Authors Posts by Abigail Higgins

Abigail Higgins

Abigail Higgins

February is the time to prune your fruit trees.

Witch hazel flowers brave dead of winter: Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena.’ — Photos by Susan Safford

In blizzard mode once again, Martha’s Vineyard is enjoying a February 2015 weather pattern somewhat different from the past few decades. A comforting thought is that beneath the snow cover, soils and plants are cozy and insulated from frigid temperatures. Voles: Stay away!

The experience is also exposing a financial pattern different from days of yore when, forced by weather, people hunkered down and sat it out. (OK — had no other choice but to hunker down and sit it out.)

I know, it is so “yesterday” to talk about putting aside contingency funds, but bitter weather shows that modern life pares things way too close. This is too slim a margin for anyone to feel comfortable with: Where too many are unable to stay safely at home, driven as they are by unrelenting financial commitments. Where electricity bills suddenly skyrocket. Where the estimate is three days’ worth of food before the Island runs out. Where we are at the wrong end of vulnerable supply lines.

Growing and harvesting a food garden is a small contingency fund. It could be the practice that gives you that little bit of security and respite during a stormy winter. In addition, starting and growing a garden is one of the most enjoyable accomplishments there is, whether alone or with your family.

Bob Childs

It is sad to note the death of the University of Massachusetts entomologist Robert D. Childs Jr. on Jan. 30, 2015, after a long fight with cancer. Bob Childs was a frequent visitor to the Vineyard in his capacity as UMass Extension Service entomologist, gregariously advising and sharing his expertise on insects and their related issues with interested Island audiences. A son of Massachusetts and a product of Massachusetts’s educational opportunities, Bob spent almost his entire professional career serving UMass, its students, and residents of the greater commonwealth in one capacity or another through Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the Extension Service.

The age of echinaceas arrives

It is truly astonishing to observe the breeding results of the broadening echinacea field. Less than 15 years ago the typical choices were quite limited: variations on the pink, droopy, ray-flowered species (E. purpurea) type; a dwarfed ‘Kim’s Knee High’; and a white-flowered form, ‘White Swan.’ Even the native North American species, such as the yellow, E. paradoxa, were uncommon except at specializing nurseries such as Garden in the Woods.

The ground shifted slightly with the introduction of ‘Rubenstern’ and ‘Magnus,’ cultivars whose pink ray-florets stood out horizontally, making the flowers appear larger, unlike the typical coneflower with its droopy ray-florets. In fairly short order, plant breeders had released several echinaceas with frizzy, bombe-type centers that replaced the typical echinacea with its bristly cone of disc-florets.

And now there are seemingly dozens of cultivars. Sylvan Nursery in Westport is listing 15, and Bluestone Perennials lists 20 different cultivars. They range in size from dwarf to standard, and in colors from cool green to white, through pink and yellow, all the way to hot corals and reds. Many are plant-patented cultivars.

Echinaceas are primarily plants of the prairie, making dependable, long-lived garden plants. Plant them in full sun in well-drained soil. A ‘White Swan’ given to me almost 30 years ago still bravely stands up to the population pressures that rambunctious neighboring Anemone tomentosa ‘Robustissima’ exerts. The many typical pink-flowered forms self-sow easily, and may be moved about when small, but blooms commonly become dingy as they age. I lack much experience with the new, hot-colored cultivars, but I welcome the strong, clear colors they come in.

Pruning fruit trees

(And grapevines.) That is one of the usual outside garden jobs for February, and in recent years, even dormant oil sprays could be applied during warm spells occurring in February. This year I think we had better hold off on those tasks.

Boxwood bent open by heavy snow load. Selective interior pruning strengthens and tightens plants’ structures and minimizes such splitting.
Boxwood bent open by heavy snow load. Selective interior pruning strengthens and tightens plants’ structures and minimizes such splitting.

Since many modern fruit trees are grafted on dwarfing or semidwarfing stock, pruning is simplified: no longer much need to climb into the tree with pruning saw, loppers, and pruning clippers dangling from belts. Prune inward or overlong twigs back by about one-third to a spur, unless your cultivar is a tip-bearer.

