4/21/17: In the garden this week

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Violets are not weeds! They’re an extremely important larval food source for a large group of butterflies. No violets, no fritillaries. And they’re lovely as well.

After a bizarre start, with the late snowstorm in mid-March, spring is unfolding in a normal and reassuring way (although for those of us who remember when lilacs bloomed reliably for Mother’s Day, everything is still insanely early). Violets are blooming, most native trees are beginning to leaf out, early bloomers like spicebush and native plums have finished blooming, flowering dogwood (which used to bloom around Memorial Day) is almost at its peak. None of my native shrubs were affected by the late frost, although many exotics, such as the early-flowering Asian magnolias, bloomed sparsely if at all.

In the understory, bloodroot is in bloom right now, as are Virginia bluebells. Columbine is showing buds, Solomon’s seal is raising its delicate head above the leaf litter, and native geraniums are showing buds. Most summer-blooming perennials are up, with the exception of milkweeds and wild petunia, which always come late to the party. They must feel the need to make an entrance.

There’s a lot to do in the garden this week and throughout the spring:

water new plantings: Although the past two weeks have been dry, we received an inch of water last night, so no need to water this week. But check back here weekly for updates: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old plastic container or tin can placed among the plants. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—plants grow roots when the soil is cool, so the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees are subject to emerald ash borer. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can them recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, raking the soil smooth, and adding compost or well-rotted manure. Compost can simply be spread on top of the soil; manure should be mixed in, and make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes and squash for another few weeks.

Clean up the perennial garden. It’s finally time! Compost as much as the detritus as you can, and treat it gently: it contains the pupae and larvae of valuable insects, bees, and butterflies. And leave a little on the ground for birds to use as nesting material. As I glance out the window, a robin is collecting bits of grass and stalks I left behind.

—Divide perennials as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Wait until Memorial Day, and then use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Or best of all, don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. And remember, pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And garden chemicals are not so great for kids or pets either; common herbicides are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— 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 this week–the weather and the soil moisture will be perfect!

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The delicate flowers of native plum, Prunus americana, are intensely fragrant and as lovely as any exotic cherry can produce.

 

Spring cleaning

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One of my perennial borders in July. It looks very different now, as you’ll see below.

Gardens made up of native perennials and grasses are relatively easy to care for–no fertilizing and very little watering, if any–but they’re not maintenance free. The most important annual chore is spring cleaning: removal of last year’s dead growth to make way for the new. Remember that all these plants are perennials: in winter and spring the top growth is dead, but the roots are very much alive.

There are many reasons to clean up the garden in spring rather than in fall: first, it’s much easier, because the stalks are dry and easy to break off. In fall you would have to cut them. But ecologically it’s a very good idea to leave the dead material all winter: the remaining seed feeds the birds; the stalks provide shelter to many insects; the plant litter on the ground feeds and shelters ground-feeding birds; and all the material helps prevent groundwater runoff and erosion caused by winter storms.

This is what the same garden looked like a few days ago:

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A mess! Last year’s dead material was weighted down by snow and much of it has toppled over, although the toughest stalks remain upright. Some of the green you see is new growth; some is weeds.

Cleanup desperately needed! It’s a good idea to wait until you see lots of new growth, and that time is now.

The first step in cleanup is removing those tough, tall stalks and stems. Place a tarp on the ground to receive the detritus (whether you plan to compost it yourself or take it to a recycling facility, the tarp will facilitate removal and cleanup). Then grab the stalks by the handful and break them off near the base. Don’t pull–you might yank plants right out of the ground. Make a quick snapping motion with your wrist; if necessary, break the stalks in half in the same way (some of the plants in this garden are 8 feet tall). You’ll wind up with something that looks like this: a pile of detritus and lots of visible plants.

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With the stalks broken off, the new growth appears. The section you see here is about a third of this 30-foot long border.

At this point, you can see what’s growing. This includes both desirable and undesirable plants. This particular border always contains numerous “volunteers”–things I didn’t plant. The first category of volunteers is native undergrowth like violets, cinquefoil, and sedges. I leave these alone. The second is particularly noxious and fast-spreading weeds like garlic mustard and hairy or western bittercress. These mustards go to seed early, so I pull them the minute I see them. The third category is weeds that require digging–in this garden, wild garlic and ragwort.  I make a note of those and plan to come back later. Finally, there’s woody growth–small tree seedlings and stray offshoots of nearby shrubs. I’ll pull or cut those in a final pass through the garden.

