Garden Notes: In the Garden

Summer is around the corner.

Beech leaves, lighting up winter. — Susan Safford

Mid-February already — one can easily slip into panic that summer is already almost staring us in the face: more daylight, more strength to the sun, less time to sow and grow seedlings.

During the first week of February, witch hazels’ buds, having remained nondescript nubbins in January, began to show just the slightest hint of color. Now they are fully ready to unfurl and furl with the day’s temperature fluctuations.

Many woody plants in gardens and landscapes are beginning to bud up, lilacs and blueberries, for instance. It is fun to watch the increase taking place on an almost daily basis.

To prune now: grapevines, apple trees, clematis, bloodtwig dogwood, and blueberries. Apply dormant sprays, observing labeled temperature restrictions. The pruning of grapevines, maples, and many others causes bleeding once they are out of dormancy.

Look for winter damage in trees and shrubs; clean it up with a pruning saw or loppers, making undercuts and trimming close to, but outside of, branch collars.

I found damage on a Hicks yew of a new kind recently — browning where hot air from a propane vent had “scorched” the shrub a couple of feet away during the extreme cold weather.

To let flowers be more visible when they emerge, cut back spent or winter-killed foliage of epimediums and hellebores. Hedging shears are good.

Trees: Beech

In thinking about Island trees, I wanted to draw attention to those with qualities that are perhaps not immediately appreciated but are nonetheless worthwhile. The previous ones mentioned, red cedar and pitch pine, are looked down upon, compared to some other species, but are “very Vineyard,” like the contrast between tautog, say, and striper.

Not the case with beech, a majestic tree that I think of as queen of the Island forest. In widely separated areas of Martha’s Vineyard, Fagus grandifolia, stately or wind-contorted, is increasing. It is hard not to notice these trees, whether occurring singly or in groves.

Beech, as well as other tree species, are currently infiltrating where oaks, especially black and scarlet species, are failing. The textbook example, under long-term study and observation by the Harvard Forest, is the ridge in the Woods Preserve, visible from North Road. There, the predominantly oak woodland, stressed by insect and weather events in the first decade of the 21st century, abruptly collapsed.

It appears that beech is a usurper and successor to the rule of oak in many Island woodlands, and from time to time one hears muttering, “beeches kill oaks.” According to “A Meeting of Land and Sea,” by David R. Foster, the work of paleo-botanists and ecologists shows that an event similar to this present one (beech encroaching on oak woodland), caused by rapid temperature changes and drought, occurred about 5,000 years ago.

Cores taken from Island ponds and bogs containing pollen and sediments from thousands of years ago show beech to have formed early forests on Martha’s Vineyard, in the wake of an abrupt disappearance of oak forests. Other deciduous trees also appeared at that time, such as hickory, beetlebung, and maple.

In leafless seasons, the groves beeches form, with distinctive silver-grey bark of sinuous trunks and delicate tracery of fine branches are visually striking in contrast with gnarled Island oak, with its rough bark plates and limbs blurred by lichen. Beeches’ stature and appearance is clean-lined and elegant. Its toothed, boat-shaped foliage is decidedly lime-green compared to other trees.

Beech trees, upon achieving a trunk diameter of 12 or more inches and an age of 80 to 100 years, may acquire a regal habit of lower branches broadly sweeping almost to the ground, but with aspiring crowns, or tops. The ground beneath them is likely to be a carpet of their leaves, moss, or quite clear of undergrowth. Relationships with their soil-borne partners may help shallow-rooted beech to thrive in poor Island soils, or to out-compete other species.

As with many other tree species, American beech is known to have ectomycorrhizal relationships: like humans’ individual micro-biomes, tree species are often associated with fungal biomes that are beneficial to the health of both. Ectomycorrhizal networks function like a second set of roots, helping tree roots to gain access to minerals and moisture.

One of the visually attractive qualities of beeches is their lower branches’ habit of hanging onto the previous season’s leaves over winter. Before fading to springtime pallor, this coppery foliage adds translucent color to wintry woods, and, in a nerdy sort of way, the habit’s terminology and explanation are interesting: According to Louis the Plant Geek, “the mature foliage of beeches is unpalatable when green; trees are never browsed in summer.  Marcescence [winter browse deterrence] ensures that tasty leaf buds and young twigs continue to be surrounded by plenty of foliage even in winter. That the foliage is dead might actually be an advantage. Dead foliage is dry and dusty, providing even better deterrence when forage is scarcer and the pressure to browse almost anything is therefore greater.”

To learn more about Island trees, pre-register for the “Winter Tree ID: No Leaves, No Problem!” class on Saturday, March 3, at Polly Hill Arboretum.

Kevin Hearn — Gone Fishing

The garden center business on Martha’s Vineyard would not have been such as it now is without the stimulus given it by Heather Gardens and its proprietors, the late Kevin Hearn and Roberta Hearn, who survives him, in the latter decades of the 20th century.

I remember Kevin was a savvy businessman and hard worker, but always ready with a cheeky Irish comeback. The grueling schedule, from late winter seeding through selling holiday wreaths and trees, his technical savvy and persistence: these were big factors in keeping that competitive edge, while growing and introducing a wide range of quality plants. Condolences to the Hearn and Maciel families.