Garden Notes: What about a turkey season?

Because soon enough, they are coming to a garden near you.

Turkeys nibble at sprouting corn in West Tisbury. - Susan Safford

Being grateful for what one is given takes work, but is often the path to contentment. “Every disadvantage has its advantages,” a quote from the Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff, has been a key quote in our gardens; over all, a pretty good year.

Thanksgiving and turkey day, coming right up. And, increasingly year ’round, coming to a garden near you, it has also been “turkey day.” The flocks roaming their preferred ranges on the Island have swelled to substantial numbers. The damage they can do to a garden is substantial as well.

We were mystified at the damage occurring — rodents? — in a compact Vineyard Haven flower bed, up against a house wall, to plants that are known to be immune to that sort of thing; but the cause became clear when we saw the turkey phalanx boldly advancing across the lawn one day, as we were finishing up.

Another garden, this one off South Road, Chilmark, contains a small, fully fenced vegetable patch; the Tuscan kale the owner specifically requested kept disappearing, with nothing else touched. Several replantings later, the culprit was seen to be a hen turkey, flying into and out of the enclosure. She had apparently developed quite a choosy nutritional sense.

No one knows just how many feral turkeys roam the Island, but they are increasing here. Perhaps our human nutritional sense could be developed to the point of petitioning to open a season on them?

Currently the season for wild turkey in Massachusetts is Oct. 24 through Nov. 5. Because here they are not wild but escaped domestic turkeys (“feral”), originally enlisted as an economical tick control, sportsmen are apparently not allowed to shoot them. Over the years our family has had many Thanksgiving dinners that featured game; I anticipate feral turkey gracing the holiday table in future.

Wild turkey recipe

A recipe for wild turkey in “Eat, Drink and Be Merry in Maryland” (compiled by Frederick Philip Stieff, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1932), found among those for marsh rabbit (muskrat), rabbit pie, and roast quail, suggests dressing the bird and letting it hang outside on a porch for six or seven days if the weather is cool: “Prepare stuffing with fine bread crumbs and chestnuts as follows: Boil chestnuts until mealy, and mash them up fine. Put one half bread crumbs and one half chestnuts with some butter and mix up well. Stuff the turkey with this filling. Put in oven to roast, putting plenty of butter on turkey, also some small strips of bacon. Cover same with a cloth. While roasting baste thoroughly, and when turkey is about done, take the cloth off and brown it thoroughly. Put salt and pepper on turkey with butter before starting to roast.” (That’s it — no numbers, no temps, no times. Evidently, 84 years ago people just knew how to cook.)

Leaf harvest

After unseasonable delay, leaf fall is finally here. The upside of the delay may be that local drought-stressed trees have been able to claw back some vitality from the extended season. At least this week’s sleet was not early snow; when that happened some years ago in Vermont, it was a disaster for in-leaf trees, with broken limbs and fallen trees widespread.

It should also be noted that trees and many other plants like the mulch of their own debris. When we go into the woods, there is no raked and bare soil! While we think that cleanup is a responsible element of home ownership or gardening and landscaping, this is an entirely human approach, one of “lookism,” not one that benefits trees, shrub borders, and their surrounding soil. Lawns are a different matter; removing matted leaves does benefit them.

For gardeners, the harvest of leaf fall may be viewed similarly to all the other harvests, but this is a harvest of humus, carbon (the “brown” component of compost), and soil tilth. Stockpile them or run them through a mulching mower.

Leaf litter in beds and borders may be a plus, depending upon one’s own point of view. The litter keeps soils soft and protected from erosion, and performs many of the functions of laid mulch. However, like laid mulch, litter may obscure the presence of weed seedlings, moles, voles, and chipmunks.

Commence pruning of shrubs and trees once leaves have fallen and plants are dormant: Look for crossing or rubbing branches. Rubbing opens wounds in shrubs’ and trees’ bark. Crossing branches may be no more harmful than merely interfering with a tree’s aesthetics, but generally, a branch growing toward the center of the crown is better removed.

A leaf muddle is shorthand for accumulations of leaves lodging in plants’ interiors, especially of evergreens, and typically occurs in such as yews, boxwood, shrub hollies, and other broad-leaved evergreens. Remove them before snow or ice catches there and their weight deforms or breaks the plants. Leaf muddles have also been known to house rodents that gnaw the underlying bark.

Pluck boxwood ( to grow stockier plants less prone to breaking open under snow and ice load. The pluckings can be recycled into holiday decorations, or used to fill window boxes and containers. While clearing leaf muddles, take time to check how whippy the plants are. If they are bendy and split open easily, bundle loosely with twine or wrap with burlap.

Dahlia digging

New thoughts on dahlia digging by Matt Mattus are at his Growing With Plants blog,, including his recommendation to dig them before tops have been blackened by frost, and then washing and dividing tubers immediately. The reason is that for a short interval, a warty section of stem shows where new growth will sprout.

Drain rain barrels. Clear gutters. Thanksgiving cactus: Keep in bright indirect light, and water when the soil is dry.