Garden Notes

Green is a color too. Floral effects are ephemeral; using plants with foliage interest rounds out the garden. Here, Carya glabra (pignut hickory) with colorful bud scales (1); pulmonaria (2); and Viburnum plicatum f. plicatum ‘Popcorn’ (3). — Susan Safford

May overwhelms, though in a generally welcome way. Perhaps no other month presents so much sensory overload and rapid change of our surroundings. Town and countryside alike undergo the metamorphosis from drabness to green vernality. Trees and shrubs leaf out overnight; plants’ growing points virtually explode out of the soil; long-awaited floral displays burst forth, scattering bud scales on the ground beneath.

One wishes to plead for this ineluctable seasonal onrushing to delay so one can take it all in. Time is too short. The “eyeblink” that is our lives, like the flowering of shadbush, is never more clearly demonstrated than in spring.

Forsythia

Forsythia has largely gone by and may be pruned now, following the general bloom-time rule: if it blooms before June 21, prune immediately after blooming. Examples would be forsythia, weigela, and various viburnums such as V. x burkwoodii and V. carlesii. If it blooms after June 21, pruning should occur in spring, examples being hydrangeas, rose-of-sharon, and clethra.

Recently a question arose about forsythia’s having male and female flowers, and did that account for varying growth habits. Forsythia flowers are perfect and not dioecious (plants whose flowers are either male or female).

Depending on the style of pruning, forsythia may be made to appear either stiffly upright or more gracefully fountain-like, and cultivars, mostly Forsythia x intermedia ‘Spectabalis’ hybrids, differ in respect to their stoutness and habit of growth. Some, the “55 mph” ones, grow strong-colored, bold, and coarse, while others are more refined, wispy, or paler-colored.

While the paler and more strongly colored forsythias each have their value, in my opinion, for hedges it is a mistake to mix them. One or the other is always going to suffer by comparison. Most forsythia branches are capable of tip rooting, similar to brambles. If they are sweeping the ground, prune back now, unless this outspread is desired.

A separate species of forsythia is F. suspensa var. sieboldii, the weeping forsythia. The graceful, arching aspect of garden hybrids is greatly exaggerated in this species, which makes a most wonderful curtain planting in situations such as high retaining walls and walkout basements. It may also be encouraged to climb into trees and other shrubs.

Dry weather

Dry springs are a well-known Island condition and are the norm for this time of year. Spring brush fires start easily and are common, as much outdoor work is being done. Please exercise extra vigilance, especially those of you who smoke, and monitor children’s play in woodland hideouts and forts (if possible).

Container plantings, seedbeds, and seedling plants in the garden dry out quickly. Rainfall may be sporadic, missing the Island entirely, or falling in short, drenching downpours that run off without penetrating.

Flowering trees

As May flowering commences, seemingly sent explicitly to get us out into our gardens, it sets off overwhelming desires for more, and more. “Flower-power” is often expressed in the desire for a flowering tree and is one of the keys to nursery and garden center sales for this month.

It is always time well spent to go out to Polly Hill Arboretum to have a look at what is in bloom now. A big advantage is that exact cultivar information is available for all arboretum specimens, meaning you can eliminate any guesswork and check for eventual height and spread and ideal siting conditions. In many instances, there is more than one cultivar or form to make comparison visually. Then you can go to the garden center or nursery and ask for the exact plant to be bought in for you.

There are many standards or criteria to apply to one’s choices, to be kept in mind, for when the flowers have gone by. While spring-blooming trees are spectacular, if the garden is small, what remains post-flowering needs to pull its weight too. Look at the foliage effects and the general shape, size, and habit of growth of the tree; all plants in the garden benefit from this metric.

What about the tree’s root run? Will it starve the other plants in the garden by shallow or extensive roots? How about eventual size? Will it respond well to containment pruning to keep it within the available space? Is the habit spreading or upright? Will it tolerate sharing a bed with under-planting? Bark interest? Need for sunlight? Moist or dry soil?

Keep in mind that there are choices that provide more than merely one-season interest. That ephemerally blooming shadbush being a case in point, it is also a bird magnet when its fruits ripen (some selections’ fruits even have human culinary uses), supplies fiery autumn color, and has a graceful shape even without leaves.

Public libraries are well stocked with heavily illustrated garden books, which unlike excerpted Internet resources, have been written by authors with fully-fledged points of view, and design or plant experience. The plant-lists these books contain may spark a previously unthought-of plan. Perusing these sources of information before making a purchase will reward you.

In the garden

It is not too late to lift and divide perennials in need of it, but due to the above-mentioned dry conditions, the divisions will need more after-care and attention. Cut them back and place an up-turned bushel basket or cardboard carton over plants after resetting and watering-in. Performing this yearly-recurring garden task earlier in spring enables plants to take off without setback. Make a mental note of what next spring’s division needs will be.

Place stakes so plants may grow around them and make them unobtrusive. Pinch out growth or administer the “Chelsea Chop” to plants such as sedum, phlox, shastas and Montauk daisies. Tidy and tie in climbing roses. Dividing narcissi is another perennially occurring garden task. Locating them is easier before foliage completely withers away.

Gardening responsibilities can seem overwhelming as the season gains speed, but a careful, focused approach pays huge dividends.

Rhubarb has a voracious appetite. — Photo by Susan Safford

Abigail-HigginsAbigail Higgins has been writing Garden Notes since 2002, and she has kept a kitchen garden for about 50 years. A resident of West Tisbury, she is an officer of the M.V. Agricultural Society.

May Day: that phrase, this date, is so meaningful on so many different levels, has so many complexities, that I avert innuendo by merely wishing gardeners a good day in their gardens.

Among other arcane concepts, in bygone days “Mayday” signaled a vessel in distress. My outlook links Mayday, the signal of distress, and gardening. I encourage everyone to grow something — anything — simply to develop habits of independence, productivity, and connection with where you live.

Make spring delectable. Kitchen garden assets include perennial asparagus, rhubarb, and sorrel.”
Make spring delectable. Kitchen garden assets include perennial asparagus, rhubarb, and sorrel.”

Being productive by having a garden means also being resourceful, a word that has gone out of fashion with post-1980s profligacy and galloping consumerism. Around the homeplace, the garden is the spot where many discarded or scavenged items suddenly become useful once again.

Tall, anti-deer fences now protect most Island vegetable gardens. Did you upgrade from storm and screen doors to a combination door at some point in the recent past? If the old wooden screen doors are still somewhere in garage or cellar, they recycle well as garden gates, being usually six feet or taller, or drying racks for onions, garlic, etc.

