Garden Notes: Pruning and planting

Support bird life this time of year, and use codium fragile for composting.


The Feb. 13 snowfall was glorious. Leap year February kicked in with its familiar self, but tardily, mid-month. And March — in like a lamb?

Wintry conditions may give ticks pause, beech trees a break, and may also enhance water tables with gentle “trickle in.” Snow also delivers atmospheric elements that once gave it the accolade “poor man’s fertilizer.” Snowdrops, species croci, and hellebores are blooming. Inside, flowering accelerates too.

Pruning now

The heavy snow forced cutting away some large broken sections of rhododendron with nasty horizontal splits, which is how they break under snow load. The breakage meant I should have shortened back those limbs a year ago. On specimen plants, consider supporting over-extended limbs with props, as pictured.

These mid-winter days pull up the species croci, which signifies pruning-time. The heavy snowfall will have caused breakage, typically on hollies and rhododendrons. Well-sharpened tools result in good cuts, and less human joint strain.

For shrubbery and shrub roses in need of tidying, repair, shaping, or containment, a snowy backdrop, if present, can show up what needs correction. Fruit trees; bushes such as blueberries; raspberries, grapevines, wisteria: prune now, before sap begins to rise.

Cut back ornamental grasses; shear epimediums. Cut clematis back to a pair of strong buds 12 to 18 inches above base. Exceptions: leave C. Montana, and cut C paniculata to the ground.

Codium fragile

The carbon and nitrogen of seaweeds, which are algae, make them excellent soil improvers and additions to compost. I checked with personnel at the Wampanoag Tribal Council’s Environmental Lab about availability of the codium they are encouraging scallopers to bring ashore. The word is that at this time there is not enough collected to make it available; stay tuned.

Codium fragile is an infamous fouler of shellfish beds, in contrast to eelgrass, which is considered an invaluable nurse plant to them. Eelgrass is a vascular plant; codium is an alga. Eelgrass functions like terrestrial plants: roots, flowers, seeds. In contrast, algal seaweeds growing in water receive their nutrients directly from the water that surrounds them.

Eelgrass has different properties from the more primitive algal plants such as codium. Eelgrass and seaweeds alike form collectible drift-lines of wrack. In composting efforts they will behave differently. Algal breakdown is more rapid, while eelgrass leaves papery residues. With both eelgrass and algal seaweeds, concerns about salt contaminating composts and garden soils are overblown, in my experience. Both have been used as soil improvers for a very long time.

Bird life, pest control

Concern for birds spikes in wintry weather, and being able to provide for them is comforting to us and to them. ( Birds come in closer when conditions are severe; ensure food, water, and cover are there for them.

Windbreaks, leftover berries from last season, insect larvae lodged within bark crevices, seeds of conifers, native plant cover, and ornamental plantings, and catkins of early blooming plants such as willows and alders: these are support for birds.

Effective control

It should be stated more emphatically that birds (and bats) are actually the effective natural insect and rodent control that has been available all along. All they need is a safe and suitable habitat to follow their program.

Insects and rodents are able to reproduce, mutate, and acquire resistance so much faster than we can. Data nearly always confirm that spray and pest programs fail to eradicate and result in increased numbers and amounts of the nuisance targets. Furthermore, the poisons inevitably thread their way through the ecosystem and food chain. Not the way to go. Choose bird control.

What fogging, spraying, and wholesale “solutions” do achieve is create a false sense of security. Instead, choose resilient environments and landscape practices. While lucrative perhaps for a few operators, the practices reduce the diversity and numbers of natural controls, and cannot achieve meaningful prevention of the targets. Being responsible and vigilant for your actual person is more effective.

Build a screened porch or “Florida room” while encouraging bats and birds, including domestic poultry, turkeys, guinea-fowl, and quail, which are hungry for insects and ticks. Put up owl boxes, whose occupants are hungry for rodents.

Tick check every night. Bird control. Owl boxes.

Onions and more

Tomatoes are undoubtedly the high-priority culinary vegetable, and rightly so. However, I seem to have become obsessed with onions, more so than ever. Here’s my reasoning: of produce, what would I go to the store for, more than any other purchase? Onions! Nine out of ten recipes worth cooking and eating are going to call for onions.

It was easy to get high quality onion plantlets from a Texas onion farm; I did that for a number of years. However, this is not a difficult-to-grow vegetable! More recently I have started my own and saved expense.

This year I am starting onions from three different seed strains — Cortland, Patterson, and Powell. It may look like an onion patch by July!

However, one reason to grow your own is to have plenty of what you need, for say, Onion Marmalade, which keeps in the fridge, and calls for sweet Spanish onions:

3 Tbsp. butter
2 large Spanish onions, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter. Add the onions with plenty of salt and pepper. Cook them over low heat for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions release their liquid. Turn up the heat and cook them for 15 minutes more, until the juices evaporate and onions are translucent. Add more salt and pepper. Use as a base for onion soup, tarts and quiches, or with pork chops. Makes about 1.5 cups.

As for tomatoes, it is not yet time to start them for home gardens. Island spring offers nasty disappointments. Wait until sometime in early April to sow, so plants can grow without setback from start to planting out. Start chitting potatoes in March, and plant peas in modules then too, for setting out sometime later in April.