Authors Posts by Abigail Higgins

Abigail Higgins

Abigail Higgins

—Photo by Susan Safford

Thanksgiving wish

Cold weather has arrived. Various shellfishing and hunting seasons are underway, and the slaughter of livestock too. The holidays are beyond gardening: if you had a garden, it is all leading up to these feasts — food season in overdrive! It seems as if everyone and everything is in a bustling mode that revolves around gathering, preparing, and eating. My Thanksgiving wish is that all aspects of these rituals are shared and enjoyable.

The garden as live larder

Real life may turn much of that pleasant bustle into quite the opposite: overwhelming, over-hyped, and over-rushed stress. Let me back up a bit. There is nothing instantaneous whatsoever about growing and making good food.

However, marketing strategies have been designed, over several American generations, to convince the opposite: that instant-without-effort is the acceptable norm; that it is modern, the way of the future. I. e., instant coffee is the same as or superior to brewing up a fresh pot.

But, as has been noted, we needed to be overrun by fast food before we could have Slow Food. Many were not co-opted by those marketing strategies, and the multitude of eaters committed to real food with no shortcuts has grown, until now it is itself a marketing phenomenon.

Nowadays most of us work, most of the time, so who is going to grow food? Therefore, the following are mostly theoretical questions, but not entirely: Why go to the store? If we are what we eat, is sufficient quality entering our mouths? Why hand over responsibility for feeding your family and yourself to others?

Many years ago in the bad old days there was rampant corner cutting of watered milk and flour adulterated with talcum powder or other unwholesome ingredients. Today many of us wonder: what else is in our food, unwanted and unwholesome? Moreover, what has been removed from it?

My concept of the garden is that it has become, more and more, a live larder, which involves food production and is also beautiful, although the conventional idea of “gardens” and “gardening” creates images of places and activities that are largely ornamental and flowery by nature.

Orchards belong in my idea of a garden, as do fish ponds, rabbit warrens, poultry, vegetables both perennial and annual, compost piles, simple feasts, and as many flowers as possible. A conspicuous facet of this idea is using what is on hand. “Waste not, want not,” which brings to mind quinces.

Quinces — Cydonia oblonga

From classical antiquity onwards the quince has been the symbol of love, happiness, and fruitfulness, but frequently heard in connection with quinces is the lament: they are so hard! How does one use them?

My friend came from California to visit her quince tree (well — there was a little more to it than that); she harvested the fruit and gave it to me because she knows I still mourn the venerable, destroyed quince orchard at our old home.

Delectable quince paste (marmelada) is just one of many interesting recipes for cooking them. It is from the Portuguese word for quince (marmelo) that the word marmalade came into the French and English languages. Quinces are used in poultry and game cookery, and are also made into desserts and sweets. Our Thanksgiving turkey is to be stuffed with quince, onion, and celery.

The late Elizabeth David’s recipe for Quince Paste from her French Provincial Cooking (Penguin, 1969) is well adapted to traditional slow cooking. Somewhat quaint-sounding, it is as follows:

“Rub quinces with a cloth to remove the down. Put them whole and unpeeled into a big, tall earthenware crock or jar, without any water. Leave them covered in a low oven until they are soft but not breaking up. When they are cool enough to handle, slice them, without peeling them, into a bowl discarding the cores and any bruised or hard pieces. Put the sliced fruit through the food mill. Weigh it. Add an equal quantity of white sugar. Boil in a preserving pan, stirring nearly all the while until the paste begins to candy and come away from the bottom as well as the sides of the pan….

“Continue stirring after the heat has been turned off until the boiling has ceased. With a big soup ladle, fill shallow rectangular earthenware or tin dishes with the paste. [Other recipes recommend lining with parchment paper or buttering the receptacles.] Leave to get quite cold. Next day put these moulds into the lowest possible oven of a solid fuel cooker, or into the plate drawer of a gas or electric stove, while the oven is on for several hours, until the paste has dried out and is quite firm. Turn out the slabs of paste, wrap them in greaseproof paper or foil, and store them in tins in a dry larder.”

Quinces originated in the Trans-Caucasus and were intensively bred and cultivated in Turkey and Persia, an area that continues large production of the fruit (as do Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay). They were brought west to Europe by Charlemagne and are recorded as having been planted in the British Isles by around 1275. Early New England colonists planted quince in every orchard. Their high pectin content is a boon in preserve making.

Quince produce grafting stock especially suited to dwarfing pear scion-wood, which bears heavier and earlier when grafted onto quince rootstock. Perhaps because of quince trees’ susceptibility to fire blight (devastating disease of apples, pears, and other members of theRosaceae) or a taste-shift to sweeter fresh fruit, quinces inexplicably fell from popularity by the turn of the 20th century, although trees are still likely to be found in ethnic neighborhoods. Further information about quinces is found in Arnoldia,


There will be no December meeting of Homegrown due to proximity to Christmas.

What is it that makes carrots so tasty in the autumn? Damper soil? Less light? —Photo by Susan Safford

November is a dark month. It can be a rainy month. There is not much to do in the November garden, it appears, and nothing appears to be growing either — a fallow time of year, when what is happening is invisible to human eyes.

Motivation is often the question. The weather has turned nastier or maybe bone-chilling, days are shorter, and the wait for killing frost seems interminable, as one counts the shrinking weeks to the approaching holidays and the pressing inside activities that crowd our calendars.

Life has gone underground, as the metaphor of the classical Greeks (who were very observant) eloquently demonstrates: Hades, Lord of the Underworld, abducts Persephone, the embodiment of blooming life, and carries her down to the dark reaches of his realm, there to live with him.

But this is an illusion: in the garden world there is always something happening (or things to do), whether incremental or major, and a lot is going on. An example would be root growth, underground; both figuratively and literally the opposite of what happens in spring. Then the highly visible explosion of growth and activity in the natural world amazes even the least observant among us: Persephone returns! Now, however, the stage is being set.


Are fall carrots more sweet, crunchy, brittle because of the infrared light that yields quality roots? I find the tops love to grow quickly and without setback in the cooler, moister, Island autumn, while the still-warm soil supports the roots. So I always prefer to sow carrot seed in the latter part of summer, rather than trying to grow a crop in the frequently dry Island spring in my non-irrigated garden.

