12/22/17: In the garden next year

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Is your garden still full of food for wildlife? If not, consider how you can become a better provider next season.

At this time of year, when we are about to be deluged by garden catalogs, it’s time to take stock of this year’s garden and do some serious planning for next season. What do you want your garden to be, and what steps can you take to move it in that direction? (One of the best things about being a serious gardener, I think, is that a garden is never, ever finished.)

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in gardening more sustainably, in adding native plants, and in attracting wildlife. So based on those goals, here are some things to consider as you plan for next year:

Are there lots of insects in your garden? Insects are the basis of the animal food chain: lots of insects means lots of birds; lots of pollinating insects means lots of seeds and fruit. The garden should look alive with insects, especially on a warm, sunny day. If it doesn’t look like that, here’s what you can do:

— stop using pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Pesticides kill all insects, bumblebees, ladybugs, and butterflies as well mosquitoes and Japanese beetle larvae. Fungicides kill the most important decomposers in the garden, and herbicides have been shown to be harmful to animals as well as plants. The vast majority of insects are beneficial. There are much less harmful ways to address the very few that aren’t than blasting them with chemicals.

— plant native species instead of alien and hybridized plants. Sure, natives are beautiful and easy to grow, but the real reason for planting them is that they are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Everyone knows about monarchs and milkweed: monarch caterpillars can eat only milkweed. But many, many insects are that specific: skippers need native grasses, fritillaries need violets, spicebush swallowtails need spicebush (no surprise there). The list goes on and one. The best way to ensure a natural, sustainable ecosystem is to plant a wide variety of native plants.

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New England aster flowers supply plentiful late-season pollen, and the plant itself is the host for dozens of species of native insects.

Is the garden lively in all seasons? We tend to be outdoors only in the warm months, but birds and other wild creatures are outside all year, and they need food and shelter. And I’m not referring to bird feeders. Even without them, my garden is full of birds all year round, and we see more birds in winter than in summer. Here’s how to ensure a plentiful supply of food for wild creatures throughout the year:

— plant for all seasons: with planning, you can supply fruit and seed throughout the year and flowers from late March through October or November. Early-fruiting native trees like birches are important food sources for birds and small mammals; trees and shrubs that hold their fruits through the winter, like hollies and some crab apples, fill in the other end of the year. Many birds search for insects in tree bark throughout the winter, not just in the warm months. A row of evergreens supplies shelter from winter storms.

— clean up the garden in spring, not in fall. Standing grasses and perennials supply both food and shelter throughout the winter; if you concentrate on planting pure species rather than cultivars or hybrids, your plants will produce seed for you as well as for wildlife.

— leave the leaves. Ground-feeding birds will energetically sift through the leaf litter beneath my plants all winter. Why? Because many insects overwinter in the leaf litter. If you keep your leaves and use them as mulch, you will see more birds throughout the winter and more butterflies and moths next season.

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If you don’t clean up the garden until spring, native grasses and perennials will supply food and cover to birds and other creatures through the winter.

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12/8/17: In the garden this week

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) is one of the few bright spots of color remaining in the garden. The best part is that this tough, low-growing shrub will look like this almost all winter. And yes, that’s a blanket of leaves serving as mulch under the shrubbery.

Winter is finally settling in–snow tomorrow, and cold temperatures for most of next week. I always hope for a really cold winter, what I think of as a real winter. Cold weather will kill or slow the spread of harmful insects and control the population of out-of control herbivores like deer and rabbits. The garden will look much better next season if we have a cold winter.

Cold or not, there are always garden chores to address:

— start pruning your shrubs. Winter is the time to do this. We used to recommend that you start around the end of December and stop by the beginning of February, to ensure complete dormancy, but as the climate warms, it’s best to snatch at any period of cold weather. Why prune during cold weather? Most important, because the plants will recover best when they don’t have to expend energy on other important tasks. Also because fungi and other disease-causing organisms are less likely to be spread in the cold.

leave the leaves! Do not rake your leaves out to the curb–you are throwing away the fertility of your soil. Mow over them to use them as lawn fertilizer, use them as mulch on your planting beds (see the photo above), save them to use in compost, but use them in some way on your own property. You can find complete directions here.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week; we received a scant inch of rain. And of course you can’t water if the temperature is at or near freezing. But be vigilant: Until the ground freezes, in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water thoroughly all woody plants installed this season or last fall. 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 and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

clean up the vegetable garden thoroughly: remove all spent plant material. Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

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 shredded cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. You can also use a thicker layer (12-18″) of leaves. 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. Most seeds are ripe, so collect before the birds eat them all. But leave some for the birds that remain through the winter. Seeds of native plants need a cold period before they can germinate, so store them in an unheated garage or shed, or scatter them where you want the plants to grow in spring.

— remove seeds of nonnative (potentially invasive) plants. If you grow butterfly bush (Buddleia), and I hope you don’t, remove the seed heads. The same goes for nonnative ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and Pennisetum. Remove and discard the seedheads–do not compost them. These plants are already invasive in the upper south and mid-Atlantic states and will be here very soon. Better still, remove the plants and replace with natives in the spring. Try this experiment: plant an aster or liatris near your butterfly bush next spring. When the plants are in bloom, watch the butterflies ignore the butterfly bush in favor of the native plants.

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Native asters are butterfly magnets. Butterflies will fly right past a nonnative butterfly bush to nectar on a native aster. This Delaware skipper is enjoying a New England aster.

— 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. It’s too late to fertilize now, and because the weather has turned cold, it’s too late to seed as well. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. If the lawn is doing well, let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis.

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still green. 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. I bet those dead annuals look pretty terrible now. Plan to replace them with native perennials next year.

The garden catalogs are starting to arrive! Here’s to next year.

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A few aster seeds remain–this is a shade aster planted so long ago I don’t remember which species it is. A diverse native plant garden will feed the birds all winter.