Garden Notes: The work is picking up

Consider pieris: native, early-flowering, and shade-tolerant.


“Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too.”  –William Cowper 

The rainstorm last week delivered two inches to the rain gauge. Tokens of early spring are evident: pinkletinks, when preferred temperatures occur; diminutive bulbs (rock garden irises, miniature narcissus, snowdrops, and croci) are carpeting; pulmonaria and early daffodils are popping; and the Chinese paperbush, Edgeworthia, is perfuming the air. Yay!

Greenhouse and garden miscellany

Check shrubbery for branches that need pruning: winter damage; crossing or rubbing; poor structure. Many of these force well, as early spring bouquets.

Stronger light and warmer temperatures require increasing ventilation for seedlings and houseplants. Control aphids, whitefly, and fungus gnats with insecticidal soap and horticultural oil. Avoid damping off with good ventilation and miserly watering. Turn potted hippeastrum bulbs a quarter-turn (against the sun, counterclockwise) daily to avoid lopsided growth; insert supports carefully. 

Biennial vegetable garden seedlings, such as Swiss chard and parsley, may bolt if they experience cold (sense they’ve cycled through a winter). Peas, lettuce, arugula may be planted out, but may need bird and weather protection.

Magnolias: after a banner 2021 year, it appears my small collection will bloom disappointingly. Have observed lack of flowerbuds on magnolias elsewhere, too.

Check lilac stems, older ones especially, for borer damage (keyhole-shape holes), and prune out immediately, before the clear-winged moths become active later in spring; otherwise, wait until after July. And yes, ticks!

Spring-cleaning henhouses: Use vinegar and diatomaceous earth (DE) for henhouse hygiene. Back in the day, Black Flag, a nicotine-based poison, was recommended for the job: not good for birds, not good for humans eating them or their eggs!

Henhouses are barns, and need not be kept antiseptically sterile, despite concerns of avian influenza and other ailments. Deep litter gives off some warmth through microbial action in cold weather, aging to become bi-active material for composting or adding to soils as a soil food. I cobweb the interior a couple of times a year. Add clean shavings to top of floor litter, plus DE and cold wood ashes if available, for deep litter systems.

Mask up and scrape down accumulations of droppings. Change out nesting box materials and shake a layer of DE into them. Control the spread of parasites from bird to bird: Wipe down perches with vinegar or products such as Poultry Protector. (Lice or mites may accumulate over winter, when birds spend more time inside.)

Last call to cut back lespedeza and ornamental grasses, if you have not already. I used to recommend light top-dressings of lawn fertilizer on ornamental grasses, but no longer do so. Once established, grasses, native grasses especially, do not need the overencouragement.

On the other hand, a nonnative grass needing no encouragement whatsoever — in fact it is invasive — is Japanese stiltgrass, Microstegium vimineum. I reconnected with it working in an up-Island garden bed, an unpleasant reminder of plant headaches. It is a hitchhiker in nursery-grown plant material, a misleadingly thin little thing, looking a bit like a mini wispy bamboo; but spreads like a demon, and loves encroaching into the crowns of other plants.

Stiltgrass is shade-tolerant, so becomes a threat to native plant communities in woodland areas and gardens. Like crabgrass, stiltgrass is an annual, so invades lawn but then leaves bare areas after die-down, equaling more stiltgrass and crabgrass. Stiltgrass control measures include mulching ornamental beds, weeding it out where you can, and raising cutting level of blades on lawn mowers to cut lawn grasses longer.


Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist and expert witness in glyphosate litigation cases, 

talked at Agricultural Hall on Sunday: “What We Should Know about Glyphosate.” Among many details, the takeaway: Glyphosate containers in your local hardware store should be explicitly labeled as causing non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Let the buyer beware. Deplorably, due to “revolving door” appointments between regulatory agencies and agrochemical corporations and lobbyists, container labeling is unlikely to happen; the consumer is on his own. NHL ( is the fifth commonest cause of cancer in the U.S., having increased 80 percent since the 1970s. 

Early bloomer

This year pieris seem to have thrived in an uncommonly nice manner. Early flowering and deer-resistant, pieris, I hope, have been noticed where planted! They are evergreen shrubs to small trees that are ideal subjects for shaded to semishaded gardens. The Island’s abundant rainfall must be a factor; pieris fail to thrive in dry years.  

The two species most commonly seen are P. japonica, and P. floribunda, a North American native that is actually found in Massachusetts. Cultivars and hybrids between them are numerous, and range in size from the dwarf ‘Cavatine’ to tree-size ‘Dorothy Wycoff.’ ‘Brouwer’s Beauty’ is a midsize, compact, white flowered hybrid. The strings of minute, bell-shape blossoms on ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ are long, fresh-looking, and fragrant, and opened in my garden right on the heels of Iris reticulata ‘Harmony.’ 

Cultivar ‘Valley Valentine,’ with deep rose panicles that contribute a burst of color in a landscape still largely brown, is slow-growing and remains midsize. Cultivars with variegated foliage, and those where the tips of young growth show red pigmentation, such as ‘Forest Flame’ and ‘Mountain Fire,’ contribute garden color after bloom is past.

Pieris is happy in woodlands, shade gardens, foundation plantings, and even containers for the compact cultivars, as long as soil is acidic, moisture-retentive but draining well, and out of direct sunshine. The leaves are dark green and elliptical, glossy when plants are happy. Hedges of taller forms provide excellent screening and privacy.

Pieris associate well in mixed planting along with rhododendron, azaleas, leucothoe, kalmia, and enkianthus, and conifers such as thuja and chamaecyparis. Take note of size at maturity when choosing pieris for foundation plantings.


Explore the world of plant societies. They are sources of seeds and advice, and for gardeners, are a facet of gardening life. Native Plant Trust (formerly New England Wild Flower Society) has published its spring/summer program offerings, with many excellent classes and field studies, and certificate programs: