Got weeds? Coping with the aftermath of a supersaturated summer

  • —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING The airy, “see-through” plant Verbena bonariensis is a magnet for butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and bees. 

  • STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING A painted fern, upper left, pulmonaria, right, and variegated Jacob's Ladder, lower right, are being overtaken by wild grass.

  • STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING This Virginia creeper turned up as an unwanted volunteer.

  • STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING Alas, clover isn’t welcome here either.

  • STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING "Classic" weeds have sprouted between the stones.

  • STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING The unexpected highlight of Mickey Rathbun’s Amherst garden this summer?  This purple cloud of loveliness called Verbena bonariensis.

  • STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING Maple seedlings insinuate themselves among a swath of sedum.

Published: 9/14/2018 12:13:02 PM

By Mickey Rathbun

For the Gazette

I was in and out of town for much of July and August, home just long enough to do a load of laundry and repack a suitcase. I had a lot of fun on my travels, but I sure did pay for it when I got home last week.

According to the UMass Extension Service, weather stations in the Pioneer Valley recorded between 9.3 and 16.3 inches of rain in the six-week period beginning July 15. That precipitation, coupled with hot sunny weather, has produced jungle-like conditions in gardens everywhere, mine included. 

I admit I was ready to throw in the towel when I saw the profusion of crabgrass, ground ivy, and other weeds I don’t really care to know the names of. The army of weeds took over entire beds. I have regained some semblance of control over some parts of the garden, but it’s a work in progress.

It’s tempting to just let everything go this time of year, but try not to yield to that temptation. Many weeds are in the process of going to seed. If you can get rid of them before they release their seeds, you’ll be ahead of the game next season. If not, you’ll have a riot of weeds to deal with come next year. I tell myself every year to weed early and often. This summer I let things go and wow, what a mess!

Okay, enough complaining. One plant I was delighted to see had thrived in my absence is Verbena bonariensis. For those not familiar with this fancy-sounding plant, it’s an airy “see-through” plant with clusters of small lavender flowers that grows up to six feet tall on sturdy stems that don’t need staking. That alone is reason enough to grow it, as far as I’m concerned. I bought ten small plants early in the summer and put them in small groups in a few bare, sunny spots throughout the garden.

There’s so much to love about this plant. Its flowers are loaded with pollen and nectar that make it a magnet for butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and bees. It looks good anywhere you plant it. It does beautifully woven into cottage gardens or borders. When grown in masses by itself, it creates a purple cloud of loveliness.

 And it’s easy to grow, if your garden gets at least half a day of sun. The plant does best in well-draining soil. I added a generous amount of compost when I planted them, and they took off. They have provided bountiful flowers all summer with zero attention from me. No deadheading or cutting back, no added fertilizer, no watering. They have taken the heat and humidity and heavy precipitation in stride. Of course, deadheading or shearing back will promote more vigorous blooming but it’s not absolutely necessary.

 Verbena bonariensis is native to South America, and is perennial in warmer climates. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s web site, its specific epithet, “bonariensis,” means “of Buenos Aires” (in what language, I’m not sure!) It’s also known as tall verbena or Brazilian vervain. It’s likely to self-seed in New England, and that’s a good thing, in my opinion. It has a nice way of fitting itself into bare spaces and its airy, branching habit provides a unifying effect throughout the garden.

 The temperature outside is pushing 100 degrees as I write this. Hardly weather for weeding, or any other outdoor activities. But relief is on the way!

Local Garden Events

Bringing in plants for the winter

At the end of the summer what do you do with all those special patio plants that you have fussed over for the summer months? On Sept. 15 from NaN a.m. to NaN a.m., Berkshire Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge is offering a class that will give gardeners tricks of the trade to protect their tender perennials, house plants, woody potted specimens and succulent collections and encourage them to thrive during the winter season. Taught by Jenna O’Brien, topics of this class will include cultivation, fertilizing, watering and healthcare. Learn by doing and take home some plant companions. These simple cost-saving methods will help gardeners multiply their plant supply for the next season’s garden.

Jenna O'Brien, owner and founder of Viridissima Horticulture & Design since 2003, has been working in Berkshire Gardens for over 20 years. Jenna specializes in container gardening, perennial garden design and care, and estate garden and conservatory management. Cost: Members: $25/nonmembers: $35. For more information and to register, go to:


Kestrel Trust hawk watch

 As the season begins to change, a great migration gets underway as birds large and small head out for warmer climates. Join U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Dave King for Kestrel’s annual fall Hawk Watch on the summit of Mount Holyoke on Sept. 15 from 10 a.m. to noon. Dave will introduce the hawks and other raptors that we see in our region, and talk about how to identify them. You’ll also learn about the ecology of hawks from nesting to migration, as well as about conservation efforts that aim to support hawks and other bird species, including the American kestrel. Staff from the Department of Conservation & Recreation at the Summit House will share photographs and insights about what they see from the Mount Holyoke Range. If weather conditions are favorable for flying, we may see a variety of hawks, falcons, and vultures soaring past. Binoculars or a scope are strongly recommended. Registration is required, and space is limited to 20 participants. There is no rain date for this program. The event is free for participants, though donations are welcome.

NOTE: Skinner State Park charges a $5 parking fee to drive up to the parking areas close to the Summit House. You may choose to park below the gate and hike up.

Glorious Autumn Containers

 On Sept. 16, from 1 to 3 p.m., come to Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston and capture the vibrancy of autumn! Fill a 14-inch container with a selection of brilliant mums, richly colored asters, dramatic kales, miniature evergreens, variegated ivy, colorful heucheras and other hardy plant material. With proper care your autumn container garden will brighten your doorway or patio until Thanksgiving. If kept in a sheltered location, fall-hardy plants often make it through the winter and can be transplanted to the garden in the spring. Please bring an apron and floral or garden scissors to class; all other materials included. The session will be led by Betsy Williams, who teaches, lectures and writes about living with herbs and flowers. A gardener and herb grower since 1972, Betsy trained as a florist in Boston and England. She combines her floral and gardening skills with an extensive knowledge of history, plant lore and seasonal celebrations. She has written several books on the uses and stories of herbs and flowers. She has appeared on the Discovery Channel and greater Boston cable stations as well as local and national radio talk shows. Cost: Members: $75/nonmembers: $85. For more information and to register, go to:

Grow a Meadow, Large or Small

Meadows are a way to replace lawn--but what is a meadow? Is it a lawn gone feral or a perennial bed gone wild? Or is it something else altogether? Many people have tried to create meadows at home or in the community, often with mixed success. On Sept. 16 from 1 to 3 p.m., Kathy Connolly will explore the definition of a meadow and how meadows differ from other "no-mow" and "low-mow" approaches to the landscape. In this highly interactive presentation, Connolly will discuss how to select a good meadow site, the roles of grasses and flowering perennials, seasonal issues, meadow maintenance, and what to expect from your meadow in years one, two, and three. You'll go home with an extensive handout and the information you need to get started. Connolly brings 20 years of experience to this topic as the owner of a well-established half-acre meadow. She is a landscape designer who has helped customers develop meadows as well as other naturalized plantings. She has a master's degree in landscape design from The Conway School of Landscape Design. She is an advanced master gardener and an Accredited Organic Land Care Professional. Cost: members: $25/nonmembers: $35. For more information and to register, go to:













“There’s so much to love about this plant. They have provided bountiful flowers all summer with zero attention from me. No deadheading or cutting back, no added fertilizer, no watering. They have taken the heat and humidity and heavy precipitation in stride.”

“It’s tempting to just let everything go this time of year, but try not to yield to that temptation.”

Got weeds?

Meet the most unwanted suspects in Mickey Rathbun’s Amherst beds.


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