This year on August 8 I sowed a row each of two different carrots, ‘Bolero’ and ‘Starica,’ plus a mélange row of odds and ends of previous years’ ‘Nantes’-type seeds. The ‘Nantes’ is one of four carrot types related to root shape and the one I prefer for my taste and garden’s soil.

(The three other types, each with slightly differing attributes, are the Danvers, the Chantenay, and the Imperator. The Chantenay type is recommended specifically for gardens with heavy or compacted soils. It is blockier and more wedge-like, and shorter than the three other types.)

I covered the seed with floating row cover and watered it, by hand and by sprinkler, almost daily while waiting for the seed leaves to emerge, which they did, quite quickly. The row cover remained in place until the growing tops visibly lifted it.

Carrots are nutritional powerhouses, rich in vitamins, anti-oxidants, and minerals. Surprisingly, according to Wikipedia, “Only 3 percent of theβ-carotene [nutritional precursor to vitamin A and incentive for eating carrots] in raw carrots is released during digestion: this can be improved to 39% by pulping, cooking and adding cooking oil.” This seems counter to what we usually think — fresh and raw is invariably superior — so is important to know.

We are eating and sharing the carrots now, and mighty nice they are.

Fall cleanup

As examples of incremental gardening activity I always cite weeding and leaf harvest. A family disagreement exists, reflecting quite different MO’s, between my husband and me. His approach is the wholesale one: all at once. He sees no point in doing anything about leaves until they are all down, and raking can be done “once and for all.”

This is consistent with an approach you need to take when you are being paid to do fall cleanups. For myself, in my own garden, however, my opinion is that this makes for a garden that for much of the season is weedy/unsightly, or covered in leaves. I prefer to do some weeding every day, or harvest some leaves on a steady basis, and keep on top of the situation. Otherwise, by waiting until early December, many leaves are blown into the woods and lost, and it is often cold and wet then, too.

Since leaves are such an extraordinarily valuable resource — free, too — efforts should be made to get all of them but without having to endure a marathon of effort. A little here and a bit there, and eventually it all gets harvested into mounds of future leaf mold.

Moving inside

It's time to move gardening efforts indoors. —Photo by Susan Safford
It’s time to move gardening efforts indoors. —Photo by Susan Safford

November is time to “play indoors,” if you have a greenhouse, sunspace, or bright window array, that is. The many pots of hippeastrum (“amaryllis”) and fall blooming Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) that I carried down into the darkest corner of my cellar in early September can now emerge after their rest period. All the others, except the hardiest potted bay, rosemary, and agave plants, have been dragged inside, where, to my amazement, the flowering has intensified on orchids, calamondin orange, dwarf pomegranate, tibouchina, cyclamen, and geraniums.

The darkness will have retarded development in the cactus buds and permitted them to synchronize somewhat with their respective holidays. This year’s Thanksgiving is late, however, and my plants look as if their big display will peak before then.

The cultivars of Schlumbergera fall into two main groups: the S. truncata, which has pointy, claw-like leaf segments; and S. Buckleyi, with more rounded, symmetrical leaf segments. The S. truncata group blooms earlier and likely to be called Thanksgiving cactus, while the S. Buckleyi group is later blooming and likely to be called Christmas cactus.

Both groups are epiphytic and are found growing on trees, similar to many orchids, in their native Brazil. Therefore they prefer a fast-draining soil mix, although it should be rich as well. While coming into bloom, take care not to overwater plants; this may cause flowers to disintegrate faster. As light levels increase in February, start watering and feeding regularly to set the stage for a great display a year from now.

Chestnuts, once abundant, may once again feature prominently in American forests. —Photo by Susan Safford

Full-blown autumn overtakes the Island. Watch for deer while driving, especially at dusk and dawn.

This year the trees are coloring beautifully! As they leach chlorophyll at varying rates it is interesting to observe differing species emerging individually from the general green backdrop. In late summer it is easy to pick out the beetlebung trees, as they begin to redden long before any other healthy trees do, and most people can identify a maple or clump of sumac, both of which glow dramatically. Now, the hickories are golden, the sassafras “mittens” show clearly when they are apricot and pink, and many white oaks possess a sultry maroon coloration.

If you want to become more aware of trees, the autumn season is a good opportunity to pick up on characteristics and differences. The ID’d specimens at Polly Hill Arboretum are also a good place to start, for those who are developing an interest in trees.

Green beans

With apologies to container gardeners, for whom bush beans might be a better choice, if you can grow only one green bean, grow pole bean ‘Fortex.’ It is a filet-type bean of great length and quality. My row of ‘Fortex’ has been bearing heavily since mid-July and as of late-October is still yielding long, tasty beans, sweet and brittle.

In small gardens where space is at a premium, up is the way to go. Having a larger garden, I have room for an entire row of poles supporting three different varieties of pole beans. One teepee should suffice in gardens where that is not possible.

The marketed life

We live in an age of marketing, which manipulates our perceptions of how to do things in many arenas, gardening not excepted. The images that are propelled directly into our brains through multi-media, and advertising of “products for better living,” reinforce all sorts of green industry fallacies and a culture of Lookism — empty form over function.

To name just a few easy targets: dyed mulch (let’s not even mention synthetic mulches); tree mutilation through incorrect notions of pruning; well-intentioned but unthinking spraying schedules to kill life-forms of all kinds; and the “chem-lawn” approach to lawn perfection.

It is not only in the garden: misleading perceptions of what constitutes good order in the home also contribute to our delusions. Many households contain arsenals of “good housekeeping” products — under the sink, in the laundry, in the basement — which are harmful to the humans and pets within, maybe more so than to the products’ ostensible targets.

Chestnut season redux

There is an American tree that is unlikely to be identified on Martha’s Vineyard this autumn. Islanders — nor, for that matter, most mainlanders — are not familiar with the American chestnut, the once common, majestic tree was virtually wiped out by a devastating blight over a century ago.

Historically, the tree and the nut have been a rich food and lumber resource, going back to prehistoric times, and, along with other nut harvests, autumn is chestnut season.

Almost everything one reads about the towering American species contains the phrase “the redwood of the Eastern forest.” What is known as the Chestnut Ecosystem (chestnut trees, perhaps as many as 10 million, being the foundation species), supported bear, elk, squirrel, deer, raccoon, mice, wild turkey, and enormous flocks of passenger pigeons, as well as the human populations of their range.

