Garden Notes

Suzy Zell trimming the Hornbeam Arbor. Photo by Susan Safford
Suzy Zell gives the Hornbeam Arbor at Polly Hill Arboretum its annual trimming. Photo by Susan Safford

Guilty pleasures

By Abigail Higgins - January 19, 2006

Nothing wrong with sunny days and temperatures in the 50s. Except experiencing them in mid-January. It has been lovely; we have all enjoyed it, and are thankful that the generous rainfall has not come instead in the form of snow. That does not change what we know to be true: that this is not what the Januaries of our prior experience consist of.

The warm spell gives all of us the opportunity to do whatever we must accomplish, to catch up, or to do a little extra, in greater comfort than we would expect. We must hope that the phenological (from phenology: the relationship between a periodic biological phenomenon and climatic conditions) processes we count on continue to occur without impairment. Frost initiates many processes in the temperate zones, so we do really need it. Conversely, we would not want trees to pass a point of no return concerning climate-initiated stages of leafing out, only to be slammed by a February or March blizzard. But if things like that were to happen, what could we do about it? "Deal with it," as the fictional toughs snarl.

Every year the hornbeam tunnel at the Polly Hill Arboretum receives a haircut, which keeps it shapely and within bounds; otherwise it would become an unwieldy and heavy mass that would no longer resemble a tunnel. The photo shows the lengths to which Susie Zell, the Arboretum gardener, must reach to maintain the tunnel as the eye-catching feature it is. The mild weather makes working outdoors in January a guilty pleasure. Normally one would not feel like standing around outside in January, virtually motionless on a ladder, while containing a potentially wild-haired topiary.

Plant monster
This month I have been piling up the prunings of that plant-monster, the wintercreeper euonymus. No doubt additionally encouraged by the extended season it has enjoyed, it is overgrowing the retaining wall at our house. Although I call this broadleaf evergreen, E. fortunei, a plant-monster, every plant does have its uses. Perhaps a little information will prove useful, if only to point out its drawbacks.

According to Michael Dirr's "Manual of Woody Plants," the wintercreeper euonymus, of which the cultivars, varieties, and leaf types are almost endless, is a variable species because it sports (mutates) so readily. I am not certain which one it is that I am cutting back, because I acquired it by rooting a couple of pieces taken from holiday greenery twenty-five years ago. It might be E. fortunei var. radicans, 'Vegetus,' or 'Vegetus Cardinal.' With many question marks placed behind his attempts to straighten out the wintercreepers, Mr. Dirr himself is not sure about them either.

Many are subject to scale. Mine has hosted white fly for the past two seasons. It fruits heavily and becomes upright after a period of gathering steam as a clinging vine - it would probably have made a better upright evergreen shrub than used as I did, as a vine to clothe a dry stone retaining wall. Now it threatens to pull down the wall, should I ever relax my vigilance.

MOFGA items

Confined inside by heavy rainfall, I have trawled the pages of the recent issue of the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, volume 32/number 4 and found items of interest to pass along. The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener is always well worth reading due to the variety and scope of its content. I encourage island gardeners to open their own subscriptions.

We know that fresh eggs from free-range poultry have bright orange yolks and taste better. Now comes evidence from Mother Earth News confirming that eye and taste appeal with proof that they are also more nutritious. Skaggs Nutrition Laboratory at Utah State University and Food Products Laboratory in Portland, Oregon performed the testing.

"The research compared eggs from four free-range flocks with U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for eggs from confinement production systems. Those from free-range chickens had up to twice as much vitamin E, up to six times more beta carotene, and four times more essential omega-3 fatty acids. The free-range eggs averaged half as much cholesterol as the USDA data indicate for confinement system eggs." To read the rest of the article plus additional egg info go to eggs. More information on the general superior nutritional content of organic foods is at

In another development that may be of interest, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) has put out its "NOFA Guide to Land Care." "The Guide is designed to help home and business owners care for their landscapes organically, whether they hire a professional or do it themselves.... Resources for people who want to do the majority of the work themselves include the golden rules of organic lawn care, a list of places to get soil tested, advice on what organic amendments to use and names of accredited professional consultants. Essays tell how to control common pests such as fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, poison ivy and weeds as well as how to conserve water." To obtain a copy, please send $2 for shipping and handling to Land Care Guide, CT NOFA, Box 164, Stevenson, CT 06491.

One final, intriguing piece from the current issue concerns a product, actually a series of related products: Vita Biosa, Animal Biosa, and Terra Biosa, lactic acid-based and prepared through fermentation, and used for humans, animals, and soil respectively. The article is lengthy and interesting - try to get hold of an issue to read the entire piece. The claims made for each are quite sensational and involve the abilities of fermented bacteria-rich products to assist or improve the normal biological processes of soil, plants, animals, and people.

As many readers know, the process of fermentation fascinates me (compost, sauerkraut, etc.). It seems that many of the most desirable foodstuffs and products of human cultures, not to mention our bodily processes, require the assistance of it. (An interest in fermentation is what originally teased Louis Pasteur down the scientific path to his breakthrough discoveries.) Though having origins in Thailand, much of the work with and use of the Biosa products has been carried out in Denmark, a small nation that is intensively farmed.

One of the uses for the products cited in the article (immediately brought to mind old Katama farm issues and the Edgartown sewage treatment plant) is for the control of agricultural smells associated with manures and stagnant water. I googled it and found the web site of the US distributor, Biosa Mid-West US, at I intend to find out more about it first-hand.

Tuesday evening, Jan. 24 the Vineyard Plant & Landscape Association, in conjunction with the Polly Hill Arboretum and the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society, will present "Caterpillars Gone Wild," with Bob Childs, the UMass entomologist. He will be talking about the winter moth infestation in New England from 7 to 8:30 pm at Agricultural Hall. Admission is free and open to all.