8/29/14: In the garden this week

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The first New England asters are open, a sure sign of fall. (I’m cheating a bit with this photo, which was taken last year. It’s been too breezy to take closeups in the garden.) The cool nights have been delightful–we’ve barely used our air conditioning this year. In the past week or so, I’ve been seeing hints of color everywhere, especially on the dogwoods and Virginia creeper. Many trees have dropped substantial numbers of leaves. So if you would like to start saving leaves for a compost pile or if you’ve run out of last year’s leaves, now’s the time.

With the shift in seasons comes a shift in garden chores:

– For the first time this season, the ground is quite dry, so if we don’t get significant rain very soon, water newly installed perennials and woody plants and vegetables. The recommended amount is 1 inch per week during dry spells. Established plants should not need watering.

stop pruning woody plants. Many trees and shrubs have begun leaf abscission, the complicated process of shutting down for winter. This takes a lot of energy, so plants don’t have energy to spare for making scar tissue. The next pruning window will come when plants reach dormancy in late fall.

– tomato vines are still ripening fruit, so give them no more than 1 inch of water per week. Remember to take rainfall amounts into account when determining how much to water. Water in the morning, and water deeply. Continue to stake and tie tomato plants and to remove suckers.

plant fall crops such as lettuce, spinach, and other salad greens.

perennials should need no care. Leave seedheads in place–birds will eat the seeds you don’t collect.

– if you fertilize your lawn, apply a slow-release organic fertilizer. Fertilizing is quite unnecessary, but for those who choose to do it, this is the one recommended feeding. Lawns do not need watering, even in a dry period: the more you water, the more you have to mow! Use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the grass.

start your autumn leaf collection: save your autumn leaves for compost. Decide where you will keep them.

consider fall planting. Many perennials and woody plants can be safely installed in fall. Wait for the weather to cool down a bit. Late September to mid-October is usually a good window of time in this area, while woody plants can be planted until the ground freezes.

Enjoy this lovely holiday weekend (but hope for some rain)! And do think about saving those leaves. This cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) certainly thinks it’s fall.

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Late August

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Despite the lack of rain over the past two weeks (and the fact that I have no sprinkler system and haven’t owned a hose or sprinkler in two years), the garden is going strong. Little bluestem glows in the sun, framed by Rudbeckia and Boltonia.

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Nodding pink onion (Allium cernum) looks down shyly. Here little bluestem becomes the frame for the picture. Only 18″ tall, this is a useful plant for edging late-summer gardens. It loves my dry soil.

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Great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica) glows with blue flame that lures you to cross the backyard and examine the intricate flowers more closely.

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Now that the elderberries and grey dogwood berries are all gone, pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) attracts birds from near and far. Birds plant it everywhere; do you think of it as a weed? I let one or two plants remain because of their enormous value to wildlife. I also think they’re interesting to look at. Notice the flowers and fully formed fruit on the same cluster.

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 About 20 years ago we planted 5 everbearing raspberries from Burpee. They’re making their second crop of the season right now (the first one was in July). Despite being crowded by the many shrubs and perennials I’ve planted since, they continue to produce luscious raspberries for the birds (and even a few for us). If you’ve got sun, try raspberries. 

 

How about growing this: Grey dogwood

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This is what grey dogwood (Cornus sericea) looks like right now in my garden–shrubs covered with bright red stems that held abundant greyish-white fruit less than a week ago. The second the berries ripen, the birds eat them. This is what the shrubs looked like as the fruit was ripening, about a week ago:

Fruits of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

And this is what the fragrant flowers looked like in early June:

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

Seriously, why aren’t you growing this gorgeous member of the dogwood genus? Cornus sericea is naturally found in sunny wet places, often in company with arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). If you visit the Celery Farm preserve in Allendale, NJ, you will see the two growing together in the wetland area.Grey dogwood is also plentiful along the stream in the new FairLawn Arboretum. My site is anything but wet (dry, dry, sandy soil), but both these shrubs do extremely well for me along an east-facing brick wall. They seem to do well in every situation from full sun to almost complete shade.

Grey dogwood will grow up to 12′ tall and 3 wide. It spreads quite enthusiastically by means of rhizomes, but it’s easy to keep it shorter and smaller by removing the largest stems each year or so. About every two years, I cut thin out the largest shrubs, either in the winter or just after the fruit ripens and disappears. I also frequently dig out small shrubs in spring and give them away.

In addition to their beautiful flowers and fruit, these plants have the lovely dark-red fall color common to dogwoods. They are well worth growing both for their ornamental value and for their value to wildlife.

 

8/22/14: In the garden this week

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Boltonia asteroides is in full bloom in my garden, and the first New England asters are opening: the garden is shifting into autumn mode. It’s time to stop pruning, to plant fall crops, and to start getting ready for winter:

– We received a scant inch of rain over the past 24 hours, after a bit of a dry spell, so if we don’t get significantly more rain, water newly installed perennials and woody plants and vegetables. The recommended amount is 1 inch per week during dry spells. Established plants should not need watering.

stop pruning woody plants. Many trees and shrubs are losing leaves, which means they’re beginning leaf abscission, the complicated process of shutting down for winter. This takes a lot of energy, so plants don’t have energy to spare for making scar tissue. The next pruning window will come when plants reach dormancy in late fall.

monitor the vegetable garden for pests and diseases and take action immediately. In particular, remove plants affected by borers and wilt, and hand-pick to keep pest populations low.