Clematis

Clematis in flower are arriving at Island garden centers, and they make tempting plants, so it is well to discuss them. As mentioned in a previous column, the pruning of clematis (pronounced “CLEM-a-tis”) is slightly less than straightforward, and when done incorrectly, it produces frustratingly few of the sought-after flowers.

This is due to the differing flowering times of species and hybrids, and how the flower buds are formed. Therefore, for reference, make a permanent note of pot tag information, including cultivar name and pruning group.

My source of information here is the “Clematis” volume of the Good Gardening Guides, by Keith and Carol Fair. The pruning advice is usually assigned by category: Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3.

Group I consists of clematis that flower in spring, which need to be pruned only if space is limited. They flower on their old wood. If pruning is done, it is carried out in early summer when blooming is finished. Examples of this group include C. alpina, C. montana, and C. macropetala.

Group 2 is more complex. It includes clematis that flower on short stems on previous season’s old wood, such as early large-flowered hybrids, the double and semi-double hybrids, and the mid-season hybrids, blooming before the end of June. As they flower on their old wood, pruning is essentially light.

Group 3 is composed of clematis that only flower after the middle of June and well into the autumn. They flower only on new wood and pruning consists of cutting back all the previous year’s growth to just above a strong pair of buds about a foot off the ground. The sweet autumn-flowering clematis (now C. terniflora, but formerly both C. maximowicziana and C. paniculata) that is a garden escapee here on Martha’s Vineyard, is a group 3 plant and may be cut entirely down to the ground in spring without loss of flowers.

Kitchen garden

Most of our vegetables are annual or biennial, sown from seed on a yearly basis, but a kitchen garden worthy of the name contains perennials as well. When Jonathan Bates was talking about the permaculture aspects of his Holyoke garden, their extent impressed me. But when I counted what I have growing inside the fence of my own garden, it was not exactly pathetic either: raspberries, perennial Egyptian onions, strawberries, rhubarb, comfrey, lovage, asparagus, and sorrel.

Some of these plants, while enduring, have voracious appetites and may dwindle away, if their need to be fed is not met. Manure and compost, in good amounts, is what produces robust amounts of rhubarb and asparagus stems. Others, such as strawberries, need renewing after three or four seasons. Selecting the offsets for rooting, and hoiking out the old, mother plants (sounds awfully Oedipal, doesn’t it), accomplishes this.

Cream of sorrel soup

Pleasures of the spring kitchen garden include using sorrel in as many dishes as possible, including Cream of Sorrel soup, most of whose ingredients are produced right at home.

Melt 2 Tbs. butter in a non-reactive saucepan and stir in one small onion, chopped, and one large potato, roughly diced for one minute. Add 3.75 cup chicken stock and one bay leaf; simmer gently for 20 minutes or until vegetables are cooked. Remove bay leaf.

Slice finely 4 ounces of sorrel leaves and place in a food processor. Pour on the contents of the saucepan and whiz until vegetables are puréed and the sorrel is finely chopped.

Return to the saucepan and reheat. Mix two egg yolks with 2/3 cup heavy cream and add to the pan. Cook until thickened, but do not allow to boil. Add 4 sbs. white wine, 2 Tbs. butter, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Vegetable gardening class

Roxanne Kapitan, of Middletown Nursery and Oakleaf Landscape, invites those who are interested in learning how to do their own vegetable gardens to a series of comprehensive gardening classes, “The Backyard Vegetable Garden from Seed to Harvest.” Please call 508-696-7600 for more information.

Attention landscapers

In an era of increasing house density, ornamental hedges and shrubs present some of the best available cover for nesting birds. Bird populations face more threats to their existence than ever, as census counts of migratory species continue to fall each year. Please be aware of nesting birds as you trim bushes and hedges at this time of year. To avoid carnage, the sooner in spring hedges can be trimmed, the better.

Please also take care to secure plastic debris in the backs of trucks: a highly visible percentage of Island roadside trash can be traced back to the Green Industry.

On Earth Day, remember ‘All things are interconnected; Everything goes somewhere; There’s no such thing as a free lunch; Nature bats last.’

Ants help achieve the “carpet of blue” by dispersing the seed of Chionodoxa forbesii. — Photo by Susan Safford
Clear unwanted plants from beds or other ground with a broadfork. Here, the mix of ivy, vinca and campanula has choked tulip and hyacinth bulbs and clumps of phlox.
Clear unwanted plants from beds or other ground with a broadfork. Here, the mix of ivy, vinca and campanula has choked tulip and hyacinth bulbs and clumps of phlox.

Happy Spring. The windiness that has persisted through several seasonal cycles continues, although now it is warm and drying. It is likely to blow entirely new, April Fool’s loads of leaves into recently cleared and raked yards and gardens. At long last, even up-Island, magnolias and daffs are popping, while in-town locations have progressed much further into full-on spring.

The chionodoxa pictured is just a small section of a carpet of blue composed of chionodoxa and Siberian squills. It originated from a handful of bulbs that constituted a nine-year-old’s Christmas present over 30 years ago. Although a few consider the bright blue harbingers of spring to be weedy, most of us like as many as possible, the bluer the better. A curious quality of chionodoxa (and 3,000 other plant species) and one that makes a small handful of bulbs turn into a blue carpet, is myrmecochory, the dispersal of seeds by ants.

Myrmecochory (mir-MEEK-o-cory: one of my favorite words) also accounts for the sporadic appearance of a squill or chionodoxa distant from the original planting. Myrmecochorous plants, according to Wikipedia, produce seeds with elaiosomes (say: e-LYA-soams), factors rich in lipids, amino acids, or other nutrients that are attractive to ants. Ants carry the “food” back to the nest and feed it to larvae, discarding the seed, which is now free to germinate and grow in a new spot.

Earth Day

Spring in every culture is synonymous with rebirth and rejuvenation. Earth Day, April 22, is next week, right after Easter. As you work around your home, your town, and your Island, please remember that Earth is home to all of us, not only to human beings. Damage to any one part has unforeseen consequences for all the rest of creation.

To mark Earth Day, I print the Four Laws of Ecology (usually attributed to Barry Commoner) in the hope that oft repeated becomes oft considered:

“All things are interconnected.

Everything goes somewhere.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Nature bats last.”

Fruit in the garden

The owners of several Island garden centers enjoy sourcing a wide variety of fruiting trees and shrubs, figs included, along with no-brainers such as pears, beach plums, blueberries, and even persimmons. Shop now: by Easter, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day the selection will have dwindled.

Although Sumner Silverman of Peacegate is doing a great job of spreading fig trees throughout Island gardens by making his fig tree prunings freely available, in general there is a bit of head-scratching as to their culture. We lack the know-how of the Italian and Portuguese great-grandparents!

