3/25/16: In the garden this week

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Buds of native plum (Prunus americana) are swelling; spring is coming about 3 weeks earlier than the last two years.

Unseasonably warm weather continues, and spring is well advanced, even though it’s only four days old by the calendar.

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure to prepare for spring planting.

— continue direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm and stall when it turns cold. But cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard and western bittercress in your garden plots. The mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— if you or your lawn service has sown grass seed, water several times a day until the grass is up. Otherwise you’re just scattering birdseed. And it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year.

Many spring ephemerals are up, so I’ve started to uncover my shade gardens (because the autumn leaves that mulch my perennial beds are Norway maple leaves, which form solid layers that plants can’t grow through. Other kinds of leaves don’t need to be removed in spring). But it’s too early to divide or plant. Resist the temptation for a couple more weeks!

Enjoy the spring weather!

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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is just coming into bloom.

Pine bark beetles in New England

Over two years ago I told you about the threat that pine bark beetles pose to the New Jersey pine barrens. Now it seems that this highly destructive pest is spreading throughout New England. Many distinctive ecosystems, including stands of pines along the coast from Long Island to Cape Cod, are likely to be destroyed. The problem is climate change. The beetle is endemic throughout the South, where good forest management practices have kept it under control. Those good practices are the same as we all should practice in our gardens: remove diseased plant material immediately, and avoid overcrowding of woody plants.

The beetles couldn’t move north until recently, because they can’t survive winters where nighttime temperatures dip lower than -8 degrees Fahrenheit. But because of climate change, temperatures rarely go that low anymore, even in New England. So the beetle is now widespread throughout coastal and even inland New England, and scientists expect that it will soon spread to the midwest and even to Canada.

SPB Damage Image

3/18/16: In the garden this week

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Elderberry leaves are beginning to unfold. If you have space for a large shrub, consider planting this gorgeous native. The birds will thank you!

It’s supposed to snow on Sunday and then get warm again. It’s definitely too early to plant; luckily, plants are not available yet, or this early spring would tempt me to plant too soon. But there are lots of things you could be doing if you’re dying to get into the garden this week:

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure, and get ready for spring planting.

— direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm and stall when it turns cold again. But cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard and western bittercress in your garden plots. The mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year.

And go out and see what’s growing in your garden.

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This is one of the many cultivars available of our native honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens. As you see, it begins to grow early in the season. I planted it over 20 years ago; today I would plant the species instead.

More about the wonder of trees

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Hardwood trees, like this magnificent red maple at the Thielke Arboretum, continually adapt to the conditions around them.

As reported in the NY Times, a new study in Nature indicates that trees in temperate forests may adapt to climate change better than previously expected. It was feared that increased temperatures would cause trees to release greatly increased amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere during their normal process of respiration. It now appears, however, that trees will increase the amount of carbon dioxide they emit by only around 5 percent, less than one-fifth of the expected amount. That means that less carbon will be released into the atmosphere than previously expected.

Aren’t trees wonderful?

Strategic planning

Flowers of silver maple, Acer saccharinum. Photo from http://www.damnarbor.com.

 

We don’t usually think of plants as strategic planners, but they are. All plants  compete with each other for necessary but limited resources: pollination services, nutrients, water. They need effective strategies for staying alive and reproducing.

All three common species of native maples that I see everyday are in bloom right now: silver maple, sugar maple, and red maple. Most trees flower in mid- to late spring, after the weather has warmed up and lots of pollinating insects have emerged. So there’s lot of competition for the available pollination services. Maples don’t wait: they bloom earlier than most other trees, usually between mid-March and April, about a month before the leaves appear. In order to ensure that they produce seed when few insects are around to pollinate them, maple  flowers rely primarily on wind to do the job.

But they hedge their bets: most maple trees can be pollinated by wind or by insects. And while most trees are either monoecious (each individual bears flowers of both sexes) or dioecious (each individual bears flowers of just one sex), maple trees hedge their bets again: individual trees or even individual branches on the same tree might use either strategy. Clever.

Ever notice that maple trees produce seeds much earlier than most hardwood species? Maple seeds will be ripe in about 6 weeks, at a time when seeds are scarce and animals are hungry. The trees produce a huge overabundance of seeds, ensuring that some will remain to produce new maple trees—but not until next year. The seeds require a cold period before they can germinate, helping to ensure that they won’t begin to grow at the wrong time of year.

Red Maple

Red maples in flower are conspicuous against an early spring background of bare branches. Photo from Botany Blog.

 

3/11/16: In the garden this week

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Native witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, is in bloom now in the Thielke Arboretum

The weather continues warm, so it’s a great time to get out and prepare your garden beds:

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure, and get ready for spring planting.

— direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm, stall when it turns cold again, but cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard and western bittercress in your garden plots. The mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year.

Enjoy the garden and our local natural areas this weekend!

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Swamp cabbage is in bloom in local wet areas and will soon unfurl its large, bright green leaves.

The Eagles

If you’ve ever read this blog before, you probably know that this post is not about a sports team or a band but rather about Haliaeetus leucocephalus, our magnificent national bird. Did you know that there are four or five sites in Bergen County where bald eagles reliably breed each year? I found out yesterday, and the excitement is almost too much to bear.

According to the New Jersey Bald Eagle Report for 2015, there were 150 active nests throughout the state, and 200 eagles fledged last year. A pair nests in the Hackensack River County Park right outside the Riverside Square Mall. Another has nested since 2010 alongside Overpeck Creek in Ridgefield Park. The other sites are the Oradell Reservoir and Woodcliff Lake.

It’s always good news when a top predator returns to an ecosystem: keystone species like eagles and wolves keep the entire ecosystem in balance, and their presence shows that there’s an ample supply of food. When a species like the bald eagle can reliably breed, it indicates that habitat is being restored to health. Thirty years ago, it was rare to see a hawk, even in a relatively undisturbed area such as Harriman State Park. Today they live in our backyards year round. A lot of the improvement has to do with the banning of DDT and the Clean Water Act. Imagine what will happen if the Passaic River really is cleaned up in the near future.

Image from allaboutbirds.org.