The general idea is to let light and air into the tree’s crown. One pruning style is called cup, or goblet, with the aim of producing an open, cup-like structure of four or five main branches circling the open center of the tree, so all fruit gets maximum sun exposure and air flow.

Prune grapevines back to a framework, and then prune the laterals back to two buds. Grapevines begin to bleed very early in the season, so whenever the snows permit, do this job. Clematis vines also start into growth very early; clematis group three, whose blooms occur on new wood, may be cut down to about a foot above the ground now. Leave groups one and two alone.

The Nonstop Color Garden

While the Island is deeply snowbound, the ideal of color in the garden hovers like an elusive dream. Nellie Neal’s book, The Nonstop Color Garden: Design Flowering Landscapes & Gardens for Year-Round Enjoyment (Cool Springs Press, 192 pages) is a real how-to book for achieving just that. Here is a book for lovers of Technicolor. Main sections are “designing with color,” “problem solving with color,” and “plants for nonstop color.”

The book’s most unusual aspects are the uses of winter color, and the plant lists in the final “plants for nonstop color” section. The reproduction of the many color photographs is satisfying, and the drawings are clearly executed.

This otherwise useful book’s main drawback is that its photographs’ captions do not identify the many striking specimens illustrated, a consideration I have come to expect, but perhaps less important to those designing with color than to plants-people.

Blankets of snow protect birds and small animals.

Snow creates a tent-like structure on Everegreens. – Photo by Susan Safford

That was fun! All those snow days — yippee! (For a while, anyhow.) The winter-wonderland weather and storms are insuring that some of us get “a long winter’s nap,” while others, perforce, must work long hours to keep lives and essential services ticking along and operational. Thanks, and appreciation to all.

Winter storm Juno’s snow was dry and light, so fortunately it did not provide a particularly good example of dealing with winter damage to trees and shrubs; the aftermath, though, has been heavy on treacherous freezing rain and slush.

The time to clear snow accumulation from plantings is during the window of opportunity while the plants are still pliable, before the typical temperature plunges in the wake of low-pressure storms. Once it is frigid, it is almost impossible to avoid breaking twigs and branches; better to let them bend than to create more damage. If damage has occurred, attempt to clean up breaks with loppers or pruning saws, and stake up bent limbs later on. Beware of how brittle and heavy wood can become when cold.

When conifers are covered in snow, the snow blankets make valuable shelter for birds and small animals, enclosing a microclimate and a bit of open ground inside.

Island woods are full of standing dead timber that was toppled by Juno’s high winds. Many of these are hung up on surrounding trees, and present one of the more dangerous of situations: they are not called “widow makers” for nothing! Patience, and a couple more windstorms, may see them on the ground by gravity and rot.

I am hypothesizing here, but I suspect this may be a bad winter for deer damage, and that snow cover, if available, may provide some protection for plants that would otherwise become browse. The acorn crop seemed smaller in 2014, and deer herds may be wintering over in an undernourished state.

2015 award winners

Each year, various panels and trials of seeds and plants evaluate the season’s new offerings. Fleuroselect (, National Garden Bureau (, All-America Selections (, Perennial Plant of the Year (, and others have announced their 2015 results. Lengthy press releases and images are to be found at these web sites. Those who are online may have a fuller look there at what to expect for highlighted annuals, perennials, and vegetables this season.

Formerly pretty much taboo, hot apricot/orange color ranges figure in a number of selections. National Garden Bureau has chosen gaillardia as one of its Plants of the Year. Fleuroselect has named 2015 the Year of the Sunflower, which is good news for Island gardeners and cut-flower sellers. Sunflowers do well here, and are totally in sync with Island style. Furthermore, as an edible crop, usually from strains bred for large-size seed, they are not only for the birds. Sprouted sunflower seeds and sunflower microgreens are among the most nutritious things you can sprout on your kitchen counter. Start sunflower transplants in root trainers, for they resent disturbance.

My daughter gave me a birthday present of garden seeds, including a strain of sunflower seed, ‘Autumn Beauty,’ from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, whose color range sounds lovely. The pollenless kinds are useful for cut flowers, but for garden use, it is the pollen that is prized by beneficial insects. Other longtime sunflower favorites of mine are ‘Italian White,’ and another — not a Helianthus sunflower — tithonia, the flame-colored Mexican sunflower.

Members of the Garden Writers Association, to which I belong, receive many promotional press releases and free samples. A recently arrived complementary sample, a packet of MiniClover, a Trifolium repens product that is ready-inoculated with crop-specific rhizobia, interests me. According to the handout: “Use MiniClover for an environmentally friendly lawn alternative. Less fertilizer, less water, less or no mowing, and less herbicides characterize the remarkable traits of this new, small-leaf clover.” Go for a look at the rest of the interesting offerings of this Oregon company, including seed for cover crops, pastures, ornamental and native grasses, flowers, and much more.

Orchid orphans

Many Islanders have acquired orchids from Wendy Oliver of Frosty Hollow Orchids, but most of mine have fallen into my hands because they are orphans from jobs. They have been left behind to expire at the end of their owners’ period of residence; most have no pot tags.

I have bought one or two supermarket orchids, but otherwise that is how I have come to possess this small collection of orchids I know little about; luckily, since this is the age of the Internet, I can glean some information online, enough to keep the plants mostly alive and flowering. An informative web site is

Plants like Cymbidium, Odontoglossum, Miltonias, and some Paphiopedilum and Dendrobium prefer the cool 55° to 70°F temperature range, and would be ideal for conditions I have here, although the typical orphan is a phalaenopsis, or “moth” orchid. Phalaenopsis prefer warmer temperatures, but can tolerate the conditions I have.

All I knew about orchids when the first ones — they were Oncidiums Sweet Sugar ‘Kalendar’ — came into my possession was that they are mostly epiphytic and are grown in chunks of free-draining bark. Ha ha, there is a bit more to it than that, but it was sufficient to have kept those plants alive for more than 20 years! Now I know enough to see that repotting will help some, and that some may do better affixed to bark plaques and suspended from wires, which I intend to try.

Winter walk at Polly Hill Arboretum

PHA ( offers free guided walks that encourage visitors to enjoy the spare elegance of winter interest that such an extensive collection provides. Naturally, in winter it is evergreens, both coniferous and broad-leaved, and bark effects that predominate, but the walkers will see precocious bloom too. Walks are scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 7, and Saturday, Feb. 14, at 10:00 am.


Homegrown will meet at Agricultural Hall Sunday, Feb. 15, at 3 pm to finalize onion and potato orders.

Force hyacinths in water for a taste of spring. –Photo by Susan Safford

Garden dreaming “I-wanta’s”

This is the dreaming, scheming, and planning portion of the gardening year. The catalogs arriving daily are a font of ideas and “I-wanta’s.” At some point reality must reassert itself, but not yet. Maybe this is the year I will grow every dark red-to-black dahlia cultivar known. Maybe the garden will be only onions, plum tomatoes, and cucumbers. No, beans, onions, plum tomatoes, and lettuce …

One can start to go nuts choosing the gardens of one’s imagination.

Dreaming, scheming “I wanta’s”!

I have some personal “I wanta’s” this year, too. I feel an obligation to Trudy Taylor to plug for regional composting on Martha’s Vineyard. She has been a tireless proponent of this principle for years, and wonders why I have not been doing my part to influence people’s thinking.

We should have regional composting and responsible recycling of organic waste. We are an island — small, unattached, apart. We should be able to sort this out. (Especially since Nantucket has already, now a couple of decades ago.) Can we compel our town leaders to be more environmentally proactive? And why is there such an avoidance of the existing opportunities?

Take the new public safety buildings in West Tisbury and Tisbury: large, south-facing roofs, with no photovoltaic capacity whatsoever installed. I look at the new Y facility — extensive south-facing roof with no PV,  and at the Martha’s Vineyard Arena, perennially fundraising for high electricity costs and structural improvements, almost within spitting distance of the Y. One needs to gain heat, while the other needs to lose it. One could be swapping Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) for the heat of the other.

