Garden Notes: Life’s treasures

Gifts of Epiphany and resolutions for 2023.


The gifts of Epiphany (Jan. 6) may be expanded to mean, in the wider secular sense, that what we have here on Earth is precious: that we have been given precious gifts by our Creator, not produced by ourselves, and not to be taken for granted or disregarded.

  • No one will ever get out of this world alive. Resolve therefore to maintain a reasonable set of values.
  • Take care of yourself. Good health is everyone’s major source of wealth. Without it, happiness is almost impossible.
  • Resolve to be cheerful and helpful. People will repay you in kind.
  • Avoid angry, abrasive persons. They are generally vengeful.
  • Avoid zealots. They are generally humorless.
  • Resolve to listen more and talk less. No one ever learns anything by talking.
  • Be chary of giving advice. Wise people don’t need it, and fools won’t heed it. 
  • Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.
  • Do not equate money with success. There are many successful moneymakers who are miserable failures as human beings. What counts most about success is how a person achieves it.

Order early

Catalogs are piling in. Everyone has experienced the irritation of supply-line interruptions recently; does not seem to matter what — there is delay. Looks as though this year is really not a good time to procrastinate! 

Holiday cactus

Now that holiday cacti (Schlumbergera) have finished their display, they may be pruned back. Magnificent older specimens, especially, can become quite awkward and top-heavy. Rebalance and renew by trimming and feeding after bloom. Root the trimmings in pots with a free-draining, soilless mix plus plenty of perlite: next year’s holiday gift plants.

As soon as the days begin to lengthen, it is a signal to insect pests on indoor plants to ramp up their life cycles. Watch for signs of whitefly or honeydew on foliage, which reveals the presence of scale-type insects. In my view there is no way to “absolutely, permanently” prevent them, but a combination of insecticidal soap and horticultural oil keeps populations in check without adding anything toxic to the indoor environment. 

Many holiday plants, such as poinsettias and cyclamen, prefer to be watered from below. Let houseplants dry completely between waterings; this may help control fungus gnats in soils.

Winter vegetable: Leeks

The leek is an onion family member that is an economical, low-labor, cold-hardy vegetable. Not only that, but also the leek makes any recipe it is used in taste better. I am certain this is why the French have such a culinary love affair with them.

Potage Bonne Femme, the heated version of vichyssoise, is made with leeks, potatoes, chicken stock, and cream: staples readily available from the garden and rural home.

If purchased, leeks are pricey. Those pictured are seedlings from a previous year’s leek crop, the flower head of which was allowed to self-seed. In early August, the seedlings were transplanted into trenches, to achieve longer blanched stems. Although more elaborate recipes for braised leeks exist, this one is simple and satisfying:

Braised leeks

Wash trimmed leeks thoroughly, and cut in half. Melt enough butter to cover the bottom of a heavy skillet. Add leeks and ½ cup stock, and cover tightly. Turn heat to low, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender. Season to taste and serve. If desired, sprinkle with grated cheese, or serve with a Cheddar cheese sauce.

Winter flower: Hellebores

Hellebores come into their own between Christmas and Easter, which is the reason we love them. Not only are blossoms large and showy, supporting pollinators venturing out in improbable seasons, but also leathery, patterned foliage is handsome on its own. Maintenance in humus-rich, organic soils and part shade is simple: Remove any tattered or brown leaves now. 

It will never happen here?

Previewing NOAA’s weather predictions through February 2023:

Starting in December 2022 through the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, heat and drought continue to be threats throughout a large percentage (59 percent) of the U.S. An ongoing La Niña is the basis for these predictions, although globally there is much additional going on. Hmm.

Per AgWeb: A worsening drought in the Southern Plains is threatening the region’s winter wheat crop as the Russian invasion of Ukraine puts pressure on global supplies. Some farmers in the main wheat-growing areas of Kansas, the nation’s top wheat-producing state, have not received much rain or snow since October 2021.

Winter wheat is seeded in autumn, remains dormant over winter, and begins sending up green shoots in spring. Soil moisture is critical at this point for the crop to thrive. More than half of Kansas was classified as under severe drought as of March 8, 2022, the driest conditions since 2018, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

As of March 6, 2022, just 24 percent of Kansas’ wheat crop was in good condition or better, while 39 percent was rated poor to very poor, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That is the lowest rating for this point of the season in four years, the agency’s data shows. 

While here on Martha’s Vineyard, we generally feel blessed and insulated, what happens in the rest of the country and world eventually ripples home to us. Even here, increasing food cost and drought cannot be ignored. 

All our groundwater comes from the sky. Trees make rain. We cannot sustain this rate of development, continue to clear land, and cut woodland while hoping for enough groundwater (free of PFAS) to serve a burgeoning population, on a finite Island. 

And that is just one aspect of failing to treasure the gifts our world gives us.