Garden Notes: Welcome spring

Even though the weather doesn’t always cooperate, the sun is out longer each day.


This patch of weather has been wet and chilling, can we all agree? Nevertheless, the sun is with us for longer every day, even behind overcast. Small leaves are emerging; many kinds of plants are in bloom; and bird and insect life is everywhere.

The small sedge, Carex pensylvanica, shows its interesting black flower spikes, and scores of hyacinths endure and flower in the heart of deer country. “Deer-resistant” camassia – not so much.

Pinkletinks are trilling when temperatures suit their purposes. Generator of much excitement, the solar eclipse will have occurred by publication date. The season accelerates, and by next week it will undoubtedly become quite warm and muddy.


With chicks due to arrive and trays of baby plants everywhere, gridlock looms. Wacky weather conditions that approximated Noah’s flood created reluctance to put anything out into the wide, windy world. This is where low tunnels prove their value. I resuscitated floating row cover from the shed and set hoops cut from sections of rigid galvanized wire to hold the non-woven fabric. Broken bricks weigh the sides.

The chicks will house initially in a fish tote, with shavings in the bottom, feeders and waterers, and a clip-on lamp with heat bulb above it. A heavy wire lid goes overtop to keep out the cat. This arrangement does not last long, as the little birds grow rapidly and need more room to scratch and play. The next housing phase is an over-sized, repurposed storage drawer, again with wire lid to deter flying out.

The next phase after that, based on prior years, is to turn the chicks over to the pair of brown Chinese geese. These wonderful birds desperately want to be parents, with very strong parenting instincts, urges, and skills, but are sadly infertile. They will take charge and protect “their babies” from come-what-may, once they hear that magical peeping.


During April’s calendar a number of events take place that are Earth-centric: Dark Skies Week, Earth Day, Arbor Day, and a bevy of Beach Befrienders dates, all calibrated to celebrate the spring. Yes, even here, where we have virtually no spring!

In observance of Earth Day (April 22) it is perennially appropriate to reiterate The Four Laws of Ecology, attributed to Barry Commoner. These are principles to adhere to if one is looking for an over-all, ‘Big Picture’ approach to guiding one’s actions and living on earth:

  • Everything is inter-connected.
  • Everything goes somewhere.
  • There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
  • Nature bats last.

Inside garden

Light-driven spring growth requires monitoring and pinching houseplants. Prune or pinch citrus and feed; repot if necessary. (See

Seedlings on the other hand may suffer from an over-abundance of care and attention. Watering in particular — watch for damping off.

We are all learning new ways as we attempt to wean off peat-based soil mixes. Seed starter soil mix is generally the best course, despite the expense. Trying to use garden soil inevitably leads to poor results and disappointment. I note here that I had real trouble with Espoma Organic Seed Starter mix; it is almost unwettable, despite hosing directly into the bag and stirring. A drop of dish detergent in the water helped a bit.

What’s in bloom and the weather

Hellebores, the eagerly awaited edgeworthia, and more, are producing flowers and pollen to promote their future existence, not to provide the best cutting flowers. Plants, whose flowers are downward facing, such as the above two, may be protecting their pollen from rain, and this year, I agree — it makes sense.

Hybridizers and breeders look at these traits and try selecting and breeding their way around them, usually to produce a better cut flower or a plant that has more “55 mph” garden appeal.

Whither post-beech?

We would be wise to be planning the next act. The island-wide possibility of losing stands of beech woodland is depressing and very real, but what is to be done? Treatment options are evolving, as these two articles (links below) from Ohio State and University of New Hampshire discuss, but these would typically be applied only to specimen trees in the domestic landscape, not to extensive woodland. (See

Adam Moore of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation has endorsed native hollies, Ilex opaca, as a propitious successor tree for Island conditions, while Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum cites pignut hickory, Carya glabra, as having possibilities. I like both of these, in addition to my favorite, white oak, Quercus alba.

An inescapable trend, however, is that one by one North America’s magnificent forest trees are falling prey to one “seemingly random” disease or another “seemingly random” insect. The pathologies are always specific to the tree species or to the disease vector, and are cited as if that proves something. Speculating here: nevertheless this does not eliminate the upstream fact of stress on our trees and forests. They evolved over a very, very long time in markedly different conditions to what they are now asked to survive in. Leaving climate out of it, present day composition of the atmosphere and airborne pollutants mark a vast alteration.

That is pretty much the definition of stress. Humans do not escape this either, just because we are humans. We are immersed in it every bit as much as the trees.

In evolutionary terms, it seems, up to a point stress selects for survival and fitness. Upon becoming unrelenting, stress becomes nothing more or less than a killer.

To do

Finish cutbacks of last years’ growth of grasses and lespedeza. As April progresses, perform pruning/cleanup of buddleias, mophead hydrangeas, potentillas, and other sub-shrubs, keeping an eye on the forecast. Pursue spitting cress. Note daffodils and snowdrops needing division and mark.