Although it will be a while before a blight-resistant American chestnut (Castanea dentata) returns to our landscape and diet, it is likely to happen in our lifetime, and maybe much sooner. Work to breed, cross, and re-breed a resistant tree is on-going and The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), reports optimistic developments. An article in the summer 2014 issue of the MOFGA Journal quotes TACF’s chief scientist, Fred Hebard: “We are on the verge of really restoring the species.” To combat blight, TACF hybridized American with Chinese chestnuts, the species that originally spread the blight and which has resistance to it.

The resulting progeny were then successively back-crossed until they became 15/16ths American. But every backcross, although necessary to recover desirable American traits, also reintroduces the genes for blight susceptibility from the American parent. In order to remove those genes, the next steps at TACF were intercrosses. In the first intercross, the most blight-resistant 15/16ths American trees were crossed with other blight-resistant 15/16ths American trees. Again, only resistant seedlings are saved.

It is painstaking work, but what is at stake is the restoration of an entire ecosystem, something that has never been previously attempted! The volunteer-run TACF, a non-profit, has racked up an inspiring record in its 30 years of existence. One result of the effort is the Restoration Chestnut 1.0 trees, currently being grown in TACF orchards across the original chestnut range. Another ambitious program is using blight-resistant chestnuts to restore the ravaged areas of mountaintop removal and strip mining throughout Appalachia.

Due to their unfamiliarity in our foodscape, what to do with chestnuts is a question. To shell, cut an X in the flat side of the nut with a paring knife or pointed scissors. Place in water to cover and bring to boil for about eight minutes. Drain a few at a time and while still warm, peel off the outer husk and inner membrane. Cut away wormy or discolored parts. At this point the nuts may be frozen; added to seasonal dishes, such as Brussels sprouts with bacon or sausage and chestnuts; or turned into puree for baking or desserts. Chestnut flour also offers an alternative for gluten sensitivities.

To puree, cover shelled chestnuts with milk or fresh water, and simmer until they are tender. Drain and mash with a potato masher or ricer, and then use as directed in recipes such as Mont Blanc or chestnut cookies.

Montauk daisies, bright white and over-sized, stand out in the fall garden. —Photo by Susan Safford

This is a season of many beautiful but ephemeral vignettes in gardens and Island landscapes. Hostas aging to tawny golden mounds, backlit flowering grasses, unexpected flashes of scarlet and crimson vines and branches against blue sky — the light changes or the leaves fall and that’s it, gone forever!

Sustainable gardening may mean leaving perennial beds standing, instead of cutdowns. Seedheads, especially those of the Compositae, support much wildlife over winter.

Seasonal change seems to mean we are finally receiving ample rainfall. This does not mean that recently planted trees and shrubs are not at a deficit going into winter, since much desiccation and damage has already occurred. Deep watering, mulching, and for evergreens an anti-desiccant spray are measures to take to ensure survival and avoid winterkill.

Hummingbird feeders

A small-scale debate appears to have arisen concerning hummingbird feeders and when to take them in. One argument is for removing them around the third week of September, to discourage the tiny birds’ hanging around because they have a source of energy, when they should be leaving to migrate to their southern ranges.

The other viewpoint is for leaving the feeders up (clean and freshly stocked, of course), to provide welcome energy supplies for stragglers arriving here from farther north. The difference may even depend upon your Island location, relative to migration routes. I have not noted any hummingbirds at my house since mid-September and have taken in my feeder.

Lords of the autumn border

Typically Montauk daisies are glorious over Columbus Day weekend — a farewell salute to summer. The Montauk daisy (now Nipponanthemum nipponicum, after several binomial name changes) is indisputably one of the most attention-grabbing flowers of the late border. Falling somewhere between a shrub and an herbaceous perennial, it is a magisterial plant, clumps typically two to three feet high and wide, with over-sized flower trusses to match.

Montauk daisies are well suited to Island gardens and make an ideal seaside garden plant. They thrive in sandy soils in full sun locations and tolerate salt well. They are not prone to deer and rabbit damage. In locations with overly rich soil the plants make green growth at the expense of flowers and tend to sprawl with open crowns. Manage that by repeated pinching/shearing (until mid-August at the very latest) to promote bushiness, and by unobtrusive staking if necessary. Apart from this pruning, and annual cutting back of the previous year’s growth in early May, Montauk daisies are carefree, hardy plants.

Montauk daisies stand out due to their bright whiteness and may make nearby flowers look mousey in comparison. Suggestions for perennials to mix with Montauk daisies include those with bold color or texture that enjoy similar sunny, well-drained conditions: asters, lamb’s ears (stachys), ornamental grasses, sedums, nepeta, rudbeckia, caryopteris, garden ’mums, seaside goldenrod, and butterfly weed, to name a few.

My butterfly experiment

Readers may recall my announced intention to promote the American Painted Lady butterfly by allowing larval feeding on the foliage of Helichrysum petiolare, the licorice plant, in my terrace pots. I’ll report on what happened.

The pots also included ‘Queen Sophia’ marigold and Verbena bonariensis. I did get munching and webbing on the helichrysum foliage, up to a point, but to an extent that was disappointing and barely disfiguring. I had been prepared to make the supreme sacrifice of tattered looking pots in the service of butterfly propagation! Nothing much seemed to be happening, and eggs, if indeed they were being laid, did not seem to develop compared to pots I had cared for in other gardens.

Finally, in August, I spotted two small black, hairy caterpillars! Whether they pupated, or were picked off by bird predators or hens, I do not know, but I lost track of them. In the end, some element of what the butterflies needed to reproduce strongly was lacking, even though I had provided plants with felted leaves that had proved appealing in other locations.

Did the marigolds or verbena exert a repellent effect? Possibly, but my best guess is that the pots are not located in sunshine that was strong and warm enough. When the American Painted Lady is fluttering over sandplain habitat and selecting pearly everlasting plants upon which to deposit its eggs, it is in a sunny, open, hot and dry setting. My terrace didn’t pass muster as sandplain habitat.

