5/14/17: In the garden this week

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all. This plant will bloom within the next week or 10 days.

These next couple of weeks are the loveliest of the year in the garden, and we will miss it all—we are going on vacation. So I thought that in this post I would look ahead a bit and tell you what to expect in the next two or three weeks. In that time, the garden will switch from spring to summer.

It’s delightful that the drought of the past two years seems to have lifted. Rainfall is slightly above average for the past 30 days and normal for the year to date. As a result, we are enjoying a truly lovely spring. And the relatively cool temperatures mean that all the beauty around is lasts a bit longer than it would if the weather suddenly turned hot. It gives us all a longer spring planting season as well. I like to stop planting when the weather really warms up.

So here are some things you could be doing in your garden over the next few weeks:

water new plantings if the weather turns dry: Rainfall totals are finally normal or even a bit above, at least in the short term. We’ve received approximately an inch and a half of rain this weekend, so no need to water. But always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and check back here weekly for updates: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old plastic container or tin can placed among the plants. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up. Same goes for perennials and grasses. The earlier the better. If you must keep planting once the weather really turns hot, be sure to water copiously.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees should be treated for emerald ash borer. The best time is while they are leafing out, so it’s a bit late. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can then recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, raking the soil smooth, and adding compost or well-rotted manure. Compost can simply be spread on top of the soil; manure should be mixed in, and make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes, squash, basil, and eggplant until the last week in May. Right now the nights are still too cool, and the plants will not grow properly.

—  After cleaning up the perennial garden, continue to plant perennials and to divide and move them as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed. IF the weather turns hot, either stop planting or increase the amount of water you provide.

the cool weather is a great time to reseed bare patches of lawn, but be sure to keep the seeded areas moist until the seed sprouts. It’s too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Wait until Memorial Day, and then use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Or best of all, don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Remember that pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And garden chemicals are not so great for kids or pets either; common herbicides, in addition to killing butterfly host plants like violets, are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— Support a local farmer by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) this season. CSAs allow you to support small-scale, sustainable agriculture and help limit the environmental effects of factory farming. You’ll also find that the produce tastes much, much better than what you buy in the supermarket. For the past 5 years or more, we have joined Hesperides Organica, a family-run farm located in Hawthorne, NY. They deliver weekly to various locations in Bergen County.

I hope you’re enjoying this lovely, slow-to-emerge spring as much as I am. It’s very hard to tear myself away from the garden.

_DSC0792

Canada anemone, Anemone canadensis, is a lovely ground cover, but it can be a bit of a thug in the garden. Be sure to plant it where you can contain it.

5/5/17: In the garden this week

DSCN2753

Chokeberry (this is black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa) is in full bloom now. In August, it will produce large black berries for birds (and jam); in fall, the foliage will be brilliant orange and red.

Planting season is in full swing, and I am grateful for this very rainy day. The ground was getting too dry to plant without watering first, and I’m in the middle of a very busy planting season. I like to finish planting perennials, grasses, and shrubs before Memorial Day, although you can plant later if you can water frequently. Roots grow best when the soil is cool.

You’re probably thinking about preparing your yard for outdoor living: setting up the patio and grill, uncovering the pool, planting ornamentals. Give some thought to sustainability as well as to livability. Consider planting native perennials instead of annuals (less watering, less work every spring); using fewer chemicals on the lawn (less expensive, kinder to the environment); welcoming pollinators and birds (planting natives, avoiding pesticides). Maybe there are some areas of lawn that could be replanted as flowers or vegetables. Maybe you can water less often this season.

In addition, here are some seasonal gardening tasks you might do this week:

water new plantings: Rainfall totals are finally normal or even a bit above, at least in the short term. We’ve received approximately an inch and a half of rain today so far, so no need to water. But always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and check back here weekly for updates: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old plastic container or tin can placed among the plants. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up. Same goes for perennials and grasses. The earlier the better.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees should be treated for emerald ash borer. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can then recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, raking the soil smooth, and adding compost or well-rotted manure. Compost can simply be spread on top of the soil; manure should be mixed in, and make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes and eggplant for another few weeks.

—  After cleaning up the perennial garden, continue to plant perennials and to divide and move them as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Wait until Memorial Day, and then use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Or best of all, don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Remember that pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And garden chemicals are not so great for kids or pets either; common herbicides are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— Support a local farmer by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) this season. CSAs allow you to support small-scale, sustainable agriculture and help limit the environmental effects of factory farming. You’ll also find that the produce tastes much, much better than what you buy in the supermarket. For the past 5 years or more, we have joined Hesperides Organica, a family-run farm located in Hawthorne, NY. They deliver weekly to various locations in Bergen County.

Enjoy the garden this week.

DSC_5686

Lovely foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is in full bloom now in my garden.

