Martha’s Vineyard gardeners are seeing the light

— Photo by Susan Safford


All it takes is three tattered blossoms of white Cyclamen coum and a catbird at my feeder to prime me for spring. Reddening maple and blueberry twigs; crows’ cawing echoing through the woods; and light, glorious light, testify to the gathering drumbeat — inaudible but real — of the season.

Storms, trees, and lichen

Everything that comes down onto the soil from trees above is part of the process of soil building, for which there is a term: pedogenesis. Pedogenesis, according to Wikipedia, is “the science and study of the processes that lead to the formation of soil (soil evolution).”

Soils of New England are derived from mineral dust, caused by erosion and glacial action on rock, and thousands of years of accumulations from deciduous mesic forests. Winter is a season when parts of this process become more noticeable: fewer distractions, an absence of flashy warm-weather beguilements.

We have experienced much wind, beginning with tropical storm Sandy at the end of October, and more recently, snow. But no surprises there: these compose elements of winter weather. Wind projects the emphasis onto trees, whose resistance and dramatic sound effects alert us to just how hard the tempest is roaring. (The Arctic is unnervingly soundless, it is said, there being nothing for the wind to whistle against.)

There are practicalities concerning wind and trees, of downed branches and power outages, and standing deadwood finally pushed over, either to become food for the great biomass within the soil, or to be sawn into seasoned firewood. Add snow or ice storms, and a lot of material comes raining down!

With this winter’s snow it is apparent that snow and ice — or rather, their lack — are contributing factors to heavy accumulations of lichens on Island trees. People often worry about lichen on trees: is it harmful, is it killing them? The usual answer is that lichens are opportunistic and will stick where conditions are to their liking. If host trees are growing slowly, the lichens remain and enlarge, due to lack of growth expansion on the trees’ part. If trees grow vigorously and form new bark, lichens are popped off, along with old bark plates.

Take a woodland walk in wintry weather. Usually after the front comes through, brisk winds rattle and shake everything in the woods. Dragged off by their cache of snow or ice, down come hunks and chunks of stuff. You see a veritable carpet of lichen and lichen-covered branchlets upon the fresh snow. Not only is it lack of vigor in trees that contributes to lichen growth, but also lack of classic, proper winter conditions: wind, snow and ice.

All this debris feeds and creates soil and it is therefore critical to let it return there. It is likely that as much as 80 percent of life on Earth is in its soil, in the form of biomass: millions of fungi, rots, and other microscopic life forms. They must all eat.

The garden inside & out

Broadcast seeds of annuals, such as poppy, nigella, and california poppy, over flowerbeds. Start sweet pea seeds. Resume watering and begin regular liquid feed of houseplants that have resumed active growth. Prevent fungus gnats: allow pots to dry out between waterings and empty water standing in saucers.

If you have not started tomato, pepper, and eggplant seed indoors, do so now. Other early started seeds include leek, onion, and celery. Do not fertilize seedlings until second set of true leaves appears. For growing in coldframes, sow flats of greens, such as spinach, lettuce, and mesclun mixes, and beets; use organic composts as potting mixes, to be spread on garden soil when you have finished with the flats. Send soil samples ASAP to UMass:

A tour of your plants will turn up storm damage. Last week I was forced to cut away split rhododendron trunks and stems with diameters of up to three and half inches — we are talking timber! If stems split by snow-load return to upright, the splits may not be readily visible, but they will show up as soon as active growth commences. Since the injuries permit the entry of disease and decay organisms, these damaged sections must be cleaned up, although making the decision is often wrenching.

Perennial of the year

The Perennial Plant Association has announced Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum,’ (variegated Solomon’s seal, a plant I enthusiastically endorse) as its 2013 Perennial Plant of the Year. Nominations generally need to satisfy the following criteria: suitability for a wide range of climatic conditions; low-maintenance requirements; relative pest- and disease-resistance; ready availability in the year of promotion; and multiple seasons of ornamental interest.

From PPA’s press release: “Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’ grows 18 to 24 inches tall and will spread by rhizomes to form colonies. The oval-shaped leaves are carried on upright, arching, unbranched stems. The variegated leaves are light green with white tips and margins. Sweetly fragrant white flowers with green tips are borne on short pedicels from the leaf axils underneath the arching stems. Bluish-black berries are sometimes present in the autumn.

“Variegated Solomon’s Seal is a classic beauty for the shady woodland garden or the part-shade to full-shade border. It is a great companion plant to other shade lovers including hostas, ferns, and astilbes. Flower arrangers find the variegated foliage to be an attribute for spring floral arrangements. And finally, this all-season perennial offers yellow fall foliage color.

“There are no serious insect or disease problems with variegated Solomon’s Seal. Plants may be divided in the spring or fall. The white rhizomes should be planted just below the soil surface. Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’ is a very easy perennial to grow and will enhance any shade garden, especially a more natural one.”

M.V. Ag Society

Sausage Fest and Meat Ball with the Daytrippers, Saturday, February 23, at Agricultural Hall.