Liquid water

Today’s big news is that throughout our local area, water exists in liquid form on the surface of the planet, for the first time in I don’t know how long. And beginning this coming Sunday, March 1, the weather forecast calls for at least four consecutive days with temperatures above freezing! Maybe within that period we’ll see snow melting around the bases of trees, skunk cabbage budding, robins beginning to arrive in waves–something springlike. Maybe. By last year at this time, the base of one of my big Norway maples looked like this:


This year, the snow is still over a foot deep around the tree.

The ring of melted snow is caused by heat reflected off the dark bark of the tree (not, as I had thought, kinetic energy resulting from running sap). But speaking of sap, we can expect sugaring season once daytime temperatures go above freezing fairly consistently, as they are expected to next week.

One of our earliest arriving spring migrants is the red-winged blackbird, and according to the Journey North site for that species, one was seen in the Teaneck Creek Conservancy on Feb. 22. I’ve heard other anecdotal reports of local sightings, so keep a lookout near streams and wetlands, prime nesting sites for these lovely and loquacious birds.

Speaking of wetlands, I would expect to see snow melting around skunk cabbage very soon, if it hasn’t started already. This weekend will be a good time to get out in the field and take a look.

It’s hard to believe, but within just two or three weeks we can expect to see flowers on early blooming species like vernal witch hazel, native hazelnuts, and, or course, early spring flowering bulbs. Keep a lookout next week if the weather really does warm up, and don’t forget to order your seeds and to start your seeds indoors. Why, it’s almost time to start your tomatoes!

Why gardens matter

The temperature is above freezing, for what feels like the first time in a decade! On this sunny Sunday with a very slight feeling of spring in the air, check out my latest Backyard Environmentalist column, “Why Gardens Matter.” Then take a nice winter walk, and come back inside and order your perennials or vegetable seeds. It’s almost time to plant.

This picture of our backyard, taken in May 2008, is my happy place:


Environmental odds and ends


Last summer, sweet joe pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), usually 4 feet tall and eaten by deer, was 8 feet tall and unusually abundant.

It’s very cold outside, and the ground is covered with a foot of frozen snow. I’ve had to postpone many client appointments and put off finishing my own pruning because I can’t get to the plants. Bummer. But last year’s unusually cold winter ushered in the most beautiful gardening season I can remember, so I anticipate the same this year: many plants should be more vigorous and more abundant than usual. My theory is that the cold weather kills off pests and keeps the rabbit and deer population down. I anticipate a glorious gardening season.

And if you think we’re having a hard winter, give some thought to what the folks in New England are going through. Which makes me think of Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., the gorgeous native plant garden of the New England Wild Flower Society. NEWFS is a long-established research and educational organization, well worth joining even for those of us who live outside of New England. Check out their simple key to plant identification and their plant list for 2015.

PBS is running an interesting series, Earth: A New Wild. It’s about a new understanding of the relationship between humans and the environment, focusing on new projects and ideas for repairing specific environmental problems, like returning oysters to New York harbor. Actually, it’s a bit unfocused: some episodes are more about new ways of looking at the environment. The “Forests” segment was particularly interesting, especially a sequence about the recycling of nutrients between the forest and the ocean. Turns out that everything is even more interconnected than we think. The show airs on Wednesdays at 10:00, but you can see previous episodes on line.

Finally, we’ll all be reading and hearing a lot about the federal government’s recommendations for new dietary guidelines (less sugar, never mind about cholesterol). In recommending that people eat more vegetables and less meat, the panel kept sustainability in mind: producing meat uses up more resources and is thus much less environmentally friendly than producing plant food. According to the recommendations,

Linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment will promote human health . . .

Amen to that!

Stay warm, order your vegetable seeds, sign up for a CSA for the coming season, and think about this year’s garden.


Another effect of a hard winter: in last summer’s garden, several cultivars of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) that hadn’t bloomed for years reappeared. I’m looking forward to moving them to a more prominent spot this spring.

Dead wood and other messiness


Dead wood and snags (standing dead trees) are something you don’t see a lot in the suburbs—we tend to keep things neat. But take a look at the dead branch in the center of this picture, the one with all the holes. The tip of this branch fell off, but we left the rest of it in place instead of having it pruned off. It’s prime real estate for many cavity-nesting birds. There are always several nests in it in spring, and in winter, it’s a natural feeder.

As wood rots, it becomes invaded by insects that live in the soft wood and under the bark. Birds look for and eat those insects. A dying or dead tree is extremely valuable to wildlife—it supplies both food and shelter.

This particular tree is one of the two Norway maples on our front lawn, and it’s slowly dying of wet rot (yay!). As branches succumb, we have the tree pruned selectively. If a branch overhangs a sidewalk or driveway, we remove it. If not, we leave it. Once all the branches die, I’ll leave the trunk in place as a snag and plant shrubs and vines around it. But in the meanwhile, we’ll enjoy its long, lingering death. This picture was taken in April 2011:


One important caveat: this is a dying tree of a nonnative, invasive species. If it were, instead, a healthy tree of a native species, I would have dead wood pruned away to protect the tree’s health. So if you have to decide what to do about a dead branches or unhealthy tree, weigh the wildlife value of the dead wood carefully against the overall health of the tree.

