Keep on keeping up


The West Tisbury Farmers’ Market has resumed at the Grange Hall. Saturday the 19th marks Polly Hill Arboretum’s Solstice Celebration, a free event for all ages. Park at Agricultural Hall.

Disliked in lawns and of European origin, flowering velvet grass (Holcus lanatus) presently dominates Island meadows, a soft purple haze that ripples fluidly under the breeze. It is only a so-so forage grass, although it may act as a host plant for caterpillars of small skipper butterflies. Velvet grass coincides with the bloom of fellow invasives multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle. Their intoxicating scents are everywhere, indicating how prevalent in our landscape they have become.

Peony Culture

Dissatisfied with your peonies’ performance? The 2010 Van Engelen bulb catalogue ( has arrived, containing the following excellent cultural advice for peonies:

“These easy-to-grow, deer-resistant perennials require a cool winter climate to satisfy dormancy requirements; well-draining, loamy soil; good air circulation; abundant sunshine (never shade) and spring moisture. They are best planted, moved, or divided in October for thorough root system development and nutrient storage before the ground freezes. Peonies prefer slightly acidic to neutral pH soil (6.0 to 7.0).

“Prepare the planting site by cultivating holes two feet wide and one and a half feet deep, three to four feet apart. Fill each hole with one foot of good garden loam. Plant each rootstock so that the crown is just two inches below the soil level with the eyes (sprouts) pointing up. Carefully shovel in loose soil around the rootstock. Water well.

“After the ground freezes, mulch with sawdust, straw, or evergreen boughs. Water newly planted rootstocks in the fall if rainfall is sparse. Generally considered summer drought-resistant, peonies like a consistent inch of water weekly in the spring. Peonies may be fed with a 4-10-6 fertilizer in the fall and early spring. In late fall, cut the stalks down almost to ground level and discard all felled cuttings (not good for compost).

“Failure to bloom is due to rootstock crowns planted too deeply, too much shade, poor water drainage, an overcrowded planting site or a spring killing frost (buds may look desiccated). If the peony crown was planted too deeply, dig up the root ball, rework the soil and replant one half inch higher than the soil level. Water and mulch through the summer: the crown should settle down to soil level. Otherwise, allow the peony foliage to grow and thrive for future blooms.”

Lettuce in Warm Weather

The June issue of the Avant Gardener newsletter contains information about warm-weather lettuce cropping. USDA research has shown that lettuce is sweetest harvested at 7 am, when it has almost twice the sugars as when harvested at 2 pm. For summer salads, plant varieties bred for hot weather, such as (looseleaf) Thai Green; (romaine) Diamond Gem, Green Towers, Jericho; (crisphead) Nevada, Sierra, Summertime; (Batavian) all varieties; (butterhead) Buttercrunch, Capitane, Optima. Utilize sites that offer afternoon shade — from a structure, other tall plants, or a shade cloth. Keep soil well-watered and make weekly applications of liquid kelp. Space succession plantings every seven to ten days. Keep lettuce beds as weed-free as possible but without the disturbance caused by deep cultivation.

Deadheading Time

With this earliest of springs, deadheading time has arrived. Deadheading is removing spent flower-heads from herbs, annuals, and perennials, and is done with several aims: prolonging production, preventing the plant’s energy going into making seed, or preventing unwanted seedling volunteers. It also often means lots of stooping or otherwise awkward postures, so this is really the time to do the core-strengthening exercises.

In the herb garden, chives are currently in need of deadheading. The pretty flowers are passé. Their stems are tougher than the culinary part and they are little seed-packed lavender balls, yielding thousands of tough-rooted chive seedlings. Lemon balm is another re-seeder that comes to mind — give it the chop. Culinary sage is covered in large lavender-blue flower spikes, beautiful but lending nothing to leafy growth. Cut a bouquet of them.

Speaking of the chop, the Chelsea Chop is administered to perennials or annuals before the solstice to retard bloom time, force a second flush of bloom, or create stockier plants less in need of staking. The name stems from the practice’s timing, around the time of the famous Chelsea Flower Show, to prolong the saleability of unsold stock in nurseries. Plants in the chrysanthemum and aster families may be pinched until early July.

Roses have been magnificent once again this season. After they shatter, however, the mass of petals becomes a feast for slugs and earwigs; cutting them away before that happens simplifies cleanup somewhat. General advice for deadheading roses is to cut back to the “second five” leaf cluster. Tie in new canes of climbers while they are pliable. Side-dress roses once a month with two cups of organic fertilizer lightly scratched in.

Poppies and irises, both Siberian and bearded, leave a forest of stalks behind once bloom is past. In one of those “spare” moments, they can all be cut away.

Flowering Shrubs

For unknown reasons I have never been much of a fan of the late spring flowering shrubs such as weigela, deutzia, and kolkwitzia. This is not fair or justified, although I think it may have something to do with scent and their meager supply of it. (Maybe it is merely their names, which stem from obscure botanists or their patrons from previous centuries.) On the other hand the glorious mockorange, Philadelphus coronarius, seduces me, year after year. A recent introduction (2008), “Snow White Sensation,” is repeat-blooming, in addition to its white double flowers and fabulous mockorange fragrance.

“With ecology the stock from which all wealth grows, the financial and environmental crises feed each other….” – George Monbiot