Two stewards of the outdoor world lost

New-fallen snow is beautiful, but it can hide potential hazards. Caution and patience recommended. — Photo by Susan Safford

Sad farewells to two respected members of our community, taken too soon, and deepest condolences to their families, bereft at the bleakest time of year. Howard Wall did his landscaping work with pride and enduring dependability, and encountering him was always a pleasure. While the rest of us whine about our petty annoyances, Howard engaged with mortal illness in the most resolute and manly way, an admirable example of dealing with adversity. A longtime client of Howard’s speaks for many: “I will find it so hard to be in Chilmark and not see him.”

John Varkonda’s sudden death leaves an enormous void within a young family and at the State Forest he shepherded and tended for 26 years. I knew him only impersonally through his highly visible role as the superintendent, but to those who worked with him, he left a deep impression.

“John represented the consummate professional, knowledgeable, hardworking, and always willing to accommodate questions and make an extra effort to facilitate our botanical studies,” said Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum. “It is going to be very hard to replace someone like John. However, it is critical that the Island and regional community continue to take value in what I believe is the conservation gem of the Island.”

Winter: polar vortex

Some feel that part of winter’s function in northern climates is to serve up rest and quietude. That is certainly true in the garden, where the action has retreated below the soil surface. But let’s throw a little New England fortitude in there for good measure, because adverse conditions create toughness in the plants grown here, just as winter keeps people “grown here” on their toes.

Winter storms, although often over-hyped, interfere with mundane comings and goings and menial tasks. We are required to slow down. The account of the Island youths’ survival of a misstep at Tuckerman Ravine last week was fascinating to piece together; that the tale concluded relatively auspiciously is a huge relief. It drives home that winter plus one mistake can equal tragedy, even in familiar settings such as right here at home on the Island.

Much of daily life becomes that little bit harder, slightly more taxing — maybe even a little dangerous, if one’s attention wanders. Take it slow and steady and remember that a winter’s day is unlike a summer one. Driving an all-wheel-drive vehicle does not protect from being struck by another incompetent driver! Who needs a fender-bender stemming from an unnecessary errand? Eliminate trifling car trips when conditions are awful: let the kids take the school bus.

Keep a little more food in the pantry and fridge, and extra bread in the freezer. If you are feeding the birds, stock up on bird food. It is beyond cruel to get your local flock depending upon you and to then discontinue for any reason. A broom kept by the kitchen door is handy for brushing off snowy boots and the snow accumulations that break broadleaf evergreen shrubs with their weight.

Keep a shovel along with a dry bucket of ash and a bucket of sand on hand in an easily reached, frost-free location. As with summer tropical storms, drawing some water into jugs and buckets is a good idea, if ice storms/power outages are forecast.

Having made a few contingency plans, you are ready to let winter serve up that rest and quietude. While much of this seems obvious, instances of winter foolishness are always astounding to hear about. A word to the wise is sufficient (and a torrent of words is useless to those who are not).

At the feeder

I had the belated although apparently successful idea of hanging my bird feeders from the kitchen porch, instead of in thicket-y shrubs and holly trees as I have previously. The avian array is pretty much the usual for feeders stocked only with sunflower seed and beef suet: nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, paired cardinals, downy and hairy woodpeckers, paired red-bellied woodpeckers, paired bluejays, white-throated and song sparrows, a solitary wren — with juncos, a dove, and the occasional hen picking up the spill on the ground.

However, a strongly supportive winter environment for birds presages one that is equally rich in bird life during the active gardening season. In terms of ecosystem services, birds work for us for free in our gardens and deliver the goods, in insect control, in return for enjoying our premises.

The protection of the porch seems to have upped the traffic at the feeders and now, from morning until dark, there is a constant flutter of activity at the feeders (all with improved observation from indoors, a side benefit). Gauging by the rates of consumption, more birds are feeding more often. It took a long time for this seemingly minor improvement to occur to me — and it makes one wonder, how many other small improvements of home and garden are staring everyone in the face?

For 2014

Catalogues are here, and to top it off, Swan Island Dahlias arrived today! So begins the season of Technicolor sensory overload, when all is hyperbole and potential. At this point, all I want in my garden is sweet peas, for their eye-candy images and descriptions in the various catalogues are irresistible.

SBS is stocking its racks with seeds from various suppliers for 2014.

On the negative side, garden publications are beginning to mention the effect of proposed European Union (EU) regulations governing plant materials’ registration, and how these would constitute a narrowing of choice in garden seeds and plants that would eventually affect U.S. gardeners. Although American gardeners have no say in the matter, British gardeners are being urged to voice their dire disapproval over the egregious burden the proposed regulations would impose upon the British nursery industry, which is globally unique in the depth and breadth of plant material produced.

Polly Hill Arboretum

January winter walk: on Saturday the 11th, join Arboretum staff to explore the grounds in the “off-season.” Tours are at 10 am and run for a little over an hour. Meet at the Visitor Center and dress for the weather. Tours are free, but donations are always welcome.


Homegrown meets Sunday, January 19, at the Agricultural Hall , 3—5 pm, to discuss what we learned from the NOFA Winter Conference.