Harnessing bittersweet, harvesting kale on Martha’s Vineyard

Oriental bittersweet, seen here reaching for telephone wires along State Road in West Tisbury, eventually strangles what it grows upon. — Photo by Susan Safford

Have you noticed the bittersweet this year? It is heavily berried and it is gorgeous, such a colorful adornment to interiors, host trees, and telephone wires.

The holiday season is here; the house needs decorations. We bring the bittersweet inside; it does its job of cheering décor elegance, but eventually withers and gathers dust. Out it goes, whether to the compost pile or the landfill it does not matter, for some of the seeds inevitably germinate, bringing a new generation of strangler vegetation to somewhere on the Island.

Housecleaners, please take note. Dispose of bittersweet (and other potentially invasive berries, such as multiflora rose hip bouquets) by burning in the stove or fireplace.

In the Garden

If I am lucky I shall push the garden over the finish line and accomplish everything before hard frost. I have just set my strawberry offsets in a new bed for next year, planted some of the garlic rows, and have been carrying around five pounds of winter rye in the front seat of the truck for almost two weeks. I guess we could say, “do as I say, not as I do” one more time.

Seriously, there are so many garden tasks one can set oneself at this time of year, when “gardening is finished,” that I can feel my Thanksgiving pounds melting away without even getting up from my chair:

Apply anti-desiccants to broad-leaved evergreens, such as camellias and rhododendrons, or recently planted evergreens that might find tough going later; go around with pruning tools looking for the proverbial crossing branches; with a pole saw, limb-up shade trees to direct greater light into ground-level areas of the garden; continue raking; apply leaf mould or compost mulches to all deserving trees and shrubs; keep after English or Baltic ivy groundcover, which is loving this mild weather and growing apace — remove from tree trunks; eliminate cool weather weeds in driveways, gravel mulches, uncover-cropped areas of vegetable gardens, and around fruit trees. How about looking for scale insects on hollies and yews, and applying horticultural oil or insecticidal soap during the temperature window? Treating peach trees for peach leaf curl organisms? Digging radicchio roots for forcing? Manuring roses?

Slow Food MV: Kale Festival

The humble yet virtuous kale will be celebrated Sunday, Dec. 4, at a Kale Festival at Mermaid Farm in Chilmark. The event, from 10 am to 2 pm, will feature kale cooking demos, kale tastings, and potluck brunch, a kale cook-off and winter growing tours. The event is open to the community. Greens-cooking demos start at 10, followed by the kale cook-off and brunch, beginning at noon. Tours will be held throughout. Bring a potluck dish that contains kale to share at the brunch.

Inspired in part by the abundance of the crop this year, “the idea is to show how many different and delicious ways kale can be used,” according to Cathy Walthers of Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard, co-sponsors of the event with the crew at Mermaid Farm. “This is a day to visit a local farm, enjoy great food with friends, and bring home lots of ideas and recipes for using local kale.”

Before the brunch starts, the festival will feature four kale demos by Vineyard chefs, cookbook authors, and greens experts. Instructors include Susie Middleton, author of “Fast, Fresh and Green;” Jan Buhrman, instructor/owner of Martha’s Vineyard Culinary and Agricultural Experiences; Cathy Walthers, author of “Greens, Glorious Greens;” and Hara Dretaki, whose kale recipes are featured in the upcoming issue of Edible Vineyard. While the festival is free, each demo will cost $3 to cover food costs. The schedule and signup will be available at the farm, the winter Farmers Market at Agricultural Hall on Saturday, Dec. 3, or by email.

The cook-off and potluck brunch, featuring kale dishes, will be held from 12 until 2 pm. Bring one dish that contains kale (or collards) to share, plus copies of the recipe. The dishes will be judged at noontime by local school kids working with Island Grown Schools and the winners will be crowned kale queen and kale king. Prizes will be awarded, including books on cooking greens.

For those who would like to join the potluck and enter the cook-off, but don’t have a favorite recipe, there will be recipes to choose from at Mermaid Farm in the days before the event and at the Mermaid Farm booth at the Farmers Market on Saturday. You can also purchase kale at the farm, and from various other farms on the Island or at the Farmers Market.

In addition to the demos, take a tour with Mermaid Farm’s kale grower, Dan Sternbach, to learn about different types of kale, as well as growing the greens all winter long as the farm has done the last two winters.

Kale is highly valued for its health-giving properties. Called the “king of calcium” and a “heavy-hitting crucifer,” kale is often placed on the list of the top 10 healthiest foods you can eat. One cup contains more than 5 grams of fiber (more than a serving of oat bran cereal), but only 43 calories. That same cup provides the daily requirement for vitamins A and C, and 134 milligrams of calcium.

Bring a kale dish to share, plus your own plate, utensils, and beverage. For more information, visit the farm at 9 Middle Road, Chilmark (across from Brookside Farm with the oxen) or email slowfoodvineyard@gmail.com.


When “gardening is finished” is the time to digest approaches for the next gardening season. If you need a prod for the necessity of going organic, I recommend reading McKay Jenkins’s “What’s Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World,” (Random House, 321 ppg., $26). Highly readable and contains an extensive bibliography.