5/27/16: In the garden this week

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Columbine, along with many other spring blooming native perennials, are giving it their all right now. Notice all the tiny bugs on and in the flowers–how many can you count? 

Suddenly the weather has turned hot–much too hot for spring planting. Plants make roots when the temperature is cool and top growth when the temperature is hot, but without enough root growth, heat will just make them droop. Be sure to water your new plantings thoroughly.

Memorial Day is traditionally the time to put in cold-sensitive plants like tomatoes and basil and to feed the lawn for the first time in the season. It’s also time to get out the deck furniture, overhaul the grill, and enjoy the outdoors. I hope you’ll get to do all that this weekend. But first, think about these garden chores:

— divide hardy perennials and grasses. Spring is the best time to divide plants, but now that the weather has turned hot, it’s too late to divide tap-rooted plants such as columbine and orange butterflyweed, and many native grasses don’t respond well once they’ve put out a couple of inches of top growth. Easy-to-divide plants like asters and boltonia can be handled for another week or so, but be sure to water well. That goes for anything you plant now–perennials, grasses, shrubs, or trees. Give them at least an inch of water after planting, and continue to water throughout the entire growing season.

— Harvest cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula, and peas. Remove them and plant warm-weather crops in their place. Plant parsley, dill, and basil plants, and get those tomatoes in the ground!

 

— continue to water newly seeded lawn while the weather is hot. If you feel you absolutely, positively must feed your lawn, use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Better yet, don’t feed at all this season, or wait until Labor Day for the single feeding. The planet will thank you, and the lawn will look just fine.

Enjoy a lazy holiday weekend in the garden!

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Diervilla lonicera (northern bush honeysuckle) is my new favorite shrub. The new growth is this gorgeous golden bronze color all season long, and the yellow flowers complement it beautifully. Try it if you have a dry, shady spot.

 

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A good year for bugs

A mild winter means a really good season for insects, both pests and beneficials: a cold winter is much more likely to kill them off. So expect more bad guys than usual and be ready with your strategies; expect more butterflies and fireflies and other friends as well.

For example: Every year aphids attack one of my native plum trees, the one that doesn’t get enough sun. This year they’ve attacked the ones that are properly sited as well. How do I know? I saw the ladybugs. Both trees are covered with ladybugs in all stages of their life cycles. They’ll take care of the problem quickly. So my strategy is to do nothing except maybe ask my husband to take some more pictures.

Many garden pests, aphids among them, are host specific: they attack only plants in a specific genus or family. So the aphids on your roses won’t eat your perennials, and the ones on your viburnum won’t eat your peonies or roses. And good bugs like ladybugs are always on the lookout for a good meal. Usually I note the presence of ladybugs and then look around for the aphids. That’s phenology in action. One thing happens, and then something else inevitably follows. Natural processes are made up of many, many complex interactions. Disrupt the sequence, and there usually will be trouble. If I sprayed those plum trees with insecticidal soap, or even just hosed them down with water, I’d get rid of the ladybugs as well.

Same thing holds for most garden pests. Every year in late spring many of my perennials are attacked by four-lined plant bugs, really pretty little guys that do quite a lot of damage sucking on the newly emerging leaves of many perennials. However, they key words here are newly emerging leaves. The bugs are active only early in the growing season, so their damage is purely cosmetic and short-lived: within a few weeks the bugs will have completed their life cycle and the plants will have grown up right past the damage. You won’t be able to tell that they were there. So if I were working in a botanical garden or wanted to open my garden to the public in the near future I would probably spray the bugs with water to dislodge them in order to minimize the damage, but that’s not necessary in a home garden. Nature will take care of the problem for me, as she often does.

So expect more pests and diseases than usual this year, wait and watch carefully, do a little research, and in most cases, do nothing at all. And hope for a cold winter next year.

 

5/20/16: In the garden this week

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This shade garden is resplendent with columbine and native geraniums in spring and will rebloom with shade asters in fall.

Absolutely no time to write a regular weekly wrap-up: Now that I’ve planted my clients’ gardens, I’ve got to get my own shrubs in the ground. Suffice it to say that the weather is finally turning warm enough for planting of tender crops such as tomatoes and basil. And please check out my latest Backyard Environmentalist column on the northjersey.com website.

Get those plants in the ground! It’s going to rain this weekend–try to plant right ahead of the rain. Your plants will thank you.

Enjoy the garden this week.

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In the days when I had time for the vegetable garden, I was harvesting spring greens and peas in late May. This picture was taken on May 31, 2013. Now the plot is mostly devoted to rhubarb, parsley, mint, and basil.

5/13/16: In the garden this week

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This season’s first native geraniums (Geranium maculatum) are opening now. This lovely woodland native does well in poor soil and deep shade.

It’s really, really spring when the geraniums start to open. Our loveliest native geranium is a true spring ephemeral: it appears, blooms, and sets seed within no more than two months, then disappears until next spring. It’s so easy to grow that you can dig it up and move it while it’s in bloom. And as you can see in the photo, it combines will with other shade lovers–notice all the aster leaves.

As I write this the rain has begun, a few hours later than predicted so I was able squeeze in some planting this morning. Two of my clients’ plants arrived yesterday (as did mine). It will be a busy week! But the relatively cool, rainy weather is ideal for planting.

And here are some other things you might accomplish in your garden this week:

divide hardy perennials and grasses. Spring is the best time to divide plants; many will even bloom the same year if you divide them early enough. I start dividing as soon as each species is ready and stop when the weather gets hot, and I try to do it right before it rains (saves watering). Exception: it’s too late to divide tap-rooted plants such as columbine and orange butterflyweed, and many native grasses don’t respond well once they’ve put out a couple of inches of top growth. Wait until next year to divide these plants.

