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Hamptons Life

Aug 6, 2018 11:24 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Vistas From A Road Trip

Aug 6, 2018 11:24 AM

We just returned from a whirlwind road trip through New England and, yes—your intrepid Hampton Gardener made many stops along the way to check out gardens, garden centers and all things cultivated, wild and natural. Once again, I was struck by how blessed we are out here on the East End, with Long Island’s great garden centers, nurseries and growers.

Our last stop was in Belfast, Maine, where my wife’s college roommate has been living for the past decade or so. Her house is about a half mile from the bay and the constantly humid air—fog rolling in and out with cool nights and warm days—reminded me of the Hamptons with some striking exceptions.

Coastal Maine is in the midst of a drought and, while New Hampshire, which is about 100 miles away, recently just had two days of rain—not in Maine. Lawns were in trouble and crops were behind schedule, but apparently coastal Maine tends to have dry summers. Belfast is a city of 19th century houses without pretense and so are the gardens. With a shorter growing season than ours, there are some limits on what can be grown, but there are also a few advantages.

The shorter growing season allows Delphiniums to flower only once, so they tend to be more vigorous and more perennial than the same varieties that we grow here. Wild lupines abound along the highways and in undisturbed meadows. They were once common on the South Fork, especially along Sunrise Highway in Shinnecock Hills, but it’s been more than 20 years since I’ve seen any there. The State Department of Transportation manages to cut them while mowing before they ever get a chance to flower, let alone set seed.

The lawns in Belfast were also remarkable, composed primarily of crabgrass, Japanese stiltgrass and other weeds with not more than a third of the cover being real grass. No one seemed to care much about them, and mowing seemed to be done as needed instead of every week with John’s lawn service buzzing through the neighborhood on his weekly schedule. And just about every house had a fair share of tall shade trees from maples—including a surprising number of dark leaved, nearly black maples similar to crimson kings—to mature river birches, a few oaks, fringe trees and an even more surprising number of elms, as the emerald ash borer has yet to visit this far north.

The other striking element was how far behind the plantings were compared to eastern Long Island. Early August in Belfast compares to late June in the Hamptons in terms of blooming times and maturities. Purple coneflowers were just at their peak and the species—the true purple ones—were huge with 3- to 4-inch flowers on plants 4 feet tall. Our hostess complained that her flowers always “leaked” from her back garden to her front garden and she couldn’t understand why. I explained that since these seemed to be the true species or the seed-grown variety Magnus purple coneflower, there were probably some birds or small animals that were inadvertently moving the seed around as the cones matured, and thus the leakage.

In the vegetable garden, there were several varieties of lettuce, including both leaf and head types that weren’t showing a single sign of bolting or succumbing to the heat. Again, another benefit of the cool nights and short season. But another clue to this were the June-planted peas that were still flowering and producing pods at the beginning of August. She was growing everything in stone- and wood-raised beds, and the vigor of the plants and richness of the soil gave clues to the advantages of this method of gardening, as did the bed of carrot tops revealing 6- and 7-inch roots that were tantalizingly sweet.

Several rows of Brussels sprouts were tall and lush, and with the sprouts just barely a quarter of an inch round along the thick stems. This was certainly going to be an early fall crop that might even hold on until mid-October. Remember, while the season is short due to a very late spring, frosts in a shoreline community like ours are also very late. So lettuces, cabbages and most leafy greens can hold on quite a while.

One plant surprise along our trip that I hadn’t thought about in several years was the once-dreaded Lythrum, or purple loosestrife. Now banned and illegal for sale, this invasive is now pretty much under control since a beetle was introduced in the U.S. that loves to eat the plant and nothing else. The beetle hasn’t eradicated the plant, but it has done a wonderful job in controlling its spread and devastation. While Lythrum was once seen growing for miles and miles along the medians of interstate rights of way and in wetlands, its spread seems to have stopped, but here and there you can still find it— certainly not in garden centers. Where it occurs, it’s blooming now and its purple spikes atop 4-foot plants are unmistakable.

But as I snooped around Jan’s garden to see what gems she was hiding, I found the dreaded plant. When I pointed the plant out and attempted to shame her, she referred to it as “Oh, that purple thing. It’s been here for years.” Although her Belfast garden was so late, it hadn’t yet flowered, and apparently hadn’t spread. But I had to wonder what birds had fed on its seeds and moved it to some other unsuspecting neighboring garden or wetland. I let that conversation end, tongue bitten.

The state of hybrid lilies in Maine is a sad one. There were the vestiges of many in Bar Harbor. The striking but destructive—and yes, invasive—red lily beetle found an early home in Maine and it’s virtually impossible to grow Orientals, Asians and Oreinpets up there. They do grow but the beetles devour the foliage, and shorten the life of the plants as a result. This beetle is difficult, maybe impossible to control, and luckily there have been only sporadic outbreaks down here but it is something to keep an eye out for. I hear that a fellow master naturalist upstate may have found, of all things, an organic treatment that works, but more on that next year.

A shrub that I found growing in several areas of the Acadia National Park simply can’t be missed because in midsummer it has fist-sized clusters of brilliant red berries. Sambucas racemose, or the red elderberry, can be found in wet and swampy areas, as well as sandy open areas. But there are many cultivars that you can grow out here in our landscapes as long as they receive the right amount of light and moisture. The shrub can grow to 15 feet tall but is usually shorter. In the spring, it has creamy white flowers, which result in the cluster of red berries in the summer. The berries are favorites for birds and several animals, but can be toxic to humans.

So if you’re ever up in the area referred to as Downeast and you want to see gardens somewhat like what you might find in the Hamptons, you can take the Bar Harbor garden tour in late July sponsored by the Garden Club of Mount Desert on Desert Island. But expect the same crowds and pretentiousness that can be found out here. On the other hand, if you want to see simple, yet graceful gardens and wonderful historic homes by the sea, park in Belfast for the day and just walk around. Keep growing.

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