Authors Posts by Abigail Higgins

Abigail Higgins

Abigail Higgins

— 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.

As soon as a crop appears to slow down or be on the way out, get rid of it. Have a replacement crop ready to plant in its place.

Garden stakes must withstand downpours and summer storms. Here, homegrown bamboo stakes support three different varieties of pole beans. — Photo by Susan Safford

As the season wears on and plants grow taller, thunderstorms producing drenching rain such as that of July 16 (not to mention tropical storms) test staking skills and put them in the spotlight. Usually it is only when a plant has flowers or fruit that this becomes a problem, because those are what catch and hold wind and water. Leaves seem designed mainly to shed it.

Garden plants are not turkeys and do not need trussing. The goals of staking: to support the plant or stem; to be unobtrusive; and to be easily adjusted while the gardener is bent into awkward positions. However, stakes are ideally placed earlier in the season so that the plants grow around and conceal them.

Moreover, a stem incorrectly staked is almost guaranteed to break, at the point of support. When staking a single stem, the delphinium being the classic example, the goal is loosely tying in at a minimum of three points; usually the stem is given freedom to move slightly within the twine. Large knots, twine wound heavily around stakes, and strapping-in the plants unnaturally: all are unsightly and to be avoided.

Some plants’ habits require creating a network of twine running through the center for support, similar to slices of a pie. This type of support is needed for Hydrangea ‘Annabelle,’ with many large flower heads produced all over the large plant clumps.

Early pinching or cutting of many perennials may make them bushy enough to stand on their own. This works well for clumps of phlox, but improve airflow by selectively thinning out some stalks too.

Although I use peony rings and wire mesh rings because I have them (bought years ago, when it seemed like a good idea), in general I find them unsatisfactory and likely to promote breakage unless monitored and adjusted carefully. Garden twine and bamboo stakes of different diameters and lengths are the most versatile support materials.

Phlox mildew control

As the season wears on and plants grow taller, thunderstorms producing drenching rain such as that of July 16 (not to mention tropical storms) test staking skills and put them in the spotlight.
As the season wears on and plants grow taller, thunderstorms producing drenching rain such as that of July 16 (not to mention tropical storms) test staking skills and put them in the spotlight.

In addition to the thinning and pinching of Phlox paniculata mentioned above, a cultural tip comes from the phlox growers at Perennial Pleasures’ website, “If you must spray, we have found that horticultural oil works well as a preventative. This is what we do on our potted phlox, which suffer unavoidably from dry and hot conditions in their black plastic pots. We spray every two weeks with light summer oil, which protects the leaves, and doesn’t wash off easily in the rain. Plus, it makes the leaves nice and shiny.”

Vegetable garden

In the vegetable garden, support/staking is the norm for tomato plants, but pepper and eggplants laden with fruit also appreciate it; without support they may topple in windy or rainy conditions. Make cages of sturdy wire and anchor them with earth staples.

Bushy prunings of woody shrubs, “peas-sticks,” cut a bit shorter than a plant’s eventual height, supply just the right sort of support if you firmly stick them into the ground around the plant’s crown. The spring prunings of a large vitex provided me with more than enough for an entire row of sugar snap peas, and are the right color to become invisible, even in the flower garden.

We tried a new early potato variety, ‘Satina,’ this year. Boy, are they ever smooth and yummy! Our usual, ‘Dark Red Norland,’ is great too; it is likely that all new potatoes are an epiphany, compared to tired old storage spuds.

The early broccoli crop, ‘Blue Wind,’ was good-sized and trouble free, although I lost a few plants to root damage — grubs the likely culprits. In fact, all the early crops — beets, spinach, lettuce, kale, etc. — have been very nice. (One cabbage made almost a full crock of sauerkraut.) After losing those few early broccoli, subsequent ones were planted with a large comfrey leaf buried in the bottom of the planting hole and have grown well and trouble free.

The chilly spring seems to have provided the right growing conditions, after all. Did starting the early crops in trays of compost contribute? All gardeners have to decide the answers to those questions on their own.

Care and maintenance revolve around keeping yield coming, whether it is the food from the vegetable garden or flowers from the cutting garden. Most plants of both are annual in nature: it is their ambition to set seed. This means preemptively removing anything spent or near-spent so that the plants keep on trying. This is done, ideally, on a daily basis and ends up in the freezer, dinner table, or flower vase. Examples are snap beans, peas, leafy herbs such as basil and marjoram, cucumbers, squashes, arugula, zinnias, bachelor’s buttons, cosmos, snapdragons. And many more.

Replant after spring greens with carrots, leeks, and turnips, for example. They make great fall and storage crops but we are not so much interested in them in spring, when we hunger for tender greens and peas. Have seed for another crop of bush beans ready and growing in cells. Radicchio makes a wonderful fall crop, being usable through the winter and into the following spring when properly protected. Plant a row of storage squash such as butternut, delicata, or acorn.

As soon as a crop appears to slow down or be on the way out, do not waste time: get rid of it. Have a replacement crop ready to plant in its place. This is what successional sowing means.

Consider a warm-weather cover crop for spaces that will be empty for a while. The easiest is buckwheat. It germinates and comes up immediately. Let it grow to about a foot tall and flower, and then turn it in. Wait perhaps two weeks before planting in that spot, to allow for decomposition.

Allium. — Photo by Susan Safford

A cardinal flashes across the lawn. The treetops sway and sough despite the stillness, awaiting tropical storm Arthur. They and the lawn seem actively receptive of the raindrops, having been so thirsty; in a season this dry, it is a nice variation on the Glorious Fourth.

Garden sculpture: alliums

Ornamental alliums do not appear extensively in Island gardens, which is a pity since as bulbs they are cold hardy, tolerate average soil, and avoided by deer. They bridge the late spring to early-summer season of bloom between tulips until annuals, lilies, and hemerocallis begin flowering.

