Ask the Experts

How do you prepare rhododendrons for winter?

John Clift, designer and manager at Landscope Landscape Construction in Edgartown

Rhodies are notoriously finicky, so we spoke with John Clift of Landscope to get a handle on their care. “The two winter enemies of evergreen rhododendrons and azaleas [part of the rhododendron family] are sun and cold wind,” John says. “If hardy types are selected and proper planting locations are chosen, little or no winter protection is needed. If [the plants] show winter damage, provide protection.” John notes signs of winter damage include leaves curling or wilting, breakage of the plant from weight of snow, and random leaves dropping or turning brown – even if 80 percent of the leaves are green.

Choosing a robust rhodie is imperative, and where to plant is key. The site should be away from the winter wind, on the south or east side of a building, and in an area that provides partial shade. John explains: “Rhodies are understory shrubs in their natural environment, which means they grow with trees above them. If you plant a rhodie[in] full sun, the rhodie won’t do as well as it would on the side of the house partially shaded by trees hanging over it.”

When planting, provide proper drainage for this native woodland shrub. Avoid clay or soil that is too dense, because the roots drown in too much water. Some gardeners put pea stone gravel in the hole. Loosen the roots to allow them to breathe and permit water passage. Plant in a mound, with compost and soil around the roots, so the water drains off – too much water is bad (but so is too little).

“When rhodies are stressed due to lack of water, the leaves will curl. If this persists after sundown, they need to be watered,” John says. “Evergreens and broadleaf evergreens need a good store of moisture going into winter, because they continue to transpire [give off water vapor] through the cold months. With the soil frozen, plant roots can’t take up water to make up for moisture losses, and dehydration can cause browning and burning of foliage.” John says when a rhododendron looks dehydrated, some early winter watering is okay – if there’s “a warm weather window” and the ground is not frozen.

Rhodies thrive in acidic soil. John suggests, “Fertilization should be done carefully, or the delicate roots close to the surface will be damaged. Soil acidity must be maintained to ensure good growth. Softwood mulch works well, as do pine needles or shredded oak. As old mulch decomposes, add new mulch in the late fall.” As far as pruning goes, the rule of thumb is to prune after the plant flowers but before new buds emerge.

As winter approaches, “evergreen shrubs, such as rhodies and azaleas, are the primary group that may need to be covered,” John explains, adding that holly or inkberry are similar plants, but more hardy. “If the temperature gets below 20 degrees, I suggest the plant be covered with burlap. Be sure to use stakes when covering, so the material does not touch the foliage. As soon as the weather moderates or it rains, remove the covering.” John adds that an alternative for the home gardener is to “protect his rhododendron from the drying effects of winter sun and wind with an anti-desiccant spray such as Wilt-Pruf, which coats foliage with a protective waxy film. John has not found the product from on-Island sources, so he orders it online.

Arguably, there is nothing more beautiful than a flowering rhododendron. The challenge of providing sufficient care can make the project all the more rewarding for the erstwhile gardener.

How can you eliminate that blue-green stain that forms around sink drains?

Martha and Nick Thorne, owners of Island Water Systems in Aquinnah

“Acid eats holes in copper pipes, and when the copper corrodes, it leaves a blue-green oxide. Copper roofs have that same color. Sometimes the water even tastes a bit like copper,” says Nick, the general manager of Island Water Systems. “The short answer to the blue-green stain is to test your water and reduce the acidity in it.”

So, the solution is not only to scrub the stains away but to eliminate the cause of the stains. Nick explains three possible causes: Most likely, the water is acidic; the plumbing may not be properly grounded (when “they put a metal pole in the ground so the ground wire runs to it”); or the hot water heater is turned too high (“Oxygen is very corrosive, and if water is too hot, that can eat away at copper pipes.”).

Living on the Vineyard, we have a problem with the acidity in our water. “All the wells on the Island are acidic, which is a function of geology. There are large deposits of limestone, which is calcium and neutralizes the acidity,” says Nick. “We’ve tested over four thousand wells on Martha’s Vineyard and found less than ten or fifteen that are not acidic.”

He expounds on natural phenomenon: “Our rain is more acidic than ever. Rainwater hits the limestone, dissolves it, and because the soil is mostly sand, there is nothing to buffer the acid. So the wells on the Vineyard have good water, but they are very acidic.”

The abundance of trees contributes as well. Nick says, “When the leaves fall, they release carbon dioxide, which increases acidity into the water. Over the past thirty years, the pH in Island water has dropped from 6.4 to 5.6.” The lower pH, or alkaline, means higher acidity.

Nick does have an answer to the problem, an answer he shares with nearly two thousand customers on-Island. “The solution to the blue-green oxide stain is to treat the water by installing a fully automatic filter. All the water goes through the filter tank, and the calcium carbonate limestone balances the water.” Nick says, “It’s very common, old technology.”

To reduce acidity, you can install (or have a plumber install) a water filter system that adds an alkaline solution to your water source to correct low pH imbalance. sells acid neutralizers (which run about $500); or has a product called WaterMax.

If you are installing a system yourself, Nick cautions that products you order online might not indicate whether they can handle the size of your home: “One of the most important aspects of an acid neutralizer is that it be correctly sized. What they don’t tell you correctly is that their equipment may only service a single toilet, not a three-bedroom house,” Nick says. Also, he notes, the cost of shipping a 250-pound neutralizer to the Island can be high.

If you want to compare installing an acid neutralizer yourself to having one installed, Nick suggests getting a professional consultation. He says his company will provide one, “When someone calls us, we test their water, look at their plumbing, and give people a proper prescription for free.” That way, Nick emphasizes, at least the consumer has the correct information to make an informed decision.

