Tags Posts tagged with "spring"


Getting the garden ready.

Trim winter damage with sharpened loppers, pruning saws, and clippers. – Photos by Susan Safford

Welcome spring! The vernal equinox occurs Friday. It means the center of the Sun spends a roughly equal amount of time above and below the horizon at every location on Earth; night and day are about the same length. It marks the official start of spring. Yay!

Trim winter damage with sharpened loppers, pruning saws, and clippers.
Snowbound pear, surrounded by “the poor man’s fertilizer,” awaits pruning.

Many will be scrambling to take care of matters that were made impossible by heavy snow cover just a short while back. Remove trunk guards from fruit trees, advises Fedco’s John Bunker, and let the trunks breathe. Pruning of fruit trees and dormant oil spraying may commence, as well as pruning of roses. Attend to the unwelcome damage that ice, snow, deer, and gnawing rodents may have delivered to plantings with sharpened loppers, pruning saws, and clippers.

The practice of “hat-racking,” of hollies or other trees, to tighten and improve structure, would be done at this time. My hybrid hollies have been so browsed by deer this winter that hat-racking is the only way to restore the appearance of some of them.

I have begun to be repetitious on the importance of letting soils thoroughly thaw and dry out before attempting anything in beds and the vegetable garden, despite the understandable eagerness to get going. It depends on how fast the weather warms and how much sun we receive; but it is important to refrain from walking upon or stirring the soil when it is sodden, or it will be all clods. Fine mulches may remain in place, but protective pine boughs should be lifted to accelerate warming.

Many gardeners have become wildlife-aware, practicing the habit of leaving perennials standing over winter to provide for birds. The snow will have smashed these remnants down, but they should be fairly easy to rake or break off. Watch for their newly emerging green tips.

“The poor man’s fertilizer”

Snow and rain carry many elements and contaminants, scoured from the air they travel through, on their way to earth. Nitrogen is among the material picked up, formed from the action of lightning on the nitrogen gases present in the atmosphere, and from fossil-fuel pollution.

This is why we hear snow, especially snow falling upon unfrozen soil, called “the poor man’s fertilizer”. This could also be “the poor woman’s fertilizer,” as it falls equally everywhere, without prejudice, unlike wealth. Estimates put the amounts of nitrogen at between five to ten pounds per acre, depending upon how much was able to sink into the soil versus how much was lost through runoff.

In a winter such as this, where the ground was not deeply frosted, it is likely that the haul of nitrogen from snow was a good one. (In addition to nitrogen, beneficial trace amounts of phosphorus and sulfur occur in snow and rain.) The insulating snow cover was also fortunate considering the bitter cold we experienced during February and early March; gardeners would be looking at far more damage to plants and hardscapes had it been otherwise.

Grafting and fruit growing

Kevin Brennan, with Jamie O’Gorman, is giving a class in grafting and fruit growing on Saturday, March 21, from 10 to 11:30 am at Thimble Farm. The topics will be growing and propagating fruits, nuts, and berries best suited to the Vineyard. Donation is $20. Please sign up by calling 201-478-1925 or emailing kevinbrennan15@gmail.com.

Garden prep: Raised beds

Interest in raised beds has increased over the past 20 or so years. Many ascribe this to an aging baby boomer generation’s need for handicap-accessible garden facilities. A raised section of garden warms up faster than surrounding soil, and enjoys better drainage, usually the best conditions for aromatic herbs. Structures filled with superlative, fertile growing medium may produce more crops in a smaller amount of space.

However, according to Wikipedia, introduction to the ideas of French intensive gardening occurred originally “in the 1890s on two acres of land just outside of Paris. The crops were planted in 18 inches of horse manure, a readily available fertilizer, and planted so close together that the mature plants’ leaves touched their neighbors. [It was] introduced to the United States by Alan Chadwick in California in the late ’60s, early ’70s.”

Hilling up earth with a hoe, or a wheel hoe with moldboard plow attachment, makes raised beds that are more modest in height. Those with a supply of logs may find log-supported beds an economical means of achieving the same end. For food gardens, avoid wood preservatives. The logs will eventually rot into the soil, but that is not necessarily a bad thing: the breakdown feeds the micro life of the soil.