However, some reading reveals that April is the month to prune figs. According to Monty Don, the British garden writer: “Remove about a quarter of the oldest stems along with any growth that is crossing and (if in-ground planted) branches growing out from the wall. Then in August, prune away any overly vigorous outward growth that will shade ripening fruit.” (“Gardening at Longmeadow,” BBC Books.)

Monty Don also recommends some restriction on the roots that will limit the growth of the tree and increase the rate of fruiting. My ‘Brown Turkey’ is in a large nursery pot. It must remain there until I am able to create that “sheltered, south-facing wall” planting site he recommends. On second thought, perhaps I shouldn’t be too dissatisfied with the current situation.

A piece by Will Bonsall on the medlar, in the recent March-May 2014 MOFGA Journal, is encouragement to try these uncommon small fruiting trees. In a category of orchard fruit perhaps similar to quince, which also are not eaten out of hand, the medlar (Mespilus germanicus) requires more detailed treatment — bletting — before being eaten, but has in its favor hardiness (zone 5-8), lack of pests, and deer’s dislike of browsing it.

Extolling the broadfork

It should come as no surprise that working gardeners’ beds become over-run or in need of renovation, just as the proverbial cobbler’s children have non-existent shoes. In this case, the problem is that perennially thuggish beauty with the nodding lavender flowers.

A Jekyll/Hyde question arises: is it Campanula rapunculoides or Adenophora liliifolia? Only an electron microscope knows, and I do not care, but I want it out. It is mixed with English ivy and some Vinca minor. The best thing to do is to take the broadfork to it. It goes down deep where entire clumps of fleshy, white roots hide. The bed became so infested, so fast, that other plants and bulbs are no longer able to thrive.

I have extolled the broadfork in prior columns. If you don’t already use one, it is worth saving up and buying this useful tool. It will save your ashes in a number of situations. Speaking at the Agricultural Hall two weeks ago, Jonathan Bates, one of the team of city growers who live and produce on Holyoke’s “Paradise Lot,” recommended the broadfork as indispensable.

“Paradise Lot” is a formerly compacted, concrete-strewn, trashed one-tenth acre lot, now yielding 20 percent of the food of two families. It was transformed in part through use of the Meadow Creature broadfork. (Jonathan was dismissive of broadforks with wooden handles, such as — sigh — the one I have.) All steel, the Meadow Creature heavy-duty fork is made on Vashon Island, Washington, and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Check it out, as well as the company’s cider presses, at meadowcreature.com. There are other broadfork makers; just go online for “broadforks.”

This morning I have been employing mine to: restrain the wandering stoloniferous roots of raspberries in the vegetable garden; attempt a clearance of English ivy and above-mentioned nuisance, Campanula rapunculoides; and perform simple soil aeration in the vegetable garden prior to planting.

Pomegranate, amaryllis, and geraniums brighten an indoor garden, while awaiting spring. — Photo by Susan Safford

Abigail-HigginsAbigail Higgins has been writing Garden Notes since 2002, and she has kept a kitchen garden for about 50 years. A resident of West Tisbury, she is an officer of the M.V. Agricultural Society.

Gardeners are eager to immerse in all spring work, but the forecast calls for extended cold and wintrier than normal spring conditions.

Condolences to the family of Donald Mills Jr. of Hillside Farm. It is sad saying, “rest in peace,” because he was a good guy, gone far too young. Donnie was one of the most modest members of the often colorful Island agricultural community, with such a self-deprecating manner that many Island residents perhaps did not know him. Nonetheless, for those who did, the laconic and humble Donnie always had a pithy or amused observation to make, whether on the struggles of Island farming or the crazy greater world at large.

False starts, cold temps

Crocus ancyrensis, closed against the rain. We have waited so long for you.
Crocus ancyrensis, closed against the rain. We have waited so long for you.

There was solace in pricking out lettuce seedlings indoors while a blizzard thrummed outside, although I’d have rather been working in the garden. Island gardeners are eager to immerse in all spring work with headlong energy, rather than waiting. However, it would be wise to practice restraint since the national weather service’s seasonal forecast calls for extended cold and wintrier than normal spring conditions.

Ahhh, color.
Ahhh, color.

There will be many broken twigs and branches from wind, ice, and snow loads; damage will continue to become apparent as plants come into growth. Pruning and general clean-up is integral to spring garden maintenance and of that, clean-up and pruning the sub-shrub category of blooming plants constitutes a large part. Hydrangeas, Montauk daisies, caryopteris, potentilla, Rosa rugosa, perennial herbs such as lavenders and salvias, and buddleia: these all need tending.

Think twice about pruning them this year and do not berate yourself for putting it off if more freezes or snows threaten.

The above-mentioned are sub-shrubs being neither “woody” nor “herbaceous.” They derive a certain amount of their ability to survive in this hardiness zone from the cold protection afforded by their old wood. Remove the old wood prematurely through seasonal clean-up, and cold shock may cause the loss of swollen buds protected by it. In some cases, the entire plant may die from it. Use your judgment, depending on Island location and exposure of individual sites.

Big to-do list

The recent weather conditions have created for many a backlog of garden tasks. What might have been done in March will now mostly take place in April. In no particular order of importance, here are suggested tasks:

  • Dig and stew dandelions, root and top, from untreated lawns and gardens. The traditional tea is an excellent spring tonic, with kidney and liver cleansing effects; roots lose potency upon flowering.
  • Start tuberous begonias if you have not already done so.
  • Prune Hydrangea paniculata back to lowest pair of strong buds on last season’s growth, likewise H. arborescens (‘Annabelle’s and similar).
  • Clean up winter trash and the remains of last year’s annuals and perennials. Cut back herbaceous perennials and divide.
  • Prune shrub roses.
  • Indoor plants (in photo: amaryllis, pomegranate, and pelargonium): feed every two weeks at half-dilution and spray with insecticidal soap. Repot any needing it with fresh potting mix before moving outside in warm weather.
  • When soil reaches 41°F, cold-hardy vegetables such as broad beans, carrots, lettuce, and peas may be planted, but may need further protection of floating row covers.
  • Prune canes of Rosa rugosa back to a strong bud, or about 12 inches.
  • Top-dress evergreen and deciduous trees with HollyTone, TreeTone, ProGro, or ProHolly.
  • Henbit, spitting cress, and chickweed are up and growing in beds and vegetable gardens. Weed them out while young and before flowering (latter two make good salad greens if harvested from untreated soils).
  • Add organic matter to ornamental and vegetable garden soils, but refrain from digging prematurely, until drying-out has occurred (working sodden soil destroys structure and creates compaction).
  • Cut back ornamental grasses.
  • Apply corn gluten (10-0-0) as a weed/crabgrass pre-emergent.
  •  Last call for spraying with lime sulphur oil mix: fruit and other small trees, shrubs, roses, to control mites, scale, leaf diseases. Ideal conditions for applying occur when air temperatures are above 40° for a 24-hour period, with no rain in the forecast. Do not spray if you see any leaf growth, as this will burn the foliage. (If bought separately, both sprays can be mixed in the same tank; mix at recommended rates.)
  • Spray deer repellant on susceptible plants, such as fruit trees, lilac buds, daylilies, and tulip shoots.
  • Lawn mower maintenance: sharpen blades, change oil and air cleaner, and clean.
  • Shear groundcovers such as ivy, epimedium, ceratostigma, and liriope.

