Garden Notes - Wintering issues

By Abigail Higgins - December 6, 2007

Deep drifts of dead leaves and the dark of winter days are with us. It now feels more like proper deer week! Perhaps we are not going gardening today, but shall think instead about a constitutional issue, firewood and woodpiles, how beautiful the grasses are in winter, and frozen earth and mulching.

National Animal Identification System (NAIS) alert

Will imbedding microchips in humans be next? The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) has sent out a letter to livestock animal owners in the commonwealth informing them that they are automatically enrolled in the NAIS program, unless they affirmatively "opt out" by the deadline of Dec. 14. This misguided program seeks eventually to imbed - at owner expense - a microchip in each chicken, hamster, pet pony and beagle nationwide. If you own livestock and have received one of these letters, fish it out of the trash and re-read it. While I cannot tell you what to do, what follows are two arguments, of many, against this insidious, deeply flawed program, raised by organizations formed to counter it.

Grasses in winter beautify; these are pennisetum at the West Tisbury post office. Photo by Susan Safford. Click photo for larger version.

"The idea that people have to take affirmative action to opt out of a so-called voluntary program is contrary to the very concept of the word 'voluntary.' The MDAR's abuse of the voluntary concept is made worse by its confusing deadlines. MDAR's letter was written on Oct. 30, 2007, but says in two different places that you have 45 days and 30 days to opt out. MDAR has since published a letter stating that it will not start uploading data before Dec. 14, 2007."

(So let's get this straight: in order to opt out of a poorly publicized, so-called voluntary program, we must legally notify the MDAR. Setting the murky deadline in the middle of the busy pre-holiday season reminds me of - well, I would just as soon not think what it reminds me of.)

"MDAR is once again using Foot & Mouth, Mad Cow and Avian Influenza as a justification for this program. The UK has had a National Livestock Identification System for some time, and all 3 diseases have happened over there since that ID program started. The governmental response to these outbreaks threatened and killed many more animals than necessary by using an eradication approach, rather than the preventative approach that has been so successful in the USA."

There are two organizations, dedicated to helping protect Massachusetts livestock owners from this harmful invasion of their privacy, which you can contact: and In addition, the Island Grown Initiative has sent a mass informational e-mailing on this issue to its members.

Grasses: winter garden companions

Gardeners are using more grasses all the time, and becoming more sophisticated about their variety, use, and placement. Long after floral effects are finished for the year, grasses remain as sentinels in the garden. Pictured is the pleasant array of grass and shrubbery at the West Tisbury post office parking area. The tawny fountain grass is now a focal point in the planting, nicely complemented by winterberry and viburnum. We probably did not notice them so much in summer.

At first, all grasses look pretty much the same. A gardener's use of grasses, as with all plant material, matures and deepens with time. In my own case, I started out knowing that on Martha's Vineyard one ought to plant Cape Cod mix in a lawn and able to recognize, maybe, a phragmites-or was it Ravenna grass?

Carefully labeled plants in nurseries, garden centers, and public gardens are of enormous help. Modest goals in learning and utilizing a few species that one really does know leads to greater discernment and is a good plan. Especially so since species of the decorative grasses Festuca, Miscanthus and Pennisetum have landed on the Massachusetts invasive plant list, due to their overly-free self-sowing.

At my own place I have become familiar with a couple of native grasses I did not previously know. Carex pensylvanica, Pennsylvania sedge, and Deschampsia flexuosa, common hair grass, are inhabitants of dry oak woodlands. With reference to Lauren Brown's "Grasses, An Identification Guide" and Rick Darke's "Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses" I believe I can reliably identify them now, maybe, at least on the Island. By attempting to describe them, perhaps others will recognize them too.

As is discovered by examining the more or less evergreen leaves and stems, Carex pensylvanica is a sedge, not a grass. The stems of the thin and wiry plants are triangular, an identifying feature of the sedges. In early spring the carex flowers with dark, club-shaped heads about a foot tall that remind one of wispy plantain flower heads. The plant is stoloniferous, and where happy forms large groundcover-like areas of woodsy "grass." I welcome having this plant colonizing and spreading itself on a west-facing slope behind my house.

Nearby to the carex is where the second native grass, Deschampsia flexuosa, grows. Before it blossoms it could very easily be confused with the carex, as it also has long, thin wiry leaves that remain over winter. But the Deschampsia flowers in midsummer and the inflorescences are entirely different looking: tall to about two feet here, very delicate and fine in detail but cloud-like overall, a charming billow that catches and holds the light or dew.

Frozen ground and mulching

When is the best time to do it? The way the season drags on and on causes a lot of hemming and hawing over mulching. It looks as if we are going to get some frozen ground right away this winter, and getting mulch in on top of that is good timing. Many gardeners apply mulch during the summer; often this is actually a slow time in gardens and a good time to mulch. This mulch becomes an additional moisture-holding layer on the bed surface, and eventually freezes up, along with everything else.

But adding mulch later in the year can actually impede the freezing. That is to be avoided. One of the best things for gardens in this hardiness zone is to freeze and to remain frozen. So that is why mulch is added in winter, and then it is working to keep the cold in the ground - none of this freezing, thawing, freezing, please.