You must be ruthless

There are lots of ways to kill a lawn to prepare the area for planting something more useful and beautiful (you know I’m not a big fan of lawns, right?). You can use herbicides (not really recommended), you can dig up the grass, or you can smother it. Some people use the lasagna method, which involves a layer of newspapers, a layer of leaves, another layer of something else, and so on. I’m sure it works, but it sounds way too complicated. It’s much simpler to smother the lawn with mulch.

Generally when I know I’m going to extend an old bed or create a new one in the spring, I put down 2-3 inches of cedar or hemlock bark mulch the autumn before. By spring, the grass is dead, and I just plant right through the mulch. (Weed-blocking fabric is another thing that seems way too complicated to me. I mean, weeds grow in the mulch above the fabric, and you have to take it off every time you want to plant. It’s a pain.)

But I just decided today to extend one of the spring-wildflower gardens in front of the house, so I had to kill the lawn quickly. And at the same time, I was removing the winter covering of leaves from a nearby bed. (Those are the leaves that I leave in place in fall.) So instead of carrying the leaves to the backyard compost pile and going out to buy mulch, I decided to try using the same leaves on the new bed. They’ll definitely kill the lawn–I put down a nice thick layer 3-4 inches deep. My only concern is that they’ll form a solid mat that will smother plant growth, as Norway maple leaves are wont to do. But I’m betting those leaves are already decomposed enough that they won’t be able to form a solid surface. And they weren’t all maple leaves–they were everything the wind happened to deliver, and there are oaks nearby.

Here’s the bed I cleared of winter mulch–it’s a semicircle at the front of a shrub island (I left the leaf mulch under the shrubs). The shrubs are coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), with one big black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), and the flower bed has ferns, heuchera, tiarella, columbine, wild geranium, false solomon’s seal, shade-loving asters, and lots of violets.


And here’s the new bed with the leaves spread on it to kill the lawn. The new part of the bed is on the right.


Isn’t it delightful to be out in the garden at long last? I’m trying to squeeze an hour a day out of my schedule. I’ve never enjoyed spring cleanup as much!


Hi there!

I finally got to spend an hour in the garden today–an hour with no snow and no rain and free time to putter a bit and begin to attack the springtime chores. I removed the matted leaves from the patio, where they are staining the pavers, patched part of the backyard lawn, and raked the leaves off parts of the beds with the earliest flowers (although nothing much is showing yet). I expected to see bloodroot or Dutchman’s breeches, but all I uncovered was what will be a lovely patch of Heuchera and Tiarella.


Even without raking aside any covering leaves, I noted that sundrops are bursting up as strongly as ever.


And I drooled over some sorrel, wondering how long it will be before I can pick some of those tart, lemony leaves. There’s nothing better in a green smoothie.


Warm thoughts

It seems like every day for the past month, the weather forecast has predicted higher temperatures than we’ve actually experienced. I think the meteorologists are as sick of cold weather as the rest of us, so they’re giving optimistic forecasts. Today, for the first time, it’s nearly as warm as the forecast said. The temperature has been rising all afternoon, and I just spent a pleasant and anticipatory half hour in the garden, surveying the damage of winter and the promise of spring.

This year’s spring cleanup will be a doozy. Leaves that usually either settle gently or get blown away were buried under two feet of snow and now form a compact layer. There are broken branches everywhere (even though I did remedial pruning whenever I could all winter). BUT . . . when I gently push some of the detritus away or just look closely, I see new growth everywhere. Perennials are starting to come up under the leaf mulch, and buds are starting to swell. I may be able to harvest some sorrel next week.

The forecast now is for temperatures in the 50s for the next ten days. I’ve been waiting for a warm spell to sow early greens, patch the lawn, and uncover the earliest perennials. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll start all of that on Sunday.

Odds and ends


Yesterday’s New York Times published an opinion piece about the damage caused by outdoor cats. I always thought the scientific consensus was that they killed about 1 billion birds per year. Turns out it’s more like 2.5 billion. Think about that in a time when our environment is already fragmented and degraded. We’re starting to realize that what we do in our own backyards has a large impact on the environment we all share.

And speaking of our backyards, every gardener I know is longing to get out there and start planting, but the weather remains stubbornly cold. Right now the temperature is 20 degrees, and snow is predicted for tomorrow night. Every day I plan to sow some early spring greens and uncover my earliest flower beds. Then I look at the weather forecast and decide to wait. It is supposed to get warmer on Thursday and stay in the 50s and 60s for at least a week after that. For at least the past month, the temperature has been persistently colder than the forecasts.

So it’s too early to plant and too late to prune (woody plants are no longer dormant), but there are lots of things you could be doing if, like me, you can’t bear staying indoors any longer: clean up the garden, neaten the edges, put down mulch, trim overgrown vines (Virginia creeper grows on our garage walls, and every spring we give it a haircut). I’m raking the backyard lawn to get the leaf pile back into shape–winter scattered the leaves around quite a bit. The raking also helps loosen the ground in areas where I intend to sow grass seed. And you can always look out the window and enjoy the crocuses.



Signs of spring

Spring is here, really it is. You just have to know where to look for it (a little appreciation for subtlety helps as well in very early spring).


