The bird condo

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March 30, 2015

Look at all those nest holes! I refer to this tree as the condo. The bird activity in the area is continuous, and there are lots of wood chips on the ground. This Norway maple is slowly succumbing to wet rot. As branches die, we have them removed if they pose danger to people or property. Otherwise we leave them in place, although we sometimes cut them shorter, again, if they might cause danger. This branch was cut shorter in 2008 and has been continually inhabited at least since then, but there still must be vacancies.

News roundup

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A butterfly garden can be as small as three square feet or as big as a thousand acres, as long as it’s a pesticide-free planting of native perennials and grasses on a sunny site.

You can tell that native plants are going mainstream when CBS News does a story about monarch butterflies and habitat loss.

Mark Bittman is always interesting, whether he’s giving us recipes or informing us about the intersection of food and the environment. Most recently he showed that Round-Up (glyphosphate), the “harmless” and “short-acting” herbicide that’s widely used in commercial agriculture and home gardens, is most likely a carcinogen.

And if you wanted even more proof that reality is more complicated than it seems, take a look at PBS’s documentary about plant communication. It certainly made me think about pruning in a whole new light. (Ouch!)

3/27/15: In the garden this week

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Spicebush (lindera benzoin) is one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom. This easy-to-grow and adaptable plant thrives in part shade and is not fussy about soil. Look for its delicate chartreuse flowers in about two weeks.

Here in the central part of Bergen County, the snow is gone, although in more northern towns quite a lot remains. The temperature has reached the 50s for the first time, springlike temperatures are predicted for the week ahead, and we’ve had the kind of gentle rain that encourage birds to search for insect food in lawns. All week I’ve been catching glimpses of pairs of hairy woodpeckers and cardinals, and the bird condo in my front yard is sporting new nest holes. Skunks have emerged from hibernation. Hazelnuts are in bloom, and spicebush buds are swelling. It finally really is spring.

I know you’re dying to be out in the garden, so here are some things you could be doing this week:

direct sow seeds of early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes. They’ll germinate and grow slowly at first, but with any luck you’ll have fresh salad greens in about 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every two weeks to ensure a continuous supply of spring greens until the weather heats up.

— as you see new growth emerge, begin to clean up your perennial beds. Grab a handful of stalks hear the ground and gently bend them to break them off. Rake the detritus away and either compost it on site or, if you don’t have room for it, take it to your town’s compost center. This week I’ll begin clearing the shady gardens where spring-blooming perennials grow; by the first week in May, all the beds will be cleared and ready for division or additional plants.

— once you can explore your entire property, evaluate the winter’s damage. Don’t remove dead wood or broken branches unless they pose hazards to people or property, because they might be supplying food or shelter to winter-weary creatures, but see what will need doing. How much mulch will you need? Will your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage?

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area now to kill the grass. You’ll be able to plant in April or May.

monitor your garden for bird activity. Spring migrants are arriving and winter residents are very active at foraging and nest building. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks winter food. There should still be perennial seeds, berries of less desirable plants, and leaf litter and dead wood for the birds to search for insects. If you’re not seeing birds now, consider what you can do this season to attract them: for example, plant native perennials, stop pruning dead wood quite so aggressively, stop using pesticides.

order your perennials and woody plants now to get the best selection. (Most local nurseries sell only a very few native species, so I rely on mail order and on specialty nurseries that are up to four hours away.) If you wait until it’s time to plant, nurseries will be sold out of many species.

— buy your vegetable seeds and start them indoors according to this schedule so the seedlings will be ready for spring planting.

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This picture was taken in late December, but even now there are a surprising number of colorful berries left on the coralberry shrubs.

A newly discovered frog species

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The Atlantic coast leopard frog was discovered in 2009 on Staten Island and confirmed as a new species through DNA evidence in 2012. Image from http://nysparksnaturetimes.com/2014/09/30/spotting-the-leopard-frog/

The Atantic coast leopard frog, also called the coughing frog because of its very distinctive call, was recently confirmed as a new species. It was discovered not in the Amazon or a remote Louisiana swamp but on Staten Island, of all places, and it’s believed to be present throughout our area.

A citizen science program is underway to determine the species’ range. If you’ve got a smartphone, you can participate. A great reason to get out into the woods and investigate a vernal pool this spring.

How about growing this: American hazelnut

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Wildlife-friendly American hazelnut is a host plant for many species of butterflies and moths. It grows right past the minor springtime caterpillar. Notice the chewed leaves at the bottom of the branch and the new, healthy leaves at the top.

