Garden Notes: Where we are

Let’s get a good read on our seasonal plants.


“As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.” The old adage is seemingly affirmed. March is in: lion or lamb? January 2023 here was the wettest and warmest one in a while. Although the drought is declared over for Dukes County, I have doubts. It looks as if systems containing rain are sliding past us, in the disturbing pattern reminiscent of recent years — where New Bedford gets rain, the Cape does too — but the Vineyard misses out:

U.S. Tree Threats Assessed

Global forests give Earth the moisture flows critical to avoiding drought and desertification. Morton Arboretum (via The Plant Review, December 2022): “For the first time, researchers have completed threat assessments for all 881 native tree species in the 48 contiguous United States … Their comprehensive checklist is a critical baseline for future tree conservation efforts and reveals that 11 to 16 percent of the tree species are threatened with extinction.”

Furthermore, according to the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (, in The Plant Review, December 2021): “At least 30 percent of the world’s tree species face extinction in the wild. Experts say 17,500 tree species are at risk — twice the number of threatened mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles combined. Conservation groups are calling for urgent protection efforts from threats such as deforestation and climate change.”

Poultry Cultivators

I opened the gates to the vegetable garden to allow the chickens to scratch and peck in it. Any droppings they leave are welcome additions. They do a good job of surface cultivation, but equally importantly, they find insect larvae such as cutworms, grubs, and ticks normally fenced off-limits during the growing season.

(I concede that not everyone has chickens or a garden large enough to let them loose in. This is a sad direction for Island life to take, or for life anywhere; we are losing ways of life that make us more self-reliant. Suburbanization and over-financialization, of much here that we value, destroy our community. Resist this.)

When the air feels spring-like is a good time to house clean chicken coops. Laying hens are increasing their production and appreciate clean nesting boxes. Remove old nesting material, sprinkle interiors with diatomaceous earth, and refill with clean nesting material. Add the old nesting material to floor litter.

I use the deep litter system, where bedding plus droppings are allowed to accumulate to a deep layer. Deep litter performs a microbial composting action that gives off warmth. Spread scratch feed to encourage turning and mixing of the litter; it may harbor insect protein that the birds scratch and peck for.

The deep layer gives birds, especially heavier breeds, larger, or older ones, a cushioned landing pad when they come off the perch, avoiding or minimizing the hard landing and bruising to feet or joints that may lead to bumble-foot or other problems.

When you use this material as a dressing on garden plants it is already partly composted and is a beneficial soil conditioner. Wood ashes (no live embers!) from stoves can be added to deep litter systems. Alternatively, heaping wood ash where hens can use it to dust-bath is another reuse for it.

Roosts and perches: spray down with white vinegar to combat parasites that use them to travel from roosting bird to roosting bird. Clean off feeders’ and water pans’ accumulated layers of dust and grime. Feed a garlic/pumpkin seed/rolled oats/cayenne de-worming mash, and your flock and coop are ready for spring.

Light Pollution

The link is to a story about a Welsh island that has been named the best nighttime sky in Europe: Meanwhile here, in addition to losing longtime Vineyard ways of life, we are losing the star-studded nighttime skies that formerly characterized Island nights. Now the stars are faint, and instead, unshaded electric lights burn brightly all night long.

What is this, the suburbs out at sea? Are lights left burning to comfort timid suburban souls, threatened by dark rural nights? West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Nantucket are Massachusetts towns that adopted outdoor lighting/light pollution ordinances. Let’s see them upheld and dark nighttime skies and star watching restored to the Island.

Getting The Jump On Spring

Prune hardy spring-blooming shrubs now to bring spring indoors for forcing. Viburnum, forsythia, chaenomeles (flowering quince), and peach branches are just a few. Make clean cuts with sharpened pruners or loppers, and cut just outside the branch collar, the slight swelling at the base where a branch originates.

Remove all twigs and buds below the waterline and put the branches in deep water in vases; place somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight. While pruning for forcing, also correct any rubbing or crossing branches you encounter.

Or Not

Doing cleanup too early, to “get the jump on spring,” may put plants at risk of lost growth and bloom when cold-shock and sharply plummeting temperatures occur. The old wood from the previous growing season protects against cold-shock. A plant is said to suffer from cold-shock when temperatures are too cold for it but do not fall to freezing and no frost occurs. It is impossible to predict, but something to keep in mind.

Once we are confident that no more wintry weather systems are aimed at us — big question mark — we can start the typical spring pruning of many shrubs: hypericum, potentilla, hydrangeas, caryopteris, rosa rugosa and other roses, buddleia, and more. Groundcovers such as epimediums benefit from having ragged foliage from last year sheared off before new leaves and flowers emerge.

Mahonia Hardiness

The polar vortex event in early February saw temperatures around the Island of about -5 degrees, bitter relative to more recent weather. Afterwards two mahonias showed different responses to the blast, although planted only about six feet apart. Mahonia bealei is apparently fine, prickly green foliage in good shape. On the other hand, foliage of Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is a uniform light tan. The petioles, or leafstalks, are still green, but the leaves will be dropping soon, I presume. How this plant recovers will be interesting, especially in the aftermath of the current cold snap. Tick check every night. March 12, “Spring ahead” one hour with your clocks, including vehicles.