Possibly, the entire campus area of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, MV Arena, the Y, seniors’ Woodside Village, and Schoolhouse Village subdivision could be linked with some combination of biomass gasification and distributed generation that would make dollars and sense for us/them all.

Space needs and cooking ingredients

Most of us come to our senses at some point, and remember what works and what is needed. It is always good to remember what the household uses, and how it cooks. In fact, I would recommend taking a stab at growing the ingredients of the most frequently cooked bases and recipes, the staples.

When my garden starts up in spring, garlic planted the previous fall is already occupying row space. In the limited garden space, it is better for me to grow all the peas I can in the spring, instead of giving over room to items such as brassicas (cabbages, kales, turnips, etc.). Who wants to eat cabbage when there are fresh peas out there? Plus, the peas are easy to freeze, and the brassicas do very well as a second crop, and continue right up until hard winter.

Plan room in the spring garden for the “earlies”: potatoes, onions, beets, spinach, and lettuce, in late March to mid-April. Garden space must be left for tender crops, planted at some point in May, when spring planting takes place. As “earlies” are harvested out, plan on replacing them with, for example, squashes (summer and winter), main-crop tomatoes, basil, carrots, and Swiss chard. Most seed catalogues and vegetable growing manuals contain information to calculate amounts needed and row space required.

For us, a paramount staple is Garden Special (from the All New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook, by Wilma Lord Perkins, Bantam Books, ca. 1970), forming the basis for many soups, sauces, and stews. It contains four garden vegetables: plum tomatoes, onions, green peppers, celery (and basil and bay leaves), all of which we can grow, and we wouldn’t be without it.

We would not want to be without a year’s supply of pesto in the freezer either, and potatoes, onions, and garlic as well, for as long as they last. We try to make and freeze as much stock as possible throughout the year. With potatoes, and broccoli and leeks, two favorite soups are easily put together: cream of broccoli and potato-leek (“potage bonne femme”).

The bounty of bean plants is well known; they form the basis for many summer dishes, and freeze well, in addition to being served on their own, cooked or raw. Less common is growing your own dry beans, for baked bean dishes and soups. This is easily stored, homegrown protein!

Many people harbor hopes of accomplishment, the bucket list of unrealized garden goals (“This year is the strawberry jam year!”). Do we have to enter cucumber pickles in the fair to enjoy a few cucumbers in salads? Easily eaten and processed fruits and vegetables are a good category to consider. Be realistic. If it requires a complicated process to preserve, is it truly worth it? Moreover, is it actually going to happen?

There are many vegetables I have not mentioned here, because people’s gardens reflect individual preferences and places. My brother has sent me seed and complete directions for producing Belgian endive, a lengthy procedure. But will it happen? For some gardeners and cooks, unusual and challenging crops are The Reasons for doing it, and that is what pushes the envelope in gardening excellence.

But for now, in January, it is OK to dream garden dreams and entertain fond hopes and fantasies, the more the better.

New garden product?

Speaking of strawberries, since 2014 was a very frustrating year for us with our strawberry patch, due to the wily Christiantown squirrels, I paid attention when I read about an interesting new product in The Avant Gardener, which I intend to follow up on.

“An advertisement for ‘The All Natural Ceylon Cinnamon Oil Pesticide’ claims that it ‘repels all insects, kills fungus, eliminates powdery mildew. Stop the squirrels … Spray on garden vegetables and fruits. Safe for humans. The most effective insect repellent. Period!’

“The product is applied by means of a spray. Use once a week and after heavy rains. It is nontoxic to humans and can be used the day of harvesting vegetables. Cinnamon has antimicrobial properties that also help to control molds and fungus as a substitute for liquid copper fungicide. For more information” I hope it repels squirrels.