Gardening in raised beds does not require purchasing or building custom structures, unless you have those yards of superlative, fertile growing medium to fill them.

What’s new?

Territorial Seed Co. is offering “Ketchup ’n’ Fries,” the TomTato, a tomato/potato graft. “Tomatoes are members of the potato family and are therefore naturally compatible with potatoes … There is no genetic modification,” according to the catalogue. For gardeners with limited space, this sounds like an exciting introduction.

Seed starting

Early and cold-hardy crops to sow: arugula, parsley, lettuce, spinach, beets, and cole crops such as mustard and broccoli. If you sow too early without a cold frame to move seedlings out into, the seedlings just get leggy. Celery and peppers (not cold-hardy) take a long time to reach size; start them now.

There is no reason to start peas indoors if you can protect them in the garden. However, since the tender plants appeal to all sorts of tastes, not just human ones, I find it safer and preferable to start them inside. Plant lots, more than you think you will need, as you cannot have too many pea plants, or peas!

Raindrops don't deter Vineyarders from slurping up Blizzards.

Dark skies and raindrops didn’t stop hundreds of hungry Islanders from lining up at Dairy Queen for its spring opening on Tuesday. It was a long, cold blizzard-filled winter on Martha’s Vineyard and it wasn’t  clear whether those in line were more eager for DQ Blizzards, or a just an annual, reliable sign that spring was indeed on the way.

By 3 pm, the rain tapered off, and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School student correspondent Sophie Petkus reported: “There were tons of kids arriving when we got there. I ordered a grasshopper Blizzard with hot fudge. Sarah [Dawson, on break from the University of Vermont] got a chocolate Blizzard with Oreo, Heathbar and M&M’s.”

Six DQ employees— four behind the counter, and two assists — kept up with the steady demands, which appeared to lean heavily away from traditional soft-serve cones, and toward Blizzards, in all forms.

Seems appropriate.

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The grass is not green and the snow is still here,

But the click of the club tells me spring is near.

They hurry on by across the cold ground,

So happy, so happy to play a golf round.

Their arms may be aching, their feet may be cold,

But who is not happy with a golf club to hold?

The greens are bumpy, the fairways are rough.

These men are golfers and that means they’re tough.

George Balco is a year-around Island resident living in Mink Meadows, has been active in Tisbury government for many years, and has held a number of elected and appointed positions.

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For you, it may be pinkletinks, or returning ospreys, or a brave crocus, but this year spring began in earnest when the snow stopped and the rain began.

For years, I thought shadbush was the longed-for harbinger. Among the abundant signs of gathering spring, shadbush flowers brightly along the road and in the woods where, at ground level, the Vineyard palette remains otherwise dullish. This spidery shrub, which is often called wild pear or juneberry, despite its bright white moment in April, is only beginning to catch the eye, because, naturally enough, despite the plaguey winter, the Vineyard spring matures slowly. One hopes for spring, yearns for it, dreams of it, but spring only means business when the northeast storm pushes by and, leaving the house in the morning, what strikes you in the face is not frigid, wind-whipped snow, but frigid, wind-whipped rain.

For a long time, I’ve looked for blooming shadbush to strike spring’s first sure note. It’s a member of the rose family, with white blossoms and small, dark blue fruit that may be eaten, although it’s slightly bitter. There are other, less cheery signs, and I’ve ignored them.

For instance, years ago when we lived in the country, the deer, numerous and hungry, signaled spring. They visited us early each morning, breakfasting on the plants near the house. In the city where we live now, Diesel, the aged 170-pound mastiff, now longer roams hopelessly, on guard against these poachers. But, he remembers. When he has one of his rumbling, leg-twitching, flatulent dreams, he is after those deer, or in terms of city wildlife, perhaps turkeys have taken the place of the deer. He is not forthcoming about his dreams.

In the mornings now, Diesel’s determined to be up and out about 4:30. I can hear him talking to himself. A low, rumbling growl signals that he’s sensed visitors. He alternates the growl with a whine that is a plea for someone to open the door and release him to the hunt. His genetic legacy of poacher-nabbing prowess, long lost in the clotted evolutionary mists, animates only his sleeping life. In his vast, gale-swept cranium, something stirs, and he sets out to check the property. Spring comes for Diesel now only in his dreams.

