Home & Garden

Everything's blooming at Vineyard greenhouses. — Ralph Stewart

While we wondered if winter would ever end, elves at local greenhouses have been busy with seeds and seedlings; cleaning and refurbishing shops, grounds and display areas and stocking soil, fertilizer, potted plants and shrubs ready to burst into bloom.

Ashley Lister at Donaroma's.
Ashley Lister at Donaroma’s.

Most nurseries opened quietly last month for those intrepid gardeners who wanted to get a head start on the season. These days, they are buzzing with preparations for Palm Sunday on April 13, which for many Islanders is the unofficial “grand opening,” when the spirits of plant lovers are lifted by displays of early spring flowers, the smell of warm soil in greenhouses filled with young growing plants, that long-awaited breath of spring. It is indeed a time to awaken from the winter doldrums and begin dreaming of flowers, herbs, vegetables, and the warm days ahead.

All nurseries carry conventional and organic soils and fertilizers, pest control products, gardening tools, containers, and paraphernalia. They offer a variety of special discounts and bargains to tempt the green-thumbed customer.

Vineyard Gardens

Palm Sunday Open House: 11am to 2 pm; free plants, refreshments and Easter Sunday Egg Hunt (1 pm).

What else: Saturday morning (11 am) free lectures range from starting plants from seed to vegetable gardening, lawn care and maintenance and more. Saturday hands-on workshops teach how to prepare seeds and seedlings, and bring them home to plant ($20 fee).

What’s new:  Greenhouse attached to front shop; Amish-made Adirondack chairs.

What’s special: Each week, a special plant is offered at a 20-percent discount.

“Please stop by for a breath of spring,” says Chris Wiley, co-owner with husband Chuck. “The greenhouses are full and gorgeous.”

484 State Road, West Tisbury. VineyardGardens.net, 508-693-8511

Middletown Nursery

Palm Sunday: Family Fun Day visitors can plant a mini-strawberry or flower garden.

What else: Free seminars with organic gardener Roxanne Kapitan, “The Backyard Vegetable Garden from Seed to Harvest,” begin April 19, 1-2 pm. Topics include composting, building organic soil, and maximizing garden yield.

What’s new: remodeled the shop and creation of parklike display grounds with educational displays and new plants.

What’s special: the Island’s exclusive Husqvarna Dealer offers power tools and equipment. “Yard Sale” discounts are offered through April 19.

“We hope for a beautiful Easter Sunday and invite families to join us from 10 am to 1 pm for an Easter filled with the colors of spring,” said manager Steven Elliott.

680 State Road, West Tisbury. (508)696-7600

Jardin Mahoney

Easter season: Easter Cookie Decorating party for the kids on Easter Sunday, 9 am-3 pm.

What else: Lush tropicals and indoor hydrangeas, tulips, daffodils and even aromatic herbs welcome visitors into the big greenhouse. Also, fruit trees including apple, pear, plums, and cherries and berry bushes.

What’s special: Sale on blueberry bushes while supplies last.

Wandering the grounds makes for a nice spring walk and the garden center stocks everything you need to get outdoors and start digging.

45 Edgartown Vineyard Haven Road, Oak Bluffs. jardinmahoney.com, (508) 693-3511.


Palm Sunday: 10 am-2 pm, Donaroma’s welcomes guests with cut daffodils for all; Easter Sunday from 10 am-2 pm.

What’s new: Easter Lilies and hyacinths; early blooming shrubs like lilac, forsythia, and dogwood.

What’s special: A spring sale runs April 11 to 13; weekly specials for landscapers only.

The spacious florist shop and greenhouse is bursting with cheerful Easter decorations, plant baskets, bunnies, butterflies, and chicks.

Upper Main St., Edgartown. Donaromas.com; (508)627-3036.

Heather Gardens

Palm Sunday (8:30 am- 3 pm) open house featuring free plants, warm refreshments, and sweet goodies.

What else: According to owner Mike Saunier, the nursery features the Island’s largest selection of locally grown, hand-seeded annuals in six-packs.

What’s new: Expanded variety of shrubs.

What’s special: one greenhouse filled with lush tropical houseplants and the tiny potting shed offering antique garden collectibles.

“We have the same friendly staff as in previous years who are always eager to help,” said Mr. Saunier, echoing the welcome of all Island nurseries.