To remove existing stains, plug the sink or tub, and soak the area with white or cider vinegar, ammonia, or a cleanser with abrasive qualities, then scrub it afterward. The cleanser CLR (calcium, lime, and rust removal) claims to remove stains with a minimal amount of scrubbing.

Or you may want to save yourself the effort and look at your stains from an artistic point of view. Consider them reminiscent of old porcelain sinks in historic houses, which have a certain charm all their own.

Poison ivy is easy to see in summer with its shiny leaves of three, but how do you identify it the rest of the year?

Julie Schaeffer, ecologist for the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, based in Edgartown

“I think that’s poison ivy” are words of warning as well as confusion for children and adults alike throughout the fair weather seasons. The itchy rash can ruin anyone’s day, so to clarify the possible threat, and help identify the leafy plant, we called on Julie Schaeffer, ecologist for the Martha’s Vineyard Lank Bank, to give us a few tips.

Poison ivy can often be identified by its three, shiny, reddish-green leaves. Julie says in summer these leaves are thick, droopy, shiny, and “even look poisonous.” She recites the rhyme, “Leaves of three, let them be.” While this refrain is helpful, simply identifying poison ivy by the number of leaves proves unreliable. The leaves vary in color, shape, size, and indentations. Off-season, it may not have leaves, but it’s still out there; and even without leaves, there’s cause for concern because of the oil on the stem and roots.

Also, the plant grows in a variety of forms. It ranges from a sprig poking up through ground cover or a small plant along the side of the road to a shrub growing around a rotting stump or a climbing vine with a stiff, hairy stem that can encircle a tree. It is found ubiquitously in fields and forests, camouflaged along well-traveled trails or creeping along a stonewall. “The trick,” says Julie, “is identifying the root, stem, buds, and berries.”

Poison ivy knows no boundaries, and is dangerous all through the year. Buds on ground-cover sprigs are small and naked, measuring about an eighth of an inch long, with no branching. “The bud does not have scales to protect it like the big round blueberry or maple with brown scales,” Julie says. “On a nice day in March, a lot of people go weeding. They pull up the stems without leaves and touch the root. People sometimes roll the berries in their hand, crush them, and that’s not good.”

In spring, the leaves are smaller in size and bright red in color, so the low-bush plant is not as easily recognized as in summer when the trios of fully grown, notched leaves are predominantly green, though new leaves are shiny and maintain a reddish hue. In autumn, the leaves (which turn a spectrum of red, yellow, and orange) lose their sheen, then fall to the ground. The poisonous oil – urushiol – remains active as long as five years. Hence, one should be cautious and avoid burning logs that have been entwined by poison ivy: The oil can poison the air, and you don’t want to inhale poison ivy fumes.

Depending on how allergic you are, people react differently to poison ivy. “I’m pretty susceptible,” Julie says. “No matter how careful you are, the more you handle it, even touching the roots, you can catch poison ivy through cloth gloves. The oil from poison ivy gets in the cuff of your pants, or even worse, on the laces of your boots. Then you get it on your hands and touch your nose, throat, or back of thigh. Boots protect on the outside, but it comes through on the inside of the boot.”

If you know you’ve touched poison ivy, the best way to prevent a reaction is to immediately wash thoroughly with soap and water to remove the oil. At the beach, bathing in salt water can work. As long as you have washed the oil off your hands, you won’t spread the rash across your body. The best advice is to be cautious when you come in contact with a plant that you suspect is poison ivy.

How does on-demand hot water work and is it worth it?

Rick Kane, owner of Martha’s Vineyard Plumbing and Heating in Edgartown 

Like many homeowners, Rick Kane, a plumber with more than a dozen years’ experience on the Vineyard, is curious about the technology and savings associated with an instant hot water heater. He says, “We’ve installed a few on-demand hot water heaters. On-demand are new, not out that long, and we’re still feeling them out.”

Instant hot water works like this, according to Rick: “It’s a coil, gas fired, and water runs through it. Gas kicks on and heats the water in the coil instantly.” The homeowner gets hot water immediately. In a conventional hot water heater, the tank is heated to a certain temperature, shuts off until the water starts to cool, then restarts, and as Rick notes, “If it’s an older one, then it’s less efficient.”

It should come as no surprise that Rinnai, a manufacturer of instant hot water heaters, touts that it’s a waste to keep water heated twenty-four hours a day, because you don’t need it all the time. Also, you need less space for the on-demand units. But just like a conventional tank, there are limitations, and one unit may not be enough for a larger home.

“It’s a good system for a two-bathroom house,” Rick says. “The on-demand keeps up pretty good. They can put out six gallons per minute. Two showers at once only use five gallons. The beauty is that you only heat it when you use it. More and more houses we do are on-demand.”

On the front end, the systems are not cheap. “If you install three heaters, that’s three gas systems and three water pipes, and you have to figure out where and how to vent the gas,” Rick says. “On the heater, the unit is $1,300, then install and vent it. The vent kit is $500. You need qualified gas people and an electrician to complete the installation. So the total cost is over $2,000. A seventy-five-gallon storage tank is less than half that.”

The initial outlay is high, and savings come later. “It should be a huge savings,” Rick says. “Take a seventy-five-gallon tank, cool down, then heat up; it fires for five minutes with no use. With on-demand, as soon as you turn the tap on, you get hot water. You’ll be saving twenty minutes of propane per day.”

But Rick is cautiously optimistic and would like to see a side-by-side study to see which service is more efficient. “We don’t know exactly what the savings are,” he says. “On-demand have only been down here a few years.”