Indoor gardens

Reading a book such as Forcing, Etc. forcing,_etc-book_coverby Katherine Whiteside, or going to blogs such as Matt Mattus’ Growing with Plants ( can be daunting due to the seeming perfection of the presentation or technique. Matt’s greenhouse is inhabited by “specialist” plants, knowledgeably grown and lovingly photographed. The color pages of Forcing, Etc. are perhaps more populist, with many easily recognized plants among the more exotic ones. They are both guides.

One of the easiest ways to begin is to force or root plants in water. It might be characterized as your grandmother’s rooting the coleus or philodendron cuttings in a tumbler of water over the kitchen sink.

Pieces of ivy, impatiens, or pussy willow in a vase might be a good place to start, or forcing hyacinths, as in the photo (I have thoughtful friends to thank for both Forcing, Etc. and the hyacinth bulbs and the vases). Avocado pits, leaves from succulents, begonias, and African violets are also good starting points. Cool room temperature and frequent changes of water are helpful.

Sprouting on your kitchen counter brings chlorophyll into the diet simply and affordably.

The Island’s winter palate is spare and exquisitely subtle.

Skimmias take well to propagation. – Photo by Susan Safford

Celebrate winter

As I emerge into winter and the newly born year (from the holiday haze, cleverly designed to coincide with the solstice stupor), I find the sun stronger, the cold deeper, and improved mental clarity.

Appropriate to the Vineyard winter, the Guardian’s Alys Fowler wrote about her love of winter, and expresses it wellhere:

“If you embrace our winter in all its dripping wetness, its desolate cold, its bleak grey, then it’s possible to find happiness in the places you least expect. … There is a loneliness to the winter landscape; the whole story is no longer on show, entire chapters are now stored underground.”

Winter’s palette

Dwellers in the temperate zone enjoy four seasons, and many play the game of “favorite one.” I used to feel my favorite was whichever we were currently in, because they are all good. No, wonderful!

In actuality, I always had an affinity for Island winter. I love its stillness, and the Island’s winter palette is spare and exquisitely subtle. Take away the contented opulence of summer, and what do you have? It’s green all over. Take away spring’s fragility and rich promise, and one may be weighed down with the sense of Time’s onward rush.

Autumn comes a close second to winter’s appeal, with its golden light and deeper blue skies and the unstated tension of the coming changes. However, I delight in the spaciousness of winter skies. The contrast of their vast cloudscapes with the Island’s intimate landscapes wins my senses, over and over.

However, our requirements for the winter scenery of our domestic spaces often dictate greater coziness; we employ evergreens to contradict the hardness of winter and mitigate its bleak aspects. Evergreens break Venturi effects’ icy blasts around buildings, and provide wildlife with someplace to take shelter.

I enjoy the beautiful shadings of browns and grays of the native woods around my house, but even more so in contrast to the white pines, hollies, yews, rhododendrons, firs, spruces, and skimmias planted nearby that soften them.

Deer will browse some of the above over the course of winter, but not the charming muffin mounds of the skimmias. They will be left intact. I fail to understand why skimmias are not more widely planted here on the Island, where they associate well with rhododendron, azalea, and holly, and do a good job of fronting them in shrubberies. The ideal planting site is in moist, well-drained soil, in shady spots.

The usually suggested forms of these dioecious broadleaf evergreens, in the Rutaceae family, are a heavily fruiting female cultivar such as S. japonica “Nymans,” and a good male pollinator such as “Rubella.” My male skimmia is covered with flower panicles of a deep dusty red, and is very decorative. The female, however, surpasses it in sheer red and green power, and takes the eye from several feet away with its clusters of large, shiny red fruits, surrounded by glossy mid-green leaves.

As seen in the image, planting in partial sunshine may have led to yellowing of the foliage.

Skimmias may seem pricey at the nursery, but a little secret is that they take well to propagation, either by layering or rooted cutting, or by sowing fresh seed, which germinates well once cleaned of the fleshy drupe.

In the garden

Winter days on the Vineyard can be exhilarating and beautiful, and having some outside work to do is a great antidote to stale, dry indoor air. There is always more to do, small jobs and details, as an excuse to be outside.

