Some gardening books

The forest in spring, with dogwood in bloom.

The picture above shows part of the native forest that stretches across out modest suburban backyard. Notice the flowering dogwood and the white ash in the background that was just leafing out in mid-May. Everuthing you see was planted by me and my husband, and this lovely woodland replaces a very boring bit of lawn.

This photo encapsulates my approach to gardening, which, as my regular readers understand, is to attempt to restore the natural environment. This approach is not ornamental so much as ecological (although I think the results are very beautiful). I plant native plants and I choose plants that are well suited to my site. I try to work with nature rather than to impose my will on my tiny slice of the environment. If this approach is of interest to you or to your gardening friends, here are some books that you might consider getting for yourself or for gifts.

Noah’s Garden  and Planting Noah’s Garden, by Sarah Stein

These two beautifully written books, taken together, tell you everything you need to know about environmental gardening—what it is and how to do it here in the Northeast. Noah’s Garden tells you why, and Planting Noah’s Garden tells you how. These books are out of print but still available on

Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants (Brooklyn Botanic Garden Guides for a Greener Planet)

The book that answers the question “What should I plant instead?” Describes beautiful native alternatives to specific invasive trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and grasses.

Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: A Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers by Gary L. Hightshoe

Looking for a mid-height native shrub, with great fall color, to plant in a shady site with acid soil? Or perhaps you need a small street tree that can withstand salt and soil compaction. This book can help you find a native plant for any site. A huge, expensive, but extremely useful reference work.

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas Tallamy

The author, an entomologist, has a simple thesis: the more bugs you see, the healthier your backyard environment is. A strong argument for the use of native plants and sustainable gardening methods. The book that is turning people on to native plants today, as Stein’s books did 20 years ago.

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East by Carolyn Summers

A fascinating new book by a landscape architect. Describes how to use native plants to create traditional gardens, even English cottage gardens and Japanese gardens. Good appendices listing many native plants, nurseries, street trees, etc.

Finally, I often recommend field guides to wildflowers, butterflies, trees, and shrubs as excellent resources for sustainable gardeners. I use the Peterson series, but you may find that you prefer a different one, such as Audubon. A particularly informative book is the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests, which is an excellent reference on the ecology of forests. The Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies has extensive lists of host plants.


Leave the leaves (again)

Today’s NY Times reports that the Leave the Leaves initiative is popping up in towns across  Westchester County, NY. As readers of this blog know, this is something I’ve advocated (and practiced) for years. Here’s a picture of part of my leaf pile for this year, just completed. It’s about thirty feet long and three feet high:


This represents just the backyard leaves, which will all be added to the compost pile in the course of the next year. Last week the front yard leaves were chopped with a mulching mower as the article describes, and the bits and pieces disappeared into the lawn almost immediately. We have been doing this for twenty years and have never applied any other kind of fertilizer to our lawn. Think about it–it’s the ultimate in sustainability.

Missing monarchs


Today’s NY Times Sunday Review section carried an eye-opening article about the migration of monarch butterflies–or rather, the fact that the migration has almost collapsed. See also this previous post about the details of the migration to understand why it really is a problem if pesticides and genetically modified crops result in the disappearance of milkweed.

Add milkweed to the list of plants you plan to order next spring. The picture above shows a closeup of the flowers of orange butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa. It’s a drought-tolerant species that needs full sun, grows 2-3 feet tall, and blooms in June and July. And, of course, attracts butterflies by the score. Another lovely and easy-to-grow species is swamp or red milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. It likes moist soil (although it does just fine in my dry, sandy soil) and full sun, grows up to 4 feet tall, and produces lovely pink flowers, also in early summer. Pink or orange–take your pick.

The case against lawns

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’m not a friend of lawns. Ecologically, they’re disasters. They’re basically monocultures, and nature does not like monocultures, so it takes ridiculous amounts of water and chemicals to maintain a pristine lawn. Lawn care is responsible for a great deal of pollution we see in streams and ponds. I could go on and on . . . (and sometimes do, so people mostly know not to let me get started about lawns).

Yesterday a friend reminded me of a seminal article by Michael Pollan, written before he became the famous nutrition writer. I read it back when it was first published and was deeply influenced by it. Don’t be put off by the fact that he recommends some nonnative shrubs and vines–he was writing a generation ago, when we didn’t know as much about invasives and when few natives were commercially available. The argument is just as valid today as it was in 1989–even more valid, because if anything the climate and energy crises are much worse today than they were then.

