9/30/16: In the garden this week (and Maine)

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A random patch of plants growing beside our small rented cabin on Swan Lake in mid-coast Maine. Almost every plant you see is native.

We’re just back from 2+ weeks in our beloved Maine. When our children were growing up, we vacationed there every year, staying in a small cabin on a pond, and it’s where I learned how a forest is put together. Here in New Jersey, most natural watercourses have been covered or dammed, ponds are covered with green algae caused by lawn fertilizer runoff, and the vast majority of plants are either nonnative or positively invasive, both in backyards and in natural areas. In Maine, there’s much more nature remaining, and being there is a wonderful vacation for the senses as well as for the body and mind. There are some more photos at the end of this post.

End of diatribe. What does this have to do with you and your garden? You can create a little oasis of nature in your own backyard, and if more and more people do that (and more and more are), our overall environment will improve.

It looks like the drought has broken to some extent in our area–my rain gauge was full when we returned, indicating well over an inch of rain over the two weeks, and the NOAA monthly and seasonal forecast calls for normal rainfall amounts in the Northeast. So watering is probably unnecessary right now, unless you’ve seeded a new lawn (see below). But here are some things you could be doing in your garden right now:

continue to practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers. This is particularly important as the season winds down. Monitor for insect eggs and larvae and remove them before infestations become serious. Throw out badly infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

— as tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits: provide no more than an inch of water per week. (If it rains, don’t water.) Keep removing suckers. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (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. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there as you collect them.

collect seeds. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of nodding joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe when the birds start to eat them, which usually happens quite late in the season.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. As the weather cools down, it’s time to reseed bare areas. Be sure to keep those patches well watered until the grass is up. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Established lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day. But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit.

Leave the Leaves this year: use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.

And now for more Maine. I wish I were still there.

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We happened on this grouping of plants growing in a rock bald on top of a mountain. I couldn’t have designed a better arrangement. True inspiration from nature.

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Another view from the cabin: the sunset reflected over Swan Lake (you’re actually looking southeast).

 

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9/9/16: In the garden this week

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Summer-blooming perennials are still going strong, but asters are beginning to make their presence felt in the early fall garden.

It’s hot, hot and dry. Once again, one weather system after another passes us by. I have actually watered some of my established perennials–that’s how dry it’s been. Perhaps we’ll finally get some relief over the weekend.

Once it cools down a bit and you feel like getting out into the garden, here are some seasonal tasks to consider:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, like this week, water all woody plants installed this spring or last fall. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall or this spring need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. Sunday is my watering day, and I’m going to water my new trees and shrubs.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers. This is particularly important as the season winds down. Monitor for insect eggs and larvae and remove them before infestations become serious. Throw out badly infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

— as tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits: provide no more than an inch of water per week. (If it rains, don’t water.) Keep removing suckers. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (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. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there as you collect them.

collect seeds. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day. So does seed of daisy fleabane, a lovely native annual. It pops up in different parts of my garden each year. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripening, as are seeds of nodding joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. Even though Labor Day is past, hold off until the weather cools down a bit. And it’s still too hot to reseed bare areas. Early fall is the best time to do this, but wait until things cool down. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day. But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit.

I love this time of year in the garden! The asters are finally blooming, and the native grasses are glowing in the sun. Enjoy the garden this week.

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New England aster

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Little bluestem

Lying about lime

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If your garden is too shady for lawn grass, lime won’t help. Plant some lovely shade-loving perennials instead. Shown here are Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) and native Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

Do you add lime to your lawn each year? If so, why? I’ve asked this question of many homeowners and landscapers who swear by liming, and I get a variety of answers:

Lime kills the moss so the grass can grow. No, sorry. This is quite incorrect. Moss grows in the shade. Lawn grasses need sun. If you have a part of your garden where moss grows, either enjoy the moss (which is quite lovely), or plant shade-loving perennials and ferns.

Lime makes everything grow better. Wrong again. In some conditions,, lime might possibly make some plants grow better (see below), but in general it’s quite unnecessary in our area.

Lime corrects the pH of the soil. This response actually has some relationship with the truth. But let’s back up a bit. pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a substance: on a scale of 0 to 14, low numbers indicate acidity, high numbers indicate alkalinity, and 7 is neutral. Most garden plants, including lawn grasses, grow best when the soil is mildly acidic, with a pH of approximately 6.5 to 6.8. Lime, which is alkaline, raises the pH of soil. However, in our area, the pH of most soil is around 6.5 to 6.8. So unless a soil test tells you that your soil is extremely acidic, there’s no need to add lime.

Not adding lime is one way you can cut down on the cost and time involved in maintaining a lawn (getting rid of lawn by planting shrubs and perennials is another). You’ll find more about fall lawn care in this post from last year.

 

Changing conditions

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A large Norway maple once shaded the shrub islands on my front lawn; it blew down this spring, and now a small oak replaces it. Those islands, planted with shade lovers, get too much sun now and are suffering drought stress as a result.

When conditions change, garden care must change as well. And changing conditions can make a sustainable garden less sustainable, at least for a while. When you put up an addition, or trees outgrow their site, or a tree comes down, conditions change drastically for plants. You may be able to adapt your plantings (plant more sun-lovers, for example); if not, you’ll certainly have to adapt your care routine. It will probably be 5 years or more before this swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) supplies much-needed shade to these islands. I’ll need to provide supplemental water during dry spells for the whole time. I had almost never watered these beds before. Now, during this very dry summer, I’ve had to water every couple of weeks.