12/23/16: In the garden this week

Wishing you joy, peace, and fruitfulness for the holidays and the coming year.


American holly, Ilex opaca


Shade aster, A. cordifolius (?)


Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida


Environmental news roundup


The environment includes your backyard. Something as simple as a screen of evergreens can greatly improve the environment for overwintering birds.

Since the weather suddenly got cold, we’ve been hearing a lot about the polar vortex. This is simply the normal circular flow of cold air around the Arctic that sometimes moves south and brings with it abnormally cold temperatures. It’s not unusual, and it’s not a sign that global warming is a hoax. Check out the National Weather Service‘s excellent explanation and graphics. The actual prediction for the coming winter is for slightly above-normal temperatures in our area.

The effects of global warming are most extreme in the polar regions, where the climate is heating up fast. For a fascinating article about how this is affecting residents of the Arctic, both human and nonhuman, read this article. It explains what happens to polar bears when the sea ice they need for hunting disappears, and what happens to people when, as a result, the polar bears show up in their villages.

All environmental news is not bad. In recent years the cost of renewable energy, particularly solar power, has declined precipitously, making it cheaper to use clean energy than many forms of greenhouse-increasing energy such as coal. Solar is rapidly becoming the cheapest source of new electricity. Market forces are at work.

Local governments all over the world are on board with renewable energy: San Diego; Rochester, MN; Burlington, VT; Barcelona; Adelaide; and countless more. You can read a report from the International Energy Agency here or google the phrase “renewable energy local government” to find many more examples. And you can encourage your local government to join in.

And don’t forget to check out Global Weirding every two weeks for a new episode of this information and funny YouTube series.

Stay warm.

Winter color for a gloomy day


Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) will display these gorgeous pink berries for most of the winter. This is a great thicketing shrub for difficult areas–low-growing and tolerant of everything but wet feet.


I planted this dwarf cultivar of Hydrangea quercifolium in a shady spot last spring, and I’m surprised at how pretty it still looks.


This large American holly, Ilex opaca, grows outside my office window, and the bird activity it attracts in winter is continually entertaining. This tree was here when we bought our house, and I don’t know where the male is.


Little bluestem (Schyzachrium scoparium) is beautiful all year, not least in winter. Soon the seeds will be gone; birds visit the plants continually. Notice the Rudbeckia seeds peeping through.


Male catkins of American hazelnut (Corylus americana) are prominent all winter; the tiny, bright red female flowers will be visible for only a few days in early spring.


12/9/16: In the garden this week


The garden is waiting for spring: male catkins of native hazelnut (Corylus americana) are fully formed, ready to release their pollen in early spring.

If you’re like most people, you’re too busy this time of year to do many gardening chores. Lucky it’s a quiet time: leaves are finally gathered, garden cleanup is complete (or should be), it’s too late to work on the lawn and too early to prune. But there are always things you can do in the garden:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this past week), 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. This past week we received only about 3/4 inch of rain.

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.

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 them both. Seeds of all prairie perennials 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. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed. Mixed-species foraging flocks have formed to take advantage of the bounty.

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.

— 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.

work to protect the environment. Most Americans want clean air and water, are concerned about climate change, and want the government to work to mitigate it. When something happens in opposition to your basic environmental values, speak out. Write to your elected representatives, donate to an environmental organization, volunteer, march–there are many ways to make your voice heard.

In the rush of holiday preparation, take time to enjoy the garden!


Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) holds its berries until frost makes them more palatable to birds.

Happy new year


Native plum blossoms (Prunus americana) in spring.

The last leaves are down and gathered in from the oaks and Norway maples, so as far as I’m concerned, fall chores are done. And that means that the gardening year has turned: we switch our focus from the current season to the one that’s to come. So I wish all of you a very happy, healthy, and productive new year.

Certainly there are still this-year chores to do: as long as the ground isn’t frozen, you need to continue watering newly planted new woody plants. And once the weather turns cold, you can prune and shape your shrubs and trees. And you can always create a new garden bed for next year by smothering part of your lawn with mulch.

And you can plan. Begin by thinking about this year’s garden. Right now, are you seeing lots of birds? A garden rich in native plants will attract mixed-species foraging flocks all winter, plus year-round residents like mourning doves, cardinals, and jays. As soon as the robins and catbirds leave, juncos arrive in my garden, and I see them throughout the winter, sometimes as part of the mixed-species flocks and sometimes in single-species groups. All these birds are attracted to the wealth of seeds still on the plants and on the ground and to the insects and caterpillars overwintering in the leaf litter. To a bird, an untidy perennial border in winter is a lavish buffet. If your garden isn’t that welcoming, plan to incorporate a wide variety of native grasses, perennials, and shrubs next year.

Now that lawn care is done for the old year, it’s time to think about what you can do differently, perhaps more sustainably, in the new year. How many times per year do you fertilize your lawn? If you do it at all, you can do it less, and you can certainly stop using herbicides and pesticides. If you want birds, you must welcome bugs! And many plants you think of as lawn weeds–violets, for example–are host plants for gorgeous butterflies like the great spangled fritillary. If there were no violets, there would be no fritillaries; no nettles, no red emperors; and on and on. Plan for more diversity and maybe for a little more wildness in next year’s garden.

Did your garden require a great deal of maintenance during the past two very dry growing seasons? Did you have to water everything frequently, or did you lose a great many plants because of the drought? That’s the definition of an unsustainable garden. This is the time to plan to replace those unhappy plants  with others that are more appropriate for your site. Put the right plant in the right place next year and you’ll save time and money. If you have shade, plant a garden of ferns and shade-loving perennials; if you have a spot that’s always flooded after heavy rain, plant a rain garden. There’s a suite of beautiful native plants that’s right for any site. You have the whole winter to discover the plants that are right for yours.

This is just the beginning of planning for next year. I  wish you a nice big leaf pile that will turn into next year’s compost. Come back for more ideas throughout the winter.


Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a lover of moist shade, is one of the first native plants to bloom in spring. These lovely blooms supply pollen to early-emerging bees. And they’re certainly something to look forward to!