Two impressive cultivar/species: the astounding ‘Globemaster,’ tall (three to four feet), purple flower heads to eight inches that last and last, and an astronomical price per bulb; and Allium schubertii (more modestly priced than ‘Globemaster’), an exploding fireworks of a flowering head, starred with lavender florets, that may exceed a foot across. Stems are one to two feet tall.

Ornamental onion.
Ornamental onion.

Even after the color has gone by, the skeletons of the stately flowering heads remain effective architectural presences in the garden. Tulips or lilies, in contrast, become entirely null once past, while the standing heads of alliums provide weeks of subsequent interest.

Alchemilla mollis combines well with alliums, whose foliage has a tendency to yellow and fade before the flowering heads do. The alchemilla, a frothy base of chartreuse and green, masks the yellowing leaves.

In the vegetable garden, leeks in their second year similarly send up towering flower stalks topped with fragrant softball-sized flower heads in white, pink, or mauve that attract pollinators and beneficial wasps by the dozens. As the small black seeds ripen and fall, they may germinate around the parent plant and may be lined out, giving the garden a ready-made supply of “pencil” leeks before fall.

The subject was roses

‘Glorious’ is often used in conjunction with roses, and this June has demonstrated why. It has been a great month for them, due mainly to the plentiful rainfall early on and the cooler-than-average temperatures, it seems.

The plants have benefited greatly, with many of their pests absent or delayed by cool weather and wonderful displays of bloom ensuing. I regret however that Island gardens display so limited a selection of them, when there is so much more “out there” in the roses department.

The comprehensive and instructive DK “Encyclopedia of Roses” (Charles & Brigid Quest-Ritson, DK Publishing, 2011, 448 pgs., $40) has informed me greatly this season. I have spent enjoyable time with it, examining its descriptions, full color photographs, and histories of rose breeders — and just plain daydreaming, too.

The coffee table volume demonstrates the stupendous breadth and variety of roses available for all climates. No one needs to be without a rose or roses because of “black thumbs” or other fears, as the popular Knockout series has shown. At one time, many of the most glorious roses available were bred in a band of warm, dry conditions from the south of France through to Bulgaria and Turkey. Roses flourish in those conditions, which is why many of the most comprehensive U. S. rose collections are located in California.

Rose breeders have sought to rectify that situation by hybridizing with a wide array of rose species, yielding floriferous plants that could flourish in the frigid winters of the American Midwest and Canada and in the British Isles with their dampness, and be resistant to a wide spread of disease organisms.

Along with the breeding of hardy and trouble-free modern roses has come a tendency to grow them on their own roots, a big shift from the heyday of Hybrid Teas, whose fussiness required grafting to an understock to do well in the typical garden. Since breaking the ‘taboo of own-roots,’ the cutting-grown rose has become a reality for you and me! A very complete description of how to do this in a baggy is available at

Look for the following DK titles, all worthwhile additions to the gardener’s reference library, in addition to the “Encyclopedia of Roses. In association with the American Horticultural Society DK publishes: “AHS Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers;” “AHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants;” “AHS Encyclopedia of Gardening;” and “AHS Encyclopedia of Perennials.”

American painted lady larvae

Soon after the Garden Notes that ran on June 26, which contained a short section about Helichrysum petiolare and the American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) butterfly larvae, the first nests also appeared. I had written about my eliminating helichrysum when planting containers: its tendency to become a magnet for the bristly, black caterpillar nests “disfigured” it in decorative terms, according to my thinking at the time.

Once I connected the black, bristly caterpillars and their frass — bit of ee-yew factor — with the charming adult butterflies, my thinking about the matter changed and I decided to return to using H. petiolare, at least here at home in my own containers.

After checking with Matt Pelikan, whose always authoritative Wild Side alternates in this space, I learned it is possible that larvae may not successfully mature on H. petiolare. “Interesting to know whether it actually works to raise young all the way to maturity,” he demurred.

Preferred larval food of Vanessa virginiensis is species of the Compositae, especially Anaphalis margaritacea, the pearly everlasting of Island sandplains. Much as when monarch butterflies may be decoyed into laying eggs on the milkweed relative, black swallowwort, with abortive results, many other butterflies must find the correct larval food-plant for their eggs to hatch and grow successfully.

While it might signify personal growth and even enlightenment on my part to promote butterfly larvae at the expense of container aesthetics, it is not yet clear if I am actually helping them.


Goodbye and good rest to Walter Ashley, who extended the useful lives of many a mower and power-saw for home gardeners and landscapers alike.

— Photo by Susan Safford

Welcome to summer, officially begun with the solstice. For gardeners the significance is slightly different from that of, say, the Steamship Authority or the Chamber of Commerce. Now the pinnacle of daylight has passed; for the rest of the year it shifts and slowly declines, the wavelength moving more to infrared, as we circle away from the sun.

What this means for plants in gardens and woodlands is a shift from vegetative growth into one of hardening off, flowering, fruiting and seed formation. (Even for humans it is significant, although not much mentioned or considered, for we too are light-driven.)

Pruning of spring-blooming shrubs now ceases, as, cued by light’s wavelength, plants are shifting over into producing wood and buds for next season’s flowers. Perennial plants such as lilies and hemerocallis are preparing their buds to grow and open, and pinching of perennials, such as asters and phlox, draws to a close.

Encouraging butterflies

Before learning that the black bristled caterpillars were larvae of the gorgeous small orange and brown American painted lady butterfly, I had discontinued using the grey-leaved foliage plant, Helichrysum petiolare (licorice plant), in containers: the felted grey foliage attracted them. Their feeding and cocoons seemed disfiguring. Now however, in my own containers, I am using those plants to encourage American painted ladies.

