Garden Notes: Spring’s magic moments

Some plants rejoice as warmer weather arrives.


The graceful beeches along banks of West Spring Street near the Tashmoo Water Works, and down the hill into Menemsha, have leafed out, always part of Island spring’s magic moments. Spring has sprung again: The green explosion is happening, everything seemingly all at once.

Rhubarb and asparagus popped up while I was listening to the soft cooing of mourning doves. Primroses supposed to have failed and ‘gone with the wind’ surprised with sturdy reappearance while a back was turned.

NoMowMay really is a thing, and here is a link to an AP piece that describes the philosophy and even better approaches:

Nonetheless, there has been something vile about this chilled spring season, coming in the wake of a mild winter. As Matthew Pottage of RHS’s the Garden says, “You need only one clanger of a May frost to reap havoc at the spring party.” Yup.

Mild and erratic winter weather amplifies the damage without the insulation and tempering of snow cover. Plants come out of dormancy and into growth too soon, only to be caught out with cold shock (as we saw in March and early April).

The tender and sub-shrub plant category — mophead hydrangeas, buddleia, hypericum, potentilla, and so on — especially were harmed. Pieris appear almost completely flowerless, Island-wide, although their colorful new leaves are fine. Leaf and flower buds of Corylopsis pauciflora, and Chinese paperbush, Edgeworthia chrysantha, were hit.

Mophead hydrangeas’ flower numbers across the Island will be reduced come summer; vitex will be sprouting from the crown, I predict; and many buddleias may need to be replaced. On the other hand, spireas seem unaffected; cut them back now.

Gardeners and growers, more so than many, are familiar with disappointment, but hope also springs eternal.

Unwelcome but everywhere

Garlic mustard is one of the spring things that are happening all at once. It was not so very long ago that garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was uncommon here, but imported fill is the means that allows many nuisance plants to travel. One sees alliaria, tussilago, Japanese knotweed, and more along roadways that have been built up with additional fill.

Alliaria contains cyanide, which is said to be destroyed by cooking. It also produces a root exudate that prevents the seeds of other trees and plants from growing. Added to the problem of jumping worms, this is bad news for natural forest regeneration, not just here but everywhere in the Northeast.

So prodigious are alliaria’s reproductive abilities that now vast drifts of it appear in disturbed areas everywhere. Some — the optimists among us — go on about making pesto with it, or some other culinary adventure. “Bah! Not interested,” I say; I would just like it gone, like coyotes.

When you are weeding and tearing up alliaria, please put it in a plastic bag and dispose of it at the landfill, for if uprooted and left on the soil, the plants will continue to ripen and release seed.


In spring, when we get outside and really start looking hard at our gardens, many situations requiring pruning make themselves evident. The winter conditions mentioned above led to some damage and winterkill, for example hollies, but also rhododendrons and others.

Winterkill is associated with plants going into winter in a dry or desiccated state due to drought, but also with splitting of bark due to several factors, such as winter sunlight and sharp temperature differentials. Applications of antidesiccants mitigate this, if the gardener’s crystal ball is working properly.

Pruning the unsightly browned foliage away is cosmetic (if not removed, the plant eventually walls off those parts, and they fall off). New seasons also reveal growth defects, such as that which rubs or crosses. A branch that does not leaf out probably has some sort of wound that makes removing it the solution. (Look for the branch collar, and cut just outside it.) Painting and window washing, sorry to say, often account for plant damage close to buildings, which requires pruning repair.

I noticed a weak crotch joint on a native witch hazel, a small tree whose growth habit forms multi-stemmed crowns. Forming an acute Y angle with its neighboring stem, the crotch appears to have cracked in last week’s windstorm. The entire joint would never have become structurally strong, and the tree continually sprouts new stem growth, so I sacrificed the weaker stem completely.

Magnolia ‘Daybreak’

The flowery spring parade continues with crabapples, lilacs, and dogwoods; and azaleas, fothergillas, and rhododendrons coming along. Magnolia season seemingly comes to a close. One last magnolia beauty, however, is Magnolia ‘Daybreak.’ The lateness of ‘Daybreak’ makes frost damage to its flowers, the heartbreak of magnolia lovers, unlikely.

This beautiful flowering tree was introduced in 1980, and is the work of the late Dr A.E. Kehr, a noted breeder. ‘Daybreak’ blooms with gorgeous, large, rich pink flowers, which are fragrant; there is a good specimen blooming at Polly Hill Arboretum. It has an upright to columnar habit, making it a good fit for more confined spaces, or even street tree use. The deciduous leaves are large, as are many magnolias’, giving it good screening ability.

Magnolias in general like decent, acidic soils: good drainage and humus content. Once established, they can handle some dryness. Avoid pruning magnolias, and then only when in active growth, as wounds heal slowly and permit entry of disease organisms.

Plant sales: Like music

Last weekend I went to Little Compton, R.I., for a plant sale and primrose show, and came home with interesting and choice plants. I admired the beautifully grown primula and polyanthus specimens at the show, and almost came home with Cream Legbar chicks. Little Compton conservation groups were selling woody plants and trees, where I picked up a bumper sticker from “Trees Are Cool.”

Spring plant sales are like music to the ears of gardeners. A real-life musician, Mike Tinus, is the conductor at the Community Greenhouse of Martha’s Vineyard (formerly COMSOG; martha’s vineyard, which opens to the public for purchase of plants this weekend.