Weeds, seeds, and blossoms mean spring on Martha’s Vineyard


Danguole Budris, Director of the Oak Bluffs Public Library, asked me to invite the community to participate in this year’s One Book-One Island program. The book selected is Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life.” Not only does this book examine a family’s one-year endeavor to eat as locally as possible, but it also makes the reader more aware of society’s current food culture and cultivates an interest and respect for local foods and food culture. Book discussions are scheduled for April 27 at the Oak Bluffs library, and May 5 at the Chilmark library. These are worthwhile events and a good way to incorporate thinking about Earth Day.

Highway litter

The culture of this Island is to respect our public spaces: even if you are not an Islander, you can act like one. In the last month or two, trash along the roads seems to have exploded into a continuous trail of visible junk. Why are we doing this to ourselves, tossing out so much trash to litter Island roads? Do you do this at your house? It seems mindless and imbecilic to fail to secure the loads in the back of vehicles, let alone deliberately discard lit cigarette butts or food and beverage containers out the window. This is not about one-time Earth Day, this is about at home Every Day on our island.

Growing degree days

The UMass Extension Landscape Message contains a feature — growing degree days. This year’s make an interesting comparison with 2010’s. Total accumulated GDDs represent the heating units above a 50° F baseline temperature, collected via instruments, for the 2011 calendar year.

This information is intended for use as a guide for monitoring the developmental stages of pests in seven regions of Massachusetts and planning management strategies accordingly. Currently in the Cape and Islands region we have accumulated 22, while by this time last year we 102! That is quite a difference, and shows that indeed last year was phenomenally early. This year seems slightly late.

Dandelion time

Along with the daffodils, dandelion tea-making time has come around again. The tea functions as a liver and kidney tonic, diuretic, and supplies some of the minerals the plant’s long taproots are able to pull from deep in the soil. I gather them, from wholesome sites only, (before flowering, after which they become bitter) and swish them, tops and roots, in a bucket of water, until they are free of debris and dirt. I use a pasta cooker to stew them.

The dandelions, in the insert, are covered with cold water and slowly brought to simmer. Lower the temperature and stew them very gently for 20 to 30 minutes. Lift out the insert and drain. Let any soil particles settle out on the bottom of the pot, or decant through a strainer into Mason jars, cool, and store in the fridge. After one acquires the taste, dandelion tea makes a refreshing drink served warm or cold, with or without sweetening.

“The Backyard Homestead” (7 April 2011 column) devotes several pages to dandelion (Taraxacum spp.) culture and explains how time of year affects various beneficial properties of dandelion roots.

You might want to eat young dandelion greens in salads. European market gardeners grow selected strains (some of which are more alike to chicory) of dandelion for this purpose. American seed suppliers are beginning to supply them, but many gardens contain an adequate supply — heh-heh — of common dandelion. I like them in a mixed salad that contains bacon bits, the greens lightly wilted with the bacon fat.

Akin to dandelions in being edible weeds are the drifts of biennial garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, in the Cruciferae, visible in waste places now. Russ Cohen, well-known wild foods advocate, speculates that 17th-century colonists may have brought it to North America to provide themselves with prized early spring greens.

We now know alliaria’s success strategy: its roots exude a compound that inhibits germination of other nearby seeds, weakening the competition and enabling alliaria to spread. Therefore, it has become an endangerment to natural places it invades, and we should eat or pull more of it.

In the garden

I am on Johnny’s Selected Seeds email list; this recently arrived: “Take the guesswork out of planning using our online interactive tools at Johnnyseeds.com.” It contains sections on taking the mystery out of gardening numbers.

Cultivate and weed now, to get a jump on a garden freer of weeds later. Onions in particular suffer from weed competition and benefit from a weekly inch of irrigation if the weather is dry. As a crop, potatoes leave the soil in an excellent state, so utilize that factor in planning the rotation you use in the garden.

Bloom time of forsythia and tax time on Martha’s Vineyard signal us to start the gardening season seriously, both for food and as ornamentals. At least one is cheery and welcome, but both overshadow another yellow spring bloomer of great charm, the several species of the Corylopsis genus, in the Hamamelidaceae.

Compared with forsythia cultivars, whose shades of yellow carry well, the soft butter yellow of corylopsis seems pallid and is less penetrating. Once one accepts that not all yellows must be blaring, however, the muted quality color and especially, dangling flower clusters of C. spicata and C. glabrescens are actually subtle and lovely.

Visit Polly Hill Arboretum now to compare the three species of corylopsis in the collection there, C. pauciflora, C. spicata, and C. glabrescens. There are other lovely sights and smells as well, such as camellias, magnolias, sarcococca, and carpets of spring bulbs. The PHA website, www.pollyhillarboretum.org lists other interesting plants that are currently in bloom.