

I always enjoy the National Garden Bureau’s e-mail announcement of new varieties. A nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the gardening public in all aspects of growing garden plants from seed, the NGB disseminates accurate information based on variety trials such as the All-America Selections program.

This year the NGB announced 55 new vegetable and flower varieties. I want to describe a few that I find truly unique.

‘Aristotle’ is a new basil variety for 2010, a Greek basil with a compact rounded habit and growing only 12 to 14 inches high and wide, perfect for container culture. The slug population exploded in Marjorie’s garden this summer and they ate every basil plant that we planted in the ground, but those in containers on the porch steps were spared. Next year’s crop may be totally ‘Aristotle’ in porch pots — we’ll save a bundle on diatomaceous earth.

Maine’s own Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers a new lettuce for 2010, ‘Skyphos,’ a vibrant dark red butterhead lettuce with good heat tolerance. The heads are 6 to 8 inches in diameter with sweet, tender, colorful leaves. Lettuce is a reliable spring crop every year and stayed sweet into July this past season, so bring on the new varieties!

There are inspiring new flower varieties, including Nasturtium ‘Double Delight Cream,’ a top-flowering double nasturtium with double to semidouble, large creamy yellow flowers that contrast beautifully with the bright green bushy foliage. The 2-inch blossoms cover the tops of plants 12 inches tall. I see this on the porch in pots, along with the basil.

A new petunia, ‘Burgundy Star,’ is the first spreading petunia with a star pattern. The center of each 2- to 3-inch burgundy bloom is filled with a white star, a spectacular show when dozens of the 6- to 12-inch-tall plants spread over a sunny bed, filling the garden with blooms all season long.

Another new petunia, ‘Sophistica Lime Bicolor,’ has individual flowers colored lime and rose, the flower colors changing based on light, heat and age of the flowers. The plants are 10 to 15 inches tall and 10 to 12 inches wide. I suspect we will see this unique grandiflora petunia used extensively in window box combinations, at least until the novelty wears off, and it will be fun to see how container designers combine ‘Sophistica’ with other plants.

These new vegetable and flower varieties should be available at local garden centers next spring. Meanwhile, it’s back to the wood pile. I’ll let you know if the coming seed catalogs contain anything worth talking about.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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