Garden Notes: It’s February

And already the garden is getting away from us.

Cheering sight: early species crocus. — Susan Safford

“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Could this serious injunction of Lent be the King James Bible’s way of referencing compost and gardening?    

Lenten fare

The religious observance of Lent has begun, and with it, some forms of the traditional “cuisine of abstinence” may be served at Island tables to enhance this time of reflection. It is possible that for long-long-ago inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere, there was little to eat by winter’s end. Observing Lent might have had its practical origins as a manageable accommodation to scarcity.

Even in the early 20th century, before airplanes started delivering strawberries from California and avocados from Chile, by this time of year, larders were slimming down, and I do not mean Weight Watchers, although unintended weight loss probably accompanied the emptying pantries and cellars.

Does garden-related cookery, and eating locally, focus on this particular aspect of economical mealmaking? Meatless meals, fish, beans, pancakes, and other forms of pared down-cuisine feature in Lenten menus.

Fish soups and chowders allow a small amount of seafood and root vegetables to feed a family. Aligot is a French way with cheesy mashed potatoes. Irish cookery, about which we shall be hearing much in advance of St. Patrick’s Day, has contributed colcannon, potato soup, and Brotchán Foltchep (

Intending to make a large amount of fish chowder, and coinciding with Lent, I went to the fish market to purchase fish. After I inquired, I was kindly given a bag of frozen fish heads, backbones (“racks”), and fins and tails to make the fish broth chowder base.

At this point, what many gardeners, myself included, have is “small potatoes,” that dismissive phrase for insignificant or unimportant things. The nice large ones are mostly gone. Potatoes are integral to New England chowder recipes of all types. This is the method for cleaning small potatoes, to manage their prep. Wet them and drain in a colander; while damp, sprinkle with coarse salt; and then rub between your palms to scour off the soil. Repeat if necessary, and rinse.

Make the broth: In a nonreactive pot, cook gently ⅓ cup each chopped leeks/onion, carrot, and celery in a couple of tablespoons of butter or oil. Stir in washed and chopped-up heads, bones, and fins, and then ½ to 1 cup white wine. Boil to reduce, and then cover the bones with water, add four peppercorns, a bay leaf, and any green herbs you have; simmer about 20 minutes. Strain and skim.

Make the chowder: Chunk raw tautog, cod, or haddock, about a pound or 1½ to 3 cups, and set aside. Mince into cubes a 2-inch square of salt pork, and try out. (Or substitute olive oil or butter.) Cook gently in the fat a sliced onion or 3 leeks; then add about a quart of halved small potatoes (skins and all), sliced or cubed. Add the broth and fish pieces, and cook about 10 minutes. Add a quart of milk and ¼ to ½ cup butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with common or oyster crackers.

In the garden

It is only the end of February (Happy birthday, leap-year babies!), but the gardening year has already begun to run away with us. Early springlike conditions have been in evidence since the beginning of February. It is time to apply organic matter (compost, leaf mold, composted manure) to gardens. If soil is wet, do not work it.

Prune clematis vines. Clematis and the large-flowered hybrids are divided into categories: group 1, group 2, and group 3. When you buy and plant clematis, save the pot tag, or note the cultivar, for its preferred pruning.

  • Group 1 – Flowers only on old wood (previous year). Prune after spring flowering.
  • Group 2 – Flowers on both old and new wood. Typically, little pruning should be done for woody-stemmed members of this group. If cut to the ground or pruned in fall or spring, flowering will be reduced or delayed, but not prevented.
  • Group 3 – Flowers only on new wood. Can be cut to the ground in fall or spring. The group 3, sweet autumn flowering clematis (currently, C. terniflora), blooms on the current year’s growth, and may be cut to the ground. In fact, to reduce the self-sowing of this frequently weedy vine, the cutting back may be done in fall as soon as flowering is finished.


I practically sprayed my coffee when I read about the “tree of death” at the Tisbury (“School of Death”?) School.

It had been thought a Massachusetts state law made it illegal for poisonous plants, such as the yew in question, to be present on public school premises, but this actually applied only to schools with a majority of disabled students. The tree was removed, not because it was illegal, but due to an abundance of caution. And yes, it is true: Yew is a very toxic plant in all its parts. 

Laughably, there are probably hundreds upon hundreds of these plants around houses and in family neighborhoods of Tisbury, and also in the nearby Oak Grove cemetery. Taxus is a handsome evergreen that is found in a very high percentage of ornamental plantings: hedges, foundation plantings, and standalone specimens. Why it is not toxic to the deer that browse it so heavily is a big question.

“It is among the highest quality needle-type evergreens in landscape use.”  –Michael Dirr, “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.” Some of the best forms are derived from English yew, T. baccata, and Japanese yew, T. cuspidata.

Colorful red “berries” (arils) that birds love are produced on female plants of some. It is likely that a bird was the vector for sowing the now removed plant.

Yew is the source of the drugs tamoxifen and Taxol, used to treat ovarian and breast cancer.