Garden Notes: Camellias could be your heartthrob

And tips on choosing your seed suppliers.

Indoors, camellia bloom peaks just around Valentine’s Day. Here, Camellia ‘April Dawn,’ my own special valentine. — Susan Safford

Orion glitters front and center in clear nighttime skies. Celebrate February! Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society’s Meatball (Dinner and Dance with the Space Invaders), plus daytime classes, is planned for Saturday, Feb. 23.

I already welcomed February by shoveling out henhouses and getting the litter on fruit trees and vegetable garden, and by pruning the ‘Brown Turkey’ fig. Flocks of wintering robins usually come through in January, stripping berries off hollies. This year the flock seems somewhat later and smaller, and has been augmented by bluebirds. Small birds’ numbers appear to be diminishing: an alarming situation, related to global disappearance of insects (

Clivias came up from the basement after their two-month snooze of cool temps and subdued light. The rest of the greenhouse plants are also responding to the stronger light. I am gradually increasing the liquid feed I give some of these, and spraying citrus with liquid iron (1Tbsp. per gal. water).

Pick up the pot (if possible) to gauge water needs; if it feels light, water it. Over-watering, leading to root rot, is a typical danger to houseplants during the period of near dormancy and slow growth in winter. Check back to see if there is any water standing in saucers, and tip it out.

The potted camellias are a source of great pleasure; all have bloomed. Comfortably heated living rooms or kitchens are not good locations for them; if you have a cooler, bright space in your house, a camellia might very well be a heartthrob. What a way to improve winter!

The camellia pictured, ‘April Dawn,’ (zone 6B) is one of a number of cold-hardy camellias. Its life with me is intended to be spent in a pot, although it could very well be planted outside. It is described as blooming white, rose pink, candy-striped, or pale pink, depending upon age of plant and conditions under which buds formed.

Most camellias, despite having such over-the-top flowers, are scentless. A very special one is ‘High Fragrance,’ a complex hybrid of C. japonica and C. lutchuenesis. ‘High Fragrance’ produces a pale pink peony-form flower, with golden stamens mixed in the center, resembling many other pink camellias.

However, what makes ‘High Fragrance’ special is the room-filling, rose-like fragrance of the flower, which comes from the C. lutchuenesis genes. If interested in camellias with fragrance, other hybrids to look for include ‘Cinnamon Cindy,’ ‘Fragrant Jewel,’ ‘Fragrant Joy,’ and ‘Scentuous.’

Sources include Logee’s Greenhouses ( and Camellia Forest Nursery ( The latter supplies an extensive list of cold-hardy camellia cultivars suitable for here.

Occasionally, winter-hardy hybrid camellias are sold at Island garden centers. Keep your eyes open for cultivars with ‘Winter’s …’ or ‘April …’ in the cultivar name. Although not deer-resistant, when planted in appropriate locations these plants have a good chance of surviving and blooming here.

Seed choice

Seed-ordering time is here for sure, as seed starting for some varieties is coming up fast. I receive lots of wonderful catalogues; I want to run through the rationale I use for choosing suppliers, with the goal of supporting regional farms and farming.

Climate conditions seem to be faffing about, jiggly as a molded Jell-O dessert. This variability has always made regional agricultural research a valuable component for growers and eaters, and now more so, and increasingly. The agricultural schools of our regional state universities contribute valuable research to our regional food-shed.

Do your homework, please, and aim to support New England’s farmers, farms, and agriculture. The supplier of your seed does not grow the seed. It is grown and trialed by teamwork between researchers at state universities, seed companies, and seed farmers, in regional conditions.

Therefore, although beautiful catalogues arrive from all over the country, some of them every bit as eco- and customer-friendly as New England seed suppliers — still, be aware that seed trialing and farming is an integral part of successful regional agriculture.

It may come up at the talk on “Regenerative Gardening” with Roxanne Kapitan, Feb. 16 at West Tisbury library, from 10:30 to 12.

Valentine’s Day

Many sweethearts receive flowers and plants. Increasingly popular gift plants are succulents and cacti. They can be so cute! The subtly colored compositions often just sit there in contentment, demanding very little from their owners, not minding dry household air. They are undergoing a popularity surge, maybe because so many of us work a lot and live in environments that are otherwise not very hospitable to living plants.

I recall seeing my first succulent wreaths in the greenhouses of Allen Haskell’s eponymous New Bedford Nursery a good many years ago, and thinking, What a genius idea! Avant Gardens in Dartmouth ( has picked up the baton from Haskell, and produces a wonderful array of succulents, in addition to mounting classes in wreathmaking and container artistry. Check it out.

A good guide to houseplant care is Timber Press’s 2014 “The Greenhouse Gardener’s Manual,” by Roger Marshall. Marshall’s book contains an extensive section on succulents and their care, as well as many other plants an indoor gardener might be interested in.

Cream of Broccoli Soup

Using three easy-to-grow vegetables, this soup makes well from the garden at broccoli harvest time. If freezing it, leave out the cream until reheating the soup, and then add it once heated.

2 cups chopped onions
3 Tbsp. butter
1 lb. of broccoli florets, or 1 bunch of broccoli, cut apart/separated
2 med. potatoes, peeled and chopped
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream.

Cook onion slowly in butter over medium-low heat until softened (do not brown), about 10 minutes. Add rest of vegetables, and then simmer in broth until they are very tender. Purée in blender or food processor. Return to cooking pot, add cream, and check for seasoning. Serve hot.