Garden Notes: Spring in full fragrance

What, and what not, to “Chelsea chop.”


Tonight’s full moon is called the Flower Moon. Memorial Day weekend is upon us, and the hardy garden fragrance plants are at their height. Is there any other time of year so flowery and sweetly scented? 

While it is too early for fragrant stocks, nicotianas, and heliotropes, the lilacs, lily of the valley, viburnums, fothergillas share their scents freely, along with lesser players, such as irises and scented azaleas.

A long time ago, I planted a very small Viburnum carlesii near the house in a nondescript, ordinary spot. It suffered from having kids snow-camping on top of it, and lawnmower damage — but somehow survived to mature and bloom, and bloom and bloom. Who could have guessed that the air movements around the house would take that perfume, and deliver it right to the front door? Really — “splendid planning.”


The other morning, a hummingbird intently visited every blossom on large, bolting arugulas. Birdfood.

Even if there is no appreciable scent and we cannot smell them, the floral display brings out the pollinating insects, and the birds that eat them. By letting the arugula bolt, there is self-sowing (free plants), as well as bee pasture for pollinators, including that hummingbird.

Birdfood? It is not only those sacks at the grain store. 

On an early, perfectly still May morning, the cloud of gnats and flight of crane flies are backlit, also perfectly. Eastern phoebe zooms in: Birdfood. Wandering flocks of starlings and feral turkeys (which should also contain Eastern quail) forage lawns and borders for substicks, white grubs, and other insect protein: Birdfood. Woodpeckers, bluejays, chickadees, cardinals, robins, and others: All prey on feeding tent caterpillars when they forage outside those nestlike tents: Birdfood. 

A plea to garden-owning friends and working colleagues, who have been hiring or are developing whole-property spray businesses: This approach is wrong (!

We unwittingly provoke ecological problems, because as gardeners and landscapers we are asked to solve other ones. Attitudes or approaches regarding our surroundings, so sterile or hostile that we extirpate everything in them, unintentionally gut the food chain. No birdfood.

In the garden

Epimediums are a personal favorite, along with other members of the Berberidaceae. They appear to be ideal plants for the often acidic or shaded conditions of Island gardens, such as under oaks or hollies; some even thrive in the barren habitat beneath white pines. 

Slow to creep or increase, deer- and rabbit-resistant, and with visually interesting, intriguingly intricate flowers and foliage, epimediums are in bloom and putting forth new growth now. Cosmetic shearing back of old foliage in early spring is epimediums’ only cultural requirement.

Chronic chill may cause chlorosis (yellowing/browning) in susceptible plants: roses, rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), and hydrangeas, for example. The chlorophyll in plants is temperature-sensitive.

It has been a chilly spring so far, and the first weeks of May saw some temperature shocks; I had to air up my tires after one of them. One garden’s roses had actual frost damage on new growth. Nothing needs to be done about chlorosis; new growth will normalize over the season, and if unsightly, damage may be pruned away.

Psyllids are appearing on boxwood, new growth of which also shows chartreusing from temperature chlorosis. Sparrows nest inside boxwoods, taking advantage of the psyllid protein source ( Apply sprays of hort oil or insecticidal soap, early or late in the day to prevent foliage burn. Prune also.

It’s about light

Despite chill, azaleas and rhododendrons, dogwoods, perennials, and trees are bursting forth, emerging in spring’s amazing explosion, powered by their need to take advantage of every growth-inducing photon streaming our way from the sun. 

Did you know: The tilt of the Earth’s axis produces our seasons, in relation to where we are along our annual solar circuit! In these days of “nature deficit disorder” (thank you, Richard Louv:, there are many who are unaware of how the Earth’s seasonal effects are caused, and are unaware how they affect the growth of plants, gardens, ourselves. 

The height of the solar year is June 20, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when the sun is most directly overhead at our latitude. The ultraviolet range predominates, leading up to the solstice, occurring a month from now. Aboveground plant parts are now receiving the maximum growth-inducing light. 

Post-solstice, the solar energy’s spectrum reaching us begins to change, with longer infrared beginning to predominate, as tilting Earth begins “turning its back” to the sun. Plants respond by flowering and fruiting according to their species, and the quality of the light reaching them (why a tomato grown in shade struggles to produce fruit). 

All the foregoing is a prelude to the “Chelsea chop”: advice that is timely now. Chop — or gently pinch — perennials (dicots) that respond to the help of this growth-light; but do not wait. Examples are phlox, chrysanthemum family, sedums, euphorbias, echinaceas, and flowering annuals. They will produce slightly delayed, bushier growth, requiring less staking, with more blossom or fruit potential. Do not “Chelsea chop” monocots, such as bulb lilies, corn, or onions.

Memorial Day

The neglected Vineyard Haven grave pictured is that of a Civil War casualty: In memory of 25-year-old George Lewis, killed at Spotsylvania Courthouse, May 26, 1864. He died almost exactly 160 years ago, aged 25, one of the 32,000 dead from that carnage.

Originally, Memorial Day observances were scheduled to coincide with maximum flowering, to decorate the graves of the Civil War’s dead (generally estimated to be 620,000 human military casualties; uncounted horse, mule, and oxen losses, too). 

Please visit for more of the history of this solemn observance. As part of General Logan’s order proclaiming Memorial Day, the American public was earnestly requested to pray for peace. 

Again we face contentious times, both nationally and internationally. There is no more appropriate Memorial Day action, and way to honor poor George Lewis’ sacrifice, than to work for peaceful understanding and to pray for peace, now.