A late-season spurt in the veggie garden

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist August 28, 2013

I had the good fortune to be on the west coast of Scotland recently and found myself wandering through a neo-Gothic palace named Mount Stuart. Massive, ornate and technologically advanced for its day, Mount Stuart’s highly wrought interiors make the hulking exterior seem relatively restrained.

Built with coal money in the late 19th century, the mansion centers itself on an interior hall of marble, lots of marble. The vaulted ceiling contains a bejeweled version of the constellations — reflecting its creator’s interest in the cosmos — and the public tour ends in his private chapel, itself an unexpectedly light-filled place, with white marble and red-stained glass.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

This High Victorian confection by the Third Marquess of Bute is singular in its design and ornament, but the plantings in the gardens — particularly around the visitor center — are familiar to the traveling gardener. The fun is in seeing how a different climate and latitude shape our shared plants.

A stand of the workhorse persicaria Firetail was tall, stout and full of its crimson bottlebrush flowers. Mine at home just sprawls. This is because of the shade, but also the fact that many perennials tend to be more robust in northern gardens — meadow rue, astilbes and rudbeckias, for example — because they have more hours of sunlight and little of the heat stress of the Washington garden.

And yet all gardens convey their setting and ambitions; under the changeable skies and breezes of this seaside garden, the visitor finds a conifer arboretum and wild corners where the bracken is thick and the patio-umbrella-size leaves of the bog perennial gunnera capture the soft light. “Summer now relaxes into an upholstery of foliage,” wrote the Scottish gardener Geoffrey Dutton in his book “Some Branch Against the Sky.”

I also came across a hortensia hydrangea of extraordinary coloration. The blooms of Merveille Sanguine are a rich violet-magenta, the leaves a dark maroon. It’s an old French variety that would be fun to try.

Before I get too enthralled by the Scottish garden, I should point out that I was staying at a place where the gardener was raising tomato and pepper plants and cucumber vines in a greenhouse, in pots. At the 56th parallel, these staples of the Washington garden would stall or perish without the protection of the glasshouse.

The fear of leaving your garden for two weeks is that you will come back to a shaggy lawn, dead container plants and waist-high weeds. But the absence proved a boon: My vegetable garden was seriously behind schedule when I left — I was slow off the mark in starting my warm-season veggies.

Lo, on my return, the place had been transformed. The sweet peppers were laden with fruit, the tomato plants were big and beginning to produce, and the sweet potato vines had created a lush ground cover. The biggest change was in a squash vine, an odd Italian variety named Tromboncino. It has big variegated leaves — an echo of the Scottish gunnera — and is little troubled by the two great afflictions of squash plants, powdery mildew and the squash vine borer. A friend had given me one seedling that sat in a black gallon pot for far too long. Before leaving for Britain, I stuck it on the end of a bed of peppers and then fashioned a towering tepee from oak stakes. When I returned, the trombone squash had enveloped the eight-foot-tall structure.

The fruit grows long — a foot in a few days — and then twists and grows thicker. Eaten young, it tastes like a sweet zucchini. Left to mature, it takes on the nutty qualities of a winter squash and can reach three feet in length. By then the vine is 20 feet long and best grown on a support.

The tardiness of the tomatoes (all right, of the gardener) proved serendipitous. Joe Brunetti, who cultivates the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History, is a guy who is ahead of the tomato curve. His transplants typically are thick and leafy by early May and bearing fruit by July.

But this year, the inordinate rainfall and coolness of late spring punished the diligent tomato grower by causing plants to stall, and when they did produce, the tomatoes quickly split because of too much moisture in the soil.

“Many of the heirlooms I’m growing are thin-skinned, cracked and turned to mush,” he said. “I couldn’t salvage them.”

He was looking forward to sampling an heirloom variety he hadn’t grown before — a deep-orange variety from the 1920s named Djena Lee’s Golden Girl. “I wasn’t as impressed as I expected to be,” he said. “The flavor was really watered down.”

Like me, though, Brunetti is anticipating a redeemed late season for the tomatoes. “I have got high hopes,” he said. Other growers are reporting tomato plants that have perked up.

So, the persevering and the slack gardener both can look forward to a final crowning month of beefsteaks in toasted sandwiches, slicers paired with sweet basil and mozzarella cheese, and a rainbow of cherry tomatoes in fresh salads.

No coal baron sampled anything finer.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Also at washingtonpost.com
Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.

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