It starts with seeds

Snowdrops. — File Photo by Susan Safford

It is clear that a large number of Island residents are yearning for small signs that spring is nigh. If “March comes in like a lion,” the weather aphorism says expectantly, “it goes out like a lamb;” although this winter everything seems subject to change and extreme variability.

Sit tight: soon enough, other different weather patterns will give cause to complain. In the meantime we find cheer where we may, in the single eranthis beaming its tiny yellow face upwards toward the sun at Fella’s, or in some battered snowdrops.

It certainly is invigorating to be sweeping March snow off walkways and porches, elevating the heart rate and getting fresh air, particularly when one needs inspiration for writing a garden column. There isn’t much other activity currently, apart from taking refuge in catalogues and web sites, preferably in full color.

Daydreaming amidst the nursery and seed catalogues is an acceptable pastime and, as a snow-bound city friend put it, “thinking about the vegetable garden is restorative.” If we were in the South, camellias would be in bloom and we could attend the camellia show at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As it is, the 35th anniversary 2014 Camellia Forest ( catalogue is out and will have to suffice. Illustrated with color photographs of camellia flowers, it contains a wide selection from the five different groups of camellias, including many Camellia Forest introductions, as well as an interesting selection of other nursery material, deciduous and evergreen. According to proprietor David Parks, a good cold-hardy collection for Island gardens would be ‘Autumn Spirit,’ ‘Survivor,’ ‘April Rose,’ and ‘April Remembered.’

The catalogue from Plant Delights ( has got to be one of the more entertaining catalogue reads, an obligation the nursery’s owner, Tony Avent, seems to take up as raunchily as he does his plant hunting and growing seriously. The nursery is known for its array of hostas, agaves, and yuccas (as well as those gross aroids), but there is much, much more to lust after besides these.

Plant Delights Nursery catalogue features several user-friendly features, such as the hosta comparison pages, and particularly the USDA Hardiness Information and 2012 Zone Map [revised] on the back pages. For example, “Research has indicated that a fall application of a high potassium fertilizer (assuming the plants or soils are deficient) aids in winter survivability of many plants” — who knew? The island of Martha’s Vineyard is USDA hardiness zone 7a.

Niche Garden’s ( catalogue in contrast seems prim and modest but nonetheless sports a good selection of interesting plant material. Wild flowers, natives, perennials, such as a wide collection of Baptisias (very at home on the Vineyard), and good shrubs, vines, and trees are items to search out at Niche Gardens.

The catalogue of Select Seeds ( contains “rare, heirloom, choice” seeds and plants of ornamentals and herbs. Among items that caught my eye are Lavandula x intermedia ‘Phenomenal,’ Digiplexis ‘Illumination Flame,’ Petunias P. exserta and P. ‘African Sunset,’ a good selection of annual poppies (sow ASAP), and a wide selection of coleus, pelargonium, and much, much more.

Seed questions

In discussing seeds and seed sowing, many terms are casually thrown around that may be confusing. The Home Garden Seed Association ( has helpfully put together a question and answer sheet that I attempt to condense and paraphrase here.

What is an heirloom seed variety? An heirloom is an open pollinated variety that has been in cultivation for 50 years or more and is successful enough to have persisted. Are heirlooms tastier and easier to grow? It depends: yes, if grown in conditions similar to those the variety originated in; no, not necessarily if transferred far from their origins.

What is a hybrid seed variety? It is a time-tested breeding method known as cross-pollination, also occurring naturally, where pollen from different parent species within a genus is utilized to express desirable qualities from each. The control and selection needed to ensure purity make hybrid seed more expensive than open-pollinated varieties. Can you plant seeds saved from hybrid plants? Yes, the seeds are viable but will not necessarily express exactly the qualities of the hybrid from which they come.

What is an open-pollinated seed variety? Pollen must be transferred from flowers’ male parts to female parts for seeds to form. Some plants grow “perfect” flowers, containing male and female parts, where pollination occurs with ease. Others grow separate male and female flowers (even on separate plants), called “imperfect,” which require transfer by pollinating insects or wind. For open pollinated seeds to come true and prevent accidental cross-pollination, crop separation and isolation are employed in growing the seed crop, particularly important with melons and squash.

How can we tell if purchased seed is organic? Look for the USDA Organic symbol. Can our gardens be organic if we don’t use certified Organic seeds? Yes. Maintain healthy soil, follow effective organic gardening techniques, and use Certified Organic fertilizers, if necessary.

In the garden

Grapevines need to be pruned when the plant is dormant. If pruning is put off too late, the sap rises and they bleed. Cut off last year’s canes, which fruited, and tie down the new ones, which have grown but not fruited. Establish the plant’s framework. Once established, prune the laterals (side branches) back to one or two buds.

Likewise, wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) and raspberry canes may be pruned now. Wineberries and summer-bearing raspberries produce fruit on canes that grew last summer; leave those. All canes of ever-bearing raspberries are simply cut back hard, across the board. These three are invasive: if they have spread into undesirable areas, dig them and replant carefully to enlarge the patch.

Polly Hill Arboretum

Winter Walk, Saturday, March 8. Meet at the visitor center at 10 am and dress for the weather.

Holly Hat Racking Demo, Saturday, March 15, 10 am.