Alys Fowler’s column continues, “But I most love getting to know my local trees. It is now that they show off their secrets, the hidden nests and hollows, the comic twists of their limbs, how they tap on their neighbour’s [sic] shoulder, how they let the ivy wrap them up — or not. …

While you’re looking up, take in the winter clouds — snow-laden waves of cotton fluff perhaps, but more often ominous sheets of ash and lead. … For once you start to celebrate winter for what it is, there’s not nearly enough of it.”

The lack of cold temps has brought tips of narcissus and snowdrops, among other bulbs, to the soil’s surface early. Mulching these with something — old straw, leaves and leaf litter, or evergreen branches of cut-up Christmas trees — may help avoid winter damage to them during the Island’s notorious freeze/thaw cycles.

Many small branches and twigs with clusters of leaves attached, I find, have also rained down from the oak trees, a result of various twig-pruner insects such as cynipid gall wasps and carpenter ants. Clear them away and add to compost piles; their addition is valuable due to a high ratio of bark to wood.

It is gratifying to observe how one’s plants have grown, but many will have added growth that may be headed in the wrong direction. Improve it with human intervention. Winter pruning may take place at any time now; observe basic pruning rules.

1) Usesharptools: pruning saws, loppers, and clippers. 2) Locate the branch collar, the slight fold where a branch diverts from its parent limb. Correct pruning cuts are made just outside this fold, leaving a small bump or nub that will callus over. 3) For any pruning requiring a saw, make an undercut to prevent injurious stripping of bark.

Clear “leaf muddles” from evergreen shrubs such as yews, box, skimmia, and shrub hollies. These leaf muddles catch snow and ice. When frozen, these weigh plants down and split them open.

A small branch of hybrid witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia “Jelena,” has chosen to burst into bloom, early but welcome. Many flowering shrubs such as witch hazel, or the familiar forsythia, force well. Try some!

A wreath implies welcome, unity, and peace. —Photo by Susan Safford

The admonition to “Keep Christmas in our Hearts all year long,” a laudable sentiment, appears to have originated with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” However, a wag observed, “both Christmas and Earth Day happen once a year. So why is it we are told only to keep Christmas in our hearts year round?”

We need, more than ever, to keep both Earth Day and Christmas in our hearts, year-round. There is much piety about the meaning of Christmas — Peace, Goodwill, and honoring the Child; but faith and practice year-round are the “proof of the [Christmas] pudding.”

It’s astounding to me that it takes a food writer, the New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, to link most of the critical issues facing our nation in one pithy column, “Is It Bad Enough Yet?” (Is It Bad Enough Yet? – These issues require the attention of our brightest and most highly paid leaders and policy makers, whose silence on them remains deafening. Yet Bittman is neither policy maker, ecologist, nor politician.

In this excerpted paragraph, Bittman touches upon Garden Notes themes of food, gardens, and quality of life:

“I have spent a great deal of time talking about the food movement and its potential, because to truly change the food system you really have to change just about everything: good nutrition stems from access to good food; access to good food isn’t going to happen without economic justice; that isn’t going to happen without taxing the superrich…. The same is true of other issues: You can’t fix climate change or the environment without stopping the unlimited exploitation of natural and human resources…. Same with social well-being.”

Garden elements

Garden making is above all a visual process. Although travel is not required for it, the stimulation and cross-pollination of ideas that are so fruitful for garden making remain stunted and small without a good measure of garden visits.

The arrival of an important new garden style book, The Bartlett Book of Garden Elements: a Practical Compendium of Inspired Designs for the Working Gardener, by Michael Valentine Bartlett and Rose Love Bartlett (David R. Godine, Boston, 2014, 270 ppg., $40.00), demonstrates the value of garden travel, as its authors visited and photographed hundreds of gardens over a thirty year period.