Caring for pieris

Pieris (also mistakenly called Andromeda), such as P. japonica and P. floribunda, are flowering evergreen shrubs particularly well adapted for use in Island landscapes and gardens because they are avoided by deer. Their hardiness range (zones 4-7) puts them securely at ease here; new growth following flowers is colorful and ornamental in itself; and tidy evergreen foliage makes pieris a good screener and winter-interest plant.

However, about now, the leaves of many pieris may begin to show an unattractive stippling. This is usually the result of either spider mites or lace bugs, and becomes more of a problem in dry spells. Both minute insects do their work by sucking the plant’s juices from the underside of leaves, leaving the plants stressed and far less attractive than they should be.

Control the damage by spraying the undersides of foliage with water or light horticultural oil. However, part of the problem may lie in the siting and culture of the plants. Pieris prefer partially shaded sites and moist soil, high in organic matter; the presence of insect damage may indicate that its needs are not being met. Mulch the root-run away from the trunk with compost, leaf mould, or composted woodchips. Soil organisms will do most of the work of digesting and incorporating the organic matter down into the mineral soil.

In the Garden

I recently received a question about leafhoppers on garden vegetables. Since I have often had to contend with this annoyance, I could sympathize more than I could offer authoritative solutions. I mentioned that leafhoppers are often tended by ant colonies, which generally prefer warm, dry soils for their nests, so possibly the garden was dry or would benefit by stirring the soil by surface cultivating to disrupt the ants’ habitat.

Leafhoppers may be controlled by application of insecticidal soap, which must be done either early or late to avoid foliar burn, but they and the ants will return. As with the advice above, in connection with pieris, that the presence of insect damage may indicate that plants’ needs are not being met, I can only urge soil testing.

Hardneck garlic is scaping, a sign that harvest is near. A week or two after removing the scapes is the time to harvest the bulbs. Carefully dig one to check development: the goal is as much size as possible without the “wrapper” breaking open, which diminishes the bulbs’ keeping qualities.

Take steps to prepare and sow the next crops. I have just added additional spinach ‘Tyee,’ — fingers crossed against heat — Swiss chard, beets, and lettuce seedlings, and have sown zucchini in modules. If growing potatoes, the earlies will leave a spot open after harvest for a follow-on crop. Depending on the rotation you choose, this would ideally be something such as beans or brassicas, but any cool weather crop would be making use of the space opened up.

The long chilly spring was perfect for roses. Give them an inch of water per week to help their performance continue as summer’s heat arrives.

Indian pipes, Monotropa uniflora, are emerging from the woodland floor. They areparasitic according to Wikipedia, more specifically myco-heterotrophs. Their hostsare certain fungi that aremycorrhizal with trees, meaning they ultimately get their energy from photosynthetictrees.

Mulching and self-sowing

Plants that self-sow are a great boon to garden and gardener alike. They provide a supply of free plants, and they often place themselves where they want to be, not where we would have them. That demonstrates something about their cultural preference and siting.

Examples of great self-sowers are Alchemilla mollis, Verbena bonariensis, Lychnis coronaria, Lunaria (silver dollar) species, Digitalis (foxglove) species, and poppies of all sorts, perennials as well as short-lived Iceland and annual California poppies.

A client recently questioned me about the absence of foxgloves in her garden. Digitalis purpurea (garden foxglove) is biennial by nature, meaning that the mature plant ripens and releases seed, then dies. The seeds then germinate into tiny new plants, which in turn bloom at maturity two years (“biennial”) later. In theory there are always more plants in varying life stages maturing somewhere in the garden.

Laying mulch, which is done for several reasons such as winter protection, soil improvement, and weed suppression, interferes with this self-sowing process in the same way it helps suppress weeds. I believe this garden’s lack of foxgloves is due to our having mulched it in the fall for the last two years.

The lesson is easy: be careful where you mulch and cultivate if you desire more self-sowers.

The lemony fragrance of some and extraordinary and subtle colors combinations can have the effect of enhancing other flowering plants.

Unknown cultivar's vivid blue flower demonstrates the Siberian irises' appeal in the perennial garden. — Photo by Susan Safford

Abigail-HigginsAbigail Higgins has been writing Garden Notes since 2002, and she has kept a kitchen garden for about 50 years. A resident of West Tisbury, she is an officer of the M.V. Agricultural Society.

Last week’s rain settled some of the pollen-storm surrounding us, for which we are grateful. The sources are at this time primarily grasses, oak, and autumn olive. I report (with relief) the many bumblebees, along with their accustomed buzzing, foraging on the large roseum elegans rhododendrons at my place, primarily at dawn and dusk. Those vast mountains of magenta blossom, usually hosting scores of industrious bumblebees, had seemed eerily silent for the past two seasons.

What’s new in garden irises?        

Colorful spring garden, poppies, iris, and more.
Colorful spring garden, poppies, iris, and more.

The June parade of iris has begun. Actually, dwarf bearded and rock-garden iris, such as the reticulatas, arrived in April and May, providing a welcome early shot of color.

As stand-alone clumps, there are few garden plants that provide the architecture and color of irises. They are a family that sneakily becomes an obsession, due also in part to the lemony fragrance of some and extraordinary and subtle colors combinations, which can have the effect of enhancing other flowering plants.

While the dedicated breeders of all types post their efforts on blogs and facebook pages, where many photos may be found, it is the tall bearded (TB) iris that dominates gardens now. Schreiner’s Iris Gardens is one of the premier American growers; their 2014 introductions may be seen at

Considering the wealth and variety of plants that are not TBs, it is a shame that the selection offered in common trade is so limited. The different types of bearded irises were originally hybridized from different species, according to Renée Fraser on the American Iris Society’s Facebook page:

“The ones that are not TB are collectively known as ‘median irises‘. They are further broken down into Miniature Dwarf Bearded (MDB), Intermediate Bearded (IB), Miniature Tall Bearded (MTB) and Standard Dwarf Bearded (SDB) irises.  Information about cultural requirements can be foundhere.”

