Home & Garden


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Beautiful winter groundcover at Polly Hill Arboretum includes Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’

A mélange of brown, grey, and tan, the island winter landscape is generally a monotonous one, and the seasons that create it seem to stretch out over-long from the “front end.”

The greenery we add to our winter landscapes is an antidote to that brown and grey monotony, especially for C. Colston Burrell, a self-described chlorophyll addict, who lives and works in the Piedmont of Virginia, a plant hardiness zone not too different from the Island’s.

Burrell is an award-winning garden writer (among other books, “Hellebores: a Comprehensive Guide,” co-authored with Judith Knott Tyler) and landscape designer. On a recent trip we visited his garden, Bird Hill, in the deciduous forest of the Blue Ridge foothills. Almost entirely sited on sloping ground and surrounded by stalag-like deer fencing, it is a morning garden with a southeastern exposure. The pale, low-angle sunlight at the time of our visit highlighted the dull gleam on foliage of hellebores (as might be expected), epimediums, and other plants of great fall and winter interest.

The Bird Hill winter garden contains 350 or so varieties of the genus Epimedium, in addition to the countless hellebores (which self-sow and hybridize freely where happy), greenery such as ferns, sedges, hardy cyclamen, asarums, and much euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, all at ground level or just above, not to mention taller sorts of evergreen winter interest, such as winter blooming camellias, azaleas, skimmias, and other broadleaf evergreens. Some of the monumental trunks of magnificent chestnut oak and tulip poplar are clothed in vines. Based on the enormous cold season variety on display, one can only guess at the breadth and extent of the garden’s warm weather character.

Gardeners are for the most part great sharers, pleased to support the efforts of those who lack experience. While visiting gardens of greatly skilled gardeners makes one realize one’s own deficiencies, the good news is that excellence rubs off, whether through visual stimulation, advice, or even the sharing of plants.

I return home and survey my mostly brown, fallen-leaf and undergrowth base layer; my paltry array of hellebores, epimediums, cyclamen; the single specimens of cyrtonium and Christmas ferns — mentally contrasting with what I have just seen at Bird Hill — and realize once again: all comparisons stink!

Brassicas: Cooking and Specialized Equipment

There is a lot of brassica coming your way, dietetically, if you desire to eat locally: it is a cabbage-y time of year. Broccoli, Tuscan and other kales, Brussels sprouts, and cold tolerant mustard greens appear on the seasonal table. I pulled four flat-head cabbage from my vegetable garden upon return from the trip to Virginia and made them into sauerkraut at once.

Where I formerly would have used my big, Amish-made “kraut cutter” to shred the cabbage into ribbons, I now use my Portuguese “maquina de corta couves” to slice it into threads that make a fast-fermenting fine-cut sauerkraut. The addition of a fermenting crock, or gärtopf, a Christmas present from my son, has simplified my sauerkraut making for many years now.

However you can, slice or chop up the cabbage and mix with kosher or sea salt in a large bowl until it tastes slightly salty. Either massage the cabbage with the hands, or pound it in the gärtopf with a wooden implement, in order to get the juices flowing. Pack into very clean glass mason jars, gärtopf, or crock. Repeat until all the chopped cabbage is packed. The juice should cover the contents. If cabbages are dried out, it may be necessary to make up additional brine by boiling one liter of water with fifteen grams of kosher or sea salt. Cool brine and add to cover cabbage.

The gärtopf comes with two stoneware weights for keeping the contents covered with its juice or brine; an airlock water channel the weighty lid sits in; and the lid itself, notched to permit the release of fermenting gases. I recommend finding one if a steady supply of fermented vegetables is part of your menu. However, stoneware crocks and mason jars with plastic lids may also be used to make sauerkraut.

It is likely that many families have streamlined their cooking chops into a standard family tradition for the Thanksgiving meal, no deviations permitted! However, with holiday gathering taking place, many of us entertain at other meals as well during the festive time. This great cabbage salad recipe comes from a longtime gardening client and utilizes my “maquina de corta couves” perfectly.

