12/18/15: In the garden this week

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A tangle of dormant perennials supplies abundant winter food for birds. A sustainable native plant garden should feed the birds all year long.

We got some good rain this week–more than 1.5 inches–but in general the long-range prediction of a warm and wet winter season for the Northeast  is only half accurate. It certainly is warm, but it hasn’t been particularly wet. We’re due for a mild freeze over the weekend, but temperatures are predicted to return to the 50s and 60s after that. So the weather remains perfect for gardening chores. Here are some tasks you might consider:

— As long as the ground remains unfrozen, you can get a jump start on spring by keeping up with your weeding. In my garden, dandelions and wild garlic are still growing lustily–they like the cool temperatures–and I’m seeing lots of little western bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) in wet areas. This is a winter annual, which means it will bloom and set seed very early in spring, so it’s a good idea to pull it now. The soil is nice and damp, perfect for weeding.

— It’s not too late to plant hardwood trees and large shrubs. You can plant most hardy trees until the ground freezes. Be sure to mulch well and water thoroughly: give at least 1 inch of water per week during dry spells until the ground freezes, and then again as soon as it thaws in spring.

— This is a good time 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″ layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. Next spring, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn during the summer and have been scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.

Water new plantings: newly installed plants still need watering during dry spells, and our total rainfall for the past 30 days has been well below normal. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (not this week), continue to water all perennials and woody plants installed this season. How do you know when you’ve provided an inch of water? An old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants makes a great rain gauge. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.

Clean up the vegetable garden carefully. Discard (do not compost) infested or diseased plants. Clean up meticulously as each crop finishes producing. This year’s diseased plants, left in the garden, are the source of next year’s infections.

— Tend the fall vegetable garden: if you seeded second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach, you’re most likely still harvesting. With colder weather, the growth of the fall crop of arugula has slowed, but it may resume with the warmer temperatures this week.

Keep a garden log. Right now, before you forget, write down this year’s gardening successes and failures as well as your plans for next year. With the ground bare of snow, you can walk your property and make notes about what you see. Do you want to move a shrub or add some color or start a vegetable garden? The best thing about gardening is that there’s always next year.

Apply an antidessicant spray to broad-leafed evergreens such as rhododendrons and azaleas. These plants are particularly stressed during cold winters. The spray, which forms a very thin plastic coating on the leaves, helps prevent evaporation. Apply it only once per season.

Try to take some time in the midst of the preholiday rush to get outside in the garden or to one of the many beautiful parks and forests that grace our region. A nature break is relaxing and restoring.

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The Glen Rock area of the Saddle River County Park in winter–a great place for a walk in the woods.

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