Garden Notes: Spring to-do list

Some things are emerging, and others need a little help.


“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” ~ T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land.

Although April has been a tumultuous month, and for many, it has been one of grief and anxiety, I want to reaffirm that most Islanders are — still — relatively lucky. We have spaces to walk in, to take exercise, and to be calmed by the ocean and natural world; many are finding ways to care and show concern for others.

John Berger, quoting Robert Capa, the great photographer: “When the picture’s not good enough, go closer.” Meaning, not just the viewfinder of a camera, but also a metaphor for life that serves us in hard times.

To be able to garden is a lifesaver. It is the means to go closer and dispel some of the uncertainty, and to participate in something concrete and outside the ruminations of our minds. In gardens, fearfulness concerns early frost, cutworms, crows; very mundane stuff.

In the Garden

Perennials are emerging; mark them by cultivating around clumps. At this point in the season, side-dressing with organic, low-number soil food (fertilizer), gives them a boost.

The emerging spears of bulb lilies are vulnerable to rabbit damage. If they are damaged there will be no flowers, although the leaves and stems continue to grow and supply energy to the bulb below. Cage, spray repellent, or apply dried blood to them.

If you haven’t already, prune clematis vines.

Many perennials will be seen to have increased and to be in need of lifting and dividing. The chilly, overcast, or drizzly days have a use after all! These conditions are preferable for what is a stressful operation for plants.

Daylilies, hosta, phlox, and Siberian iris are among the perennials that “run out,” that is, reduce flowering and gradually decline when they are in need of division. In addition, division is the means of propagating most of them.

A spading fork is the preferred tool for performing the lifting, and also for dividing. A fork with flattened tines, spading forks slip under or through a root mass, with less root slicing than a shovel would produce. Two spading forks, poked back-to-back in the clump, exert leverage and pry tough crowns apart quite well.

Replant the divisions in locations where you have loosened the soil and added compost*, if you have it, but avoid adding fertilizer to the hole; even low-number organic soil food may harm roots. Water well. The addition of liquid seaweed or comfrey tea to the water may help with transplant shock.

(*This is where having a pile of compost or rotting, broken-down leaves becomes especially useful. Amending the soil with leaf mould or compost is your own, homegrown amendment that in many cases is better than anything you can buy.)

Hardening off

I had to get the snow peas pictured in the ground. I needed the space. Luckily, peas thrive in chilly damp weather, but I knew I was pushing my luck to plant them without a hardening off period. So far, so good, but the leaves are likely to show sunburn with the first spell of consistently sunny weather.

Growing your own seedlings usually produces gridlock, and a backup occurs. It can make one want to rush the process of getting things planted outdoors, because daily growth strains the ‘real estate’ available.

First though, the seedlings prefer to go through a process of “hardening off.” It refers to toughening the lil’ guys for the conditions they will encounter, not only outdoor temperatures, but also sunlight and wind. Without hardening off, you may lose some plants.

Place them outside during the day in their flats, modules, egg cartons, or fast-food clamshells, and then bring them back inside for the night. (A cold frame for this purpose is lovely.) Or, if you must plant now, use Hotcaps or improvise them from cut-up milk containers.


I wrote in the April 9, 2020 Garden Notes about gardening for practicality (potatoes, onions, etc.). I want to amend that, to observe that beauty and practicality often go hand-in-hand. If you would like your practical plants to bear fruitfully, then supply them with pollinators. If you want pollinators, give them flowers.

The ‘Hale Haven’ peach pictured is heavy with eraser-pink blossoms, but if there are no pollinators to fertilize them, there will be no peaches. Likewise, if it is cold and rainy throughout the time this tree’s flowers are producing pollen, a poor fruit set is likely. If indiscriminate pesticide spraying has poisoned the pollinators, there will be no peaches.

In the vegetable garden, enhance the yield of all fruit-bearing plants: tomatoes, beans, peas, squashes, eggplant, peppers; everything that depends upon pollination, by planting pollen-producing flowers there too. An early flowering pollinator attractant, such as the comfrey pictured, in bloom now, supplies forage for the earliest ones.

In my garden, every dill and cilantro volunteer gets to grow where it germinated, unless it is actively interfering with planted crops. The previous season’s leeks and Egyptian onions get to bloom; ditto foxgloves. Verbena bonariensis, zinnias, annual poppies, cosmos, sunflowers, and calendula, anything Compositae, are allowed as much room as possible. These flowers will all be massively covered in insects from start to finish.

Earth Day

I’d like to write a little about Earth Day, April 22, this year, but things have become so polarized recently that it almost seems like a waste of column space. This week marked the 50th observance of Earth Day. To me it means Stand Up for What You Stand On.

Apart from the oceans, only a few inches of topsoil, relatively speaking, make possible our existence and all the beauty that Earth contains.

It is terrible to live on a beautiful Island like Martha’s Vineyard, or on a beautiful planet like Earth, and observe my fellow citizens behave as if the only rationale is what this represents in terms of dollars. Like the carcass of a prize beef or Bluefin tuna, or a pie chart of percentage slices. Remember the Four Laws of Ecology:

“All things are interconnected.

Everything goes somewhere.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Nature bats last.”