Caring for clematis, preparing sorrel soup

Gardening responsibilities can seem overwhelming as the season gains speed, but a careful, focused approach pays huge dividends.

Photo by Susan Safford

Abigail Higgins has been writing Garden Notes since 2002, and she has kept a kitchen garden for about 50 years. A resident of West Tisbury, she is an officer of the M.V. Agricultural Society.

May Day: that phrase, this date, is so meaningful on so many different levels, has so many complexities, that I avert innuendo by merely wishing gardeners a good day in their gardens.

Among other arcane concepts, in bygone days “Mayday” signaled a vessel in distress. My outlook links Mayday, the signal of distress, and gardening. I encourage everyone to grow something — anything — simply to develop habits of independence, productivity, and connection with where you live.

Being productive by having a garden means also being resourceful, a word that has gone out of fashion with post-1980s profligacy and galloping consumerism. Around the homeplace, the garden is the spot where many discarded or scavenged items suddenly become useful once again.

Tall, anti-deer fences now protect most Island vegetable gardens. Did you upgrade from storm and screen doors to a combination door at some point in the recent past? If the old wooden screen doors are still somewhere in garage or cellar, they recycle well as garden gates, being usually six feet or taller, or drying racks for onions, garlic, etc.


Clematis in flower are arriving at Island garden centers, and they make tempting plants, so it is well to discuss them. As mentioned in a previous column, the pruning of clematis (pronounced “CLEM-a-tis”) is slightly less than straightforward, and when done incorrectly, it produces frustratingly few of the sought-after flowers.

This is due to the differing flowering times of species and hybrids, and how the flower buds are formed. Therefore, for reference, make a permanent note of pot tag information, including cultivar name and pruning group.

My source of information here is the “Clematis” volume of the Good Gardening Guides, by Keith and Carol Fair. The pruning advice is usually assigned by category: Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3.

Group I consists of clematis that flower in spring, which need to be pruned only if space is limited. They flower on their old wood. If pruning is done, it is carried out in early summer when blooming is finished. Examples of this group include C. alpina, C. montana, and C. macropetala.

Group 2 is more complex. It includes clematis that flower on short stems on previous season’s old wood, such as early large-flowered hybrids, the double and semi-double hybrids, and the mid-season hybrids, blooming before the end of June. As they flower on their old wood, pruning is essentially light.

Group 3 is composed of clematis that only flower after the middle of June and well into the autumn. They flower only on new wood and pruning consists of cutting back all the previous year’s growth to just above a strong pair of buds about a foot off the ground. The sweet autumn-flowering clematis (now C. terniflora, but formerly both C. maximowicziana and C. paniculata) that is a garden escapee here on Martha’s Vineyard, is a group 3 plant and may be cut entirely down to the ground in spring without loss of flowers.

Kitchen garden

Most of our vegetables are annual or biennial, sown from seed on a yearly basis, but a kitchen garden worthy of the name contains perennials as well. When Jonathan Bates was talking about the permaculture aspects of his Holyoke garden, their extent impressed me. But when I counted what I have growing inside the fence of my own garden, it was not exactly pathetic either: raspberries, perennial Egyptian onions, strawberries, rhubarb, comfrey, lovage, asparagus, and sorrel.

Some of these plants, while enduring, have voracious appetites and may dwindle away, if their need to be fed is not met. Manure and compost, in good amounts, is what produces robust amounts of rhubarb and asparagus stems. Others, such as strawberries, need renewing after three or four seasons. Selecting the offsets for rooting, and hoiking out the old, mother plants (sounds awfully Oedipal, doesn’t it), accomplishes this.

Cream of sorrel soup

Pleasures of the spring kitchen garden include using sorrel in as many dishes as possible, including Cream of Sorrel soup, most of whose ingredients are produced right at home.

Melt 2 Tbs. butter in a non-reactive saucepan and stir in one small onion, chopped, and one large potato, roughly diced for one minute. Add 3.75 cup chicken stock and one bay leaf; simmer gently for 20 minutes or until vegetables are cooked. Remove bay leaf.

Slice finely 4 ounces of sorrel leaves and place in a food processor. Pour on the contents of the saucepan and whiz until vegetables are puréed and the sorrel is finely chopped.

Return to the saucepan and reheat. Mix two egg yolks with 2/3 cup heavy cream and add to the pan. Cook until thickened, but do not allow to boil. Add 4 Tbs. white wine, 2 Tbs. butter, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Vegetable gardening class

Roxanne Kapitan, of Middletown Nursery and Oakleaf Landscape, invites those who are interested in learning how to do their own vegetable gardens to a series of comprehensive gardening classes, “The Backyard Vegetable Garden from Seed to Harvest.” Please call 508-696-7600 for more information.

Attention landscapers

In an era of increasing house density, ornamental hedges and shrubs present some of the best available cover for nesting birds. Bird populations face more threats to their existence than ever, as census counts of migratory species continue to fall each year. Please be aware of nesting birds as you trim bushes and hedges at this time of year. To avoid carnage, the sooner in spring hedges can be trimmed, the better.

Please also take care to secure plastic debris in the backs of trucks: a highly visible percentage of Island roadside trash can be traced back to the Green Industry.