Garden Notes: Forcing spring

Sometimes you have to fool Mother Nature.


As Islanders know, to their annoyance, spring does not willingly arrive on Martha’s Vineyard. It just doesn’t (maritime climate and all), even though the hope always hovers. The added factor of each year’s phenological data, warmer and earlier than the last, confuses expectations.

Hyacinths and greenery forced in old-fashioned bulb vases create anticipation. It is easy: in fall, purchase bulbs; store them in the fridge vegetable bin. Sometime in mid-January fill the vases to the bulge with water. Set the bulbs into the bulge and place in a cool well-lit area.

Roots will form, and then the leaves and fabulously fragrant flower scapes emerge. Keep refilling the water up to the bulb’s base. The experts advise discarding bulbs, post-forcing, but I have planted out many. They survive and thrive in the garden still.


Potatoes are one of the most rewarding crops to grow, as almost any gardener will confirm. Harvest time is exciting, like digging for buried treasure or hunting for Easter eggs. I have started chitting some early potatoes, and sown green peas in modules. I know it is too soon, but that wonderful strengthening sun is affecting my judgment.

Chitting, letting the eyes sprout before planting time, has a long history, perhaps rooted in the fact that stored potatoes usually sprout in late winter anyhow, no matter how one tries to perfect storage conditions to prevent it. It is a means of getting a head start on their growth in the soil.

To chit: About six weeks before planting in soil, stand seed potatoes in holders such as egg cartons or used planting modules, blunt or rose end (end with eyes) up. Leave small potatoes intact, but section larger potatoes, leaving cuts to dry over. Do not cut too small, as shriveling may occur; some growers dust with a fungicide, but this is not usually necessary.

Leave in an unheated, light place. Unlike the wan, spindly sprouting that takes place in the pantry, sprouts should be plump and stocky. Leave only the strongest sprouts for early potatoes, but leave all sprouts on later, main crop types.

Before planting the chitted potatoes, tarps or trash liners can be spread on the bed to speed warming and drying the soil. Avoid manuring, composting, or fertilizing the patch. (This ideally should be done earlier, the previous fall, when you have decided where to plant potatoes.)

Dahlias too

Potatoes are not the only tubers that can be chitted. Dahlia tubers also respond to the technique for getting a jump on the short-day, end-of-summer bloomers. Unlike potatoes, however, dahlias must await settled warm weather before going into the ground outside.

Divide clumps while retaining a piece of last year’s stem for each individual tuber. Tubers without that piece of stem are called “blind” — they remain plump but do not sprout. Sprinkle with water and leave in a bright place for a week or two before planting in containers.

I have changed my MO for growing dahlias, and now plant tubers standing more or less upright in small, deep containers, such as yogurt quarts, Dixie cups, and recycled plastic pots from annuals.

What is a weed?

There is a well-worn quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A weed is but a plant whose virtues remain undiscovered.” This story ( is about just that, and is from somewhere far away; but it reveals what is probably the case everywhere. There are unexpected connections throughout the biosphere, connections we unwittingly destroy while in thrall to some useless philosophy, connections unwittingly or unknowingly destroyed or ignored in favor of ideas that are literally barren.

Under colonial administration, farmers in Senegal and throughout the semi-arid Sahel region of mid-Africa had been encouraged over several generations to destroy a persistently thriving weed that occurred in their smallholdings and subsistence plots.

The theory was the weeds, Guiera senegalensis, must have been competing for scarce growing resources in the harsh environment. The desired crops, such as millet, cabbage, peppers, and eggplant and other subsistence crops, would yield better if the bushes were removed.

The guiera proved difficult to eradicate; the roots went very deep. In someone’s genius flash of insight, it was hypothesized that perhaps those deep roots were able to gain access to moisture that the surface rooted crops could utilize. “Keep the shrubs. Prune them, trim them down to ground level, plant your crops around and even right over them — the deep roots of the shrubs won’t mind.” It goes even further: “Plant more shrubs in your fields, to the tune of about one per three square feet.”

Senegalese and Ohio State University guiera researchers have shown the plants draw up more water for crops, through a process called hydraulic lift, also known as hydraulic redistribution. The guiera form “fertility islands” by locking in topsoil, cooling the surroundings, and bringing up water.

Farmers are encouraged to prune the bushes hard and to spread their shredded leaves and branches on the ground, providing fertilizing biomass. Their small stature allows planted crops to grow right among them. Plots companioned with guiera outproduce those cultivated conventionally.

Unintended consequences

Another story of unintended consequences is told in “Finding the Mother Tree,” by Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology. It’s an often horrifying tale of the management of North America’s boreal forests under the forestry industry; and of the destructive principles under which it has operated. Simard and others may revise that story due to their research (, but it will take time. I recommend “Finding the Mother Tree.”

How many other botanical and ecological partnerships are being dismantled and destroyed by misguided approaches to the natural world? From eliminating competition to clear-cutting the woods to endless herbicides, leaf blowing and biomass removal? We do not know.