Garden Notes

Snowy Road
A light snowfall highlights a road. Photos by Susan Safford

Late winter scents and scenes

By Abigail Higgins - March 1, 2007

Late winter has provided the Island's heaviest snowfall so far. What a nice change from frozen dirt! The subtle winter colors of the Vineyard landscape are beautiful but the contrast of snow makes them more so. The cold drains and flattens rhododendron, holly and bull-briar into duller green but deepens cedar and spruce with purple and black shades. Thickets and saplings are showing reddening in their branch-tips and twigs, especially swamp maple and highbush blueberry, among others.

Patches of grass, butterscotch-colored against the snow, waft out the marvelous scent that so-identifies late winter and early spring on the Island. Those with west-facing windows or a western prospect in their gardens are fortunate: the scenery is backlit by the penetrating afternoon light and last week the waxing moon in the early evening sky made for some inspiring skyscapes. All is still, cold, quiet-and gorgeous.

My large collection of garden-related catalogues met an unfortunate post-holiday fate in one of those January cellar sweeps that my Times colleague Hermine Hull amusingly documented recently. Talk about household drama! Fortunately, not all the mail order houses had sent out their 2007 lists; the collection swells anew.

Ice on grass
The icy bloom looks like Queen Anne's Lace.

The kitchen counter in front of me is spread thickly with seed catalogues. All may be still, cold, and quiet outside, but indoors I am in the midst of turmoil: a torrent of information-gathering and a flood of comparisons are swirling in my head. What a lot of choices and how little growing space, time, and row space in the garden! And what about the extra seed left over from last year's choices? It is comforting to know I am not alone-you all are making similar choices-and part of being a gardener is to want, to imagine, planning and visualizing desirable outcomes, and then trying to make them happen.

In addition to the catalogue-strewn counter, there is the late winter condition of the greenhouse. Debris has been accumulating on the landscape cloth and mildew on the glass. I write a paragraph here, do some plant housekeeping there, and then back to the kitchen counter and catalogues.

It is OK now to cut back hard plants like geraniums, fuchsia, and hibiscus and I have done that. In a few weeks they are re-potted in cleaned-up pots with fresh potting soil, and will then take off with new growth. Other plants go outside for a fierce wash with the spray-wand to shake up the dust, whitefly and aphids.

Take a look at fruit trees and prune where necessary: eliminate crossing branches and prune to let light into the center. Ditto for grapevines. If you are not sure how to prune them consult a good pruning guide or get info from the Internet. Take down ornamental grasses before the weather breaks them and leaves them strewn all over.

On the beautiful, sunny January day when our new grandson, Hayden, was born, the greenhouse was, of course, open for ventilation. I was over the moon with excitement and you can guess what happened: with child care and several trips down and back to the hospital, I forgot to shut it that afternoon. That night it was cold and by the next morning several plants were frozen to death, and on many of the others one side was damaged.

So today I am pruning the survivors for repair and re-balance as well. The tips of all the clivia's leaves are crispy brown, as they were frosted; the flower buds now pushing out from the sides of the stems seem a little lonely without the usual accompaniment of handsome strappy foliage. The plumbagos are shivering, still! The pomegranate "Wonderful" made blue-ribbon growth last season and needs pruning back. I am rearranging plants and benches to accommodate seed-starting paraphernalia.

A thank you to the audience and panelists at last Wednesday's "Seeds, Seeds, Seeds" panel at Agricultural Hall. One of the panelists, Thalia Scanlon, pointed out that the best place to store seed is in your refrigerator: cool, dry and dark. Roxanne Kapitan reminded us of the importance of buying organic seed. Organic seed producers practice sustainable farming and need our support. Buying organic seeds from New England suppliers supports the regional farmers who grow them. Our next panel, which will be March 21 from 7 to 9 pm at the Hall, will be on backyard poultry. Details will appear in the next Garden Notes.

Oakleaf hydrangeas for the shrub border

Previously I wrote thumbnail profiles of shrubs I am mentally interviewing for a role in my landscape (18 Jan 07 Garden Notes.) I described three, disanthus, corylopsis, and cherry laurel. Now I would like to describe another and hope that readers will benefit. As before, I am thinking in terms of deer, shade tolerance and, everything else being equal, I might want to choose something native over a non-native.

I am an advocate of oakleaf hydrangeas, which are North American natives but not from around here. Because of their usefulness and beauty I continually recommend their use in any number of situations in other peoples' gardens. Especially because of the foliage: the shapes of the leaves that so faithfully mimic big, sturdy, black oak leaves; the nubbly naugahyde texture and suffusion of beautiful autumn colors; the way the leaves "lay,'' aligning with each other-I find it a very appealing plant.

But can I have it at home? We have planted none so far. Our place is essentially dry oak forest habitat. Hydrangea quercifolia, the oakleaf hydrangea, enjoys a moist, acid, organic-laden soil in full sun to partial shade, according to Michael Dirr in his "Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs." I would love to have a nice big stand somewhere around here.

Soils can be amended for improvement and moisture-conserving mulch applied, but plants that work with, not despite, our conditions make our lives easier. The question is: in a dry woodland setting will I have to baby-sit them beyond my capabilities, in order for them to thrive? And if they are not thriving, the deer will know, and pounce.

In addition to the species there are a number of beautiful, named cultivars, among them 'Snow Queen,' 'Snowflake,' and 'Alice.' Many are illustrated in another of Dr. Dirr's books, "Hydrangeas for American Gardens." These all will ultimately achieve a height of well over eight feet in good soil, creating screening and wonderful banks of deeply colored fall foliage, in addition to the bold leaf texture and large flower trusses. The flower trusses themselves age through pink-dusted to a deep rose, if weather conditions permit, before becoming brown. For smaller-scale situations or closer to the house there are dwarf forms of H. quercifolia, including 'Pee Wee' and 'Sykes.'