Clematis care

Despite the vagaries of the weather, by now clematis should have been cut back. The method, however, depends upon which category your clematis plants belong in (a complex discussion in its own right and worthy of a separate column). Save pot-tags or record name of cultivars planted; books and the internet supply lots of information on clematis categories if you know the cultivar name.

Group 1: prune right after flowering. Group 2: large flowered hybrids, pruned variously. Group 3: (includes sweet autumn clematis) flower on new wood produced in the current year; prune back severely every year in late winter, when they are completely dormant, to about 12 – 14 inches.

Ag Society news

On Sunday, April 6 at 1 pm, M.V. Agricultural Society presents Jonathan Bates with “Paradise Lot, Growing an Edible Garden Oasis.” Presentation is free and open to the public, and will constitute April’s Homegrown meeting. Along with Eric Toensmeier (and their families), Jonathan Bates has been demonstrating the self-sufficient, permaculture lifestyle on Paradise Lot, formerly a junked-up urban yard in beautiful rust-belt Holyoke. For more information about Jonathan Bates, please go to www.foodforestfarm.com.

On Sunday, April 13 at 12 noon, MVAS presents Lamb-O-Rama, a Palm Sunday noon meal (adults $12, children $7, tickets at the door) that complements the Farm Institute’s April 12 Sheepapalooza, a “celebration of all things sheep,” and the regular Sunday get-together of the Spinners & Weavers.

Snowdrops. — File Photo by Susan Safford

It is clear that a large number of Island residents are yearning for small signs that spring is nigh. If “March comes in like a lion,” the weather aphorism says expectantly, “it goes out like a lamb;” although this winter everything seems subject to change and extreme variability.

Sit tight: soon enough, other different weather patterns will give cause to complain. In the meantime we find cheer where we may, in the single eranthis beaming its tiny yellow face upwards toward the sun at Fella’s, or in some battered snowdrops.

It certainly is invigorating to be sweeping March snow off walkways and porches, elevating the heart rate and getting fresh air, particularly when one needs inspiration for writing a garden column. There isn’t much other activity currently, apart from taking refuge in catalogues and web sites, preferably in full color.

Daydreaming amidst the nursery and seed catalogues is an acceptable pastime and, as a snow-bound city friend put it, “thinking about the vegetable garden is restorative.” If we were in the South, camellias would be in bloom and we could attend the camellia show at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As it is, the 35th anniversary 2014 Camellia Forest (www.camforest.com) catalogue is out and will have to suffice. Illustrated with color photographs of camellia flowers, it contains a wide selection from the five different groups of camellias, including many Camellia Forest introductions, as well as an interesting selection of other nursery material, deciduous and evergreen. According to proprietor David Parks, a good cold-hardy collection for Island gardens would be ‘Autumn Spirit,’ ‘Survivor,’ ‘April Rose,’ and ‘April Remembered.’

The catalogue from Plant Delights (www.plantdelights.com) has got to be one of the more entertaining catalogue reads, an obligation the nursery’s owner, Tony Avent, seems to take up as raunchily as he does his plant hunting and growing seriously. The nursery is known for its array of hostas, agaves, and yuccas (as well as those gross aroids), but there is much, much more to lust after besides these.

Plant Delights Nursery catalogue features several user-friendly features, such as the hosta comparison pages, and particularly the USDA Hardiness Information and 2012 Zone Map [revised] on the back pages. For example, “Research has indicated that a fall application of a high potassium fertilizer (assuming the plants or soils are deficient) aids in winter survivability of many plants” — who knew? The island of Martha’s Vineyard is USDA hardiness zone 7a.

Niche Garden’s (www.NicheGardens.com) catalogue in contrast seems prim and modest but nonetheless sports a good selection of interesting plant material. Wild flowers, natives, perennials, such as a wide collection of Baptisias (very at home on the Vineyard), and good shrubs, vines, and trees are items to search out at Niche Gardens.

The catalogue of Select Seeds (www.selectseeds.com) contains “rare, heirloom, choice” seeds and plants of ornamentals and herbs. Among items that caught my eye are Lavandula x intermedia ‘Phenomenal,’ Digiplexis ‘Illumination Flame,’ Petunias P. exserta and P. ‘African Sunset,’ a good selection of annual poppies (sow ASAP), and a wide selection of coleus, pelargonium, and much, much more.

Seed questions

In discussing seeds and seed sowing, many terms are casually thrown around that may be confusing. The Home Garden Seed Association (www.ezfromseed.org) has helpfully put together a question and answer sheet that I attempt to condense and paraphrase here.

What is an heirloom seed variety? An heirloom is an open pollinated variety that has been in cultivation for 50 years or more and is successful enough to have persisted. Are heirlooms tastier and easier to grow? It depends: yes, if grown in conditions similar to those the variety originated in; no, not necessarily if transferred far from their origins.

What is a hybrid seed variety? It is a time-tested breeding method known as cross-pollination, also occurring naturally, where pollen from different parent species within a genus is utilized to express desirable qualities from each. The control and selection needed to ensure purity make hybrid seed more expensive than open-pollinated varieties. Can you plant seeds saved from hybrid plants? Yes, the seeds are viable but will not necessarily express exactly the qualities of the hybrid from which they come.

What is an open-pollinated seed variety? Pollen must be transferred from flowers’ male parts to female parts for seeds to form. Some plants grow “perfect” flowers, containing male and female parts, where pollination occurs with ease. Others grow separate male and female flowers (even on separate plants), called “imperfect,” which require transfer by pollinating insects or wind. For open pollinated seeds to come true and prevent accidental cross-pollination, crop separation and isolation are employed in growing the seed crop, particularly important with melons and squash.

