Garden Notes: Oaks are the answer

And start your garden season with a close-up.

For reliable bloom, give clivia and hippeastrum a rest period. — Susan Safford

Erin go Brách! It may be St. Patrick’s Day, but much green is onion grass, not shamrocks. Island fields appear to be wearing camelhair coats. Mourning doves have arrived.

Big blooms

The dormant clivia and hippeastrum plants came out of the basement at the beginning of February. Once given light and water, the blooms emerge dramatically from their embryonic states and become huge umbels.

Many “amaryllis” bulbs are given as gifts, whose recipients toss them in frustration at their failure to rebloom. Clivias, not so much: They are less frequently encountered, and are fleshy-rooted instead of bulbed. Clivias are such low-maintenance plants that they become fixtures, undemanding (though nonblooming in dim corners), like the furniture. (The plants and flowers themselves are similar, although assigned to different genera in the family Amaryllidaceae.)

Cycling back to the start: Prior to frost, sometime in fall, store plants (pot and all) in a cool, dark basement. Lacking a basement? Try storing (pot and all) in a cool closet or cupboard. Check them, and give small amounts of water from time to time. Twist off hippeastrum foliage as it browns. When daylight has noticeably strengthened, bring out into the light, as I did at the beginning of February.

Prize the foliage, letting it photosynthesize and ripen, forming next year’s blooms. Once bloom is past, usually after Easter, continue to give a dilute feed every two weeks. With warmer weather, plants (pot and all, again) can go outdoors. Hippeastrum and clivia prefer to be slightly pot-bound.

Like many other species we keep as houseplants requiring dormancy, including various holiday cacti, the rest-period requirement arises from the habitats and conditions they evolved in, with intermittent rainy and dry seasons. Use mixes that are free-draining, and keep the same pot, just removing and replacing soil from the top. Overpotting may lead to moisture accumulation and rot of the bulb.


Nettles are good for plants, good for soil, and good for gardeners, making them foundational plants for eco-gardens. Used in green manures, compost making, liquid feeds, textiles and fiber arts, tea, soup, and soufflé, and herbal applications, nettles (Urticaria dioica) are some of the temperate garden’s most versatile members. Seed may be hard to find (, but — did you know? — nettles propagate easily from cuttings; root pieces in water like mint.

Oaks are the answer

Oaks support more life than any other tree in North America, and trees are the greatest example of perennial crops. Trees, and oaks especially, are centers of gravity of the edible food forest. Countless species — invertebrates, birds, and mammals — rely on them for food, reproduction, and shelter, as Douglas Tallamy has written in “The Nature of Oaks.”

Far from destroying them, making trees, and oaks especially, the anchors of our gardens puts us on the path to strengthening “guilds.” In permaculture, guilds consist of plants and animals which are good companions in all senses (“The Permaculture Way,” Graham Bell). They work to ensure health and productivity. “Trees produce flows of water vapor that are typically more than 10 times greater than from herbaceous vegetation per unit of land area, surpassing those produced by wet ground or open water.” ( 

Our Island is just a sandpile out at sea! There is no underground river from the White Mountains. It is all surface water. Land clearing and runoff lessen its ability to attract and retain water. Where an Island aquifer does exist (not Island-wide), recharge still comes from the sky.

When trees’ transpiration is removed from the land, it no longer attracts rain; the land’s water storing effect also vanishes. Because forests are a primary source of rain, their destruction causes drought. (See “How Does Deforestation Affect the Water Cycle?”

Martha’s Vineyard needs tree planting, not tree clearing. Our sole-source aquifer needs it. The 150th anniversary of Arbor Day is April 29. Before we experience a future of chronic drought and water shortages, let‘s actively celebrate it.

Martha’s Vineyard is oak country, and we heed ecological imperatives when we plant them. Starting With Acorns can be a project in every Island daycare and preschool, but maybe that project seems too long-term?

Seedlings of several species well suited to Martha’s Vineyard are available from nurseries such as Arbor Day Foundation (, Prairie Moon Nursery ( and Chief River Nursery ( Polly Hill Arboretum’s white, dwarf chinquapin and scarlet oaks from local seed will be plantable in 2024.

Going off-topic

Every war shortens the timespan we have: to halt desertification; to regenerate soil; to maintain or restore earth’s oceans and atmosphere; to figure out the way forward, together, to a livable future.

War energy is a manifestation of pathologically toxified male energy, keeping us in paralysis while planetary survival is held increasingly in the balance. The world’s governments have more critical issues at hand than reimposing neo-imperial, neo-colonizing control over its parts.

In the garden

As I wrote in January 2017, quoting John Berger quoting Robert Capa, “When the picture’s not good enough, go closer.” Go to your garden.

Seed sowing: Almost everyone experiences a pile-up of seedlings as they crowd growing space; stagger sowings where you can. Start with cold-tolerant/cool season crops, which, after hardening off and planting outside, free up space.

Prune clematis now. Group II and III clematis: remove previous year’s growth down to pairs of fat buds about a foot off the ground. Sweet autumn clematis, C. paniculata, flowers on new growth; cut it down to soil level.

Prune out snow damage, revealed as plants come out of dormancy.

Spotted lanternfly

M.V. Agricultural Society reports that spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) has been been found here. The insect is a newly arrived, destructive pest that has been a catastrophe for Pennsylvania growers. Read more here: