Garden Notes

Abigail Higgins's garden
Abigail Higgins's garden, in winter mode, includes cabbage and kale. The dahlias will have to be dug out at the first frost. A cover crop is coming in at top right. Photo by Susan Safford

Dressing for winter

By Abigail Higgins - December 7, 2006

The weekend's full moon was the last one of autumn, and what an autumn it has been: plenty of warm weather, wind, and rain. There have also been plenty of second chances to get to those overlooked garden chores. By now in other years, they would have been halted by frost or snow. A flower of dahlia 'Jennifer Lynn' sits on the desk, sharing the vase with two perfect golden gloriosa daisies. I continue to wait, and wait, for the dahlias to be fully killed by frost, that they may be dug and stored properly.

The vegetable garden has been stripped down to its cold weather crops: turnips, collards, kale, cabbage, arugula, carrots and chard, and an assortment of cold hardy herbs: parsley, cilantro, dill, and thyme. We shall miss all the summery rest, but there is plenty of food to eat here still.

The soil is resting beneath a fall green manure mix that I got from Johnny's Selected Seeds, containing winter rye, maxum peas, hairy vetch, crimson clover, and ryegrass. Small brown birds, wrens possibly, have been busy pecking at and un-planting what they can of the seed mixture, emitting quiet twitters of pleasure at their good fortune in finding this cache.

Rats, which mercifully kept away during the summer season (they often go after tomatoes and cucumbers) are now burrowing beneath the fence nightly when the dogs are penned up. This morning a swath of carrots lay upon the ground dug up and half-gnawed. Ugh!

Euphorbia - not only your holiday plant
Most well known among the euphorbias is of course the holiday poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. Seasonal neighbors of ours, during a recent Island visit, dug and shared some dark-leaved euphorbia seedlings from their garden, whose foliage shows autumnal tints of reddish-pink.

Since I have seen neither mature plants nor "flowers" (colored bracts really) I am not sure what I have. According to the voluminous American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Perennials (reviewed a couple of columns ago) there are several possibilities. They could be different selections of E. amygdaloides or E. griffithii, among others.

These seedlings mark the first entrance into my garden of the euphorbia clan and I look forward to the contrast next season of their dark foliage amidst all the regular green. What is at the top of the stems could be yellow, chartreuse, or orangey-red. Cultural directions are equally obscured at the moment, but I hope to hedge my bets with a well-drained site in part sun/part shade in my retaining wall bed.

Another perennial euphorbia I have found to be garden-worthy, though one not often seen in garden centers or actual gardens, is Euphorbia corollata, or wild spurge, native to the central United States. This plant is a baby's-breath analogue, or stand-in, for it is covered with masses of delicate, pristine white flowers - again, actually bracts - for what seems like a long season: all summer!

We found it already growing in a garden we work in and called it "the mystery plant" for years, although it was clear it had to be a euphorbia, due to the milky sap. Absolute identification eluded me, as it is not found in most of my perennial references, including, incidentally, the grand encyclopedia. Eventually the garden's owner recognized it in a perennial guide as E. corollata. The plant stands about 30" - 36" tall and about the same across. The stems are slim and wiry, but we usually stake the clump unobtrusively because its site is shaded in the afternoon. The foliage is a healthy-looking bluish-green and neatly oval along the branching stems. Allen Armitage in his "Herbaceous Perennial Plants" (Stipes Publishing, LLC, Champaign, Ill.) recommends rich soil and full sun.

Garden reading - beyond reference books

Among the nice things I have done for myself is subscribing to the garden publication Hortus. This nominally single-subject quarterly (spined like an 8" x 5.5" paperback) gathers much varied gardening information: garden visits by writers with knowledgeable eyes; book reviews; profiles of exemplary plants, gardeners, and garden writers; and pleasing illustrations and artwork. It is the offspring of an intimate group of gardener/publishers who form Bryansground Press, living, gardening and working in Herefordshire, England.

The literateness of Hortus is interesting in surprising ways. I often exclaim to my husband, who usually could care less about garden writing, and read aloud some bit just because it is such good writing. Issue No. 76 contains "In an Irish Garden: Butterstream," whose first three pages are a lively piece about simply being in Ireland - an array of expressions for gradations of rain, appreciation for "what's said around you...the sly hyperboles, the ironies insinuating themselves through the perennially permeable dampcourse of adherence to facts..." and anecdotes by others (e.g., Heinrich Boll) about their travels in Ireland. Eventually the author, Peter Dale, gets the reader to Butterstream, the garden.

Another lengthy profile, in the manner of the New Yorker, is the piece on plantsman and nature writer Donald Culross Peattie. It sent me over to my bookshelf to check which books of his I have. He is the author of the volumes "A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America" and "A Natural History of Western Trees" (which I have) as well as much other writing. Peattie was one of an older generation of writers like Aldo Leopold and May Theilgaard, whose worthwhile work may have wrongfully slipped into obscurity and which now has been brought back, thankfully, into the spotlight by Hortus.

Also in my reading pile is a cool little ecology book called "The Book of Forest and Thicket: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America" by John Eastman (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Penn., 1992, 212 ppg). The text does not limit itself to the title's parameters. Every alphabetically arranged entry describes its subject's odd habits and interesting characteristics, fungal and insect companions, leaf and flower descriptions, diseases, and more. Almost every page has one or more beautiful and accurate illustrations by Amelia Hansen. While there are many books of this sort, this one is very helpful in looking at the Vineyard and I recommend it.