On a cold winter day

All day today, as I’ve sat at work at my computer, I’ve been entertained by a continual stream of wildlife in the large holly tree outside my office window. All morning, two or three grey squirrels (sometimes two, sometimes three), were doing acrobatics in the tree, scampering down the slender branches to get the few remaining berries, chasing each other. For much of the time, one of them seemed to be chasing one other. February to March is breeding season for our eastern grey squirrel; maybe I was watching a male pursuing a female. If so, she didn’t seem interested–when he chased her to the end of a branch, she leaped right over him to get away.

Right now a mixed-species foraging flock composed primarily of chickadees and titmice is occupying the tree. “Occupying” is not the right word: they’re energetically picking at the branches while simultaneously practicing gymnastics. Both these species, which are closely related, primarily eat insects, although they do eat some seeds and even feed from animal carcasses when they find them. Both species are cavity nesters; they use nest holes previously excavated by woodpeckers. So leave snags (dead trees) and dead branches in place as long as they’re not endangering anyone.

What not to plant

As you plan this year’s garden, give a thought to some species you should NOT plant. Some of the most serious invasives in our region might surprise you: they include miscanthus grass, wintercreeper, Norway maple, English ivy, kousa dogwood, Japanese barberry, burning bush, privet, porcelainberry, and Japanese honeysuckle. In 2014, New York State passed legislation forbidding the sale of certain invasive plants. The law takes effect in March and will go a long way toward getting many of the most serious problem plants off the market. You can see the complete list here. (Of course, the law can’t control plants already in the ground, which will continue to spread, or plants sold in neighboring states, such as New Jersey, which don’t regulate invasive plants, or mail orders).

Two groups in New Jersey are working hard to contain the spread of invasive plants. The NJ Invasive Species Strike Team (NJISST) is a statewide effort to identify and control new outbreaks of invasive plants. Take a look at their list of NJ invasive plants here. The Invasive Strike Force, a part of the NY-NJ Trail Conference, monitors and controls invasives along over 1,000 miles of hiking trails. Both groups do great work, mostly through the efforts of volunteers. If you’re concerned about the degradation of our environment by invasive plants, consider volunteering some time this coming year.

Becoming a garden ecologist


A native meadow on a large scale: a designed, but very natural landscape, in Saucon, Pennsylvania, designed by Larry Weaner Associates. Copyright Larry Weaner Landscape Associates.

On Tuesday I attended a lecture at the New York Botanical Garden, part of the annual Alumni Lecture Series, by garden designer Larry Weaner. Weaner has been designing landscapes focusing on native plants for almost 40 years; look at his firm’s website to see some beautiful examples like the one above.

The lecture was titled “The Self-Proliferating Landscape: Setting a Process in Motion,” and it focused on letting native plants do their thing: designing landscapes that allow for natural progression and change over time, based on careful observational knowledge of how plants behave. Weaner said that we need a new type of practitioner, a “garden ecologist,”  who can plan and then carefully observe, monitor, and maintain native plant gardens.I realized that I’ve been a garden ecologist for almost 20 years. I started in my own garden, went back to school at NYBG to learn the formal aspects of horticulture, and now put the two—experience plus knowledge—together in my horticulture practice. I was thrilled to have someone put a name to what I do.

Gardens are necessarily artificial. We plan them, usually including only a limited number of species, to achieve a specific esthetic goal, and we attempt to maintain that look season after season. Ecosystems are natural and unplanned. Nature “plants” them, including a very large number of species, and their composition changes over time as some species proliferate, some dwindle, new species arrive, climate conditions change. The goal of a garden ecologist is to make a garden behave more like an ecosystem. That means using a large number of native species; choosing species that are right for the site and that live together in nature; recognizing and using the native species that are already present; knowing how to control invasives; knowing how plants reproduce, which plants reproduce vigorously and which need some help; knowing how long different species take to mature; and knowing a lot more besides. The goal is to install a landscape that mimics nature and that provides many of the same ecosystem services–slowing stormwater runoff, attracting pollinators, moderating climate.

This morning I watched a flock of juncos and native sparrows feeding on the snow-covered ground among my perennials, a jay hanging out in the big holly, and cardinals sheltering in the hemlocks. The other backyards I could see were bare of birds. Even on the very smallest scale, a garden can mimic nature and supply some of the priceless services that nature supplies so abundantly. We gardeners just have to set it in motion.


A native meadow on a very small scale: part of a perennial border approximately 6 x 30′.


The same border in late fall. Native plants provide four-season interest and year-round food for birds and other wildlife.

“Beauty is no longer enough”


A tiger swallowtail enjoyed a leisurely meal on a sweet joe pye weed blossom (Eupatorium purpureum) last July in my garden.

Don’t miss Anne Raver’s coverage in today’s NY Times of the 2015 Plant-O-Rama conference at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (but note that the photo of the tiger swallowtail that accompanies the article shows a non-native plant). The keynote speaker was Doug Tallamy, entomologist and author of the best-selling Bringing Nature Home. As natural areas disappear, our gardens must take their place, Tallamy emphasized. It’s no longer enough that our gardens just be pretty:

“We have to raise the bar on our landscapes . . . . In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.”

Wetlands, and why we need them

NPR ran a complicated story today about the environmental importance of wetlands and how hard it is to preserve them. Seems that homeowners whose houses were adjacent to coastal wetlands were much less likely to experience devastating flooding during Hurricane Sandy, because of the wetlands’ mitigating effects. Ironically, as a result of the storm, two acres of a 24-acre undeveloped wetland were filled in with sand and may now be eligible for development. A complicated situation to think about.