In the garden

Leaf harvest begins. Do a little raking every day and keep accumulations to a minimum, especially while lawns are still in active growth. Wet packed leaves on lawns create dead spots that are easily avoided by frequent cleanup. Create a leaf storage container, wire cage, or other means of holding onto the leaves; they are one of nature’s best soil amendments — good stuff! Piles can be run over with the lawn mower, giving you a product that breaks down more quickly and which can be used ultimately on flower beds, vegetable gardens, or to mulch trees and shrubs.

Be prepared to bring houseplants inside; nights are becoming chilly even though sunny daytime temperatures warm quickly. Plants may be cut back to make them more manageable, and some, such as geraniums, can be dried off and stored for the winter in an unheated basement or other frost-free place. Or, cuttings can be taken. They won’t grow much over winter but will give fresh new plants for next season.

It is premature to dig and store dahlias; the experts say the tops should be blackened by frost and left in the ground for a while to promote tissue changes that enhance keeping qualities of tubers. When that does happen, though, the tubers may be washed and divided (the method recommended by Swan Island Dahlias) or, my more casual “dig ‘n’ store” with dirt clinging, in feed bags or plastic ones that potting soil comes in. Whichever way you do it, be sure to identify the tubers by cultivar.

—Photo by Susan Safford

Mulch or Cover-crop for Fall

Nighttime chill, holding the threat of frost, triggers changes in our gardens (and in us), prompting the close of the growing year. Experienced gardeners know that preparation for the next gardening year starts well in advance of its arrival. In dry spells, such as the one we have recently experienced, the more moisture-retentive organic matter in the soil, the better the survival and growth for the coming year.

In vegetable gardens, as crops are harvested and cleared, various “green manures” or cover crops may be sown. This is a term describing plants specifically grown to be tilled into the soil, instead of yielding harvestable crops. After protecting the soil surface they are incorporated into the soil; the breakdown of their root systems and green top growth supply the soil organisms with valuable nutrition.

Depending on the season, this might be a warm weather cover crop such as buckwheat, grasses, or legumes. Oats are used later on; they will winterkill but still hold the soil. Winter rye is one of the most commonly used cold weather cover crops; on the Vineyard it usually holds over the winter and resumes growth in spring. Blends are also available, either locally or through seed catalogues, containing mixtures of both legumes and other types of plants.

The aim is that, apart from cool weather crops still in place, the garden is completely covered, either with green, or animal, manure or mulched with organic matter from compost or leaf piles. An over-wintering crop, such as garlic or fall-planted potatoes, also benefits from being mulched.

Cover cropping is usually restricted to vegetable patches and agricultural soils, while mulching is what happens in the ornamental garden or shrub border. The goals are the same, however: to cover the soil surface and protect it from wind and water erosion; and to layer on organic matter that feeds and enhances soil organisms, whose action adds humus.

There is a style of mulching that resembles the application of a “mulch blanket,” which stays there, all season long, for the purpose of suppressing weeds and minimizing maintenance. This differs from the application of mulch that is worked and cultivated, so that it is continuously incorporated and digested by soil organisms.

Gardeners may hear about intricate rotational systems for vegetable gardens, and the green manures specific to the rotation. This is good husbandry but is confusing. Until one has gardened in a specific spot for a number of years and gotten to know it, much of this is guesswork, soil testing notwithstanding. If you adhere to the guideline of getting as much organic matter into the soil as you can, you will be improving it.

Take soil samples for testing now. Go to the UMass soil testing website for information, Other soil testing labs that perform more intensive types of testing do exist; they may be found with an internet search. Be prepared to take the advice that is sent to you with the results, as part of your fall garden work.

Food Garden: Harvesting & Storing

Harvest seeds and herbs for drying, such as dill seed, peppermint, and sage, for use as teas, seasoning, and for seed to sow in the coming year. I cut sprigs and seed heads, tie them in bunches with garden twine, and place them in paper bags to dry. The bags catch whatever shatters, or breaks off. Harvest dry shell beans and finish drying on trays, to be shelled and stored when they rattle in the pod.

Plant garlic in prepared, fertile soil by separating the cloves and planting up to four inches deep and 6-8” apart in rows at least one foot apart. Sow hardy crops that will be grown under reemay or other forms of cover over the course of the winter. Dig and divide rhubarb roots: replant in soil that has been amended with good compost or well-rotted manure. Cut down asparagus tops when yellow and mulch the crowns with compost or well-rotted manure. (Rockweed — not eelgrass — and algae are dynamite if you can harvest some!)

Harvest squash and pumpkins; cure before storing. After frost has blackened tops, dig and cure dahlia roots; label well before storing. Harvest fruit that stores, such as apples and pears; only perfect ones may be stored; process the rest. Fall-bearing raspberries are bountiful; I pick and freeze about a pint each morning before work, by traying them in a single layer in the freezer, and then pouring into zip lock bags. Pull cabbages and store, roots and all, in cellars or other cool, darkened place. Four good-size cabbage heads yield about seven quarts of naturally fermented sauerkraut, which may be stored indefinitely in the fridge.

Ornamental Garden

Cut-downs proceed as perennial plants finish their business. With the dry conditions, cutting down sooner than usual may be helpful to drought-stressed perennial plants. Re-work edges, weed, and cultivate, prior to top dressing with low number organic soil food and capping with mulch.

Here is a timesaving move: certain beds may be dealt with by using a power mower on them, blade set high. It speeds things up considerably. Rake up the resulting debris and compost it, top-dress with fertilizer, and then cover bed with mulch or compost. With cleaned up edges the entire bed looks tidy and well ordered for the coming season.

Peonies and iris, both bearded and Siberian, may be dug, divided, and reset, using compost or leaf mold to enhance the planting hole. (Refrain from fertilizing directly in planting holes.) Likewise, strong growers such as lysimachia, Shasta daisies, phlox, some hostas, and many asters may be cut down, dug, and separated into smaller pieces for replanting. The same goes for an ornamental grass that has become out-of scale for its location. Cut it down, dig the clump, and then divide it using the classic, “two spading forks back to back” to prize the root mass into smaller chunks.

Evergreens, especially the broad-leaved ones, such as rhododendron, pieris, skimmia, and sarcococca, continue to transpire all winter, and lose valuable moisture from their tissues during our up-and-down, freeze/thaw cycles. Newly planted trees and shrubs are at greater risk too. The unusual dryness of this fall is placing additional stress on these plants, since going into winter in a desiccated state is a real killer. Provide supplemental water and spray these plants with an anti-desiccant to help them hold onto critical moisture levels.