How can we tell if purchased seed is organic? Look for the USDA Organic symbol. Can our gardens be organic if we don’t use certified Organic seeds? Yes. Maintain healthy soil, follow effective organic gardening techniques, and use Certified Organic fertilizers, if necessary.

In the garden

Grapevines need to be pruned when the plant is dormant. If pruning is put off too late, the sap rises and they bleed. Cut off last year’s canes, which fruited, and tie down the new ones, which have grown but not fruited. Establish the plant’s framework. Once established, prune the laterals (side branches) back to one or two buds.

Likewise, wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) and raspberry canes may be pruned now. Wineberries and summer-bearing raspberries produce fruit on canes that grew last summer; leave those. All canes of ever-bearing raspberries are simply cut back hard, across the board. These three are invasive: if they have spread into undesirable areas, dig them and replant carefully to enlarge the patch.

Polly Hill Arboretum

Winter Walk, Saturday, March 8. Meet at the visitor center at 10 am and dress for the weather.

Holly Hat Racking Demo, Saturday, March 15, 10 am.

daffodills
Somewhere under all that snow, there are daffodils. — File photo by Steve Myrick

I risk provoking ire when I mutter “weather weenies,” but let’s get a grip: we used to have winters like this every winter. Snow: we get it, we get rid of it — and then we get some more. From the gardener’s viewpoint snow is a good thing. “Poor man’s fertilizer” and an insulating layer are two benefits, and the accompanying cold is welcome as a disinfecting control for soil-borne and insect organisms.

Islanders are eager for spring, the above notwithstanding. Pre-breeding season birdsong has begun; the woods, otherwise quiet and shrouded in cold and snow, are full of it. It is an early sign, as is the flowing of springs and streams, freed from the stasis of winter, and the coloring of twig tips.

Groundhog Day (February 2) has been observed across the northern hemisphere as Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day, Candelmas, and others, since long before recorded history and religion. Observing the timing of the seasons has been crucial to survival over the ages, especially to people living more intimately and entangled with nature than we are.

Imagine wintering over as an early human 900,000 years ago, as I attempted to after reading a “science/environment” item in the news recently.

Erosion from storms in May 2013 had revealed human footprints in ancient sediments along the Norfolk seacoast of Britain, estimated to be between 850,000 to 950,000 years old. They were dated from the overlying sedimentary layers and glacial deposits and from the fossil remains of extinct animals.

Paleo-archeologists, working flat-out between tides, photographed and took casts of the prints before the waves erased them.

These are the oldest human traces ever found outside of Africa; they date to a time when it is thought the British Isles were connected to chilly northern Europe by a now-vanished land bridge. In an existence and world almost impossible to imagine today, the small party of adults and children left their footprints in what was once a muddy estuary.

In a cold climate, they walked through a mysterious landscape vastly different from today’s: “a river valley grazed by mammoths, hippos, and rhinoceros” (press release, BBC). We can only imagine how welcome the coming of spring was like for these unknown individuals.

More winter interest: green

In the previous Garden Notes I wrote about perking things up in the winter garden by adding shrubs with brightly colored stems, but if you are the understated type, you might wish merely for more green.

Laurel-3.jpgDue to warming winters an array of note-worthy plants, previously thought to be marginally hardy on the Island, appears to repay the risk. The small list here is of interesting “laurel-like” evergreens. Use the Plant Lust web site, http://plantlust.com/, (“56 plant catalogs in a single search”), to source less common plants.

Distylium, in the Hamamelidaceae (sometimes known as winter-hazel, or evergreen witch-hazel) an attractive broadleaved evergreen with about ten species native to China, is beginning to create a stir in this country. Two species at least are available from U. S. suppliers.

D. racemosum is a slow-growing, upright shrub to small tree with lustrous elliptical foliage. It prefers moist, acidic soil in partially shaded, sheltered woodland, with some protection from strong winds. Due to its slow growth rate (8”) it seems like a good choice for more confined sites, or small gardens. The “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” lists D. racemosum’s eventual height at something over ten feet; compact selections are available.

D. myricoides is a spreading shrub of mounding habit suitable for low hedges, foundation planting, or mixed beds. The arrangement of lustrous blue-green leaves upon the arching branches is said to have great visual appeal. D. myricoides has a very slow growth rate too.

I have previously mentioned Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (sweet or Christmas box), thought to be the most cold-hardy sarcococca, in this column. It makes a creeping groundcover, with inconspicuous, fragrant flowers in early spring. S. confusa, a slightly taller and less hardy species thought to be even more fragrant, is a good substitute for the sometimes funereal cherry laurel. It is more cold-hardy than it is given credit for, 6A-9B.

Danae racemosa  (Alexandrian laurel) is “an elegant, refined… slow-suckering shrub that grows 2 to 4’ high and wide in shady spots with even moisture. The habit is gracefully arching…glossy green leaves are handsome throughout the year.” (Dirr) The fleshy orange-red fruits persist into winter and are attractive. Hardy from 6A-9B.

In the garden

Check for damaged branches, particularly on evergreen plants such as hollies and inkberries, prone to holding onto their snow and ice loads, maybe because they are often planted in shaded locations on north sides of buildings. Trim away as cleanly as possible and remember to make undercuts on larger branches.

Indoors

It is time to gear up for seed sowing and acquiring supplies – trays, modules, etc. – especially if one plans to shop locally, because selection will suddenly diminish.

However, check cultural directions on packets for time to plant. It is difficult to maintain plants that grow over-large before outdoor planting time arrives, and plant quality diminishes if they are kept overlong in modules.

Avoid seeding in ordinary soil, which carries many pathogens, but instead purchase a fine-textured seed-starting mix that holds moisture and promotes good root development. For organic vegetables, Vermont Compost’s Fort Vee works well as a seed-starting mix.

Shallow flower pots, pie pans, and trays of various sorts are all good for starting small seedlings, which are then transferred individually into their own separate modules. Larger seeds may be sown directly into modules, and those with longer roots do well in Rootrainers, deeper cells, or four-inch plastic pots. Fine seeds as a rule are sown at or near the surface, but all others are covered enough to retain the moisture needed to germinate. Provide light and warmth, preferably from below.

— Photo by Susan Safford

While shades of brown, and grey, and white snow, are subtly — truly — beautiful in nature, one can revel in them for only so long. They make a drab garden.

In my imagination I create a mass planting, a wonderful grouping of shrubs with brightly colored stems, in a spot where the afternoon winter sun strikes my garden. When I say brightly colored, are you aware that there is a plant category that supplies almost garish winter color, as if spray-painted with acrylic paints?