The beardless Siberian irises and ‘medians’ have become more interesting to me. Due to drenching rains that frequently coincide with iris season, I find myself searching out cultivars with less height and flower size; originally though, notions of “bigger-is-better” had corralled me. The phenomenal branching and enormous, upward-facing flower of modern TB hybrids require a stem so stout (to withstand toppling in rain) as to skew the plants’ aesthetic proportions.

Siberians are probably the best irises for the perennial border and landscaping. Ensata Gardens in Michigan is the source of many (plus numerous Japanese, Louisiana, and more). From Ensata’s website,, with many Siberian cultivars plus photos: “They [Siberians] prefer a slightly acid, organic rich damp soil, but are very adaptable. Their foliage is tall and graceful all season, even as they turn a handsome red-brown after frost. They are dug and divided in Spring, right after bloom, or early fall. Keep them moist for the rest of the year after transplanting.”

“Coffee For Roses”

Coffee for Roses_book.jpgC.L. Fornari’s new, delightfully no-nonsense book, “Coffee For Roses,” (St. Lynn’s Press, 2014, 146 pgs.) is the book I would have wanted to write if I were as competent and experienced — not to mention as fine a photographer — as C.L., the Garden Lady of Cape Cod and beyond. She is, as well, the author of the beautiful “A Garden Lover’s Martha’s Vineyard” (Commonwealth Editions, 2008, 132 pgs.).

The new book’s subtitle, “and 70 Other Misleading Myths About Backyard Gardening,” says it all: it is an argument-settler. It is beautifully illustrated, mostly with C. L.’s own photography, and affably serves up information on how you should be gardening. Fornari succinctly lays many rumored garden quick-fixes and practices to rest in the 70 numbered, easy-to-digest sections. They reflect not only some of the latest, science-based findings but also some of the older, sturdy 19th century practices that have recently been proven correct.

For instance, number 18: “the soil in vegetable gardens needs to be turned every year.” Fornari’s easy to find “thumbnail” conclusions are featured in boxes; number 18 says, “Turning soil always exposes weed seeds to light, triggering their germination.” Then, the text supplies further information.

Number 51: “I need to do something before this spreads.” The box: “There are several arguments for pausing before taking action.” Then, further elaboration. It is a good format and one that will be very helpful to gardeners wanting to get on with the What and the How, without necessarily attending a master gardener class. (Great hostess gift too, I might mention.)

Earthworms: invasive?

Speaking of gardening myths, a confounding article in the spring/summer 2014 edition of the New England Wild Flower Society’s journal is titled “The Trouble with Earthworms.” Whoa! you say, but yes indeed, earthworms as we know them, those turners of the soil and engines of enrichment, are actually invasive species. For forests, especially, they can be detrimental.

For most gardeners this is news, proudly focused as we are on adding humus and increasing organic content, and considering earthworms as our unpaid helper/allies. “Earthworms from Asia and Europe were introduced to this country both inadvertently, in soil-containing materials, and deliberately, for use in waste management.” Due primarily to their predilection for digesting the debris of the forest floor, the duff layer, earthworms speed up biological activity.

In ecosystems that develop without earthworms, such as in post-glacier North America forests, the biological activity is slow, and is primarily fungal. The duff layers overlaying the soil become the matrix for the plant communities that comprise those forests.

With earthworms now digesting the duff at a phenomenal rate, the matrix no longer supports the germination and regeneration of forest trees. Researchers in Vermont and Minnesota have shown that heavily invaded sites favor certain plant species, including many invasive plant species. “However helpful they are in gardens, in northern forests earthworms are as destructive as white-tailed deer.”

A flower of the spring woodland, Mayapple's were introduced here by the Martha's Vineyard Garden Club. — Susan Safford

The long-range forecast, for a protractedly chillier spring, has scored on accuracy so far. “What happened to my hydrangeas?” is the question heard everywhere Island gardeners congregate.

At some point in early mid-May, a temperature drop, well short of freezing but of sufficient severity, cold-shocked hydrangea bushes’ canes. Nicely cleaned up, pruned ones were hit harder, lacking the old wood protection. The result is a green froth of new growth at the plants’ bases, and brown, shriveled buds on upper canes, which were viable when pruning commenced.

These cold-shocked hydrangeas won’t die but may be devoid of most bloom until late in the season. Cultivars that bloom on new wood, such as ‘Endless Summer,’ were developed to provide bloom despite such events.

This is a demonstration of the weather’s trumping our efforts to get everything cleaned up and ready for the season in a timely fashion. Diligent gardeners throughout the Island have seen their industry “rewarded” by the cold-shocked buds. Mophead hydrangeas were the ones most affected, but lacecaps, such as my variegated ones, and some buddleia were also hit.

Mayapple (American Mandrake)

A flower of the spring woodland, Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, in the Berberidaceae) is a unique plant. According to Wikipedia, the genus Podophyllum contains six species. Just one, P. peltatum, is native to North America. Mayapples do not seem to have been native to the Island, or perhaps were eradicated during earlier times of deforestation. I had never encountered Mayapple until I went away to school in Pennsylvania.

Eventually, Mayapples were introduced here, most likely by members of the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club and Nelson Coon. They are colonizers, growing from a single root, and make a stately and distinctive groundcover in gardens with space to let them increase. They look charmingly very like umbrellas, both upon emerging from the ground in the furled state and after fully opening on tall, straight stems to their typical parasol-like habit. They make a bold statement in the haze of spring green.

Asian species of Mayapple are available, one of which, P. pleianthum, is sold on the Island. The leaf is less lobed and of a shiny, bright mid-green.

Bill Cullina has quite a lot to say about the plant in his guide, “Wildflowers” (New England Wildflower Society, 2000, a book well worth having). He describes the plant as clonal and therefore self-sterile, meaning that the “apple” is unlikely to form, or will be free of seeds, unless cross-pollination occurs. If fruit forms, it is relished as food by box turtles, which then distribute the seeds.