 

Columbine duskywing

_DSC0740

Native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

Who knew that columbine has a species-specific butterfly? I didn’t until I noticed a few skeletonized leaveson a couple of plants–chewed leaves with nothing left but the ribs. Normally columbine leaves do not get chewed, and the plant’s only pest is leaf miners, which don’t appear until summer. Looking closely at the leaves, I saw a few more with damage only at the leaf margins, a sign that caterpillars were at work rather than, say, beetles.

Looking even more closely, I saw a few tiny green caterpillars clinging to the edges of a few leaves. (Sorry about the quality of this image–it was a very windy day.)

_DSC8842

Caterpillars of columbine duskywing, Erynnis lucilius, on native columbine.

I turned to my trusty Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies, which has an index to host plants as well as to butterfly species–an extremely useful feature. I looked up columbine and found that there is a species-specific butterfly, that its caterpillar is green with some yellow features, and that the season is correct. Bulls eye. I also found more about the species’s life cycle on the Butterflies and Moths of North American website.

For those of you who worry about insect damage to your plants, be aware that this small plant is in bloom while the chewing is going on. So if you want to see butterflies, hold off on the pesticides and be willing to tolerate a few chewed leaves.

Also, remember that ecological gardening takes time. I’ve been growing columbine for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen this caterpillar before. According to the references, this butterfly inhabits woodlands and rocky slopes (where columbine lives in the wild), not suburbs. So how did the mother butterfly find my columbine plants last fall? And think what would have happened if I did a rigorous garden cleanup in fall–the overwintering eggs probably would have been destroyed. Think about all the things that must go right for a few tiny caterpillars to survive.

Once again, this story shows that if you plant it, they will come. It’s always amazing.

4/28/17: In the garden this week

_DSC0607

Early spring ephemerals are subtle, like this Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). The showier variegated species that’s more often found in garden centers is NOT native.

At this time of year I can either work in the garden or write about the garden, and most of the time I choose the former. But I want to briefly keep you up-to-date on seasonal developments:

water new plantings: Rainfall totals are finally normal or even a bit above, at least in the short term. We received approximately an inch and a half of rain this week, so no need to water. But be sure to water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and check back here weekly for updates: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old plastic container or tin can placed among the plants. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—plants grow roots when the soil is cool, so the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees should be treated for emerald ash borer. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can them recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, raking the soil smooth, and adding compost or well-rotted manure. Compost can simply be spread on top of the soil; manure should be mixed in, and make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes and squash for another few weeks.

—  After cleaning up the perennial garden, continue to plant perennials and to divide and move them as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Wait until Memorial Day, and then use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Or best of all, don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Remember that pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And garden chemicals are not so great for kids or pets either; common herbicides are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— Support a local farmer by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) this season. CSAs allow you to support small-scale, sustainable agriculture and help limit the environmental effects of factory farming. You’ll also find that the produce tastes much, much better than what you buy in the supermarket. For the past 5 years or more, we have joined Hesperides Organica, a family-run farm located in Hawthorne, NY. They deliver weekly to various locations in Bergen County.

Plant something for the butterflies this week! You’ll reap the benefits all summer long!

DSCN1438

Tiarella is the star of the late-April shade garden. Ferns are emerging, and columbine and geraniums will open their first flowers in the coming week.

 

4/21/17: In the garden this week

_DSC8789

Violets are not weeds! They’re an extremely important larval food source for a large group of butterflies. No violets, no fritillaries. And they’re lovely as well.

After a bizarre start, with the late snowstorm in mid-March, spring is unfolding in a normal and reassuring way (although for those of us who remember when lilacs bloomed reliably for Mother’s Day, everything is still insanely early). Violets are blooming, most native trees are beginning to leaf out, early bloomers like spicebush and native plums have finished blooming, flowering dogwood (which used to bloom around Memorial Day) is almost at its peak. None of my native shrubs were affected by the late frost, although many exotics, such as the early-flowering Asian magnolias, bloomed sparsely if at all.

In the understory, bloodroot is in bloom right now, as are Virginia bluebells. Columbine is showing buds, Solomon’s seal is raising its delicate head above the leaf litter, and native geraniums are showing buds. Most summer-blooming perennials are up, with the exception of milkweeds and wild petunia, which always come late to the party. They must feel the need to make an entrance.

There’s a lot to do in the garden this week and throughout the spring:

water new plantings: Although the past two weeks have been dry, we received an inch of water last night, so no need to water this week. But check back here weekly for updates: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old plastic container or tin can placed among the plants. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—plants grow roots when the soil is cool, so the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees are subject to emerald ash borer. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can them recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, raking the soil smooth, and adding compost or well-rotted manure. Compost can simply be spread on top of the soil; manure should be mixed in, and make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes and squash for another few weeks.

Clean up the perennial garden. It’s finally time! Compost as much as the detritus as you can, and treat it gently: it contains the pupae and larvae of valuable insects, bees, and butterflies. And leave a little on the ground for birds to use as nesting material. As I glance out the window, a robin is collecting bits of grass and stalks I left behind.