– tomato vines are still ripening fruit, so cut back to 1 inch of water per week. Remember to take rainfall amounts into account when determining how much to water. Water in the morning, and water deeply. Continue to stake and tie tomato plants and to remove suckers.

plant fall crops such as lettuce, spinach, and other salad greens.

perennials should need no care except pinching to promote bushy plants and keep plants short when necessary. Leave seedheads in place–birds will eat the seeds you don’t collect.

– if you fertilize your lawn (which is unnecessary), plan to apply a slow-release organic fertilizer around Labor Day. Lawns do not need watering: the more you water, the more you have to mow! Use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the grass.

plan for your autumn leaf collection: save your autumn leaves for compost. Decide now where you will keep them.

One of the most wonderful things about having a garden is observing the change of seasons in minute detail. What changes are you noticing in your garden?

Late summer blues

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Agastache feoniculum (lavender hyssop) is a relatively new plant to my garden, and like almost everything, it’s looking spectacular this year. Here you see it surrounded by two species of Rudbeckia, little bluestem, and young Monarda didyma (bergamot). This plant has a wonderful licorice scent, and the flowers are delicious in salads. It loves a dry, sunny site and seems to have no cultural problems. Its only drawback is that it doesn’t seem to be truly perennial. I suspect it’s a self-seeding annual or biennial, although plant catalogs list it as perennial. In my garden, it comes up in different places from year to year, not always in the same place like a true perennial.

Another plant for late-summer blues is great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). This plant is in full bloom right now, and the flowers are almost startlingly blue. You can see them across the yard. Great blue lobelia is extremely adaptable, from full sun to almost full shade, and although it would probably prefer a slightly wetter site, it does very well in my dry, sandy soil. This spring I divided one large clump and spread it all over the backyard, and we are enjoying it very much. This one, at the edge of my forest, is in almost total shade.

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Hints of fall

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It’s been a remarkably cool summer. We’ve barely used our central air conditioning, and many nights we’ve had to turn off the attic fan because it cooled down the house too much. Delightful! Actually, if you look back at historical weather records, it’s been a normal summer. It’s just that over the past 20 years or so we’ve become accustomed to brutal, sultry summers. This one and last one were welcome respites.

My garden is still in late-summer mode, with Rudbeckias going strong, Boltonias just beginning to bloom, asters and goldenrod showing swelling buds, native grasses in bloom, and tomatoes ripening daily. Nevertheless, I see signs of fall all around me, due, no doubt, to the cool nighttime temperatures. The picture above shows spicebush (Lindera benzoin), planted in one of the shrub islands in my front lawn (and abundant in this area in shady, wet places). We noticed catbird activity in the island, and a quick check verified that the berries were ripening. The birds always know before we do!

Notice all the yellow leaves. You’ll often see just a few yellow or red leaves on a shrub with ripe fruit. I think the plant is using so much energy to ripen its fruit that it has to let go of a few relatively unimportant leaves. But leaf coloration, which we call a foliar flag, also signals ripe fruit to birds. So perhaps the spicebush is sending out a yellow leaf signal in addition to the red berry one. Or perhaps the nights have been so cool that leaf abscission has begun. I am also seeing yellow leaves on my ninebark shrubs and on plane trees in my daily walks around town. (I didn’t have time to post a list of garden chores this week, but if I had, I would have told you to stop pruning until woody plants go completely dormant. Do not prune while plants are using energy to shut down for the season.)

The birds are having a bonanza, or perhaps a smorgasbord, in my garden right now. In addition to the spicebush, the grey dogwood is also ripening its berries, and the Aronia and elderberries have just disappeared. The noise is unbelievable–catbirds let out ear-piercing screeches as they divebomb into shrubs for fruit. It’s highly entertaining. I will miss these noisy aerial acrobats when they migrate south in a few more weeks.

And then, of course, there are the goldfinches in the Rudbeckias and sunflowers:

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Planning for next year

My main garden task in July and August, besides weeding of new beds (established ones are too densely planted for weeds to take hold) is to plan for next year. I stroll around my gardens and ruminate. Here’s the list of chores and changes I’m working on:

— prune the ninebark shrubs in the front islands during the coming winter. I did this the winter before last, and the shrubs are once again quite crowded. This has led to an outbreak of powdery mildew, something I’ve never seen before on this species in my garden.

— as soon as the birds finish eating the grey dogwood berries, prune back these shrubs along the garage. And remember to do a post about this beautiful and underused species (Cornus sericea).

— and while I’m thinking about pruning, prune back some of the male spicebush shrubs along the driveway. And get pictures of the ripe berries before the birds snatch them, if possible. And once more, for another year, I missed the ripe hazelnuts. I just saw the shells on the ground after the squirrels devoured them. This year I did glimpse a squirrel swinging wildly on a slender stem as it ate the nuts. But the squirrel was gone before I could get a picture. How many pictures of empty shells do you really want to look at?

— divide almost every clump of little bluestem and, for the first time, give away divisions of this gorgeous grass. Most clumps are several feet wide and the grass is approaching 4 feet tall. Time to divide, spread it around, and go smaller.

— move that hidden phlox. I’ve finally figured out where to put it: in the middle of the bed of queen of the prairie that looks quite disgraceful this time of year. It goes dormant while the phlox is still going strong, and it should also protect the phlox from critters, because nothing seems to eat queen of the prairie. I’ll also put in some low-growing late bloomers and more grasses, and maybe next year I’ll be willing to show a picture of this area of the garden.

What are your plans for next year’s garden? This is the time to plan!