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JoAnn Canino

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By JoAnn Canino

After the fall cleanup and the flower beds are prepared for winter, there isn’t much that has to be done, unless Mother Nature reminds us who is in control.

Thomas Jefferson began his record of the weather in 1776 while in Philadelphia attending a session of the Continental Congress. Wherever he was living, he collected weather and other data in order to compare it to the weather in his gardens at Monticello. He noted the arrival of bluebirds, blackbirds and robins; when he heard frogs for the first time; and the exact date the weeping willow began to leaf.

He diligently noted when the last killing frost occurred, the amount of rainfall, the severity of the winds and the range in temperature. On June 13, 1791, Jefferson traveled to Long Island as secretary of state under President George Washington, along with his friend and neighbor, James Madison. They rode across the island on horseback with William Floyd (notable as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence). One can only imagine what Long Island looked like to them. In fact, we can read the journals and letters of these early travelers to our island to find out.

In 1670 Daniel Denton (1626-1703) recorded observations while traveling across Long Island. He wrote of “mulberries, persimmons, plums, grapes, strawberries in such abundance in June that the Fields and Woods are ‘died’ red. Groves gleaming in spring with the white bloom of dogwood, glowing in fall with liquid amber and with sassafras and the yellow light of the smooth shafted tulip tree. An innumerable multitude of delightful flowers not only pleasing the eye, but smell … that it may be perceived at sea” (A Brief Description of New-York formerly called New-Netherlands [1670] London, England).

Early settlers discovered the Hempstead Plains. “Towards the middle of Long-Island lyeth a plain 16 miles long, 4 broad, upon which plain grows very fine grass that make exceedingly good hay and is very good pasture for sheep or other ‘cattel’; where you should find neither stick nor stone to hinder the horse heels,” Denton noted. Colonial settlers used it as common pasturage for their sheep and cattle.

Long Island was created about 20,000 years ago when the hills and plains were formed by huge glaciers. Shifting seas, pounding waves and severe weather continue to shape the landscape. From New York Harbor to Montauk Point, Long Island is 118 miles long. Situated between Long Island Sound to our north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, it is separated from the mainland by the East River, actually considered to be a tidal strait. At its widest, the island is 23 miles. Its highest point, at an elevation of 400.9 feet above sea level, is near Melville at Jayne’s Hill (also called West Hills).

Appreciating the shape of the land and its proximity to the sea, we can begin to understand the forces that shape the landscape today. Kettle lakes like Lake Ronkonkoma were formed when massive boulders of ice melted in the sandy soil and were filled by rising groundwater. Following the glacier, forests grew. Hemlocks and spruce trees gave way to pines and the great oaks. Woods of chestnuts and hickory trees flourished. Swamp lands filled with Atlantic white cedars and red maples. Lush bushes of blueberries, cranberries and huckleberries grew in abundance. The freshwater streams were laden with trout.

Today, less than 80 acres survive of the 60,000 acres that comprised the Hempstead Plains. Nineteen acres are part of Nassau Community College and 60 acres of the Hempstead Plains Preserve are protected by the Nassau County Department of Recreation and Parks.

All around Long Island, natural processes are reshaping the shoreline and the interior. Wind, tides and changing sea levels are eroding the coast, wearing away protective dunes. At the mouth of the Nissequogue River in Smithtown, the salt marshes that protected the freshwater wetlands have almost disappeared because of storm erosion and rising sea levels. On the south shore, the barrier islands are losing about 1 to 2 feet of oceanfront each year. Northeast winds moving west across the coast push large amounts of sand.

We derive a sense of place from these natural elements that shape the environment in which we live. But in many ways we have lost our connection to the land that sustained the early settlers. We tend our gardens and lawns, dropping weed killer and fertilizers that leach into our fragile underground water supply. We ignore the destruction of natural places.

This month as we tune in to Earth’s eternal rhythms on Dec. 21, the winter solstice marks the beginning of our winter. The word “solstice” comes from the Latin, solstitium, which means the sun stands still. Actually, the sun is exactly over the Tropic of Capricorn. Because of the Earth’s tilt, our hemisphere is leaning farthest away from the sun. It is the shortest day of the year. Winter ends on the March equinox, which is derived from the Latin for equal night and day. After Dec. 21, the sun starts moving northward again and spring will be on its way.

Plants and trees that remained green all year have had a special meaning for people in winter. Pine, spruce and fir boughs were placed over doors and windows as symbols of everlasting life. Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast in honor of the god of agriculture, Saturn.

Today we “deck the halls with boughs of holly” and mistletoe as the early Christians did. Holly wreaths were given as gifts. The Pennsylvania German settlements in 1747 had community trees often decorated with apples, nuts and marzipan cookies. The Christmas tree tradition of placing lighted trees in town squares began with the invention of electricity, allowing the glow to continue into the dark night. Festive homes, all decked out with holly, mistletoe and the evergreen tree offer a warm welcome inside.

