11/18/16: In the garden this week


A sustainable garden should be a bountiful buffet for birds and other wildlife throughout the winter and early spring. Don’t clean up your perennial beds until you see new growth in spring.

Finally a good soaking rain came to our area this past week: my rain gauge registered over an inch and a half, and all over northern New Jersey, sluggish streams came to life. It made for good weeding conditions.

The prolonged warm weather we now experience, in fall and also in spring, puts great stress on trees. Trees leaf out earlier and hold their leaves longer; they carry out photosynthesis for a longer season, and as a result, their water needs increase. Remember that our rainfall has been below normal for the past two growing seasons. Many trees, particularly the old and the young, are stressed.

It’s delightful to be outdoors on these warm, sunny fall days. Here are some gardening chores you might attend to while you’re enjoying the golden fall weather:

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: this week we received ample rainfall, but 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 vegetable garden carefully: remove the spent plants; compost healthy ones, but throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease.

— 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. Or use a thick layer of leaves (12″ or more). 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 disappearing fast, because the birds love it. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed. Seeds of asters, joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda are ripe. 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 over 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.


Native perennials, like native trees and shrubs, and great for fall color. This is what sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa, looks like in early fall.



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