Signs of spring
Bathed in cool moonlight
Earth turns to a new season
Caressed by fresh winds.
Working in the Grove Avenue area of Vineyard Haven on Feb. 25, I made my first sighting of fat bunches of snowdrops in bloom for 2008. Although we have them at our place too, they are not as well along in our clay soil. Pinkletinks are calling in Lambert's Cove. Generally speaking, the season is gathering pace and momentum - heads up!
Hemlock owners may want to inspect trees for signs of hemlock woolly adelgid. There is time to spray individual trees with horticultural oil between now and approximately the end of April, or when the trees begin active growth. A professional must treat heavier infestations and larger trees.
More on mulch
A reader recently questioned the value of mulches and said she thought that mulch might have prevented bulbs and perennials from coming up in her garden, so she removed it. The question is a logical one and I attempt to explain here more clearly the role of mulch in the winter garden.
Mulching for winter protection is done for the purpose of keeping in the cold. Do it once the ground is frozen. Here on Martha's Vineyard, admittedly, that can be tricky. When does the Island freeze? Not only do we not get into "real winter" promptly, but there will have already been a couple of freeze-thaw cycles, while we are waiting for the frozen ground of "real winter." The point, though, is that once the ground is frozen, it is much better for plants to have it remain frozen until spring is truly here.
Growth is triggered by different factors, including length of time below a certain temperature and day-length/candle hours. All of this teases plants. Having met their requirements for number of hours of cold, many plants with "low requirements for chilling" are ready to start into growth if we get a warm spell; i.e., certain conditions may have been met when it is still not a fit time to commit to the new cycle. That is why marginally hardy plants are often planted in shady or north-side locations, to keep them "shut down" for as long as possible.
A slightly different aspect of the problems caused by winter thaws affects evergreens, which continue to transpire during winter. Preventing this transpiration is where anti-desiccant sprays are effective. Evergreens can lose considerable amounts of water during warm spells. The plant's call for water, locked up in cold soil, cannot be answered. The damage shows up as browning of leaf margins or entire branches, or dieback. Alternatively, low winter sunlight narrowly focusing on the bark of trees and shrubs can significantly warm it, relative to the cold shaded side, expanding and splitting it. The result, either way, is called winterkill. Whitewash or tree wrap on trunks, or wrapping overall in burlap, is sometimes used to prevent this. Deep watering, either natural or assisted, in fall helps the tissues of these plants enter winter in a protectively turgid state.
Nurseries celebrate Palm Sunday
This Sunday, March 16, Island nurseries celebrate Palm Sunday with open houses and events.
In West Tisbury, visit Heather Gardens between 9 am to 3 pm, and Vineyard Gardens from 11 am to 3 pm, for refreshments and gardening inspiration. In Edgartown at Donaroma's Nursery from 10 am to 3 pm, bring the children to see the Easter bunny. Donaroma's official open house will be on Mother's Day this year.
The application of mulches when properly done supports the health and growth of plants, shrubs and trees. Compost, laid to a depth of two or three inches and kept away from trunks, is especially good practice. It is intended to be digested by the soil and needs to be replenished. Evergreen branches from storm damage, recycled Christmas trees, or prunings, provide an insulating layer, keeping plantings shaded and thus cold.
Purchased mulches can be very good, provided that deep watering is done before laying it. Avoid chunky mulches and "mulch volcanoes" around trees. I like to promote the idea that your place can provide what you need without need of many purchased inputs, which is the beauty of compost piles. Not only do compost piles give you what you need to garden with, but they dispose of things you don't need: sticks, weed (and other!) corpses, accumulations of leaves, kitchen waste.
An easily acquired mulch material for anyone, free for the raking, and a prized mulch for me at my place, is the fluffy rakings I get off the lawn at this time of year, consisting of dead grass, thatch, and small bits of leaf litter. It is a somewhat balanced substance to start with, combining "brown" and "green" (carbon and nitrogenous) matter. Whether added to the compost pile, or laid down anywhere there is open ground in need of covering, it stays in place and breaks down quickly. Where it has been raked off, the lawn greens up nicely.
Many gardens on the Vineyard have favored microclimates where bulbs and tips of some perennials may be seen emerging extremely early in the year, maybe even before Christmas. A two-inch layer of mulch can actually help to retard these early birds if there is concern about frost-burnt shoots or heaving. Bulb and perennial spears penetrate the mulch to grow when it is the right time.
Wineberries, Rubus phoenicolasius
I have referred to the Virginia nursery Edible Landscaping before, when I wrote about planting a gift persimmon after Christmas. In answer to my colleague Lynne Irons's query of several weeks ago, I mention the nursery again, as a source of the wineberry. Ms. Irons was wondering about their botanical name and cultural aspects. She is right to extol these tasty, jewel-like fruit, and that despite the fact that someone on the Massachusetts invasive exotic plant list committee has seen fit to put the wineberry on the i. e. p. list!
When I read that I became quite upset, as my inner child will not, cannot, accept that wineberries should be singled out for inclusion in the invasive exotic category. Yes, they are also known as Japanese raspberries, meaning they are not native around here. Where do regular raspberries (R. idaeus) and blackberries (R. fruticosus) come from, one might ask: hmm - Europe and northern Asia. Has anyone seen either of those behaving in an exceedingly weedy fashion? I believe the answer would be emphatically "yes!"
Wineberries belong in many categories, sharing some with their raspberry and blackberry cousins. They belong in the permaculture subject category; in the (very small) category of fruits tolerating some shade; in the category of free, wayside food that children can hunt for and pick anytime; the category of multi-purpose fruit: eating fresh, dessert cookery, and preserves; and in the category of food plants that take care of themselves. But please, not invasive exotic!
Wineberries fruit on second year wood and are hardy from zones 6 to 8. Soil should be as deep and loamy as possible, with lots of organic matter and good drainage, with a near neutral pH of 5.5 to 6.5. That said, like other Rubus species mentioned, they will take care of themselves; but yields are maximized by yearly applications of well-rotted manure or compost.
It appears from an Internet search for wineberry sources that they are more appreciated in Britain than they are in our country, but here they are available from Edible Landscaping in Afton Virginia, 800-524-4156, ediblelandscaping.com. Look in waste places and learn to recognize the distinctive reddish, fuzzy looking canes covered with fine hair-like thorns: then you can acquire your own plants, free of charge. In season, the leaves are similar in appearance to raspberry and bramble leaves, lobes more rounded, and with a silvery white underside.
On March 19, the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society will present the Bull Session, a round-table talk about local beef by local beef producers. 7:30 pm at Agricultural Hall. Admission free.