Garden Notes: Island grown

From camellias to reblooming iris, the Island has its own growing season.


“Winter does not come until the swamps are full.” This adage is still borne out on the Vineyard, despite climate disruptions. Winter moth males are in flight, looking for mates; caught in headlights at dusk, their numbers seem moderate, so far.

Double-take irises

There is nothing like a honking great yellow bearded iris, disproportionately stuck into the middle of a demure arrangement of rosehips, dill weed, and dusty miller, to look incongruous in December! It is, of course, a remontant iris, but still — big fake-out.

Every fall, just under the wire of official winter, iris Harvest of Memories and its remontant cohort squeak through a second flowering, causing astonishment.

Many of these bearded remontant irises are indistinguishable from spring once-bloomers; it is only when they bloom again in late fall that you catch your breath. It is debatable whether or not it is a delightful pleasure to experience one season’s icon in another one, anomalously; but for iris lovers it is possible that there is just never enough.

Most of the remontants are heavy feeders and spread vigorously, benefitting from dividing — and sharing — every two or three years. Site as for once-blooming bearded iris: full sun and good but free draining, even gravelly, soil. Give them the extra care of phosphorus-rich (the middle P number) fertilizer in stingy doses and regular watering, and prepare to stand back for the second coming!

Several other cultivars of remontant irises include Immortality, Victoria Falls, Recurring Delight, Best Bet, Sea of Love, and Mother Earth. Suppliers include White Flower Farm and K. van Bourgondien

Everything goes somewhere

Quiz your landscape team about what they are applying on your premises, and do not assume they are knowledgeable. Protect not only your family and pets and your well, but also streams and ponds, and adjacent water bodies cradling shellfish beds and baby fish stocks.

“The white clover must go!” Why? Be proactive and informed about what constitutes toxic inputs and unnecessary practices. This includes all the ’cides and high number, fast acting, chemical lawn fertilizers. Irrigated and over-irrigated lawns ensure that there is copious water, flowing and laced with these ’cides, seeking its own level, i.e., the water table or sea level.

Massachusetts state environmental protections include lawn care regulations for phosphorus. Nitrogen, however, is not regulated. I wonder why this is so? Nitrogen too is problematic and feeds algal blooms (eutrophication). It originates not only from septic flows but also from fast-acting, high N number lawn fertilizers.

Link to EcoRI to read more about lawn care’s harmful effects, and much other news relating to Rhode Island fisheries, rivers, and estuaries (


On camellias in “The Essential Earthman,” the late Henry Mitchell wrote: “Every gardener should have a camellia and this capital [Washington] would be the better for it if all business stopped until every gardener got one planted.”

Notably, today unplanted camellias are not the problems stopping all business in our capital; would that they were.

Can we plant camellias on the Vineyard? The answer is 1) depends on climate shift, and 2) we do have them. Many who drive past Polly Hill Arboretum have noticed the flash of red in May: a bank of Polly Hill’s early seed-grown Camellia japonica plantings.

Polly Hill was an accomplished amateur, with patience. Her thesis was plants of borderline Island hardiness would survive better here if grown from seed. For impatient gardeners who want camellias, purchase, not seed-grown, is probably the answer.

For success, consider siting and cultivar. Camellias with Winter or April in the cultivar name are of hardier parentage. From Henry Mitchell’s shortlist surviving well outside the Deep South includes (red varieties) Governor Mouton, Mathotiana, and Arejishi; (white varieties) Finlandia, Leucantha, and White Queen. Variegated options of white and red/pink include Elegans, Lady Vansittart, and Ville de Nantes.’ For light pink varieties, Berenice Boddy, Dr. Tinsley, and Magnoliaeflora. Kumasake and Lady Clare are rose-hued options.

Choose NOT a “sunny, protected” site for camellias. Plant instead on a shaded, north-facing side of house, wall, or shrubbery bank, lest the camellia be induced to begin its flowering during fleeting warm spells. Include good humus-y woodland soil, shade, adequate moisture, and deer protection.

Or, do as I have done: plant your camellias in pots and bring them inside; give them a cool location indoors. Indoors, camellias are more prone to scale infestations: try to keep well ventilated and treat with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. Water when dry, but do not let water stand in saucers.

In the garden

Check holiday plants for moisture frequently. Avoid over-watering and standing in water.

We used to close gardens in October, then in November, and now in December. Island gardens are affected by our extended fall season, when warm weather results in the persistence of green color and leaf retention into early winter.

We also contend with increasingly mild, uneven winters that induce plants to come out of dormancy before it is safe, followed often by surprise incursions of arctic air later in spring.

This is why it is best to let hydrangea flower heads remain, and delay spring pruning until the weather is settled: “the protection of old wood.”

Over the course of the winter, gardeners can proceed with pruning corrections as the need arises, or as problems occur.

Remove crossing branches, leaf muddles, twiglets, and branches produced by windstorms. If the coming season brings snow or ice, these catch and hold weight, in turn putting stress on weak branches or those that lack a sturdy framework.

Alternatively, it must be mentioned that leaf muddles are exactly the shelter that offers winter protection for small birds. Most mornings I observe a perky tufted titmouse emerging from just such a muddle of matted oak leaves lodged in the stems of our large oakleaf hydrangea.