Garden Notes: Returning light

Time to think about how we can become good backyard stewards.


In a new twist on winter garden decor, wispy, earliest-ever threads of witch hazel flowers incongruously accompany out-of-season forsythia. It is growing evidence of our screwy seasonality.

Astronomically, the Northern Hemisphere is now in true winter, which will last until the vernal equinox, usually March 21; daily, though, the amount of daylight increases.

The increasing daylight influences home poultry to return to laying. I lost a hen today that had only just resumed laying, her sole, beautiful blue egg a maddening reminder that hawks are bold when hungry (

It is time to resume feeding layer mixes, replacing protein-enhanced formulas that support the birds during molting and refeathering; also time to check henhouse bedding. Add to it, or remove some for composting, to get the best indoor environment for the flock, in case bad weather causes prolonged cooping.

Bedding needs to be deep enough to cushion the birds’ legs and feet as they land off the perch, to prevent joint injury or bumblefoot. Soft, deep-bedding systems are actually a form of compost pile right inside the henhouse, giving off slight warmth through composting action. With plenty of down, well-feathered chickens are normally protected against the cold. Their biggest threat, after predators, is damp and wet; their plumage is not waterproof, like that of ducks and geese. Large, freestanding combs may suffer frostbite; in this case, slather on Vaseline or Bag Balm. Even in coldest weather, however, most flocks and henhouses require adequate ventilation to counter ammonia given off by droppings.

Indoor gardening

Houseplant photosynthesis, like egg laying, also gradually picks up as daylight lengthens. The plants’ slowed metabolism means they remain in low gear, but more photosynthesis signifies more water, maybe feeding, and possible insect pest proliferation.

Although growth of cuttings taken now would be slow, it is worth making or having more plants. Learned on the web: Dip cuttings in honey as a rooting aid!

As January proceeds, put earliest seed sowing on the calendar. Vegetable crops with the longest lead times include onions and leeks, parsley, celery, and celeriac, and peppers and eggplant. Be wary of starting too soon, though: it becomes a space problem if the growing seedlings cannot be planted in the ground.

Small cold frames are then the answer; they are like holding pens, where seedlings remain in an almost-suspended state of growth until the ground is ready for them.

Slow work, good work

Eradicating invasive plants from our gardens and landscapes is slow work, as Sheriff’s Meadow Preserve in Edgartown found in its years-long campaign to remove bittersweet, multiflora rose, honeysuckle, and more from that special place ( It requires good powers of observation, and some heft and tools.

Andrew Bunting’s title “Fighting Invasives by Being a Backyard Steward” is a good way to look at individual gardeners’ roles in protecting biodiversity, wherever they may be gardening. His article appeared in the Swarthmorean, but is just as apt here, where the Island has a large complement of the same invasive exotic plants.

A good part of plant material from other parts of the world presents no problem in domestic gardens and landscapes, and is, indeed, a valued adjunct to the pleasure we take in them; but as Bunting writes, it is important that we see our property as part of the natural world, as part of the ecosystem. (Here, Awaytogarden talks with Brad Herrick about invasive jumping worms in our ecosystems: Thank you, Susan Schnare.)

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, where Bunting is a vice president, has developed a much fuller model of gardening for the greater good: View it here:

PHS’s four principles of gardening, as part of the ecosystem: Celebrate gardening, choose your plants with intention, see your garden as part of the ecosystem, and embrace a sharing mindset.

In much the same vein, Homegrown National Park ( is asking gardeners to pay attention to their “part of the ecosystem” — shrink their lawn; modify their outdoor lights; remove their invasive plants; and use more native species.

HNP is asking gardeners to plant gardens with specialist pollinators in mind, and to never fog for mosquitoes. HNP is asking people to view everything they do through the lens of biodiversity conservation, and to make their relationship with nature collaborative rather than antagonistic.

Holocene to Anthropocene

Our Goldilocks planet spins in an era called the Holocene, from which much, but not all, of what is known of the human record comes. The glacial ice caps retreated, and forested continents with unparalleled environments emerged, hospitable to indescribably diverse life forms. It became the “Goldilocks” epoch of the Goldilocks planet. Learn more here: 

Now, due to human influence, we see our Goldilocks Holocene coming to an end. We enter a new, uncharted epoch called the Anthropocene. It is characterized by loss of life-sustaining habitats, including clean air and water, loss of biodiversity, and increasingly dangerous climate alterations, including heat and brutal weather events. Here is a link to Massachusetts 2023 weather events:

Deforestation is one of the most underscrutinized harms — globally and locally right here on Martha’s Vineyard — to our planet’s ability to host life. Why risk a persistent state of drought on a sole-source aquifer island? Trees, especially trees in forests, make water, regulate hydrology, and make life. Is it “just a coincidence” that lowest-ever levels of the Amazon River have occurred in the wake of unprecedented destruction of Amazon forests?

Steady-state sustainability should be the most highly prized quality or goal of all governments, leaders, businesses, and communities. Loss of it leads to vast, existential threats with no handy solutions: They include the political ones, such as migration — without, however, any detailed understanding of how these disastrous conditions originate.

They are left dangling, as if these things “just happen”; no upstream causes cited.

In the new year, what matters most? The year is young: Do we let the mundane and trivial sideline the serious and extraordinary events of our lifetimes?