Having recently heard via a friend about foraging Mayapple for culinary purposes, I wish to issue a warning about this plant. While Cullina says that care must be taken to eat only fully ripe fruit, Turner and Szczawinski in “Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America,” (Timber Press, 1991) state that all parts except for “fully ripe berries (my emphasis) are considered violently purgative.”

They continue: “Mayapple has been used in Native folk medicine for centuries, and over 100 years ago found its way into American material medica. It has been used to treat cancerous tumors…. Unfortunately, the satisfactory use of Mayapple resin against cancer has been complicated by its toxicity.”

Enjoy this striking plant in the shade garden, where there is room for it to form colonies. It increases easily from rhizome pieces cut into eight-inch pieces and once established can grow in poor, dry conditions, but please leave the apples for box turtles to eat.

Poisonous plants

On the subject of poisonous plants, many treasured garden plants, both common and rare, are poisonous. Be aware, but do not boot them out of the garden for this reason! (Many herbal medicinals also possess a toxic or poisonous aspect, manipulated in practice by knowledgeable herbalists.) Examples from among many indispensable garden plants are narcissus, lily-of-the valley, delphinium, yew, and rhododendron.

Each garden unique

It is not too soon to begin an application program against blights and diseases of tomatoes. I encountered an experienced gardener friend whose tomato plants were exhibiting signs of the leaf-blight, septoria. While this seemed early for septoria to manifest, his plants were started in February. We ran down the usual list of steps he had taken to quell the outbreak, and he’d done all the more “natural” ones. He had a container of sprayable copper compound in his hand.

The above notwithstanding, many diseases or insect pests are plants’ reactions to stress. Consider the possible sources of stress: hours of sun/shade; temperature; soil imbalances/insufficiencies; cultivation techniques; over-dry or over-wet; over-feeding or starved. Each garden is different and unique, while simultaneously it can be said: all gardens share the need for good culture.

Reach for the “nuclear response” solution only after you have tried the others, because all gardens also share the need for pollinators. The welfare of soil and insect organisms is just as critical to garden needs as producing the blemish-free peach.

A recent post from Renee’s Garden, the seed company, singles out six insect groups that are particularly beneficial in the garden. They are syrphid flies (“sweat bees,” “hover flies,” or “flower flies”); bumblebees; parasitic wasps; lacewings (“aphid lions”); tachinid flies; and of course ladybug beetles. If you would like to read more about these insect groups, how they help, and how to attract them, please link to The article is full of interesting information, such as the discovery that the nectar of sweet alyssum is particularly attractive to syrphids.

In the garden

Pay attention to staking, pinching, and sowing succession crops. Succession crops would include more of the same, as well as new, crops that move into spaces left by harvesting of earlier ones. Remove flower stalks of bulbs, rhubarb, lovage, and sorrel.

Green is a color too. Floral effects are ephemeral; using plants with foliage interest rounds out the garden. Here, Carya glabra (pignut hickory) with colorful bud scales (1); pulmonaria (2); and Viburnum plicatum f. plicatum ‘Popcorn’ (3). — Susan Safford

May overwhelms, though in a generally welcome way. Perhaps no other month presents so much sensory overload and rapid change of our surroundings. Town and countryside alike undergo the metamorphosis from drabness to green vernality. Trees and shrubs leaf out overnight; plants’ growing points virtually explode out of the soil; long-awaited floral displays burst forth, scattering bud scales on the ground beneath.

One wishes to plead for this ineluctable seasonal onrushing to delay so one can take it all in. Time is too short. The “eyeblink” that is our lives, like the flowering of shadbush, is never more clearly demonstrated than in spring.


Forsythia has largely gone by and may be pruned now, following the general bloom-time rule: if it blooms before June 21, prune immediately after blooming. Examples would be forsythia, weigela, and various viburnums such as V. x burkwoodii and V. carlesii. If it blooms after June 21, pruning should occur in spring, examples being hydrangeas, rose-of-sharon, and clethra.

Recently a question arose about forsythia’s having male and female flowers, and did that account for varying growth habits. Forsythia flowers are perfect and not dioecious (plants whose flowers are either male or female).

Depending on the style of pruning, forsythia may be made to appear either stiffly upright or more gracefully fountain-like, and cultivars, mostly Forsythia x intermedia ‘Spectabalis’ hybrids, differ in respect to their stoutness and habit of growth. Some, the “55 mph” ones, grow strong-colored, bold, and coarse, while others are more refined, wispy, or paler-colored.

While the paler and more strongly colored forsythias each have their value, in my opinion, for hedges it is a mistake to mix them. One or the other is always going to suffer by comparison. Most forsythia branches are capable of tip rooting, similar to brambles. If they are sweeping the ground, prune back now, unless this outspread is desired.

A separate species of forsythia is F. suspensa var. sieboldii, the weeping forsythia. The graceful, arching aspect of garden hybrids is greatly exaggerated in this species, which makes a most wonderful curtain planting in situations such as high retaining walls and walkout basements. It may also be encouraged to climb into trees and other shrubs.

Dry weather

Dry springs are a well-known Island condition and are the norm for this time of year. Spring brush fires start easily and are common, as much outdoor work is being done. Please exercise extra vigilance, especially those of you who smoke, and monitor children’s play in woodland hideouts and forts (if possible).

Container plantings, seedbeds, and seedling plants in the garden dry out quickly. Rainfall may be sporadic, missing the Island entirely, or falling in short, drenching downpours that run off without penetrating.

Flowering trees

As May flowering commences, seemingly sent explicitly to get us out into our gardens, it sets off overwhelming desires for more, and more. “Flower-power” is often expressed in the desire for a flowering tree and is one of the keys to nursery and garden center sales for this month.

