Garden Notes: The short days and long nights of winter solstice


Eying Pinetree Garden Seeds’ 2024 catalogue with the pink celery cover is the “eyes bigger than the stomach” moment. Perusing seed catalogues propels us into the future, and future gardens.

Fall’s decor to winter’s food

Pumpkin is acquiring almost mythic status as a nutritional powerhouse, with good amounts of vitamins A and K, minerals, and fiber. Small decorative pumpkins such as ‘Sugar Baby’ and ‘Baby Bear’ do not need to remain frozen and collapsed messes on the doorstep. When roasted and put in the freezer, they yield pumpkin seeds and pumpkin purée for future soups, pies, and dinner rolls, or therapeutic additions to pets’ diets.

Stem, gut (save seeds for other purposes — poultry love them), and quarter; place on baking sheet and bake at 350°F about 45 minutes; test for doneness with a toothpick or fork. Peel and purée in food processor; if dry, add water by the tablespoon.

Freeze in Baggies with the air pressed out. Amounts for a pie are a little less than 16 ounces (a pint) — a can of solid-pack pumpkin is currently 15 ounces; while 8-ounce (one cup) amounts are good if adding to dog food.


We were gifted a large, very fresh deer liver just before Thanksgiving, which supplied dinner and a liver pâté. Here’s the pâté recipe, with hopes that fewer venison livers (hearts, kidneys, and other offal, too) will be discarded in the woods.

Liver Pâté
Adapted from “Home Cooked,” by Anya Fernald.

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter
2 shallots finely chopped (I substituted very similar Egyptian onions for shallots.)
approx. 1 lb. liver: chicken, duck, goose, or venison
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
⅓ c. Madeira or port
3 Tbsp. heavy cream, plus more as needed
kosher salt

Soak livers in milk or lemon juice, prior to cooking.

Melt 4 Tbsp. of the butter in a large, heavy sauté pan. Add the shallots (or Egyptian onions) and sauté until translucent; do not let shallots brown. Add the livers, thyme, and Madeira, and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine has reduced, and the livers are lightly browned, but still very soft and pink on the inside, 3 to 5 minutes.

Transfer the liver mixture to a food processor, and add the cream and remaining 4 Tbsp. butter. Purée until smooth, adding more cream if necessary. Season with salt.

Transfer to a bowl, and smooth the top with a spatula. Serve warm or at room temperature, with toasts, cornichons, etc.

Eat locally; eat it all

Many of us are from the generations whose weekly family meals contained recipes such as meatloaf, tongue, liver, kidneys, fish and shellfish, fish roe, codfish cakes made from bacalhau, and scrapple.

Some of these were left to skilled butchers in local markets, who were adept and equipped for creating them, and much more: head cheese, pigs’ feet, tongue, sausages of all kinds, including blood, and properly prepared tripe (to be frank, hardly ever at the top of anyone’s list of favorites).

Months at a time, our vegetables came out of tin cans. (How did we stay healthy?) Organ meats? Before you pull a face, consider that those menus included what is here and local, using whole animals, and developing cooking skills to match. It was also an era when we cleaned our plates, not always willingly.

Today it appears there are many health issues and nutritional deficiencies, some of which are First World problems; while there is also widespread concern about food access and food insecurity. Maybe we can resolve to eat what is here and local, to use all of it, and to acquire cooking skills to match.


As a protective layer for gardens in the non growing season, organic mulches are useful. And again, as a soil-conditioning layer, organic mulches are indispensable. The functions are easily conflated, but are not the same. And then there is mulch for weed suppression, not necessarily of organic origin: plastic, stones, or ground-up tires (ugh) are sometimes seen.

As a protective layer over winter, mulch functions in a blanketing role for soil, locking in the temperature and keeping plants in dormancy until it is safe to return into growth. It is applied after frost is in the ground. As many who garden on the Vineyard have learned, frost action and fluctuating temperatures heave objects and plants out of the ground. In this usage, mulch’s purpose is insulation, to keep cold soil cold until springtime.

As a soil-conditioning layer, organic mulches are laid to augment and enrich whatever properties the native mineral soil possesses, which, here on Martha’s Vineyard, are not much. Mulches are chosen to supply what the specific plantings in the beds require.

Mulches as soil conditioners are cultivated in, feeding soil micro-life that can break them down, adding to the available nutrition. Mulches as thermal blankets are left intact, but are eventually broken down by weather and soil-life action, and need to be replenished.

The wreath

Winter moths appear to be abundant, good pickings for winter-resident birds. A large red-bellied woodpecker holds my attention, me sitting pensive this dark solstice afternoon; so large he looked at first like a hen with red comb.

He pecks persistently round and round at the base and trunk of a large cedar. His doggedness provides for himself, finding maybe pillbugs or winter moth eggs, a woodpecker’s solstice feast. Life goes on.

These holidays are about evergreen hope, and rebirth in dark times, equal parts despair and courage. We mourn Waylon and Yossi, and all those in our Island memory who never came home.

We try to celebrate the child, as we also feel anguished for victims of war. Although now is darkness, the wheel of the year turns us to the light. We hang the evergreen wreath, the timeless circle symbolizing wholeness.

The circle of life goes on. Like the woodpecker, do your best where you are, in your time here; if not now, later.