Cover up with shrubs

Cover up with shrubs

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Cover up with shrubs

Opening one’s mouth in print always carries risks! Signs of spring are well advanced on the Vineyard. Greening grass, magnolias, forsythia, spring bulbs: all have leapt ahead of the normal Island timetable and are making me regret the pronouncement I made earlier this year, that Martha’s Vineyard does not have classic spring. At our house, Christmas wreaths remain up until Good Friday, an Island tradition. This year has been different and the decorations seemed downright bizarre.

Taking many by surprise, suddenly it is late to be applying limestone and crab grass preventer on lawns, and horticultural oil sprays to trees and shrubs. Do it anyway; earlier lawn applications would have been washed away in the March monsoons.

Grooming pansy plantings in containers by deadheading, and later by judicious cutting back, keeps them going until really hot weather arrives. Un-pot and plant out gift plants from the spring holidays as soon as possible (bulbs, at a depth of three times the bulb size.) Many will recover enough eventually to make a nice contribution in the garden.

Add cider vinegar to poultry water now that warmer temperatures are the order of the day. It is actually a good idea year-round, for promoting healthy digestive tracts, but algal growth accelerates during warm weather. Per gallon of water, use one tablespoon cider vinegar, or kombucha.

Apple trees are the source of that extremely useful low-tech product even if dessert-quality apples are not produced. Apple cider vinegar has many household, barn, and garden uses, where it may replace more expensive, and toxic, products. Polly Hill Arboretum welcomes John Bunker of Fedco Trees for a day-long apple grafting workshop on Saturday. April 10. Call 508-693-9426 for more details.

Groundcover shrubs

Many gardeners are looking for interesting plant material to help them shrink lawn area. Shrubs that grow in a rug-like fashion are good choices. I have recently been paying greater attention to several low growers here at home, due to wind-blown leaves lodging in them. That sounds like a detriment but is merely the very windy recent weather, and I have consequently reaffirmed my liking of them.

They are: Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Tide Hill,’ Microbiota decussata (Siberian cypress) and Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, sweet box. All are deer-resistant.

I purchased two small, interesting plants of what I believe is Buxus sinca var. insularis ‘Tide Hill’ in a Maryland nursery about 25 years ago. The tags were lost or were never recorded in my garden log. I used them to occupy the flanking cheeks of a set of stone steps in a location in generally good light. They have spread out to become two lime green pancakes that fill their space; what exceeds is trimmed off with hedge shears. Portions in contact with soil readily root, so I have been able to share them.

The following comes from Boxtrees Nursery in the U.K.: “Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Tide Hill’ is a very attractive, low-growing, spreading variety of box. It is very compact, grows wider than tall, and the annual growth rate is about 25 millimeters. The leaves are around 13 by 5 mm. It is useful as a specimen plant or very low hedge. The very slow growth rate and small leaves should also make it suitable for bonsai.”

From the “Boxwood Handbook,” by Lynn R. Batdorf and the American Boxwood Society: “Has long, narrow, light green leaves. Younger plants have a low spreading habit with a flat top. Older plants tend to have loose open tops. A low plant at 20 years of age will average 18 inches high and four feet across. Originated in western New York in 1932.”

Although Monarthropalpus buxi, the boxwood leafminer, attacks nearby boxwood species, it seems to leave ‘Tide Hill’ alone. The early-spring flowering time brings a pleasant musky fragrance and lots of pollen. I love these plants: they have done all that I expected them to do.

The Microbiota decussata here was given to me by a friend years ago as a small plant and has become about six feet across and is still growing. It is sited in a partly shaded setting. In fact, microbiota distinguishes itself by being a shade-loving conifer, unlike the similar-looking ‘rug junipers,’ sun-lovers all, for which it may be mistaken. It is a creeping woody ground cover with bright green spring foliage, dark green summer foliage, and dark brown autumn and winter bronzed foliage. It grows within an arc of hemlock faced down with boxwood and leucothoë; the three provide a nice evergreen contrast to the microbiota and the whole is a satisfying arrangement.

A handsome ground cover shrub, the shade-tolerant Christmas or sweet-box, is extensively used farther south. It would never be taken for a juniper. However, on the Vineyard its identity might mystify; it is not often found in Island gardens, which is a shame. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis does pancake over the ground, similar to the two previous varieties. However, the sarcococca is deep, dark green, the shining pointed foliage (about two inches long) giving the plant a medium texture. Mine are planted beneath tall deciduous trees (oaks) and actually yellow slightly in winter from too much sun.

Sarcococca is useful planted in groups, like mine, where they may be expected to spread slowly, growing together into one mass. They spread by underground stems called stolons. Siting sweetbox along walkways and near entrances makes enjoying the namesake sweet scent frequent and gratifying. Small black fruits that do not figure in the ornamental scheme follow flowers. Pruning is seldom necessary. Sarcococca associates well with hellebores, hostas, ferns, and spring-flowering bulbs, not to mention handsome hardscaping.

Homegrown meets April 18 at Agricultural Hall from 4 to 6 pm.

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