9/29/17: In the garden this week

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Many native perennials display beautiful fall colors. The short plant with red leaves is sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), which blooms with yellow flowers in May-July; the taller one is Penstemon digitalis, which has white flowers at the same time.

After several weeks of unseasonable heat and drought, we finally feel a hint of fall today (thought still no rain in sight). Fruits have ripened, but most trees and shrubs are holding fast to their leaves, which for the most part look both green and sad. Some early-turning shrubs and trees are showing color, but the color is subdued. The drought and heat are having an effect.

In the vegetable garden the prolonged heat means that pests and diseases have longer than usual to weak havoc, and fall cool-weather crops are sparse. On the positive side, tomato plants are still producing.

Fall is a good time to plant, especially trees and shrubs (though not as good as spring). But the reason it’s good is the cool temperatures: plants concentrate on growing roots when the soil turns cool, top growth when it’s warm. So far this fall has NOT been a good time to plant, although lots of watering helps.

Fall is a good time for lots of other garden chores, however:

water new plantings this week: there’s been almost no precipitation for the past 3 weeks. In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this season or last fall. The soil is very dry, so even perennials planted this spring might be in need of a little extra water. 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 will water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week, and on Sunday I’ll water some of the perennials I put in this past spring.

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 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. And keep picking: don’t let the fruit rot in the garden.

continue to plant cool-weather crops such as lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, and peas for fall harvest. I’m betting on a war fall.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then 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 now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of nodding joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Milkweed seed needs to be collected almost daily. I try to harvest just when the pods split open so I can easily separate the seeds from the down.

— 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. Now that the nights are cool, it’s a good time to reseed bare areas. But be sure to water newly seeded areas frequently: grass seed will only germinate if kept moist, so give seeded areas a light sprinkling several times a day. 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 certainly do not need water. And always 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.

Enjoy the garden this week! Keep a lookout for fall monarch migration (they’re going south). Will they find nectar for the journey in your garden? If not, plant some asters!

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New England aster beats most other plants for attracting pollinators in fall.

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9/8/17: In the garden this week

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This is what one of my perennial beds looked like at this time last year: a lovely combination of summer and early fall flowers and grasses.

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Here’s the same bed, today. Where have all the flowers gone (sorry)? The very mild winter allowed lots of plant-eating critters–deer and rabbits and woodchucks–to live and reproduce, and they love those native perennials. Phlox did not bloom in my garden this summer, and there will be very few asters or boltonia flowers. New seedlings of Rudbeckia triloba, a short-lived perennial, seem to have been crowded out by the little bluestem. I have a lot of work to do in this bed next spring.

It feels like fall is coming early. The evenings and mornings are crisp, and many trees are already showing color. I hope it’s a sign of a cold (dare I say normal?) winter. However, the National Weather Service is predicting above-normal temperatures for the Northeast over the next three months. We must adjust to the new normal: zone 7 rather than zone 6; more fungus diseases of plants; more insect pests.

At least rainfall has been normal this year, even slightly above average (approximately 52 inches for the past year versus a normal of 49). The garden doesn’t look nearly as tired as it usually does in September; I’ve had to water my newly installed trees only two or three times. Normal rainfall is good for the street trees, too: they really suffered during the drought of the previous two growing seasons.

The weather over the next few days promises to be perfect for gardening, so here are some things you might address:

no need to water new plantings this week: we received approximately 2 inches of rain the past week. But in general, in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this season or last fall. Perennials planted this spring should be well-established by now. 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 will not water my new trees or the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

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. And keep picking: don’t let the fruit rot in the garden.

plant cool-weather crops such as lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, and peas for fall harvest.

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. Milkweed seed needs to be collected almost daily. I try to harvest just when the pods split open so I can easily separate the seeds from the down.

— 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. Now that the nights are cool, it’s a good time to reseed bare areas. But be sure to water newly seeded areas frequently: grass seed will only germinate if kept moist, so give seeded areas a light sprinkling several times a day. 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 certainly do not need water. And always 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.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Although the critters have eaten most of my sun-loving asters this season, they’ve left the shade-lovers, which are just as important for pollinating insects. This garden, which is along the sidewalk in front of our house, is full of native geraniums and columbine in the spring, asters in the fall. If you look carefully at the upper left, you’ll see ripening dogwood berries.

 

The garden right now

I hope you enjoy these pictures of the early fall garden, taken yesterday, on this rainy day.

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The bright red fruits of cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) glowed in the sunshine. This is the most sun-tolerant of our native viburnums. Like its cousins it wants to be a very large shrub or small tree, but it can be kept to a reasonable size by judicious winter pruning. Foliage color will be a lovely dark red quite soon, and the berries will hang on until winter.

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The garden is bursting with fruit. There are so many raspberries this year that we actually get to eat some (I confess: the raspberries are everbearers from Burpee, planted with my kids when they were small, not a native species). I always let one pokeweed remain for the birds.You can also see elderberries and grey dogwoods in this shot; both have already finished fruiting.

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This big fat monarch caterpillar was eating voraciously yesterday. It’s on a leaf of Asclepias tuberosa, orange butterflyweed. Notice the milkweed bugs of a variety of life stages on the seed pods at the upper right. They do destroy some seed pods, but plenty remain undamaged, and they do not hurt the plant in any other way.

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This time of year, little bluestem shows the blue-purple tints that gave it its name; in autumn it will look silvery gold.

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Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a star of the early autumn garden. Unlike its red-flowered cousin, Lobelia cardinalis, blue lobelia is not fussy and will grow anywhere except in bright sunlight.

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This bed, with poor, sandy soil on the north side of my house, used to be quite bare. Then I discovered northern bush honeysuckle, the shrub with the red-tipped branches. The tall shrub in the center is Aronia arbutifolia, red aronia, and the berries are beginning to turn from green to red. The bed also contains Christmas ferns, a volunteer sedum, and the original foundation plantings: Japanese azaleas, mountain laurel, a rhododendron, and a boxwood that just won’t give up.

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Many shrubs are showing some fall color on their lower leaves–hints of what’s to come. Soon spicebush (Lindera benzoin) will turn this lovely lemon yellow color all over. If you look closely, you can see next spring’s fat round flower buds. Two weeks ago these plants were full of bright-red berries, but the birds devoured them the minute they ripened.

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Many native perennials display beautiful fall colors. The tall plant with red leaves is Penstemon digitalis (white flowers in early summer); the short one is Oenothera fruticosa (sundrops; yellow flowers in late spring).