Lilacs are done, but think of all there is ahead

As tomato plants grow, remove leaves on stems that are below the first flower. — Photo by Susan Safford

Formerly somber, Memorial Day has become the mini-dress rehearsal for summer, and it is no longer the time reserved for reflection and lilac admiration. Blooming lilacs may now be found from early May onwards. Therefore, turning it to advantage, try some extra-early performers. A class of little known, attention-worthy lilac is the elegant group known as Syringa x chinensis, the Chinese lilacs.

It is often repeated that the original plant occurred as a spontaneously occurring garden hybrid at the botanical garden of Rouen about 1777. Heavily fragrant, lacier and more delicate in appearance, leaf, and flower than the typical Syringa vulgaris and its cultivars, the approximately 20 Chinese lilac hybrids come into flower as much as two weeks earlier than the main season plants.

According to “Lilacs: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia,” (Fiala and Vrugtman, Timber Press, Portland, 2008) “Among the Syringa x chinensis hybrids are some of the loveliest and most useful garden shrubs. They are easy to grow, reach 12-15 feet after many years, form upright mounded bushes of equal width or wider, sucker very little, have rather slender branchlets, and flower from the branch extremities on several lateral buds, giving the inflorescence a long-flowered effect.”

Among S. x chinensis cultivars to snap up, if spotted, are light purple ‘Lilac Sunday,’ introduced by the Arnold Arboretum in 1997; ‘Duplex,’ double lilac; ‘Orchid Beauty,’ single magenta; ‘Saugeana,’ single pinkish to purple; ‘President Hayes,’ single magenta; and ‘Bicolor,’ single white with small deep-purple eye. Not likely to be found in the marketplace, ‘Red Rothomagensis’ is a genetically distinct clone propagated and distributed in North America exclusively for use at phenological observation stations!

Anticipating tomatoes

We have taken the plunge, committed to planting, held our breath for the weekend cold front and the 1.75+ inches of rain that came last week — the tomatoes are in the ground. Now we turn to tending them, in anticipation of great harvests.

For me, this means removing the lower leaves as plants grow, until there are no more left on the stems below the first flower; pinching out the axillary sprouts on the indeterminate ones; and tying the vines in to supports when the plants make enough size. Mulching the bases with straw, or plastic mulch laid prior to planting, reduces soil splash, the source of soil-based pathogens.

In addition to fungicide products that you can buy for spraying your plants, look into several homemade or non-toxic, natural formulations that if used according to the appropriate schedule can work well for maintaining the health of the treasured plants.

Many work by applying a thin substance layer onto the leaves that disrupts or crowds out another substance, such as a pathogenic organism. In almost all cases it is important to limit spray times to early morning, late afternoon, or cloudy, overcast conditions, to be safe regarding foliar damage. Here are some options:

• a spray made of 1 tbsp. baking soda, 1/2 tsp. dish detergent, and 2 1/2 tbsp. vegetable oil added to 1 gallon water;

• compost teas;

• neem oil, mixed per directions on container;

• sulphur dust, powder, or liquid spray (do not use within one month of applying oil sprays);

• 1 tbsp. magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) mixed into a spray with 1 gallon water;

• a spray mixed from one part skim milk to nine parts water;

• anti-desiccant sprays, mixed according to directions on container.

Appreciating the State Forest

Vineyard Conservation Society’s spring/summer newsletter contains a noteworthy look at Island landscape history by David Foster, the director of the Harvard Forest, that reviews influences that have formed Martha’s Vineyard as we know it.

Unmentioned however is the 1830-40s bubble, when many thousands of sheep were raised on the Vineyard. The ecological consequences of sheep over-grazing are well known. I often wonder about the influence of so-called “merino mania” on the Island, and how we might now be witnessing, many generations later, its results.

The Manuel Correllus State Forest is an Island treasure on many different levels, whether or not over-grazing caused it. The globally rare sandplain habitat is watershed protection for the Island’s main aquifer; it is prime cover and resource for game and hunters; and it provides miles of bike and off-road trails, increasingly important not only in the Island’s high-end, recreationally oriented tourist economy, but also to its year-round residents.

And speaking of “residents,” the State Forest is home sweet home to the sandplain flora and fauna that utilize its cover. Even a casual stroll or bike ride through the trail system exposes the observer to wonderful plants, birds, moths, and butterflies that are unique and distinctive, and shows us how this habitat grows and fits together.

As such, it could be a template for designing one’s own similar habitat garden. Three plants in particular are emblematic: the increasingly endangered “living bonsai,” scrub oak, the carpeting evergreen bearberry, and the glowing, ethereal bird’s-foot violet, prominent in drifts now. Yellow baptisia, sheep laurel, goat’s rue, and goldenrod — all striking — come soon, while in autumn the impossibly red-and-blue undergrowth blazes with asters, sumac, and huckleberry.

But the state forest is not all showy plants and larger animals: the inconspicuous and insignificant inhabitants of this seemingly Empty Quarter are what really underpin its assets. Small rodents are lunch for hovering raptors, shy towhees are diligently scratching among the leaf litter, and tiny moths perform their fluttery choreography.

In the garden

Hollies are shedding their leaves now and appear unhealthy. Be patient with them, rake up the leaves, and shortly the trees will have new foliage. Side-dress passé tulips with bulb food formulation fertilizer (organic 7-8-5) while the foliage is still green and remove seed capsules. Stake tall bearded iris and peonies unobtrusively. Continue with deer and rabbit repellant applications; sprinkle slug bait where necessary. Make succession sowings, such as beets, arugula, beans, and salad greens. Pick off and destroy exobasidium galls on azaleas and blueberries. Check for ticks nightly.