Garden Notes: Consider camellias

And now is the time to divide your perennials.


April’s chilly, drying winds still blow, but flowery May is around the corner. Polly Hill Arboretum’s camellias are a flash of red while driving past on State Road; visit now to see them and what else is blooming. An arboretum is a teaching museum for trees and other plants, demonstrating best practices and principles, the “how, what, and where” for good plant culture.

‘Silent Spring’ redux?
Clouds of gnats, early spring butterflies, flower flies, and bumblebees have hatched. Insects at ground level and airborne comprise the world’s first trophic level, the primary basis of the planet’s food chain.

When widespread wholesale spraying of Island properties becomes the norm, it has a terrible impact. Please, before reaching for sprays or hiring someone else to spray, consider songbirds, which we relate to so strongly: What are they to fortify themselves with for reproduction, and to feed their hatchlings? The answer is insect protein.

Far too many trucks with large tanks onboard are seen driving around the Island. Are we to imagine they all contain harmless compost tea?

In the garden
Soil temperature: 56°F, in a sunny spot. Heavier soils, with a higher percentage of clay and silt, are colder, taking longer to warm, and hold more moisture. The lighter the soil in the garden, the faster it drains and warms up. Raised beds and planting boxes are even faster to warm, one reason for making them.

Dahlia tubers in recycled plastic are sprouting; plant out only when frost danger is past.

Slugs and cutworms are present in cool soil conditions. If you laid planks in alleys between rows to prevent soil compaction, look under to harvest the hiding slugs. Ducks are said to relish slugs; hens here are uninterested — too inactive and not wiggly enough, perhaps?

Paul Jackson
Paul Jackson, the well-known Island gardener, has left this earth for more ethereal gardens; condolences to his family.

For many years fairgoers admired the Jackson entries and displays at the Agricultural Fair, and local media contain interviews with Jackson for insights into his preferred gardening modus operandi. Eli Dagostino’s beautiful photojournalism at is one of the best ways to study Jackson’s methods, which include intensively incorporating every kind of “blood ’n’ guts” soil food into his garden, encouraging its below-surface, unseen life.

My vegetable garden is different from Paul Jackson’s exemplary one. In season, I am mostly away from the house, and am short of time. I attempt to minimize soil disturbance, which brings weed seeds to the surface. I forego mulch in season because I have found that this creates earwig and slug heaven. I do not rototill. I compost, but not on Jackson’s scale. I cultivate, but shallowly. When plants are passé, I cut them off, leaving roots to decompose in place.

I try to develop a system where the garden can be self-perpetuating and still yield, to whatever extent possible. This includes allowing self-sowers to germinate in place, and then editing. Growing only whatever does not self-sow, such as peas and the later, warm-season annual vegetables, saves me time and effort.

At the moment this is what is growing without effort: cilantro, lettuce, mache, and dill seedlings, annual poppies and calendula, the biennials radicchio, feverfew, Verbena bonariensis, digitalis, gloriosa daisies, and cardoon. Several different kales are sprouting from stalk bases (climate change). These are plants I would have to start from seed, if I rototilled. Unwanted plants that must be dug include onion grass, after first checking it is not leek seedlings (leaves round, versus pleated). Flowering annuals are pretty, but primarily offer early pollinators somewhere to forage.

Consider camellias
As gardeners and homeowners know, a spring garden, where the focus is on winter’s end and welcoming spring, is a magical lure. However, autumn comes too. Everything you see at the nursery now augments the spring vision and, siren-like, is waving its color, flowers, and foliage at you. Think ahead for what your garden will also be like in the Vineyard’s long, mild autumn.

It is impossible for someone infected with plant lust to go to the garden center now and not become seized with uncontrollable desires for something in ravishing bloom. Flowering cherries and crabapples, rhododendrons and azaleas (also Rhododendron, by the way), pieris, plus much more, are enticements waiting to be planted in your garden.

This year, though, I recommend giving thought to camellias. In the past I have mentioned the hybridizing work with camellias that can thrive in our hardiness zone, 7a. With the warming trends being experienced now, that is hardly a requirement anymore.

Look for camellias that include ‘April,’ ‘Winter,’ or ‘Arctic’ in the cultivar name, for certain cold resistance. (Or chance a less-hardy camellia that takes your fancy, and plan to baby it excessively.) For best results, follow pot tag recommendations for planting and siting advice. You may also see Camellia sasanqua cultivars offered; these augment the fall garden, and make lovely, hardy additions to it.

Patience and persistence
Due to a wide range of factors beyond our control, sticker shock is hitting everywhere, with no exception at the garden center. Improving know-how and techniques for propagating could become essential alternatives.

Sowing from seed and dividing perennials are basic ways of getting more plants for the least cost, and this is the moment for doing that, right now.

Additional propagating skills, sometimes with plant-hormone assistance, include grafting, softwood, semi-ripe, and hardwood propagation of cuttings, but the essential ingredients are patience and persistence. Several avenues: Go to your library and check what plant propagation books are available; YouTube offers step-by-step videos on numerous procedures and accessories.

Arbor Day
Trees are the answer, and April 29 is Arbor Day. Be inspired to plant a tree this year, the year after, and then the year after that.

Tick check every night!