It is always time well spent to go out to Polly Hill Arboretum to have a look at what is in bloom now. A big advantage is that exact cultivar information is available for all arboretum specimens, meaning you can eliminate any guesswork and check for eventual height and spread and ideal siting conditions. In many instances, there is more than one cultivar or form to make comparison visually. Then you can go to the garden center or nursery and ask for the exact plant to be bought in for you.

There are many standards or criteria to apply to one’s choices, to be kept in mind, for when the flowers have gone by. While spring-blooming trees are spectacular, if the garden is small, what remains post-flowering needs to pull its weight too. Look at the foliage effects and the general shape, size, and habit of growth of the tree; all plants in the garden benefit from this metric.

What about the tree’s root run? Will it starve the other plants in the garden by shallow or extensive roots? How about eventual size? Will it respond well to containment pruning to keep it within the available space? Is the habit spreading or upright? Will it tolerate sharing a bed with under-planting? Bark interest? Need for sunlight? Moist or dry soil?

Keep in mind that there are choices that provide more than merely one-season interest. That ephemerally blooming shadbush being a case in point, it is also a bird magnet when its fruits ripen (some selections’ fruits even have human culinary uses), supplies fiery autumn color, and has a graceful shape even without leaves.

Public libraries are well stocked with heavily illustrated garden books, which unlike excerpted Internet resources, have been written by authors with fully-fledged points of view, and design or plant experience. The plant-lists these books contain may spark a previously unthought-of plan. Perusing these sources of information before making a purchase will reward you.

In the garden

It is not too late to lift and divide perennials in need of it, but due to the above-mentioned dry conditions, the divisions will need more after-care and attention. Cut them back and place an up-turned bushel basket or cardboard carton over plants after resetting and watering-in. Performing this yearly-recurring garden task earlier in spring enables plants to take off without setback. Make a mental note of what next spring’s division needs will be.

Place stakes so plants may grow around them and make them unobtrusive. Pinch out growth or administer the “Chelsea Chop” to plants such as sedum, phlox, shastas and Montauk daisies. Tidy and tie in climbing roses. Dividing narcissi is another perennially occurring garden task. Locating them is easier before foliage completely withers away.

Gardening responsibilities can seem overwhelming as the season gains speed, but a careful, focused approach pays huge dividends.

Rhubarb has a voracious appetite. — Photo by Susan Safford

Abigail-HigginsAbigail Higgins has been writing Garden Notes since 2002, and she has kept a kitchen garden for about 50 years. A resident of West Tisbury, she is an officer of the M.V. Agricultural Society.

May Day: that phrase, this date, is so meaningful on so many different levels, has so many complexities, that I avert innuendo by merely wishing gardeners a good day in their gardens.

Among other arcane concepts, in bygone days “Mayday” signaled a vessel in distress. My outlook links Mayday, the signal of distress, and gardening. I encourage everyone to grow something — anything — simply to develop habits of independence, productivity, and connection with where you live.

Make spring delectable. Kitchen garden assets include perennial asparagus, rhubarb, and sorrel.”
Make spring delectable. Kitchen garden assets include perennial asparagus, rhubarb, and sorrel.”

Being productive by having a garden means also being resourceful, a word that has gone out of fashion with post-1980s profligacy and galloping consumerism. Around the homeplace, the garden is the spot where many discarded or scavenged items suddenly become useful once again.

Tall, anti-deer fences now protect most Island vegetable gardens. Did you upgrade from storm and screen doors to a combination door at some point in the recent past? If the old wooden screen doors are still somewhere in garage or cellar, they recycle well as garden gates, being usually six feet or taller, or drying racks for onions, garlic, etc.


Clematis in flower are arriving at Island garden centers, and they make tempting plants, so it is well to discuss them. As mentioned in a previous column, the pruning of clematis (pronounced “CLEM-a-tis”) is slightly less than straightforward, and when done incorrectly, it produces frustratingly few of the sought-after flowers.

This is due to the differing flowering times of species and hybrids, and how the flower buds are formed. Therefore, for reference, make a permanent note of pot tag information, including cultivar name and pruning group.

My source of information here is the “Clematis” volume of the Good Gardening Guides, by Keith and Carol Fair. The pruning advice is usually assigned by category: Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3.

Group I consists of clematis that flower in spring, which need to be pruned only if space is limited. They flower on their old wood. If pruning is done, it is carried out in early summer when blooming is finished. Examples of this group include C. alpina, C. montana, and C. macropetala.

Group 2 is more complex. It includes clematis that flower on short stems on previous season’s old wood, such as early large-flowered hybrids, the double and semi-double hybrids, and the mid-season hybrids, blooming before the end of June. As they flower on their old wood, pruning is essentially light.

Group 3 is composed of clematis that only flower after the middle of June and well into the autumn. They flower only on new wood and pruning consists of cutting back all the previous year’s growth to just above a strong pair of buds about a foot off the ground. The sweet autumn-flowering clematis (now C. terniflora, but formerly both C. maximowicziana and C. paniculata) that is a garden escapee here on Martha’s Vineyard, is a group 3 plant and may be cut entirely down to the ground in spring without loss of flowers.

Kitchen garden

Most of our vegetables are annual or biennial, sown from seed on a yearly basis, but a kitchen garden worthy of the name contains perennials as well. When Jonathan Bates was talking about the permaculture aspects of his Holyoke garden, their extent impressed me. But when I counted what I have growing inside the fence of my own garden, it was not exactly pathetic either: raspberries, perennial Egyptian onions, strawberries, rhubarb, comfrey, lovage, asparagus, and sorrel.

Some of these plants, while enduring, have voracious appetites and may dwindle away, if their need to be fed is not met. Manure and compost, in good amounts, is what produces robust amounts of rhubarb and asparagus stems. Others, such as strawberries, need renewing after three or four seasons. Selecting the offsets for rooting, and hoiking out the old, mother plants (sounds awfully Oedipal, doesn’t it), accomplishes this.

