Garden Notes: Life depends on plants (and animals)

There are plenty of ways to live with the land.

Highbush blueberry shrub (with gray birch). — Susan Safford

The woods are beginning to look bare now. At nighttime, the moon shines through the cathedral of trees in a wintry way.

Is this a mast year? Acorns are numerous and cause for caution on smooth surfaces! If cleavers, teasel, and burdock were the inspiration for Velcro, then surely, acorns were the inspiration for ball bearings. Speaking of caution, contrary to misconceptions, adult deer ticks are prevalent in fall and winter. Tick check every night.   

Natives and invasives 

New England is celebrated for fall color; bright red coloration is undeniably eye-catching. Confirming the invasion of Island vegetation, red Euonymus alatus (burning bush) signals the extent of its invasion and is flagging itself now. Many who like it may ask, “So what — how is that a problem?”

No gardener needs reminding that life depends on plants: no plants, no life. It is entirely appropriate for us to focus on all things related to plants.

Paralleling the wetlands and waterways problem of phragmites in pushing out bulrush and changing those ecosystems, the problem of this euonymus is that it is an introduced species, able to out-compete and take over native ecosystems. Loss of native habitats harms complex ecosystems as their components struggle to survive within the changed habitat.

E. alatus is the scourge of suburbs in 21 states, where it has taken over recreation areas, parkland, town forests, and nature preserves, creating alien thickets that are costly to remove and to restore to previous conditions. Do we want that here?

Many invasive nonnative plants such as burning bush leaf out earlier, go dormant later, and produce tons of seed, which spread via run-off, weather, and wildlife. These are not intrinsically evil qualities, but do promote invasiveness.

If you are looking for red in the fall landscape, be discerning and check around in garden centers. There is plenty to choose from without creating an invasive problem for your neighborhood. Sunny sites intensify the fall colors of many of the following plants.

Most on the lists below may be seen at Polly Hill Arboretum. Brilliant native trees and shrubs of all shapes and sizes: Aronia, beetlebung (Nyssa sylvatica), pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), oxydendrum (Oxydendrum arboreum), native stewartias (Stewartia malacodendron & S. ovata), Fothergilla major and F. gardenii, shadbush (Amelanchier spp), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), witherod (Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides), and the excellent oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).

Expanding into nonnatives: crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia cultivars), witch hazel (Hamamelis cultivars), and many viburnums. Used with caution: self-sowing Japanese maples (Acer palmatum and spp) and kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa). 

From the website of Brandywine Conservancy: “Euonymus alatus is known as burning bush because of its almost neon-red fall color. While this quality — combined with its low maintenance — has made the shrub an ornamental staple in suburban landscaping, it has also become far too common in the woodlands of the eastern United States, where it is recognized as an invasive species in 21 states.” Read more at

Poultry care

Time to (yet again) don my mask, this time to clean the hen houses. I usually clean them in fall, when I can add the old bedding to the compost, but some goes on the vegetable garden, to mellow over winter (without fear of burning anything with it). Another use for poultry manure, recommended by Polly Hill herself, is as the best dressing for holly trees.

Winter is also the time when flocks are afflicted by blood-sucking mites and lice, which are external parasites. Their spread is facilitated in winter when birds are cooped up more often due to weather. Treat roosts and perches by wiping down with vinegar, and change out nesting material, adding diatomaceous earth to it.

Birds’ messy vent areas are often telltale signs of problems. If the flock is confined, provide a box of sand and ashes for them to dust-bathe. If unconfined, the birds will find their own dust-bathing spots, which is usually sufficient to keep their bodies and plumage healthy.

Internal parasites also afflict poultry. Make a wormer blend with a food processor: 7 tablespoons of cayenne pepper, a full head of garlic, a pound of pumpkin seeds, and a pound of rolled oats to feed in the flock’s hopper. You can go heavy on the cayenne: birds, but not parasites and rodents, lack the pathway for sensitivity to it, hence “bird peppers,” those fiery bits of Scoville units.

On a separate but related topic, bird feeders and birdbaths need cleaning too. None of us wants to stop feeding birds — observing them is often the whole point — although it is good to acknowledge that feeding stations also sustain bacterial, viral, and rodent populations. Good placement can mitigate rodent populations near the house.

Planting Island gardens and landscapes with berries and seeded natives where birds can feed, and that produce great fall color, is a win-win all around.


Lawn repair in fall is timely: rainfall and cooler temperatures assist your efforts. Refer to Vineyard Conservation society’s guidelines for the Vineyard lawn here

Everything goes somewhere. How do we encourage Island residents to think ecologically? How do we counter the over-perfected gardening and landscaping taking place here?

Part of being thankful and appreciative for what we enjoy here consists of being willing to sustain and preserve it.

Oysters cannot do it all. In addition to other sources, such as the airport, the toxic runoff entering Island ponds and aquifers from pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer applications of over-perfected landscapes is a major source of ecosystem harms, not excluding ourselves.

“We have to challenge the idea that contamination is just the price of living in the modern world. Our bodies don’t have systems to process plastics or flame retardants or pesticides. If contamination is the price of modern society, modern society has failed us.” (Russell Libby)


  1. Are there any island ordinances in place for protecting the bays and ponds from herbicides and fertilizers? Leaf blowers are another unnecessary methane emitter. And what about protections for old growth trees? Seems everywhere I look I see land scraping crews clear cutting lots. I wonder how many acres of forest/woodland has been lost over the last 2 years. Sadly, there’s no one keeping track…

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