Garden Notes: Contemplating fair entries

And valuing the cogs and pieces of your garden.

Humble trio: Cilantro, dock, and dill flowers support pollinators and wildlife. — Susan Safford

Time to consider fair (August 16 through 19) entries: One day you are admiring how beautifully your cabbages or zucchini are developing, and the next day you return to find them leaf-skeletons, or collapsed.

All this is to say, on the subject of fair entries: Put your vegetable garden on a regular Bt spray schedule for lepidopteran caterpillars. These include the cabbage white, hornworms of various members of the nightshade family, armyworms, borers, and other hungry caterpillars of moths and butterflies.

There is not an open daylily flower anywhere on our place that does not have an Oriental beetle sitting on it. Unfortunately, there is nothing comparable to Bt that I know of to deter the Asiatic, Oriental, and Japanese white grub/beetle tribe.

Their white grubs are found in soil and turf. Milky spore products may be applied, but require time to become effective. The insects themselves chew on roots and flowers, such as dahlias, zinnias, roses — anything — or sometimes on foliage of sassafras and other bushes. The damage is being seen now.

Asiatic beetles are more nocturnal, retreating to the soil during daytime. In the cool of the day, morning, late afternoon, or at night, when beetles are slowed down and less active, it is easier to knock them into a jar of soapy water, where they drown.


Valuing the insignificant

The crescent moon, evening star, and three bats swooping over the garden create a peaceful mood. I aim to support a beautiful and abundant garden, unifying humble aspects that are the units, cogs, and bits.

I used to think of our vegetable garden as serving mainly us, and our needs and dinner. When I work in the vegetable garden, my routine is mechanical: Supply water; Bt the brassicas; cultivate and go after weeds; stake or tie in tall plants; compost and get rid of the passé and the gone-by.

Get rid of those bolting flowers alive with insects? Honeybees, bumblebees, hoverflies, small butterflies, robber flies, large and small wasps of many descriptions, and those who prey upon them, populate the umbels of dill, lovage, cilantro, and more.

Hummingbirds are harvesting an invisible something off passé foxglove stems. The pollen-rich poppies tremble on their stems as bees nuzzle them. Tiny sparrows peck at the “dirt” I walk on; it is home to life I do not know or see.

As summer turns toward its ripening phase, lively flocks of goldfinches comb over the candelabra-like seedheads of dock: spellbinding! Who has not fallen in love with them, the tiny, startlingly colored birds the Vineyard is lucky to host? Finches in general are seed eaters, and goldfinches cause me to tolerate the weed dock.

There are other, more obscure, reasons to tolerate weedy dock (Rumex spp.), especially when it grows on the garden’s outskirts, not in it. (Even seedling dock, unwanted, must be dug out, as it roots deeply.) Related to sorrel and domesticated rhubarb, dock has long been valued in herbal medicine as a mild laxative and detoxifier, using the dried root.

In winter, wildlife-friendly seedheads of dock are striking. According to Donald Stokes in “A Guide to Nature in Winter,” “Dock is a perennial, sending up new [basal] leaves each fall. These can be gathered in winter … They are long lance-shaped leaves which, when boiled and seasoned with butter and salt, make a fine vegetable, rich in vitamins C and A.”

These insignificant units, cogs, and bits — and many more — are probably the real gardeners, and I am just “the owner.”

Umbellifer relatives

The umbellifer (“umbrella”) family, the apiaceae, includes the above-mentioned dill and cilantro, also the currently blooming elderberry and Queen Anne’s lace. Umbellifers support pollinator species by the hundreds.

Mid-June saw many large stands of a form of heracleum, also a family member, on Island roadsides, mainly up-Island, but also in other ruderal (waste or neglected) areas of the Vineyard. Both “Island Life” and “The Flora of Martha’s Vineyard” list Heracleum lanatum and H. maximum as native on the island.

At least, I think/hope it was cow parsley, an oversize version of Queen Anne’s lace. The umbellifers include many lookalike poisonous and noxious species, including poison hemlock, water hemlock, and fool’s parsley. Giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, is an even larger, Godzilla umbellifer with toxic and invasive properties, making it a dangerous, uninvited guest where it appears. The main difference between it and lesser heracleums is the large-diameter, red-spotted, ridged stem.

According to Wikipedia, “[Giant hogweed] was introduced … as an ornamental plant in the 19th century, and it has spread … to Europe, the United States, and Canada. The sap of giant hogweed causes phytophotodermatitis in humans, resulting in blisters and scars. These serious reactions are due to the furanocoumarin derivatives in the leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds of the plant.”

Five or six years ago, maybe more, I spoke with a gardener who had been working in the Mohu area, and who had been badly burned by a plant used ornamentally. Her skin revealed disfiguring purple scarring many weeks later. She was unsure of the plant name, but described it. It sounded like a species of heracleum.

Gardens do contain many ornamentals that are poisonous; however, the above-mentioned wayside plants are not suitable landscape additions. Do not be tempted by the dramatic, “gardenesque” form; leave alone, nor introduce to your garden. If attempting eradication, make sure all skin is covered. Giant hogweed is on the Federal Noxious Weed List.

In the garden

Deadhead annuals. Cut back perennials such as salvia and nepeta. Sow crops for fall now: carrots, brassicas for fall, winter cabbage, kale, radicchio. Dig garlic before outer wrappers split; order seed garlic for best choice of varieties. Set new strawberry plants from runners.