Garden Notes: Get your garden growing

Practical crops to start with now. 

Wait until seeds germinate to water and until true leaves appear to fertilize. —Susan Safford

Island Christmas wreaths come down on Good Friday.

Being part of a shrinking cohort with parents who knew the Great Depression first-hand, I am interested in practical crops. Seed catalogues contain many options that entice: while some garden for whimsy, I garden for practicality.

Rosalie Powell of North Tisbury, our late Home Economics teacher, conveyed this reality through her classes teaching nutrition and the home economy. The recent coronavirus events confirm this, with shelves empty of many staples. It is timely to have some food security growing or stashed at home.

In the Garden

Clean and set up rain barrels.

Garden prep is ongoing. Never be discouraged by what you fear is a late start. Earthworm casts have just started to appear. Soil temperatures in my vegetable garden are just under 60 degrees F. The soil is drying, even after the inch of rain the most recent northeast gale dumped on it.

However, if your soil is heavy, to preserve structure, avoid working it when it is wet. Instead, weed by hand using a claw cultivator, and avoid stirring the soil.

Onions are a daylight dependent crop. Onions suitable for gardens in our latitude are called “long day” onions. Get these in the ground as soon as possible, to get maximum benefit of the increasing daylight and to maximize their size and quality. They need full sun and fertile soil that drains well, and an absence of weeds.

There is another group of onions that contains perennials that provide an on-going yield, albeit not in the familiar bulb form. This is the bunching and Egyptian onion group. Once they are allotted a small corner of the garden, there is always an onion or scallion at hand.

Other early crops that are ready quickly are spinach, kales and mustard greens, radishes, lettuces, and the rapa-type bitter greens. These are also known as rapini, raab, broccoli raab, spigarello, and broccolini. Keeping these Brassicas straight is challenging, but one thing not under contention is that very quickly they grow the gardener a highly nutritious meal!

If you have perennial comfrey in your garden, now is the time to dig and soak it to make comfrey tea. As a spray or drench it is an all-around adaptogen for plants, especially helpful for establishing newly transplanted seedlings and divisions. Stuff the comfrey into a five-gallon mud bucket and cover with water and a lid. Let soak (it will be stinky) as long as three weeks before straining and using.

Cutworm season is here. They will be found in soils when cultivating and cleaning up in the garden. These are the plump, mostly nocturnal, dirt-colored caterpillars that chew through newly planted seedlings. It gives me great pleasure to feed their insect protein to the hens instead of simply crushing them. When planting out early crops, such as brassicas, place paper collars that extend down into the soil around plants.

For inquiring minds, a website offering calendars for moon planting:

UMass Soil Testing lab expects to reopen (April 5), but check here before sending any samples for testing.

Potatoes, one of the premiere storage crops, are often used as a first crop in new gardens because they tolerate a soil pH that is lower (that is, more acidic) than what is ideal for many other typical vegetable garden crops. The bed where they are to be grown should not be limed.

Scab, the usually superficial disfigurement of potato tubers is caused by a soil bacterium that builds up over time, especially in neutral soil. Therefore, in established gardens, rotating potatoes as much as possible is one way to limit scab.

Lawn care, too, benefits from soil testing. Many lawns are limed and fertilized as a matter of course annually, when this is often superfluous. Moss in lawns is not necessarily a liming/pH adjustment problem, but may be caused by underlying drainage and moisture management issues. Although it is labor intensive, a good raking early in the season accomplishes wonders.

Nesting Waterfowl

Leaving the house and getting fresh air and exercise is a positive activity where permitted under the shelter-in-place regulations. Many are taking walks at nature preserves where Canada geese and mute swans may be nesting. It is well to remember that male birds may be very aggressive about protecting females and nesting sites.

Visitors here are often taken aback by the Brown Chinese geese that usually stand guard by the water pan near the front of the barn. Every arrival is loudly and enthusiastically announced by these watch-birds. To me they are beautiful and integral components of the domestic scheme. They guard and protect the poultry flock and “mow” and fertilize the lawn. They have even reared baby chicks protectively. Females lay in spring.

Their presence invariably provokes curiosity because for many people, these geese are the closest they have come to such large birds. While Canada geese and mute swans are common around the Island, the wild birds do not usually allow humans to come near. My Brown Chinese come right up to humans readily, honking, hissing, and generally making a commotion.

Waterfowl and Cold

Inevitably one of the questions asked about them, especially when seen in snow, is how do they keep their feet and legs warm? The answer, below, comes from Naturally Curious with Mary Holland ( How can Canada Geese or other waterfowl stand for long periods of time on frozen lakes and ponds? The legs and feet of waterfowl play an important part in maintaining their body temperature.

In summer, their large flat feet cool the body by releasing heat. In winter, the heat exchange system (counter-current circulation) in a bird’s legs prevents a great deal of body heat loss. The colder blood travelling back to the body in adjacent veins cools the warm arterial blood going into the bird’s feet. Constricted blood vessels in the legs further conserve heat.

Domestic geese are a feature of life that is disappearing on Martha’s Vineyard, which is a shame. They are easy keepers, asking for little, other than some cracked corn, and provide much in return. The eggs are roughly equivalent to two large hen eggs.