Garden Notes

Chionodoxa: small species bulbs often found among the best of the rest in bulb catalogues. The several species have multiple, starry, upward-facing flowers per stem, in shades of lavender, blue, pink and white and are great naturalizers in rock and woodland gardens or in lawns. Photo by Susan Safford

Take a year-round stand

By Abigail Higgins - April 26, 2007

The four principles of ecology: All things are interconnected; everything goes somewhere; there's no such thing as a free lunch; nature bats last.

Earth Day, April 22, with its symbolic beach cleaning and other rituals that commemorate the day, has come and once more gone. Business as usual can also be counted upon to resume. Of those who bother to note Earth Day, most return to autopilot and the consumption-ism that accounts for the present difficulties of our home planet. However, the stakes couldn't be higher for each one of us to make every day Earth Day in our minds and in our actions. "Stand up for what you stand on!" and ask your elected public servants to apply the principles of ecology to all policy with the same care and dedication that is paid to every other aspect of our security and well-being.

A group attempting to enliven debate and thought about these issues has put together the Living Local symposium this Saturday, April 28, at Agricultural Hall on Panhandle Road in West Tisbury. I hope to see many elected officials, local or otherwise, attending.

The Grid - a metaphor for any large-scale supply system - far from solely representing good sense and economies of scale, is also inherently unstable: less manageable, more vulnerable to system failure, and the antithesis of the way thrifty and practical people want to structure life.

Although we lacked cell phones and laptops, did we really live like cavemen in 1970? That was the year of the first Earth Day. In attempting to get a handle on runaway growth, people sense that returning to local and smaller scale units of things helps make them more manageable, although requiring quantities of scarce patience and cooperation. Especially concerning the things that are the bedrock of our lives: food and energy, and our ability to live in our home, Earth. Randy Udall and John Abrams will speak about local economies and energy. Please plan to attend Living Local and find out what the buzz is about.

On the subject of Earth Day, I was fascinated and shocked to read an April 15 article in The Independent (UK) reporting on tentative findings by researchers linking colony collapse disorder of domesticated honeybees to cell phone radiation. Read the article at for the complete text. My own question: If this is what cell phones do to bees, what is my cell phone doing to me? CCD, as it has come to be known, is a growing and serious threat to bees and beekeepers throughout the United States and elsewhere, since the use of bee colonies to pollinate crops is a critical component of agriculture. I know for years I have spotted very few honeybees, anywhere. Recently, beekeepers have been astounded to find large numbers of their hives abandoned and empty save only for queens, eggs, and a few workers.

"The parasites, wildlife and other bees that normally raid the honey and pollen left behind when a colony dies, refuse to go anywhere near the abandoned hives," according to the article. "The alarm was first sounded last autumn, but has now hit half of all American states. The West Coast is thought to have lost 60 per cent of its commercial bee population, with 70 per cent missing on the East Coast....

"The implications of the spread are alarming. Most of the world's crops depend on pollination by bees. Albert Einstein once said that if the bees disappeared, 'man would have only four years of life left.' "

The beauty of bulbs

Bulb grower Brent Heath, eponymous co-proprietor of Brent & Becky's Bulbs with his wife, Becky, gave an illustrated talk about growing and forcing bulbs in containers at the Polly Hill Arboretum last week. The attendees each went home with a container put together with summer-flowering bulbs and guidance supplied by Brent. He is a quiet speaker of charm and omniscient experience on all bulb-related topics, and photographs his ideas for bulb combinations beautifully. You can access a list of some of these combinations at: Their two illustrated print catalogues provide one of the widest selections of bulbs of all sorts to American gardeners.

Plant of the Year Awards

The Perennial Plant Association (PPA), one of the various organizations dedicated to enlarging gardeners' enjoyment of worthy plants, has named as its 2007 Plant of the Year, Nepeta "Walker's Low." A selection of the Nepeta x faassenii hybrid group, this is a wonderful mounder with masses of bluish-lavender flowers and grey-green foliage. Deer and rabbit resistant, "Walker's Low" commences blooming early in the season and is one of the last things still flowering in November.

Why choose "Walker's Low?" According to PPA's press release, the choice was made due to lovely blue-violet flowers and their long-bloom time, attractive gray foliage, less need for staking to retain form, ease of propagation, lack of pest or disease problems, and low maintenance requirements. Cultivation consists of planting in a well-drained sunny site and cutting back by two-thirds when initial flowers fade. The plant is hardy in zones 3 to 8 and is not, by the way, a low-grower. Rather tall, up to 36 inches, its name reflects the garden where it originated.

In a similar award for shrubs and trees for New England landscapes, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston administers the Cary Awards. 2007 awards for Plant of the Year were made to Rhododendron "Olga Mezitt," Chionanthus virginicus (fringe tree) and Betula nigra "Little King," (dwarf river birch). "Olga Mezitt," from Weston Nurseries, is a small-leaved rhododendron of similar parentage to their famous "PJM" - same purplish foliage coloration in winter, same general height and width - but is a lovely warm pink.

Fringe tree is a multi-stemmed small tree, 15 to 20 feet high and wide, for sunny or partially shaded locations. In spring it is covered with lacy white fragrant flowers formed like long fringes, hence its name. The tree is dioecious, with separate male and female forms: the females bear blue fruits after flowering. The foliage is bright green, oval, and about eight inches long. Fringe tree is hardy from zones 3 to 9 and occurs natively in the eastern United States. Give it rich moisture-retentive soil and it will be a hardy plant for you, free of pests and disease.

"Little King" is a compact version of Betula nigra, our native river birch. Introduced by King Nursery in Oswego, Ill., in 1991, this shrubby birch grows 10 to 12 feet tall and nine to 12 feet wide, making it perfect for smaller gardens. It also can be used as a deciduous hedge. The bark features colorful patches of cream and apricot that gracefully peel, revealing hues of salmon and brown. Darker twigs offer contrast in the snow. The species grows in eastern North America in moist to wet soil, but can adapt to most soil types as long as it receives adequate moisture until it is well established. Hardy to Zone 4, it prefers full sun/partial shade.