Cream of sorrel soup

Pleasures of the spring kitchen garden include using sorrel in as many dishes as possible, including Cream of Sorrel soup, most of whose ingredients are produced right at home.

Melt 2 Tbs. butter in a non-reactive saucepan and stir in one small onion, chopped, and one large potato, roughly diced for one minute. Add 3.75 cup chicken stock and one bay leaf; simmer gently for 20 minutes or until vegetables are cooked. Remove bay leaf.

Slice finely 4 ounces of sorrel leaves and place in a food processor. Pour on the contents of the saucepan and whiz until vegetables are puréed and the sorrel is finely chopped.

Return to the saucepan and reheat. Mix two egg yolks with 2/3 cup heavy cream and add to the pan. Cook until thickened, but do not allow to boil. Add 4 sbs. white wine, 2 Tbs. butter, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Vegetable gardening class

Roxanne Kapitan, of Middletown Nursery and Oakleaf Landscape, invites those who are interested in learning how to do their own vegetable gardens to a series of comprehensive gardening classes, “The Backyard Vegetable Garden from Seed to Harvest.” Please call 508-696-7600 for more information.

Attention landscapers

In an era of increasing house density, ornamental hedges and shrubs present some of the best available cover for nesting birds. Bird populations face more threats to their existence than ever, as census counts of migratory species continue to fall each year. Please be aware of nesting birds as you trim bushes and hedges at this time of year. To avoid carnage, the sooner in spring hedges can be trimmed, the better.

Please also take care to secure plastic debris in the backs of trucks: a highly visible percentage of Island roadside trash can be traced back to the Green Industry.

The Emily Post House in Edgartown has an old-fashioned cottage garden. — Photo by Alison Shaw

Gardening is easy. For gardeners. For the rest of us — a plot overflowing with flowers, or a bed full of tomatoes come summer  (or, let’s face it — even a few shrubs around the foundation) is, well, like some far-off dream. And the longer we go garden-free, the more anxious and insecure we become. Where do you start if your thumbs aren’t green? We invite gardening questions, large or small at Our gardening columnist, Abigail Higgins, will do her best to answer. Happy tomatoes…

Dear Abigail,

I have a great old cottage on Farm Pond, across from Hart Haven. I’ve done lots of work on it over the years, and am quite proud of it, except for one thing: the only “garden” I have is one that came with the house, a patch of daylilies that bloom in a tangled mess, with a single annual poppy in the middle. Other than that, no hedges, no veggies, no flowers. My house looks naked.

The problem, as you might have guessed, is that I’m an idiot when it comes to gardening. Not only do I not know what to do to get a garden started, I swear that plants die just being near me.

So, here’s my question: How could I begin to garden this spring? I’d love a small vegetable patch, some flowers or plantings around part of the house, and maybe a small additional flower garden.

My house gets sun all day in certain areas, but it is whipped by breezes and sea air much of the time as well.

What’s an idiot-proof way to start a garden, and then keep it growing?

Thank you!

Fear of Gardening, Oak Bluffs

Dear Fear of Gardening,

Luckily for you, gardening is one of the few activities where everyone starts out at the same level. No one was born knowing how to garden, and, as with many things, our mistakes are often our best teachers.

If I were you, I would first ask myself what kind of garden I want. Flowerbeds with colorful perennials? Cutting garden of annuals to provide flowers for the house? Mixed flowers and vegetables: the old-fashioned “cottage garden”? Curbside garden for public enjoyment, or screening garden to provide privacy in a built-up neighborhood? Are rabbits going to become a problem?

Then, visit the library to look at garden books liberally illustrated with color photographs, to see what takes your eye. Keep in mind that as a novice a small garden is more manageable and initially better; you can always expand.

The next step is to locate the garden site on your lot to take a soil sample, once you have clarified what kind of garden you would like. A colorful flowerbed, vegetables, or cutting garden requires all the sunlight you can provide. Site accordingly.

Take the soil sample according to directions on the web site, and send in to the UMass Soil Testing lab ASAP noting how you intend to use the garden.

Depending upon the results of your soil test, prepare and amend the soil as suggested in a shape that pleases you. Beds sited next to buildings may receive shelter from wind; they are often rectilinear and angular. Free-standing islands may be more exposed, but freeform and flowing shapes suit them. Consider lattice panels to provide windbreaks.

Or, build a raised bed right on top of the existing soil level, using the best topsoil/compost you can obtain. (Quality topsoil and composts may be accompanied by a soil analysis, analogous to a soil test.) If possible, lay down a base layer of manure, but not so that roots come into contact with it. Raised beds may be contained by structures of wood or masonry, or created by building up the soil to a bed with sloping sides as high as you want it. These are likely to be rectangular. Again, keep size in mind: expect the plant cost to be at least $20/per square foot, and quality topsoil upwards of $60/yd. Anything you start yourself is usually more economical however.

Perennial plants come back each year, such as daylilies and phlox. The existing daylilies may be mowed or clipped down next fall and covered with mulch (if they are not up too high they can be mulched this season, making a neat outline). The following year the “tangled mess” will be neater and you could add other perennials to it. Annual plants grow and die all in one season, such as zinnias and cosmos, leaving the bed able to be totally cleared out in the fall. If perennials and annuals are mixed together it is called a mixed bed. Choose what you like; some will undoubtedly displease you eventually, but this cannot be planned for. Gardening friends will inevitably have divisions of their own perennials to share with you. Accept all gratefully, but remember to ask if it spreads!

Tools good to have include a comfortable, sturdy trowel; secateurs (garden clippers) for pruning/dead-heading; a narrow shovel or spade — long-handled is best for avoid back-stress — for digging in close quarters; a spading fork; and a collapsible rake, for raking out wide/tight spots. A ball of twine and a sleeve of bamboo stakes may become useful eventually for staking plants. Nice to have are a claw and stirrup hoe for cultivating and weeding. A trash barrel can serve as a receptacle for debris, which may be composted in a pile in a concealed spot. Compost pile surrounds may be made from five shipping pallets (free at several places) lashed together with wire or baling twine: one to form the base, and four to create the four walls.