For ease of care and four-season interest, it’s hard to beat American hazelnut (Corylus americana). It’s one of two North American hazelnuts (the other is Corylus cornuta, beaked hazelnut, a more northern species), and it’s native throughout much of the eastern half of the continent. It’s a highly adaptable, easy-to-grow plant, although it prefers well-drained soil and at least a few hours of sun.

This is a large shrub that does well as a specimen or as part of a hedgerow or shrub island. It wants to be over 12 feet high and about two-thirds as wide, but you can easily keep it smaller by pruning out the largest stems each winter. The plant will respond by growing lots of new, smaller canes.

I’ve had these beautiful shrubs in my garden for over 10 years, and they produce copious amounts of nuts, but I have never tasted one. (I’m sure they’re delicious.) I rarely see them on the trees when they’re ripe. They look like this just before the casings open and release the nuts:

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Hazelnuts still on the tree. Image from http://www.wildflower.org/gallery/result.php?id_image=22096; NPIN Image Id: 22096

But usually all we see is the broken shells left on the ground after the squirrels and birds eat their fill.

Hazelnuts belong to the Betulaceae plant family; their cousins are birches and alders and hornbeams. They are our earliest shrub to bloom, and this year they should be in full bloom within the next couple of days. The tiny red female flowers and the long, slender male catkins grow on the same branches and are wind-pollinated.

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Hazelnut flowers: male on the left and female on the right.

Soon every puff of wind will release a minute cloud of pollen granules from the male flowers.

And yet more benefits of growing native plants

According to a short piece in the Sunday Times travel section, hotels are now jumping on the native plant bandwagon. Think how nice it would be to see a hotel or apartment building or hospital or mall landscaped with natives rather than the same sterile cultivars and invasive species (yew and Japanese barberry) used all over the country.

If any hotel owner needs a consultation (in exchange for nice a little trip, perhaps?) it would be no trouble at all.

3/20/15: In the garden this week

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Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) is a multistemmed shrub with very straight stems (like arrows) and deeply toothed leaves (dentatum). It’s common in wet places throughout northern New Jersey, and it’s highly susceptible to a newly arrived insect pest, Viburnum leaf beetle.

Last night I attended a highly informative meeting of our local Bergen-Passaic chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. The topic was new pests of native plants, and I learned about a serious threat to our native viburnums (see photo and caption above). The viburnum leaf beetle can kill a healthy plant in two to three years by defoliating the plant in spring (larval feeding) and in summer (adult feeding). Arrowwood grows wild in Bergen County in the Celery Farm, the Thielke Arboretum, and in other wet places. The first chore on the list for this week is a way to help eliminate it:

— check stems of native viburnums, particularly V. dentatum (arrowwood), V. nudum (possumhaw), V. trilobum (cranberry bush), and V. acerifolium (maple leaf) for egg cases, which look like this:

The twig at the top of the photo shows egg cases of viburnum leaf beetle; adults are shown below. Photo from http://ohioline.osu.edu/sc195/013.html

If you see the egg cases, remove and discard the twigs. The larvae will emerge when the shrub leafs out in mid- to late April, so you have a few weeks to check the native viburnums in your area. (Do not clip shrubs in public areas without permission!)

The remaining chores are all more pleasant:

order your perennials and woody plants now to get the best selection. (Most local nurseries sell only a very few native species, so I rely on mail order and on specialty nurseries that are up to four hours away.) If you wait until it’s time to plant, nurseries will be sold out of many species.

— buy your vegetable seeds and start them indoors according to this schedule so the seedlings will be ready for spring planting. It’s time to start tomatoes!

— as soon as the ground is bare of snow and not too wet, direct sow seeds of early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes. They’ll germinate and grow slowly at first, but with any luck you’ll have fresh salad greens in about 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every two weeks to ensure a continuous supply of spring greens until the weather heats up.

— once you can explore your entire property, evaluate the winter’s damage. Don’t remove dead wood or broken branches unless they pose hazards to people or property, because they might be supplying food or shelter to winter-weary creatures, but see what will need doing. How much mulch will you need? Will your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage?

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area now to kill the grass. You’ll be able to plant in April or May.

— finally, and most important, monitor your garden for bird activity. You should be seeing lots of it, as spring migrants arrive and winter residents continue to forage and begin to build nests. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks winter food. Does your garden feed birds year-round? I’ve still got seeds of ironweed and Rudbeckia as well as leaf litter and dead wood for the birds to search for insects. If you’re not seeing birds, consider what steps you can take this season: for example, plant native perennials, stop pruning dead wood quite so aggressively, stop using pesticides on your lawn.

Yes, it’s snowing again. But it’s bound to melt soon.

My latest “Backyard Environmentalist” column, about gardening for wildlife, is on the North Jersey website.