377 State Road, West Tisbury. heather-gardens.com, (508)693-1467.

This story was updated on April 14, 2014, to correct a mistake in the Middletown Nursery section. Steven Elliott was mistakenly identified as the owner of the West Tisbury nursery. John and Heather Hoff have owned the business for five years. Mr. Elliott is the manager.

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

Spring has sprung, and with it comes the start of Vineyard Gardens’ free and weekly Educational Lecture Series, beginning this Saturday, April 5.

Running from 11 am to 12 noon each Saturday through the nursery’s season, the first topic is Starting Plants From Seed. Next, on April 12, is a hands-on workshop: Starting Both Vegetable and Flower Seeds, which costs $20 and in turn you take home what you worked on. For more information, call the West Tisbury nursery and garden center at 508-693-8512.

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.

The former Thimble Farm has space for community farmers. — Photo by Randi Baird

Interested in trying out your green thumb? Want to till some soil this summer? If your property has less than desirable conditions for plotting your own garden bed, consider buying a plot in an Island community garden. Home grown cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers and more can be yours at one of three local farms.

Thimble Farm

According to Island Grown Initiative program administrator Emily Duncker, the community garden at Thimble Farm will be the first space on the farm to collaborate, inspire, and connect more people to the preservation and stewardship of the unique property. “We are committed to developing Thimble Farm as a community resource, and this garden is one of the aspects of the concept plan we presented to the public on February 8,” Ms. Duncker said.

The Thimble Farm community garden space, on the Tisbury-Oak Bluffs line, off  Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road will be a half-acre with handicap accessible beds and plots of varying sizes. Plots are available in three sizes 5 x 20 ($50), 10 x20 ($75) and 20 x20 ($100), with scholarships available as well as a sliding cost scale based on income.

”One of our main intentions is for this garden to be as inclusive as possible, including offering support for novice gardeners. We hope the smaller sized plots will attract novice gardeners who are maybe interested, but not fully sure of how to garden yet,” Ms. Duncker said.

Native Earth

Native Earth Teaching Farm, at 94 North Road in Chilmark, also offers a community garden.

“Our plots are all organic, fenced, various prices according to size, and barter and work trades are sometimes possible,” owner Rebecca Gilbert said. “We also have a farm library available, when the farm is open three days a week, and a garden mentorship program which includes seeds, seedlings, and training for beginning gardeners.”

FARM Institute

The FARM Institute in Edgartown offers 25 individual garden 8×20 plots for $75. The farm provides fencing, irrigation, compost bins, and tools to share.

Rebecca Sanders has been the FARM Institute garden manager for the past two years and took over responsibility of the Community Garden in 2013. “We have a community garden workday each spring, which will fall on April 5 this year. This is the first day gardeners can get into their plots and get started,” Ms. Sanders said.  “We’ll have cold hardy seedlings for sale, as well as wood chips available for gardeners to mulch the pathways around their plots.”

The FARM Institute’s Community Garden started seven years ago.

“The Community Garden was started in 2007 by our former education coordinator, Melinda DeFeo, and former development director Chrissy Kinsman, both avid gardeners,” Ms. Sanders said. “Tools were purchased for the garden with help from Scott and Julie Lively. Ms. DeFeo brought her Edgartown School students to plant a grains array in the garden in 2013.”

More information

Interested in trying out your green thumb?

Thimble Farm: Contact Emily Duncker at e.duncker@gmail.com for more information about the community garden at Thimble Farm, a contract and/or to rent space for the season.

Native Earth Teaching Farm: To make arrangements for this season at Native Earth Teaching Farm, call the farm at 508-645-3304 and talk to Rebecca.

The FARM Institute: Reserve your spot at the FARM Institute in Edgartown by calling 508-627-7007.

Bob Donovan of West Tisbury unloads wood pellets he purchased off-Island. — Photo by Tony Omer

Vineyard retail outlets that sell wood pellets have exhausted their supplies and left customers who use the recycled wood product to heat their homes scrambling to find enough fuel to stymie the cold. The shortage is being felt throughout New England and is the result of an unexpectedly long, cold winter, and an increase in wood pellet stove use, according to industry sources.

Robert Donovan, who heats his house on Indian Hill in West Tisbury with a wood pellet stove, was surprised when he was unable to locate wood pellets at Ace Hardware in Vineyard Haven, his usual source, or John Keene Excavation, which brings trailer loads of pellets to the Island regularly, when they are available.

“I called around the Island and no one had pellets,” Mr. Donovan told The Times in a telephone call last week as he prepared to go off-Island to buy fuel. “I called a couple of dozen places in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I called manufacturers way up in Maine and just got voice messages saying ‘we are currently out of pellets.’”

He found one supplier on the Cape that has pellets, with a five bag limit per customer on purchases. That would last him about three days with the freezing temperatures expected this week. ”I have high ceilings. I burn about a bag and a half a day,” he said.

Mr. Donovan’s perseverance paid off, he said in a second call to The Times made later the same day.

“I just snagged pellets way up in Holbrook,” he said, in a call from his cell phone, as he was on his way back with his heavily laden car. “They have a 15 bag limit but when they heard I was hoping to pick up some bags for other Islanders they let me buy 40. My car is not made to carry a ton.”

Back on the Island with his pellets, Mr. Donovan was sympathetic to those in the same situation.

“I feel sorry for others who use pellet stoves as their primary heat source and don’t have flexible work schedules that allow them the time to hunt down pellets like I do,” said Mr. Donovan, “It is my only heat source.”

After this pellet crisis, Mr. Donovan says he is making other plans.

“After this winter, I will be using the stove as my secondary source,” he said. “I’m installing a propane/heat pump system, a mini-split system, before next winter.”

Precious pellets

Wood pellets which come in 40 pound bags.
Wood pellets which come in 40 pound bags.

John Keene Excavation office manager Darlene Oberg said many customers buy pellets by the 50 bag pallet. The West Tisbury company brings truckloads of 22 pallets to the Island every winter. She said that some of their customers have not run out yet, but that their Rhode Island supplier has. She doesn’t know when Keene will be able to buy more.

At Ace Hardware, a sign on the door Friday announced no pellets and no ice melt. Ismael “Izzy” Calixto said Ace sold out its last delivery of 1,200 pounds, 30 bags, in three days last week and won’t have any more pellets until April 9.

In Oak Bluffs, Reliable Market’s Robert Pacheco has sold pellets for only two years. This year he has not been able to buy enough to keep them in stock. He buys pellets from a grocery distribution center in New Hampshire.

“Sales have doubled this year,“ he said. “We got into selling pellets because we had requests from customers. This year, sales have snowballed but that’s come to a screeching halt. We sell out every week. We haven’t been able to buy enough to keep them in stock.”

He said his supplier started limiting sales about four weeks ago. Last week, Reliable was limited to one pallet of 50 bags that sold out in a couple of days.

“My supplier said there won’t be any for our Sunday night trailer, and she said that for our Wednesday night trailer, she will do the best she can. Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he said. “We hope to have some by the end of next week.”

He said he has tried other suppliers in Massachusetts and in Maine but hasn’t been able to find anyone who has pellets to sell to new customers. His primary supplier told him that the pellet manufacturer in Maine has nothing in reserve.

“I was told they’re packing to fill orders for trucks that are waiting,” he said. “They have no back stock at all.”

An article in an industry online trade publication, “Biomass Magazine,” attributes the shortage of pellets to an industry wide failure to predict the longer and colder winter and the increased use of wood pellet stoves, not to a shortage of production capacity. Much of the industry has operated at an average operating capacity of 50 to 60 percent for much of the winter, according to the article, while the average user is burning close to twice as much fuel.

Wood pellet stoves are advertised as an easier, cleaner, and more efficient heat source than conventional wood stoves. They are generally smaller, and the bags of pellets are about the size of a large dog food bag, weighing 40 pounds, so they are easier to store than firewood. The pellets, made of compressed dry wood, and often recycled materials, are fed into the stove usually by an electric feeder. The fire is relatively easy to start. Depending on the stove’s hopper size, it may need to be loaded only once a day.

The fire is contained in a heat box inside the unit, and the combustion is hotter and cleaner than would be the case with wood, with minimum of smoke, which creates considerably less ash and less creosote than firewood does.

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.

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.


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.


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

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.

Dry beans can be shelled by hand, but there are other techniques — like whacking a burlap bag of beans. — Photo by Susan Safford

Continuing my commentary on creating winter oases of green, it is timely to appreciate holly, now that references to it are seasonal and frequent. “The holly and the ivy,” in the words of the ancient carol, offers up spiky, glossy, evergreen foliage, and red berries, a valuable asset to the winter garden and landscape, not to mention to the birds it shelters. The image the name conjures is the English holly, Ilex aquifolium, but the beautiful native, I. opaca, along with many modern hybrids, bestow their greenery upon the winter garden.