Photo by Susan Safford
— Photo by Susan Safford

Originating as visual aids for the couple’s garden talks, the image collection eventually grew. Organizing the photos and producing a design compilation with them that would document gardens and essential design elements emerged as the logical goal. Michael Bartlett (1953-2008) was diagnosed with a brain tumor, however, and wrote feverishly to conclude the work but died before completion. Co-author Rose Bartlett and David R. Godine, publisher, revised and concluded the compilation of the material and have now brought it to publication.

Initially this work, which could be called a stylebook, is almost overwhelming. Stuffed as they are with such riches of detail and image, from “Alleés” to “Walls,” its twenty four sections are well organized however, and provide the necessary framework to zero in on the specific details one is after, each chapter containing, more or less, two dozen color photos.

My bookshelf already contains predecessor volumes, such as The House of Boughs, and Garden Ornament: Five Hundred Years of History and Practice, yet I find that more is better. Look elsewhere for a book of plant combos or color themes. The subjects of the approximately one thousand photos are not necessarily Vineyard style, but they share enduring qualities that one encounters when visiting the great gardens of the mainland, and the world beyond.

Bibliographies of source materials for further reading and appendices are welcome in a book of this sort; this one contains a copious bibliography; website info for the book’s hundreds of gardens that welcome visitors; and a glossary of landscape, garden, and design terms.

Martha’s Vineyard is rich in gardens in a general way, but because it is small its private garden treasures may be viewed in a couple of season’s worth of Open Garden tours, or else remain hidden. The publication of Garden Elements, coincides with winter’s quiet, when imagination takes over from action.

Winter in the garden

Many would like to finish up the work of the garden year in November, but the Vineyard reality is that it cannot be concluded until December. This autumn’s plentiful — some would say torrential — rainfall may be great for the water table, but makes it hard to finish up.

Will rainfall patterns translate into heavy snow? Stay tuned: official winter arrived December 21, the solstice. UMass’s instructive Garden Calendar declares that by Christmas day the setting sun is already two minutes later! The sun continues rising, however, later and later until January 10.

Chilly days are good for bringing out the pole saw — the arm action warms! Leaves have dropped, making it possible to see what one is cutting: prune for balance, eliminating crossing branches, and elevating the canopy of shade trees.

Holiday plants

Christmas cactus, tender cyclamen, paperwhites, amaryllis (hippeastrum), among others, will be given as gift plants. In most cases, following a few simple practices can prolong their bloom and lifespan. Bright, even light and cool temperatures where possible are generally best.

Water amaryllis and cyclamen from below and avoid over-watering: let soils dry before re-watering. Paperwhites and cyclamen flowers and leaves may flop if kept in a warm, sunny environment such as a south-facing window; bring them back upright in a cooler environment. Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) need little water while blooming, but increase water and fertilizer from January onwards.


January’s Homegrown focuses on soil testing. Get yours done now ( and bring in the results for discussion January 18, 2015 at 3 pm, Agricultural Hall.

The apple station at Morning Glory Farm features a range of delicious, nutritious options. — Photo by Susan Safford

Driving home in the early December dusk, the headlights pick up fluttering winter moths. They are males (females are flightless) out and about, looking for mates. So far, it does not appear to be a huge flight. The proof will be what happens in spring 2015, when caterpillars begin to feed. Most afflicted seem to be oaks (particularly black oaks), maples, fruit trees, and blueberry bushes.

If I am working in Edgartown, I enjoy stopping at Morning Glory Farm, usually to pick up fruit from the wide selection of apples or pears available there, Island-grown as well as from Carlson’s Orchard in Harvard. Many years I have pleaded with the Athearns, in jest and seriously, to institute a buying club for apple-loving Islanders, after the stand closes.

The standard apple selection that appears in grocery stores across the country is a routine half dozen of the usual insipid suspects. (A visiting apple guru lecturing here quipped that ‘Mutsu’ — large, dual-purpose, yellow apple of Japanese origin — would be one of the most popular apples in the U.S., if not the world, if people only tasted it instead of reading its name!) For those who are considering planting orchard trees, the MGF array, in addition to providing good fruit, provides a teaching and tasting sample. Needless to say, they sell ‘Mutsu’ apples. And ‘Idared.’ And ‘Empire.’ And ‘Cameo.’

