Garden Notes: The appeal of quiet in summer

And congratulations to the just-harvesting vegetable gardeners.

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The latest, largest rhododendron, R. maximum, is flowering. Daylilies create banks of color everywhere. Towering oakleaf hydrangeas are like small trees, white flower trusses blushing pink as they age. The cresting of the year has occurred. Spring’s electric greenery takes on deeper tones as we begin our long annual journey away from the sun. Plant and animal life have far more sensitive antennae for these triggers, but humans also know it in their bones, even if unwilling to acknowledge the lessening of the light.

Mice are looking for winter homes indoors; squirrels are squirreling; birds are practicing migratory flights; pets start to shed; poultry begin their molt. Yes, this means that it is time to begin evaluating what entries you take to the M.V. Agricultural Fair (August 18 to 21).

Drought is taking hold of large swathes of the continental U.S.; Massachusetts is no exception, and 80 percent of the commonwealth is now in ‘sudden drought’ conditions. As weather watchers are well aware, those rain events keep sliding past the Vineyard and dropping their contents elsewhere.

Quiet ones

Liz Durkee’s op-ed piece, “Letting the Grass Go for the Health of the Environment,” in the Vineyard Gazette presented very good points: among others, that meadows absorb 70 percent more carbon than turf grass. Meadow (or woodland, also carbon-absorbing) with fireflies flickering and twinkling in it is one of summer’s sensory experiences. Silent and ethereal: Can you imagine a summer without fireflies? 

Fireflies are part of summer’s magic, especially for children, but really, for the sense of wonder in all of us. This summer they appear to be especially bright and alluring, despite the cooler than normal weather patterns, and there are many in flight in my garden and woods. 

When I stand in the doorway at dusk observing the three or four local bats sweeping overhead capturing insect dinner, I appreciate their soundlessness. I do not know which species these are, but their appeal is indisputable regardless, even if perhaps some fireflies are being snatched!

“Island Life,” by Spongberg and Keith, cites seven resident or migratory bat species on Martha’s Vineyard, all under existential threat: little brown, Keen’s myotis, silver-haired, tricolored (formerly called the Eastern pipistrelle), big brown, red, and hoary. Bats’ existence has been so compromised by habitat loss and pesticide-contaminated insects that their very ability to continue to survive is in question.

Another creature, silent and with its own but very different allure, is the turtle. By pure luck and coincidence, for the third consecutive year I observed a small painted turtle laying her eggs in grass near my henhouse. A Chilmark acquaintance well versed in turtle natural history on the Island confirmed that my circumstances are very much what a turtle chooses for egg-laying: rough meadow, on a sloping site, and with wetland or a swale at the bottom of the slope.

You may have noticed some “turtle crossing” signs as you drive on up-Island roads. “Island Life” cites five species of Island turtles: snapping, painted, red-bellied, spotted, and eastern box. They are all rare and becoming rarer, due to predation by introduced skunks and raccoons, loss of habitat, and other factors, such as acid rain (bit.ly/TurtlesAndPH) and roads with cars.

Damp woodland, with good understory cover of fern, dangleberry, and lowbush blueberry, gives Island turtles their preferred home grounds. It is said that turtles live in the same place all their lives. Therefore, let’s not kidnap a turtle and take it someplace else; it will spend the rest of its life forever attempting to return home.

The painted turtle incubation period is up to 80 days, according to Wikipedia. I have not observed any hatchling turtles from three sightings of egg laying; my hope is that hatching occurred, and that I simply missed it.

How can a turtle or a firefly avoid a high-speed mower? When grass is mown and shorn short, it is unfriendly habitat to turtles, fireflies, and much, much more: rare native plants. See “The Northeast Native Plant Primer,” by Uli Lorimer, for more information.

Get out in your garden

I dug some early potatoes on June 24, and took about 12 pounds of lovely ‘Dark Red Norlands.’ Paired with peas from the garden and lots of butter and dill, the combo makes a nice meal.

I had chitted these spuds way back, and then done something I had not done previously, which was to pot them on in grow mix and recycled modules. They went into the ground in April, spaced about a foot apart in the row. They grew beautifully under a thin mulch of straw from the last, carefully saved, 2021 bale. Now, a nocturnal raider is harvesting the remainder for me.

Keep bedding and annuals such as sweet peas deadheaded to prolong flowering. Asiatic and oriental beetles are spoiling roses and other flowers. Knocking them off into soapy water while temperatures are cool is 100 percent positive control.

Most vegetable gardens by now are yielding nice amounts of homegrown food. Congratulations to all for surmounting the setbacks and difficulties of bringing your harvest to table. Maintaining a regular schedule of Bt spraying, weeding, watering, and picking is often harder to fit in with busy summer lives than it might seem. (Freezing soups and sauces may be easier to achieve than freezing vegetables of the quality “the green giant” has led us to expect.)

Mid-July: Time to establish late summer and fall crops. The root trainers (pictured) were sown with 16 each ‘Romano’ and ‘Maxibel’ seeds and inoculant, to minimize root disturbance when ready to go into the ground. For the average household, small sowings of vegetables such as beans and greens make more sense than large ones; heat encourages bolting.

Tick check every night!

Questioning assumptions
Why do our lawns have to be bright green when we are in drought? Why do we take away the humus-making litter that trees provide themselves with, and replace it with “moisture-retaining mulch”? Why do we spray so much of the “habitat” we control? Why do we brush-cut it so no wildlife can live there? Why is a large workforce hired to clear away all that “debris,” leading over time to quasi bio-deserts?