However, not all “hollies” belong to the Ilex family. The Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium, other species and hybrids), an evergreen that in my opinion is under-utilized here in Island gardens, sports not only spiky, glossy, evergreen foliage but also racemes of scented yellow flowers that transform into bloomy blue, possibly edible, berries.

Although now transferred by the taxonomists into the genus Berberis — over the objections of many — the Mahonias’ striking foliar resemblance to the true hollies remains unchanged. Mahonia is a genus of about 70 species of evergreen shrubs in the family Berberidaceae, native to eastern Asia, the Himalaya, North America and Central America. I was able to find a spot at home for an Asian species, M. gracillipes, purchased at Polly Hill Arboretum, with super long, holly-like leaves with white undersides, its most dramatic feature. I would like to add additional varieties.

Then there is the holly fern, or cyrtomium, another holly look-alike but this one only feet and inches above the ground. Previously thought of as a plant of southern gardens and not reliably hardy here, conditions have changed enough to permit holly fern to be grown in island gardens, when well sited.

The genus Cyrtomium contains, according to Wikipedia, “about 15-20 species of ferns in the family Dryopteridaceae, native to Asia, Africa (including Madagascar), and the Pacific Ocean islands (Hawaii). It is very closely related to the genus Polystichum, with recent research suggesting it should be included within it….” (Those taxonomists again!)

The cyrtomium that I planted here, C. fortunei, in some ways resembles a diminutive leucothoë in form and habit, with a similar vase-like form and lustrous divided foliage. It seems happy enough in deep fallen leaves in the humus-y soil and medium shade of the white oak woods behind our house, where it stands out dramatically from its companion ferns, the regal and ostrich; but each winter I hold my breath a little for its survival.

The necessity for gardeners such as myself with a limited budget is to acquire and then propagate these special plants relentlessly, to achieve abundant winter greenery; otherwise the effects are spotty and hardly look like an oasis of green.

What I learned about beans

Several seasons back I began to change the way I focused on beans in the vegetable garden. I placed a lot of garden space at their service, usually growing several sorts of bush beans and giving over space for pole beans too. Heretofore I had been a “green bean” thinker — you know, fresh green snap beans for summer suppers and plenty in the freezer, too.

Gradually though, I became more aware of the utility of dry beans: they are planted and then left to their own devices, to ripen and dry without all that bending and picking, processing and freezing. When the seeds rattle in the pods, they are ready. A friend in Vermont gave me seeds for a tan-seeded pole variety, Franka’s Italian Beans: these are very reliable. I decided, however, to add cannellini, the Italian white kidney bean of minestrone.

Once they are harvested, storage of the little protein nuggets requires nothing more elaborate than oven or wood-stove-top heating (insect control) and mason jars with tight lids. Baked bean casseroles and soups containing a bit of meat and the beans, such as minestrone and kale soup, are some of the most satisfying, nourishing, and simple of winter season meals.

There has been a learning curve, though: one year Himself harvested half the cannellini beans to freeze as green beans: that was a big uh-oh! This year the cannellini Lingot, supposedly a bush cannellini planted in rows, grew to become a trailing climber more suited to pole bean culture. They got in with the sweet potato vines and together romped all over about a quarter of the garden. It was such a tangle that the fall planting of cavolo nero, Tuscan kale, which as you know is tall, was completely engulfed.

While the beans were still in full-on growth, the surprise snow arrived, more or less coinciding with a planned six-day absence on the mainland. I learned the hard way that cold weather is not going to help cannellini bean culture and harvest. Now I know that all the plants should have been immediately uprooted and hung upside down by their roots in a dry place to cure.

Thinking it was more important to get out the sweet potatoes, I did that first. I then harvested the beanpods, some of which by now were decidedly schmutzy. I shelled them out anyhow; while I lost under-ripe ones, there is still a respectable yield of ‘Lingot.’

I have also learned several ways to thresh dry beans. YouTube videos display peoples’ clever little homemade threshing devices, books describe various methods, and antique bean threshers may be found. One simple method is to place all the dried beanpods inside a burlap or synthetic-weave fed bag and hang it up somewhere. Whack the bag with a stick until the pods have cracked open and released the beans. Then cut a small corner off the sack and let the beans fall out into a bucket, leaving the frass inside.


The December 15 meeting of Homegrown is cancelled due to the holidays.