This time between the winter solstice and the spring equinox can be useful journal time to review the seasons that have passed. Take time to note all the activities and projects in our gardens as well as in our individual journeys. For many of us our gardens are sacred spaces of peace and renewal. While the garden sleeps, we can still take time to meditate on the riches of the Earth and to celebrate the new beginnings of an abundant and prosperous New Year.

JoAnn Canino is an avid journal writer and gardener and a member of the Three Village Garden Club.

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Our backyard gardens hold many secrets ready to be uncovered.

By JoAnn Canino

I’m looking out into my garden and find it hard to believe it is November. My yard is still green and the oak trees haven’t yet turned. It is a mystery I can solve. Making observations will naturally lead to asking questions. And by asking questions we can discover the mysteries in the garden. “Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher,” advised William Wordsworth (“The Tables Turned”).

This month we change the clocks, fall back one hour, and become more aware of the shifting light. Long before this, Nature has been “clocking” the subtly shifting light. The daisy was originally named “day’s eye” as its flower opens its petals in the morning and closes them at dusk. The sunflower turns to follow the sun. Plants detect the direction of the sun’s rays throughout the day to get maximum light for growth.

Why do the leaves of some trees, shrubs and vines turn colorful in the fall? What triggers this event? And why do the leaves fall off? We want to be dazzled by the beauty of the countryside and plan day trips north to catch the fall colors. So why is my garden still very green? I go to my bookshelf to find some answers. Two of my favorite books, “The Practical Botanist” by Rick Imes (Simon & Schuster, 1990) and “The Random House Book of How Nature Works” by Steve Parker (1992) provide some of the answers.

The process that we look forward to every fall is nature’s response to environmental changes. “Bright sunshine stimulates the leaves to continue producing sugars rapidly, and the cool nights (40°F) trap the sugar in the leaves. Dry weather diminishes the intensity of fall colors because parched leaves produce less sugar.” [“The Practical Botanist”]

Environmental changes such as length of day, light intensity, temperature and rainfall trigger an instinctive response — deciduous trees, shrubs and vines form an extra cell layer as a protection against the coming cold of winter. The sugar trapped in the leaf is converted into red and orange carotene. Blue and purple pigments combine with the yellow xanthophylls and green chlorophyll producing the colorful display of fall leaves: crimson and vivid yellow of maples, gold of hickories and bronze, russet and cinnamon of oaks.

But why do the leaves fall off? The specialized cells are easily broken by plant enzymes. Wind and rain sever the connection and the leaf falls.

Keeping a garden journal is a way of interacting with your surroundings. Making observations, asking questions and taking detailed notes give you data to compare in each season. Start by recording the weather conditions, wind direction, daily temperature, season of the year, expected rainfall, time of day and the date you made these observations.

Make lists, for example, of the birds and animals that visit the garden. Many birds migrate, come to our island, stay a while and then leave. Which birds stay? Which are only here for a season? How do they find their way over land and oceans? Before we draw any conclusions, we should make some observations, ask some questions, formulate hypotheses.

Record your observations and musings as you walk through the garden. Include sketches, note details and questions. Later, transfer these notes to a logbook or binder. Arranged by month, you can compare your observations with those you made last year. Expand your notes with research from field guides, magazine articles and internet research. For example, in your index card file, note the common name of a plant, its scientific name and a description.

Don’t limit your explorations to the backyard. Take your notebook out into the field as you walk. Note different habitats, the location and time of day. Take photographs to enhance your observations.

Remember, your garden and the habitat you are exploring are part of a larger system. Look for patterns and make comparisons. Visit the same location at different time of the day. What changes? What phase of the moon is in play? Native Americans and early settlers used moon phases and cycles to keep track of the seasons. Unique names were given to each full moon. “The most well-known names of the full moon came from the Algonquin tribes who lived in New England and westward to Lake Superior” (www.MoonConnection.com).

September’s Harvest Moon allowed farmers to work late into the night to harvest their crops. Not always in September, the Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox, which sometimes falls in October. The Hunter’s Moon (October) heralds the hunting season when the deer are fat and ready for eating and fox and other animals are easily spotted in the fields that have been cleared at harvest time. November’s full moon, the Beaver Moon, is so named because it was time to set beaver traps.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac continues to be a wealth of information (www.farmersalmanac.com). Data on frosts and growing seasons, schedules for planting by the moon’s phase, along with weather facts and forecasts for the current year are readily available. Check to see how accurate its forecast was for last year.

