Random thoughts about a very early spring

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We hope to see some of these magnificent, almost-gone-extinct creatures soon. (Photo of Galapagos tortoise from National Geographic.com)

The first crocuses, the tiny yellow ones, are blooming in my garden, and  on the first native flowers to bloom in my garden, the native hazelnuts, the tiny female flowers are just visible. They’ll be in full bloom tomorrow, at least three weeks earlier than usual.

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Female flowers of native hazelnuts (Corylus americana) are bright red and very tiny. The plant is wind pollinated.

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Male hazelnut flowers are borne on these long yellow catkins. They sway gently and release their pollen with the slightest wind.

Other natives in bloom right now? Look for vernal witchhazel (technically native to the deep South) and pussy willow in wet places–you should be able to see both in the Glen Rock Arboretum right now. Certainly the swamp cabbage is up. If you’re lucky enough to have a shady, moist spot, you could be waiting for bloodroot and Virginia bluebells to burst into bloom.

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Swamp cabbage in bloom in the Glen Rock Arboretum.

It looks like I’ve succeed in killing a patch of lesser celandine that I mistakenly planted, thinking it was marsh marigold, about twenty years ago. (Luckily my soil is very dry. If I had planted it in a wet spot, it would have taken over my whole backyard. This patch was only about six feet wide.) I smothered it. For two years, as it emerged in early spring I piled leaves on top of it and then pulled out any new growth that managed to break through. It should be out now, but I don’t see a trace of it. Two years of smothering or persistent removal of growth seems to be enough to kill even very tough plants like hosta.

We leave for the Galapagos tomorrow, and the forecast calls for warm weather almost the whole time we’re away. So I watered my new trees thoroughly today, just in case. Keep an eye on any woody plants you put in last year–their roots will be in very active growth now, so they need lots of water during dry periods.

I  pulled at least two dozen tiny English ivy seedlings in my miniforest today. One of my neighbors has allowed icy to climb her trees, flower, and fruit. Only continual vigilance will keep it from engulfing the precious woodland that we planted twenty-one years ago.

The forest in spring, with dogwood in bloom.

Our miniforest in May, when the dogwood is in bloom. Everything you see was planted. This area was lawn when we moved into our house.

Enjoy this very early spring, but take some time to ponder its cause. Don’t do any more winter pruning, and get your vegetable seeds started! See you in two weeks.

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2/17/17: In the garden and beyond

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True, the snow is nearly gone and we’re in for some warm weather, but don’t be fooled into thinking that winter is over.

Are you ready for 60 degrees in February? That’s predicted for the coming week. But no matter the weather, remember that it’s still winter. Don’t begin cleaning up your perennial garden for at least another month or six weeks. But here are some things you can be doing in your garden in the next couple of weeks:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, and the ground is not frozen, water all plants installed this spring or fall. We have received approximately an inch of precipitation each recent week (rain or snow), so no need to water right now, but check back here frequently for updates. 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 each week.

— are your shrubs overgrown and in need of size reduction? Time is running out to work on winter pruning of woody plants. The best time to do this is while plants are dormant, but with the predicted warm weather, woody plants may break dormancy soon. Contact me for coaching if you would like to learn to do this yourself, or for an estimate if you would like me to do it for you.

— start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here.

— Don’t clean up the perennial garden yet. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter.

but do 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. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. Mixed-species foraging flocks visit daily to take advantage of the bounty; lately I’ve seen nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets.

— plan for next season: 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. Did you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring. Is there plentiful food for birds now? Plan to plant native perennials and shrubs on spring. And place your orders early, because native plant nurseries run out of the most popular species.

join a garden club or native plant society: you’ll meet like-minded gardeners, learn a lot, and find out about local resources. For example, join the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and find about the activities of our Bergen-Passaic chapter, or join your local garden club.

— If you live in Bergen County, take the Parks Survey.  It only takes a few minutes, and it allows you to say what you would like to happen to our precious remaining open space.

— Support a local farmer by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) this season. CSAs allow you to support small-scale, sustainable agriculture and help limit the environmental effects of factory farming. You’ll also find that the produce tastes much, much better than what you buy in the supermarket. For the past 5 years or more, we have joined Hesperides Organica, a family-run farm located in Hawthorne, NY. They deliver weekly to various locations in Bergen County.

Enjoy the garden and nature this week and always.

