Garden Notes: Getting into ‘thinking gardens’ mode

And ‘deer-resistant’ is redefined. Again.


March winds blow. It is silly, chilly March — when some of us might think spring is right around the corner. It is usually dank, dark, and dreary. This year, we shall see. We have already had balmy, shirtsleeve days, a crust of frost in the ground, and now, snow.

The snow was pretty, and a reminder that much of what is beautiful about gardens and landscapes in winter is what is allowed to remain.

But spring usually does arrive, despite erratic weather. When that happens, we shall be busy, so do not delay getting into “thinking gardens” mode. It is time to order seed potatoes and dahlias, and to chit them (pre-sprouting prior to planting) when they arrive, if this procedure has become part of your modus operandi.

For chitting seed potatoes, egg cartons come in handy. Use seed potatoes whole, but if needed, divide the seed potatoes and let cut sides dry. Then set them in the cartons like eggs, “rose” end up, where the most eyes are; leave them in a cool but well-lit space until you get nice, stocky sprouts. Depending on the weather, potatoes can be planted here in early April.

Dahlias are divided, with each piece containing an eye (a vestigial sprout) and a piece of stem. They can be moistened, or not, and left in a well-lit spot for sprouts to develop. They are then potted up. It will be a while before dahlias can be planted outdoors, but they need more time to grow to planting size than one thinks.

I write this every year, it seems: It seems wise to me to start pea seed indoors in modules instead of direct sowing, whether or not the date is St. Patrick’s Day, because birds will be pecking those li’l green pea shoots as soon as they emerge. Use inoculant, too.

Allegedly ‘deer resistant’

This year, it looks as if successful broad-leaved evergreens, evergreens, and ornamental plants in Island gardens have been narrowed down to just a few species. The lack of acorns and loss of wildlife habitat have pushed deer and rabbits further and further into our domestic landscapes.

Tulips must be relegated to completely protected or enclosed spots in gardens, although some species and early hybrids, such as Greigii hybrids, may persist much longer. 

Many of us, over the years, have come to rely upon a list of plants for gardens and landscapes that have known deer “resistance.” This past winter, however, has me revising and rethinking what constitutes that “resistance,” because there is very little that has not been browsed, unless fenced off. When I read assurances that certain plants are on the deer-resistant list, I smile, and then frown, to myself.

Leucothoe axillaris is seen stripped, for the first time; Microbiota decussata (Siberian cypress) likewise. Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) until recently was almost always fine, but not now. Native cedars and abelia, ignored and left alone many years, have been heavily chewed. Hypericum; hamamelis; viburnums; elsholtzia; yucca … the list goes on.

So – what is left? Boxwood, pieris, and skimmia (just maybe), and surprisingly, southern evergreen magnolia, M. grandiflora — if you have an ideal spot for it. For deer-resistant perennials, check out the following plants.

The Perennial Plant Association has chosen as its 2020 herbaceous perennial of the year allegedly deer-resistant golden spikenard ‘Sun King.’ Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ was introduced by plantsman Barry Yinger, who spotted it in a department store nursery in Japan and brought it here. The plant is a large splash of yellow to chartreuse to light green foliage, three feet by three feet at maturity. I have used ‘Sun King’ in several gardens: This is a wonderful, big plant for shade gardens to accompany hosta, ferns, and other shade tolerant plants.

National Garden Bureau has chosen deer-resistant lavender ( as its 2020 perennial of the year. Lavender needs no introduction; it is a favorite of many Island gardens, and is never browsed.

Edgeworthia, the Chinese paperbush

It is worth the wait. The strange bobble-buds of the striking and fragrant edgeworthia beside our door keep my attention with bated breath. It is nearly always touch-and-go whether, due to their earliness, they will open and release their wonderful scent, or if some weather event blasts them first. They have opened, unharmed and golden.

With a lot of anxiety about markets, COVID-19, and also regular flus and colds, many of us are probably wise to stay home more, and limit widespread social contact. By a fortunate coincidence, outside work is a healthy pastime. Fresh air, being constructive, vitamin D beginning to be effective, and massaging the immune system: You can do worse.

Lawns need raking. Gutters hold debris. Last year’s plant growth may be dealt with and composted. The strong March winds are finding stray leaves and propelling them around, and many lawns grew moss and thatch that it is well to rake and be rid of.

It is still too soon to prune hydrangeas, buddleia, caryopteris, and similar nonwoody plants, due to the vagaries of weather. They gain protection from their old wood in freeze/thaw conditions; there will be time to prune them later when settled conditions have truly arrived.

However, please think twice about clearing away the undergrowth and cover on your property. It is a contradiction to do this, but to then be concerned about pollinators or birds. The over-landscaped look is barren and sterile, inimical and inhospitable to life except of a very limited sort.

Sure, ticks may find a home in undergrowth, but ticks can also be encountered on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. It is the undergrowth, providing food and shelter for wildlife of many species and descriptions, that makes your garden and property a wildlife-friendly habitat.