"The Brown Turkey." —Photo by Susan Safford

The Living Local Harvest Festival: at the Fairgrounds, West Tisbury!

Last week’s long-awaited rain amounted to 0.85” in my rain gauge. Luckily runoff was minimal, as it was delivered softly, without downpour.

My hens are pretty well molted, so I am cleaning the henhouse and composting the litter, preparatory to its mellowing over the winter in the soil of the vegetable garden. The litter has been building since last fall; its high feather content — protein — is a soil asset.

Figs, best savored unadorned

The growing of figs on Martha’s Vineyard seems to have been uncommon until relatively recently. It’s likely that horticulturalists of years back, such as the late John Perkins of Edgartown, tried them, though. Today, with changes in weather patterns — and Sumner Silverman’s indefatigable distribution of propagating material from the prunings of his several pampered fig trees — numerous Island fig trees now exist.

The common fig, Ficus carica, in the Moraceae, has been cultivated since ancient times, and has many mythological and classical connotations. As a garden plant in mild zones (zone 7 and south), the trees with their iconic foliage provide a bold textural contrast, and prefer to be sited “in moist, well-drained soil” (Michael Dirr) but are adaptable.

I accepted three of Sumner’s prunings and rooted them in water over the winter. Only one actually took well enough to pot on, and that is how I got my “Brown Turkey” fig tree, one of the more reliably hardy varieties for our plant zone.

The temptation to grow figs in-ground is great: Schlepping a potted fig in and out, with ever-increasing root-ball and container sizes, requires just the right sort of situation and a strong back or hand truck. The men in my family had, however, unilaterally decided that their projects required a concrete slab on the best spot for my fledgling fig tree.

As we saw, last winter’s weather proved to be a setback for fig trees planted in-ground by risk-taking Islanders. Many were killed down to the ground. Although most regenerated, some did not, and an entire season’s fruit was lost. It is the fruits (and eating them) that are the main point. The vexing concrete apron inadvertently saved my fig tree, most likely.

Culture of figs has been something of an enigma. Their being such newcomers here means there is no long-standing local tradition, unlike growing, say, apples or peaches. Sketchy information that exists suggests they are more suitable for the South or California.

Stories of the elaborate rituals that elderly ethnic gardeners of Watertown, Charlestown, and the North End of Boston have developed to cosset fig trees in their urban backyards have circulated for years. However, without firsthand knowledge of how to do the trick, it seems risky to attempt severing half the roots and bending over the tree (one reported technique) to bury it in a straw-filled pit!

Plus, figs have quirks that mean that by incorrect pruning, one can prune away the entire future crop. I was happy to acquire the following advice from “Gardening at Longmeadow” (BBC Books, Random House, 2012, 351 pgs.), by Monty Don, the respected British garden authority, and from “The Cook and the Gardener”  (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1999, 632 pgs.), by the chef Amanda Hesser, whose cookbook is based on the gardening year in Burgundy.

I quote at length from Don’s “September” section of the above book, because it supplies the most complete information I have found on understanding fig habits. (The fig trees Don writes about are planted in-ground, in Britain.)

“Figs can produce three crops simultaneously and invariably have two on the go at any moment. At this time of year there will be large ripening figs, half-sized ones and, if you look closely, tiny pea-sized, even pin-head, fruit tucked into a joint between stem and leaf. These tiny ones are next year’s harvest.

“The in-between ones — essentially any that do not ripen by the middle of October — will never ripen in northern Europe although further south they will produce a delicious harvest from New Year to early spring …” He goes on to describe how they sometimes ripen further, but for various reasons never amount to anything.

“The solution is to wait until you have harvested the last ripe fig at the end of October and then remove every single fig bigger than a fingernail. … The fruit are formed towards the tips of healthy young shoots so for a maximum harvest it is best to roughly fan-train the fig against a wall, removing about a quarter of the oldest stems every year along with any growth that is growing out from the wall or crossing. Do this in April. Then in August, prune away any overly vigorous outward growth that will shade the ripening fruit.

Hesser writes in a similar vein: “In a warm climate, figs enjoy a double season like raspberries, only slightly later. The first season usually occurs about midsummer and a second in the fall. Burgundy is on the fringe of fig-growing latitudes, so only the figs from the first session actually ripen enough for consumption. The second-session figs grow halfway then shrivel up, burdened by the bite of frosts.

“The trees remain in this half-developed state through winter … until the trees are pruned in March.”

After I pruned my tree in early April, I was fortunate to be given a mammoth nursery pot for my “Brown Turkey,” at just the point when it had burst its former container and needed greater root room. I replanted with Fort Vee compost and was rewarded, as the photograph shows, with a nice harvest of fruit.

My collection of cookbooks is quite respectable, yet among the whole there are very, very few recipes for fresh figs. Hesser concludes her section on figs with a recipe for an apparently artless confection. She writes, “This is not a sophisticated recipe, as you can see by its length, but the last fruit I would ever want to torture with overcooking would be the fig.” Which goes to show that if you have fresh figs, the best thing to do is just eat them! Convert the surplus to jam.

Sedum ‘Xenox’s’ glowing flowers are set off by its dark foliage; it partially obscures green-leaved S. ‘Matrona’ (behind). —Photo by Susan Safford

These are blue-sky days, great for weddings; but I am a gardener and hoping for rain. Everything I see is hanging in droughty ribbons. Yet “there is no drought, only abnormally dry conditions.”

Early Fall Garden

Gardeners face such a variety and quantity of projects and endeavors at this time of year that it is hard not to be bewildered and spun upon the wheels of indecision.

Redesign? Rework beds? Dig and divide? Renew soil? Prep houseplants to return indoors? Visualize plantings and order bulbs? Soil test? Lawn repair? Mulching? And it isn’t as if we are all ladies and gentlemen of leisure, daintily picking up a pair of garden snips in our endless idle hours!

However, let’s review these topics. The end of the season is a great opportunity to go through the garden with a revising eye, while the recollection of what worked, what did not, and what downright annoyed you, is still fresh. (This is where frequent photos of the garden help greatly.) In my garden, a Japanese maple sapling is coming out — not without guilt on my part. It was part of a scheme of three young trees, planted to create a backdrop with four-season interest for a portion of a bed. Well, this one proved to be more of a light-blocker than I’d anticipated, so — sayonara.

