6/16/17: In the garden this week

IMG_20170616_100807

Penstemon digitalis (the white flowers) is an early-summer stalwart of the prairie garden. It self-seeds all the time, and some of the seedlings have dark-red stems or leaves or flowers with lavender throats. But note the purple-flowered plant in the foreground. This is one to divide and carefully maintain!

We had our first bout of really hot weather this week, following a prolonged dry spell, and parts of my garden, particularly beds that have lost their shade covering due to fallen trees, needed emergency watering. It’s important to remain vigilant, especially during hot, dry weather.

Established prairie plants had no trouble during the heat wave and should not need any supplemental water unless the drought is very prolonged. As you can see in the photo above, many are about to bloom: orange butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, Culver’s root, mountain mint, and Monarda are all showing swelling buds. In the sunniest parts of the garden, they’re already in bloom. Sundrops are in full bloom, and coreopsis would be, except this year the rabbits and woodchucks and deer have eaten every plant down to the ground. Coreopsis, asters, and boltonia will most likely not manage to bloom this year because of the repeated chewing. But after one really cold winter, they will be back in full force. I hope we’ll get a cold winter sometime soon.

Here are some garden chores you might be doing this week:

water new plantings: We’ve received no rain this week, and today’s light sprinkles don’t amount to much. Always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and 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.

—- Addendum 6/17: over an inch of rain fell last night and this afternoon. No watering needed for now!—-

— all vegetables, including tender crops like tomatoes and peppers and corn, should be planted out by now, and it will soon be time to remove early greens like lettuce and spinach. Water deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread.

— be sure to properly tie, stake and prune your tomato plants. Tomato cages are pretty useless: the plants outgrow them before they start to bear fruit. And unless tomato plants are properly pruned, by pinching out the suckers, they will be so bushy that they’ll be especially susceptible to fungus infections like verticilium wilt.

—  It’s a bit late to clean up the perennial garden or to divide and replant. Once the weather turns hot, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming. I would no longer move or divide plants, but if you continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water.

it’s too late to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Here’s a suggestion: don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Or wait until around Labor Day and use one application of a slow-release organic fertilizer. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. 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, in addition to killing butterfly host plants like violets, 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!

IMG_20170616_101710

Orange butterflyweed in full sun is already in bloom. The small blue flowers are Campanula rotundifolia. As the milkweed plants crowded them out, the Campanula responded by increasing in height. Usually they’re less than a foot tall.

IMG_20170616_150917

Spigelia marilandica, Indian pink, was an impulse buy and an experiment last year, but it did great. Probably the mild winter had some good effects. The scarlet buds are about to open and reveal their bright yellow throats.

 

6/9/17: In the garden this week

IMG_20170609_091251

You’ve seen this perennial border before, in its High Summer mode, dominated by yellows and purples. Now, in early summer, white prevails as junegrass (Koeleria macracantha) begins to bloom at Penstemon digitalis reaches its peak. Columbine straddles late spring and early summer.

Because of the cool, wet spring, the garden is gorgeous. But because of the mild winter, it’s overrun with chipmunks and woodchucks and deer. The chipmunks seem to be using my herb pots as a larder; they dig in the soil every night. I’ve never found them to be a problem before. Someone is eating tarragon, and oregano, herbs that have always been immune before. And I doubt very much if either asters or boltonia will bloom this year. Critters are repeatedly eating them right down to the ground. It’s happened before, and the plants will survive, but it’s distressing all the same.

As serviceberries ripen (Amerlanchier), the bird activity in the garden reaches a frenzy. The berries in each cluster ripen one by one, and each morning the ripest are gone. If you grow this wonderful native shrub or tree (and you certainly should), try to taste at least a few berries yourself.

DSCN8208

Guess which serviceberry will be gone tomorrow morning?

Here are some tasks you might address in the garden this week:

water new plantings: Despite the rainy spring, we received less than half an inch in the past week, and the weather is about to turn HOT. If you’re still planting, water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and hand water as needed. It’s hard for plants to establish in hot weather. Also, this week you should water all plants installed this spring or last fall. Be sure to check your town’s watering regulations—many local areas have recently adopted more stringent rules.

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. I will be watering this weekend.

IMG_20170609_091612

The ash trees we planted last year have grown a lot! I will continue to water them during dry weeks this season, and they were treated to prevent emerald ash borer infestations last month.

