Fall on Martha’s Vineyard is fine for starting some plants

Caldo verde calls for finely cut kale, best accomplished with a couves cutter like the one shown here. — Photo by Michael Benevides

Summer is about to turn into fall. Our gardens enter the long slow slide into senescence and oblivion; or that is the official version. But as Islanders know, the end here never seems to come with the convenient bang that allows us to be over and done with gardening and garden chores.

Which is a good thing because, as a recent initiative by the British Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to encourage traditional gardening practices emphasizes, much gardening can and should be done in fall and is likely to be more economical as well.

As reported in the Telegraph, an RHS survey of one thousand gardeners showed that only six percent bought plants in fall, compared with 68 percent who did so in spring and summer. Seventy-five percent thought spring or summer was the best time for planting.

“The RHS says this is wrong and has launched a campaign to revert to traditional horticultural practices and plan their flower beds more than six months ahead….” the Telegraph report noted.

“Not only is timing of planting essential for a flourishing garden but also picking the right plant in the first place. Gardeners are…encouraged to resist the temptation to buy plants which look attractive without taking into account key factors such as soil conditions.”

As the RHS spokesman points out in the article, planting something in flower immediately stresses it because it is trying to flower and root at the same time. Island nurseries currently have good deals on many plants; our maritime fall climate permits a lengthy period for root systems to establish without having to carry bloom.

While on the topic of traditional gardening practices, some of the most important are seed saving, growing from seed, and propagating. As the cost of doing business mounts for all, so does the cost of gardening. What may have been for some an almost cash-free activity at one time has become big business, and how to do it in economical fashion is fading from memory, along with the skill-set.

This fall, before seed heads deteriorate completely, try finding something in the garden to save as seed. Marigolds might be a good plant. Although most modern garden annuals are hybrid in origin, you will most likely get usable seed that resembles the parent plant. Or save some beans from the vegetable garden. Let the pods mature and start to dry before cutting them off the plant. Spread out seeds to be saved in a warm dry place on toweling or newspaper before storing in spice jars or envelopes. Remember to identify and date. Some store their seed in the fridge — a cool, dark, dry environment.

In the flower garden, lift and split perennials. If you have not performed this maneuver before, it can be terrifying (because you think you will kill the plant) and exhausting (because it is somewhat like a tooth extraction).

This results in many more usable pieces of plants than you can usually replant, so plan to have some of those surplus nursery pots handy. Pot up the extras, tag, and share with your friends. September is traditionally recommended as the correct time to divide peonies and iris rhizomes. If there is compost or leaf mold, this is the time to incorporate it into the bed area. Reset the plants you select and water in well.

Dividing perennials is just one form of propagation; there are numerous others. Having done it, one feels like a more capable gardener. It is also a means for reorganizing beds, which often over time becomes necessary.

Couves cutters and caldo verde

Many islanders, of Portuguese descent or not, pride themselves on their kale soup because it is satisfying and delicious, and plus, the hearty dish has become integral to our idea of local food. This kale soup is usually made with the kale most commonly available here — curly, or “Scotch” kale — along with beans, onions, potatoes, wine, sometimes carrots, and linguiça or chouriço.

There is another form of kale soup less commonly encountered today, made with similar ingredients but put together differently. Called caldo verde, this recipe features finely cut kale, either chiffonaded by hand, or shredded using a traditional cutter, a maquina de caldo verde.

Traditionally, caldo verde is made with Portuguese kale. There are two types, couve gallego (Brassica olearacea var. acephala) or that preferred by Azoreans and Madeirans, couve tronchuda, (Brassica oleracea var. costata). The leaves, unlike curly kale, are large, ruffled, and tenderer, somewhat resembling collards. Seeds are now available from several sources, such as Pinetree, Johnny’s, and Seeds from Italy, or you can save your own.

Caldo verde: 6 cups water; 2 tablespoons olive oil; 3 medium potatoes, peeled and halved; 3 cups shredded or julienned Portuguese kale; 1 tablespoon of salt.

Place cold water, olive oil, salt and potatoes in a large soup pot, bring to a boil and simmer gently until potatoes are tender. Remove potatoes, mash and return to the liquid. Stir and bring to a boil. Add the Portuguese cabbage and cook, simmering, uncovered, until cabbage is cooked but still bright green, 10 minutes. If using curly kale, you’ll need to cook it longer, about 15 minutes, so that it is tender. Serve in a small bowl with a thin slice of chouriço or linguiça on top and corn bread on the side (recipe by Wanda A. Adams).

Other Portuguese dishes made with shredded couves include milho, a polenta-like cornmeal with couves, and grelos, stir-fried couves with garlic. Along with caldo verde, both are fixed quickly for a meal and are superbly nutritious, and so make good additions to the autumn kitchen repertoire.

Portuguese couves cutters (maquina de corta couves) are available from Portugalia Imports, Inc. in Fall River, 23 Tremont St., 508-679-9307.