Garden Notes

Snow for garden. Photo by Susan Safford
A blanket of snow is beautiful and good for our gardens too. Photo by Susan Safford

Winter chores and inspiration

By Abigail Higgins - February 16, 2006

By far the biggest news this week in garden and field is the well-forecast snowstorm. The clearing weather will finally bring the perfect winter imagery: moonlight over a snowy landscape. For fans of winter, it is about time. The meteorologists have written up 2005 as the warmest year on record and January of 2006 as the warmest January on record. It is easy to turn into a wimp at the thought of a little snow and sub-freezing temperatures when we have been continually softened-up by warm and sunny "winter" weather. Now we must buck up and get out the snow boots.

Growing tips of skunk cabbage, narcissi bulbs, and perennials like hemerocallis and hellebore are up all over the Island, and snowdrops have been officially reported. Deer ticks have been prevalent this season on house pets and humans alike. Despite my recent column extolling four-season gardening and gardens loaded with winter interest, that is rhetorical: turning lemons into lemonade. I'd prefer to see distinct cold and real winter, covered over by a blanket of snow. It is better for our gardens.

This is a good time to spread manure, compost, or fertilizer on beds and gardens (provided the supply of material is not frozen in place). Let the snow carry it down into the soil as it melts. It is also a good time to take soil samples and to get your small-engine power equipment into the shop for any needed maintenance.

I picked up a pair of ergonometric Bahco pruners at the Oesco booth at New England Grows, liking them enough to order myself a pair, left-handed and sized to my hand. A friend in the tree-service business tells me Bahco is giving Felco some competition. While we are out this February pruning our plants with well-sharpened saws and pruners (if not new Bahcos) a New England Grows presenter, Dr. Ed Gilman of the University of Florida, urges that we prune to eliminate defects such as included bark and dead wood, the formation of co-dominant stems, aggressive low limbs, and those that increase risk of branch and stem failure.

Experts share ideas
The two talks by Dr. Gilman on the proper pruning of trees and on designing spaces to accommodate desirable trees were interesting and well presented. With all the recent hurricanes in Florida, he has been conducting research into how to prune trees to help them to withstand high winds, and how to rehabilitate those that sustain damage. Furthermore, the average street tree fails on average less than seven years after planting, due to site limitations and poor design and planting practices. This amounts to untold wasted resources and effort for developers, towns, and municipalities. His knowledge and methods are available in his comprehensive book, "An Illustrated Guide to Pruning (second ed.)," Delmar Publishers, Albany, N.Y., 330 ppg., and at an informative web site, that is so good I suspect it might be cutting into his book sales.

Bill Cullina of the New England Wild Flower Society gave the New England Grows audience an inspiring talk and slide show on his 10 top candidates for overall best native shrubs for northeastern landscapes, "his shrub hall of fame." He described more than 10 in the course of his remarks naturally, but the message for me was to use more Amelanchier x grandiflora cultivars, Cornus alternifolia, Fothergilla gardenii, highbush blueberry, and several under-utilized Viburnum species, V. lentago, V. nudum var. cassionoides, V. opulus var. americanum (formerly V. trilobum) and V. lantanoides. They are good-looking and well adapted.

I attended the Garden Writers Association regional meeting at New England Grows and was pleased to be in the audience for a panel consisting of Bill Cullina of NEWFS and Garden in the Woods, Dale Hendricks of North Creek Nurseries, and Wayne Mezitt of Weston Nurseries. They discussed the place of natives in the world of gardens, plant business, and garden writing. There is a concern, reflected by both the writer audience and the nurserymen panelists, that despite seemingly ever-greater variety at the retail end, a sameness and homogenization are creeping into American gardening practice. The panelists encouraged the audience of writers to be opinionated and provocative as an antidote to this one-size-fits-all monotony.

Box stores sell millions of branded, plant-royalty units coast to coast. Think of the untold numbers of impatiens sold nationally. Customers buy them because they are thought of as easy and uncomplicated. Can the adaptation and uniqueness of regional flora mean good sales and good sense today? Are other, more interesting plants really so much harder and complicated?

To find out, in a joint effort North Creek, Pride's Corner Farms and its subsidiary, White Flower Farm, are launching their own native "branded" program, in conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation: the American Beauties program. Learn more about using natives and the benefits of the American Beauties program at

It is sad to report that the legendary, authoritative British gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd has died at age 84. His garden at Great Dixter manor is a magnet for garden visitors to UK, famous for its 210-foot-long mixed border. His garden writing is appreciated for being both knowledgeable and accurate and for great style, sprightly and nuanced.

He was known for laboring away among the perennials, in the "mufti" of a scruffy worker, while covertly eavesdropping on what visitors to his garden were saying about it! He wrote: "Never take the 'I shan't see it' attitude. By exercising a little vision you will come to realise that the tree, which has a possible future, perhaps a great one, may be more important than yourself, nearing your end." He kept dachshunds, a wide circle of friends of all ages, and a broad range of interests, ranging well beyond gardening. He traveled and lectured and entertained.

Remembering a master gardener
His writings, both books and columns, are particularly apt and often vivid. Foremost among Christopher Lloyd's many books and writings, "The Well Tempered Garden" and The "Adventurous Gardener" have become indispensable classic gardening guides. Stefan Buczacki wrote the following, excerpted from the paragraphs of appreciation in the Guardian: "But for me, 'The Well-Tempered Garden,' with its unfailingly wise and perceptive counsel about gardening in all its facets was and remains Christopher's most significant writing; a legacy that should be compulsory reading for every aspiring gardener."

At the end of his full life, childless and a bachelor, Christopher Lloyd's last column, for the Feb. 11 Guardian was entitled, "The charm of fruitless trees," from which this fitting paragraph comes:

"In writing about pears, I am torn between the fruit and the tree. An old pear tree, whether or not it fruits, is venerable and achieves a great age, with thick stems and rough, scaly bark. It is easy to admire the trees without caring whether or not they fruit. They just are splendid to look at, especially, but not only, when in flower, and that is enough...."

Please come to share a community meal and learn how you can help preserve and expand local food production on Martha's Vineyard. You are invited to join us, the newly formed Slow Food Martha's Vineyard, for a potluck and membership drive meeting on Thursday, Feb. 16, 6:30 pm at Agricultural Hall, Panhandle Road, West Tisbury. Please bring a dish to share and your own plate, cup, and utensils to help us keep the use of disposables to a minimum.