Reworking beds is simplified after plants have been cut back, although the digging can be laborious nonetheless. Removing growth creates clarity vis-à-vis their location and relation to one another, and there are no tops to deal with if you decide to shift some. This is a good opportunity to renew soil by adding compost or leaf mold, too, while plants are out of the ground, especially if you did find the soil hard to dig.

Mulching can be just about the last garden task of the entire year, done after leaf drop and cleanup, and just before true cold weather sets in. Alternatively, should you have had a load of mulch delivered and unloaded in a convenient spot, it can be spread, little by little, as you do this reorganizing work. Keep a bag of low-number, organic soil food (i.e., fertilizer) nearby, to side-dress the area around the plants as you mulch.

You know with certainty that next spring you will find that your place needs more spring-flowering bulbs, so don’t disappoint yourself. Ordering bulbs should be simplified if you have been perusing the bulb catalogues as they come in. Many arrive in spring, while bulb season is underway. The rub is that the lists may be made “mentally” and “mentally” disposed of, too.

With the endemic Island deer problem, where we can plant tulips for any real landscape enjoyment is a problem. For several years I have been locating tulips in my vegetable garden, more as a cut-flower crop than as an enhancement of the garden landscape. This year, however, voles (?) seem to have discovered them; I continue to find dug and gnawed tulip bulbs lying on the ground.

If you wish to have plants such as digitalis, lunaria, hesperis, and lychnis, biennials all, sow or locate the young plantlets and transplant, or let grow, now.

Houseplants have grown over the summer, and may need repotting before returning indoors. Water well and then remove root balls from pots and slice off about an inch of root mass and old soil, using an old kitchen knife. Replace in pots and fill in with fresh container mix. Soak them well. Top growth may need to be reshaped to balance the loss of roots.

Lawn repair and renewal is a classic fall project, but one that is predicated upon the arrival of fall rains. While warm, dry conditions prevail, hold off on this one.

Soil testing may be done now, and no oven drying is needed — the soil is already dry. The new address for UMass soil testing: UMass Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Lab, 203 Paige Laboratory, 161 Holdsworth Way, Amherst, MA  01003. Go to the UMass web site at for information and to download order forms. Specify that you want advice for organic management.

Fall Garden: Sedums

When summer’s annuals and perennials are looking tired, the sedums come along to enliven the garden scenery and attract myriad pollinators. In this dry month, they have been outstanding! Most familiar may be the sturdy, often-used “Autumn Joy” (Hylotelephium “Herbstfreude”), but there is actually much more to choose from among these succulents. Late-summer sedums’ color range is primarily pale pink aging through ruby to mahogany.

If one goes toplantlust.comone can view the many varieties and cultivars of sedum (also called stonecrop) available, and find where to get them. The variety is extensive and enormous, and many are for specialist gardeners. These are all succulents and well adapted to dry or rock-garden conditions, something to keep in mind during these “not drought” times.

My new sedum fave is “Xenox,” a dark-leaved cultivar just under two feet tall, with rosy pink flowers at summer’s end. I like it grouped with “Matrona,” a slightly taller German introduction with paler, starry flower heads that age pink, greenish foliage, and wine-red stems.

The stonecrops as a group are endearingly called “kinder” plants, as leaves and stem pieces root effortlessly, producing offspring, or “kinder.” Give them full sun exposure and well-drained soil, and divide after three or four years. The plants of large-flowered taller varieties may be pinched early in the season to make for bushier growth and daintier flower heads, which may lessen the need for staking a large clump.

Drought stress? Background trees at the Place on the Wayside remain green, while maples have turned red. — Susan Safford

Abigail-HigginsThe Labor Day weekend rain, four tenths of an inch in my rain gauge, could not have been timelier. The flawless weather of the past several weeks was perfect for the Fair and likely drew few complaints from visitors. However, as drought conditions emerged, it was another story for farmers and gardeners. Watering has been doubled up, insufficiencies in irrigation programs revealed, and signs of stress have appeared everywhere, in domesticated and undomesticated landscapes alike.

It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of composting, mulching, and using composted woodchips to build up soil and offset the detrimental effects of dry spells, as well as other extremes, but now is an apt moment.

A soil scientist could better explain the processes that take place in the breakdown of organic matter into compost and humus, but my own experience satisfies me sufficiently. Microscopic bacteria and fungi are at work, but I do not need to see them. Go out in the early morning and see what is wet with dew. Bare “dirt” is dry. Soil containing lots of organic matter — earthworm casts, leaf mold, compost — is dew-soaked and wet, due to its ability to attract atmospheric moisture out of the air and hold it.

Whatever your yard, lot, or garden generates, in terms of biomass waste, needs to go on a compost pile and be returned to the soil from which it originated.

It is good for your land and it is good for your municipal landfill! The lawn, flowers, or vegetables that are grown with this reinforcement are far more resilient, drought-resistant, floriferous, tasty, or nutritious than they would be without it. Although many of us could care less, it is a personal carbon sink as well.

When you see a tree or shrub with some leaves already turning yellow or red at this time of year, you may sure that you are seeing signs of stress. Drought stress is draining those parts of the plant of their green chlorophyll (which is almost like human blood) and revealing the underlying pigments that the chlorophyll’s presence masks. It is autumn, but prematurely.

Maples, with their shallow root systems, are particularly vulnerable to drought, or to the radiant heating of the soil that takes place at this time of year, but drought stress is not limited to them. Although maples (genus Acer), are the favorite tree of millions of Americans, this is one reason that I do not recommend planting them here. They are beginning to suffer chronically in this plant hardiness zone. Think Canada: the trademark tree of cool, northern, forest conditions is becoming too marginal for 7a.

However, if your maple or other woody plant is turning red in August, mulch the root run area, and then water it. Compost, leaf mold, straw, mulch, composted wood chips: all will moderate the soil temperature around the root system and help to attract and hold in moisture.

