Winter starts to relent on Martha’s Vineyard

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Influenced by Venus

Dawn arrives earlier now, sunrise occurring before 7 am. On a clear dawn the SE sky is spangled with a glittering “morning star,” Venus. It rises a bit later each morning, rising at 4:30 am by March 1. The planet will be with us as a morning object until August.

Under the influence of Venus, many will be planning to buy flowers and flowering plants for their sweeties. If, however, you are the type who likes to make something, “sweets for the sweet,” I offer this recipe for homemade nutella. Known also as gianduia, the recipe is from the pastry chef Karen DeMasco:

5 oz. hazelnuts (1 cup)

8 oz. good quality milk chocolate

.25 cup Demerara sugar

.5 tsp. kosher salt

.25 cup grape seed oil

Heat oven, or toaster oven, to 350°F, spread hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast until fragrant and golden, 10 minutes. Wrap nuts in a kitchen towel and rub to remove loose skins. While nuts are warm, combine with chocolate, sugar, and salt in food processor bowl. Purée until smooth, adding oil in a slow, steady stream. Transfer to an airtight container. Let stand at room temperature until thickened, about two days. Spread keeps in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one month or refrigerated for up to three months.

Fond of February

In the natural world, February is when interesting stuff starts to become obvious. Far from being a perverse preference, after the quiet stasis of December and January, February actually has much to recommend it. Lots of sunny days; twigs start to color; buds begin to swell; spring bulb foliage emerges. Bird life and activity increase. It is actually those who whine on about how awful February is who might be called perverse.

Crack West Tisbury snowdrop growers report bloom. A bird dispatch from the Maryland Eastern Shore mentions earliest-ever egg-laying by bald eagles. A nest at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge monitored by videocam contains an egg laid either January 13 or 15. Either way, that is very early. This nest, the one on the videocam, now has three eggs — can spring be far behind?

In the garden

I am finding plenty more to cut back in my beds now that stalks are truly dead and gone. Cut back ornamental grasses that have been knocked over by snow. They will not come back up. Prune wisteria vines for improved flowering and less whippy vegetative growth. Look for the nubby, close-together buds near the bases of shoots: these will be the flowering ones. Shorten the shoots back to those buds. Prune clematis vines. Start seeds of cold-hardy vegetables indoors.

I am not a big forcer of flowering branches, rather just a small-to-medium one; our house is small-scale and I lack spacious places to display grand arrangements. This is, however, the time one would want to cut a few boughs, branches, or even just twigs. Forsythia, flowering quince, Corylopsis, witch hazel — these are easy and often forced. Foliage and catkin-bearing trees are interesting and worth considering — pussy willow, birch, or poplar.

Remove extraneous twigs from the lower portions of the branches, plunge into deep vases or buckets, and place in a cool spot with bright but indirect light. Many recommend crushing or slitting the butt ends to facilitate the uptake of water. It has never seemed to change the outcome, personally.

Speaking of witch hazel, I am observing with beady eyes the hybrid winter-blooming witch hazels, orange-flowered hybrids named “Jelena,” for first signs of natural bloom. Buds are showing color and have partially unfurled on days like this (Sunday, Feb. 6, with temperatures in the upper 30s.)

These hybrid Hamamelis are usually grafted onto root stocks of native witch hazel, H. virginiana; one of ours, I note, has suckered from below the graft union. These suckers can take over the hybrid scion plant, so check over your witch hazels for slim brown suckers arising from the soil around the main stem.

I would prefer to “pop” the sucker off with the Weed-wrench, rather than cut it, so must wait until the soil has softened some. For a more compact shrub, witch hazels may be pruned after blooming. Shorten the previous season’s wood (that grew the passé flower buds) to two buds.

The Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis) at the Polly Hill Arboretum began to bloom back in January and will soon be joined by other members of the family that are part of the Arboretum’s extensive Hamamelis collection.

Have a look and enjoy the quiet beauty of the grounds on Saturday, February 12, when the second winter walk takes place, starting at 10 am. Dress for the weather and meet at the Visitor Center.

Unsurprisingly, evergreens constitute a big part of winter interest, in one’s own grounds as well as those at Polly Hill. Use the opportunity of the winter walk to appraise what takes your eye. Familiarity with the names of at least a few recommended species is helpful when one confronts the tempting array one is likely to see at any good nursery or garden center. The Arboretum has put together the following list of conifers particularly well suited to Vineyard landscapes, among whose names I find coincidently a good number of my own favorites:

Abies nordmanniana, Nordmann fir; Cephalotaxus harringtonia, Japanese plum-yew; Chamaecyparis obtusa, Hinoki false-cypress; Cryptomeria japonica, cryptomeria; Metasequoia glyptostroboides, dawn redwood; Picea orientalis, oriental spruce; Sciadopitys verticillata, umbrella pine; Thuja plicata, western red cedar; Thujopsis dolobrata, Hiba arbovitae; Torreya nucifera, nutmeg yew. (Find the list at http://www.pollyhillarboretum.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/top-ten-conifers.jpg)

Homegrown meets Sunday, Feb. 20, from 3 to 5 pm at Agricultural Hall. Follow up on soil testing labs: Midwest Laboratories,
13611 B. Street, Omaha, Neb. 68144. Tel. 
402-334-7770,
 FAX 402-334-9121, www.midwestlabs.com; http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/soil-lab.htm; http://www.loganlabs.com/.