Harvest cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. Plant parsley and dill plants, but hold off on basil for another week or so.

— you should have started vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash a while ago. (You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.) Hold off on putting these tender crops in the ground until around May 20.

Plant! The weather is perfect. Most reliable mail-order nurseries have started shipping. Once the plants arrive, get them in the ground as soon as you can. If you must hold them for a few days, open the boxes, water as necessary, and keep them in the shadiest spot you can find.

— 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 unless you’ve seeded it,  lawn certainly doesn’t need watering, and it’s still too early to fertilize. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

It’s very hard to stay out of the garden in spring! Enjoy the garden this week.

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Our native Tiarella combines well with other shade-lovers, such as asters, ferns, columbine, and Heuchera.

 

An oak and two ashes

Or is that two ash? To replace the Norway maple we lost in the windstorm last month, and the other big one that didn’t leaf out this year, we planted a swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) and two green ash trees (Fraxinus pennsylvanica). Because my goal in choosing plants is always to restore the natural environment, I wanted a silver maple (Acer saccharinum), the species that belongs in this sandy floodplain soil. But that species doesn’t seem to be available commercially. My second choice, an American elm (Ulmus americana), was available locally only in small sizes. My third, hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), wasn’t available at all. So I settled for the swamp white oak, a lovely native species that will achieve the right shape and size, and is fast growing, but is not ideal for my coarse, sandy soil. Often when you insist on planting natives, you have to compromise.

We left the snags (dead tree trunks) in place, as you can see in the pictures. Snags are terrific for birds and other wildlife, because lots of insects will live inside them as the wood gradually decomposes. Right now, the snags kind of overpower the trees, but that will change over time.

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This 2 1/2″ caliper swamp white oak was planted on our front lawn today. If it does well, it will reach maturity in 150 years.

The big Norway maple in back had one good quality: it cast afternoon shade over our patio. No shade until after 5:00 this year, or maybe next as well. But the two green ash we planted are very fast growing. These trees are one of the two or three best choices for this particular site. I was looking for white ash (F. americana), green ash, or hackberry.

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This snag is 12′ tall (maybe just a tad too high). And the two young ash are each a bit crooked but should straighten out quickly.

Here’s a closer look at the base of the trees after planting. Notice that we left a donut-shaped ring of soil around each tree. You could use mulch as well, but it’s most important not to mound anything against the trunk of a tree. That’s a really good way to encourage fungus infections. The tree should be planted at the same level as it was before it was dug up, or perhaps slightly higher. Never lower. The tree’s most important and fragile roots are the ones at the soil surface. You never want to smother them with extra soil or mulch.

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This tree was planted slightly too high (note the demarcation line between trunk and root), but that’s OK. Never plant a tree or shrub lower than it was before.

After planting, I thoroughly watered each tree in by running an oscillating sprinkler for about 1 1/2 hours (supplying 1 1/2″ of water). Thorough watering is the single most important thing you can do to help a tree (or any plant) establish its roots in a new location. Watering eliminates air pockets in the soil and helps the roots make firm contact with the new environment.

These trees were my Mother’s Day present, and I love them!

5/6/16: In the garden this week

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As soon as the sun comes out, native columbine (acquilegia canadensis) will leap into bloom, and hummingbirds will appear. This plant does best in poor, dry soil.

In the spring, I can either work or blog, and usually I choose to work! And all the rain we’ve been having is great for planting, and the cool, cloudy weather is wonderful root growth. I’ve been trying to plant ahead of every predicted rainy spell. Finally, a week with enough precipitation for newly installed plants!

Because the weather turned cool, the arrival of spring finally slowed down, and we’re right back on schedule. The catbirds arrived this week, almost the same date as the past couple of years. Flowing dogwood and lilacs are in bloom, birds are extremely active, spring ephemerals will bloom as soon as the sun comes out. The last trees to leaf out, ashes and hackberry, are swelling their leaf buds.

This is the busiest time of year in the garden–the height of planting season. It’s easiest to establish new plants while the soil is still cool, so get your new plants in the ground as soon as you can. Consider a native tree or large shrub for a Mother’s Day gift. In my garden, last year’s lovely red chokeberry is in bloom right now.

In addition to buying Mom a present and taking her out for brunch, here are some things you could be doing in your garden this week:

divide hardy perennials and grasses. Many of the toughest native plants–many grasses, asters, rudbeckias, boltonia, columbine, to name just a few–have been in active growth for weeks. I start dividing as soon as each species is ready, and I try to do it right before it rains (saves watering). I’ve been at it for about a month and have enlarged several beds to receive the divisions. And as usual, I’ve given lots of plants away to friends, clients, and local parks and natural areas.

Harvest cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. Plant parsley and dill plants, but hold off on basil for another couple of weeks.

— you should have started vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash a while ago. (You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.) Hold off on putting these tender crops in the ground for another couple of weeks–until at least May 20.

Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions. Pull garlic mustard if it hasn’t yet set seed. This noxious weed is particularly easy to remove–grab the base of the plant, and unless the soil is compacted, you’ll get the whole root system in one firm tug. Once it’s gone to seed, it’s too late to remove it. 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.

Plant! The weather is perfect. Most reliable mail-order nurseries have started shipping. Once the plants arrive, get them in the ground as soon as you can. If you must hold them for a few days, open the boxes, water as necessary, and keep them in the shadiest spot you can find.

— 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. Otherwise, the lawn certainly doesn’t need watering. And it’s much too early to fertilize. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

Happy Mother’s Day! enjoy the garden this week!

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Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is in full bloom now. Red chokeberry (A. arbutifolia) has prettier fruit, but black chokeberry has larger flowers and its larger fruit are more attractive to birds.