Garden Notes: The cleanup continues

Truckloads of branches head for the chipper.

Woodland soil sample, second from left, holds the most moisture with the least run-off. NRCS Soil scientist Maggie Payne demonstrates rainfall infiltration and run-off with a rainfall simulator. — Nancy Weaver

Some Islanders have firewood for a year; others are mourning lost broadleaved evergreens or prized specimen trees. The results of the March blizzard lie around the Island, while truckloads of woody debris head for the chipper.

Soil health

At the heart, it all rests on soil organic matter. The Dukes Soil Conservation District’s program on soils and soil health on April 7 was well-attended; the dreary weather drove many indoors for a worthwhile program.

Maggie Payne and Dr. Brandon Smith from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service focused on central tenets and what constitutes good practice: diversity, above and below ground, in cover cropping and soil microbiota; and erosion control. Methods, data collection, novel equipment, and test controls all play their part. Disturbed soils are vulnerable to erosion and promote weeds and invasives.

The fun part of the program was the rainfall simulator device,, comprising five spits of intact soils of varying descriptions, with two collector jars apiece, displayed on a stand. After receiving a forceful spraying by a turning nozzle, the slabs began to drain.

The rear jars collected the infiltrated water, dripping through the soil, while the front ones collected surface runoff from a sloped drain board. The muddied jars were the result of sediment loss. It was immediately apparent which soil samples were erosion-prone, which held water, and which were the ones that dripped clearer, unsedimented water.

The champ for absorption capacity and low runoff was the slab of unworked woodland soil covered with debris and dead leaves. The “clear conclusion” (its collectors held the clearest water): the more of this you can leave on your garden, your crops, or your land, the greater will be the absorption and infiltration of rainfall and surface water, minimizing runoff and topsoil erosion.

Welcome harbingers

Skunk cabbage has been quietly blooming in secluded wetlands, but we are antsy for signs of spring in the garden. Welcome harbingers are forsythia, magnolia, and pieris. My pieris, ‘Valley Valentine,’ ‘Dorothy Wyckoff,’ and ‘Brouwer’s Beauty’ are blooming well. The past winter did them no harm. Also signs of spring: The rascally raccoons are raiding the bird feeders, and are far less welcome.

Forsythia in bloom is used as a phenological sign for planting and garden work, such as pruning roses that bloom on new wood, according to the UMass Extension Garden Calendar. I appreciate the facts and advice this publication contains, and hope that Island gardeners avail themselves of it and the soil test service of UMass Extension.

Magnolia stellata and cultivars derived from it flower early: so much so that it is a countdown between their blooming and freezing temperatures still occurring. Buds are often blasted. M. ‘Leonard Messel’ and M. ‘Dr. Merrill’ here are swelling; I have my fingers crossed that temps are reliably mild for their show.

The small bulbs, such as snowdrops, early narcissus, crocus, and scilla looked forlorn in the snow, and emerged battered, but unbusted. While the main show of narcissus is still a week to 10 days away, many of the charming small ones are now in bloom here, such as Narcissus ‘Topolino’ and N. ‘Little Gem.’

When my one plant of Corydalis solida ‘Beth Evans’ comes up and makes its mound of frilly pink blooms, I wonder, What is wrong with me — why don’t I have more of that? The carpets of cobalt blue Scilla sibirica ‘Spring Beauty’ and lavender blue Chionodoxa forbesii are increasing, due to their seeds’ eliasomes, lipid packets that induce ants to disperse them.

And speaking of eliasomes, the March edition of the Plantsman contains an article titled “Why Are We Losing Chionodoxa?” Sounds alarming, another name change — wah! Looks as if Chionodoxa is to become Scilla, due to unique, identically formed eliasomes.

Go to your bulb website or catalogue immediately and start planning your 2019 spring garden!

Boxwood problems

According to UMass Extension’s recent HortNotes, excerpted here, boxwood can suffer from several different types of damage during the winter. The most common type of damage is winter burn. This type of damage expresses itself as bronze, orange, or burnt orange foliage. Winter burn is often the result of desiccation related to winter wind and intense sunlight. Winter injury is another type of damage; winter injury damages or kills plant tissues like leaves and woody stems. The leaves of plants with winter injury are often yellow/white or straw colored. When woody stems are damaged, the bark will peel or slip off the stem. Winter injury can be the result of extreme low temperatures or from drastic fluctuations in temperature. The third type of damage is the physical damage caused by snow or ice accumulation and the resulting breakage of branches and twigs.

Boxwoods are intolerant of winter winds, and require being planted in an area that provides winter protection. Sunlight also plays an important role in winter burn and potentially in winter injury. Boxwoods are typically planted in full sun to part shade; however, care must be taken to consider winter sun.

Boxwoods have very shallow root systems, and are susceptible to drought, heat, and cold. Mulch boxwood with one to two inches of mulch to protect the root zone and conserve water. Taper the mulch into the base of the plant so that it is not piled up around the base. Avoid shearing boxwood in the late summer or fall, since shearing often encourages new growth. This new growth is often susceptible to winter injury because the new shoots do not have sufficient time to properly acclimate for winter.

For the full article, go to

M.V. Agricultural Society Spring Potluck and Social, Saturday April 14, 6 pm Agricultural Hall, 35 Panhandle Rd., West Tisbury. Bring a dish for six to share. All members and supporters of MVAS welcome.