Lilac Tommies

Lilac Tommies: A violet carpet of Crocus tommasinianus in Vineyard Haven. —Susan Safford

“Green winter, green graveyard” is an old adage carrying a hint of foreboding. I suspect I am just one among many fellow Island sufferers, who wait and hope to step back into their previous energy holograms, having blanked more than a week of lifetime to the Very Bad Cold. I have a lackluster attitude to mustering enthusiasm for grabbing spring by the horns, but time heals all.

Taking a few turns around my garden to try to ignite enthusiasm for living, I noticed, almost by accident, the small flurry of Cyclamen coum ‘Lake Effect,’ its full white blossoms brightening the base of a black oak in the woodsy part of my garden. ‘Lake Effect’ has multiplied in the years since David Geiger urged me to order what I could from Ellen Hornig before she closed Seneca Hills Nursery.

And then, to add to the encouragement, the ethereal rock garden iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ (assigned confusingly to I. histrioides, reticulata, or winogradowii) is poking up plentifully; there were snowdrops here, there, and everywhere that had increased miraculously since last year; and a small Lilac Tommy was blooming in the middle of a heavily driven roadway!

The Lilac Tommy

Suddenly, there they are, like grass, blanketing certain locations like a glowing violet haze. “They” are the early species crocus, Crocus tommasinianus, and show us irrefutably that another winter is at least partly behind us.

These delicate winter crocuses are often grouped together with other species, such as Crocus sieberi and Crocus chrysanthus, as “snow crocus,” for obvious reasons. They are very early, and are known to persist through snowfall that may accompany their appearance. There is quite a contrast between these and the large Dutch hybrid cultivars of the true spring season, a few weeks hence.

This minute crocus bulb has such powers of reproduction that, although this seems like an over-reaction, it has been known to be weeded out of locations where it has performed its spring greeting too well, such as the roadside in front of Polly Hill Arboretum’s Homestead.

A recent post from the Dahlia Papers, a blog always worth reading, ( describes an early-season visit to the famous gardens of Sissinghurst. There the gardeners are engaged in early spring garden preparations, including weeding out the Lilac Tommies that have been deemed to have overpopulated a section of garden. Hah! Wouldn’t most Island gardeners like to have that problem?

Here’s how, thanks to information gleaned from Paghat’s Garden ( “Reproduces rapidly by self-seeding and by corm offsets. Indeed, ‘Tommies’ naturalize with such ease that some gardeners complain of them after a few years, as the cormlets are much too tiny to ever sieve out of the soil, and wherever the tommies spread on their own, that’s where they will always remain.

“Planting the bulbs to four inches instead of two or three, and fertilizing the area with blood meal, which distresses squirrels, might be all one needs to do to insure the survival of sufficient numbers of Tommies.

“The second proviso that limits the spread of such early-blooming crocuses is their pollination requirement, which is done exclusively by insects. Crocuses grown in shadier conditions may flower pretty well, but without being fully opened for many hours or days, hence can go unpollinated since early-season bees won’t fight to get the petals opened.”

And there lies an additional reason for planting C. tommasinianus: Early-emerging insects are looking to them for pollen and nectar, so plant them in full-sun locations. In addition to the straight species, a number of C. tommasinianus selections have been named, including ‘Barr’s Purple,’ ‘Ruby Giant,’ and ‘Lilac Beauty.’

While on the subject of pollinating insects and their support, a press release from UMass Extension alerts us that on March 30, over in Wareham, “Annie White, from the UVM department of Plant and Soil Science, will present
 ‘Designing Pollinator-Friendly Landscapes’ 
at the UMass Spring Kickoff for Landscapers: Sustainable Landscapes Management Day, 
March 30, 2017, 9 am to 3:30 pm. 
Location: Towne Place Suites, 50 Rosebrook Place, Wareham.” To register, go to

If I felt livelier, this would be the week I would sow leeks, celery, and onions. I can probably coast for a while longer. Vis-à-vis time, however, gardening and sailing are similar. When it is time to reef, it is time to reef; when it is time to sow, or harvest, very little is gained by procrastination.

Wood ash in gardens

Many Island households will be in possession of a winter’s accumulation of wood ash, and as many also know, wood ash is valuable for sweetening soils (raising soil pH) and supplying potassium and calcium carbonate, the latter acting as a liming agent to neutralize acidic soils. It is always good to temper the ash with other brown (C) material; do not just dump it out onto the surface.

My method is to add the cold ash to the deep shavings and litter of my henhouse and let the hens scratch them up together. It becomes a good top-dressing for many plants this way (but keep away from rhododendrons, azaleas, or other acid lovers). I know I am luckier than many to have a henhouse and hens, but a robust compost pile or leaf heap can be used similarly.

Thinly strew the ash over the brown, and mix it as well as you can. Or screened wood ash may be spread thinly with a lawn spreader: most Island lawns can use sweetening.

Early greens are developing nicely in vegetable gardens: Radicchio, lettuce, mache, and dandelion all have a special appeal at this time of year. Plan to harvest all standing leeks now or soon, before deterioration sets in.