This mixed spring assessment continues. The squirrels are ravenous. They and the birds are  are tribalists of the worst sort, doing daily battle for power and nutrition. The neighborhood is littered with twigs, sticks, branches, and limbs (in ascending order) blown from the worthless oak and pine trees during the great easterlies of the last two months. Every one needs to be picked up and carted off, but first there are the roads to repair, the driveway to resurface, snow depressed bushes to be propped up, and the trim needs to be repainted.

The black compost used to mulch the gardens last spring is like cement a year later. The rain and snow have compressed it. Ought to use something else this year, maybe a mulch with a piney fragrance, more pleasant than the fetid aroma of these grim scrub oak woods all around us.

I’ve pruned the plants on the porch at the back of the house. They had lost their charm. The two plants, tiny when they went in the ground, now threaten the useful space on the porch. And they’ve accomplished all this without our help or husbandry. We know nothing, we’ve done nothing, and it’s worked splendidly.

There you have it. The news is, it’s spring, such as it is. The critters are hungry and restless. Winter’s damage must be undone. Nature is giving us a heads-up. You’ve been alerted.


Pomegranate, amaryllis, and geraniums brighten an indoor garden, while awaiting spring. — Photo by Susan Safford

Abigail-HigginsAbigail Higgins has been writing Garden Notes since 2002, and she has kept a kitchen garden for about 50 years. A resident of West Tisbury, she is an officer of the M.V. Agricultural Society.

Gardeners are eager to immerse in all spring work, but the forecast calls for extended cold and wintrier than normal spring conditions.

Condolences to the family of Donald Mills Jr. of Hillside Farm. It is sad saying, “rest in peace,” because he was a good guy, gone far too young. Donnie was one of the most modest members of the often colorful Island agricultural community, with such a self-deprecating manner that many Island residents perhaps did not know him. Nonetheless, for those who did, the laconic and humble Donnie always had a pithy or amused observation to make, whether on the struggles of Island farming or the crazy greater world at large.

False starts, cold temps

Crocus ancyrensis, closed against the rain. We have waited so long for you.
Crocus ancyrensis, closed against the rain. We have waited so long for you.

There was solace in pricking out lettuce seedlings indoors while a blizzard thrummed outside, although I’d have rather been working in the garden. Island gardeners are eager to immerse in all spring work with headlong energy, rather than waiting. However, it would be wise to practice restraint since the national weather service’s seasonal forecast calls for extended cold and wintrier than normal spring conditions.

Ahhh, color.
Ahhh, color.

There will be many broken twigs and branches from wind, ice, and snow loads; damage will continue to become apparent as plants come into growth. Pruning and general clean-up is integral to spring garden maintenance and of that, clean-up and pruning the sub-shrub category of blooming plants constitutes a large part. Hydrangeas, Montauk daisies, caryopteris, potentilla, Rosa rugosa, perennial herbs such as lavenders and salvias, and buddleia: these all need tending.

Think twice about pruning them this year and do not berate yourself for putting it off if more freezes or snows threaten.

The above-mentioned are sub-shrubs being neither “woody” nor “herbaceous.” They derive a certain amount of their ability to survive in this hardiness zone from the cold protection afforded by their old wood. Remove the old wood prematurely through seasonal clean-up, and cold shock may cause the loss of swollen buds protected by it. In some cases, the entire plant may die from it. Use your judgment, depending on Island location and exposure of individual sites.

Big to-do list

The recent weather conditions have created for many a backlog of garden tasks. What might have been done in March will now mostly take place in April. In no particular order of importance, here are suggested tasks:

