Garden Notes: Happy New Year

Sow some love this year.

Winterberry: a lively spot of red. — Susan Safford

“Plant dreams, pull weeds, grow a happy life,” a greeting on a card sent by lovely people. Today’s edition marks the new era of the subscription-based Martha’s Vineyard Times, and a new modus operandi for this paper. And it is an appropriate wish to apply to the big year coming up: a new decade beginning and awaiting its decade-nickname, to be bestowed by the witty; and hoping that Garden Notes’ “global reach” continues to grow.


NGB: Year Of The 

The National Garden Bureau uses its influence to promote various plants in its “Year Of The” program. The categories comprise bulbs, annuals, edibles, perennials, and flowering shrubs, and are for 2020 the Year of the Iris, the Lantana, the Corn, the Lavender, and the Hydrangea, all great plants. Visit the website to learn more and for other interesting news, such as which poinsettia clones were chosen as best in 2020 trials.


Mailboxes hold the promise of the coming year in our gardens. In every catalogue, look for varieties adapted to our region, the Northeast, as many kinds of garden plants have been developed and grown for specific conditions. Seed prices appear to have climbed, not surprising when crop failure and labor intensiveness is factored in. 

For seed saving, choose open pollinated or heirloom varieties; hybrids, while containing many superb qualities, do not come true from [saved] seed. A number of useful books have been written about saving and growing from seed. At the library, check out “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth. Another good book for an overview of how to do it is: “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible” by Ed Smith.  

We have only just turned the year, and still await the visible proof of the return of the light. However, certain plants have long lead times when grown from seed, and so, thinking about getting orders in is not premature, at least for some edibles. 

Onions, parsley, celery/celeriac, leeks, and peppers are a few to order early in order to get a good head start, and, with the exception of peppers, are cold tolerant too. Mid to late February indoor sowing is not too early for them.

If sowing from seed is what you plan, onions are an edible to check out in seed catalogues. They are a lengthy proposition, 110 days from sowing. Most catalogues also offer the chance to order onion seedlings as well.

The notorious freeze/thaw cycles the Island is subject to are in play. On a “thaw” day insert hoops for low tunnels over rows in vegetable gardens. I have just enough hoops for the rows of broccoli and ‘Beira’ Portuguese kale still standing in the vegetable garden.

It is a tantalizing challenge to try some new things and step away from “same-old, same-old.” For sheer garden reading and astonishing information, the gargantuan 2020 “Say No To GMO” Whole Seed Catalogue from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co, overwhelms with its array. After a time though, you really can sort your way through the detailed descriptions of heirloom vegetables and flowers. This catalogue aims to spread awareness of global crops of interest, and also to dispense a certain old-timey attitude.



These peri-solstice days are dull; even those with blue skies yield wan sunlight. The flash of red from the berries of Ilex verticillata (winterberry, black alder) is especially welcome in landscapes, and if you have a spot, a great addition to the winter garden.

As readers know, from time to time I have mentioned the wisdom of swales and rain gardens, particularly in view of the heavier rainfalls we seem to be receiving. As well, the built environment is being hardscaped to a greater degree, where driveways and patios are being increasingly paved, all resulting in puddling of moisture on properties. This is just where a winterberry wants to grow! 

Damp loving, native, hardy (zones 3-9), wildlife supporting, and winter cheering, this deciduous holly makes a good rain garden subject. Paired with blonde switchgrass, another native at home in similar environments, it brightens the dreariest winter day.

As a holly, winterberry requires the presence of a male plant in the vicinity to pollinate the tiny female flowers that produce the berries. Although many areas of the Island already possess male winterberries, to be sure plant one anyway. In damp locations winterberry suckers and forms colonies more readily than it does in drier locations; however, it is adaptable and happy even in up-land locations.

The following are two compact, heavy-berried winterberry cultivars suitable for smaller properties: ‘Red Sprite,’ pollinated by ‘Jim Dandy’; and ‘Berry Poppins™,’ pollinated by ‘Mr. Poppins.’

Two more typically sized cultivars are ‘Winter Red,’ pollinated by ‘Southern Gentleman’; and ‘Sparkleberry,’ a hybrid cultivar pollinated by male ‘Apollo.’


Holiday Stress

It is a dark time of year for many. It is very difficult to entertain all the impossible wishes and dreams that the customs of our Christmas season impose. (“Impose” and “impossible” here seem to have a connection.) It is not surprising that the holidays are a time of great stress and depression. 

One has only to talk with close friends to learn of scarring experiences indelibly associated with the holidays — often sadness and heartbreak so at odds with the ideal. Debt, crime, substance abuse, and traffic accidents will forever mar lives and the delights that our customs associate with Christmas.

Despite the overwhelming weight of custom, this is not how it really needs to be. We can have healthier lives if we free ourselves from these imposed and impossible patterns and behaviors that have nothing to do with their ostensible religious observances. 

Instead of swelling the landfill with the trash of the holidays, let’s enrich the soil each one of us grows in with personal integrity, love, equality, and peace. Happy New Year!