Start harvesting

Though the thrum of cicadas is still rattling high in the oak trees, it is time to return to school. The earliness of it is a shock, since it seems as if the last day of school was only just the other week. I am thankful I no longer have to pack school lunches; the situation has become vastly more complicated by allergies and dietary preferences, leaving aside kids’ traditional pickiness. Kristin Kimball of Essex (N.Y.) Farm, the author of The Dirty Life, has some practical suggestions in this post about school lunches on the farm website,

The time of harvest is also here. My husband becomes Mr. Green Bean and takes responsibility for freezing them. He has recently expanded his repertoire to include making and freezing kettles of Garden Special, an indispensible, all-purpose base of tomato, onion, green pepper, and celery (our valuable collection of Mermaid Farm yogurt containers thus finds its ultimate purpose.)

The cellar, with its dehumidifier running anyway, holds trays of drying shell beans and mystery bags and bundles of drying herbs and seed-heads. Strewn around my kitchen counter are trays of halved and seeded paste tomatoes for the purpose of making Tomates confites, a delectable oven-roasted product that may be frozen or preserved in olive oil. (I am re-printing it because it is such a versatile way to preserve tomatoes.) This year I tried putting them in my closed cold-frame to pre-dry before turning on the oven, which becomes a “hot-frame,” achieving 150°F.

Tomates Confites (from Chocolate & Zucchini)

  • Ripe ‘Roma’ or ‘San Marzano’ (paste type) tomatoes
  • Freshly ground pepper, sea salt
  • Chili pepper flakes (optional)
  • Dried herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, thyme (optional)
  • Olive oil

Preheat oven to 210°F. Cut tomatoes in half and ream out seeds with your thumb (save juice and pulp for another purpose). Place cut sides up on a well-oiled or silpat-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, spices if using, and drizzle with olive oil. Put into the oven to bake for two or three hours, keeping an eye on them. Use warm or cold in pasta, salads, sandwiches, spreads, soups, etc. To freeze without clumping, freeze the baking sheet for a couple of hours, after which you can transfer the tomatoes to freezer bags or containers.

Oxalogenic trees

Aviram Rozin, in a recent talk at The FARM Institute, described the reforestation work of his organization, Sadhana Forest. In arid, deforested parts of India, Haiti, and Kenya, Sadhana Forest’s projects focus on indigenous reforestation, water conservation, food production, and introduction of sustainable practices. They have enjoyed a high success rate due to practical, low-tech methods of propagation and planting, emphasizing long-term sapling survival above sheer numbers of planted trees.

An enlightening facet of Sadhana Forest’s projects has been the searching out of tree species to plant in each locale that are not only native, having food, fodder, or medicinal properties, but which are also oxalogenic. This is the ability to go beyond sequestering atmospheric carbon, which all trees and forests store in their tissues, to actually transferring it into the surrounding soils, in the form of calcium carbonate, for long-term storage.

Red Mallow. — Susan Safford

Abigail-HigginsThe sun is falling steadily lower in the sky. It signifies not summer’s end, but tells us that it is drawing nigh. This amazing season has given gardeners much to appreciate and be thankful for. The heat waves experienced elsewhere did not materialize, despite predictions, and there have been few Japanese beetles and mosquitoes. Nights have been cool. Rainfall has been sufficient and often at night.

Scene-stealers in the August garden are the hybrid hibiscus now in bloom. Those unfamiliar with the theatrical plants’ dinner-plate sized flowers and stature are literally stopped in their tracks by them. What a floral tour de force!

The question of the August garden has become more perplexing, with height-of-bloom times speeding up almost yearly: stars of high summer such as oriental lilies and some phlox cultivars are almost passé by the beginning of the month. Fortunately, hibiscus hybrids seem to have resisted this speeding-up process, and still reliably take center stage in mid-August.

According to “Herbaceous Perennial Plants,” Allan M. Armitage’s big book of perennials (Stipes Publishing LLC), many of the garden hybrids were bred from Hibiscus moscheutos (“mos-KEW-tas”) a North American native, along with other vigorous members of the genus. Islanders know the beautiful pink stands of them, along our brackish coves and salt ponds, as “marsh mallows.”

Hybrid hibiscus plants share the hardy nature of their wild ancestors and the brilliant colors of their tropical relatives. (Armitage mentions the outstanding work done by the three Fleming brothers of Lincoln, Nebraska, in this hybridizing.) Many are patented plants and not always available in small local nurseries, but finding and growing them is worth the effort for the show they put on. The color range is white through pinks/lavenders to red and beyond red, to an almost black; one, ‘Old Yella,’ is a buttery primrose.

Space them out

The heights of hardy hibiscus hybrids vary from compact to super-sized, but most require plenty of room and air space. Do not try to shoehorn a hardy hibiscus into that small blank space that “just cries out” to be filled. Hardy hibiscus hybrids prefer full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. They appreciate adequate moisture but, unlike our beautiful, Island “marsh mallow,” they do not need to be planted in a swamp! Figure two to three feet wide and about four feet high for spacing most, with some becoming one to two feet taller where happy.

Hibiscus plants are categorized as woody shrubs. They are one of the last perennials to break dormancy and emerge in the spring. In the gardens where we care for them, we leave the woody stems until next year’s growth is well up, to avoid disturbing new shoots by cultivating. These woody stems are sturdy enough to be pressed into service to support the current year’s growth, a sort of built-in, self-grown, staking system.

You may encourage sturdier, bushier growth by pinching hardy hibiscus when the shoots are about six to eight inches tall. They benefit from fertilization, but hold off after the third week of June, or you may encourage vegetative growth at the expense of blossoms. Excessive feeding by Japanese beetles or hibiscus sawfly may indicate plants that are stressed; step up efforts at soil improvement.

Turk’s cap lilies

An emblem of Island roadsides and quiet shaded spots in August, the turk’s cap lilies have shone in recent weeks. While there are some people whose aesthetic prevents them from welcoming these towers of elegant orange into their premises, most of us are enchanted with their bright presence, easiness, ability to reproduce and increase on their own, and general resistance to the red lily beetle. So I am dismayed to see that many — though not all — are suffering from browning and loss of lower leaves. Am hoping to learn the cause of this disfigurement.

In the garden

Check grafted trees and shrubs, such as roses, for suckers originating from below the graft union. If they are not removed, eventually the entire plant will revert to whatever species supplied the rootstock.

