Garden Notes: Biding time

December is not the month for outdoor gardening.


November 2020 was a tumultuous month, and another November windstorm blew it right out the door on the 30th. Yet another blustery front came through last weekend; brief power disruptions accompanied it, as well as a sharp barometrical drop, just under an inch, on Saturday morning, and over three inches of rain in the rain gauge.

Dec. 1 is when meteorological winter begins, although Dec. 21 is the beginning of winter astronomically. On the Island, early December is characterized by shotgun deer season, short dark days, flights of winter moth, especially in wooded areas, and heavy rains. It is usually a muddy time, with rain filling the wetlands and swamps: not a good time to work soil. Better to mulch and cover it, instead of stirring it and losing structure.

Luckily though, seed catalogues have begun to arrive, so we can begin fantasy gardening, in place of actual gardening. Pine Tree is almost always first into the mailbox, but the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Company’s humongous Whole Seed Catalog led this year. (For novices who may be just starting down the garden path, Baker Creek offers “Clyde’s Garden Planner,” a handy little chart to help make sense of everything.)

We ate the final counter-ripened tomatoes last week. For those who did not know: when frost threatens, pull up tomato vines, fruit and all, and hang upside-down somewhere protected, to finish ripening the fruit. Or, pick the fruit and leave to ripen on the kitchen counter.

Protect plantings

Before the ground is frozen, think about protecting plants from deer. Even with enough acorns, allegedly “deer-resistant” plants will be given a trial munch if your garden is in deer terrain. Once soil freezes, the rebar, posts, and stakes needed are much more difficult to install. Sections of rebar, heavier gauge netting (avoid “bird trapper” gossamer weight — ugh!), and cable ties are three items to help perfect your deer protection. Think, too, about snow load, which can pull the whole thing down.

Dahlia tubers

Dahlias have been frosted long enough now to send the plant’s energies into the tubers, which helps ensure a successful curing and storage. Many aficionados have developed careful systems for tuber storage; I must own up to being more casual about it.

I dig the tubers, examine for and remove the usual complement of earthworms, but let clinging soil remain; and then place the tubers and their tags into recycled plastic soil-mix bags, each cultivar in its own separate bag. (Luckily I have an unheated cellar, good for this kind of storage.)

What makes holly berries turn red?

The hybrid holly pictured, ‘Nellie R Stevens,’ is covered with green-to-orange berries and is able to ripen them by parthenocarpy. Holly berries mature at different times, depending upon the cultivar. Typically they start out green, change to an orange, and finally turn red. Usually cold weather will help ripen the berries, and most turn red by mid-December. The prolonged mild Island autumn may interfere with this process to some degree.

Growing food indoors

The Home Garden Seed Association encourages gardeners to pursue growing from seed, an economical and enjoyable goal that really speaks for itself.

Its latest bulletin is a shout-out for microgreens, those little packs of fast-germinating greens that garnish winter menus and give a heightened nutritional punch as well.

Differing from sprouts, which are germinated in water, microgreens are sown in a growing medium. They can be grown on a windowsill or on a kitchen counter under a grow light, and could be a fun, cool project for children who are at home with online learning.

According to HGSA, buy seed in quantity and do not skimp on the sowing. Fill a low container (repurposed plastics, such as tofu or small other food containers, are suitable) with soilless mix, and sprinkle seed evenly over the mix. Leaving small seeds uncovered may result in better germination. Water it and keep the medium consistently moist. Room temperature is suitable for most microgreens.

When the plantlets look or taste ready, cut just above the soil line with scissors. With some fast-growing microgreens, this may take just a little over a week. Suggestions to try: broccoli, cress, radish, and sunflower. Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers a bewildering array of sprouting seeds and blends, plus online how-to information at

Seasons and solstice

What makes our seasons, and what is happening?

Over eons, the winter solstice, the astronomical beginning of winter in the Northern hemisphere, has been important because it marks when sunlight reaching earth begins to increase again.

Earth rotates on its axis, an imaginary line running through the planet from South Pole to North Pole, as it transits its orbit of 365 days around the sun. The axis leans at an angle, tilting the earth. It is this angle and the presence or absence of sunlight that cause earth’s seasons. If earth rotated straight on its axis, there would be no seasons.

One-half of the orbital year, the Northern hemisphere leans toward the sun, and for one-half it tilts away. At present our tilt is away from the sun. The sun rises later in the morning and sets earlier, and appears lower in the sky. You can see this actually, with a morning visit to the GOES-East CONUS Geocolor satellite image at the National Weather Service and clicking the animation loop: The band of morning sunrise crossing the continent east to west is seen to be coming at an angle from below, because the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun.

Holiday plants

Household temperatures and low humidity may accelerate gift plants’ drying out. Check soil moisture frequently, and water only when the pot feels light. Remove excess water from plant saucers.