But what are they? Since I have not actually planted them, but only sensed their lack, there are several possibilities, all candidates for alleviating the winter blahs. The young growth of various willow and shrub dogwood cultivars supplies color ranging from citron through burgundy. To maximize it, cut them back hard in spring.

Selections from the willow, Salix alba, are used this way: S. alba ‘Britzensis’ (orange to red); ‘Tristis’ (golden, weeping); and ‘Vitellina’ (egg-yolk yellow). Several similar species of dogwood, are the source of glowing color.

Cornus alba, Tatarian dogwood, has many selections with red winter color in young stems, such as ‘Sibirica.’ C. sanguinea, the bloodtwig dogwood, includes ‘Winter Flame’ (apricot-coral); ‘Atrosanguinea’ (deep red); ‘Viridissima’ (yellow-green). Among C. sericea are the redosier dogwood, ‘Arctic Fire’ (compact apricot-coral); ‘Flaviramea’ (yellow); and ‘Cardinal’ (bright red).

Fiery colors are the most unmistakable way to supply winter interest in gardens, but do not overlook white or pale-stemmed plants such as birches and various brambles. Planted against the background of dark broadleaf evergreens, they too provide attractive variety.

“Abundance Doesn’t Mean Health”

The vociferous arguments Fred Fisher and I used to have when I worked for him in the Nip ’n’ Tuck dairy often come to mind. Fred was a fan of the Nixon administration’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, who is credited with the cheap food policies that have been so injurious to farming and health in this country.

Although I myself was very influenced by Fred, one point I could never concede was when he would insist Americans were the best-nourished people on earth. Even as he damned “the American housewives [who] buy store milk, coffee whitener, and margarine,” he could not make the connection that ultimately it was Butz’s farm subsidies that were pushing margarine down Americans’ throats and sealing the fate of family farms.

New York Times food writer Mark Bittmann’s recent op-ed piece,  “Abundance Doesn’t Mean Health,” contains links and facts that confirm today’s woeful state of American food and nutrition. It is worth reading and makes the case for growing all you can and supporting organic and local agriculture to the extent your food budget allows.

“…the obesity-diabetes epidemic afflicts predominantly people on the low end of the income scale…” Bittmann writes. “With a lack of money comes either not enough food or so-called empty calories, calories that put on pounds but do not nourish.”

However, some people do eat very well in the United States; not all of them have money. Some of them have gardens.

Along with straightening up and cleaning growing spaces, it is time to survey what is on hand in the seed department. This represents the true girding-up for the coming gardening year.

Most gardeners discover that they have seed duplicates in certain vegetables, based on what they really like to grow, or notions of stocking up, or just plain inexplicable, how-did-that-happen? If this is you, please share them in your town library, work place, or other meet-up spot, along with surplus catalogues, while they are still viable.

In the Garden

I am arriving at the time in life when a full month to recuperate after the holidays does not seem unreasonable. There is not much to do or look at in the garden in January, but once it is past I am always cheered by the prospect of February. It is sunnier and more spring-like, the light has turned, and better days are just around the corner.

We experienced some seriously low temps in the past month, enough to make one chortle about its effects on ticks, spores, soil-borne diseases, and hemlock woolly adelgids. From the single digits to the 50s and back again is a big shift for a live plant to accommodate, one that layers of mulch can help buffer — three to four inches is considered effective. Up-and-down weather, however, such as the past month’s, constitutes one of the worst burdens of being a plant in a Vineyard garden, otherwise a fairly easy existence.

Under low-light conditions (around the winter solstice), most houseplants are semi-dormant and cannot utilize fertilization. While I have been giving limited water for a couple of weeks already, I wait until early February to resume fertilization.

With stronger light, and resulting new growth, there will inevitably be an outbreak of pests: typically white fly, aphids, or scale. This is usually precipitated, in my set-up, by heat build-up and inadequate ventilation. Better ventilation and repeat applications of insecticidal soap or horticultural oil usually keep things under control.

With the month of February come warm spells that are suitable for spraying orchard fruit trees with horticultural oil to control insect pests. Generally, a temperature of 40°F over a 24-hour period supplies the margin of safety. Combining hort oils with copper compounds, such as Liqui-Cop, is recommended for controlling peach leaf curl. Spray several times, ideally, before buds begin to swell.

Most ornamental grasses are looking bent and broken. They will not come back up and may be cut back to the base. In fact, the sooner the better: we often find signs of rodent damage to crowns when we cut them back.

Coming up

Polly Hill Arboretum Winter walk, Saturday, February 8, 10 am.

Homegrown

Sunday February 16, 3–5 pm. (Submit potato and onion orders by 2/8.)

Known and loved for their clown faces, barn owls on the Vineyard have fared poorly this winter. — File Photo by Ralph Stewart

High mortality among juvenile barn owls is causing concern among the Island birding community. Over the years much effort has been expended upon re-establishing the formerly widespread, beloved owls with quixotic clown faces. On the Vineyard in more rural times the many barns, haylofts, and farm outbuildings provided not only nesting sites but also prey.

So far, post-mortem examinations have shown that the deceased Vineyard animals died without food in their stomachs, seemingly ruling out rodenticide or disease as a cause of death. While there are several possible explanations, including the irruption of snowy owls into our lower latitudes, these will be dealt with at greater length by our knowledgeable Island bird experts.

My interest in the barn owl deaths is on behalf of many gardeners who have been plagued to exasperation by rampant numbers of voles in their gardens. Preferable by far is rodent control by natural means, in which birds of prey, including owls of all species, play a paramount role.

barn owl 1.jpgPreferable by far is rodent control by natural means, in which birds of prey, including owls of all species, play a paramount role. Suzan Bellincampi of Felix Neck directed my attention to an article titled “Poisons Used to Kill Rodents Have Safer Alternatives” by Ted Williams in the January-February 2013 issue of

Audubon Magazine (audubonmagazine.org) detailing the pervasive ecosystem effects of, and potential harm posed by, the use of second-generation rodenticides.

At this point I must admit to my use of rodent bait packs in my efforts to limit rodent activity here at our place, where the number of linear feet of stonewall, retaining the slope of the property, provides superb cover for several different rodent species.

Since I keep chickens, I never previously gave rodent control a whole lot of thought. I was focused on eliminating vermin, not on the long-range effects on my local ecosystem. But we are also rich here in owls, alas — no coincidence when there is good habitat and a food-source for rodents — so, am I poisoning them?

It was thought the target rodents were becoming resistant to warfarin, the first-generation product. “Both first- and second-generation rodenticides prevent blood from clotting by inhibiting vitamin K, though the second-generation products build to higher concentrations in rodents and are therefore more lethal to anything that eats them.”

