Garden Notes : Thinking winter
"What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom." - Scottish economist Adam Smith.
Having a garden is sound home economics, not only as a bulwark against total dependency but also as an emotional safeguard against idle hours and anomie. Our "fearless leaders" (fearful, is more like it) have disdained Adam Smith's advice while deceitfully invoking his name, and now it is left to us to pick up the pieces.
Island friends and neighbors, from one end of the Vineyard to the other, are no different from people nationwide in trying to read the tea leaves of our economic future. Holiday season lays special pressures on all; having become a resort Island almost wholly in the service economy makes the fabric of Island life sensitive to every economic contraction. My simplistic-sounding advice: get gardening and grow something. Plow anxiety and frustration, or extra hours stemming from work slow-downs, into profitable use.
Photo by Susan Safford
Right now, that would be raking leaves, also tree litter after storms. Collect as much as you can and pile it. Collect any other organic matter you can get your hands on. Start piling and turning it so you have broken-down matter to use as a soil additive. Odds and ends or recycled materials are often perfect for making a surround, which is helpful but not absolutely necessary. A chipper is a great asset for speeding the breakdown process, perhaps a luxury right now. (In a more perfect world chippers would make ideal shared neighborhood appliances.)
If there is a vegetable garden where you live, organic matter can be heaped on it and slowly dug in, or brought in contact with the soil in some way, over the course of the winter. Treat flowerbeds similarly; if they already contain plant material, extra care must be taken because crowns of perennials dislike being smothered or dug through. Overall, the idea is incorporation of maximum organic matter (even deer guts or scallop debris) acquired free, to feed the soil.
If you are just starting, the eventual garden may be created in the footprint of the pile; choose the location with that in mind. During the winter the pile will start to condition the soil beneath it, making it easier to work later on in the spring. Rather than dumping them, recycle ashes from fireplaces and woodstoves by evenly sprinkling them over the piles of debris.
Homegrown meets to talk about soil from 2 to 4 pm Sunday, December 7, at the Howes House.
Grow your own decorations
Privacy, or lack thereof, is one of the elements exposed by leaf-drop. Perhaps over the Thanksgiving holiday there has been time to walk around to look at the premises with the added clarity that bare branches bring. Nothing adds dimension to a winter garden, or to the settled-in look of a property, like a wealth of well-placed trees and shrubs, including evergreens. The coming winter holds many hours for poring over images in various media to identify good prospects. A grouping of strategically placed trees or shrubs might bulk up the feeling of privacy. Evergreen or bushy plantings on the grounds shelter wintering populations of small birds. If the plantings include berried plants, the grounds are decorated and the birds fed as well.
A less known but spectacular berried plant that comes into its own as autumn commences is callicarpa, the beautyberry. This genus contains several species, among them C. americana, C. dichotoma, and C. japonica. They are unpretentious green filler for foundation or shrubbery plantings for the first part of the season but by summer's end, callicarpa leap into focus. Their stems become clustered wands of startling violet-to-purple berries, splendidly audacious in landscape or vase.
Callicarpa creates maximum effect when planted in groups rather than singly and plants seem to bear more profusely when planted together. Reference books by Michael Dirr reflect his changing view of the Callicarpa species: he formerly extolled C. japonica in "Manual of Woody Plants" but came to favor C. dichotoma in "Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs." However, the callicarpa most commonly available is neither, but instead a somewhat compact, heavily fruiting selection, C. bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion.' Plant callicarpa in sun to light shade in fertile, acidic soil.
Flash of scarlet
A saying around here is "winter doesn't start until the swamps are full," meaning that heavy autumn rains usually precede onset of real winter. The rudely familiar weather pattern: dark days accompanied by steady downpour and lashings of wind. There beside the road, in the midst of a flooding wetland puddle, is a flash of vivid scarlet, the more flaring for the dreary gloom. As always at this time of year, numerous examples of winterberry (mostly Ilex verticillata), both wild and cultivated, excite the eye and spark the scenery. Typical of the Holly family, the berried plants are female.
In pursuing the Vineyard ambience, it is hard to go wrong with winterberry. Garden-worthy cultivars, hybrids, and selected strains adapt perfectly to the garden, foundation planting, or shrubbery. Visit the Polly Hill Arboretum to observe and learn about the sheer extent of hollies, callicarpa and other berried plants, and evergreen plant material on display there. Visualize them in your garden.
Deciduous hollies are stoloniferous to a greater or lesser degree and, as seen at Polly Hill, not all are red-berried, or even I. verticillata, but the wild winterberry types thriving in wetland are often colonizers, extending their own family clumps around the original plant. With such a large native gene pool on hand, pollination is usually successful; but for maximum berry production, named winterberries are paired with specific male pollinators, one male to five females. Therefore note the pot tag: e.g., popular 'Winter Red' and 'Sparkleberry' synchronize with 'Southern Gentleman,' while 'Red Sprite,' an excellent compact winterberry, synchronizes with 'Jim Dandy.'