Savoy Cabbage with Pancetta and Gorgonzola

For the Dressing:

4 tsp. white vinegar

1 bsp. Dijon mustard

2 cloves minced garlic

1/3 cup olive oil

For the Salad

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1/4 lb. pancetta, cut into 1/8 ” dice

1 small head Savoy cabbage quartered, cored and very thinly sliced

1/2 tsp pepper

1/4 lb. Gorgonzola, crumbled (option: substitute feta cheese, crumbled)

1. To make the dressing, place the vinegar, mustard, and garlic in bowl of food processor and process until creamy. Drizzle in oil in thin stream.

2. To make the salad, heat the olive oil in a medium skillet set over medium high heat. Add the pancetta, stirring occasionally, until it is crispy but not darkly browned. Drain the pancetta, reserving 3 Tbsp. of the fat left in the pan and setting the pancetta aside.

3. Transfer the 3 Tbsp. of reserved fat to a large heavy skillet set over medium heat. Add cabbage and cook until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Add reserved pancetta, pepper and dressing and toss and cook another minute. Add half the crumbled Gorgonzola and cook until the cheese just begins to melt. Divide the salad among four plates. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and serve immediately.

Seed garlic performs best if vernalized — being chilled for two weeks at 43 to 50°F before planting. Protective cloches are by Rob Phillips of the Glassworks in North Tisbury.

The Island’s autumn beauty is displayed in the deep-toned array of grass and foliage spread across the landscape, and magnificent skyscapes of gigantic grey-bottomed cloud foretell winter’s approach.

The 20th annual Barn Raisers’ Ball, celebrating the Agricultural Society’s historic barn raising, is Saturday night, 7:30–10 pm, at the Agricultural Hall, with Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish. Bring a dessert to share, admission is free.

Garlic culture

In matters culinary, Martha’s Vineyard has come a long way. Back in the day, the post-war “Joy of Cooking” open in front of me listed just ten “Italian” recipes, nothing East Asian, and just two under Garlic, one of which was garlic bread!

If one was planning an “exotic” dish, one had to go to Bangs Market, or one of the other S.S. Pierce emporia on the Island, for those little gourmet oddments such as capers and other condiments. (I am not sure we knew the term “gourmet,” then.) No longer is it sufficient, the way it used to be when garlic was considered to be a socially embarrassing seasoning, to go down to the store and pick up a little box containing two dried-up heads of generic garlic when a dish of something exotic is planned for the menu.

The general consensus is that garlic growing has increased in importance both among Island growers and cooks. Here, where planting garlic is one of the final chapters of the vegetable garden year, when to plant garlic is often debated.

Since there is a wide array of opinion on getting the best results with the culture of this plant, I decided to read up on it and pass along whatever of interest I could glean. I consulted three vegetable-growing books, but many specifics come from two different editions of the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Fall 2012 and Summer 2013.

In an MOF&G 2012 (Vol 40, no 3) article, Tom Vigue, a Maine garlic grower, says garlic does best when planted four weeks before the ground freezes, because root development begins in the fall. A critical humidity induces root growth, which typically begins one or two weeks after planting. Roots will grow for a couple of weeks more before soils freeze. If planting is too early, it may induce leaf sprouting; if sprouts emerge from the soil and are damaged by freezing, the plants receive a setback; loss of leaves reduces yields.

Vigne claims “the size of the seed bulb is many times more significant than the size of the seed clove in determining the eventual size of harvested bulbs.” Nevertheless, cloves from medium to medium-large bulbs make the best planting stock. Cloves from smaller bulbs will result in smaller, weaker plants, yielding smaller harvests; planting the largest cloves from the largest bulbs results in the greatest lack of uniformity in harvests. Vigue recommends planting three to four inches deep in cultivated and heavily composted soil; and then covering with six to eight inches of loose and fluffy mulch, with the expectation that it will compress under winter conditions.

The MOF&G’s 2013 (Vol 41, no 2) article offers comprehensive coverage of the garlic portion of MOFG Association’s spring growth conference. David Stern of the Garlic Seed Foundation recommends starting garlic culture by sowing oats at the end of August, in soils testing at pH 6.8-7. In October he mows and discs them, makes furrows, and plants and covers the garlic. Stern recommends placing the tip of the clove one and a half inches below the soil surface in furrows where soybean meal, supplying nitrogen (N), has first been laid. Oats reemerge with the first rain and later winterkill.

