Garden Notes: Heat on our minds

From tick checks to fig trees, we’re in the middle of an Island summer.


We are lucky to be here. The Western part of North America baked in deadly, incendiary heat as the holiday weekend neared, with the death toll climbing into the high hundreds. On the Vineyard we had it not so bad.

The rainfall accumulation over the weekend was a healthy one-and-a-half inches, a good thing for an Island with a single-source aquifer. Last week, though — heat and humidity were excessive, planters fried, and everyone sought shaded parking spots.

The more greenery and shade we promote in every aspect of Island life, the better off we shall be.

Hydrangea isle

Visitors on the Edgartown streets find fascination in hydrangeas displayed in the gardens there, and ask many questions of gardeners working nearby. Although “in town” and influenced by the pavement, these are pampered plants, well sited in fertilized beds, with ample mulch, irrigation, and often magnificent nearby shade trees.

Garden and landscape help to create an atmosphere of calm, of beauty, of quiet and, yes, of coolness. The many hydrangeas in Island gardens are floral cliché, but beautifully so. Ferns share similar requirements, and make good hydrangea companions.

As a gardener, I cringe when I see hydrangeas struggling in ovenlike sites (such as south-facing buildings, fronted by paved sidewalks and streets). Like ferns, these plants crave civil conditions, deep soil, and water. They transpire at a great rate through their enormous leaves and multi-flowered heads of bloom, and require ample supplies.

If you desire a cloud of blue, and your site is hot and sunny, try perovskia, lavender, and blue fescue: Right plant, right place. Hydrangeas struggling in hot sites are floral travesty: Right plant, wrong place. Use the fern test, and provide afternoon shade.

Tick isle

Be sensible. The best way to prevent tick-borne illness is through a careful tick check every night. We cannot eliminate every warm-blooded creature on the Island, nor should we want to. We cannot curtail our lives to the point of living indoors and fearing nature. Adult forms of the various ticks present here, despite the disease organisms they harbor, are relatively easy to spot.

However, the micro-mini larval nymph forms of tick are much harder to detect until the attachment itches or turns pink; therefore inspect every itchy spot and “freckle.” Between the toes, under wedding rings and watch straps, behind the knees, waistband, and underwear elastics.

For older eyes, a magnifying glass, strong light, and reading glasses are as necessary as a pair of precision tweezers. Go over young children thoroughly as a nightly ritual; train them to check themselves for when they mature and get modest.

‘Baby Rose’ nasturtium

The All-America Selections nasturtium “Baby Rose’ is an intense cerise red nasturtium of finer-textured flower and foliage. It performed well in pots and in ground where I have planted it, nasturtium being able to tolerate hot and dry sites. The foliage is tidy: many typical nasturtium rounds of deep blue-green. The cerise color enables ‘Baby Rose’ to blend more successfully with a palette of pink and lavender annuals than orange and scarlet nasturtium do.

Fig isle 

Figs as fruit trees are relatively recent Island arrivals. They would not have had much of a chance until warmer winters began to be common in the ’90s.

There is as yet consternation about pruning, as most advice is reaching us from regions with entirely different climate and weather from Martha’s Vineyard, such as the Mediterranean Basin, California, and the British Isles.

Figs apparently require lots of water, despite having origins in warm and arid regions of the Mediterranean Basin. The leaves are large and decorative, as per the fig leaf adorning nude statuary; and when a plant is sizable, it must throw delightful shade.

My ‘Brown Turkey’ fig came from Sumner Silverman, who shared prunings with a garden group some years back. Sumner’s instructions: “Leave the prunings in a bucket of water over the winter, and pot up when roots appear,” which I did.

Although mine grows in a very large pot that goes into the barn for the winter, in-ground figs are increasingly common here, sited in sheltered pots. I have tried pruning by several different timetables. This year, I pruned in early spring with a lot of misgivings, just before moving the plant outside. I worried I might have pruned off embryonic figlets by doing this, but my focus was on improving the structure and branching. It is with relief that I see lots of small figs lining the plant’s branches, and enlarging daily.

Garlic time

For cooking and health, growing one’s own garlic has become a thing. Luckily a friend mentioned harvesting, because otherwise I would have been caught leaving our crop longer. (Everything is cycling through so unexpectedly quickly this season!) As it was, I checked, and the yellowed foliage indicated plants could be harvested. I pulled them and dug ‘French Grey’ shallots at the same time.

The garlic was at the peak of development: The outer paper wrap was intact, and it was before cloves began to separate. The crop, all hardnecks, pulled up easily, due to soil prep last year.

I cover-cropped buckwheat broad-forked in; top-dressed with Pro-Gro; seed garlic planted six inches apart in rows two feet apart; and soil mulched with straw. Most heads are good-sized, with a fair number of exceptional size. The big ones become the seed garlic for the next year’s crop, to be planted in November 2021. Use the smallest heads first.

The curing procedure is to pull or dig the plants and then lay them, ideally, on old screens or screen doors in an airy shed, out of direct light. Do not wash. Let them air-dry, and then cut roots and necks, or braid.