Garden Notes: Spring moves in

You can start planting your cool-start vegetables.

Dwarf purple iris, bright among the brown leaves. — Susan Safford

“Anticipating spring” and “waiting for coronavirus”: There is a difference. Now both are here. One is very welcome — the other, not so much. There is something both share, though, and that is the message to get outdoors and become productive.

From here it looks as if many things are going to be up in the air. There are many unknowns at the moment. Doing something about it, and managing anxiety, all point to planting those gardens, containers, and windowsills; and getting as much fresh air and sunshine as you can, all while social distancing and maintaining six feet of separation.

Support the web of life

The Home Garden Seed Association reminds us, as did Audubon, “To help birds this winter, go easy on fall yardwork.” Several times over the course of the winter, I have encouraged the style of gardening that supports and rewards wildlife, pollinators, and humans.

The hollow stems where the arthropods lay their eggs or pupate; the stray stuff that is woven into birds’ nests; even the early-blooming, minute weed that sustains an early pollinator: it is all part of the web of life that is a garden.

Now is when the rubber meets the road. We go out into a garden that looks a mess and think: Something must be done!

Well, just calm down and start to work. But remember that wonder-full gardens are habitats, not only for humans, but also for the whole web of life. Ultra-cleaned-up and sterile is not really a garden: It is a desert.

In the garden

Message from UMass Soil Testing Lab: “We are sorry to inform our valued customers that the UMass Extension Soil and Plant Nutrient Testing Lab has suspended service through at least April 6 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

My vegetable garden’s soil measures about 50°, still in the “cool” range, although soils are warming. Soil temperature minimums for onions, parsnips, spinach: 32°. For beets, cabbage, carrots, peas, radishes: 40°.

Warmer daytime temperatures balance recent rainfall; for the most part, garden soils may be weeded and worked. Laying a plank to walk on helps with soil compaction at any time of the garden year, but is especially useful now, while the soil is moist.

Spitting cress (it is edible and peppery, like watercress) is in flower already, and weeding out these early reseeders helps down the line. I foraged for emerging dandelions on Sunday, for what has become a seasonal ritual of stewing them, straining the “tea,” and drinking it as a liver and kidney tonic.

It is still a good time to prune. Sharpen the tool, and oil first. Its sharpened edge should be on the inside of the branch, to avoid creating stubs. Avoid pruning spring-flowering shrubs until after bloom.

Prune back stems of colored dogwood for fresh, brightly colored growth.

Use horticultural oil if scales or other sucking insects are found on trees and shrubs, such as pieris, yew, and hybrid hollies. On deciduous trees and shrubs, such as redbud, these are harder to detect.

Paltry poultry manure

Ordinarily, I would don dust mask and clean the henhouse, and use the composted, manure-rich litter to top-dress the vegetable garden, especially the rhubarb and asparagus crowns — both heavy feeders. My poultry flock suffered predation over winter, and the henhouse litter is quite clean, with minimal manure. For now I am going to skip the dusty chore, and look elsewhere for top-dressing.

Two early spring beacons

We all could use some cheer. Forsythias everywhere are about to light up the day, the garden, and the season; but first, let’s give less-heralded shrubs their moment of attention. I previously mentioned waiting with bated breath to see if the edgeworthia (think “pipe tobacco in the blue and white can”) would hang onto its buds and bloom successfully this year.

Edgeworthia, also called Chinese paperbush, is so early, with buds so large, felted, and flocked (moisture-holding), that it was a race every year between blooming and blasted. Climate variability currently seems to be favoring the plant’s successful bloom.

When it does, one feels much rewarded because of the fabulous fragrance. Later, the large, lance-shaped leaves are a clean blue-green, vaguely tropical looking, while fall color is minimal. Shaded planting sites retard flowering slightly, giving an extra margin for successful bloom.

As far as deer are concerned, edgeworthia is a pretty good bet. Mine grows in a shaded spot where deer walk past nightly; I have not yet seen browsing. However, it isn’t a thing of beauty, not really. Gawky, bare, angular branches, with the dangling bobble buds — strong winds or ice could knock them right off. It is only once they open and release their scent that one is repaid for the anxious wait.

Pieris is the other standout at the moment, a deer-resistant evergreen shrub that may be mistaken for mountain laurel, due to similar-looking foliage (both are in the large Ericaceae family). Like mountain laurel, pieris are plants for acidic, humus-rich soil, in sun to part shade. They are in bloom now all over the Island, with clusters of white or pink to rose flowers resembling those of blueberries or heathers. Many are Pieris japonica; P. floribunda is a North American native species, and there are hybrid cultivars between the two.

For the most part, I see white-flowered forms, such as the highly recommended hybrid ‘Brouwer’s Beauty.’ For a sprightly contrast, search out some of the deeper colored cultivars, such as ‘Valley Valentine,’ a deep rosy-pink that contrasts nicely with some of the lighter colored forms. Compact cultivars of pieris are available, such as white-flowered ‘Cavatine.’ These fit in with foundation plantings and smaller gardens, and make great focal points for containers.

As mentioned above with respect to horticultural oil, pieris may be plagued by scale and spider mites. Mulch the root runs for moisture retention, and plant them in good soil.

‘Overview effect’

Upon seeing Earth from space, International Space Station astronauts report reactions and intense emotions that have come to be called the “overview effect.” It is a feeling of love and protectiveness for our planet and its inhabitants, and involves something powerfully and uniquely human. Particularly at the time of pandemic, we need this overview effect right here on Earth.