Garden Notes: The birds are returning

Is spring on the horizon?

Native holly in a wild setting. — Susan Safford

Welcome March! Days that make one feel that spring is right around the corner were characteristic of Island February; days that make one feel it is never coming were characteristic of Island March; but now — who knows?

Birds are flocking back in preparation for the coming breeding season. The increased activity marks a good time to clean old accumulations from feeders and birdhouses. During a recent visit with bird feeding friends in New Hampshire, we witnessed the nightly removing and morning rehanging of the feeders — anti-bear measures! Soon-to-be-active marauding raccoons seem like comparatively minor nuisances.


Galanthophilia is the special term for snowdrop worship, from the botanical name of its genus, galanthus. Having it results in no lasting harm to either humans or snowdrops, although in certain rarified situations, where a plant has sported a novel characteristic, it morphs and becomes Galanthomania, which may cause disproportionate expenditure of real wealth.

And now, the harmless competition is on: A certain someone is often first with the pinkletink/snowdrops report; but this year, even those who, like me, garden on cold clay soil are having early blooms (Feb. 17). Tips of other bulbs are showing, too.

By whatever names, snowdrops instill lust of a harmless kind. Is it because they are so early, announcing that, sometime, spring will be here? To acquire those carpets of snowdrops seen in photos of British gardens ( without any expenditure of capital other than human energy, lift snowdrop clumps “in the green,” meaning while foliage is intact, separate, and replant.

If you suspect you might be suffering from galanthophilia, keep your eyes peeled for unusual markings or other features as you worship your snowdrops. Your sport could be a pot of gold!

Sponge gardening

Our tremendous downpour over the weekend of Feb. 10 and 11, just one among many recent floods, demonstrated the need to pay lots of attention to surface water, its accumulation and management. The ground was additionally still in the grip of frost, mimicking pavement, and prevented it from percolating well.

In built-up areas, such as in-town Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Beach Road/Water Street in Vineyard Haven, these increasingly frequent intense downpours promise to become an escalating source of inconvenience and outright economic harm.

Expanding pavement and hardscaping are diminishing the avenues rainfall has to infiltrate the soil and return to the ground. “In the past, humans have taken the land away from the water; now we need to give the land back”: This quote, from a recent article ( about a flood-prone Chinese city’s attempts to manage flooding, caught my eye.

The article describes how an area outside Shanghai is ditching traditional flood-defense methods for innovative alternatives. Since water seeks its own level, solutions at the site of flooding are only partial. “Upstream,” or “uphill,” must also do its part: diverting, slowing down, and encouraging soil infiltration.

“Sponge gardening” is a term that describes green solutions that we as gardeners can consider. It goes without saying that porous, friable soils, well covered in vegetation, and rich in soil biology, accomplish this far better than compacted, dead ones do. Clearing of slopes is one of the worst offenders for exacerbating runoff and erosion (and shooting pollution to shellfishing beds).

A local example of a project to inhibit runoff may be studied at the West Tisbury library’s parking area and grounds. Permeable paving, berms, and rain-garden swales are features that private landscapes’ and public works’ designs alike could incorporate.

Seed starting

The Home Garden Seed Association’s ( recent press release, “Seed Starting: As Easy as 1 2 3,” stresses using quality seed. Avoid using old seed stored in less than optimum conditions. Maximize light: Whether natural or artificial, good seedlings need adequate amounts of it. Do not start too soon! The website’s “new varieties” list contains some that look pretty good — check them out.

Trees: American holly

The woodlands where holly trees grow display them most strikingly in leafless seasons. If you have native holly (Ilex opaca), you are lucky — they do not want to grow just anywhere, even here on the Island where conditions are favorable. This may be due to microclimates, or to mycorrhizal relationships. Look for wild holly in mixed mesic woodland; the soils will be humus-rich and deep, as Island soils go, plus well drained and acidic.

Damp soil and perched wetland are nearby. If we scout around our area, we know where holly is abundant: Woods Hole, Longview and Seven Gates, the Tiasquam watershed, and wooded parts of Aquinnah (the same morainal areas where you are likely to hear the earliest pinkletinks). Is holly alien to sandplain/outwash plain habitat plant? Yes — until we find one happily growing there!

If space or performance is critical, choose named and described clones; there are hundreds. Polly Hill Arboretum showcases dozens, including yellow-berried ones. When we built here, I transplanted eight small, wild-collected holly seedlings from where we used to live to join about half a dozen here already. They exhibit wide variation. One just sat, and sat, with the same five yellow-green leaves, for so long that eventually I yanked it. Another, planted close to the house, turned out to be female and grew attractively, acquiring the desirable broadly pyramidal shape and dispensing abundantly berried holiday greens.

Hollies are capable of resprouting from mere stumps, and this is the key to “hat-racking,” the trick of reshaping trees that are sparse or otherwise in need of renewal. They make gorgeous, effective screening and handsome hedges. Fertilize them in spring with a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants, and top-dress with leaf mold, mulch, or other moisture-retentive organic matter. Polly Hill advised me many years ago that hollies really like “hot” chicken manure top-dressing in early spring, and if they must be transplanted, to do it in February.