Rake, prune, and watch bulbs light up


The Island welcomes spring, as does the M.V. Agricultural Society with its annual Spring Potluck and Social Saturday, March 26th, at Ag Hall from 6 to 10 pm. The M.V. Film Society, teaming up with MVAS, screens the film, “Queen of the Sun — What Are the Bees Telling Us?” after dinner. Bring an ample dish for six to share.

Rake lawns and save the thatch for composting. Lawns are shedding dead material, from matting by snow and ice. This is some of the best material for composting or leaf piles, or as an addition to mulch for trees and shrubs. Keep all organic matter that your garden produces at home, to be incorporated into compost and leaf piles.

Application of corn gluten for crab grass prevention, lime, and fertilizer may commence when the ground has dried out sufficiently. Use slow-acting, low-number organic fertilizer to protect your pets and children, your well, watershed, seafood and shellfish catch, and bays and estuaries. My lawn is receiving gypsum, known as a clay breaker, rather than lime, and an over-seeding of white clover and alfalfa, which will green it and provide bee forage, in preference to fertilization.

If you haven’t yet, prune climbing roses. The idea is to reduce the plant to a set of vigorous canes by eliminating those that are crossing, spindly, or old. The remaining strong canes form a framework that is tied in to a wall or trellis, or a fence. The more horizontally you can position canes, the more bloom is produced on the laterals, so train canes that way or actually downward. In spring these laterals are shortened back to three to six inches. Apply a dressing of organic fertilizer and surfeit the plant with manure.

Spring bulbs

A recent visit to the gardens of Brent and Becky Heath on Gloucester Neck in Virginia was a welcome antidote to the “March-i-ness” of the Island. The Heaths’ grounds were colorful with early blooming bulbs, camellias, magnolias, flowering plums and pears, and viburnums.

Brent Heath’s grandfather was a pioneer American daffodil grower in the same area; the fourth generation of the family now participates in its varied horticultural enterprises. Brent and Becky’s interests have produced offshoot businesses that their protégées now operate, such as bulb farming in the Netherlands, heritage bulbs by mail order, bulbs suitable for growing in the American south, and a wholesale nursery that supplies trees and shrubs.

In beds near the house are many tiny or early bloomers: scillas, eranthis, narcissi, species tulips, and early croci. The Heaths have bred many narcissi; their catalogue proudly identifies their “progeny.” Their objective is compact plants with fragrant flowers. Brent gave an impromptu demonstration of daffodil hybridization.

Plucking the flower of a minute trumpet narcissus with a ripe anther in the appropriate stage of development, Brent stripped back the perianth sections from the pollen-laden part and brought it over to another bed where he found a clump of much larger, early narcissus ‘Monal,’ looking for a flower young enough to have escaped prior pollinization. When he found it, touché!

Despite the history of the daffodil fields on the Heath property, Brent Heath is not all that sanguine about its soil: he has taken to planting his bulbs — other plants too — not in the soil, but on it, in compost. (His county produces compost commercially, it is gorgeous, and it sells for about $20 a yard.) As he describes it, he spreads his bulbs out upon the ground and applies the appropriate amount of compost over them. They grow better, he says; he has not dug a planting hole in years.

A new rock garden is underway farther along the bay shore. As we walked over to it, in answer to a question from another member of our group about weed control, Brent described company policy, which is predicated on absolute support for the health of adjacent Chesapeake Bay.

“Since World War II,” according to Brent, “over 40 percent of the bay’s area has become a dead zone.” There is always a chain reaction: you cannot kill one species and not expect other species to suffer. The Heaths use no horticultural chemicals, whether fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, but do apply a homemade vinegar/citrus oil concoction to control weeds.

Brent’s rock garden contains tiny species bulbs requiring the perfect drainage of scree, which he supplies using pea-stone and sharp crushed stone. N. asturiensis, species and named jonquillas, bulbodicums, such as cantabricus looking like lush grass studded with tiny hoops: all demand close inspection. Running roughly north/south, the east-facing side was about a week ahead, had much more bloom, and clearly demonstrated the importance of microclimates and siting.

As we continued our walk we passed the fields of the earlier Heath bulb business, the Daffodil Mart. Older favorites live here, such as “Ceylon,” “Marieke,” and “Carlton,” as well as newer cultivars such as “Rapture,” a beautiful pale yellow with the swept-back form of cyclamineous hybrids. They have perennialized well and continue as fat clumps full of buds due to their compost-enriched lives.

Winding through aisles of blossom-heavy camellias, fruit trees, and compost bins, more and more plantings of bulbs and other earlies, such as hellebores, Scilla peruviana, leucojums, the last of the snowdrops, and Moricandia arvensis (I would have sworn it was hesperis) came into sight. It was clear there is no end in sight for the Heath garden projects.

Heading back toward the house, the lilies and phlox were already pushing up through casually sown radicchio, kale, and lettuce.


Fact check, fact check, fact check: it is, of course, Crocus tommasinianus, the lovely lavender species, pictured in the previous column, critter-resistant and very early.