Garden Notes: Mulch wisely, and eschew volcanoes

Perhaps planting among leeks can protect your tulips.


The amount of sunlight makes 6 am a real pleasure. Cells of everything in the Northern Hemisphere surge in response, and leaves unfurl before our eyes. Unruly, chilly weather — those snowflakes! — comes as an annoying shock, and demonstrates the usefulness of faithfully checking forecasts, and also of a small cold frame for hardening off and holding plants, without committing to in-ground planting.

The VCS Beach Cleanup last weekend was a bundled-up affair. I am pleased to report almost no trash along the Red Beach shore of Menemsha Pond, although the trash-choked creek at Painted House was in shameful contrast.

In the garden   

Check that peony crowns are not too deep or smothered by mulch, and provide good air circulation and sun when siting peonies. Products such as Revitalize or Monterey Complete Disease Control, or copper-based sprays (although copper is now being phased out, many gardeners continue to swear by it) control botrytis on peonies.

It is not too late to prune smooth hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens (‘Annabelle’ types), back to about 18 inches. These plants bloom on new wood, so this is not sacrificing any flowers; the pruning makes canes sturdier, and supports the huge flowerheads better. Panicle hydrangea, H. paniculata, also blooms on new wood, and may be pruned hard, or left to grow tall.

Side-dress perennials and shrubs with low-number organic fertilizer. Pot dahlia tubers. Lift, divide, and replant snowdrops.

Pull mulch away from the trunk of trees and shrubs. With time, or rain and snow action, it may work its way in toward them, where it promotes stem rooting, or insect and rodent damage.

To mulch or not to mulch

The functions of microscopic organisms — arthropods, nematodes, bacteria, and fungi — that inhabit decomposing bio-matter are hygroscopic (attract atmospheric moisture), and are actually carrying out many of your plants’ growth processes.

Clients, believing it is superior — “form over function” — may ask landscapers and working gardeners for dyed black mulch. The plant’s root zone wants an environment that is bioactive, not ground-up softwood shipping pallets dyed black, and lacking microlife.

As professionals, this is our chance to educate the client about the difference and why we mulch. Mulches add humus and help soils retain moisture, lessening dependence on irrigation. (Needless to say, the best mulch match is the litter the plant itself produces.)

Mulches may help retard weed growth, if placed as a blanket and not worked to interact with mineral soil. When we mulch in that fashion, we are eliminating self-sowing volunteers, such as stands of foxglove, drifts of self-seeding squills and chionodoxa, dependable biennials, and short-lived self-sowers such as columbine, year after year.

Grass-free or mulch rings around trees are beneficial. Plants’ critical root-flare is protected from grass competition, string trimmers, and mowers; the entire mowing job is made speedier and more efficient. However, we too often also see mulch volcanoes.

If your landscapers heap mulch around trunks and stems, ask them to pull it away to expose the root flare and provide proper air circulation for healthy bark and proper root development (

Do not be timid about asking what is being put down on your lawn and garden, and be skeptical of the soothing assurance of “it’s all organic” (wink wink, nudge). Whether it is children’s or grandchildren’s bare legs and feet, or pets’ paws, chemicals are easily transferred through skin.

Eating contaminated insects decimates the flocks of robins and blackbirds combing lawns for earthworms and beetle grubs. Plus, of course, it eventually ends up in a well, pond, or waterway near you.

Tulips, M.V. style

If I were a betting person, I would bet there are not many places on the Island where tulips grow freely, the way they are tantalizingly pictured in bulb catalogues and garden books. Not even in in-town Edgartown, with its well-fenced lots, are tulips safe from bunnies that slip through those fences. A planting made last fall to please a seasonal resident disappeared entirely before I reckoned it was time to apply repellent, save for one small flower.

For our own tryst with tulips, we meet prosaically among leeks in the vegetable garden, the only place they can survive an entire growing cycle. Pictured is Colorblend’s ‘Prosecco Mix.’

But what to do when I need the grow space after tulip time? I asked my brother, who lives in the bulb-growing region of North Holland, how Dutch bulb farmers manage the bulb crops, and how long they stand before harvest.

He recounted how fields are stringently surveyed early in bloom time; any plant displaying any kind of flaw, disease, or imperfection is immediately rogued. Then blooms are decapitated, and foliage allowed to ripen until it yellows, for approximately six weeks. Bulbs are then dug and cured. I shall attempt this too, although it is a big ask. Very much needing some gaiety during this pandemic year, among the leeks we enjoy our tulips.

Those same clever Dutch tulip farmers produce much of the amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) crop we enjoy around the holidays. They have been strictly manipulated to flower then, but when saved and grown on, will usually revert to their more natural flowering time of March to April. I now have three different cultivars in flower.

After flowering, I fertilize them and put them outdoors for summer, where they grow more leaves and sometimes an offset. They come inside before frost, and are repotted if needed, and then go into the cellar, where it is cool and dark. In late February I bring them up and remove the old foliage. Growth resumes, leaf shoots appear, and to one side, the pointy tip of the bud. Flowers seem to last longer grown slightly dry.

Polly Hill Arboretum: Visit now. There is so much to see!