— all vegetables, including tender crops like tomatoes and peppers and corn, should be planted out by now, and with the coming hot weather, it will soon be time to remove early greens like lettuce and spinach. Water deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread.

—  It’s a bit late to clean up the perennial garden or to divide and replant. Once the weather turns hot, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming. I would longer move or divide plants, but if you continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water.

it’s too late to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Here’s a suggestion: don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Or wait until around Labor Day and use one application of a slow-release organic fertilizer. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. 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, in addition to killing butterfly host plants like violets, 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!

IMG_20170609_091407

Compare this border today with the way it looked in April when I did my annual spring cleaning. Looks pretty different now and will look even more different in July.

 

What I missed

IMG_20170603_154124

In the past three weeks, Penstemon digitalis (white flowers) has attained enormous height and begun to bloom; columbine (Aquilegia canadensis—orange flowers) is still going strong.

I went on vacation in spring and came back to summer. And not only summer, but a summer with abundant rainfall, for the first time in three years. The garden has grown so much we could hardly find the driveway. There’s nothing like a relatively cool, rainy spring.

Penstemon to me is the first of the summer prairie plants. It usually begins to bloom in late May, and from the looks of it, it started early this year. The plants are almost four feet tall; usually they’re no more than three. Canada anemone and grey dogwood are in full bloom; junegrass, milkweeds, and elderberries are about to bloom; arrowwood  and maple leaf viburnums are almost finished. We completely missed the blooming of ninebark and of my single lovely pink peony (it’s one of two nonnative plants, the other being a lilac). There’s a lot of weeding, pinching, and cutting back to be done! I haven’t checked the vegetable garden yet, but I’m sure there’s rhubarb ready for harvesting. I will surely need to weed. And it’s time to plant basil, tomatoes, and other warm-weather crops.

IMG_20170603_154151

Elderberries (large flat flower clusters) are about to bloom, and fragrant grey dogwood is in full bloom. The somewhat aggressive grey dogwood is slowly crowding out the elderberry in this area.

5/14/17: In the garden this week

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all. This plant will bloom within the next week or 10 days.

These next couple of weeks are the loveliest of the year in the garden, and we will miss it all—we are going on vacation. So I thought that in this post I would look ahead a bit and tell you what to expect in the next two or three weeks. In that time, the garden will switch from spring to summer.

It’s delightful that the drought of the past two years seems to have lifted. Rainfall is slightly above average for the past 30 days and normal for the year to date. As a result, we are enjoying a truly lovely spring. And the relatively cool temperatures mean that all the beauty around is lasts a bit longer than it would if the weather suddenly turned hot. It gives us all a longer spring planting season as well. I like to stop planting when the weather really warms up.

So here are some things you could be doing in your garden over the next few weeks:

water new plantings if the weather turns dry: Rainfall totals are finally normal or even a bit above, at least in the short term. We’ve received approximately an inch and a half of rain this weekend, so no need to water. But always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and 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—the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up. Same goes for perennials and grasses. The earlier the better. If you must keep planting once the weather really turns hot, be sure to water copiously.

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 should be treated for emerald ash borer. The best time is while they are leafing out, so it’s a bit late. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can then 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, squash, basil, and eggplant until the last week in May. Right now the nights are still too cool, and the plants will not grow properly.

—  After cleaning up the perennial garden, continue to plant perennials and to divide and move them 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. IF the weather turns hot, either stop planting or increase the amount of water you provide.

the cool weather is a great time to reseed bare patches of lawn, but be sure to keep the seeded areas moist until the seed sprouts. It’s 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. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Remember that 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, in addition to killing butterfly host plants like violets, 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.

I hope you’re enjoying this lovely, slow-to-emerge spring as much as I am. It’s very hard to tear myself away from the garden.

_DSC0792

Canada anemone, Anemone canadensis, is a lovely ground cover, but it can be a bit of a thug in the garden. Be sure to plant it where you can contain it.

4/21/17: In the garden this week

_DSC8789

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!

_DSC8754

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

 

Spring cleaning

_DSC1692

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:

IMG_20170418_144409

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.

IMG_20170418_184228

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:

IMG_20170419_165020

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!

File:StellariaMedia001.JPG

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.