Garden Notes

Memorial Day remembrances give comfort to families.

Pause to remember

By Abigail Higgins - May 25, 2006

Memorial Day in a resort community like ours is often about barbecue supplies, spiffing up properties, or takeout at the [insert your favorite backdoor], finally open for the season. In any real community it is also about reflection and memory for local people who gave their lives in the service of our country. (The next time you are attending a sports event at Veterans' Memorial Park in Vineyard Haven, take a moment to read the names on the plaques beneath the trees along the east side.) The veterans' organizations and veterans' graves officers do their part by dressing the cemeteries and graves in the national colors. But Memorial Day is also a time of remembrance for all our loved ones who are buried in the cemetery just up the road.

It is customary to visit the cemetery to do some clean up of the faded previous decorations and to bring a fresh plant or cemetery log planted with annuals. Probably geraniums account for a large proportion of the plants sold for this purpose, and for good reason. They are colorful and do well with the low moisture levels of the inevitable minimal care they will receive. Buyers of geraniums may know that red geraniums are not all the same - there are many different reds - but may be unaware that they come in different heights as well. The low-growing or compact ranges are safer for graves, as there is less likelihood of plants being top-heavy, falling over and drying out. Every cemetery has many of those forlorn little tableaux: the fallen over, dried-out geraniums on their sides in their small plastic pots. Alternatively, and for the taller varieties, they can be replanted in heavier pots that will hold them upright. Red, white, and blue is often used as a color theme: white alyssum, blue or white ageratum, and blue or white scaevola make good companions to the geraniums.

In-ground planting around graves is subject to cemetery regulations, but most Island graveyards are quite free of restrictions. Many families who are looking for ways to enhance their loved ones' graves share a concern that at some point the grave will become overgrown or unkempt-looking; but even so, one sees plantings used that will eventually outgrow the plot or obscure the headstone. Again, the usually dry cemetery conditions dictate small trees, shrubs, and sub-shrubs that can fend for themselves, such as santolina, heaths and heathers, dwarf boxwoods and evergreens. If the grave receives partial shade, the variety of suitable shrubs broadens. Dwarf shrubs of all species are good, including low-growing azaleas; very dwarf rhododendrons; viburnums such as 'Watanabe'; and hydrangeas such as the dwarf H. quercifolia (oakleaf) 'Pee Wee,' and the H. paniculata 'Little Lamb.'

Perennials can be used effectively, and probably none more so than the lily-of-the-valley with its evocative scent, which is in bloom on or around Memorial Day. Other partial shade possibilities with ground covering tendencies similar to lily-of-the-valley are the Epimedium species (early spring flowers) and sweet woodruff, Galium odorata. Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, blooms in April through June, then dies down and disappears - an advantage or disadvantage depending on what additional annuals one might have in mind for the grave site. Dwarf and intermediate irises can make very good subjects for decorating a headstone. They are low maintenance plants with low moisture requirements, and continue for years.

And finally, peonies make as beautiful a plant in the cemetery as in the garden, being a fitting subject with which to remember someone special. Most bloom on or around Memorial Day and, like iris, continue for years and years. Many modern cultivars have shorter flower stems than the earlier turn-of-the- (20th) century introductions, making them good choices for decorating a headstone.

The great lawn: Maybe we can learn to tolerate a few weeds

Lawn mowing time is here, as evidenced by the number of people at the gas station over the weekend lining up to fill their gas cans. In the quest for "the great lawn," please be informed of the consequences of success and take personal responsibility to manage the quest sensibly. A recent bulletin from the U.S Geological Survey details the results of a ten year long survey on Pesticides in the Nation's Streams and Ground water. (Pesticides = anything that kills a pest, including herbicides, designed to kill weeds, and insecticides, designed to kill insects.)

Pesticides have found their way into the nation's water. They were found in every stream tested by the USGS. Pesticide contaminants are found in our surface water and in our ground water (shallow and deep.) Pesticide compounds (mixtures) were detected through most of the year in water from streams with urban (97 percent), agricultural (97 percent), or mixed-land-use watersheds (94 percent), by the USGS. The USGS found that pesticides occurred most frequently in shallow ground water beneath urban and agricultural areas, where more than 50 percent of wells contained one or more pesticide compounds. About one-third of the deeper wells sampled, which tap major aquifers used for water supply, contained one or more pesticides. Pesticide levels in urban streams were often detected at higher concentrations than pesticides in agricultural streams.

Another study, which came out about the same time as the USGS survey, reports on four years of experiments showing the impact of pesticides on frogs by Tyrone Hayes, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. Mr. Hayes's experiments with frogs show the dangers of pesticides are greater when mixed than alone, even at levels below the Maximum Contaminant Level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Mr. Hayes and his group of researchers found that mixtures, in concentrations as low as 0.1 ppb, lengthened the time of metamorphosis in frogs by 15 days. The mixture also caused a frog mortality of 35 percent. The nine compounds tested together also produced a startling effect: the longer a tadpole took to mature into a frog, the smaller it was. "Estimating the ecological risk and impact of pesticides on amphibians using studies that examine single pesticides at high concentrations only may lead to gross underestimations of the role of pesticides in amphibian declines," wrote Mr. Hayes. (My thanks to Eco-Turf Talk, April 2006, vol. 4, issue 1 for the above information.)