Planning for spring

Yes, we’re in the middle of a record-breaking blizzard. Yes, the accumulated snow will keep me from my winter work of pruning clients’ shrubs. Yes, there will soon be so much snow on the ground I won’t even be able to take measurements for clients’ designs. So I’m planning this year’s vegetable garden.

If you’ve never had a vegetable garden before, now is the time to plan. All you need is a small plot of ground, or even just some large pots, some rich soil, sun, and a plan for keeping critters away. A vegetable garden must get at least 6 hours of sun per day, and more is better.

Many early crops can be sown directly in the ground as soon as the soil is workable, usually by mid- to late March. These crops include lettuce, arugula and other bitter greens, spinach, mesclun mixes, and peas. Depending on the weather, I generally sow all these around mid-March. I begin to harvest the greens about six weeks after planting and the peas in early June. Once the weather gets good and hot, I pull all these crops up and plant something else in their place. A plot that’s roughly 4 x 4 feet gives us several large salads each week. So order your seeds now. Mid-March is only six weeks away!

Other crops can be started from seeds indoors, either under lights or in a sunny window, and then transplanted into the garden after the last frost date (which, depending on the source you trust, is somewhere around the end of April here in Bergen County). Working back from a last-frost date of April 30, here’s when you could start seeds indoors for a variety of popular crops:

  • End of January: Asparagus
  • End of February: Lettuce, onions
  • March 5: Broccoli, endive, escarole
  • March 12: Tomatoes
  • March 19: Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, kale
  • March 26: Beets
  • April 2: Leeks, summer and winter squash
  • April 9: Cucumbers, melons

Other tender crops, such as corn and beans, are sown directly outdoors, but not until the soil is good and warm, usually sometime in May.

If all goes well, by late May (just four months from now!), your vegetable garden may look like this:

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Late May in the vegetable garden: peas grow up the fencing at the rear; spring greens are in the middle, and the first row of beans is up front.

Winter wildlife

I’m developing a new talk and slide show on attracting wildlife to the garden, so I’m thinking about animals more than plants these days. Where have all the critters gone for the winter? What are they doing, and when do they become active? I discovered recently that red foxes are breeding now–their breeding season normally runs from January to March–and I’m hearing from a lot of people that foxes are unusually visible right now.

Grey squirrels also breed in winter and raise their first litter of the year in February or March. Our ubiquitous eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is native throughout the eastern half of the United States and into Canada. It’s native here and is not a problem to gardens: squirrels primarily eat nuts and seeds, plus the occasional egg or insect. They do not dig up most plants (although they are sometimes known to snack on tulip bulbs). The story is different in parts of the world where they are not native: grey squirrels were introduced into Australia (where they were eliminated in the 1970s) and into Great Britain, where they are displacing the native red squirrels. Google “grey squirrels UK” and you will find articles and websites about controlling alien grey squirrels through shooting, trapping, poisoning, and selling the meat (presumably not the poisoned meat) in supermarkets. You’ll also find the various wildlife groups weighing in, and not always in the way you might think. Kind of like our unwelcome European starlings and sparrows.

Woodchucks and chipmunks both hibernate, but like the foxes and squirrels, rabbits and deer are active all winter. Rabbits take shelter in the deep leaf litter in my tree islands; they nibble grass and young twigs. In the back of the garden, we sometimes see a place where deer have bedded down overnight–all the dried plants are flattened. And of course we see the damage they do to young woody plants in particular.

Hawks have been particularly active lately in this area. I see them soaring above me every day, and I’m always happy to welcome them. They and the foxes are our best hope to keep the rabbit population in check. Other frequently observed winter birds are woodpeckers, particularly the very common red-bellied woodpecker, native sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees (I hear them every day), cardinals, blue jays, and juncos. Lately I’ve had small flocks of mourning doves in my backyard. When the flocks break up into single birds and pairs, I’ll know their breeding season is underway.

We’re going to have a storm tonight and tomorrow. But today or Sunday are both wonderful days for getting out and observing the winter wildlife. And don’t forget to keep up with your winter pruning!

Mourning cloak butterflies

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Adult mourning cloak in early spring

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is the earliest butterly to appear in late winter or early spring. This picture was taken last April 3 in the Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock. Last winter was particularly long and hard; most years mounring cloaks appear earlier in spring, sometimes even during temporary winter warm spells. I thought about them on a particularly springlike day last week. A person can always hope and look forward!

Mourning cloaks have an unusual lifecycle: the reason they appear so early in spring is that they overwinter as adults, usually in tree cavities or under loose bark (yet another reason to leave some dead wood standing on trees–look for a forthcoming post on dead trees and detritus). As soon as the weather warms up, they begin to fly, and the males select territories to defend and in which they try to attract females.

