10/28/16: In the garden this week

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Got your leaves yet? Recycle your leaves on your property: they are better than any lawn fertilizer or mulch you can buy. And if you want to make compost, you need lots of leaves!

Finally fall! Crisp temperatures, brisk winds, even a hint of frost last Tuesday night. And rain—over an inch of rain yesterday and last night! This is horticulture in heaven.

Fall is late, or maybe it’s just a new normal. My large white ash tree just lost its leave this week; reference books say that this species drops its leaves in late September. Many people were still harvesting tomatoes until this week. Sugar maples are only showing peak color now, and asters are still blooming. Holly berries are finally turning red.

I hope you enjoy the autumn as much as I do, and while you’re outside taking it all in, here are some garden chores you could be doing:

Leave the Leaves this year: Don’t blow your leaves out to the curb; recycle them on your property. Fallen leaves and grass clippings represent the fertility of your soil, so why give them away? Use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or fall. Perennials planted last season should be well-established, but those planted this year 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. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings this week.

clean up the garden carefully now that warm-season crops are finally winding down: Remove the spent plants and compost healthy ones. Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

— fall is the best time to 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 in the mulch as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. I collected the first aster seeds this week. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe: you can tell when the birds start to eat them. Right now it’s hard to keep up with the seed collecting. And plenty of seed will remain for the birds to eat this winter.

don’t clean up the perennial garden: leave the plants until spring. The birds will enjoy the seeds all winter, and the dead stalks will be easy to remove in spring.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: it’s too late to fertilize or reseed. If you did reseed this year, keep the seeded area moist until the grass is germinated. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. As the leaves fall, mow them, don’t rake or blow them. Your mower will chop them into small pieces that will quickly disintegrate, returning valuable nutrients to the lawn. 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. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is a highlight of the fall and winter native garden. This low-growing shrub is extremely easy to grow but needs room to spread.

 

Trees that turn red

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Foliage of the black tupelo tree, Nyssa sylvatica. We live in the northernmost part of native range of this beautiful and stately tree.

The underlying color of foliage is yellow–leaves begin yellow and turn green when they begin to produce chlorophyll. So why do some trees go to the trouble of turning fiery red in fall?

There are several theories. Some woody plants, vines in particular, turn red to signal to birds that their berries are ripe (birds have excellent color vision). Virginia creeper and poison ivy, two native vines that are particularly beneficial to wildlife, turn fiery red in fall, usually while the trees around them are still green. Ecologists call this a foliar flag.

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A foliar flag: poison ivy growing up a tree trunk turns red in early fall, while the tree that supports it is still green, to signal to birds that its berries are ripe.

But maples and tupelos both flaunt bright red foliage in fall, although their fruits ripen much earlier in the season. Why do the trees waste all the energy it takes to produce red pigment? There are many theories: to protect against insect damage or sunburn at the crucial time of leaf abscission,  or to fool insects into thinking the tree is dying; they’re neatly summarized in today’s NY Times. Read about it there, and be sure to get outside and enjoy the short-lived show. There are lots of lovely red and sugar maples around our area, and even a few tupelos.

I’ll leave you with a brain teaser: the foliage of which native shrub turns a deep purple/pink color in fall?

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Native sugar maples are plentiful in our area; they turn beautiful shades or red and orange. Many dogwoods and viburnums turn dark red.

 

After the storm

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The Virginia creeper that covers my garage wall looked like this on Thursday. Today, after the rain, the stems are bare of leaves.

The complex weather system that’s bringing us our first taste of fall is still blowing through–the sun is shining brightly now, but more rain is forecast for tonight. The rain so far isn’t as much as I had hoped; my rain gauge shows about 1 1/4″. According to today’s NY Times, rainfall in New York City is still 20 percent below normal for the year. Keep watering!

On the positive side, if you were planning on doing some fall planting, this is the time. The soil is moist and the temperatures are supposed to remain cool this week. The weather is perfect for weeding–pleasant temperatures and moist soil. Once things dry out and the wind dies down, be sure collect some leaves. And we may have a freeze Wednesday night, so harvest your remaining tomatoes and other tender crops. The next few days will be great days in the garden.

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Look carefully at the top of the pole and you’ll see an enormous raptor that spend most of Friday afternoon drying its wings in front of my house.

10/21/16: In the garden this week

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Orange Aronia, yellow spicebush and coralberry, and dark red flowering dogwood show their colors in my front yard.

