More winter food

My garden feeds the birds and other wild critters throughout the winter, and I never put out feeders (to see why, please read this). Some foods are available in spring (when demand is highest and supply is actually lowest), some in summer, fall, or winter. Nature provides food for wild animals all through the year, and your garden can too. This post will focus on winter foods; check back soon for plant suggestions for the other three seasons.

Winter foods tend to be those that birds do not favor–they’re the fruits that don’t get eaten the second they ripen. From the bird’s point of view they’re an emergency cache; from our point of view, they’re winter color. Top choices include hollies (Ilex species), such as American holly, winterberry holly (I. verticillata), and inkberry holly (I. glabra) They’re lovely and colorful throughout the winter.

Most viburnums produce berries that get eaten as soon as they ripen. An exception is cranberrybush viburnum (V. trilobum). The bright-red berries remain on the plant for most of the winter.

Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is an underused plant. It’s a low-growing, spreading shrub that does well in dry soil and shade. It produces tiny, bright-pink berries that serve as winter food all season long.

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Don’t forget about the perennial garden when you think about winter food. The main reason I don’t clean up the perennial garden until spring is to provide sustenance through the winter. The most popular seeds–those of sunflowers, asters, grasses–are long gone, but plenty of plants are still full of seeds, particularly ironweed (Vernonia) and brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba). And if you let leaf litter remain on the ground among the plants, it will protect fallen seeds and overwintering insects that birds will forage for all winter whenever there’s no snow on the ground.

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Many birds, especially tiny ones like kinglets, chickadees, and nuthatches, and of course woodpeckeers, eat insects throughout the year. In winter, they find them under tree bark. They’re doing a good service to your trees by eating those insects, some of which can be harmful to trees. Do don’t be in a hurry to spray pesticides on your woody plants (this is the time of year when your tree care company is trying to sell you as many treatments as possible  for next season, so think carefully about what you really need). Spraying pesticides often means eliminating the food that can sustain our native bird populations throughout the year.

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The garden in snow

More snow yesterday–snow on top of snow, and the temperature hasn’t risen above 20 degrees for what seems like two weeks. The garden was particularly pretty yesterday afternoon while the snow was still falling.

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Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is holding its seedheads high above the snow for the birds to take advantage of. Although most of the most nutritious seeds (such as sunflower) and berries (such as dogwood) are long gone, plenty of winter food remains for the birds we see everyday.

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) should be called pinkberry. The berries remain bright pink all winter. So please, please consider this small, carefree native shrub instead of the invasive beautyberry.

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If your garden isn’t feeding the birds all winter, check back soon for a list of plants you might consider for winter food.

In the dead of winter

If there ever was a day to plan the coming season’s garden, that day is today: 18 degrees Fahrenheit and the beginning of a major winter storm, with 3 inches of fresh snow on the ground already. So here goes.

In the perennial beds, my major goal this year will be to cut back some of the more, shall we say, enthusiastic plants and introduce some additional species, with the overall objective being greater diversity. For example, in one bed Rudbeckia subtomentosa, sweet black-eyed Susan, is crowding out other plants; in another bed, the culprit is bergamot (Monarda fistulosa):

No effects of heat stress on prairie plants.

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Both of these are lovely plants–but I have too many of them, and they’re tall plants growing too close to the fronts of their respective beds. So I will dig some out, give them away, and plant lower-growing perennials and grasses to rebalance the plots. The plants I plan to order include prairie dropseed (a grass, Sporobolus heterolepsis), vervain (Verbena stricta), dotted mint (Monarda punctata), lanceleaf and rose coreopsis (C. lanceolata and C. rosea), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), and nodding pink onion (Allium cernuum). Some of these are new to my garden, some are proven favorites.

I will order most of my plants from Prairie Nursery, a mail-order nursery in Wisconsin that specializes in pure species of native plants. I have ordered from them many times over the years and have found both their plants and their shipping methods to be very high quality. They will start shipping for the season in mid-April, but if you order now, you will get free shipping.

In the shrub beds, the major need is pruning, and this weather will prevent it. We did major pruning last winter, but many multistemmed  shrubs require yearly maintenance to keep them healthy and to prevent them from growing too large for a small garden.With luck, we’ll have some storm-free days between now and mid-February to get the pruning done.

I plan to approach the vegetable garden differently this coming year than in the past. As I have mentioned here, I have a plot in the Glen Rock Community Garden, and while I am very happy to be included there and have met and learned from some great gardeners over the past three seasons, some members are not as vigilant as they should be about removing diseased plants. As a result, the garden becomes full of pests and diseases by late summer, and harvests suffer. To  combat these problems, I plan to concentrate on early and late crops, primarily greens of various types; herbs such as parsley and dill that the rabbits destroy in my garden (the community garden is well fenced in); quick-harvesting crops like peas and, perhaps, one sowing of green beans. I’ll grow my tomatoes at home to avoid all the blights that affect the garden.

