Signs of spring

In her groundbreaking 1993 book Noah’s Garden, the great environmental writer Sara Stein said that by this time of year, it seems like Nature’s clock has wound down and stopped. However,

. . . the pendulum has in fact reached the height of its swing, has stored more energy than at any other time of year, and is poised to descend with all the gathered momentum of warm summer days down through the cold to spring. Energy is stored in the goose that has been eating our grass all summer, in the honey the bees have stored up in their hive, in the fruit and in the sweet sap trees have stashed in their roots.

Energy is stored in fruits, in buds, and in rosettes of new green leaves. It’s all there, ready for spring. You just have to look for the signs.


Many perennials grow next year’s leaves in fall. In this photo, taken this week, you can see spring leaves of columbine, spiderwort, and queen of the prairie.


A goldenrod plant has grown a large rosette of leaves and several small offshoots.


Viburnum prunifolium has produced big fat flower buds that are clearly distinguishable from smaller leaf buds.


And the catkins–next spring’s male flowers—of hazelnuts are fully formed and waiting for warm weather to elongate and release pollen.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Winter bounty


My garden is as lively with birds in winter as in summer, and this is why: I leave lots of leaf litter, and I leave the perennials and grasses in place until spring. Ground-feeding birds sift through the litter for seeds and insects, and perching birds feed from the standing stalks. It’s the perfect habitat for the mixed foraging flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows, and juncos that come through almost daily and for the cardinals, jays, and mourning doves that live here year round. Look closely at the picture above, and you’ll see seeds of native grasses, asters, monarda, boltonia, and several other plants. Every time I look out the winter I see birds.

Planted near the sidewalk is a low-growing border that’s exuberant with spring-blooming natives, most of which went dormant months ago. Now it too is loaded with seed of shade-loving asters; ferns and other groundcover plants (Heuchera and Tiarella) hold the leaf mulch in place. I “mulch” my gardens by simply allowing the leaves to remain where they fall. They insulate and enrich the soil, shelter overwintering moth and butterfly larvae, and help feed the birds.


In a part of the garden that I allow to look a bit more wild, htere are tall seed stalks of sweet joe pye weed, white snakeroot, an unknown volunteer goldenrod, and many other plants against a backdrop of hemlocks. This joe pye weed grew 8 feet tall this year and will feed the birds all winter.


11/21/14: In the garden this week


Since we got home from vacation, I’ve been busy gathering this year’s valuable crop of fallen leaves. No leaves, no compost for next year’s vegetable garden.

The weather has been very cold, although the soil is not yet frozen. This means that plants continue to grow roots, so it’s not too late to some plant large trees, and that you should not stop watering newly installed perennials and woody plants. Root growth continues until the soil temperature goes below about 40 degrees.

Here are some tasks you might attend to this weekend:

continue to water newly installed perennials and woody plants as needed. The recommended amount is 1 inch per week during dry spells, but we received a good soaking this week (3 inches of rain according to my yogurt-container rain gauge), so hold off for now.

do not prune woody plants. Trees and shrubs are still carrying out leaf abscission, the complicated process of shutting down for winter. This process takes a lot of energy, so plants don’t have energy to spare for making scar tissue. The next pruning window will come soon, when plants reach dormancy.

– thoroughly clean up the vegetable garden. Do not compost diseased or pest-infested plants. Spread a layer of compost to prepare the soil for next year.

leave seedheads in place on perennials and native grasses and enjoy the bird activity all winter.

save your autumn leaves for compost. Store them to add to the compost pile all year. You may also decide to use your lawnmower to chop them and mulch them into your lawn as fertilizer.


Birds eat the seeds of little bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium) throughout the winter.

Choosing plants


Part of a sunny border at the end of June, including long-established and new plants, all very attractive to pollinators. From left to right: yellow sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), purple beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), white dotted mint (Monarda punctata), orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), more sundrops and butterflyweed, and white new jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), plus grasses and taller perennials that will bloom later in the season.

