Garden Notes: Pitch pines

A part of the Island’s character and identity.

Pitch pine is able to stump-sprout after breakage. —Susan Safford

Up-and-down weather characterizes January and this stage of winter. The brief January thaw of last week was a classic: cloudless skies of deep blue, warmth in sunshiny corners, and a knife edge to the wind in more exposed ones. It seems peaceful and quiet around this little Island.

We were able to lay mulch in several gardens where we were timed out by the holidays. Mulching in this situation is more like buttoning the cold into the soil, instead of blanketing it against the cold.

Doing this prevents a certain amount of plant losses due to the notorious freeze/thaw cycles and frost action of the Island’s maritime climate, which push and shove things to the surface: elements of hardscape, rocks and pebbles, plant tags, root balls of recently planted material, and posts and stakes.

Mulching is a semiconfusing practice, promoting, in some instances, multiple goals: soil enhancement, weed control, aesthetic unity, and moisture conservation. In others, it is as simple as a cosmetic application that brings visual organization and tidiness to an otherwise unkempt area. It almost always softens and conditions soils, so even a thin layer of crude organic matter can make weeding and cultivating more productive processes.


Sweet peas

Truthfulness disclosure: I am alerting readers to the timing of starting sweet peas, but not because I have actually sown any, although it is on my to-do list. If you like sweet peas, or want to have them in the garden in 2018, sowing them shortly really should be on your to-do list, too. Sweet peas are cold-tolerant, and reward the gardener who starts them early.

There is quite a lot of lore about the sweet pea sowing process, and for many, such as my friend in Oregon, it is almost ritualistic: a good way to ease into the late winter/early spring process of germinating, growing, and caring for young plants that will go into the garden when warmer times arrive.

However, I eliminated some of the steps I used to perform, such as nicking the seed cover, and have even shortened soaking time. It does not seem to make very much difference, but sourcing seed from the best suppliers probably does.

I use root trainers, extra-deep hinged growing modules that open like a book, reducing damage to fine-growing root hairs when seedlings are transferred outdoors. They are available from Fedco, Johnny’s, and other garden suppliers. I soak the seed part of a day (I do not want mushy seeds), and then apply inoculant, just as with other members of the pea family.

Matt Mattus of “Growing With Plants” ( advocates planting two seeds per cell, and eliminating the weaker one after germination. He then pinches the growing tip out at the two-leaf stage. Please read the rest of the blog post for more of his methods for growing outstanding sweet pea flowers.


Trees: Pitch pine

The Island of Martha’s Vineyard is 100 square miles of unique and pricey real estate; and yet much of it is worked over (by people like myself in the garden and landscape business) to make it look like somewhere else.

Iconic but overlooked, pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is such an Island feature that buyers look right through it, as they imagine the improved (i.e., more “beautiful”) landscapes they will have designed once the sale is complete. Often the first order is to clear those ugly, scraggly pines! This wanton mutilation of a place’s character and identity seems to me almost like casual matricide.

This is Martha’s Vineyard, and it, along with Cape Cod and other pine barren habitats, such as the New Jersey Pine Barrens, has covered parts of itself with pitch pines because they are extremely well adapted to conditions here. Branch-breaking wind and fog, salt-laden year-round; dry, sandy soil so sterile that in many places it is virtually nutrient free, pitch pines are able to sustain themselves and thrive.

Alone of pines in this region, pitch pine is able to stump-sprout after breakage or fire from adventitious buds on the trunk, which accounts for its near monoculture in certain fire-prone geographies. However, modern fire suppression has had an impact on these habitats, such as the Vineyard’s great plains, which slowly succumb to infiltration by various oaks and other tree species.

According to a Westveld vegetation map (reproduced on page 31 of “A Meeting of Land and Sea,” David R. Foster), a break occurs in the forested geography of New England, with pitch pine occurring to the east of a north/south division extending from Cohasset to Martha’s Vineyard, and white pine to the west. Glacial interactions must account for the anomaly. Interestingly and conversely, Nantucket has no native pitch pine; it was introduced there as a windbreak in the mid-19th century.

Due to its pitch content, earlier people here had more practical and commercial uses for pitch pine than nowadays. The pitch was an indispensible waterproofing substance, and became an important element of the enigmatic “naval stores” (tar, pitch, turpentine) we used to learn about in geography, although today plastics and polymers replace it.

Pitch pine knots were used as torches. The decay-resistant lumber, although small potatoes compared with the majestic white pine, had specific uses, according to Donald Culross Peattie in “A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America,” such as barn floors, ships’ pumps, water wheels, and mine and bridge timbers, in addition to the essential charcoal.

Today, Island pitch pine occurs mostly in smaller or juvenile form, although Foster cites ages of 180 years for towering pines in the West Chop Woods Preserve. It is often surrounded by a little habitat, or ecosystem, of huckleberry, dangleberry, lowbush blueberry, Pennsylvania sedge, wintergreen, bearberry, maybe sweetfern or sheep laurel, and small scrub oaks. My plea is to learn to love it, and leave it.