Appreciate the less flashy plantings

And a note about sumac.

Emerging fiddleheads of ostrich fern, "Matteuccia struthiopteris," in a woodland setting. — Photo by Susan Safford

The air is full of bud scales drifting and blowing about as the expanding leaves free them. They create plugs and stoppers in downspouts and gutters; check on that. Pollen is here too. Early mornings are fragrant and mild, even at dawn, a welcome change from the persistent chill of April and early May, with birdsong for accompaniment.

Martha’s Vineyard hosts four species of sumac (plus poison ivy, also in the Rhus family): Rhus copallinum, R. glabra, R. typhina, and Toxicodendron vernix (poison sumac). The first three are widespread, and are found in dry, open sites; the latter is rarer, and is found in wetlands and swampy places. The first three form cones of red berries; those of poison sumac are white.

Quiet spring beauties

First-chosen plants for spring gardens tend to be showy: plants such as tulips, bleeding heart, flashy shrubs such as Rhododendron ‘PJM,’ flowering quince, or forsythia. As gardeners mature, so to speak, their appreciation for the subtle and less showy does too. It cannot be 100 percent showy shrubs and perennials; the garden needs tying together with some sort of basso continuo of under-planting.

Ferns and epimediums are a good case in point: perhaps not the first plants one desires for the spring garden, but over time revealing charms — one of which is seldom being eaten by deer — that grow on one. To some, these plants are mere groundcover, but to me they are very much part of the show.

Epimediums, especially, have leapt into prominence (in the plant world) due to the plant collecting and selecting of the Massachusetts plantsman Darrell Probst. Although the plants’ bloom time is ephemeral, they are showy while they last, and leave behind extraordinary foliage that is a three-season delight.

Garden Vision Epimediums and Plant Delights are two good sources of special epimediums.

Even though they have become cliché as “just so much greenery” in hotel lobbies, ferns actually have botanical names, with which I am trying to become more familiar. They are a difficult group to learn, because many resemble one another. I try to start modestly with a few that do stand out in some unique, recognizable way.

The photograph shows Matteuccia struthiopteris, an easily recognizable running fern that is capable of forming colonies, and tolerates quite a lot of sun if it likes the soil. I like pairing Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ with Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.), but almost all of the large group of Dryopteris make good garden plants. Another favorite is the evergreen Polystichum acrostichoides, the Christmas fern.

Brent and Becky Heath’s excellent daffodil book, Daffodils for North American Gardens (Bright Sky Press, 2001), contains a list on page 65 of companion plants for bulbs, making it automatically a first-rate primer for spring garden planting. Almost everything looks good paired with brunnera or pulmonaria, many cultivars of which have interestingly marked foliage. Hakonechloa, Japanese forest grass, comes in several forms — gold, gold-striped, green, green-striped, and chartreuse-striped — and tells a quiet story, as does Alchemilla mollis.

Although it needs no introduction, the workhorse hosta tribe is a wonderful group of plants for clarifying and simplifying the garden’s texture. The major Vineyard drawback is their attraction for deer, but I do not think they can be excluded for this reason. Deer repellent, fencing or screening until larger — there are ways to have hostas, even in the heart of deer country.

Red lily beetles emerge

One of the least welcome signs of spring is the red lily beetle, Lilioceris lilii, the bane of bulb lilies. I found the first three this morning in the shoots of tiger lilies, and was able to dispatch them between thumb and forefinger. Watch for holes in foliage of lilies, and knock the lily beetles into soapy water, snip with scissors, or crush between the fingers. A surprising amount of control can be achieved this way, but eventually larvae will appear, which will be far more disgusting than the beautiful, if loathed, adults. Sprays made with neem oil are said to inhibit the larval progression to maturity.


Garden-pedia: An A-to-Z Guide to Gardening Terms is a nifty little companion book by Pamela Bennett and Maria Zampini (St. Lynn’s Press) that explains and defines terms that may bewilder those who did not grow up in a gardening household. Good color photographs are featured on every page. Like an encyclopedia, the garden terms are set up alphabetically; there is also an index in the back. Garden-pedia would make a great addition to the non-specialist garden library or landscaper’s glove compartment.

PHA Plant Finder

Gardeners seek answers for what to plant in special or problematic locations. The Martha’s Vineyard Plant Selection Guide, available at Polly Hill Arboretum’s website,, is just the resource that Island gardeners have needed for years. We have come a long way since Polly Hill deplored that there were “only 25 of the commonest trees and shrubs” available at Island nurseries; prices have risen too, making every garden purchase a far costlier decision. Many thanks to the PHA staff for working on this valuable tool for gardeners, landscapers, and homeowners alike!

In the garden

Mulching and watering are priorities during this period of drought and growth. Soils are dry, and newly planted material needs extra water to establish. Remove flowering stalks of rhubarb when they appear. Deadhead bulbs if they have formed seed capsules. Continue to spray deer and rabbit repellent on favorites such as fruit trees, hostas, rhododendron buds, and roses. Deadhead lilacs.