If you’re wondering what you might plant instead of a lawn, consider my mini-woodland, planted across the back of our 1/4-acre property in an area that used to be lawn. Here’s what it looks like in May when the dogwood is blooming:

The forest in spring, with dogwood in bloom.

Bergen-Passaic chapter of Native Plant Society meets Nov. 21

The next meeting of the Bergen-Passaic chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey (NPSNJ) will take place on Thursday, November 21, at 7:00 p.m., at Ender Hall, Room 153, at Bergen Community College in Paramus (go to for detailed directions). The speaker will be Dr. Hubert Ling, Horticulturist for the NPSNJ. He will talk about easy-to-grow native plants and will touch on many topics of great interest to home gardeners, such as plant propagation, gardening for butterflies, and shade-loving plants. Plants and seeds will be available for purchase at a nominal charge.  Admission is free and all are welcome.

The NPSNJ is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to the appreciation, protection, and study of the native flora of New Jersey. Founded in 1985, the group has hundreds of members across the state organized into county and regional chapters. Members include gardeners, horticulturists, naturalists, landscape designers, students, and native plant enthusiasts from all walks of life. For more information about NPSNJ, go to

NPSNJ conducts regular lectures and presentations with featured speakers on topics ranging from introduction to native plants, gardening with natives, identification and appreciation of the beautiful flora and ecosystems of New Jersey, ecological landscaping, and much more. The new Bergen-Passaic chapter will hold 8 meetings per year. The next meeting will be on Thursday, January 9, 2014. The speaker will be Melissa Almendinger,  the Education Director for the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Force (NJISST), a group responsible for protecting local natural areas by monitoring them for invasive plants and selectively removing invasives.

The Nov. 21 meeting will also include a discussion about future programming, information about other NPSNJ events, and an opportunity to meet like-minded native plant enthusiasts. For more information about the Bergen-Passaic chapter, contact

11/8/13: In the garden this week


The Japanese mustards I planted in August continue to do well; now that they’re a bit too potent to eat raw, we toss them into soups and stews. I just harvested the last of the carrots, and there are small kale plants growing bravely (bottom of photo). I seeded them too close to the eggplant, so they didn’t get enough sun, but now that the eggplant is done for the year (final harvest was almost 5 pounds), they’re growing a bit. The arugula is quite sharp tasting but useful in small amounts.

I took one large trash bag to the vegetable garden, intending to finish the clean up, but of course it will take another 3 or 4 bags. And that’s really just the marigolds and nasturtiums, eggplant and basil. On a plot that measures about 6 x 16!

We’ve finally gotten some much-needed rain, although not enough if you’ve planted woody plants this fall, so keep watering newly planted material, including lawn. In addition, consider the following tasks:

– continue to harvest your fall vegetable garden: cool-weather crops such as  cabbages and mustards (brassicas).

– keep the grass long (3″ or more) to reduce mowing times. Mow with a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the lawn, where they will serve as natural fertilizer. There is no need to water unless you reseeded this fall (see below).

– if you reseeded the lawn this fall, continue to water them until the temperature stays below 40 degrees.

– if you have places where grass won’t grow, consider planting something else next spring!

– as perennials finish blooming, leave the dead flowers on the plants. Collect seeds as they ripen; let most remain to feed the birds next winter.

– think about next year’s perennial garden: what needs to be cut back, moved, divided, replanted?

– we have had a killing frost, so remove dead plants: tender annual flowers such as marigolds and nasturtiums, eggplants, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes. Compost healthy plant material, discard plants that were attacked by insects or disease.

– take advantage of the relatively cool weather to do garden chores, such as fall cleanup, but do not prune now that woody plants are actively shedding their leaves. We’ve gotten some rain, so do some weeding, especially of winter annuals that will bloom and set seed in very early spring.

collect the leaves you need for the coming year’s compost pile

– many trees and shrubs can be planted in fall, but be sure to provide winter protection (mulch) and to keep watering until the ground freezes and again in spring if needed

Enjoy the last of the fall colors–now that we’ve had some rain, the remaining leaves will come down quickly.

Colors of autumn



I don’t ever remember seeing autumns colors as beautiful as last year’s and this year’s. The hickories are a glorious yellow with a touch of brown, the dogwoods are holding their dark red tints for what seems like an impossibly long time, and as for the red maples and sugar maples, their vermilion, orange, and brilliant red tints are breathtaking. A little research revealed the reason for the show: this has been a season marked by sunny days and cool nights. Under these conditions, green chlorophyll disappears most quickly and completely, leaving behind the underlying red and yellow pigments that are hidden through the growing season.