The distant hawk's cry
Echoes, amplifies the sound
Of moving water
Sparkling at my feet.
In February people always think that spring is right around the corner. The nice weather provides ample opportunities to touch up applications of deer spray. While spraying I get an excellent view of plant growth minus the distractions of foliage - the structure is all the clearer and should dictate what to do and cuts to make. I am flushing numerous robins, which are roosting in evergreens and feasting on holly berries.
This is a good time to sprinkle the fine seeds of annual poppies on beds where they are to grow. February is also a good time for pruning fruit trees and clematis, and for some types of pruning (crossing branches, suckers.) Avoid pruning spring-flowering plants unless you don't mind losing bloom. Ditto "bleeders," trees like birch, maple, or walnut, whose sap is likely stirring with all the mild temperatures - November or December is a better time.
"A Slice of Organic Life," editor-in-chief Sheherazade Goldsmith, foreword by Alice Waters, DK Books, 352 ppg, 2007, $25.
I had not planned to introduce "A Slice of Organic Life" quite like that (see column). I first learned of it through the provocative quote rendered by a disdainful critic, "The media's obsession with beauty, wealth and fame blights every issue it touches, but none more so than green politics," (George Monbiot) which naturally piqued my curiosity.
Allegedly "blighting green politics" and hindering the issue's being taken seriously, is the editor-in-chief, Sheherazade Goldsmith, a well-connected, beautiful young homemaker, who just happens to be the wife of the very rich Conservative member of [British] parliament and editor of the "Ecologist," Zac Goldsmith. But perhaps it does help to have Alice Waters and a prominent socialite to reach, teach and encourage us in attaining healthier, more self-reliant lifestyles. In my opinion, they and DK Books have performed well.
"A Slice of Organic Life" is organized in three parts, each liberally salted with appealing color photographs. Each part has dozens of sub-headings listed in the table of contents; there is also a good index at the back of the book. (The box on cut flowers is part of a larger unit on growing flowers for cutting. It in turn is a sub-section of the third part, Yard, Community Garden, or Field.)
The first part is headed No Need for a Yard and is aimed at revising lifestyle choices within the home with 28 sub-sections: for example, Grow Salad Leaves in a Window Box; Clean without Harsh Chemicals; or Make and Freeze Baby Foods. The second part is Roof Terrace, Patio, or Tiny Yard. Among its 18 sub-sections on gaining self-reliance despite tight quarters: Keep Urban Honey Bees; Plant Vegetables in a "Square Foot" Garden; or Make Compost in a Small Place. The third and most adventurous part is Yard, Community Garden, or Field and contains 34 sub-sections on outdoor aspects like Use Renewable Energy; Keeping Livestock [of many different kinds]; or Create a Wildlife Pond.
Not as in-depth or radical as it is possible to go in its approach, "A Slice of Organic Life" is what its title promises: helpful and engaging varieties of advice, given in an un-preachy way. My husband initially snorted, "this is for yuppies" but then acknowledged it was level-headed and constructive, a book that could lead readers to take more chances and make more changes. Although my review copy is the American edition, the reader must make small adjustments for the volume's original UK publication. Thankfully measurements are given in inches as well as millimeters.
The point is well made throughout that this volume is about organic lifestyle changes a neophyte, and the rest of us, can make, one step at a time. The purpose of "A Slice of Organic Life" is to present how-tos, lists, hints, advice, and options to those motivated to make them. In typical DK style, the information is presented clearly through excellent graphics and a clean layout.
Some plants prefer to be pruned while in active growth, in order to heal. Magnolias are said to be in that category. Containment pruning (to maintain a certain size or match the growing space available) or pruning to thicken can wait a while until spring. High winds have taken off branches and lodged them in trees and the tops of shrubs. Many of these are already slightly rotten; pull them out and toss in the compost.
With the last spring frost date open to speculation but certain to be earlier, seed planting times are also guesswork. Many are predicting a frost-free date as much as a week sooner than usual.
Incorporate the cutting of branches for indoor forcing into a pruning program. Next year, a bunch of beautiful forsythia or pussy willow forced expressly for your Valentine is an exquisitely suitable way of saying, "I love you" to someone special.
When I received the review copy of "A Slice of Organic Life" (see sidebar) it fell open to page 230, which shows a box, "Facts on cut flowers," containing the following statements.
"A survey of 8,000 Colombian flower workers showed that individuals had been exposed to 127 different pesticides. Twenty percent of these are banned or unregistered in the United States.
"Ecuadorian rose producers typically use six fungicides, four insecticides, three nematicides (used to kill nematodes), and several herbicides on their plants."
It is tricky being critical of the subject of Valentine's Day flowers, or of the U.S. cut flower industry. It is worth $21 billion per annum. (Here is the link to an informative longer piece in the New York Times that includes green cut flower alternatives.)
Is this back-story consistent with what we wish our Valentine's Day bouquets to symbolize? As it slowly dawns on us what our lifestyles entail, people are putting more and more aspects of their lives under the magnifying glass of sustainability. These long distance, international, pesticide-smothered cut flowers are not only beautiful. They may also leave a trail of ecological destruction and human suffering behind them, in their ozone-layer-destroying journey of thousands of miles to the arms of your valentine.
Forsythia is many a gardener's first foray into forcing. Pussy willow is another common Island plant that competes with forsythia as a first-timer's easy forcer. They are easy plants to start with. Look for branches thick with flower buds, which, if you have not done this before you will see, are different from the leaf buds. Plunge them into deep fresh water in buckets or vases and place them where temperatures are on the cool side, like a back entry or mudroom. Change the water often.
My house is small and has few spots for the large "dramatic" arrangement so I tend to cut smaller branches and twigs for forcing. Twiggy flowering quince (Chaenomeles japonica, C. speciosa, C. x superba) is wonderful for forcing; just about any amount, from one stem to a dozen, manages to look stylish or enchanting in any kind of container.
Another favorite is corylopsis, (mine is C. pauciflora, but also C. spicata) with droplets of butter yellow flowers. Even without opening its blossoms the stems of corylopsis are attractive in their arrangement of alternate, bead-like buds in the fine textured branches' sprays.
Perhaps your premises lack flowering material for forcing? Do as Katherine Whiteside suggests in her book, "Forcing, etc," (Workman Publishing, 1999) and look in unlikely places for substitutes, such as staghorn sumac, maple, or various willows. Cut some interestingly twining stems of bittersweet and force those. They sprout regularly spaced, ball-like green buds that eventually leaf out into that familiar pesky vine, but in the meantime are a sculptural conversation piece.
Island Grown Initiative presents "All Things Poultry Workshop Day" at Agricultural Hall, 35 Panhandle Road, West Tisbury, Saturday, Feb. 16, from 9 am to 5 pm. All workshops are free. Please call 508-680-6360 for more information.