Garden Notes: Spring is here, but be cautious

And a plant for you if you can’t grow plants.

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These clivias began blooming promptly after enforced dormancy. Just visible, red berries are seed capsules from last year. — Susan Safford

Island spring is often fluky. It is officially here, though, and, like many, I hope for plentiful rainfall: only at night, hold the snow. Watch for erratic low nighttime temperatures. Freeze/thaw cycles injure many plants; leave mulches in place for now.

Gardeners are ready to swing into action, and have plenty to do. Rhubarb will be on their minds. Rhubarb is known as a heavy feeder. In our garden their pinkish nubbins are already emerging from the henhouse litter I gifted them with two months ago. If you have no henhouse litter, well-rotted manure or compost is good. Divide crowns every five years or so, between autumn and early spring.

St Patrick’s Day saw me planting ‘Green Arrow’ peas, however not in the garden. Too many accidents (mostly bird-related) befall too many pea shoots when they are sown directly in the soil. I inoculate the seed and plant it in planting mix in cells indoors. Once several sets of leaves have grown and roots have filled the cell, the little pea plants usually slide out without too much trouble, and can be transplanted where they are to grow.

If you have not done this already, cut back ornamental grasses. They are about to sprout new growth, so cut down old growth ASAP to avoid damaging it. A side dressing of nitrogen-rich organic soil food (fertilizer) supports it.

Grasses such as miscanthus and pennisetum are on my least-favored list, due to invasive and reseeding tendencies, but the grass family, the Poaceae, is very large (in fact, the fifth largest plant family, according to Wikipedia); there are many to choose from. Check out the various illustrated encyclopedias of grasses available at your library, if you want to see just how much beautiful variety exists!

On March 23 at the Vineyard Haven library, Regenerative Gardening with Roxanne Kapitan focused on sheet composting, using kitchen and yard waste. The idea is as much food as possible, with as little expense and “externalities” as possible. Anyone can do this, with few or no inputs from either halfway around the world, or from across the Sound.

The program included three “show and tell” sections: Roxanne demonstrated using different kinds of domestic “waste” to make compost; Laurissa Rich showed her worm composting setup; and Noli Taylor screened a portion of a video demonstrating food forest gardening in Saskatchewan. The link is here: discoverpermaculture.com/pdc-2-video-2019. The next Regenerative Gardening session will meet will meet on April 27, details to be announced.

Clivias

Meanwhile, citrus blossom perfume and color enliven activity in the greenhouse. I brought the clivias (Clivia miniata) up from the basement, where they had been sitting to promote dormancy, for eight weeks from before Christmas until late February. As if on “railroad time,” the plump stems of the flower umbels immediately emerged and began to shoot up.

My original clivia came from the Edgartown horticulturist John Perkins, and has been with me since the early 1970s. Following his lead, I have shared clivia divisions too. These clivias are wonderful plants for their form and color, but also for people who 1) lack a good place for green growing things; 2) consider themselves hopeless at plants; or 3) are not in residence in their houses full-time.

While in the dormant phase, clivias can be kept in low light, receiving little or no water, and still manage to look very handsome. The foliage is clean and dark green, fan-shaped, and with a stylized look. Since few inputs are needed on the part of the clivia’s owner, even those who consider themselves black thumbs can have success with them.

Clivias may remain in the same pot in the same low light for a period of years (although maybe not blooming much), as they can be grown dry and potbound. There are other clivia species, hybrids, and pricey cultivars in other color blends, but the straight C. miniata is a rewarding plant.

PFAS: ‘Forever’ chemicals

Let the buyer beware: You really, really do want to be cautious about what you use on your farm, landscape, and garden. What the fate of the contaminated Arundel, Maine, dairy farm will be is unknown at this time, but it is undoubtedly tragic and contains a lesson. As reported by Reuters and Maine papers (bit.ly/MaineFarm), news about Stoneridge Farm is that its dairy herd, land, and water wells are contaminated by “forever” PFAS. These are industrial chemicals that originated in sludge that was promoted to farmers and orchardists, in Maine and elsewhere, as a fertilizer. This class of chemicals is persistent and hazardous to human health.

Stoneridge Farm started spreading treated sewage in the 1980s as part of a state program that would help utilities get rid of the waste and fertilize pastures. (Stonebridge also used one delivery of sludge waste from a paper mill.) As many as 225 locations in Maine were permitted to receive sewage sludge, starting in 2000.

The contamination began showing up in the Stoneridge herd’s milk in 2016. Actions to reduce it, very costly to the farm, were taken, and initially seemed effective. However, the PFAS reappeared. Maine state-level agencies sat on the situation until recently.

Maine farmers were pressured, according to ruined farmer Fred Stone, to take the sludge. “We were told it was our civic duty for two reasons,” he said. “First, because it was a great soil amendment … And second, because spreading it across farmland would save our towns from paying substantial tipping fees for disposal.”

Fortunately, Island farmers received warnings about the dangers of the heavily promoted sludge when the EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman spoke here about its potential dangers in 2000.

Maine investigators now fear Stoneridge Farm is but the tip of the iceberg. The water contaminant originating from the airport in West Tisbury is also PFAS.