Garden Notes: Forsythia is a spring tonic

Blessings of spring relieve a gardener’s flu.


Forsythias across the Island seemed shy of blooming this year, turning out in full force a little later than usual. Their reluctance caused me to ask, only partly in mock curiosity, “What does the forsythia know that we don’t?” It is one of those inscrutables, but chances are it has something to do with last year’s temperature vortices.

Now, forsythia’s gold is everywhere, and very heartwarming on gray days to sunshine-starved souls. Interestingly, here on the Vineyard, forsythia does not appear to have become an exotic invasive. Yes, it tip-roots where it is allowed to ramble. But that is different from turning up in places far from where originally planted.

Plant a hedge and keep it shorn, as pictured, or let it balloon into a glory of spring gold. Either way is fine. In any case, these plants make a good, deep russet red autumn color. They may screen you from the road and backdrop the flower bed. They provide cover for nesting birds. Many kids’ forts have been constructed “out back” in the forsythia tangles.

Forsythia hedges can be “stuck,” similar to privet: long whips placed at intervals deeply in the ground and allowed to root. Choose a plant whose flower color appeals to you, and cut as many long, straight whips as you can take from it. A screwdriver or piece of rebar as a dibble can make the holes straight and deep. That is pretty much it. Check them frequently and water; tipping back any looking peaked can help to establish them. Cut more to replace any that fail.


The first asparagus shoots emerged, and I pounced. Actually, it was more like crept. The nasty flu left me shaky, having not put in quality garden time, or any other variety of quality time except bedtime. (It caused me to bow out of the M.V. Museum gardeners’ panel that I looked forward to participating in. I hope there will be others in future.) We ate them, extended with some from the store. They are a blessing.

Nettles: More blessings

Nettles as a spring green or tonic have a history that stretches back in time and around the globe. They are found on every continent, and are valued everywhere. Flu is obdurate, so I turned to nettles, one of the longtime fixtures of herbal medicine.

Over time, family and friends have supplied me with fresh and dried nettles and nettle tincture. They can be used as fiber, food, and medicine. This is the time to harvest them, while they are young and tender. Cream of nettle soup and nettle soufflé are two culinary classics. They are made using the same principles as cream of spinach soup or spinach soufflé.

Once the flowers begin to develop, the plants’ energy is diverted to seed production, and foliage and stems become toughened. For fiber usage, this may be an asset. For weaving, nettles are processed in ways comparable to flax, and the resulting cloth is known as ramie. Cloth woven of nettle has been found in Bronze Age graves in Denmark.

Cut stems can be arranged on trays or screens to air-dry. I place them near the basement dehumidifier, but a warm attic or sun porch would work. Once they are dry and crinkly, process in a food processor or rub through a coarse sieve for tea or further uses. Alcohol-based tinctures are recommended over glycerin-based extracts. For preserving nettles’ properties, use vodka. (For more nettle information, visit

Soil tests

UMass’s soil test lab reminds us that getting the analysis and fertility report for our gardens’ soil is a useful tool for both vegetable growers and ornamental gardeners. The lab reminds that they are “handling requests within their normal turnaround time of 6 to 10 business days for routine samples.” (To find out more about the UMass soil test lab, visit

Our fire risk?

The Island has alternated recently between very low humidity, and wet and flooded. The term “rain bomb” has been heard a lot since the recent dramatic flooding in Dubai. The U.S. Weather Service prefers “wet microburst.”

This is the type of intense, downpour rainstorm that is becoming more and more typical, rather than the days-long “rainy day” spells of yore. While the amounts of moisture delivered are large, much of it is lost through runoff caused by those hardscaped and paved surfaces we prize, instead of replenishing the water table.

And when it runs off, what does it carry with it? All the ’cides we spread on our lawns. And where does that tainted runoff go? Into our estuaries, harbors, and bays, resulting in algal blooms, and poisoned waters and shellfish.

A salient point is woodland management strategies, with the focus of firefighting teams on removal of debris and biomass that could become California-style wildfire tinder. It is well to point out that rotting biomass actually holds moisture, and is the precursor of plant growth, humus, and soil creation.

There are different kinds of woodland in the Island’s varied habitats, with vastly different fire risk. The north shore and moraine hardwood woodlands are dissimilar to the oak scrub and pitch pine stands. Applying California wildfire standards is not necessarily appropriate.

In the garden

They’re coming for your hostas, and bulb lilies, and anything else you prize — deer seem voracious and fearless this year. Nudge-proof physical barriers are your best bet. I have a case of repellent in the basement but — throws up hands — a special formula is needed for Island deer; wet weather and frequent showers add to the issue.

A family member in Denver keeps reminding us of their garden trials: weather conditions that cycle from “gorgeous spring” to whiteout heavy snow” overnight! Followed by hail season! Merely deer? Aren’t we actually very fortunate?

While it might appear there is plenty for deer to eat with so much emerging greenery, a varied diet must appeal. Deer are a fact of life, even in town gardens where they might seem unthinkable, and unaesthetic but effective barriers are the best insurance.

Seed potatoes have shipped. Section, air-dry, and chit before planting out. West Tisbury tree planting takes place on Saturday, April 27. Tick check every night.



Comments are closed.