Garden Notes: Without compost, sand dunes would rule on Martha’s Vineyard

A visual treat for humans, maples and other deciduous trees provide vital food for the soil: without them, the landscape would be barren.
Photo by Tim Johnson

A visual treat for humans, maples and other deciduous trees provide vital food for the soil: without them, the landscape would be barren.

When the deciduous forest sheds its leaves, it becomes an annual rite for me to praise the biomass it yields, give it a little eulogy. Indeed, cause for Thanksgiving, although it is hardly ever remarked upon within that context. For this annual leaf drop, along with the trees themselves that bore the leaves, is the source of our soils and the fact that we can live here in New England. I celebrate the Leaf Harvest.

Those who visit the central New England mountains are familiar with the granite that underlies that landscape, and much of New England. Most of New England would be as bald and adamantine as the knob of Mt. Monadnock without the gift of thousands of years of debris shed by our forests. The deciduous forest fueled this transformation and gives us the means to live and survive here, assisted by myriad creatures, insects, fungi, bacteria, and the elements.

It is inconceivable that we should fail to nurture and respect this soil in which we are rooted. Each autumn, as an infinity of leaves drifts down and blankets land and gardens, we can celebrate and renew our appreciation of what it means, what this biomass has done, in creating a habitable place for us. All life and wealth comes from the ecology of this earth we live on. Praise it and be thankful.

Storm debris and leaf piles

When we compost, we are adding humus to our gardens and sequestering carbon. Folks, it is not rocket science, but it is a great thing! In the aftermath of the two recent storms, many, many truckloads of debris have been delivered to the landfills. It is a shame. In the shorthand of composting, this is all “brown” (or “c” for carbon) matter. It is used to balance out the “green,” (or “n” for nitrogen) material when composting.

The twigs, branchlets, and bark that can be raked up are as equally valuable as leaves in a leaf pile or compost heap. Although containment is not necessary, a fence does make it possible to pile debris higher. But even a shapeless leaf dump in a back corner of the yard works, and, plus, becomes a playground feature for children.

A related word about debris concerns storm damage and windfall limbs. There are certain trees that have no place in Island plantings, where wind is always a factor. ‘Bradford’ Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) was originally welcomed as a solution to landscaping streetscapes that included spring bloom and fall color. What was unknown then, but all too apparent now, is that with age the tree’s habit makes splitting dangerously inevitable.

The same may be said for silver maple (Acer saccharinum, not to be confused with A. saccharum, sugar maple): with age the tree becomes a liability. Silver maple transplants well and grows fast, accounting for its popularity. However, due to that fast growth the wood is weak and is easily damaged by snow, ice and wind

Ornamental grasses

During the two storms many tall ornamental grasses were flattened or partially smashed. Having clumps broken over is disappointing, as now is their time to star in gardens. In most if not all cases, they will not return upright. Might as well cut them back now: one less task to do come spring. When a neat job is made of it, the clump still has a presence in the planting.

Montauk daisies

At my house I am conducting a small experiment with Montauk daisies (Nipponanthemum nipponicum). As a sub-shrub here in zone 7a, normally they are left over winter, and pruned back hard in spring. Sub-shrubs receive some winter protection from their old wood during those extreme temperature fluctuations the Island sometimes experiences.

Sub-shrubs are a “neither/nor” group: plants that fall somewhere between herbaceous perennials and woody shrubs, such as mophead hydrangeas, caryopteris, potentilla, and buddleia. Farther south, however, many, including Montauk daisies, are cut back to about ten inches in fall, and then cut even harder in early spring. We may be heading for a climate resembling that of the Chesapeake area, the rationale for what I am trying out this winter.

Garlic planting

I plan to plant garlic tomorrow. I did some prep on the bed-to-be a while back: compost and Pro-Gro spread and broad-forked in. The expected crop of seedling chickweed duly appeared, which I cultivated off with the push-pull hoe. Now my cloves will go in, approximately six inches apart and two or three inches deep. It would seem self-explanatory, but maybe not, that the cloves go straight in, thick end down and pointed end up. The rows are close together but with enough access to go through for weeding — about 12 inches.

Soup from the garden

Now that the winter squash/pumpkin crop is in and stored (first cured by leaving in a warm place from several days to two weeks) it is time to enjoy it. The following recipe is adapted from “Wise Traditions,” Spring 2012 edition.

Butternut Tomato Soup

6 Tsb. butter

2 large onions, coarsely chopped

2 celery sticks, coarsely chopped

2 quarts diced or chopped tomatoes*, or equivalent amount of fresh or cans

1 medium butternut, peeled, seeded, and chopped

1.25 cup stock or water

4 oz. cream or whole milk

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 fresh or frozen orange peppers, chopped

salt, pepper, thyme to taste

* or substitute 3 qts. Garden Special for veg except butternut

Melt in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook onions and celery for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Stir in the tomatoes, squash, and stock: bring just to boil. Reduce heat for about half an hour, until the squash is tender. Allow soup to cool and purée until smooth. Gently re-heat, stirring in the cream and Parmesan cheese until just simmering. Remove from heat and season to taste.