Garden Notes: Spring blooms

While smelling the aromatic flowers, don’t forget drafts in placing your garden sitting area.


Although it is mid-May, the recent weather feels the same as when the print publication was suspended — welcome back to the much-missed Martha’s Vineyard Times print edition!

The evening star Venus still burns brightly. The shadbush are blooming. The Island has been beautiful in its quiet period of pandemic pause. It created a restful atmosphere that has been noted — absence of vehicular and road noise, deep blue skies (when it was not pouring), bread baking en masse. One wishes one could make a living and put food on the table while keeping a more peaceful and less frantic pace.

A quirk of the Vineyard as a resort is the lack of magnolias and daffodils at properties that might otherwise be termed “showplaces.” Year-round houses have year-round gardens. Some formerly year-round houses do too; but mostly, seasonal owners are not in residence now, and garden plantings consequently focus on summer.

Poet’s narcissus

One of the last to bloom in the parade of daffodils, the poet’s narcissus (Narcissus poeticus, also pheasant’s eye) is coming on now, and is often simultaneous with lilac time, a daffodil that even seasonal owners can enjoy.

I had always wondered if there were more than one poet’s narcissus, and the answer is yes, there are! The Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden’s April 2020 issue contains Nigel Colborn’s informative article, featuring the fragrant species and cultivars with their snow-white petals and tiny, red-rimmed cups.

Narcissus poeticus most frequently seen here are heritage ‘Actaea,’ tall, April-flowering, and somewhat billowy; and Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, May-flowering, smaller, and spicily fragrant, with reflexed petals.

Paraphrasing Colborn’s culture advice: If poet’s narcissus are already present in your garden, lift and divide every three years. They appreciate good, deep soil, moist but well-drained, and good light. This is not an early spring bulb of woodlands, but a late spring one of meadows.

Plant in groups of three to five, and plant deeply, to a depth of three times the bulb size. Meadow planting means that grass must be kept hungry; do not fertilize.

The advice above applies to all narcissus plantings, if clumps of bulbs produce mostly leaves and few flowers — time to lift and replant, after the flowering season has passed. Using a digging fork, ease the congested clump out of the ground. By chance I found a new technique for planting these numerous congested bulbs, which are frequently quite small, that saves a lot of time. I put the four tines of the fork in the soil and wiggle it back and forth to open up four slim but deep holes. Then, using a pusher of some sort, a dowel or twig, I push a bulb as deeply as it will go down each of the four tine-holes. Narcissus eventually pull themselves down to the right depth.

Separate and replant as above, and remember to share the excess with friends or neighbors.

Speaking of lilac time

Spring is a time of powerfully fragrant flowers and shrubs. Even in the recent chilly temperatures, fragrant viburnums, narcissus, and fading hyacinths were able to project their perfumes. Early lilacs are already in bloom down-Island.

The love affair with lilacs has one feature that limits our enjoyment of them: the increasing Island presence of lilac borer. Egg laying is usually from mid-May until June. The larval insect enters the larger trunks, which subsequently leaf out and bloom sparsely, and sometimes die completely, due to the stress the borer galleries cause. Frass is often visible as the larvae clean their tunnels.

I wrote about this wasplike insect last year, with the advice to look for holes, about the diameter of a pencil, in larger trunks or canes. Please go to the link A sign of infestation is failure of a large trunk, and occurs more commonly if the plant is stressed in other ways, such as vines, shade, or poor siting.

If a spray program is initiated, now is the time. Females lay eggs near pruning or other wounds, so avoid pruning now. Removal of larger trunks is one way to rejuvenate the lilac, but do so in winter.

Potato planting

Seed potatoes are tubers that have never been treated with a sprout inhibitor. Chitting of seed potatoes gives them a bit of a head start; they have started into growth even before going into the soil. (This technique may also be used with dahlias and sweet potatoes.)

The three varieties of organic seed potatoes pictured were placed in a well-lit, cooler part of the house until the sprouts from the eyes grew and the cut portions callused over.

To plant, make six-inch-deep furrows, about three feet apart, with a hoe or other tool. Place the pieces six inches apart and hill (cover) with soil or straw, leaving only a small part exposed.

Venturi effects

Wind has seemed excessive recently, and while we all want to be outside in spring sunshine, it is not always easy to find a sheltered spot.

The arrangement of houses, outbuildings, garages, and neighboring structures, not to mention the lay of the land, may create wind currents, known as venturi effects, which become apparent due to the arrangement of the built environment.

Think about this as you set up your outdoor living areas. A sunny, southern exposure loses appeal as an all-season space if a constant draft moves across it. Privacy fencing may actually contribute to the compression of air moving across hard surfaces. If your outdoor living area does sit in a venturi, consider planting or pierced-section fencing to break air movement.

Attention, outdoor workers: Tick check, every night!