Garden Notes: March’s storms

Weakened trees continue to topple.

Snowload causes breakage and longitudinal splits, as in this holly branch — Susan Safford

Easter means spring, ready or not. My Christmas wreath comes down tomorrow, Good Friday, even though recently the weather has felt almost more Christmas-y than it did in December. Returning birds are dive-bombing and rapidly emptying the feeders amid snow flurries.

Increasing global heat seems to drift to the polar regions. Here, to the south, the displaced cold air masses make us the luckless beneficiaries of their atypical movements, creating havoc with regional weather.

The result, or harvest, of the caterpillar outbreaks years back is ongoing in the stormy, windy conditions, with weakened trees continuing to topple.

‘Don’t Repot That Plant!’

Increased levels of light encourage houseplants, many of which hardly grow over winter, to put out new growth, and even form flower buds. Indoor gardeners may be asking themselves, Should I repot now?

The title of Will Creed’s recent houseplant book is “Don’t Repot That Plant!” (Button Street Press, 2017), with the subtitle of “And Other Indoor Plant Care Mistakes.” Houseplants seem to be having a moment, and there are not that many books devoted to their care. This is a timely, useful handbook for the enthusiast, with many of the kinds we prize being listed in the contents in the front of the book.

There is also an index in the back, a little less comprehensive than ideal, but adequate. Creed discusses watering, soil, light and light levels, and nontoxic pest control in a reliable way. With this book in hand, you will overcome most of the houseplant conditions and situations you encounter.

I immediately turned to its roster of indoor plants to check on the care of my handsome new fiddle-leaf fig plant, it having lost two large lower leaves. Sure enough, according to Creed’s description, I was not giving it enough light; I have moved it now.

Soil health program April 7

The public is invited to learn about soil health at a free two-part workshop sponsored by the Dukes Soil Conservation District in collaboration with the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, the Island Grown Initiative, and the Polly Hill Arboretum.

Dukes Soil Conservation District presents soil scientists from USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, who will describe and demonstrate healthy soil, including soil tests, cover crops, a demonstration soil pit, and a rain simulator. Program also includes a panel discussion of cover crops featuring local farmers.

This free program is aimed at all who work with soil: farmers, landscapers, and backyard growers. Saturday, April 7, 9 am to 12 noon and 1 pm to 3:30 pm at the M.V. Agricultural Society Hall, on Panhandle Road. Lunch will be provided for those who preregister at by April 2.

Wind resistance and breakage

We have seen much heartbreaking damage around the Island in the wake of March’s storms. It is shocking to see landscape-size tree installations and forest trees blown over, their root balls askew. In many instances, installed trees can be righted and restaked, and they will carry on quite well. However, it is worth mentioning that large specimen trees may take a long while, as much as three years or more, to put out roots that firmly anchor them to the soils they sit in.

The thinking about staking is in disagreement. One theory is that a staked tree does not properly establish itself, due to dependence instead on the staking support. The other theory contends that large specimens require support and aftercare to help them recover and root from the shock of being dug and transplanted, when they lose anchoring roots.

Tree type is implicated, since deciduousness is an adaptation to winter conditions (lessening windage), while evergreens with drooping habit in snowy conditions shed weight better than those with more upright habits that hold onto snow and ice loads. Stress test criteria for construction lumber are not the same as those for living trees. Trees “on the hoof” fall when soils are wet and saturated or if roots are rotten; or the trunks break if the roots hold.

Limbs split longitudinally when subjected to greater weight than their diameter can handle. Only in rare cases will those branches survive and heal. Typically they weaken and wilt: Prune them out.

The following is a list of full-size tree species consistently cited for wind resistance: beetlebung (Nyssa sylvatica), beech (Fagus grandifolia, F. sylvatica), white oak (Quercus alba), Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).

Smaller trees cited for wind strength are magnolia in species, American holly (Ilex opaca), dogwood (Cornus florida), smokebush (Cotinus coggygria), and crape myrtle (Lagerstreoemia).

As with many problems of landscape, one of the best local resources is the Plant Selection Guide on the Polly Hill Arboretum website:

Fencing too was flattened by the storm winds. For exposed locations, choose flow-through styles that offer less wind resistance. Both fences and trees that were ivy-infested were lost. Strip off English ivy, which catches and holds a lot of snow, from fencing and tree trunks, decreasing windage.


Year of the Beet

The National Garden Bureau’s choice of beets as the 2018 vegetable of the year ( is a good one: They are nutritionally excellent and easy to grow. Beets are typically sown in place, and thinned to three to four inches apart in neutral to slightly sweet soil.

Although it is not recommended by the experts, I have had prizewinning good results over the years from sowing seed of ‘Red Ace,’ ‘Bull’s Blood,’ and ‘Early Wonder’ in 10/20 trays and then carefully pricking out the seedlings to the required spacing in rows, using the broadfork as a jig.

Beet greens are a “superfood.” I prefer red beets, but yellow and even white-fleshed varieties, along with many newer introductions, are available.