Indoor growing

Fresh produce enters a leaner, bleaker period around now, whether sourced from one’s own garden, farmers’ markets and stands, or from the grocery store; and holiday gift-buying is about to go into high gear. Along comes Indoor Kitchen Gardening, by Elizabeth Millard (Cool Springs Press, Minneapolis, 2014, 224 ppg, $22.99) making its appearance at an opportune time.

Millard is organic, practical, and likes to keep things simple. She remains steadfastly committed to showing how rewarding gardening inside your house, on your kitchen counter, can be. This attractive paperback, invitingly photographed in color (one or more chlorophyll-packed images per page), is forthright yet unpretentious, in a style that says “you can do it.”

Although seeds can be sown in standard plastic growing supplies, in the course of her book Millard encourages the reader to look around and utilize more than merely the kitchen counter, with flat-pack shelving, hanging arrangements, re-purposed containers of all sorts, and oddments resting in the basement becoming useful. Millard spends a slim third of the book indoctrinating the reader in the details of growing indoors. Even if you thought you knew all about growing alfalfa sprouts, you will benefit from this section, before proceeding to the nitty-gritty with the sections on microgreens, sprouts, shoots, and herbs.

This mid-portion constitutes about a fat third of Indoor Kitchen Gardening, which is important because research, especially into the area of K vitamins (important for bone health and proper utilization of calcium), has increasingly shown that the nutritional powerhouse of plants and vegetables is actually in the young shoots and sprouts.

Microgreens, shoots, and sprouting — learn the difference from Indoor Kitchen Gardening— is key to unlocking it. (Broccoli sprouts, for example, have been shown to be protective against chemical carcinogens.) Achieving the know-how to produce them for oneself all winter is effective knowledge.

Millard is a hound for good soil. The final third of Indoor Kitchen Gardening is concerned with the production of crops such as radishes, carrots, and tomatoes, which might end up outside, in containers. As such it was of less interest to me, as a grower with a sizeable outside garden, yet this section too contains useful techniques, advice on varieties, and trouble-shooting advice. At the back of the book, in addition to an index, there is a list of resources.

I recommend this book for two reasons: the amount of encouragement it supplies, and the nutritional security of growing something for yourself, as much as possible. Indoor Kitchen Gardening will get you motivated and spells out how to advance beyond alfalfa sprouts.

Garlic rescue

Which factors contributed are unknown, but purchased hardneck seed garlic as well as my own garlic did not keep very well this year. When I went to plant, I found one or more softened, or browning, cloves in each head of garlic.

It was a big disappointment. When you garden long enough you experience poor crops as well as good ones. Quality in vegetables (including keeping quality in storage vegetables) comes from all aspects of their production — soil-seed-harvest — start to finish; so at any point along the life cycle of these heads of garlic something less-than-ideal may have intervened.

Fortunately, David Geiger, the Island plantsman, shared his recovery technique for this unwelcome turn of (garlic) events. This is the way he rescues garlic cloves rapidly approaching the “use-by” date: “I knock all the garlic cloves out of their skins, put them into a vessel to roast them as you normally would roast garlic, covering them with olive oil and cooking the whole mass, 350F for 45 minutes or so, [and then] store it in a container in the refrigerator so you can just scoop some out whenever you want it. Lasts months.”

In the case of my own garlic, 2014’s crop was grown in the portion of my vegetable patch I consider the most challenged, due to the proximity of a beech tree’s roots that are invading this quadrant of the garden. The tree is causing some early morning shadow too. Perhaps these factors compromised the quality. In any case, having this method to save what I can of my garlic harvest is timely, and I hope others find it useful as well.

New England Wild Flower Society

New England Wild Flower Society (NEWFS) the Framingham-based non-profit, has created a new publication, Native Plant News, whose Fall/Winter 2014 edition contains an examination of the “New Conservation,” a philosophy that pursues partnerships with large corporations and sanctions natural resource extraction. It is worthwhile reading:

—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.