  • Dig and stew dandelions, root and top, from untreated lawns and gardens. The traditional tea is an excellent spring tonic, with kidney and liver cleansing effects; roots lose potency upon flowering.
  • Start tuberous begonias if you have not already done so.
  • Prune Hydrangea paniculata back to lowest pair of strong buds on last season’s growth, likewise H. arborescens (‘Annabelle’s and similar).
  • Clean up winter trash and the remains of last year’s annuals and perennials. Cut back herbaceous perennials and divide.
  • Prune shrub roses.
  • Indoor plants (in photo: amaryllis, pomegranate, and pelargonium): feed every two weeks at half-dilution and spray with insecticidal soap. Repot any needing it with fresh potting mix before moving outside in warm weather.
  • When soil reaches 41°F, cold-hardy vegetables such as broad beans, carrots, lettuce, and peas may be planted, but may need further protection of floating row covers.
  • Prune canes of Rosa rugosa back to a strong bud, or about 12 inches.
  • Top-dress evergreen and deciduous trees with HollyTone, TreeTone, ProGro, or ProHolly.
  • Henbit, spitting cress, and chickweed are up and growing in beds and vegetable gardens. Weed them out while young and before flowering (latter two make good salad greens if harvested from untreated soils).
  • Add organic matter to ornamental and vegetable garden soils, but refrain from digging prematurely, until drying-out has occurred (working sodden soil destroys structure and creates compaction).
  • Cut back ornamental grasses.
  • Apply corn gluten (10-0-0) as a weed/crabgrass pre-emergent.
  •  Last call for spraying with lime sulphur oil mix: fruit and other small trees, shrubs, roses, to control mites, scale, leaf diseases. Ideal conditions for applying occur when air temperatures are above 40° for a 24-hour period, with no rain in the forecast. Do not spray if you see any leaf growth, as this will burn the foliage. (If bought separately, both sprays can be mixed in the same tank; mix at recommended rates.)
  • Spray deer repellant on susceptible plants, such as fruit trees, lilac buds, daylilies, and tulip shoots.
  • Lawn mower maintenance: sharpen blades, change oil and air cleaner, and clean.
  • Shear groundcovers such as ivy, epimedium, ceratostigma, and liriope.

Clematis care

Despite the vagaries of the weather, by now clematis should have been cut back. The method, however, depends upon which category your clematis plants belong in (a complex discussion in its own right and worthy of a separate column). Save pot-tags or record name of cultivars planted; books and the internet supply lots of information on clematis categories if you know the cultivar name.

Group 1: prune right after flowering. Group 2: large flowered hybrids, pruned variously. Group 3: (includes sweet autumn clematis) flower on new wood produced in the current year; prune back severely every year in late winter, when they are completely dormant, to about 12 – 14 inches.

Ag Society news

On Sunday, April 6 at 1 pm, M.V. Agricultural Society presents Jonathan Bates with “Paradise Lot, Growing an Edible Garden Oasis.” Presentation is free and open to the public, and will constitute April’s Homegrown meeting. Along with Eric Toensmeier (and their families), Jonathan Bates has been demonstrating the self-sufficient, permaculture lifestyle on Paradise Lot, formerly a junked-up urban yard in beautiful rust-belt Holyoke. For more information about Jonathan Bates, please go to www.foodforestfarm.com.

On Sunday, April 13 at 12 noon, MVAS presents Lamb-O-Rama, a Palm Sunday noon meal (adults $12, children $7, tickets at the door) that complements the Farm Institute’s April 12 Sheepapalooza, a “celebration of all things sheep,” and the regular Sunday get-together of the Spinners & Weavers.

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Seen recently in the vicinity of Lambert's Cove: Pinkletink, aka "Peeper," "Tinkletoes," "Hyla Crucifer." — courtesy U.S. Geodetic Survey

Spring is officially here. At least the randy pinkletinks think so.

We arrived at the office Friday morning to a phone message from Nancy Abbott. Ms. Abbott, of West Tisbury, had called at 7:20 pm on Thursday to report that she had heard, near Lambert’s Cove, that first herald of spring — the amorous crooning of the inch-long Hyla crucifer, a marsh dwelling “chorus” frog, known locally as the pinkletink. Ms. Abbott was the first to report on this harbinger of the new season. Lambert’s Cove has typically been the locus of early pinkletink reports.

Later Friday morning, Sandy Fisher phoned. She wanted to know if anyone had called with a pinkletink report. She was hoping that honors for this year would go to her daughter, Connie Toteanu. Sandy and Connie live off — of course —  Lambert’s Cove Road.

Now we intend to find out why Lambert’s Cove is such a hotbed of pinkletink ardor — so stay tuned. (Initial research into the species revealed that in New Brunswick, northern peepers — yet another moniker — are called “tinkletoes.”)