Garden Notes: February flowers

Nandina, wisteria, clematis: Signs of spring begin to appear.

Nandina’s winter interest: delicate evergreen foliage and red berries. — Abigail Higgins

We are far from the stable ages of the Holocene era, and are now firmly in the throes of the Anthropocene.

“Who can see the green earth any more/ As she was by the sources of Time?/ Who imagines her fields as they lay/ In the sunshine, unworn by the plough?”  –Matthew Arnold, “The Future”

“The conversion of forests to agricultural uses is the second largest source of atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions after fossil fuel combustion.”  –ecologist Ghislain Vieilledent, CIRAD (a French agricultural research and cooperation organization working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions)

“If all 30 million U.K. gardeners planted a medium-size tree in their community, school, workplace, or garden, and nurtured it to maturity, they would store enough carbon equivalent to drive you more than 11 million times around our planet.”  –Royal Horticultural Society

Could we aim for that here on Martha’s Vineyard?

In the garden

Amid surprising birdsong in early February, I scattered my saved annual poppy seeds. There is no snow cover, so I cast them to the breeze and hoped they were evenly dispersed.

Inspect netting and fencing, because deer can and will head-butt them off, if possible. “Deer-resistant” is a tendency, not a fact. Once February conditions or snow cover kick in, deer begin browsing on anything they can find, including plants that they are not “supposed” to eat.

Recently a Thujopsis dolobrata (Hiba arborvitae) “deer-resistant” and unbrowsed for at least a decade in place, appeared to my dismay shorn and quite diminished. Up with the fencing, before a stick is all that is left.

Within the garden realm, we depend heavily upon the advantages plastics lend our efforts. A specific garden threat is the lightweight “bird netting” (a.k.a. the product from hell), which is used to cover berries and other bushes to prevent fruit or flower loss. The fine, monofilament-like threads are like little knives. Bird netting catches on clothing, tangles easily, and is really hard to see; removing it results in snagging twigs, slicing leaves, and popping off flower buds and buttons.

Years ago, Susan Murphy pointed to the use of tulle at her Chilmark blueberry farm for the same purposes: softer, less expensive, and may be bought by the yard.

If you already have pieces of this netting lying around among your garden supplies, make sure to use them well. Any discarded ghost bits and pieces pose a threat to small animals and birds, entangling and trapping them — the land equivalent of plastic six-pack rings to marine life.

Small sections can be made into climbing supports for vining houseplants; used to prevent buck-rubbing on tree trunks; pieced together with twist ties, wire, cable ties, or twine to secure tops of wire cages and surrounds; surrounds for ornamental containers’ rabbit protection. In warm weather I circle large containers with random cutoffs stretched around thin bamboo to protect plants from rabbits, hens, and deer.

Creeping hardiness zone

I have previously mentioned the contradictions for gardeners of climate change and global warming. One can scarcely be unaware of them if one is paying attention. Now we enjoy snowdrops and daffodils in January, and yearned-for garden plants that were not viable in colder decades past. Along with Magnolia grandiflora (southern magnolia) and Lagerstroemia (crape myrtle), Nandina domestica is another member of the Middle Atlantic/Southern region plant repertoire we are now able to grow and enjoy.


I used to admire the hedges and embankments of nandina on visits to the Chesapeake Eastern Shore 40 years ago, and ogled how luxuriant the effects of shining evergreen foliage, with panicles of coral berries amid it, were. Then nandina seemed like the nicest addition to almost any planting, irrespective of how vulnerable and unsound to plant it at home. Now we can have it survive here, and I grow it.

Nandina is native to Asia, and is also known as “heavenly bamboo.” It certainly is beautiful, but is in the Berberidaceae, not in the bamboo (grass) family. In summer, a blooming plant is laden with clusters of white flowers, which in turn become the attractive coral fruits after pollination.

Grown in quality, moisture-retentive soil in good light, nandina’s white flowers, fruits, and foliage offer exceptional decorative qualities and color in autumn, maybe even blazing to the point of being garish. In more shaded locations, foliage is likely to remain deep green throughout winter, and nandina is also a good choice for semishaded woodland gardens.

Nandina is grown in a large number of cultivars: “Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” lists 35, from the six- to eight-foot-tall species to groundcover dwarves. There are also yellow- and white-berried forms. Taller forms make good screening; mid-height and dwarf forms are graceful additions to foundation plantings, shrub borders, mixed garden beds, or containers.

Once established, nandina slowly spreads by rhizomes, with new canes emerging to form a clump. The species and taller cultivars may become leggy, and if you find this occurring, now (late winter/early spring) is the time to prune to thicken up the clump. Prune about one-third of the canes: Cut one or two to the ground, cut one or two by about two-thirds, and cut one or two by a third.


Wisteria generally flowers more freely if it is pruned twice a year, in July through August, and then again in January through February. The whippy summer growth is shortened back in August to five or six leaves, and then those are again shortened back, to two or three buds (fat brown ones) now, that will produce panicles of flowers. Some growth can be eliminated entirely to promote good airflow.

Wisteria is a strong-growing vine. It has a predilection for foundations, gutters, shingles, and trim boards: Keep an eye on this one! Do not be afraid to prune out unneeded growth.


By February’s end, most clematis vines show signs of life in large paired buds at nodes on the stems. Clematis vines are pruned depending on the plants’ category, I, II, or III. Most of the prized, large-flowered hybrids are grouped in II, pruned in late winter or early spring for June flowering, and are then given a cleanup pruning (ideally) again to promote more flowering later in the season.

Cut away last year’s growth across the vine’s stems to pairs of strong buds about two feet above the crown. Tie these in, to support the stems, which are quite brittle.

The most commonly encountered group III clematis here is likely to be C. paniculata, the sweet autumn clematis. Group III, also including species such as C. texensis, C. viticella, and C. jackmanii, are late summer bloomers, flowering on the current season’s growth. Prune all group III’s down to the crown in spring, since everything they produce over the summer is on new growth. The most usually grown group I clematis is C. Montana. It is often not pruned at all; prune it and all group I’s after bloom.