Garden Notes: Ah, spring

Early robins and hyacinths; ticks and pollen arrive.


April: The first ospreys utter their distinctive cry hovering high above, while redwing blackbirds warble mellifluously in the marsh below. Only heard since the end of March in my area, pinkletinks have chorused for weeks in some Island wetlands. Male cedars are pouring out clouds of pollen.

Arrivals from America are surprised that our spring season is not very far advanced, compared with elsewhere on the mainland; a modest but charming benefit allows them to repeat daffodil season! Our maritime climate is what causes this: Slow-to-warm ocean waters that surround us keep things on the cool side, lagging behind the continental climate by days or weeks.

In the garden

Early robins are out on lawns looking for early worms. The worm casts accumulate at the soil surface, especially after rain, if the lawn’s soil is healthy. Seedlings cautiously put outside are hardening off. Beds are showing perennial plant activity.

Peonies’ shoots have reddened beds now for weeks, impervious to several severe freezes. Poking up are phlox, tips of lily bulbs, bleeding heart, Shasta daisies, and the revivified foliage of perennials such as nepeta and sedum (now Hylotelephium) that have withstood the mild winter.

Mole activity shows up, as the little animals search for earthworms and other belowground insect protein. Rabbits too are active, as seen by gnawed-down shoots of phlox and hosta — great favorites; they regrow, however.

Hyacinths are up and colorful, and — when temperatures warm sufficiently — waft their incredibly powerful perfume around the garden. It is a moment to breathe in deeply: “Ah, spring!” before lurching back to a low 20’s night, ice on the birdbath.

A sprinkling of golden-flowered lesser celandine, Ficaria verna, in damp lawn and bed is cause for dismay. This early, spring-flowering invasive has already deeply encroached on lawns and gardens throughout the Middle Atlantic region, and now apparently sets its sights on the Vineyard, just like other seasonal tourists.

Control of Ficaria verna is difficult, since it has many ways of adapting and propagating itself. Read more about lesser celandine here: The photographs that accompany the Wikipedia article illustrate far better than mine do just how problematic the seemingly charming little “ray of spring sunshine” can be.

Tick time! Pollen time!

Masking against airborne tularemia has been known for some years; all who mow and brush-cut are encouraged to avail themselves of this inexpensive and simple life-saver. Ticks never really disappear on the Vineyard; adult deer ticks are actually the ones most likely to be encountered during winter. Remember, a tick can find you literally anywhere, and is not limited only to habitat-type locations. “Tick check every night” is still your best defense against bites and the various diseases they bring.

Lots of coughing and running noses currently: pollen pressure of cedars (Juniperus), willows, and more is heavy now, to be followed by pitch pine, oaks, various shrubs (autumn olive) and grasses. One of the ‘ah-hah moments’ of the pandemic was the help that mask wearing provides against pollen and airborne particles of all sorts.

Trees are the answer

Although a small village, North Tisbury contains a handful of notable trees visible from State Road, although in recent years large and venerable old friends there have been lost.

Currently, the vigorous star magnolia at the Olsen house is showcasing its flowers; they have so far evaded frost damage. This tree is really beautiful; and it serves to inspire, I hope, tree lovers driving by to duplicate it in their own gardens. Its spring appearance is a seasonal signpost, as are other highly visible star magnolias around the Island.

Also note at the Olsens’ the tall and stately catalpas. I remember their densely cooling shade as I was pushed on a swing suspended from one of them by my babysitter, Rollene. Catalpas are rarely planted today, but are to be seen growing everywhere at older houses and locales, where with their large leaves they were once a form of natural, pre-electricity air conditioning. Catalpas are a nice touch to create the look of an established neighborhood.

The large copper beech just past the bend is hard to miss, as it is now a monumental giant overarching the road in front of the Stone house. Yet images taken by Ed Lee Luce now at Digital Commonwealth show that tree as a slender youngster, most likely sometime well after WWI.

A little farther up-Island is the North Tisbury white oak, just before the North Road. White oaks (Quercus alba) are the royalty of native Island trees. This one is undoubtedly a wild tree, self-planted, and has become iconic due to its spread and appearance, but a white oak would grace any lot, field, or house where planted.

Travel just a bit farther and, of course, Polly Hill Arboretum welcomes our viewing its hundreds of trees and shrubs suitable for Island locations. PHA is a tree showcase, demonstrating how to plant for aesthetics, sustainability, and longevity.

The four specimen trees and the arboretum are testaments to past actions that today we derive benefit from: good choices made for plantings that have endured for years. Whether a small village or a larger town; whether small, midsize, or monumental trees — it does not matter as much as the act of planting. Suitable trees enhance every garden, domestic space, or townscape, and make us feel at home when we are near them. Friday, April 28, is Arbor Day; plan to plant a tree.