Growers experimenting with different spacing had differing results. Vigue prefers 5×8″ spacing. Slightly larger, 6×8,” produced slightly larger bulbs but total yield in pounds was lower. He found that scape removal produces larger bulbs and earlier sizing up, but he wonders about its effect on long-term storage. Stern prefers spacing of 6×6″ or 8×8″; closer spacing sacrifices quality. For row crop spacing, plant garlic 4 inches or more apart within rows, with 18 inches or more between rows. Double row planting involves two rows in a 6- x 6-inch grid, with 18 inches or more between the double rows.

Many additional factors are important in garlic culture, one of the foremost perhaps being storage qualities. It is desirable, obviously, for garlic to remain in good condition until planting and beyond, when the next crop is ready for use. About one pound of seed is needed to produce five pounds of harvest.

Hugelkultur: the ultimate raised bed

Springing from the permaculture movement, an interesting development is called “hugelkultur,” or mound culture. It is a wild and crazy composting, where there is no need to worry about layering, turning, and all those other bothersome details of scientific composting: just pile ‘er up and after a month, plant right into the pile.

Due to various ailments that Island trees have fallen prey to, and ensuing breakdown and rot, woodlots are producing piles of rotting wood unable to qualify as firewood. Well-publicized concerns about its fire hazards make finding a use for it a win-win situation, although rotting wood does not generally burn well.

In hugelkultur rotten logs are prized, the bigger the better: it is essentially making raised beds filled with rotten wood. A framework of rotting logs is laid on the ground where the mound is going to be sited. Brush, sticks, dirt, more logs, compostables of all descriptions — all are thrown onto the pile and covered with soil. Some settling occurs, but in a month it is plant-able. The mound is self-watering due to the hydroscopic qualities of the rotting wood, and carbon is sequestered. For more information, go to http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/.

The fully enclosed Earth Flow composting system can mix and shred up to three tons of organic waste per day.

Stepping into the breach of a decades-long Island battle, Green Mountain Technologies (GMT) president Michael Bryan-Brown and sales manager Mollie Bogardus recently came to Martha’s Vineyard to pitch Island-wide composting.

Mr. Brown and Ms. Bogardus made their initial foray to the Island in May to speak at a composting conference organized by Tomar Waldman of Vineyard Haven.

“We gathered so much information in May, and we recognized the huge opportunity here,” Ms. Bogardus told The Times at the recent Living Local Harvest Fest in West Tisbury. “Hauling waste off the Island was even more expensive than we expected, as much as $300 a ton. And compost here is imported. It starts at $35 a [cubic] yard to well over $60 a [cubic] yard. We became convinced this is a no-brainer. There’s tremendous savings to be had here.”

The Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs stated in a 2010 report, “Castoff food is the largest single component of the waste put in landfills and burned in trash incinerators. Twenty-five per cent of the waste stream in Massachusetts (after recycling), is food waste, compostable paper and other organics.”

Mr. Brown said waste equals costs for residents of Martha’s Vineyard. “You have the highest disposal costs in the state and maybe New England,” Mr. Brown said. “Twenty-five percent of waste is compostable waste. So you deduct that from the total cost, and look at the price that farmers and landscapers pay for compost on the Island, it’s a win-win situation.”

Pay dirt

According to a Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) report, dated December, 2009, “Currently we ship 33,500 tons of trash off-Island each year, accounting for 15 percent of the Steamship Authority’s freight traffic. Our generation of waste is growing much faster than our year-round population. We import compost at great expense, while shipping off sewage sludge and organic materials we could use to make our own fertilizer and compost. A diverse and local composting infrastructure is needed on the Island. Composting can take place effectively in a wide range of scale and sizes: small backyard bins, community gardens, onsite systems at schools and hospitals, rural and urban farm based operations, and large low-tech and high-tech regional facilities.”

The last landfill on the Vineyard closed in 2009. Since then, waste has been shipped off Island, truckload by truckload. In 2009, according to MVC estimates, it cost a little more than $10 million to get rid of Island waste, a quarter of which, worth $2.5 million, could be composted. This substantial savings doesn’t include the benefit passed along to Islanders by having home-grown compost available on the market, Mr. Bogardus said.

