Mulch, bulbs, and bugs preoccupy Vineyard gardeners


“…. Finally, the most disastrous self-deception, the idea that humans are separate from and superior to the rest of the world, and the equally disastrous corollary: we can destroy our habitats without destroying ourselves.” — Kathleen Dean Moore from “Coming to Land in a Troubled World.”

Each spring we have the chance to start anew; all is potential at this point. We also have the opportunity to take a fresh look at what we are doing in our relationship with our surroundings. The spark of Life is a gift that did not come from humans, although we have figured out how to destroy it. The significance of that is crucial for all of us: what makes ours a living planet is the pulsing of untold numbers of interconnected life forms. Let us use our homes and gardens to support the processes of life, and ourselves as well.

Spring ephemerals

Dividing daffodils at the foot of our driveway, I was delighted to find a colony of the beautiful spring wildflower uvularia (Uvularia sessilifolia, I think). When we took down caterpillar-stricken oaks several years ago, it was possible to pull brambly growth in this area, which may account for the reappearance of these plants.

At one time this particular spot was abundant with the lavender Geranium maculatum, Smilacina (now Maianthemum) racemosa or false Solomon’s seal, and the beautiful little wood Anemone quinquefolia, in addition to the uvularia and autumnal white wood aster, Eurybia divaricata.

The natural plantings were destroyed when people drove by and, noticing the beautiful flowers, returned with shovels and barbarically dug up clumps of plants. We would see the holes when we came home after work. Somehow an invasion of garden violets occurred here, but perhaps it was merciful. They began to carpet the denuded area.

Under development, such glories as swaths of wildflowers are typically the first to be lost. Bulldozers come in, topsoil is scraped into a pile, grading takes place, and then rolls of turf and nursery trees arrive on an enormous truck when the place is ready to be landscaped and “put back together.” Put back together it may be, but some parts are missing.

Even the lowly violets, I learned, function as larval plants for beautiful fritillary butterflies! And what of the other plants that were dug up and carted away, but which nonetheless seem to be disappearing on Martha’s Vineyard? Whose larval plants are they?

Early mulch message

A yearly caution on mulch and mulch “volcanoes,” heaps of mulch mounded high around the trunks of trees: Please avoid this pointless practice when mulching. A layer of mulch between two and four inches deep, held away from the actual trunk, and extending out to the drip line, is sufficient. The tree’s root flare should be visible when planted correctly and in turn should remain visible after mulching.

Mulching itself is beneficial, conditioning the soil, holding in moisture, and deterring weeds. But heaped upwards around the trunk in a smothering layer, it becomes a source of trouble. The bark of the tree needs to breathe; the mulch may encourage aerial and/or circling roots, or facilitate entry of fungal bodies or insects, which shorten the tree’s life. And rodents, hidden by the mulch layer, may gnaw and girdle the tree.

Mulching materials for woody plants include composted wood chips, leaf mould, compost, shredded or chopped leaves (in highly visible use at Longwood Gardens), or purchased material specifically formulated as mulch. Avoid dyed woodchip mulches derived from shipping pallets.

Mulching in spring, and once again in fall, is a neatly organized way to tend one’s garden and shrub borders. For garden beds, mulches derived from annual plant material supply a better bacterial balance than do predominantly fungal woody-plant based ones. Learn about this, soil components, and much more in “Teaming With Microbes,” by Jeff Lowenfels (Timber Press).

Alternates to pesticides

I appreciate products such as horticultural oils and plant washes. They allow gardeners to avoid using persistent toxic compounds, when dealing with many types of insect problems. Applying horticultural oil (also called summer oil or dormant oil) is an annual ritual for orchardists, spraying it to deter the survival of insects emerging from eggs laid the previous season after wintering over on apples, pears, peaches, etc. Unlike pesticides that persist in our environment, the oils and washes penetrate the insect bodies fatally but physically, suffocating them.

Daffodil plantings

Daffodil time is already gently slipping into the past. Returning to dividing narcissi, a few thoughts come to mind. In digging them now I am contravening Brent Heath’s advice, which is to let the plants finish photosynthesizing before lifting and dividing: “Don’t interrupt their lunch!” I justify myself by saying it won’t happen if I don’t do it now, and while I know which is which.

Remember to plant earlies as well as lates so as to span the entire narcissus season. Broadcast bulb food or Pro-Gro over plantings and top dress with compost after bloom time. Plant miniatures in settings where they receive closer attention. For example, I would not plant the six-inch “Tête à Tête” along a roadside where I would mainly see it only while driving. If ordering new bulbs to add to your collection, mark out the spots for fall planting now, while you can see the placement of the existing bulbs. Two good perennializers are large cupped “Ice Follies” (white) and “Carlton” (yellow). These two increase easily, which makes them an economical choice, and make good visual impact for mass plantings, such as along roadsides.

Polly Hill Arboretum’s list of ten desirable conifers was mentioned in the “Avant Gardener,” specifically Torreya nucifera, the nutmeg yew.

On May 24 at 10 am, PHA director Tim Boland will lead a discussion called Best of Small Flowering Trees.