The Green Moment

The onrush of growth is upon us.

Japanese maple: Frail leafiness in May’s Green Moment. —Susan Safford

There is no clicking the pause button; it cannot be stayed. Plentiful rains and daily increasing photons stoke the bursting-forth of leaves and shoots that are thrusting themselves out all around us. This thundering onrush of growth — so dynamic — is silent. Or is it?

Ferns, wind anemones, and maianthemum carpet what were swathes of fallen leaves on the woodland floor mere days ago. The “frail leafiness,” to borrow a phrase from Mirabel Osler, of new foliage, translucent and pulsing with chlorophyll, is captivating.

In the garden

Pinch perennials such as sedum, phlox, and chrysanthemums, to create bushier plants that need less staking. Keeping in mind its tip-rooting tendencies, shape forsythia now that bloom is past; also, prune other spring-flowering shrubs. When will it be safe to prune vitex and buddleias? Take a chance mid-May.

We picked asparagus and rhubarb. The large knobs of the rhubarb flower stalks, which are removed to spur more foliage growth, seem numerous this year; the crowns must need dividing and heavier feeding.

Comfrey, a useful plant to grow, is up. It can be cut and fed to livestock or made into stinky but potent comfrey tea in a five-gallon bucket. Use it to water in transplants or any other plant one wishes to encourage; or in an old-fashioned use, plant seedlings at the bases of fruit trees. The deep-growing roots pull minerals from the subsoil.

Anything that covers the soil is a cover crop, although usually gardeners employ specified plants or seed mixtures for this purpose. Our “custom-grown” strawberry and chickweed cover crop has been harvested and heaped up on sheets of cardboard carton, opened out and laid alongside the fence on one side of the garden.

The experiment here is to police the in-creep of vegetation from outside the garden; plus, biomass from the garden itself is being added back into it in a form of on-the-spot composting. I did something similar last season with henhouse bedding in the alleys between rows, which are now friable and moisture-retentive.

The aim is to manage the vegetable garden more along the lines of permaculture, partly for ease and partly as a timesaving measure. The salad greens such as lettuce, lambs’ lettuce (mâche) and cilantro reliably self-seed if allowed to; you learn to recognize the seedlings and weed around them, or transplant into better spots.

What might appear to be an untidy mass of lambs’ lettuce is flowering now; allowed to mature, they will seed a crop of desirable, cold-hardy salad for next fall and winter, my next “custom-grown” cover crop. Let a few overwintering leeks go to seed; they will produce next year’s seedling plants without any extra work.

Lettuce is easy in spring, but trickier in warm weather. Sow a small crop in cells every few weeks, and prick out into the garden, but plan on switching to a hot-weather type when nights become warm.

The longer I have a vegetable garden, the more space I devote to staples: This is the reverse of what many discover, which is that as their skills expand, they take on more challenges. Year on year, I find my garden is mostly: 1) tomatoes; 2) potatoes; 3) leeks/onions/garlic; 4) cabbage/kale; 5) pole beans/bush beans; 6) beets; 7) dahlias. The dahlias are for pleasure, not a food crop, although apparently its tubers may be cooked like sweet potatoes.

Flowering trees

I extolled magnolias and a guide to them in a recent column, but many other good flowering trees exist. They are coming into their season now, and induce plant lust. Ornamental members of the genus Prunus (ornamental cherries and plums), such as the very early P. ‘Accolade,’ have gone by, with Malus (apple and crabapple) and Pyrus (pear) coming on strong, despite heavy rains spoiling bloom.

There are literally hundreds to choose from, so it is a bewildering situation if one is putting any thought into the choice. Or just go to the garden center and buy what looks good to you, paying attention to disease resistance and eventual size. The four common diseases of crabapples are scab, fireblight, cedar-apple rust, and powdery mildew. All are fungus-type diseases except fireblight, which is a bacterium. As with other fruit trees, an early spring spraying with dormant oil may control many crabapple problems.

Putting on my plant-snob hat for a minute, I beg you not to choose Prunus calleryana, the Callery pear, such as ‘Bradford’ or ‘Aristocrat.’ These trees, with their smelly, eerily dead-white flowers (but undeniably colorful fall foliage), are becoming a ghostly plague of invasiveness and weak, broken limbs; there are other and better forms of flowering trees.

Forest Farm ( lists the silver weeping pear, Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula,’ a “striking landscape subject”; likewise about 40 forms of flowering cherry/plums. There are a lot out there, including pendulous or weeping forms, and those with copper or purple leaves.

Forest Farm also lists about 35 flowering crabs, among the best of which for our region is a Polly Hill introduction. Flowering crab ‘Louisa’ is named for Polly and Julian Hill’s daughter Louisa, and is on most lists of the best flowering crabs, with true pink flowers and a gently weeping habit. The small fruits are yellow-amber.

Another recommended crab for our area is ‘Donald Wyman,’ pink in bud turning white, with good sets of red fruit that hold well into winter. More recent introductions are ‘Sugar Tyme,’ pink opening white flowers, long-lasting red fruit, and good disease resistance; and ‘Royal Raindrops,’ rose red flowered, deeply cut purple leaves, orange red fall color, and small red fruit; disease-resistant.

Small-fruited crabs that hold their fruit into winter are considered best for birdlife. Plant crabs in open, sunny locations for best flowering.