Seasonal miscellany of bulbs, weeds, cover crops, and tomato care

The author's favorite cultivating tools are a Warren hoe, Cape Cod weeder, claw, and stirrup hoe (left to right). — Photo by Susan Safford

Shadbush time approaches as daffodil season is ebbing, all to be replaced by subsequent garden delights in the great spring parade. Bulbs were late to bloom this year, and they appear to have put on a glorious display, Island-wide. But if bloom did disappoint, deadhead the flowers before they expend energy on growing seed, (the fat green capsule located behind the flower-face). Flowering-size bulbs usually have three or more leaves.

It is worth noting that some Narcissus cultivars are known to take a while to settle in. This is mentioned in descriptions of specific plants, for example in the Old House Gardens catalogue.

Do not remove, bundle, or braid spent foliage, because experts say this deprives bulbs of photosynthetic energy to enlarge and form next year’s embryonic blossoms, and it favors viruses. Top-dress bulb plantings with “Dutch Bulb Food,” or quality organic fertilizer such as ProGro; scattering a light top-dressing of compost over the area is also beneficial.

Before foliage disappears, carefully dig a clump of non-performers. Lack of bloom merits investigation. Are the bulbs congested, with few flower stems and many smallish bulbs? Time to separate and replant. Has the location become shaded? Move into sunny areas. Is it very dry? Most Narcissi prefer plenty of moisture and good soil, so replant using ample compost, and mulch the area well with it. Has the clump become too deeply embedded in the soil? Too shallow? Recommended planting depth is three times the bulb size, with smaller bulbs three inches deep or less.

Fear of weeds

Believe it or not, for many people, anxiety about weeds and weed control is a reason not to garden. Apparently it causes them to decide against giving gardening a try because the weeds might “win.” Control freaks!

Make no mistake, trying to garden on tight, dry soil could make anyone feel defeated, even without weeds. But tight dry soil, contrary to Island myth, is not an inescapable fact of life when gardening, even on the glacial sand-pile known as Martha’s Vineyard.

The “short-form answer” is improve the soil (disregarding that soil improvement is actually a lifetime occupation, never truly finished). Use your energies, and choose your tools, wisely. The “lasagna garden” is a good avenue to try: layering up material, mulch, compost — all organic matter — letting it sit for the winter, and then planting right in it.

The better the soil, the easier it is to weed, whether the weeds be few or many. However, I observe that the weeds change as soil improves, and the species that predominate are usually not too difficult to handle. There are exceptions, all plants of good soil although sometimes signaling compaction, which must be dug because they are perennial, with long taproots that sprout from small pieces left behind in the soil — dock, dandelion, wild garlic, bulbous buttercup, and burdock, to name some.

All gardeners have their own preferred and favorite tools. Some clever people have invented their own refinements and unique versions. Since I practice clean cultivation, whereas many other gardeners use mulch, my must-have tools for weeding consist of: two hand cultivators (a “claw” and a “Cape Cod weeder”) and a stirrup, or “push-pull,” hoe.

Although not a weeding tool per sé, the broadfork that incorporates so much green and brown matter down into the soil, where it decomposes instead of setting seed, is a key player in weed-prevention and cultivation. I also use the wheel-hoe, although far less than I used to; the same goes for the Troy-bilt. I use the Warren, or onion, hoe for making little drills and trenches, and then closing them by turning the hoe over and using the other end. Its official business, however, is weeding between onion plants from a standing position.

Cover crops

The conditioning effect of green manures incorporated into garden soil is really evident. Read descriptions in seed catalogues and websites, and experiment with different cover crops. Their residues vary and contribute different elements to your soil. Do not assume cover-cropping is to be done only over winter; a crop of buckwheat germinates and is ready to be cultivated under in as little as three weeks, although it is usually left a little longer, until it has flowered.

Sow buckwheat sparingly and evenly over open areas of the vegetable garden. It grows tall enough to become a weed-suppressor, but is so spindly that it is not hard to deal with when it comes time to turn it in. While in bloom, the flowers of buckwheat support beneficial pollinator and predator insects.

Even small open areas of the garden may be sown with buckwheat, to hold them for later crops. Some researchers are finding that buckwheat deters pests, by supporting their predators. For lots more information about the benefits of using buckwheat in the vegetable garden, go to the SARE website.

Tomato care

Chatted with Albert Fischer about applying copper compounds such as copper sulphate to tomato plants and surrounding soil, for the prevention — or at least hindrance — of soil-borne pathogens such as early and late blight.

You can drench the soil as well as spray copper fungicide onto the plants every other week. The same products are used to control botrytis and grey moulds on peonies. Albert also removes the tomato plant’s lower foliage. Leave a clean stem from below the first flower cluster.

Go to the Epsom Salt Council for advice on using Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) on tomatoes and peppers. For many gardeners, applying Epsom salts to the plants eliminates the need for other spraying.

Rain barrels

I wish to report that I am delighted with the Ivy rain barrels I bought through the Lagoon Pond Association promotion. They are sturdy and thoughtfully designed. For those of you who may have missed out, LPA will repeat the program. Contact