Garden Notes: Get outdoors and start pruning grapevines

And finding the green, even in March.

Susan Safford

Overall, this time of year could be characterized as “waiting for spring.” And wait we shall, for Vineyard spring is a season of delay and disappointment for the winter-weary.

A wry comment on the first snowdrop, pinkletink, and dead skunk on the road is that the earlier they come, the more our weather is out of whack.

Sir David Attenborough has warned that humankind has the power to exterminate whole ecosystems “without even noticing.” He observed at the Davos 2019 conference that the natural world is “not just a matter of beauty, interest, and wonder” but a coherent ecosystem on which we depend for “every breath we take, every mouthful of food we take.”

We have solutions to climate disruption, because it is only through taking the excess carbon and the excess nitrogen out of the air that we can we heal the broken nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle. We must push back against the arguments that say this “just isn’t practical.” What is not practical is struggling with the results of no action.

In the garden

It is time to get outdoors and start pruning grapevines, which bleed once the sap has begun to rise, as well as fruit trees, blueberry bushes, and wisteria vines. Clear away weather-beaten foliage of epimediums so that the early flowering stems will show when they bloom. Raking, and more cleanup when weather permits, gives the season a head start.

It is nice to prune branches to force for a touch of spring in the house. Pussy willow, forsythia, peaches, Lonicera fragrantissima, flowering quince, and corylopsis are all relatively easy to force, but there are many others.

From the Home Garden Seed Association ( come five good reasons to grow your garden from seed: “You’ll have many more choices. You can control quality. Growing from seed is easier. You’ll save money. It’s fun to do.” Go to the website for more tips and pointers.

More greenery

Looking around gardens, the green that they contain attracts me. Very often, March especially is dark, wet, and bone-chillingly colder than seems possible, considering the actual temperature. Grass is tan and prostrate on lawns; most won’t start to green up for a while.

By late winter, however, some plants are shaking off dormancy and becoming more vibrant with each day of temperatures above freezing, including these three broadleaved evergreens.

My Ilex crenata ‘Hetzii,’ or box-leaved Japanese holly, began life as two cuttings snipped more than 35 years ago from plants flanking the front door of my friend Dolly’s then-new house. I rooted them, grew them on, and eventually sited them where they grow today. I shape them a couple of times a year, one time of which results in plentiful clippings for holiday wreathmaking and decorating.

This cultivar of Japanese holly, often mistaken for boxwood, is female and produces black fruits. Its hardiness rating is to zone 6. The growth habit is rangy and somewhat spreading; pruning helps produce and retain the desirable denser plant form. Left unpruned, these plants can attain a height of 10 feet.

In another situation, Hetz’s Japanese holly might be grown as a dense privacy hedge, or a wildlife-supporting one. When I prune, I almost always find hidden birds’ nests just feet away from human comings and goings. The plants as a rule like humus-rich, moisture-retentive, acidic soil. Most plants of this nature appreciate a layer of mulch to conserve moisture during dry summers.

An unwelcome yellowish color may pervade the otherwise very glossy, handsome foliage. It can be corrected by topdressing with organic soil food or cottonseed meal, and siting in part sun/part shade. A couple of winters out of 10, deer may browse them (may have something to do with their not being pruned tightly enough?), but regrowth is quick.

Leucothoe fontanesiana, according to Michael Dirr, is one of the finest broad-leaved evergreens for naturalizing, and grows luxuriantly in the Island’s shaded gardens. It is a native North American plant. The gracefully drooping fronds create banks of greenery that make attractive work of knitting together taller trees and shrubs, or rounding out foundation plantings and beds.

Give leucothoe, also sometimes called dog-hobble, semishaded locations, humus-rich soil with good moisture, and protection from drying winds, and it will fend for itself. All that is needed is occasional rejuvenation of canes after the white flowers, reminiscent of blueberries or pieris, have faded; they may be selectively cut to the ground.

Layering and division easily propagate Leucothoe, and it makes a good bank holder. Several species and cultivars exist, including L. fontanesiana ‘Scarletta;’ L. f. ‘Girard’s Rainbow,’ a form with mottled foliage; L. f. ‘Compacta’; L. axillaris; and L. a. ‘Tricolor,’ also with mottled foliage. Deer seldom browse leucothoe.

Skimmia japonica is a handsome broad-leaved evergreen with separate male and female plants. Although the foliage of both is similar — leathery, deep green elliptical leaves — the female plants carry showy red berry clusters, while the male plants’ decorative value is in the winter-developing trusses of pinkish-red flowers.

Like the other two broad-leaved evergreens discussed here, skimmia is seldom bothered by deer. In fact, it is seldom bothered by anything, which makes it a great choice for the low-maintenance shade garden. The plants are very neat and tidy-looking, essentially muffin-shaped evergreen mounds.

Skimmias may be pruned back when they become over-tall and open. As with the Ilex crenata ‘Hetzii,’ a yellowish-green coloration of the foliage may occur in sites with too much sun. Top-dressing with manure or organic soil food for acid-loving plants should help to take care of that.

Whether as foundation plantings or as backdrop in the wider garden landscape, associating well with azaleas, rhododendron, and enkianthus, Japanese holly, skimmia, and leucothoe are valuable additions to the garden at any time. Now, with dreary March upon us, their greenery is especially welcome.