Garden Notes: This spring is cool

Maybe it’s a year to be cautious in rushing the season.


The elegant native shadbush (amelanchier and its species) is in bloom but a short time, but is fleetingly graceful: matchless! Early morning, and the cardinal, or “redbird,” according to Margaret Renkl, hops around in the undergrowth, unconcerned by the fixed stare of the cat safely behind window glass.

Unlike Renkl, whose descriptions of the natural world have piercing impact and precision, my words fail me when confronted by the frail beauty of my home Island and the ineluctable forces assaulting it.

Spring can be a pensive season: its ephemerality and onrush, its poignancy, sweet but unbearable. I recall a lifetime of springs, of delicate, white blossoms of shadbush, the fluttering foliage of beeches unfolding. The beeches will not unfold this spring, and Waylon and Yossi, in the spring of their lives, are paused forever.

In the garden

This spring the conditions seem variable, as they do every so often, with numerous chilly days and nights. For the coming week, nighttime temperatures fall to lower forties: manageable for hardy plants.

Every gardener is eager to get a jump on growing, but this year may be one with “Be Cautious” stamped all over it. Temperatures do not have to fall below freezing for cold shock to occur, only to make a significant drop.

Hardening off seedlings, both in terms of temperatures and of light strength, is the gradual exposing of seedlings and tender plants to outdoor conditions, and then returning them to the shelter of the cold frame or indoor environment for another set of nights. When leaves are young and soft, they become sunburned or desiccated easily.

Soil and biodiversity

Island soils are mostly acidic, largely mineral sand–based, with a small quotient of biological matter. For gardens to produce food, quality trees, and shrubbery, or even acceptable bouquets, soil improvement is paramount. This is the “why” of compost and composting. This is the why of keeping all the biomass produced onsite where you live, to allow it to break down and return it to the ground.

An unavoidable omission in the previous Garden Notes (“Forsythia is a spring tonic,” April 25) was the image of the mossy nurse log, with the caption of “Life into death into life: rotting, moss-covered blowdowns become nurse logs.” It is the debris of wooded land breaking down and creating the paltry few inches of topsoil — which all life on Earth depends upon — that is important, not the fear-mongering wildfire potential.

Below is the link to a piece by the noted landscape designer Edwina von Gal about creating structures, “habitat piles,” in our gardens, to provide shelter and protection for the rest of nature we share our lives with:

And right here on the Island, BiodiversityWorks has the same goals.

Continuously irrigated soil may actually lose nutrients and tilth through leaching. Soil that has been worked and improved over many seasons, or even only just one, will hold more moisture, weed more easily, and condense dew at night, compared to humus-poor soil expected to support growth with perhaps only continuous irrigation.

Composted materials and low-number organic soil foods (fertilizer) feed and enhance the soil’s microbiota: the millions of fungal, bacterial, and viral life forms in a tablespoon of soil. These are actually what assist plants to grow. It is paying attention to the soil’s microbiota that “makes the magic.” These are disrupted in essentially dead, tilled, chemically treated soil. For much more on this, check out Kristin Ohlson’s book “The Soil Will Save Us.”

Cool weather conditions encourage growth of weeds such as spitting cress, henbit, chickweed, speedwell (veronica), and draba; but they generally pull easily. These uninvited plants that grow, the “weeds,” will give you information about your soil.

What’s wrong with moss?

I love the bumper sticker pictured! Cool conditions with plenty of rain may promote moss in lawns. In my travels around some of the nicer gardens of the Island, I am seeing a lot of it this year. This, however, along with white clover, to the dedicated lawn cultist is anathema!
As an ecological gardener, I do not see the problem with moss in lawns, or with white clover. White clover’s advantages are it makes its own fertilizer, being able to grab nitrogen from the air, remains green with less water or other inputs than turf, and supports pollinator insects. Moss’s advantages are it needs no mowing, and is soft and spongy to walk on.

Dandelion, nemesis of the lawn cultists, tells you that there is soil compaction. Rather than a “weed ’n’ feed” product, consider top-dressing with a quarter to half an inch of quality compost or screened mulch; or taking a soil test.

And while writing of flowering plants in lawns, this is the appropriate time to mention leaving the lawn unmown. Mow just a section; mow a path — let it grow and propagate firefly larvae and other insects …

“No Mow May,” as it is now known, has grown to become a real movement, one that aims to leave large parts of the great American lawn unmown for larger parts of the warm months than merely May.

Pruning ornamentals

Many ornamentals are leafing out, and some need more attention than others. The handsome hydrangea vine, Hydrangea anomala var. petiolaris, is usually grown on a wall or trellis, and may become quite heavy over time, enough so that its hold-fasts pull away and it falls off the wall or tree it is grown upon.

Pruning to promote a flat-to-the-surface habit is usually desired with climbing hydrangea. However, the flowerheads form on the previous season’s growth; develop a regular pruning program that promotes flowering and retains the desired habit.

Shrubby hypericums, such as ‘Hidcote,’ may be cut back hard, while spireas and potentillas are cut back by one-third. Prune rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus, to tighten growth; it blooms on new wood. Prune Montauk daisies now, and again after Memorial Day.
Lift and divide daffodils. Tick check every night.