Garden Notes: Finis to another summer

Welcome to the darkest time of the year.

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West Chop lilacs and butterflies belie November. — Susan Safford

It is less than two months before the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year. Despite lilacs’ precocious bloom and lingering painted lady butterflies, winter is on its way: Even unseasonably warm temperatures cannot mask the daily loss of photons.

We have turned the clocks back, holiday shopping is already underway, and year-end appeals stuff mailboxes and airwaves. Every nonprofit is feeling the pinch; please be as generous as you can with your local favorites.

Stoves and chimneys need a clean-out before cold weather. Save chimney carbon and wood ash for composting or direct incorporation into garden soil.

The big blow last week got leaf collection off to an early start. Prior to it, even at the end of October, the woods had been very green. All those pieces of fallen leaf, branch, and twig add a valuable component to compost piles; every bit is biomass, and benefits your garden by being returned to the soil.

It is time for the slightly doleful, for me at least, process of bringing houseplants inside: finis to another summer. Doleful for them, too, because they are not going to receive the same amount of natural light they do outside. Indoors over the winter, in low humidity, they always seem to suffer from outbreaks of scale, mealybugs, or some other malady. Life outside does not entail those so much, and they are healthier and happier there.

However, it is preferable to plan ahead and get everyone inside in a cleaned-up state, instead of being caught out by the forecast and having to hustle them inside under urgent threat of “frost tonight!”

In an ideal world, accumulations of acorns, fallen leaves, and grunge on the outsides of pots would be cleaned up in an orderly way, and decisions made about cutting back or repotting. It is last-chance time to take cuttings of tender bedding and container plants that will be summer 2018’s cost-free material.

In the garden

Dig dahlias that have been frosted, cutting back the tops after a week or so. Dahlia experts advise this delay as a way to insure that frost sends the sap back down into the tubers, so they will store well. Understand that more and more Island gardeners have discovered over the past several winters that tubers inadvertently left behind in the soil are surviving to return on their own the next year.

The songbirds have headed south. The woods are largely silent now, except for the harsh calls of crows and jays, and the bossy chuk-chukking of squirrels; but sparrows, wrens, and chickadees are nonetheless quietly lurking here and there, staking out their winter territories. If you can add a source of water, your garden will be greatly enhanced for them; as colder weather arrives, a heated birdbath will really bring them in! Bird feeders should be taken down and thoroughly cleaned before being restocked.

As I write, weather conditions are still promoting growth; there is no dormancy yet. When plants have become actually dormant, then is the time to mulch, if this is part of your maintenance plan.

The amount of debris that evergreen trees and shrubs collect and hold fast becomes a liability with snowfall; remove leaf muddles as they occur.

I have been prepping the area of the vegetable garden where garlic will go: weeding, top-dressing with Pro-Gro and wood ash, and soon, henhouse bedding. The broadfork will incorporate these all into the soil.

The garlic heads are separated into cloves, and each planted about four inches down, six inches apart (do not crowd them) in rows about two feet apart. For raised beds, an all-over spacing of about eight inches should be adequate.

Bulb suppliers have begun to ship Dutch bulbs. Follow recommended planting directions for each; otherwise a good rule of thumb is to plant at a depth about three times the bulb’s size.

Leave anything whose hardiness is questionable: i.e., hydrangea, perovskia, buddleia. Do not cut them down/deadhead especially if you are in one of the frost-prone areas. Island weather fluctuations are highly unpredictable, with amazing warm spells in the midst of otherwise typical weather that are harmful to them.

Noble trees

The Vineyard is oak country. I admire the remaining magnificent oaks that line State Road, going up the hill out of Vineyard Haven toward Pine Tree Road and Oak Grove Cemetery. Some are white oaks, some are black oaks. Both species, probably about 100 years old, maybe older, are relics of the more rural outskirts of town, and must have simply grown in place, in then-wooded land.

Many have been lost, taken down over the years, and remain only in memory. Others have been mutilated by power line trimming or scarred by interactions with the automobile. Those that continue to stand are noble specimens and survivors.

I wish, when public works departments contemplate street tree planting, that trees of enduring quality were chosen. I wish, when one of these oaks must be removed, that replacement oaks are planted, so that State Road becomes a shady oak-lined avenue, a handsome entrance to town.

Just saying

Game season is upon us, and so is mating season for deer. I read with interest the calls to decimate the Island’s deer herd in the interests of controlling tick-borne disease. Not only are deer a source of food for many people, but also by now the pool of animals hosting disease organisms must extend far beyond white-tailed deer. It is an ironic fact that turkeys, the Thanksgiving icon (and unwelcome in many neighborhoods), are adept tick foragers.

Good read

“Cutting Back” by Leslie Buck (Timber Press) is a vivid memoir that reminds one of the importance of discipline and craft in what gardeners do, in this case the landscape gardeners of Japan.