How do we fit into this ecosystem? Plants and animals coordinate their biorhythms and behavior patterns with changes in the environment. How do we humans respond to these environmental changes? Don’t forget to note your own feelings and responses to the changing seasons as you keep your garden journal up to date. This month we celebrate the abundance and blessings of the season as we gather together to enjoy a very happy Thanksgiving.

Garden chores for November

• Clean up the debris and leaves, and put the beds to sleep for the winter.

• Top dress each bed with at least one inch of compost and mulch to prolong the life of perennials, roses and berry bushes.

• Clean garden equipment and store for the winter. Brush shovels and spades free of caked on dirt. Dry metal tools and wrap in a cloth or old towel before storing.

JoAnn Canino is an avid journal writer and gardener and a member of the Three Village Garden Club.

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The informal gardens at Beatrix Potter's Hill Top Farm

By JoAnn Canino

Documenting your garden by keeping a garden journal not only creates a complete record but also allows you to make informed decisions to improve your garden from season to season. Now is a good time to start a garden journal. It is a way of extending the joy we get from our gardens well into the winter months.

Keeping a journal can be as simple as making notations in a notebook as you make your daily rounds in the garden. I use a lined composition notebook for observations and an unlined sketchbook to make drawings. To organize my notes, sketches and research I use a loose-leaf binder divided into sections. Setting up the binder, include a pocket to save plant tags, seed packets and receipts. Use graph paper for sketching layouts of each bed.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Vita Sackville-West, a noted garden writer, and her husband, Harold Nelson, diplomat and journalist, designed the Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, England. They suggested careful planning should begin with a detailed architectural drawing that includes plans for color and seasonal changes.

Make lists of plants you would like to try. Keep plant profiles: date planted, care instructions, watering and fertilizing schedules. Include sketches and photos. For the kitchen garden, keep a plant and seed tracker. Include seed sources, date planted and germination date. Note success rate and expected harvest yield. Details can be recorded in your notebook then transferred to index cards for easy reference. Track the weather from season to season: Note dates of frost this year as compared to last year. How many inches of rain actually fell? How many days of sunshine? Remember to add photos to document the changes.

Monticello vegetable garden

Thomas Jefferson, president, architect, scientist and gardener, kept detailed notes of his observations and activities in his “Garden Kalender.” He noted dates seeds were planted, harvest schedules and when the beds were manuered at his plantation in Monticello. His notes were as simple as, “Peas killed by frost. Oct. 23, 1809.” But Jefferson’s vegetable garden was set up for experimentation. He imported squashes and broccoli from Italy, beans and salsify collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, figs from France and peppers from Mexico. Jefferson’s intention was to eliminate “inferior” varieties. “I am curious to select one or two of the best species or variety of every garden vegetable and to reject others from the garden to avoid the dangers of mixing and degeneracy,” he wrote.

Recording your experiences and observations will allow you to develop a greater awareness of the changes that occur from day to day and from season to season. Be open to discovery, use your senses to look closely at nature in your own backyard. Listen to sounds and look for patterns. Create a habitat for wintering wildlife. Put up a birdbath or a small pond. Plant native plants, mulch leaves and add bird feeders.

The Mount garden

If you are exploring different garden themes, it is helpful to have a section in the binder for pictures of gardens that inspire you as well as articles and research on the typical needs of each design. For example, a formal garden with groomed hedges and a balanced symmetry would follow an Italianate design. Edith Wharton’s garden, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, follows this formal plan. Her gardens were a source of inspiration for her writing.

Beatrix Potter at Hill Top Farm in the Lake District, England, followed the philosophy of William Morris of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which celebrated fine craftsmanship. While she had a separate walled vegetable garden, her beds and borders were informal.

She mixed hardy flowers with bulbs and fruit shrubs. As an artist and naturalist, she made detailed studies of the plants and animals on her farm. Her much loved “Tales of Peter Rabbit” have entertained many readers. Illustrations for her books were painted in her garden.

Between 1883 and 1897, Potter studied and painted mushrooms and lichens. Her paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricinae,” was based on these studies. Consider how you are a part of the ecosystem and let your garden be your inspiration for writing, drawing and discovery.

Autumn tips for your garden

•Take time to observe where the sunlight falls now.

• Fill any gaps in borders with autumn flowering plants such as sedum, asters and chrysanthemums.

• Continue to feed and deadhead the hanging baskets to extend the color.

• As the weather cools, bring indoor plants back inside.

• Refresh the soil and repot to avoid bringing insects inside.

• Select flowering bulbs: tulips, narcissi, hyacinths, iris, allium and fritillaries to plant as temperatures cool.

• Cut hydrangea flowers for fall table designs and wreaths.

JoAnn Canino is an avid journal writer and gardener and a member of the Three Village Garden Club.