Mourning cloaks are said to have the longest lifespan of any butterfly–almost a full year. Soon after they emerge from hibernation in spring, the butterflies mate. The females lay their eggs on a variety of trees–willow, poplar, elm, and hackberry, among others. The eggs hatch in about 10-15 days, and throughout the spring and early summer, the caterpillars go through 4 or 5 instars, all the while voraciously eating the young leaves. Adults commonly enter an inactive phase, called aestivation, during warm weather. In fall, they wake up and begin feeding, primarily on tree sap, to build up fat reserves for hibernation.

Mourning cloak caterpillar

Mourning cloaks are easy to identify, because no other butterfly has the combination of dark wings (variously described as brown, purple, or maroon) with pale yellow borders. They are large–their wingspan may be up to 4 inches across. They occur throughout the northern temperate zones, particularly in Canada, Europe, and the United States, and live primarily in woodland edges. They are easiest to see in early spring when they emerge. The one in the photo at the top of the post was most likely displaying his handsome wings to attract females for mating.

Red foxes

A red fox (Vulpes vulpes) crossed my path today. It ran across Main Street in Glen Rock, entered the shallow woods along the railroad tracks, sat down, and watched me and my dog walk by. (The dog was very interested.) We’ve known for years that foxes live all along the railroad tracks, and we occasionally see them at dawn or dusk, but I’ve never seen one in the middle of the afternoon before. But it’s breeding season, when wild animals are more likely to be seen.

I’ve always been glad to see foxes, given the enormous numbers of rabbits and other herbivores that plague me and other gardeners. (I’m also glad to see hawks and would be delighted to know that coyotes came to this area–I know they’re common farther north.) Foxes are predators, but since they’re only about the size of housecats and are extremely shy of humans, the environmental benefits they confer far outweigh any possible dangers they pose.

Scientists are divided on whether the red fox is a native species, a hybrid of a native species with the European red fox, or an introduced species. What’s generally agreed is that red foxes are omnivores, although they do a great deal of hunting, primarily of small mammals such as rabbits; that they are mostly active at night; and that they are solitary except when breeding and raising young.

Many people are alarmed by the mere presence of a predator, and it’s true that foxes, like all wild mammals, carry diseases. So certainly we should not feed or attempt to handle any wild animals. However, foxes are small and retiring and never threaten humans; on the contrary, they perform an important service by keeping down the rabbit population. The reason we suburbanites have so much trouble with herbivores such as rabbits and deer is that we’ve eliminated the predators that are the natural control of their populations. Let’s root for the foxes and coyotes and hawks and rejoice in every sign that nature is working. Go foxes!

Red fox kits, photo credit-Herbert Lange

And their kits are incredibly cute. Photo by Herbert Lange; from http://dnr.wi.gov/eek/critter/mammal/redfox.htm

Winter woods

For weekend gardening chores, refer back to the Dec. 12 “In the garden this week” for the remainder of the winter. And don’t forget to get out there and prune!

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This is a grove made up primarily of beech trees (American beech, Fagus grandifolia) in the Glen Rock/Ridgewood area of the Saddle River County Park. Beech groves are particularly beautiful in winter, I think, because the young trees retain their leaves. They turn an agreeable golden tan color that enlivens the winter woods.

Much of this area was originally fiver flood plain, and we’re lucky because it’s still criss-crossed with many small streams. Ecologists would call the original assemblage of plants and animals here a northern riverine forest. Typical trees are beech, which in dryer areas grows in association with sugar maples; in wetter areas, with red maples. These forests would also have contained several species of ash, catalpa, poplars, willows, birch, and oaks, varying by soil type, elevation, and the amount of flooding they typically received. In some places you still see many of these native trees.

Trees tell us a lot about the way the land used to be, because they live so long. Our forests’ shrub layers and understory have disappeared, eaten by deer, shaded by alien trees, and removed by plant collectors, but the trees remain, telling tales about the original landform and ecology. They give us a sense of place.

For much, much more information about the environmental importance of beech trees–the ecological services they provide to other species–see The Natural Web blog.

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Winter visitor

I’ve been seeing a lot of hawk activity in the neighborhood recently. This morning we hit the jackpot. Please help me identify this huge and gorgeous visitor that had a leisurely meal in my backyard:

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Goshawk? a dark form of red tail? immature red-shoulder? (Bird ID is not my strength as a naturalist!)

Addendum: I’ve been told by a local authority that it’s a Cooper’s hawk. Any other opinions?