It’s been so warm that autumn is much delayed this year. Ash trees, which usually turn golden and drop their leaves in late September, are only showing full color now. As I look out my window, I see deep yellow ash leaves dropping one at a time, as if deliberately, in the light misty rain.

Delayed or not, autumn is finally here, which means it’s time to prepare for winter–and for spring. Here are some things you could do:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all 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. When the rains ends on Saturday, I’ll check my rain guauge and decide whether to water my new trees on Sunday. And because the ground is so very dry, water well before doing any fall planting.

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). Pick fall crops of cool-weather plants like lettuce, spinach, and peas. First frost could happen at any time, although our current forecast doesn’t seem to indicate it.

— 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.

— fall is the best time to 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 in the mulch as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe when the birds start to eat them. Right now it’s hard to keep up with the seed collecting. And plenty of seed will remain for the birds to eat this winter.

— 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. Other lawn care tips: 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. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

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

Enjoy the garden this week and always!

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Little bluestem is gorgeous when its seedheads glow in the autumn sunshine.

 

Early fall lawn care

Well, it’s not early fall anymore, but while the weather is still warm, and the lawn is still in active growth, you can still reseed. So take a look at this article about some sustainable steps you can take to improve your lawn and make your lawn care easier. (Hint: a lot of these suggestions can best be characterized as “do nothing.”)

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A great way to make your lawn care regimen easier and more sustainable is to eliminate some lawn and plant shade-loving natives, like great blue lobelia, in its place.

 

In case you’re still in doubt

that we’re suffering from excessive heat and drought, a 600-year-old oak tree, a tree that was already 350 years old at the time of the Declaration of Independence, has died. Arborists believe that the current drought and heat dealt the final blow. Very old trees, like very old people, have trouble dealing with physical stress.

Many trees are suffering from the combined effects of heat and drought (it doesn’t help that today, October 17, the temperature has reached 80 degrees). Rainfall has been well below normal for the past two growing seasons: for the past 30 days, rainfall has been approximately 50 percent of the normal amount. Very young and very old trees suffer the most; well established plants that are sited correctly usually do well.

What are some signs of drought stress in trees? A few include drooping leaves, early leaf drop, and brown leaf margins. A tree that loses all its leaves much earlier than usual will usually not leaf out again next year. A dead crown (top of the tree) is a clear signal that the tree is dying. What can you do? If the symptoms are mild, water deeply once a week until frost (see the Guidelines for Sensible Watering page). If the symptoms are severe, it’s probably too late to save the tree. Make sure it’s not likely to do damage if it falls, and have it taken down as soon as possible. Leave a snag, or standing trunk, in place to provide shelter and food for wildlife.

Environmental news roundup

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A blueberry barren in Maine, after harvest. Blueberry farmers maintain barrens by regular burning, just as the Native Americans did.

Most of the food we eat comes to us through the efforts of bees, wasps, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators, which are under stress around the world. Today’s Science Times has a fascinating article about a trek undertaken by a group of young scientists to find Bombus polaris, the Arctic bumblebee. Their goal is to determine how climate change is affecting the range of this species, which lives farther north than any other bee and has evolved an unusual life cycle to enable it to survive Arctic winters.

Climate scientists and evangelical Christian Dr. Katherine Hayhoe has launched the YouTube channel Global Weirding (her name for global warming) to explain the effects of climate change. Check out the first episode and subscribe to received biweekly updates.

And while you’re considering the effects of climate change, check out a story about the importance of the boreal forest (the forest that circle the glove just south of the Arctic circle) for combating climate change. This forest holds vast amounts of carbon, both in the trees themselves and, surprisingly, in the healthy soil beneath them. Other key stories on the NRDC website give tips for composting and for conserving water. Be inspired to save your leaves this year to use for compost.

To see specific effects of global warming that are happening near you, consult the Union of Concerned Scientists’ HotMap, which pinpoints things like decreased milk production in Lancaster County, PA, beach erosion in Virginia, or rising seas levels that threaten New York City.

This is all very depressing. Let’s end on a positive note. The Mother Nature Network lists 15 positive environmental directives, from protecting fragile ecosystems to raising fuel efficiency standards, that have gone into effect under President Obama’s watch.

And why haven’t the presidential candidates focused on environmental issues in this campaign? Be sure to registrar and vote in November.