The next step is to gently rake off the remaining material. Gently is the key word here. I use a large leaf rake and pull it through the material on the ground with quick, short, gentle strokes. I want to remove most of the leaf litter but leave the tender new growth. It’s not important to get rid of every dead leaf and bit of stalk. When you’ve done with this step, the garden looks like this:

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Remember what this garden will look like in July? Because my neighbor’s fence sits right on the property line, I won’t be able to get into this garden after the plants really start growing. So I have to do all the weeding, planting, and dividing now.

After removing weeds, I can divide plants, give plants away, and, most fun of all, add new ones. And watch the garden turn into a thing of beauty once more.

On weeding

I love to weed–there are few activities that produce such instantaneous and satisfying results. Someday I’d like to write a book, a very long one, about weeding. I’d describe the root structure of every type of weed I’ve ever encountered and then explain the best tool and the best method for removing it. And the best time of year as well–for example, now is the time to remove mustards such as cress and garlic mustard, which go to seed very quickly.

Below are just two common weeds and a description of their root structure and why it’s difficult to remove them. And don’t get me started on the many different species of grasses and their different roots.

 

Mugwort, Artemesia vulgaris, spreads by rhizomes. If you just pull it, the roots remain and the plant grows back vigorously. The plant is not nearly as pretty as this illustration makes it look!

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Chickweed, Stellaria media. No rhizomes, but fine, hairlike roots that spread widely and break when you try to pull the plant out.

Of course, there’s a new horticultural school of thought that says you should never pull weeds out–instead, you should simply cut off the top growth. If you do this repeatedly, the plant will die, but “repeatedly” is the key. It can take two years, so imagine doing it in a large garden! I have had success with this method for hostas–it took dedicated weekly removal of all foliage for two years. But I only had a few hostas leftover from the previous owner of my property. And even that was certainly easier than digging out large hostas with enormous root systems.

A book on weeding would have a chapter on the definition of a weed (not violets!), types of root structures, weeding methods, weeding tools, things not to do (black plastic, chemical herbicides), and a very long appendix listing weeds of the northeast, with photos of the plant and of the root structure. Somehow I don’t think it’s an economically viable project.

 

Snow day

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Spring will come, so prepare for it now! Today wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) are sleeping under a foot of snow, but they will bloom in little more than a month.

What better time than a snow day to prepare for spring in the garden? Are you one of those people who doesn’t plan for spring until the weather warms up? There’s a problem with that approach: the best suppliers of native plants are sold out of the plants you want long before you’re ready to order. Right now, today, when you have a little extra time, go online (you’re already there!) and browse native plants. Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon, and Toadshade Wildflower Farm are all excellent, reliable mail-order suppliers and growers. Toadshade is right here in New Jersey.

While you’re online, do a little research. Check out the website of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey: read about native plants, find local suppliers, and register for the annual meeting, to be held this coming Saturday. Or take a look at the fabulous website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, with its searchable database of native plants. Or check out the Xerces Society for fascinating information about pollinators and the plants they love.

Finally, for the simplest way to plan and order a pollinator garden, Glen Rock residents can take advantage of the Environmental Commission’s preplanned butterfly garden project. But hurry up! The order period ends tomorrow.

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If you want to enjoy a colorful garden this summer, the time to plan and order is now.

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.

1/27/17: In the garden this week

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Winter is a great time to look for backyard birds. A tree with a dead limb, like this one, supplies ample food and shelter.

Do you see lots of birds year-round and pollinators (bees, butterflies) in summer in your garden? If not, this is a great time to plan some new plantings that will attract these valuable creatures. Order plants now–by spring, many of the best growers are sold out of their most popular plants. And while you’re thinking about the garden, consider these tasks as well:

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. This past week we received just over 1 inch of rain.

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

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Little bluestem is a natural bird feeder that supplies seed all winter long.

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: Do it now, because later this winter everything might be covered in snow. 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.

Enjoy the garden this week and always, and look forward to spring!

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Few plant rival the beauty of our native flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, in bloom.

 

12/9/16: In the garden this week

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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!

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