Garden Notes


Daylight Saving Time begins Sunday. Set your clocks forward one hour.

Homegrown, the vegetable gardeners’ forum, meets March 20 from 4 to 6 pm at Agricultural Hall. Please finalize payment for seed potatoes, onion and leek plants now.

Extension Services

UMass Extension, through its Landscape, Nursery and Urban Forestry Program, publishes “Garden Clippings,” an educational newsletter for gardeners in New England. An encouraging neighbor has given me a subscription. It contains much helpful information in starting and maintaining gardens and appears from March through October.

UMass Extension supports home gardeners, agriculture, and the green industry at large. It offers many useful services, among others soil testing, the home garden series “2011 Mass Aggie Seminars,” “Hort Notes,” entomology updates, and the weekly Landscape Message.

Budgetary de-funding has a dreadful impact on useful outreach and consequently on gardeners. Let’s support UMass Extension by using the services offered and by demonstrating how much they are needed; let’s also draw attention to the surging demand for solid information on organic practices.

Soil Tests

Soil testing is always pertinent, although it need not be done yearly. Go to for complete online information. There are several types, from the standard soil test for home gardeners to detailed commercial analysis. Let’s ask them to emphasize organic more. When you send in your sample, note that your garden is under organic management. Additional labs for comprehensive testing: Midwest Labs, Omaha, and Logan Labs in Ohio,

Daffodils and signs of spring

Remember the plastic daffodils the late Joe Howes would “plant” by his West Tisbury fence? Spring bulbs are, in most locations, slowly, slowly, emerging from the ground, too slowly for those, like Joe, who are impatient for spring. However, their appearance and growth should accelerate as we approach the spring equinox.

According to Royal Horticultural Society’s “The Garden” (February 2011), newly planted daffodils (Narcissus) usually grow and flower well initially. Over time however, subsequent flowering may falter despite healthy foliage, leading to “blind” bulbs. If this is occurring in your narcissus plantings, trouble-shoot using these pointers:

In dry situations, watering the bulbs after flowering until the foliage begins to die down, and applying a mulch of well-rotted organic material in early spring, may boost the bulbs’ ability to flower. Caring for the foliage after flowering is important: do not remove or knot the leaves of plants for tidiness, as once advocated. Photosynthesis and formation of the embryonic next-year flower are impaired by the practice.

Deadhead the stems that bloomed, since growing seed diverts energy from forming next-year’s flowers. Shallow planting may be a cause of poor blooming: Brent and Becky Heath, bulb growers, recommend planting at a depth of three times the height of the bulb. Overcrowding may contribute to loss of bloom; congestion may even push bulbs down under or out of the ground, and it contributes to lack of soil nutrients from competition. Planting time: early planting of new bulbs, by mid-September, maximizes flowering.

Lift and divide congested clumps and reset when foliage begins to die down. “Out of sight, out of mind” rules with many a busy gardener, so use some sort of marker.

With a spading fork or, in the case of small bulbs such as scilla or snowdrops, a hand fork, dig carefully around the clump and bring it up out of the ground. Work quickly to separate bulbs and replant immediately, adding a little compost. Do not let bulbs dry out. Give the area a light dressing of compost or mulch and water-in well.

Hat-racking a holly

A willowy, weedy-looking male English holly (Ilex aquifolium), about nine feet tall, has grown in a shady patch of woodland since I planted it in the 80s. The removal of trees that succumbed to caterpillars about four years ago liberated it into better light. Taking my courage and clippers in hand, I performed the dire-seeming procedure called hat-racking upon its unsuspecting limbs.

Hat-racking involves pruning branches to a third to half of their length. The increased light in the situation should assist the tree to set lots of new growth, whereupon it will transform itself, I hope, into an improved cone of deep green, glistening foliage. I plan to help it with compost and mulch, and will report back.

Living soil

Many of us are champing at the bit to get our gardening activities under way, but it bears repeating that first comes the soil. We must do something for it if we expect our gardens to perform. The body of scientific labor underpinning “what goes on” in the soil, its inhabitants and constituents, its processes, how fertility happens — will not be “known” intellectually by most gardeners, unless they peer through the smart end of a microscope.

Luckily, we do not need to be soil scientists to know that soils need building, feeding, and renewing so they will retain fertility and moisture. This is experiential knowledge handed down by farmers and gardeners since the time of the Romans and Egyptians. Manuring and composting both condition and build great soil. It is organic matter that does this.

The organic matter in soils consists of living plants, animals, and micro-organisms; material drawn from dead plants, animals, and micro-organisms; and material drawn from further broken-down elements, called humus. Feeding the soil organisms is what is accomplished with fertilizer. Application of harsh-acting synthetic N-P-K fertilizers destroys this life over time, resulting in compaction, erosion, loss of countless subtle interactions and water-holding capacity.

A simple formula, after soil testing, is to apply slow-acting organic fertilizer in spring, then mulch with well-rotted manure and compost. With the general disappearance of agricultural manure, various bagged products substitute. The value of leaf and compost piles cannot be overstated.