Garden Notes: The spring garden

Spacing, ventilation, and watering are key to proper seeding.


Gus Ben David and Chameli the golden eagle have been sharing their journeying and learning together for 41 entwined years!

The winter was mild, but this spring has been harsh. Temperatures are brisk, but sunny days are warming the soil (just under 60°). Pear trees and shadbush, the wild pear, are blooming. The band of brant geese enjoying Vineyard Haven’s outer harbor seem oblivious to the thump and beat of the pile driving on Beach Road.

My reservations about drought’s end, expressed seven weeks ago when drought was announced to be over in Massachusetts, have been borne out. We are back in a cycle of rain systems bypassing the Vineyard. Our groundwater comes from the sky, but it all ends up in the ocean. This is a way of saying that we cannot make it rain, and therefore should treat our water supplies with the greatest respect, because they are precious, and quite possibly finite.

Remove ivy from trees

Arbor Day, April 28, is the celebration of planting trees. However, caring for them once planted is also part of the Arbor Day message.

Mild winters are likely encouraging the year-round growth of evergreen English ivy. Many people unwittingly welcome ivy to their premises, as groundcover or vining cover for fences and walls. It has a timeless look, is encouraged for its attractiveness, or perhaps it has pleasant associations. Beware this plant — it is a thug!

In the British Isles, where Hedera helix originated, ivy is apparently all positives. Applauded as a wildlife support, the vine furnishes and clothes ancient houses and walls, and it seems to amplify, in all aspects, the British Way of Life.

Here, it also does some of those same things: Wildlife finds nourishment and shelter in its berries, vines, and foliage; the handsome leaf form is a design icon; a more handsome groundcover cannot be imagined.

What is harmful is how it runs away from the domestic environment and finds trees to climb. This is its ivy crime, for ivy eventually brings down walls and kills trees. It morphs into its adult form, where the leaf transforms, it blooms and sets berries, reproducing itself, and sets in motion another cycle of ivy escaping into woodland, to bring about tree destruction.

A striking example of this is along Woods Hole Road, where rampant ivy carpets the ground and grows up almost every mature tree. Alas, we do not need to go as far as the mainland to find ivy-infested woodland: There is plenty here.

Soon, these host trees, whether from sheer weight and windage of ivy vines during a hurricane or winter ice storm, or due to theft of photosynthesis (light) from trunks and foliage, will die and topple.

Prune spring-flowering shrubs after blooming. Keep ivy at the base level of trees; look for it in hedges, where removing it is hard work once it begins to climb; remove ivy seedlings.

Seed starting

Several things to keep in mind when starting seeds: spacing, ventilation, and watering. A common, but very dismaying, experience is for seeds to germinate quickly and grow well, but then to suddenly keel over, stems collapsed. Damping-off has struck.

To prevent this, water sparingly, and from the bottom if possible. Sow thinly in seed-starting mix (not garden soil), and then thin out excess seedlings. Or prick them out into a larger container once true leaves emerge, where they have more space, better light, and airflow. Turn the seedlings regularly so light is evenly distributed, preventing lopsided growth.

Small pots or modules give each plant the best conditions until ready to plant into permanent locations. Before planting outside, employ a period of conditioning small plants to harsher outdoor life called “hardening off.” Stronger light and air currents represent a stressful challenge for the small plants; put them outside for a few hours at a time and then return to more protection, indoors or in a cold frame.

Poultry problems

Keeping chickens: They are interesting creatures, and supply eggs that are beyond compare to store-bought. Having poultry gives the gardener a source of animal manure and provides homeowners with a measure of tick control. However, problems always arise with any form of livestock.

Roosters protect the flock, to the extent of their small abilities, and allow chickens to have fertile eggs, which can be hatched for more chicks. Having slightly too few hens for the two roosters, I am seeing worn-off back feathers and battered combs on some hens.

In addition, one hen, off foraging by herself, was attacked by a hawk. She was a bloody mess, but somehow dragged herself back to the coop. The hawk gave her back a deep, ugly gash. Maybe I could have sewn some protective hen saddles myself, but McMurray Hatchery was able to send some camo models out quickly.

Spring garden

While the beautiful flowering trees are decorating the upper levels of spring gardens, down at lowly ground level, spring bulbs, emerging spears of hostas, bleeding heart, epimediums, and jeffersonia are smaller-scale delights.

I have always considered myself to be a magnolia person, not a flowering cherry one (although with enough space, or good planning, one can of course have both). Magnolias fascinate me in their own special way, to the extent that I have a small collection of 10 in my garden, and not one single flowering cherry.

The flowering cherries have their sublime, ephemeral moment, and then are gone; I never valued the point of them — their season and show is so fleeting! Now that I am more mature, I am much more appreciative of what the Japanese have always treasured.

