Garden Notes: Don’t wait any longer for the freeze

A new name for rosemary, ‘Dreyer’s English,’ and a messy feeder’s merits.

Rosemary, essential ingredient in winter cooking, is now a Salvia. —Susan Safford

The sun creeps back, stronger now. The witch hazels are unfurling their flowers. A turkey vulture sails a wobbling course over the backyard treetops. Tips of snowdrops are peeping out of the soil. Indeed, a friend sent an image over the Christmas holiday of Central Park (NY) snowdrops blooming!

It is quite likely that somewhere on the Island — Tom Hodgson’s, probably — snowdrops are in bloom. However, the soil in my garden is cold: Snowdrops may emerge, the white tips of the embryonic flower buds encased in translucent green sheaths, but maddeningly, they hold and remain that way over many weeks.

Ornamental grasses are often suggested as attractive elements of the winter garden. However, by this time, oversize ones, such as some Miscanthus cultivars, have begun to shatter and shed. Even shorter grass species may have splayed by now. At that point, cutting them down at the crown is preferable, even though in terms of winter decoration, it seems a shame. It is much easier than retrieving the debris — scattered by strong winds, rain, and snow — from all over the lawn. Sharp clippers, handsaws, even petite chainsaws perform the job.

Remove leaf muddles and clusters from evergreens, hedges, foundation plantings, and general shrubbery. They can only catch and hold ice and snow, to the point of damaging the branches that trap them. Tying up boxwoods (also Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’) with twine is a perfectly acceptable alternative to burlapping; and deer netting is proving essential Islandwide.

We are all feeling our way with the changing weather patterns. The volatile freeze/thaw cycles have begun. They are a challenge to Island plants and gardens. Ideally, the freeze should be in place before heaping rose bushes with manure for the winter; the plants prefer to be dormant for this treatment. What to do if there is no frost in the ground? By mid-January, go ahead and do it anyway.

Rosemary and the taxonomists

The taxonomists have struck once again. The culinary and herbal standby formerly known as Rosmarinus officinalis has a new name and identity: Salvia rosmarinus. The venerable plant family Rosmarinus has been extinguished, and is now officially folded into the large and expanding Salvia family, in the very large tribe of Lamiaceae.

Botanists, it seems, have long struggled with Salvia, but have found the necessary similarities between these two formerly separate genera to make the determination. The means now exist to take a close look at the DNA of many plants, including rosemary, which is causing reassignment of many. Expect to see rosemary plants labeled as Rosmarinus for the next few years when you buy one.
Some Island gardens have the perfect, well-drained, sheltered spot that permits the semihardy plants to overwinter outdoors. The rest of us find that a bright porch or mudroom too chilly for human comfort is fine for rosemary in pots, like the flowering plant in the photo. As with all houseplants being over-wintered, go easy on watering and fertilizing rosemary until light levels increase. Let root balls dry between watering.

Winter availability makes rosemary integral to winter cooking and casseroles: hearty stews, soups, bean dishes, and meats, especially lamb. Herbal medicine uses it; rosemary “has been used since antiquity to improve and strengthen the memory.” Its long history in herbalism includes research as a stimulant and mild analgesic; as an anti-inflammatory; and to strengthen circulation and capillaries. Self-help uses include migraine; premenstrual tension; sore throats; and tired and aching muscles, even hair regrowth (per “The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants,” Andrew Chevallier).

Off-topic: ‘Dreyer’s English’

As students in Miss Cadigan’s Tisbury School English class, we were fortunate, actually, to have the supposed torture of diagramming sentences imposed upon us. When diagrammed, there it was, plain as day: the dangling participle and other grammatical no-nos.

My writing a column that is read by the general public causes me to check my grammar and usage, and so I purchased a copy of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” by Benjamin Dreyer (Random House) to keep the drier classics, “Elements of Style” and “The Chicago Manual of Style,” company on the bookshelf.

“Dreyer’s English” need not be read cover to cover. It is supplied with a good table of contents and index, and may be dipped into whenever questions arise, or wherever it amuses.

“Dreyer’s English” is useful to students who might want their writing to stand on a firm grammatical and usage footing, whether an ESL speaker, an administrator, a word geek, or wordsmith — chuckle as you read this book about our primary means of communication.

‘Feeding Birds: An Eco-Gardener’s Approach’

Chris Leahy of Massachusetts Audubon writes an excellent overview of bird feeding in the winter edition of “Native Plant News.” In case you are not members of the Native Plant Trust (formerly New England Wild Flower Society), a few salient points from Leahy’s article:

Contrary to ideas that have arisen about bird feeding in winter, the feeders we stock serve a limited sort of bird population, a “select clientele of seed and suet eaters.” Leahy suggests rather than regarding your place as a locus for a feeding station, why not see it as potentially diverse bird habitat, to be managed on the basis of native plant diversity. Birds’ survival is not dependent upon backyard feeders; far more critical is habitat.

Leahy urges embracing a wilder aesthetic, and the ecological value of messiness. One insidious threat to a biologically diverse property is the tidiness pandemic sweeping through communities, especially those suffering from what Leahy calls “rapid gentrification syndrome.” It eliminates all naturally occurring vegetation, replacing it with specimen trees and greenhouse ornamentals smothered in bark mulch. However, it is the undergrowth that sustains insect and animal life!