Furthermore, according to the Audubon article, in 2011 Maureen Murray, a researcher, “found rodenticides in 86 percent of the raptor livers she examined, and all but one contained brodifacoum, especially deadly to birds…. In California, the only state other than New York that has looked carefully, rodenticides showed up in 79 percent of fishers (one fisher even transferred poisons to her kit via her milk), 78 percent of mountain lions, 84 percent of San Joaquin kit foxes, and, in San Diego County, 92 percent of raptors.”

The rodenticides will eventually lose their effectiveness as the many generations that rats, mice, voles, and chipmunks are capable of speedily producing become resistant. Their predators, such as our owls and, yes, our chicken-killing hawks, must remain viable as agents of natural control. If we kill them off we will never maintain any degree of viable natural rodent control.

 

In the Garden

Snapshot of January since New Year’s: snow, dramatic rainfall in multiples of inches, spikes of high and low temperatures, lovely little January thaw. The time of sunrise finally peaked after the New Year at 7:16 am and is now regressing, by a minute every three days or so, until currently it is 7:09 am. In contrast, the sunset has been getting later since a few days before the solstice and is currently at 4:50 pm.

Buds are visibly swelling. The witch hazels began to bloom in the week of January 12. The tips of narcissi bulbs are showing; but before spring arrives there is likely to be much more wintry weather in store for us. Let’s not get too excited.

During spells of nice weather, get outdoors and have a look around. Processes of nature are underway, even if we prefer to remain inside ruminating upon seed catalogues. Dogwood — the native one, Cornus florida — displays prominent buds swelling daily, as do other flowering shrubs and trees, such as swamp maple (Acer rubrum), corylopsis, and honeysuckles.

However, do not be tempted to commence routine pruning associated with spring clean-up. Climate change and possible average warming are not likely to proceed in a smoothly upward-sloping trajectory, but rather in spikes and troughs, fits and starts. The term “climate change” itself connotes instability, in patterns with which we are familiar, or in changes that are unexpected.

Cold snaps or warming spells can be equally stressful to plants once they have settled into their winter routine. The old wood and dead herbaceous matter on sub-shrubs and perennials confers some protection against extreme fluctuations in weather conditions, such as freeze/thaw cycles. Removing it prematurely also removes that protective function. (Storm or ice breakage may be tidied up any time it is noticed.)

Blueberry twigs are reddening and the colorful plants, of great interest in the winter landscape, may be pruned now. Look to remove old, gnarled wood and to promote vigorous, reddish growth loaded with fat flower buds. Dried blood is one of the best fertilizers for blueberries. The old wood of Vaccinium corymbosum is hard and dense: good, clean cuts are best made with freshly sharpened pruning tools.

 

Homegrown

Homegrown met Sunday. Among topics discussed were soil testing and onion/leek seeding — do both now — and the establishment of a local seed library. Awareness of the importance of the native plant biome and an enduring food-crop germplasm collection is reaching new levels. A seed library is an interesting project likely to become a reality on the Island in the near future, with the possibility of a seed-school workshop being conducted in spring. The Homegrown group also looks forward to its establishing a Homegrown members’ forum (blog). Coming right up is the deadline for the Homegrown group potato/onion order, February 6.

New-fallen snow is beautiful, but it can hide potential hazards. Caution and patience recommended. — Photo by Susan Safford

Sad farewells to two respected members of our community, taken too soon, and deepest condolences to their families, bereft at the bleakest time of year. Howard Wall did his landscaping work with pride and enduring dependability, and encountering him was always a pleasure. While the rest of us whine about our petty annoyances, Howard engaged with mortal illness in the most resolute and manly way, an admirable example of dealing with adversity. A longtime client of Howard’s speaks for many: “I will find it so hard to be in Chilmark and not see him.”

John Varkonda’s sudden death leaves an enormous void within a young family and at the State Forest he shepherded and tended for 26 years. I knew him only impersonally through his highly visible role as the superintendent, but to those who worked with him, he left a deep impression.

“John represented the consummate professional, knowledgeable, hardworking, and always willing to accommodate questions and make an extra effort to facilitate our botanical studies,” said Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum. “It is going to be very hard to replace someone like John. However, it is critical that the Island and regional community continue to take value in what I believe is the conservation gem of the Island.”

Winter: polar vortex

Some feel that part of winter’s function in northern climates is to serve up rest and quietude. That is certainly true in the garden, where the action has retreated below the soil surface. But let’s throw a little New England fortitude in there for good measure, because adverse conditions create toughness in the plants grown here, just as winter keeps people “grown here” on their toes.

Winter storms, although often over-hyped, interfere with mundane comings and goings and menial tasks. We are required to slow down. The account of the Island youths’ survival of a misstep at Tuckerman Ravine last week was fascinating to piece together; that the tale concluded relatively auspiciously is a huge relief. It drives home that winter plus one mistake can equal tragedy, even in familiar settings such as right here at home on the Island.

Much of daily life becomes that little bit harder, slightly more taxing — maybe even a little dangerous, if one’s attention wanders. Take it slow and steady and remember that a winter’s day is unlike a summer one. Driving an all-wheel-drive vehicle does not protect from being struck by another incompetent driver! Who needs a fender-bender stemming from an unnecessary errand? Eliminate trifling car trips when conditions are awful: let the kids take the school bus.

Keep a little more food in the pantry and fridge, and extra bread in the freezer. If you are feeding the birds, stock up on bird food. It is beyond cruel to get your local flock depending upon you and to then discontinue for any reason. A broom kept by the kitchen door is handy for brushing off snowy boots and the snow accumulations that break broadleaf evergreen shrubs with their weight.

Keep a shovel along with a dry bucket of ash and a bucket of sand on hand in an easily reached, frost-free location. As with summer tropical storms, drawing some water into jugs and buckets is a good idea, if ice storms/power outages are forecast.

Having made a few contingency plans, you are ready to let winter serve up that rest and quietude. While much of this seems obvious, instances of winter foolishness are always astounding to hear about. A word to the wise is sufficient (and a torrent of words is useless to those who are not).

At the feeder

I had the belated although apparently successful idea of hanging my bird feeders from the kitchen porch, instead of in thicket-y shrubs and holly trees as I have previously. The avian array is pretty much the usual for feeders stocked only with sunflower seed and beef suet: nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, paired cardinals, downy and hairy woodpeckers, paired red-bellied woodpeckers, paired bluejays, white-throated and song sparrows, a solitary wren — with juncos, a dove, and the occasional hen picking up the spill on the ground.