Four Laws of Ecology (attributed to Barry Commoner): “All things are interconnected. Everything goes somewhere. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Nature bats last.”




  1. Dear Abigal,

    I would really like you to see my garden in Vineyard Haven. I have planted over 8,000 bulbs and they are blooming now. I really think you would appreciate the beauty of what is blooming now in my back yard. Please take a moment to stop by my home.

    I wrote a message WITH DAFFODILS in my yard on Martha’s Vineyard that is ten feet tall and twenty five feet wide and it says “Be Kind”. It is blooming now and is spectacular! You can see it from a satellite.

    Be Kind!
    Written in Daffodils 🌼 on Martha’s Vineyard

    My name is Melly and my message is simple … Be Kind! 
    I plant flowers everywhere I go and I have been a lot of places! On Martha’s Vineyard, I have planted over 8,000 flower bulbs (mostly daffodils)… and they are blooming now! Wahoo! 

    I do the planting anonymously and I call these random acts of kindness “guerrilla gardens.” One friend who helps me plant described me as a “Banksy” of flowers. I like that analogy. I have been doing this kind of work for many years without recognition. I don’t need or want recognition, I just want to be kind. 
    Last year, I was in the hospital for 95 days. My struggle with lupus is getting progressively more difficult. This year, I have accumulated even more hospital time and being in the hospital drains my joy. As soon as I am released from a hospital, I get busy trying to make the world a better place one person, one plant, one act of kindness at a time. And being kind doesn’t cost you money! It just takes a little effort.
    I recently realized that I if don’t tell people what I do and why, then the planting will stop when I am no longer here on earth and a valuable life lesson will be missed. People act amazed at the little things I do, and I don’t really understand that reaction because I am doing what everyone should be doing every day of their life. 
    Because it is important that I teach and train people how to make the world a better place, I have turned my passion of doing random acts of kindness into a mission… I want to teach people to BE KIND!
    A garden I planted in Vineyard Haven is bursting open with a choreographed bloom of daffodils and tulips that spell out my message “BE KIND!” The letters are ten feet tall and twenty five feet long and there are a ton of daffodils planted! You see, it’s a secret message that I hid under the grass. In the winter, there was no evidence of anything below the ground. The top of the earth appeared to be covered by dead grass that was dormant for the winter, because this is what it was. But as the weather began to warm and the sun began to shine, small sprigs of bright green shoots started making their way to the surface, and as they appear, the message is becoming more and more clear. And it is not really a secret message after all! Rather, it is becoming a bold statement of the beauty, decency, and truth that we all have inside of our hearts if we are just willing to put aside our differences and BE KIND!
    Why flowers? I once was a professional ballerina and actress. My love language was ballet. I love to dance! However, I got sick with lupus at the height of my career and had to retire early from performing on stage. I transferred my love for music, choreography, and positional form into making flower gardens that speak to the soul. You see, a flower is God’s ballerina. Its purpose is to add beauty to the world. Flowers do not need any other purpose, although they are important in all aspects of agriculture. Being beautiful is what a flower lives for, and joy is their gift to the soul. Its bloom is the grandest performance of its life and our appreciation of its bloom is its standing ovation. Flowers sway, bend, and twirl as they dance in the wind and they fill our senses with elegance and grace. Flowers make the world a better place because they make the world a more beautiful place.
    While I was still working as a professional actress, I had the honor of being a spokesperson for Coca Cola in Japan representing Georgia Coffee. One of my official duties was to visit the memorial site dedicated to the victims of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki & Hiroshima by the United States. I placed flowers at the memorial in loving memory of the many people who died and those who are still afflicted by radiation poison from those bombs.

    That’s where I learned about “Sadako”. (佐々木 禎子, Sasaki Sadako) She was a ten year old Japanese girl who became one of the most widely known “bomb-affected people”. She was only ten years old when she died from radiation-induced cancer. Sadako thought if she could fold 1,000 paper cranes she wouldn’t die. To this day, children in Japan are still folding paper cranes in her honor.

    I feel like by my planting the life of a bulb, it is my prayer for kindness and healing. Healing for myself and healing for the families of victims worldwide of people whose actions were not kind.

    Sowing seeds and planting flowers is an easy way to bring joy to another person’s life. Will you please help me share this story and help make my 8,000 bulbs become 16,000 and then 32,000… I have finally landed on daffodils as my favorite flower to plant because they will come back year after year, and they represent new life and hope every spring. Daffodils are fun and they are easy to plant. And I know how to buy them on sale in the fall.
    Please tell your friends and tell your neighbors about my mission:  let’s make a huge movement of kindness so TOGETHER, we can make the world a better place.

    Melly Meadows McCutcheon

    *I planted daffodils for John Hersey at his grave in honor of the victims who died as a result of the atomic bombs in Japan.

    My story is on YouTube “Ballerina With Lupus”

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