Garden Notes

Susan Silva created this jubilant summer bouquet of her flowers. Photo by Susan Safford
Susan Silva created this jubilant summer bouquet of her flowers to light up a table at the Martha's Vineyard Slow Food potluck at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury last Thursday. Photo by Susan Safford

The good with the bad

By Abigail Higgins - August 3, 2006

August gardens are generally in great shape due to the cooler, rainy weather we had earlier this season. However, the downside is a lot of bacterial/foliage problems on ornamentals and vegetables, boosted by the continuing muggy air. Copper-based sprays for control of bacterial problems on foliage are considered to be compatible with organic practices but ideally are applied on a regular weekly schedule.

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) products can be sprayed for control of caterpillars on tomatoes, peppers, and cole crops, similarly on a weekly basis, ideally. Sometimes it is easier to tolerate the caterpillars' damage if one knows what their adult butterfly or moth form will be. The fuzzy, butterscotch-colored yellow bear caterpillar of the tiger moth and the easily recognized black swallowtail are munching about in gardens as well.

Speaking of butterflies, an aside on monarch butterflies and their habitat requirements is the growing presence on the Island of black swallow-wort. As many know, monarchs feed and pupate upon milkweed, gaining unpalatable qualities, and thus protection, from the plant's chemical composition. Black swallow-wort, Vincetoxicum nigrum (syn. Cynanchum louiseae) is recognized by the butterflies as a member of the milkweed family. However, the black swallow-wort's chemical composition is somewhat different from that of milkweed with the result that the monarchs feeding upon it cannot reproduce!

The plant itself is a handsome vine that cloaks the supporting vegetation in a net of twining shoots, which will remain after frost as a ghostly tangle similar to that of bindweed. Initially it looks as if it might be "something"; i.e., a cultivated or worthwhile plant. The leaves are a dark and shiny purplish-green, and the purple flower clusters are somewhat reminiscent of the nightshades, though eventually becoming pods rather than berries. It is very difficult to eliminate once it gets a foothold. Not only will it strangle surrounding plants, but it exerts a "strangle" on the monarch butterfly as well. Consult the Massachusetts State Noxious Weeds List ( for more information and to identify if you think you might have black swallow-wort on your place.

An eye out for turtles

Painted and box turtles are moving around; please watch for them on the road, especially in areas of moist woodland or adjacent to wetlands and brooks. It is hard to conceive of anyone who would intentionally or willingly run over a turtle while driving, but the evidence of flattened turtles on the roads is incontrovertible and may mean that these accidents took place at night. Admittedly a slow-moving, dark-colored turtle could be hard to spot until it was too late, but please keep this in mind, especially up-Island.

Slow Food Martha's Vineyard held its summer potluck at Agricultural Hall on July 27, with Joan Nathan as the after-dinner speaker. There was a great turnout and a bumper crop of delicious eating. Thanks to all who helped Slow Food MV or contributed to make this such a nice evening: Joan Nathan and her lovely, inspiring cookbook, Susan Silva's gorgeous bouquets, Rick Karney's raw bar and crew, beverages from Offshore, almost the entire Haynes family, and last but not least, the MV Agricultural Society.

In the slow food, eat-locally department: I un-crocked my first batch of lacto-fermented cucumber pickles recently. These were made, not in an afternoon with alum and vinegar and a canning jar, but with whey and a salty brine in a ceramic crock over a period of ten days, qualifying the pickles as genuine slow food. I found the process interesting, easy, and fun; and the result tasty and on target to achieving the grail of a "deli sour" dill pickle.

The crock is the same 7.5 liter Gartopf (ferment crock) that I use for sauerkraut. I combined the instructions from the leaflet that comes with it with those from several other sources, learning along the way that crunchiness in the pickle comes from adding horseradish root or grape leaves to the crock, along with the other pickle spices. These are dill and dill seed, 2-3 Tbsp. mustard seed, 2-3 Tbsp. coriander seed, tarragon, 10-12 bay leaves, grape leaves and/or horseradish root, and peeled garlic cloves. Have on hand about one and a half quarts of whey. (My neighbor Sue Hopkins of Christiantown Farm graciously made some available to me after she had made a batch of chevre cheese. Other sources of whey would be to strain a quart of yogurt or let cultured buttermilk settle out.)

Make a brine using 30 grams of pickling or sea salt to a quart of water. Do not cut back on the amount of salt, as the fermentation (pickle) process is relying on it to inhibit the development of undesirable bacteria while encouraging the acidic, salt-tolerant lactobacilli. Wash a basket of cucumbers, either pickling cucumbers or small regular ones; I used about ten pounds. Line the bottom of the crock with a nice layer of grape leaves. Pierce the cukes with an icepick or knitting needle, to facilitate the exchange of fluids, and layer them into the crock with the condiments. Halfway up add another nice layer of grape leaves. Pour the whey and the brine over the cucumbers. Put on the weighing stones. Close the crock with the lid and fill the groove with water. Leave ten days at room temperature. Then store in a cool place.

Close, but needs refinement

With feedback from friends with well-developed pickle taste buds, my assessment is that the pickles are on target for the "deli-sour" goal, but they need refining: they are too sharp/bitter (use less mustard seed in the next batch) and not enough dill/garlic flavor (use more dill, dill seed, and garlic.) The sweet aftertaste is the action of the digestive enzymes literally sweetening one's breath.

I urge gardeners, and others, to mark their calendars for August 9 at Agricultural Hall when Peter H. Raven, the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, will be giving the David H. Smith memorial lecture on behalf of the Polly Hill Arboretum. His topic is "How Many Plants will Survive the 21st Century?" In addition to his responsibilities as the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the world's leading plant conservation centers, Mr. Raven is the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and George Englemann Professor of Botany at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the recipient of the National Medal of Science, past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Sigma XI, and the leading proponent of plant conservation throughout the world. The event is at the Agricultural Hall, West Tisbury, Wednesday, Aug. 9, at 7:30 pm. For more information, please call the arboretum at 508-693-9426.