In my garden, native hazelnut (Corylus americana) is in full bloom, but you have to look hard to see it. The female flowers are less than 1/4″ high. The little red tufted thing in the photo is a female flower, and the males are the catkins you see hanging down at the left. The catkins release yellow pollen that floats on the breeze. As is true of most plants with very inconspicuous flowers (think grasses), hazelnuts are wind pollinated. These lovely shrubs produce nuts in August or September that squirrels and other critters immediately devour and leaves that turn a clear lemon yellow in fall. The shrubs grow to about 12′ high but can be kept somewhat shorter by pruning. They are quite easy to grow in any well-drained soil in part or full sun.


In the Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock, signs of spring are everywhere. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is coming into bloom. The purple cones in the photo are the flowers. They’ll open soon and provide early spring food for pollinating flies and bees. The bright green leaves will follow in a couple of weeks, turning the wet woods emerald. Skunk cabbage is a wetland indicator plant–when you see it, you can be quite sure you’re in a wetland.


Also in bloom in the Arboretum is vernal witch hazel (Haemamelis vernalis), a large shrub native to the Ozarks that blooms in early spring or late winter. Our native witch hazel, Haemamelis virginica, is a small tree that blooms in late fall.

And finally, here’s a little ecology quiz: It’s not hard to find examples in nature of plants that bloom in either very early spring or very late fall, like hazelnuts and witch hazel. These out-of-season bloomers tend to be less showy than flowers that appear in warmer weather–why do you think that’s the case? and what’s the advantage to the plant of blooming when very few other plants are blooming? what’s the risk? how does the plant benefit the entire ecosystem that surrounds it?

First day of spring

In honor of today, the first day of spring, also known as the vernal equinox, here’s a gallery of spring ephemerals we’ll be seeing very soon. In April and May, look for these lovely little flowers in parks such as the path between the Glen Rock and Ridgewood duck ponds along the Saddle River or the Fyke Nature Center off of Godwin Avenue in Wyckoff. All these photos were taken by my husband, Bruce R. Thaler.

These plants prefer moist, shady sites, and all are true spring ephemerals: they complete their life cycles in early spring before the trees leaf out. All are quite small: a foot high or less. So plant them along with ferns, wild ginger (Asarum canadensis), native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) and other ground covers.

Because our native trees leaf out later than nonnative trees, you must plant these lovely little guys under native trees. Otherwise they will not receive enough spring sunlight and will gradually die off. But if you have the right conditions, they are readily available, very easy to grow, and will reappear reliably and increase in number every spring.


Cardamine concatenata, cutleaf toothwort, a member of the mustard family.


Erythronium americanum, trout lily, a diminutive member of the lily family. The common name refers to the leaves, which look like speckled trout. These should be appearing very soon in moist woods.


Claytonia virginica, spring beauty, a member of the Portulaceae


Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells, a member of the Boraginaceae. The buds are pink but the open flowers turn deep blue.


Sanguinaria canadensis, bloodroot, a member of the poppy family. This plant grows from tubers and is only about 6 inches high. These last two plants gradually died out in my shade garden because it is located under a Norway maple, which leafs out too early.


Phlox divaricata, woodland phlox. All phloxes belong to the Polemoniaceae. I could not keep this plant going my my shade garden because it is a favorite food of rabbits and deer. I miss it!


And last but not least, our native geranium or cranesbill, Geranium maculatum, a member of the Geraniaceae. This blooms a bit later than the others, in May, grows from rhizomes, is very easy to move and divide, but is visible from only a few weeks in spring.

Hard winter woes

DSCN1283Now that the snow has melted, much of our suburban landscape consists of flattened, brown, dried-up-looking lawns and winter-burned shrubs. The evergreen Euonymus shrubs that so many people use (various clones of E. fortunei, E. japonicus, or E. kiautschovicus) are especially hard hit by winter burn: the combination of cold temperatures and dryness meant that the shrubs couldn’t move water to their leaves. As a result, the plants sacrificed many of their outer leaves. The result is dried-up, brown foliage. The shrub is still alive, but those brown leaves are not. They won’t turn green again.


What should you do? You’re probably tempted to apply lots of fertilizer to the lawn and to whip out your pruning tools. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already realize that I’m going to tell you to do nothing at all, at least right now.

Fertilizer is exactly what the plants don’t need. They are just waking up, and they can’t use it. What they do need is sunlight, warmth, and water. Nature will give them the first two very soon, and the soil is already quite wet from the snow melt. So resist the temptation to resort to quick chemical fixes. And now is the wrong time to prune.

You know I’m not a big fan of lawns, because I think they use up way more resources than they deserve. In general, I advocate no feeding at all, or perhaps one organic feeding per year, in fall. So I suggest doing nothing: Give the lawn time to photosynthesize, and it will turn green. Really, it will. That’s what plants do when exposed to sunlight–they can’t help it. The grass has been covered with snow for months, all sunlight has been blocked, and it could not make food for itself all winter. As the sunlight gets stronger and the weather warms up, the lawn will begin to grow vigorously (unless there’s some other underlying problem, such as shade or very wet soil). Just try to be a little bit patient. If the weather turns dry, you might water a bit, but no other help is needed.

As for the shrubs, winter burn is mostly affecting broadleaf evergreens, Euonymus in particular. I know it looks terrible, but once again, resist the temptation to take drastic action. Until the shrub is growing actively, you can’t tell which branches, if any, are dead, so you may prune either too much or not enough. Wait until the shrub shows new growth, and then prune back to that point. The correct time to prune broadleaf evergreens is always mid-spring, when they’re putting out new growth. Wait until then, prune back to healthy new growth, and the shrub will respond with lots of vigorous new shoots, although it make take it several years to regain its previous size.

As always, it’s best to rely on nature rather than on quick fixes.