Garden Notes: Planning, testing, questioning pay off for gardeners

It is easy to have the feeling of losing one’s head. The house is beginning to fill with the influx of seed and plant catalogues — gorgeous, full-color productions, tantalizing choices for 2011 gardens, all worthy of as much study and perusal as the plethora permits.

But first things first: soil testing and optimizing is as, or more, important than the particular varieties one grows in the garden. All will thrive if one works to make one’s garden soil as balanced and nutritious as possible. As soil temperatures allow, collect samples for soil testing now. Learn in plenty of time what your garden might need for remediation and avoid the spring rush at the UMass Soil Testing lab (www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest).

Whether you have a greenhouse, a cold frame, or grow lights on a shelf, you can take advantage of professional seed-starting supplies. A number of mail order businesses and Island garden centers have what you need to grow your own seed-sown plants. Check catalogues for order-by dates to receive discounts for early ordering.

2011 Fleuroselect Awards

Notable are the 2011 Fleuroselect Gold Medal awards that have been made for two annual flower varieties. These awards are usually, but not always, hybrid annuals, whose garden performance ability is compared and awarded medals by the panel of Fleuroselect judges.

The following is gathered from the Fleuroselect press release: Dwarf sweet peas have been bred since the end of the 19th century, but there has been a recent revival in popularity for this old-fashioned favorite. Lathyrus odoratus “Villa Roma Scarlet” is a dwarf, compact sweet pea of a stunning, cyclamen red. The habit — highly suitable for container culture, excellent garden performance, and the abundance of flowers all season long — combined with the color, make this variety a winner. “Villa Roma Scarlet” is the first of a complete new Lathyrus odoratus series, which will be extended with seven additional popular colors in coming seasons.

Zinnia Double Zahara “Fire” wins the second gold medal award with its fiery, intensely orange flowers. Part of the Zahara series first introduced in 2009, the plants perform outstandingly in sunny, hot, and dry conditions, continuing in bloom all summer up until frost. The series offers strong, disease-resistant plants with outstanding heat and drought tolerance.

Old wives’ tales

An interesting Guardian (U.K.) garden article about old wives’ tales debunks most of them. For instance: “crocks in pots improve drainage,” something we have done practically since time began, was found to be false. Eliminate the crocking and create more room in the pot for the plant’s root ball. (However, using pot feet does assist drainage.)

“Watering in the middle of the day scorches leaves” is false. Watering in bright sunlight does not cause sunburn, but it does waste water and can create problems with fungal diseases.

“Urine speeds up composting” is false. While adding urine to compost may be beneficial if there is not enough material supplying nitrogen, it will not speed up composting in a balanced heap.

“Parsnips taste sweeter after frost” is correct. Parsnips become sweeter when it turns cold because the starch in their roots is turned to sugar.

“Pea and bean roots left in the ground improve the soil” is false. Picking peas and beans removes most of the nitrogen that was gathered by bacteria in root nodules. Put spent plants on your compost heap to harness any nitrogen left in the leaves.

Winter walks

Last Saturday’s Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA) winter walk with Tim Boland took place on a beautiful winter day, bringing out about 40 walkers. Even in this season, there is always plenty of eye-appeal. Delineated by snow cover, the evergreens and plants with notable bark or growth habit, such as Stewartias, stand out.

We were able to compare hollies that had been “hat-racked,” a seemingly dire pruning technique, with the more spreading, open form of unpruned ones. (Delay until late winter to perform this technique, done by cutting back branches hard in towards the trunk.) After recovery hat-racking results in a dense, shapely tree exhibiting a conical outline, similar to a fir.

The nearby fir (Abies) collection offered examples of trees well suited for growing on the Vineyard. Mr. Boland especially recommends the Korean, Nordmann, Veitch’s silver, and concolor firs. By contrast, the often-planted spruces (Picea) decline quickly and seem to have a harder time thriving in Island soils and landscapes. For spruce partisans, an exception, in Boland’s opinion, is Picea orientalis, the oriental spruce.

Inclusion in an arboretum collection is in itself no guarantee of perfection. The PHA has struggled with these sorts of problems, particularly senescence of conifers in its collections. Mr. Boland pointed to the flush-cut stumps of various trees that had been taking up valuable space and that, through ill-health, could no longer be carried along.

He emphasized that the management plan for PHA includes a renewed focus on compost making. Compost and organic matter is “like gold” in the arboretum operation, and by extension, in the garden efforts of us all.

Progressing along our route, we soon came abreast of the new woodland planting area presently under development. This garden is planned to showcase a more natural planting style that is a departure from the expository form of previous PHA collections. It will connect with the Forest Ecology Trail along the ridge behind the arboretum.

The latter is being concurrently developed in collaboration with David R. Foster, Director of the Harvard Forest, who is also overseeing the caterpillar-damaged forest of the adjacent Woods Preserve. It is hoped that these will constitute a teaching program of evolutionary biology through which we can learn more about the failure of forests taking place across North America.

Homegrown, the vegetable gardeners’ collaborative, meets Sunday, January 16, from 3 to 5 pm at Agricultural Hall.