Happy gardening!

On Earth Day, remember ‘All things are interconnected; Everything goes somewhere; There’s no such thing as a free lunch; Nature bats last.’

Ants help achieve the “carpet of blue” by dispersing the seed of Chionodoxa forbesii. — Photo by Susan Safford
Clear unwanted plants from beds or other ground with a broadfork. Here, the mix of ivy, vinca and campanula has choked tulip and hyacinth bulbs and clumps of phlox.
Clear unwanted plants from beds or other ground with a broadfork. Here, the mix of ivy, vinca and campanula has choked tulip and hyacinth bulbs and clumps of phlox.

Happy Spring. The windiness that has persisted through several seasonal cycles continues, although now it is warm and drying. It is likely to blow entirely new, April Fool’s loads of leaves into recently cleared and raked yards and gardens. At long last, even up-Island, magnolias and daffs are popping, while in-town locations have progressed much further into full-on spring.

The chionodoxa pictured is just a small section of a carpet of blue composed of chionodoxa and Siberian squills. It originated from a handful of bulbs that constituted a nine-year-old’s Christmas present over 30 years ago. Although a few consider the bright blue harbingers of spring to be weedy, most of us like as many as possible, the bluer the better. A curious quality of chionodoxa (and 3,000 other plant species) and one that makes a small handful of bulbs turn into a blue carpet, is myrmecochory, the dispersal of seeds by ants.

Myrmecochory (mir-MEEK-o-cory: one of my favorite words) also accounts for the sporadic appearance of a squill or chionodoxa distant from the original planting. Myrmecochorous plants, according to Wikipedia, produce seeds with elaiosomes (say: e-LYA-soams), factors rich in lipids, amino acids, or other nutrients that are attractive to ants. Ants carry the “food” back to the nest and feed it to larvae, discarding the seed, which is now free to germinate and grow in a new spot.

Earth Day

Spring in every culture is synonymous with rebirth and rejuvenation. Earth Day, April 22, is next week, right after Easter. As you work around your home, your town, and your Island, please remember that Earth is home to all of us, not only to human beings. Damage to any one part has unforeseen consequences for all the rest of creation.

To mark Earth Day, I print the Four Laws of Ecology (usually attributed to Barry Commoner) in the hope that oft repeated becomes oft considered:

“All things are interconnected.

Everything goes somewhere.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Nature bats last.”

Fruit in the garden

The owners of several Island garden centers enjoy sourcing a wide variety of fruiting trees and shrubs, figs included, along with no-brainers such as pears, beach plums, blueberries, and even persimmons. Shop now: by Easter, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day the selection will have dwindled.

Although Sumner Silverman of Peacegate is doing a great job of spreading fig trees throughout Island gardens by making his fig tree prunings freely available, in general there is a bit of head-scratching as to their culture. We lack the know-how of the Italian and Portuguese great-grandparents!

However, some reading reveals that April is the month to prune figs. According to Monty Don, the British garden writer: “Remove about a quarter of the oldest stems along with any growth that is crossing and (if in-ground planted) branches growing out from the wall. Then in August, prune away any overly vigorous outward growth that will shade ripening fruit.” (“Gardening at Longmeadow,” BBC Books.)

Monty Don also recommends some restriction on the roots that will limit the growth of the tree and increase the rate of fruiting. My ‘Brown Turkey’ is in a large nursery pot. It must remain there until I am able to create that “sheltered, south-facing wall” planting site he recommends. On second thought, perhaps I shouldn’t be too dissatisfied with the current situation.

A piece by Will Bonsall on the medlar, in the recent March-May 2014 MOFGA Journal, is encouragement to try these uncommon small fruiting trees. In a category of orchard fruit perhaps similar to quince, which also are not eaten out of hand, the medlar (Mespilus germanicus) requires more detailed treatment — bletting — before being eaten, but has in its favor hardiness (zone 5-8), lack of pests, and deer’s dislike of browsing it.

Extolling the broadfork

It should come as no surprise that working gardeners’ beds become over-run or in need of renovation, just as the proverbial cobbler’s children have non-existent shoes. In this case, the problem is that perennially thuggish beauty with the nodding lavender flowers.

A Jekyll/Hyde question arises: is it Campanula rapunculoides or Adenophora liliifolia? Only an electron microscope knows, and I do not care, but I want it out. It is mixed with English ivy and some Vinca minor. The best thing to do is to take the broadfork to it. It goes down deep where entire clumps of fleshy, white roots hide. The bed became so infested, so fast, that other plants and bulbs are no longer able to thrive.

I have extolled the broadfork in prior columns. If you don’t already use one, it is worth saving up and buying this useful tool. It will save your ashes in a number of situations. Speaking at the Agricultural Hall two weeks ago, Jonathan Bates, one of the team of city growers who live and produce on Holyoke’s “Paradise Lot,” recommended the broadfork as indispensable.

“Paradise Lot” is a formerly compacted, concrete-strewn, trashed one-tenth acre lot, now yielding 20 percent of the food of two families. It was transformed in part through use of the Meadow Creature broadfork. (Jonathan was dismissive of broadforks with wooden handles, such as — sigh — the one I have.) All steel, the Meadow Creature heavy-duty fork is made on Vashon Island, Washington, and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Check it out, as well as the company’s cider presses, at There are other broadfork makers; just go online for “broadforks.”

This morning I have been employing mine to: restrain the wandering stoloniferous roots of raspberries in the vegetable garden; attempt a clearance of English ivy and above-mentioned nuisance, Campanula rapunculoides; and perform simple soil aeration in the vegetable garden prior to planting.