Beneath the snow cover, soils and plants are cozy and insulated

February is the time to prune your fruit trees.

Witch hazel flowers brave dead of winter: Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena.’ — Photo by Susan Safford

In blizzard mode once again, Martha’s Vineyard is enjoying a February 2015 weather pattern somewhat different from the past few decades. A comforting thought is that beneath the snow cover, soils and plants are cozy and insulated from frigid temperatures. Voles: Stay away!

The experience is also exposing a financial pattern different from days of yore when, forced by weather, people hunkered down and sat it out. (OK — had no other choice but to hunker down and sit it out.)

I know, it is so “yesterday” to talk about putting aside contingency funds, but bitter weather shows that modern life pares things way too close. This is too slim a margin for anyone to feel comfortable with: Where too many are unable to stay safely at home, driven as they are by unrelenting financial commitments. Where electricity bills suddenly skyrocket. Where the estimate is three days’ worth of food before the Island runs out. Where we are at the wrong end of vulnerable supply lines.

Growing and harvesting a food garden is a small contingency fund. It could be the practice that gives you that little bit of security and respite during a stormy winter. In addition, starting and growing a garden is one of the most enjoyable accomplishments there is, whether alone or with your family.

Bob Childs

It is sad to note the death of the University of Massachusetts entomologist Robert D. Childs Jr. on Jan. 30, 2015, after a long fight with cancer. Bob Childs was a frequent visitor to the Vineyard in his capacity as UMass Extension Service entomologist, gregariously advising and sharing his expertise on insects and their related issues with interested Island audiences. A son of Massachusetts and a product of Massachusetts’s educational opportunities, Bob spent almost his entire professional career serving UMass, its students, and residents of the greater commonwealth in one capacity or another through Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the Extension Service.

The age of echinaceas arrives

It is truly astonishing to observe the breeding results of the broadening echinacea field. Less than 15 years ago the typical choices were quite limited: variations on the pink, droopy, ray-flowered species (E. purpurea) type; a dwarfed ‘Kim’s Knee High’; and a white-flowered form, ‘White Swan.’ Even the native North American species, such as the yellow, E. paradoxa, were uncommon except at specializing nurseries such as Garden in the Woods.

The ground shifted slightly with the introduction of ‘Rubenstern’ and ‘Magnus,’ cultivars whose pink ray-florets stood out horizontally, making the flowers appear larger, unlike the typical coneflower with its droopy ray-florets. In fairly short order, plant breeders had released several echinaceas with frizzy, bombe-type centers that replaced the typical echinacea with its bristly cone of disc-florets.

And now there are seemingly dozens of cultivars. Sylvan Nursery in Westport is listing 15, and Bluestone Perennials lists 20 different cultivars. They range in size from dwarf to standard, and in colors from cool green to white, through pink and yellow, all the way to hot corals and reds. Many are plant-patented cultivars.

Echinaceas are primarily plants of the prairie, making dependable, long-lived garden plants. Plant them in full sun in well-drained soil. A ‘White Swan’ given to me almost 30 years ago still bravely stands up to the population pressures that rambunctious neighboring Anemone tomentosa ‘Robustissima’ exerts. The many typical pink-flowered forms self-sow easily, and may be moved about when small, but blooms commonly become dingy as they age. I lack much experience with the new, hot-colored cultivars, but I welcome the strong, clear colors they come in.

Pruning fruit trees

(And grapevines.) That is one of the usual outside garden jobs for February, and in recent years, even dormant oil sprays could be applied during warm spells occurring in February. This year I think we had better hold off on those tasks.

Since many modern fruit trees are grafted on dwarfing or semidwarfing stock, pruning is simplified: no longer much need to climb into the tree with pruning saw, loppers, and pruning clippers dangling from belts. Prune inward or overlong twigs back by about one-third to a spur, unless your cultivar is a tip-bearer.

The general idea is to let light and air into the tree’s crown. One pruning style is called cup, or goblet, with the aim of producing an open, cup-like structure of four or five main branches circling the open center of the tree, so all fruit gets maximum sun exposure and air flow.

Prune grapevines back to a framework, and then prune the laterals back to two buds. Grapevines begin to bleed very early in the season, so whenever the snows permit, do this job. Clematis vines also start into growth very early; clematis group three, whose blooms occur on new wood, may be cut down to about a foot above the ground now. Leave groups one and two alone.

The Nonstop Color Garden

While the Island is deeply snowbound, the ideal of color in the garden hovers like an elusive dream. Nellie Neal’s book, The Nonstop Color Garden: Design Flowering Landscapes & Gardens for Year-Round Enjoyment (Cool Springs Press, 192 pages) is a real how-to book for achieving just that. Here is a book for lovers of Technicolor. Main sections are “designing with color,” “problem solving with color,” and “plants for nonstop color.”

The book’s most unusual aspects are the uses of winter color, and the plant lists in the final “plants for nonstop color” section. The reproduction of the many color photographs is satisfying, and the drawings are clearly executed.

This otherwise useful book’s main drawback is that its photographs’ captions do not identify the many striking specimens illustrated, a consideration I have come to expect, but perhaps less important to those designing with color than to plants-people.