Garden Notes: Thanksgiving, and what follows

The death of plants makes room for more plants.

Lifetime plants and holiday decor: colorful Schlumbergeras. —Susan Safford

The recent wintry mix announced we are staring down the mouth of winter, and year’s end. Dig planting holes for living Christmas trees now.

It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving at our house without the four large schlumbergera (formerly zygocactus) plants in bloom. They have been mounting this spectacle reliably for years. The originals, from which many gift plants have been propagated, were two blooming plants in tiny pots bought for pennies from the A&P 49 years ago. From this you may infer that holiday cacti are lifetime plants.

Care advice has now become streamlined; but it used to comprise complicated directions to withhold water, place plants in the closet or cellar or other light-free place while the buds developed, and bring forth three weeks before Thanksgiving.

Now the experts in these epiphytes from Brazil say forget all that. Instead: Spring, fertilize after flowering. Summer, move outdoors to a shady area. Fall, move inside before frost, and keep dry. Repot infrequently using a cactus mix. Watch for rot. Keep them in bright but indirect light for best foliage color. Shop locally for schlumbergeras or mail order from Logee’s (

Locavore Thanksgiving

Regardless of the data, here on the Vineyard we can garden and grow for an extended season, something to be truly thankful for. A convenient feature of the revamped Eversource billing format states that this November’s average temperature was five degrees cooler than last year’s.

Island agriculture is increasing, slowly but surely, which means that more and more we can, if we wish, eat locally. Maybe not all the time, and maybe not all of us, currently, but an Island Thanksgiving meal can be entirely Island-grown. Throughout the post-WWII era, with the exception of seafood, this was not really common.

For your locavore Island Thanksgiving meal, among the better known, the GOOD Farm produces delicious turkeys, the FARM Institute and the Grey Barn offer a variety of meat and dairy, as do Allen Farm, Mermaid Farm, and Morning Glory Farm. Dan Sternbach, one of Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society’s new trustees, grows small grains. Many smaller producers are to be found at the Winter Farmers’ Market at Agricultural Hall on Saturdays.

I am excited and grateful for the increasing range of Island food production. I have long been aware of our dependence and the tenuousness of island supply lines in the case of unexpected eventualities or catastrophes.

Tropical cuisines or Southeast Asian ones require facilities that stretch home growers, and include many, many food-miles. My own kitchen’s cuisine, if you can call it that, is based on what can be produced here, and made out of the freezer and pantry. You do not need acres. Beans, potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, onions/garlic/leeks: you get the idea.

Jim Athearn suggests that home growers can produce their own cornmeal, an idea not as outrageous as it might sound, and then homegrown baked goods become possible. Acorns and chestnuts were a staple of pre-Contact Native American diets here, and today a bumper crop of acorns makes acorn flour possible. (Culinary arts classes could look into this project.)

Working and time constraints require a repertoire of recipes I know well and can make easily, and that fit together with what we grow at home, and what is available from the Island, or from Massachusetts. A growing number of families devote a weekend per month to cooking. Recipes are dovetailed so that an intensive cook-in produces a month’s meals. Your meals are produced more easily, with less prep, for a lengthy time after. Here is one:

Observe and learn

Landscape planting should be a thoughtful process. There is planting with forethought, and uninformed planting. I can think of many examples, and one we deal with currently, doing fall cleanup, is trumpet vine (Campsis radicans).

Beware, enthusiastic lovers of trumpet vine (such a wonderful hummingbird attractor!): Do you know that one plant can sprout up all over your gardens, pull down your stone walls, and even open up and invade wood-framed buildings? The problem with trumpet vine is not how to grow it but how to restrain it.

We work in several gardens where these vines have exceeded control efforts, their underground stoloniferous roots suckering and spreading profusely. Removing the seedpods helps to control spread by seeding (although not the colonizing root spread), and according to “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” extends the season of bloom.

There are a number of forms, ranging from yellow to apricot through orange and scarlet to blood-red. Newer introductions include exciting hybrid forms of Campsis x tagliabuana. Though beautiful and a hummingbird attractant, trumpet vine is a tremendous, rampant weed. Be forewarned.

The inevitable

Gardens grow shadier over time. We recently had to have three large evergreens removed. The trees, beautiful, blue-needled concolor firs (Abies concolor), had become over-mature. They were creating way too much shade for the garden and house, despite their senescence, and were further weakened in the March 2018 blizzard. There was danger that the next blizzard would bring them down, destructively helter-skelter.

We had planted them as transplanted seedlings in 1983. They grew beautifully and attracted many comments. The scheduled removal felt like an assassination, and on the morning of the operation, I watched with sadness as bluejays and other small birds flocked within their branches, where for all these many winters shelter would be found. The experience reinforces the intention to try to think about what one plants, how it will fit, and how it will perform over time.

Long story short: Replacements are already planted. A yellow buckeye, Aesculus flava, and three hydrangeas on trial from Bailey’s Nursery, for starters, with more to come, probably viburnums. To paraphrase Polly Hill, losing plants creates the opportunity to plant more.