I’m looking forward to the first taste of mesclun and mustard greens, typically sown in March and ready around May 1:

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Winter pruning multistemmed shrubs

Right now–the dead of winter, when woody plants are completely dormant–is one of the best times of year to prune. Because I have a small garden and many of my shrubs want to be larger than I want them to be, I do a lot of pruning every winter. And today it was neither raining nor 10 degrees outside, so I pruned three large shrubs.

The way to keep the size of a large shrub under control is to remove individual canes close to ground level. Each year, you remove a few of the largest branches. This keeps the shrub vigorous and helps maintain a compact size. This rule holds for all multistemmed shrubs, including lilacs, viburnums, dogwoods, aronias, serviceberries, hydrangeas, forsythia. If it’s a woody plant that produces multiple stems, this is how and when you prune it.

Most people try to prune shrubs totally incorrectly: they cut off the tops of the branches, as if they were giving the poor shrub a bad haircut. The shrub responds by putting out lots of small branches just below the cuts, and the result is something that looks like multiple witches’ broomsticks. Not to mention a shrub that is wider and almost as tall as before and that retains all its oldest wood.

So here’s how you should do it: Select up to one-third of the canes, the largest ones,  and cut them off as close to ground level as you can, making clean, angled cuts so water will not pool in the cut surface. You may have to remove a few smaller canes to allow you to reach the large ones, but that’s OK. This technique reduces the overall size of the shrub, encourages it to produce new, vigorous branches, and increases its overall health and vigor.

Today I pruned a large American hazelnut (Corylus americana) whose branches were getting too close to our front walkway; a black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) that was blocking part of the sidewalk; and a cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) that’s planted too close to the back door. The pictures show how I pruned the hazelnut in detail:

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The base of the hazelnut is at the center of the picture near the bottom. Note how may stems there are and how the plant is leaning over the walkway. This shrub has been in place for over 10 years and has reached a mature height of more than 12 feet. We pruned it pretty severely last winter, and it responded by  blooming and fruiting heavily last year and producing a lot of young stems. Today I decided to remove just the two largest canes.

Here’s what the shrub looked like after pruning–notice the two cuts, made diagonally through the stems:

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And here’s a detail of the two cut stems, which were made with a handsaw:

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Unfortunately we’re due for a storm tomorrow, because I really want to get out there and prune. It makes me feel as if spring will really come.

Winter food

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As I’ve explained, I don’t put out bird feeders, but there’s lots of food in my backyard habitat for birds and other critters. This picture shows the berries of coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus), which will remain for most of the winter. Here are also lots of seeds still on the plants, particularly on the Rudbeckias:

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These pictures were taken within the last couple of weeks (just before and just after the snow melted). In the middle of this particularly wretched winter, native plants still provide plenty of seeds and other nutritious foods. And the leaf litter serves as shelter for moths and butterflies. I don’t clean up the garden until spring, so all of last summer’s bounty remains to help wildlife get through the winter.

I wish I could capture the bird activity with my camera. It’s continually fascinating.

Hasbrouck Heights Garden Club January 16

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I’ll be presenting a talk and slide show on “Easy to Grow Native Plants” this Thursday evening at 7:00 at the Hasbrouck Heights Garden Club. The Garden Club meets in the Hasbrouck Heights Free Public Library at 320 Boulevard.

I’ll also be speaking in Glen Rock, Wyckoff, and at a meeting of the Bergen-Passaic chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey in the near future, among other places. Look for upcoming announcements here.

The deep freeze is good news for the environment

The temperature is supposed hit 32 degrees today, but on Tuesday it topped out at 9 degrees, a reading we are no longer accustomed to. Although in the past we would typically have a day or so with negative readings each winter, that hasn’t happened in over twenty years, and as a result, the environment is changing in many ways. The most obvious example is that we are now considered to be in climate zone 7a, not zone 6b as we used to be.

I wrote recently about some of the ill effects of warming on our local environment. Yesterday’s New York Times presents some hopeful news about the recent freeze: the temperature might have gone low enough to kill off pine bark beetles in the Pinelands and hemlock wooly adelgids in Connecticut. We won’t know for sure until next summer, but the news is good.

And as for me, I’m hoping the deep freeze will result in a smaller crop of baby rabbits next spring. Surely this cold weather wiped out some of those pesky critters.