“A lot of the farmers can’t get the good compost because they can’t afford it,” said Ms. Bogardus. “For the landscapers who are servicing the expensive homes, the cost probably isn’t much of an issue, but to the average citizen or farmer, $60 a yard for compost is a lot of money.”

Green Mountain Technologies (GMT) produces a wide range of composting systems that can handle from 100 pounds to 500 tons of organic waste per day. The company, which has been in operation for 20 years, is keenly aware of the challenges of waste disposal on an Island — they’re based on Bainbridge Island, Washington, an island slightly smaller than the Vineyard, where they have two composting facilities in operation and another under construction.

They also have installed composting facilities in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and are in negotiations with the U.S. military for a facility on the Marshall Islands. To date, GMT has been awarded three patents and has another patent pending for its composting technology. Mr. Brown, a graduate of Tufts University, grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts and, being an avid sailor, has made many visits to the Vineyard.

Trash talks

Mr. Brown and Ms. Borgadus recently met with Don Hatch, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDD), which serves Edgartown, West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah, accounting for roughly half the Island’s waste. The Oak Bluffs-Tisbury refuse/recycling cooperative (OBTRRC) handles the refuse of those two towns. According to Mr. Brown, their meeting was a productive one, and there is a glimmer of hope for composting on the Island. That’s good news, because there is a looming imperative.

“Don is very optimistic about putting a small project together to try something next summer, so there would be at least some on-Island capacity to meet the new DEP regulations,” Mr. Brown said.

“Which is July 1,” added Ms. Bogardus. He meant the start date for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed commercial food waste ban. The measure would require any entity that disposes of at least one ton of organic waste per week to donate or re-purpose the useable food.

“The win for the district is to promote themselves as the solid waste answer,” said Ms. Bogardus.

Cautious optimism

“It’s a small initiative,” said Mr. Hatch, emphasizing that the project was in its nascent stages. “We’re just at the beginning of the process, nothing’s approved, nothing’s guaranteed.”

Mr. Hatch is looking into the GMT Earth Flow system, which could be sited next to the recycling area at the Edgartown transfer station. The enclosed unit mixes food waste and grass and wood chips and can convert between 500 pounds and three tons of organic waste per day. The Earth Flow looks like a greenhouse and it’s about the size of a flatbed truck. It takes 21 days to process waste into compost. It works on a “plug flow” system, not a batch system, which means the operator can add varied amounts of waste and take out compost in increments. This allows the system to better handle the summer surge, when half of the Island’s waste is produced, he said.

Mr. Hatch stressed, repeatedly, that the unit is enclosed, so there will be little smell, thanks to the extensive air filtration system. He also said, repeatedly, there will be no exposed waste to serve as vermin and avian vectors.

“It’d be nice if we can do it,” said Mr. Hatch. “If the DEP puts in waste ban for commercial restaurants and grocery stores this summer, there’s about eight sites on the Vineyard that could be affected. In 2015, they’re talking about a residential waste ban. Either way, it’s going to be a mandatory issue. It would be good to be in front of it.”

Mr. Hatch said he will be working on the application and applying for a state sponsored Community Innovation Challenge (CIC) grant, with the assistance of Bill Veno at the MVC and with Ms. Bogardus.

“First I’m going to see if it’s even feasible to purchase this equipment,” Mr. Hatch said. The Earth Flow system will cost around $150,000. “Once we know, I’ll present it to the town selectmen and the neighborhood.”

Island incongruity

With strict land use regulations and thousands of acres under conservation protection, the Vineyard is thought to be on the forefront of environmental protection, but when it comes to waste disposal, the Island is behind the curve. According to a 2008 study by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, recycling rates for the six towns averaged about 27 per cent.

In an email to The Times, Fred Lapiana, director of the Tisbury Department of Public Works, which oversees the Oak Bluffs-Tisbury refuse/recycling cooperative (OBTRRC), said their recycling rate was “about 40 percent.” Nantucket — with its centralized recycling and composting facility— is at 91 percent. San Francisco, a city of more than 815,000 people, has a recycling rate of more than 70 percent and is on track to be fully self contained by 2020.

A major impediment to more effective waste disposal on the Island is the lack of a cohesive Island-wide waste policy. While New York City — which started residential organic waste recycling programs this summer — has one department of sanitation for 8.3 million people, the Island has two departments for 17,000 or so year-round residents.