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American hazelnut is the first shrub to bloom in my garden, usually by mid-March. These male catkins are still dormant, but they will elongate and release pollen in just a few weeks.

 

It’s not too late: This year’s vegetable garden

This remarkably warm and sunny day felt more like April than February, and it made me want to start my vegetable garden. I resisted the temptation to begin sowing seeds  outdoors (see below for which crops to plant in this way), but I did begin to clear out grass and weeds that are impinging on my plot in the community garden.

If you’ve never had a vegetable garden before, now is the time to plan. All you need is a small plot of ground, or even just some large pots, some rich soil, sun, and a plan for keeping critters away. A vegetable garden must get at least 6 hours of sun per day, and more is better.

Many early crops can be sown directly in the ground as soon as the soil is workable, usually by mid- to late March (it really is too early, no matter what the weather feels like). These crops include lettuce, arugula and other bitter greens, spinach, mesclun mixes, and peas. Depending on the weather, I generally sow all these around mid-March. I begin to harvest the greens about six weeks after planting and the peas in early June. Once the weather gets good and hot, I pull all these crops up and plant something else–beans, tomatoes, cucumbers–in their place. A plot that’s roughly 4 x 4 feet gives us several large salads each week. So order your seeds now. Mid-March is only six weeks away!

Other crops can be started from seeds indoors, either under lights or in a sunny window, and then transplanted into the garden after the last frost date (which, depending on the source you trust, is somewhere around the end of April here in Bergen County). Working back from a last-frost date of April 30, here’s when you could start seeds indoors for a variety of popular crops:

  • End of January: Asparagus
  • End of February: Lettuce, onions
  • March 5: Broccoli, endive, escarole
  • March 12: Tomatoes
  • March 19: Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, kale
  • March 26: Beets
  • April 2: Leeks, summer and winter squash
  • April 9: Cucumbers, melons

Other tender crops, such as corn and beans, are sown directly outdoors, but not until the soil is good and warm, usually sometime in May.

If all goes well, by late May (less than four months from now!), your vegetable garden may look like this:

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2/3/17: In and beyond the garden

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Asters still hold on some seed, and birds devout it eagerly. And the empty sepals are almost as pretty as the flowers.

There’s always something to do in the garden:on warm winter days, weed. On cold days, prune. On both, look at the birds and dream about the coming season. And here are some other ideas:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, and the ground is not frozen, water all plants installed this spring or fall. We have received at least an inch of rain per week for the past two weeks, so no need to water right now, but check back here frequently for updates. 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.

— are your shrubs overgrown and in need of size reduction? it’s time to work on winter pruning of woody plants. Now, while plants are dormant, is the best time to do this: it’s easy to see the structure of the plant while the leaves are down, and the plant is most likely to react favorably while it’s resting. Contact me for coaching if you would like to learn to do this yourself, or for an estimate if you would like me to do it for you.

— if you haven’t already done so, 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. (Home compost piles are too small to work up enough heat to kill weed seeds or disease material.) But don’t clean up the perennial garden. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter.

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. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. Mixed-species foraging flocks visit daily to take advantage of the bounty; lately I’ve seen nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets.

— plan for next season: 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. Did you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring. Is there plentiful food for birds now? Plan to plant native perennials and shrubs on spring. And place your orders early, because native plant nurseries run out of the most popular species.

join a garden club or native plant society: you’ll meet like-minded gardeners, learn a lot, and find out about local resources. For example, join the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and find about the activities of our Bergen-Passaic chapter, or join your local garden club. The next meeting takes place this WEdnesday, Feb. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the headquarters of the NY-NJ Trail Conference, 600 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah. Email bergenpassaic@npsnj.org for information.

— If you live in Bergen County, take the Parks Survey.  It only takes a few minutes, and it allows you to say what you would like to happen to our precious remaining open space. While you’re on the CUES page, take a look at the list of public meetings and attend one if possible.

— Support a local farmer by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) this season. CSAs allow you to support small-scale, sustainable agriculture and help limit the environmental effects of factory farming. You’ll also find that the produce tastes much, much better than what you buy in the supermarket. For the past 5 years or more, we have joined Hesperides Organica, a family-run farm located in Hawthorne, NY. They deliver weekly to various locations in Bergen County.

Didn’t I tell you there was always plenty to do? Enjoy the garden this week.

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Native hazelnut (Corylus americana) after winter pruning.