Despite the fluctuations of the weather, Memorial Day is almost here. We can be thankful we do not live in leafed-out Denver, where within a 36-hour period a heat wave, wildfire alerts, and a snowstorm all occurred.
Pollen is flying, and so are herring flies, so-called due to coincidence with herring runs. Perennials are at ‘Chelsea chop’ stage. Remove rhubarb flower stalks. Birds and birdcalls are everywhere. Let’s hope May and June bring ample rainfall (only at night!), not only to wash the pollen down, but because plants utilize natural rain better than other forms of water, and since spring is brushfire season.
Soil temperature is just over 60°F. In a rush of confidence, I planted pole bean ‘Fortex,’ and bush beans ‘Maxibel’ and ‘Romano,’ and brought the dahlias and zinnias outside.
When you plant your vegetable garden, a great way to think of it is that every harvest is when you did not hop into your car to go grocery shopping. From several angles — healthy activity, price of gas, price of food, and climate action — that is a good thing.Ten companies control almost all food you buy and its prices (bit.ly/10CompaniesFood). Oxfam estimates that just four companies control 90 percent of the global grain trade (bit.ly/OxfamGrains). Elementary schools’ gardens are giving Island children the experience of growing and tasting plants they themselves helped produce, whether beans, strawberries, or flowers.
A family story tells of an intrepid friend interned in a German WWII camp. The internees were allowed plots to augment their prison diet, and this lady grew highly impractical strawberries in hers. When she caught a German guard bending over to poach some of them, she attacked him in the rear with a pitchfork! She was brought before Herr Kommandant, with the rest of the terrified internees trembling for the consequences. She confessed to the assault because the soldier was stealing her strawberries, and to everyone’s surprise, Herr Kommandant agreed, saying he would have done the same, and had the guard disciplined.
Do not be dissuaded if strawberries are your bliss. However impractical, strawberries are worth killing for, or being killed for — although onions, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, beans, and winter squash make better menu extenders.
I glumly observed caterpillar activity (winter moth and related budworms, I suppose) on various trees: shadbush, Japanese maple, and more. This is where supporting the bird population becomes our key, since we cannot spray every tree in the woods. Nor should we want to: a bumper crop of insect protein is a bumper feast for birdlife.
Luckily, gardeners are generally also bird lovers, wanting to assist the birdlife around them and valuing the ecosystem services they provide. Worth noting: Flocks of turkeys eat ticks. It is not merely nice arrays of fully stocked feeders that support local bird populations, but also cover and nesting habitat, such as shrubbery and undergrowth; insect proteins, seeds, and berries, plus a protected source of clean water if possible. These support birds in your area.
Please do not think that by cleaning up the woods, nature is enhanced. Ground-nesting birds such as towhees and brown thrashers, as well as other wildlife, need this undergrowth. A wide-open, sterile “yard” provides little in the way of bird habitat/cover, and may enable predation by crows and hawks.
Practically every Island garden has its populations of very tame birds, like little familiars: robins, catbirds, wrens, and house finches that find nesting opportunities in the most unlikely places.
Here, ruby-throated hummingbirds zoom their territorial swoops, so nests are nearby though unseen. Certain building structures attract barn swallows, which gobble mosquitoes and more, by the hundreds. Every year for about 40 years, our woodshed overhang has housed generations of nesting great crested flycatchers; it saddens me to see in client gardens that caretakers knock off similar nests.
Standing dead hardwoods, primarily oaks on the Vineyard, are “habitat trees” for woodpeckers, bats, and more, providing insects and humus as they slowly rot and release their carbon into the rhizosphere below. This link provides a good description of key factors of forest ecology, for those interested in learning more: bit.ly/ForestEcol.
Time to prune
I repeat this, because “when to prune” is now. If it blooms before June 21, prune immediately after bloom. Prime example: forsythia, prune now (and remove a couple of the largest canes almost to ground level each year) to renew them. If it blooms after June 21, prune anytime now until June 21st. Examples are abelia, Pee Gee hydrangeas, and rose of Sharon: These form flowers on new wood.
Many new trees are being planted, I hope. No excuses are needed to plant a tree, however Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, graduations, weddings — this season offers many reasons to plant them. Garden centers’ inventories are at peak. (The Internet is good for sources of seedling trees.)
Pointers to keep in mind when planting trees include digging a hole wide enough to spread roots: wider is generally better than deeper. Remove rocks and stones, but do not amend hole with “goodies.” Doing so may induce the roots to remain circling within the enriched soil, instead of spreading out, anchoring and establishing the tree. However, mycorrhizal inoculant tabs or powder formulated for trees in the planting hole encourage establishment. A sapling is a wiser choice than a landscape-size tree.
Plant your tree at the depth indicated by the trunk flare (sometimes also called the root flare), neither too deep nor too high. Form a soil moat or dam around the root ball to hold watering from running off; mulch it if desired. Water daily for a week, weekly for a month, and monthly from then on: Watch over your tree for the first year.