As the MVC reported in 2009, “The fragmentation of current management systems — among towns and between the public and private sectors — increases administrative and operational costs, has resulted in varying disposal practices for people across the Island and within towns that present barriers to increasing recycling practices and re-use programs. The combined volume of waste resources could open up new opportunities such as composting and building materials recycling to draw us nearer to being a zero-waste community.”

Mr. Brown hopes that a methodical approach to composting can be instituted, regardless of local politics.

“I think a distributed system is the way to go,” he said. “We think it could be practical to have a system at every one of these drop centers. You go to Aquinnah drop center, drop your recycling, and drop your food waste and not even have to go to a transfer station,” he said. For smaller locations, Green Mountain produces an “Earth Tub,” a jacuzzi sized composting vessel that can process up to 100 pounds of waste a day, ideal for schools, large landscapers, restaurants, grocery stores and drop centers for smaller towns.

Dirt is the new clean

Increased composting on the Vineyard can mitigate the growing phosphate pollution problem in the great ponds and estuarine waters caused by chemical fertilizers. Whereas chemical fertilizers are full of phosphates and must be applied once or twice a year, a layer of compost comprises organic nutrients, and one application can last several years. Compost can also be a highly effective barrier to chemical-laden storm run-off. “Compost use can reduce watershed contamination from urban pollutants by an astounding 60 to 95 per cent,” according to a May 2013 report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. “Because compost can hold 20 times its weight in water and acts like a filter, it can reduce erosion and prevent storm water run-off.”

For Islanders who want to use compost in their yards, but are concerned about the smell or the possibility of attracting an army of skunks, Ms. Bogardus had reassuring words. “By the time this goes on your lawn, there is no odor,” she said. “You can pick it up, hold it in your hand, you’d never know it was made from waste. We’ve never had a problem with it being a vector for wildlife.”

“There really is not a downside for anyone,” said Mr. Brown. “If you can show people the environmental advantages and articulate the value, hopefully it’ll minimize the fractious behavior. Since there’s such a compelling financial component to it, I think it’ll be very difficult for people to say ‘no.’”

Though putting a garden to bed should actually begin in August, British garden writer Monty Don says that "...October is my gardening new year...Time to take stock, plan, prepare, and start again."

Putting the garden to bed is actually a process that tugs in opposing directions. Sanitation is of great importance in vegetable gardens for disease and pest control. Wildlife support is the province of ornamental gardens. Many flower stalks are nowadays left for their seed value for birds (and other wildlife), to which gardeners owe a standing debt of gratitude for insect control. Whether you are a neat-freak or wildlife lover, it is your garden and you decide.

Cutdowns, starting with plants whose foliage ripens earliest

Putting the garden to bed actually starts in August when some annuals will be seen to have gone by and may be pulled to make room for other seasonal plant material. Debris removal and cutdowns are on-going: plants with foliage that yellows early or is diseased, for example, slug-damaged hostas; plants such as daylilies that will regenerate fresh basal leaves; clearing fallen leaves.

By mid- to late October

As the British garden writer Monty Don says of this season: “The beginning of October is my gardening new year…. Time to take stock, plan, prepare, and start again.” How you prepare now lays the foundation for success next year.

Much of the cutdowns have been done. Leave woody sub-shrubs, such as lavender, caryopteris, and perovskia, alone: cut them back in spring.

Eliminate unwanted plants, or transplant; divide overgrown perennials; find improved locations for plants that are too big or not doing well. Division is often the difference between, for instance, a Siberian iris loaded with bloom and one with scarcely any. This time of year normally you can move plants around with the expectation of autumn rains to keep them watered. Give beds a final weeding, and then top-dress with low-number soil food and layer over with compost or mulch.

Tuberous begonias and pelargoniums (geraniums) may be removed from pots and stored dry in a cool dark cellar. They are revived in spring by being brought into the light and repotted in new soil. Alternatively, take cuttings, using strong sprouts without flower buds, and root in fine, gritty potting mix.

Use a tarp or trash barrel to collect debris generated by clean-up, and remove it to the compost pile. If you have not previously composted, find a quiet corner of the garden, and bring everything there. Even if you do nothing, this will eventually turn into a soil-like product composed of your garden’s own elements, whose use improves whatever is grown with it.

Order spring bulbs and plant them. The various narcissi should be planted in October, ideally, but you may put off tulip planting until Thanksgiving or later on the Vineyard. Likewise, it is often well to naturalize narcissi, away from ornamental beds, unless their ripening foliage can be tolerated aesthetically, while tulips are best planted in beds.

Vegetable Plot

As with the ornamental garden, the vegetable garden starts acquiring its autumn character in early August (if not actually in July if one aims to continue production through the fall). Space left by harvested garlic and onions is freed for subsequent crops, which are direct-sown then. Some of these, such as carrots, beets, kales, and late leeks, may remain in the garden until the following spring when covered by some means of protection. Others, such as cabbage, greens and spinach, may also be finished with freezing weather.

By this time in October, it’s time to prepare the garlic bed: weed, cultivate, and fertilize. A quick cover crop such as buckwheat can be sown and forked in, if desired, as long as it has several weeks to break down before the garlic is planted. I aim to plant garlic in mid-November to early December.

As crop rows are harvested out, or as plants such as tomatoes and eggplant have finished producing, the debris is composted, open spaces or beds are weeded, and then sown with a cover crop. Cover crops are plants intentionally sown to add something to the soil, as green manure, and to protect the soil from wind and water erosion. Additionally they “cover the space” against seeding by weeds.

The harvesting of some crops, such as pumpkins, squash, and sweet potatoes, requires curing in a warm place for several weeks for optimum storage life of the vegetables. Likewise, dahlia tubers need to cure, although with them it is in the ground, for optimum storage quality. ID well and leave them for several weeks after frosting; then, cut them back, dig, and store wrapped in newspaper.


Acquire and compost manure any time during the fall. Manure of cows, with their unique fermenting digestion, has special properties that manure of horses lacks. It is a source of weeds from their grain/hay diet, so avoid it raw; but compost it or age it, and it is the stuff of gardeners’ dreams. Stable muck — not mostly shavings — is a nutritious winter blanket for fruit trees, roses, asparagus, and rhubarb, and conditions any soil superbly. Protect orchard trees from winter rodent damage with tree guards, which you can buy or construct from wire fencing.

Walkways and Terraces

Weed and rake walkways and terraces; they will remain in a mainly weed-free condition until next spring’s weed seeds germinate. Clear out, sweep, and replace items in garden sheds, then stow pots, stakes, plant supports, and hoses drained, coiled, and tied off. Store “like with like” and consolidate these items. Clean and store tools, and, if you are truly conscientious, oil the blades and moving parts. Sort seed packets and store in a cool dry place.

Lawn Care

Using a spring rake, rake the lawn. This always has a revitalizing effect on grass and the amount of debris it pulls out is surprising. Mow and edge the lawn, leaving the blade at a higher setting. Repair lawn bare spots: scratch up (scarify) soil and sow grass seed, lightly covering (again, with the expectation of normal autumn rains). Harvest fallen leaves frequently and add to compost. If you want to be truly ahead of the game, perform maintenance on mowers and weed-whackers, or take them in to the shop. Clean jerry cans.

Soil Testing

Take soil tests for lawn, vegetable garden, and ornamental planting beds: each has different requirements, so one soil test for all is insufficient. Specify that you practice organic management and follow up on recommendations. Get information, download forms, and get mailing directions, at UMass website http://soiltest.umass.edu/.

The Martha's Vineyard Hospital roof garden provides a restful place to sit and look out over the Lagoon.

I learned of the recent death of James van Sweden, the renowned landscape architect, as I planned to visit the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital’s roof garden. Beginning in the 1970s, van Sweden, along with Wolfgang Oehme, partner in the landscape design firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, radically changed the look of American gardens. Abandoning fussy, constrained conventions then current, they used “broad sweeps of long, flowering perennials and ornamental grasses…. It [the firm's design idiom] presaged today’s emphasis in landscape architecture on naturalistic and ecologically sensitive design…” (obituary by Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post).

An entire generation of landscape architects, American and international, is esthetically indebted to the late partners’ work. They were game changers: gardens such as the beautiful second-floor one at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, designed by Horiuchi & Solien, reflect their influence.

The hospital’s quest to build its facility greener in every way possible led to the incorporation of a roof garden, in addition to many other features supporting its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Our hospital has achieved the highest LEED hospital rating in Massachusetts, according to Rachel Vanderhoop, who showed me around.

It is easy to appreciate how the garden could be by turns exhilarating or calming. With its fresh air, sunset exposure, and lofty panorama of the Lagoon and Vineyard Haven outer harbor, the roof garden is secluded and intended to support patients’ healing. However, it also supports the building’s heating and cooling processes and helps in the management of rainwater run-off. Altogether the garden area is 9,704 square feet and helps to extend the life of the roof membrane.

Reminiscent of Oehme, van Sweden’s work, the garden’s striking ribbon of white pavers, forming the hardscape, appears to meander and flow, a broad creek through a sweep of prairie. The plant palette and layout, too, is arranged to enhance the spacious, flowing feeling.

Now, with the floral aspect of the roof garden almost past, the blond swath of the feather reed grass backdrop, speckled by dark seed heads of rudbeckia, predominates. The grasses respond dynamically to the breezes off the water. The rest of the planting, deepened in tone and consisting of perovskia, rudbeckia, salvia, agastache, and several varieties of sedum, has gone dark, apart from some perovskia and agastache, but nonetheless retains interest.

The plants occupy clever pre-planted modular units, supplied by GreenGrid, square or rectangular, shallow or deep, according to plant type. They may be removed and entirely replaced for maintenance and are supplied with irrigation, but the species planted have all been chosen for their ability to flourish under challenging conditions.

Groupings of comfortable seating furnish hardscape spaces, both in the open and under a porch through which one enters the garden. Although the hospital rooftop is a secret garden, its patients and the entire Island community are its beneficiaries.


Rich autumn color is erupting wherever one looks, and the native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is beginning to bloom. When buying a cultivar of this small native tree, for maximum impact look for one that sheds its leaves before flowering.

Now is when I overwhelmingly want to be in my own garden, there is so much to do, to think about, to start. It can be at times overwhelming when there are daily details to juggle; yet these garden tasks are emphatically calling too.

The decided lack of rain locally — soils are dry ten inches down — has put on hold some of the jobs one would like to be doing before dark, chilly November: for instance, transplanting biennial seedlings, such as hesperis and foxglove, and settling in perennial divisions.

Leaf harvest is ongoing and seemingly never-ending; acorn collection provides top-notch treats for hogs. Top-dressing with hydroscopic compost assists plants going into winter as it attracts moisture but needs screening out from rough piles. Thinking about bulb orders, placing bulb orders, and then planting bulb orders — energy-intensive creative work, hard to do on the fly.

Transplanted trees and shrubs need to be watered if “sky delivery” is not happening; if possible, put it off while it remains dry. Without a watering schedule the plants’ survival and subsequent good establishment is not assured.

There comes a time when imposing order on the garden takes precedence over some other factors, and one needs to be able to see what one is doing. Admittedly we often perform cutdowns just to get it done, especially when the plants are in need of division, even though plants’ leaves are clearly still photosynthesizing. Ideally, one would leave foliage of all herbaceous perennials until it was worn out, to insure that the crowns were as fortified as possible.

Oakleaf hydrangea

Thinking about plants my garden lacked, and to celebrate autumn more colorfully, several years ago I declared my intention in Garden Notes to plant oakleaf hydrangeas here at our place. This has now been accomplished, and three of the straight species H. quercifolia, one ‘Snow Queen’ and three ‘Amethyst,’ are ripening their foliage from deep green into shades of pink, red, and burgundy.

I have always found it surprising that I do not see more oakleaf hydrangeas in gardens. The plant seems well adapted to Island conditions, and with moisture-retentive soil is comfortable in sun or shade. Its coarse-textured foliage does indeed resemble large oak leaves and supplies welcome contrast to finer textured shrubs. The species grows to about eight feet by eight; compact forms are available.

Agricultural Hall

Homegrown, the vegetable gardeners’ collaborative, has its first meeting of the season October 20, 4–6 pm at Agricultural Hall. Meetings take place on the third Sunday of the winter months and during Eastern Standard Time, from 3 to 5 pm.

The West Tisbury Winter Farmers’ Market hours are 10 am to 1 pm. It will be held October 26th as well as three November and December Saturdays.