—Divide perennials as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Wait until Memorial Day, and then use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Or best of all, don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. And remember, pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And garden chemicals are not so great for kids or pets either; common herbicides are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— Support a local farmer by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) this season. CSAs allow you to support small-scale, sustainable agriculture and help limit the environmental effects of factory farming. You’ll also find that the produce tastes much, much better than what you buy in the supermarket. For the past 5 years or more, we have joined Hesperides Organica, a family-run farm located in Hawthorne, NY. They deliver weekly to various locations in Bergen County.

Enjoy the garden this week–the weather and the soil moisture will be perfect!

_DSC8754

The delicate flowers of native plum, Prunus americana, are intensely fragrant and as lovely as any exotic cherry can produce.

 

Spring cleaning

_DSC1692

One of my perennial borders in July. It looks very different now, as you’ll see below.

Gardens made up of native perennials and grasses are relatively easy to care for–no fertilizing and very little watering, if any–but they’re not maintenance free. The most important annual chore is spring cleaning: removal of last year’s dead growth to make way for the new. Remember that all these plants are perennials: in winter and spring the top growth is dead, but the roots are very much alive.

There are many reasons to clean up the garden in spring rather than in fall: first, it’s much easier, because the stalks are dry and easy to break off. In fall you would have to cut them. But ecologically it’s a very good idea to leave the dead material all winter: the remaining seed feeds the birds; the stalks provide shelter to many insects; the plant litter on the ground feeds and shelters ground-feeding birds; and all the material helps prevent groundwater runoff and erosion caused by winter storms.

This is what the same garden looked like a few days ago:

IMG_20170418_144409

A mess! Last year’s dead material was weighted down by snow and much of it has toppled over, although the toughest stalks remain upright. Some of the green you see is new growth; some is weeds.

Cleanup desperately needed! It’s a good idea to wait until you see lots of new growth, and that time is now.

The first step in cleanup is removing those tough, tall stalks and stems. Place a tarp on the ground to receive the detritus (whether you plan to compost it yourself or take it to a recycling facility, the tarp will facilitate removal and cleanup). Then grab the stalks by the handful and break them off near the base. Don’t pull–you might yank plants right out of the ground. Make a quick snapping motion with your wrist; if necessary, break the stalks in half in the same way (some of the plants in this garden are 8 feet tall). You’ll wind up with something that looks like this: a pile of detritus and lots of visible plants.

IMG_20170418_184228

With the stalks broken off, the new growth appears. The section you see here is about a third of this 30-foot long border.

At this point, you can see what’s growing. This includes both desirable and undesirable plants. This particular border always contains numerous “volunteers”–things I didn’t plant. The first category of volunteers is native undergrowth like violets, cinquefoil, and sedges. I leave these alone. The second is particularly noxious and fast-spreading weeds like garlic mustard and hairy or western bittercress. These mustards go to seed early, so I pull them the minute I see them. The third category is weeds that require digging–in this garden, wild garlic and ragwort.  I make a note of those and plan to come back later. Finally, there’s woody growth–small tree seedlings and stray offshoots of nearby shrubs. I’ll pull or cut those in a final pass through the garden.

The next step is to gently rake off the remaining material. Gently is the key word here. I use a large leaf rake and pull it through the material on the ground with quick, short, gentle strokes. I want to remove most of the leaf litter but leave the tender new growth. It’s not important to get rid of every dead leaf and bit of stalk. When you’ve done with this step, the garden looks like this:

IMG_20170419_165020

Remember what this garden will look like in July? Because my neighbor’s fence sits right on the property line, I won’t be able to get into this garden after the plants really start growing. So I have to do all the weeding, planting, and dividing now.

After removing weeds, I can divide plants, give plants away, and, most fun of all, add new ones. And watch the garden turn into a thing of beauty once more.

Sun vs. shade

_DSC8773

Blossoms on a dogwood tree (Cornus florida) growing in full sun because of the death of a large canopy tree that used to shade it.

_DSC8777

A tree of the same species, on the same day. This tree is still shaded by another tall canopy tree.

Flowering dogwood is a very beautiful native tree that’s often used as a specimen, typically planted out on a front lawn in full sun. But this is never how the tree grows in nature, where it is always found growing under various species of oak trees. The only time dogwoods want full sun is in early spring, before those oaks leaf out.

The two dogwoods shown above are both growing on our front lawn. When I planted them, both were in shade, but since we lost two large trees last spring due to drought and decrepitude, the first one is now in full sun. The small oak we planted to shade it won’t be big enough to serve that function for several years. The tree in sun now blooms and leafs out considerably earlier than its relative only thirty feet away. It will experience a great deal more stress from heat and drought and will probably need supplemental watering. It is more likely to show the effects of anthracnose or other diseases. A native tree that’s adapted to a sunny site, such as a serviceberry, would do better in this spot.

Trees react to their environment in many ways. Pay attention to the total environment when you plant!