However, a strongly supportive winter environment for birds presages one that is equally rich in bird life during the active gardening season. In terms of ecosystem services, birds work for us for free in our gardens and deliver the goods, in insect control, in return for enjoying our premises.

The protection of the porch seems to have upped the traffic at the feeders and now, from morning until dark, there is a constant flutter of activity at the feeders (all with improved observation from indoors, a side benefit). Gauging by the rates of consumption, more birds are feeding more often. It took a long time for this seemingly minor improvement to occur to me — and it makes one wonder, how many other small improvements of home and garden are staring everyone in the face?

For 2014

Catalogues are here, and to top it off, Swan Island Dahlias arrived today! So begins the season of Technicolor sensory overload, when all is hyperbole and potential. At this point, all I want in my garden is sweet peas, for their eye-candy images and descriptions in the various catalogues are irresistible.

SBS is stocking its racks with seeds from various suppliers for 2014.

On the negative side, garden publications are beginning to mention the effect of proposed European Union (EU) regulations governing plant materials’ registration, and how these would constitute a narrowing of choice in garden seeds and plants that would eventually affect U.S. gardeners. Although American gardeners have no say in the matter, British gardeners are being urged to voice their dire disapproval over the egregious burden the proposed regulations would impose upon the British nursery industry, which is globally unique in the depth and breadth of plant material produced.

Polly Hill Arboretum

January winter walk: on Saturday the 11th, join Arboretum staff to explore the grounds in the “off-season.” Tours are at 10 am and run for a little over an hour. Meet at the Visitor Center and dress for the weather. Tours are free, but donations are always welcome.

Homegrown

Homegrown meets Sunday, January 19, at the Agricultural Hall , 3—5 pm, to discuss what we learned from the NOFA Winter Conference.

A Vineyard garden in winter repose. — File photo by Susan Safford

The sun slows, dims, and hangs at hiatus, low in the December sky. The old year comes to a close and the age-old holy days of winter solstice engulf us. Introspection, rituals, music and poetry arrive with the season. They are the parts of us where we truly live, the things that are enduring, which make life rich and precious. While our year contains fifty-two weeks, these few, the holidays, are when we really think about things, our direction, “our hopes and fears of all the years….”

Many perceive upon reflection that everything that is necessary for life to succeed (indeed our very lives themselves) is a gift from the universe we now inhabit. The rest, as a famous personage (Gianni Agnelli, Italian industrialist and jet setter) once said of his material good fortune — youth, looks, health, fame, money — “It’s all on loan, all of it.”

Act locally

In this column I have a small platform from which I am able to reach many more in our community than those I know personally. I am able to share my views on gardening and similar aspects of living on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Today I ask all of us to cultivate our Island “garden” and work to practice the idea that “charity begins at home.” Why should the Heifer International model (“teach a man to fish” philosophy) apply only overseas, when there are families and many children on Martha’s Vineyard whose nutrition is inadequate?

In 2014 Island town governments could develop a comprehensive allotment garden plan to make vegetable garden space available to town dwellers and renters.

We could develop a food pantry model that enabled fresh or local foods to be incorporated into the groceries offered, instead of only shelf-life foodstuffs.

We could work more effectively and consistently to bring real Island-wide recycling and composting here.

We could act protectively for the world we inhabit and locally restrict the use of herbicides and pesticides that have a detrimental effect on our wild-grown meats, seafoods and plants, and eventually, on ourselves.

While basic necessities are in short supply, right here, there is a kind of willful blindness in donating to faraway places and institutions. Please take this time of year and look around you, at your town, at your various communities of shared interests, and at your local charities. Turn these “coulds” into “cans” to strengthen our Island into the model of a vibrant community.

In the garden

Beds and foundation plantings adjacent to walks and driveways will appreciate a substance other than salt for ice control. It is not only the disfiguring burns on the foliage that are problematic but also the persistent soil contamination, which is more long-term and harder to fix. Alternatives to sodium products include sawdust, sand, and fireplace ashes.

Keep deer spray current, or erect netting. Deer are coming closer to houses in search of forage such as yew, rhododendron and azalea, and even English ivy and bare twigs of hydrangea. Three “unpaid pruners” were working away at yew bushes not 15 feet from where my husband and I watched yesterday morning. The intermittent mild days that occur at this time of year are good opportunities for deer spraying, and also for horticultural oil application against insects such as scale on hollies or hemlock woolly adelgid.

The usual cautions pertain to indoor Christmas trees, both living and cut, and to holiday plants. Houses are dry and leach the moisture right out of living tissues. Check water level in the tree stand reservoir daily (pets seem to prefer tree-stand water to other sources). Keep live root balls damp; plan to plant outside ASAP into a pre-dug planting hole. Water cyclamen and amaryllis from the bottom and then empty saucers. Check paperwhites’ water levels daily, too. Keep citrus well-watered but do not over-water. As with cyclamen and amaryllis, do not let citrus stand in water.

More on beans

Having pre-soaked, cooked beans (their cooking liquid stored separately) in the fridge is convenient for many dishes at this busy time. An antidote to eggnog and rich desserts is a tasty bean stew: make lots and have it to pull out and heat up for unexpected entertaining. Most of the ingredients come from the home garden.

Christmas Bean Stew

1 pound cannellini or dried lima beans (or the equivalent cooked)

16 Tbsp. high quality olive oil

2 large heads of celery plus leaves, sliced into 3/4″ pieces

12 scallions, green part included, sliced 1/3″.

8 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced

2 tsp. caraway seed, lightly crushed

2-4 tsp. celery salt

1 qt canned tomatoes, or 1 28 oz can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

5 1/2 cup broth or water, or some of each

oily black olives, pitted and chopped

1 lemon, cut into 1/8ths

If you haven’t already cooked the beans, do so.

Heat 12 Tbsp. (scant 2/3 cup) of the olive oil in a large pot over medium hot heat. When the oil is hot, add celery and stir until coated with olive oil. Cook for ten minutes, stirring. Add 2/3 of the scallions, the garlic, caraway, and a couple of big pinches of salt. Cook 10-15 minutes more, until everything softens and begins to caramelize slightly.

Add the tomatoes and 2 tsp. of the celery salt and cook for another few minutes. Add the beans along with 5 1/2 cups liquid and remaining 4 Tbsp. of olive oil. Bring to a simmer and taste for seasoning. Add more celery salt if needed. Let sit for a couple of minutes and serve each bowl topped with chopped olives, remaining scallions, and a squeeze of lemon. Serves 8-10.

Adapted from Hassan’s Celery and White Bean Soup with Tomato and Caraway in “Moro East,” by Sam and Sam Clark.