Garden Notes: Upkeep to keep up with the changing season on Martha’s Vineyard

The effects of whitefly have given the tibouchina a sickly appearance but insecticidal soap should restore its velvety beauty.
Photo by Susan Safford

The effects of whitefly have given the tibouchina a sickly appearance but insecticidal soap should restore its velvety beauty.

Surfeited by Thanksgiving, and now facing even more holidays: are we ever fortunate to live on Martha’s Vineyard, where many, many of us know a thing or two about growing, catching, cooking, and enjoying!

Due to the vagaries of email and spam filters I missed a wonderful program with Jan Buhrman of the Kitchen Porch, who presented a multi-day workshop with the Swiss master charcutier, François Vecchio, before Thanksgiving.

The official attitudes about pork and pork fat are slowly changing, from the outright demonizing of it by the late twentieth-century medical establishment, to today’s more evolved stance. Many nutrition professionals who advocate so-called “paleo” diets recognize the unique health properties of lauric acid, an amino acid found in pork and coconut fat.

As the saying puts it, a thrifty butcher can utilize everything from a pig “except the squeak.” In the hands of one who is knowledgeable as well as thrifty, the cured charcuterie — hams, salamis, headcheese, sausage, and what we know as cold-cuts — will be delectable and mouth-watering. The Island’s population of future charcutiers and charcutières has now increased and can lead those who desire to consume these traditional processed meats into further dining pleasure.

Dry beans

Dry bean dishes are the perfect accompaniment to pork and charcuterie. I grew white kidney beans, cannellini, this year and am happy with the result. I plan to devote more garden space to them next year. One hundred seeds sow 15 feet of row. Popular in Italian cuisine, cannellini are the foundation of minestrone soup, among other recipes.

Of course, cannellini are but one of the myriad Phaeseolus bean varieties, including fresh-use and dry shell, that gardeners have selected, developed, and grown over thousands of years in the new world. (The genus Vigna contains the old world beans, such as fava beans.) Not only are dry shell beans a protein source requiring little energy to store over winter, a nitrogen source for soils, but also they are among the easiest-growing crops that one can plant in a home garden. Does this sound good to busy people?

Sources of a wide array of dry-bean varieties include Seeds of Change, Seed Saver’s Exchange, Territorial Seed Company, and Vermont Bean Seed Company, although any good seed company offers at least a couple.

More on mulch

Mulching continues as we go farther into winter. There are those who like to lay mulch once seasonal cold has seeped deeply into everything, sealing the cold into the ground that way, as a protective anaesthesia for plants. Others get on with mulching earlier in fall, and by doing this are protecting beds’ soils from the airborne drift of seeds such as goldenrod, asters, and grasses, and from wind and water erosion, to name a few benefits.

Mulch rings around specimen trees and shrubs may be renewed at any time, the critical point to remember being to keep mulch well away from trunks. The layer of mulch is generally three to four inches deep: anything more is usually unnecessary, becoming a “mulch volcano.” Mounds of mulch touching tree trunks promote risk of aerial or circling roots and girdling damage from rodents, which can gnaw unseen beneath the mulch line.

The plant will use, and the surrounding soil will digest, the mulch. Annually or semi-annually the mulch layer can be topped up, but always use moderation concerning the depth of mulch.

With a little ingenuity and physical labor the frugal gardener can avoid out-of-pocket expense for mulch materials. Leaf mold, leaves chopped by rotary mower, straw and spoiled hay, rockweed and eelgrass, branches of evergreens that have been pruned: these all make satisfactory protective mulches.

We usually first lay a thin layer of organic fertilizer on the beds that are to be mulched, to feed the breakdown organisms and get them started, but breakdown does take care of itself even without this boost.

Dormant oil spraying

Before winter begins in earnest but after leaf fall, consider giving your fruit trees a plant wash of dormant oil. Spraying with dormant oil — i.e., when the trees are fully dormant — is done in mild spells to avoid damage to buds and bark, but it is an effective way to ambush next year’s fruit tree problems. Doing this potentially controls over-wintering insects and fungal pathogens so they aren’t present the following year. (Some recommend a proprietary blend such as Bonide’s that combines lime/sulphur with the dormant oil spray.) This may be done as a matter of routine on trees known to experience pest and disease problems, and is consistent with organic methods.

Can I spray fruit trees before winter sets in? The usual advice is that the trees must have dropped their leaves, but that the temperature should remain above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for the 24 hours of the spray period.

Houseplant care — whitefly?

A variant on dormant oil sprays is horticultural oil spray, the difference being that this is composed of lighter-weight oil that may be applied, according to the directions, throughout the year. Horticultural or all-season oils are one of the ways to go, to control indoor plant pests. Horticultural oils may be plant-based, but in any case are formulated to avoid damage to the active-growth plant’s bark and buds when used as directed.

A tibouchina, an unknown variety I had rooted from a cutting in a bouquet, became a whitefly magnet when I brought it indoors several weeks ago. (The whitefly were probably there outdoors too, but were not as noticeable then as now.) I plan to use insecticidal soap on it and other plants that have come inside, today, because it is overcast. A plant wash mixed up with neem oil is my second line of defense; third line defense is horticultural oil.