Watering is paramount now. The afternoon sun is especially hot. The sun’s wavelength shift towards the infrared causes solid matter to heat up and hold heat differently than when the wavelength is primarily ultraviolet. Pots and garden seedlings may need watering twice daily. Keep plants looking good with a liquid feed.

Lift and divide bearded iris. Choose young, strong sections of rhizome. Trim off foliage and roots by two thirds and one third, respectively, and replant about one foot apart, with rhizome just at soil level.

I have seeded beets, carrots, more zucchini ‘Romanesco,’ Swiss chard, sugar snap peas, radicchio, and Portuguese kale but could have done much more — nothing ventured, nothing gained. Continue to weed and cultivate in vegetable gardens. The uncultivated crust that forms accepts less water, including dew, than cultivated soil does. Reemay over my three seeded rows of carrots will, I hope, hold in the moisture the seedlings need to grow well and keep out the bunny that has wormed its way through my fencing.

Parts of well-established clematis vines have succumbed to clematis wilt in my garden, and in others too. It is always a disappointment: to go for years without wilt, and then, in an otherwise satisfying season, to have it appear — “for no good reason,” as we always say. (Well, there is a reason, probably, but it’s not apparent to the gardener.)

If there are empty spots in your vegetable garden, or if you are clearing it out preparatory to departure, mulch them or sow with a green manure (cover crop) of some sort. If nothing else, it occupies the space and prevents the blown-in seeds of weeds becoming established.

— Susan Safford

A late July trip to the mountains of Colorado left me envious of the bright light and clear air and how those conditions enable irrigated flowering plants to hold up and persist in bloom, without succumbing to the mildews and bacteria of our sea-level, maritime humidity. In Vail, we saw overflowing pots of seemingly un-groomed, perfect petunias, full trusses of delphinium and flourishing pansies. For us here on the Vineyard those are difficult accomplishments indeed…although we do have great beaches and the sea.

The high point of Island summer, the annual Fair of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, is a few short weeks away, August 21-24. I hope you have been thinking of your entries and planning accordingly. Inform your well-meaning house guests and family members who want to pick which vegetables and fruits are intended as entries!

Due to unforeseen circumstances the 2014 Fair book will not be available online until August 10; apologies for the inconvenience. Fair books are available for pickup at Agricultural Hall and all local libraries.

After the Fair, an unwelcome thought: Labor Day comes, summer’s end nears, and soon the season changes. In gardens the emphasis shifts from summery flowers to berries, fruits, and deepening colors of foliage.

Will your summer-focused garden become a blank non-event? Perhaps there is still time to plant late-flowering perennials and fall-color shrubs, such as anemone, tricyrtis, lespedeza, and witch hazel, to add seasonal interest. Several small trees are known for their high autumn color: Japanese maples, parrotia, aronia, dogwoods, and amelanchier species and cultivars. Ornamental grasses come into their own, flowering, often dramatically, as well as changing from green to eye-catching tan, pink, or reddish hues.

Plan for next fall

Although this fall it is not possible to enjoy any last minute fall-blooming bulbs through planting, they may be planned for. Think colchicums, autumn croci, sternbergias, and more, for autumn 2015. The catalogues are arriving daily.

Speaking of gardens becoming a blank, will your garden be a blank, or a haven, for migratory birds preparing for their long journeys south? As members of Audubon Societies and Ducks Unlimited know well, yearly reports document the relentless reductions of numbers of migratory birds and waterfowl.

I often feel the frustration of powerlessness to change these grim outcomes, which are the result of multiple forces far beyond the control of most individuals. We can, however, think about our investments, consumption, and personal habits.

When I observe catbirds and sparrows hopping down the rows in my vegetable garden, I do not believe they are admiring my planting techniques. It is insect protein they are after. Gardeners need birds, and many deduce the connection instinctively: “What I can do individually is to make my place as hospitable to anything flying by as I can make it.”

We all can do something — permit some pokeweed or wild cherry grow in a back corner, maintain a clean birdbath and feeders, plant a crabapple — to attract and embrace migratory or year-round bird populations. Leave brushy and woodsy areas. Make your place attractive with food and shelter and — who knows — maybe some birds will stay around to work for you!

In the garden

Pretty cabbage whites are fluttering about. Although this European butterfly is a delightful creature, its larvae are the damaging green cabbage worms found on brassicas. Weekly applications of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt, “caterpillar killer”) sprays on kale, cabbage, broccoli, collards, and more, are a necessity in my garden. Bt is also useful against tomato hornworm, or any other lepidopteran caterpillar. It does not work on beetles, wasps, sawflies, or insects of orders other than Lepidoptera.

Weeds may surge in the hot weather of early August. Many would-be gardeners are really frightened of weeds and weediness, to the point of garden phobia. I used to suffer from anxiety about weeds, but overcame that some time ago. I have several good tools to assist in cultivation, but the weed problem in general diminished when I stopped asking my husband to turn the garden mechanically with the Troy-Bilt. When we stopped turning over the soil, we stopped bringing the stored seed bank to the surface where it could germinate.

The Troy-Bilt tiller, I hasten to add, is a wonderful machine, just perfect for tending two hundred foot long rows in a large truck patch. For a small home garden, 50 feet square, it is way more than needed.

Now, I mainly use the broadfork to aerate the soil, and surface cultivating tools, such as the push-pull stirrup hoe, to weed the rows. Getting enough organic matter into the soil to make it friable and workable is what results in easy-to-manage garden soil. (Sections of this garden are still less workable than others.) Anyone can do this. Just work whatever you have, composted or otherwise, into the soil in the course of the garden year. Once your soil becomes easy to work, weed anxiety will lessen.

Onion time?

Onions are ready to harvest when their tops go over. Pull and lay out in the sun to cure for a day or two, before bringing them under cover to dry and cure further. The necks want to be dry and thin; use promptly any that have noticeably thicker necks — these will probably not store well.

Be on the lookout for squash vine borer on all plants of squash and pumpkin. The lepidopteran insects are susceptible to Bt, but their habits make its use ineffective on them.

Due to August’s heat and sun wavelength, keep a sharp eye on recently planted material and containers. They dry out far more quickly now. Both can be mulched with layers of moisture-retaining material, but these will also harbor earwigs, centipedes, and other insect life you’d just as soon not encourage.