I have a mental checklist that I use to choose plants for my garden. It goes like this:

1. Is it pretty? If I like the plant’s looks, I go on to:

2. Is it native to this area? There are many definitions of “native plant.” I mean, according to good authorities, was it growing here, in northern New Jersey, before European settlement? If it most likely was, the next question is:

3. Is it a pure species? I greatly prefer species to hybrids or cultivars or varieties. Species are fertile, and I want to be able to collect seeds. Species were designed by nature, not by plant growers or scientists, so they are likely to produce flowers in colors that pollinators can recognize and that are not so big the stems can’t support them. If I can find a pure species, the next question is:

4. Is it adapted to the specific site? No matter how pretty or how native, there’s no point in planting something that can’t survive in the specific soil, water, and light conditions; there’s no point in planting a large tree in a small bed or groundcover where you need a shrub or a wetland plant in dry soil. If it is adapted to the site, I ask:

5. It is useful to wildlife? I plant for the birds and the butterflies and the myriad pollinators too small to notice or to name. I check reference books and field guides to find out what the critters want to eat. Chokecherry yes, redbud no. Space is limited, and one is useful to a wider variety of species than the other. If it’s a good wildlife plant, I ask:

6. Is it common in the area? There are few plants more useful to a wider range of animal species than oaks, but there are already lots of oaks (there are also lots of redbuds, because people plant them as front-lawn specimens). So I’ll plant something else, equally useful, that used to be common but is now missing–like serviceberry and elderberry. Once I decide on that rarer plant, I need to ask:

7. Can I find a commercial source? This is usually the problem. I choose plants for clients for a living, so I’ve developed a fairly wide range of sources, but I often wind up substituting a different species after a fruitless search. Sometimes the plant I want finally appears on the market, sometimes it never does. I would like a local source but will settle for a midwestern one. If I can find a source, the final question is:

8. How was the plant grown? I want healthy plants, and I particularly want plants that were grown in a nursery, not collected from the wild. I would prefer to inspect the plants myself, but I’ll settle for mail order from a reputable grower if absolutely necessary.


Chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) at the end of July. The birds devour them the second they are fully ripe.

Loving monarchs to death

The lead story in today’s Science Times concerns a new threat to monarchs: too much love. It seems that people in northern areas are planting milkweed for monarchs, which is great, but some are planting tropical milkweed species instead of our native temperate zone species. Finding milkweed at the wrong time of year, the monarchs breed out of season, leading to reproductive failure and high rates of disease. Nature is complicated.

If you plant milkweed for monarchs, stick to native species, such as orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), which blooms in June, is very tolerant of dry sites, and is shown here with bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)


or red milkweed (A. incarnata), which blooms June-July and is taller and more moisture tolerant


or common milkweed (A. syriaca), which has large, leathery leaves and can still be found growing wild in our area.

Photo by Rachel Vannette

New Jersey native plants legislation

I’ve been away for almost a month, and while I was away I received an email, through the NPSNJ list, from a member of Save Barnegat Bay. The email concerns a sensible piece of legislation that’s working its way through the NJ legislature. The proposed law would require the state Department of Transportation to plant only native plants along NJ highways. Here’s the text of the email I received; please follow the instructions for contacting your state senators and assembly members. Let’s make sure our representatives know how important native plants are to us:

The “DOT Native Plants Bill

S-2004 / A-3305

If enacted, this bill will require the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the NJ Turnpike Authority (which includes the Garden State Parkway), and the South Jersey Transportation Authority to use ONLY NATIVE PLANTS for landscaping, land management, reforestation, or habitat restoration on the 2,800 miles highways they manage in New Jersey.

Please write your state Senator and Assembly representatives and urge passage of the “DOT Native Plants Bill – S-2004 / A-3305” in order to preserve the water quality, natural beauty, and local character of all of New Jersey’s neighborhoods including its rivers, lakes, and bays for the future.

The name of your legislators and their addresses are very easy to find on the New Jersey State Legislature website,  The text of S2004 / A3305 can also be easily found there.

This bill was written for Save Barnegat Bay by Senator Jim Holzapfel and Assemblymen David Wolfe and Greg McGuckin. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Senator Kip Bateman are co-sponsors. The bill has real momentum. It has already passed the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.