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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11/6/15: In the garden this week

The Thain Family Forest in the New York Botanical Garden, the largest old-growth forest in New York city. This weekend is a great time to enjoy the autumn colors.

The autumn colors are particularly beautiful right now, so try to get out and enjoy them this weekend. And after the unseasonably warm spell (almost too warm to do all the weeding and raking I’ve done this week), we’re due for cooler, more autumnlike weather. Perfect for walking in the woods. If you don’t have time to go to the NY Botanical Garden or up to Harriman State Park or even to the Ramapo Valley Reservation, take a stroll through the Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock. The red maples are gorgeous.

And after your relaxing autumn walk, come home and work on preparing your garden for winter as well as for next season:

— It’s not too late to plant hardwood trees and large shrubs. You can plant most hardy trees until the ground freezes. Be sure to mulch well and water thoroughly: give at least 1 inch of water per week until the ground freezes, and then again as soon as it thaws in spring.

Water new plantings: newly installed plants still need watering. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, continue to water all perennials and woody plants installed this season. How do you know when you’ve provided an inch of water? An old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants makes a great rain gauge. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.

Clean up the vegetable garden carefully. Discard (do not compost) infested or diseased plants. Clean up meticulously as each crop finishes producing. This year’s diseased plants, left in the garden, are the source of next year’s infections.

— Tend the fall vegetable garden: if you seeded second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach, keep harvesting. We could get a killing frost at any time. We have been enjoying a delicious fall crop of arugula.

— This is a good time to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and 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. Next spring, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn during the summer and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.

— Now that you can water, there’s time to reseed bare areas of lawn. Most lawn grasses will grow until the temperature dips below 40 degrees. But if you seed, water several times a day until the grass is at least an inch tall. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Measure and mulch the bed now so you’re ready to plant in spring.

Keep a garden log. Right now, before you forget, write down this year’s gardening successes and failures as well as plans for next year. The best thing about gardening is that there’s always next year.

Apply an antidessicant spray to broad-leafed evergreens such as rhododendrons and azaleas. These plants are particularly stressed during cold winters. The spray, which forms a very thin plastic coating on the leaves, helps prevent evaporation.

You’ll notice that I don’t advise you to clean up your perennial garden in spring. I prefer to wait until fall. Because I plant, and encourage my clients to plant, only native plants that produce seeds and fruits, I leave everything in place for the winter. Even though I don’t hang feeders, my garden welcomes more birds throughout the winter. They eat the seeds on the plants as well as those that fall to the ground; the plants supply cover to the winter foraging flocks as well. And this year’s stalks will be much easier to break down next spring than they are right now.

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If you leave the season’s growth until next spring, your perennial garden will welcome birds with food and cover all winter long. This picture was taken at the end of November last year.

10/30/15: In the garden this week

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Most perennials have finished blooming and setting seed, but on sunny days bees and other pollinators are still enjoying the New England asters.

I heard you had some highly variable weather while I was on vacation! Rain, more drought, a cold spell, then warm again, and finally, this week, a good soaking rain. With the recent lifting of drought restrictions, it’s finally safe to do some fall planting. Here are some things you might be doing in your garden this week (in between handing out candy to trick-or-treaters):

— it’s not too late to plant hardwood trees and large shrubs. You can plant most hardy trees until the ground freezes. Be sure to mulch well and water thoroughly: give at least 1 inch of water per week until the ground freezes, and then again as soon as it thaws in spring.

water new plantings: newly installed plants still need watering. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (not this week, obviously!), continue to water all perennials and woody plants installed this season. How do you know when you’ve provided an inch of water? An old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants makes a great rain gauge. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.

clean up the vegetable garden carefully. Discard (do not compost) infested or diseased plants. Clean up meticulously as each crop finishes producing. This year’s diseased plants, left in the garden, are the source of next year’s infections.

— Tend the fall vegetable garden: if you seeded second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach, you’re probably harvesting now. We could get a killing frost at any time, so keep harvesting. We have been enjoying a delicious fall crop of arugula.

— this is a good time to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and 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. Next spring, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn during the summer and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.

— Now that you can water, there’s time to reseed bare areas of lawn. Most lawn grasses will grow until the temperature dips below 40 degrees. But if you seed, water several times a day until the grass is at least an inch tall. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Measure and mulch the bed now so you’re ready to plant in spring.

Keep a garden log. Right now, before you forget, write down this year’s gardening successes and failures as well as plans for next year. The best thing about gardening is that there’s always next year.

And get out there and enjoy the autumn colors. The fall foliage is at its most colorful in our area right now, and the weather is perfect!

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The fall colors of Aronia are highly variable. This year, one of my plants is displaying this gorgeous orange.

8/7/15: In the garden this week

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Summer exuberance: certainly you could design a more formal garden using native plants, but I like a more natural look (some would call it messy). This border includes perennial sunflowers (Helanthus mollis), Rudbeckia subtomentosa, Hibiscus moscheutos (large leaves, not quite in bloom yet), a volunteer aster that’s not in bloom yet, little bluestem grass, tall purple ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), and orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, second-year seedlings blooming late), among many other species.

The summer garden is at its height right now: the birds are finishing off the elderberries and grey dogwood fruits and starting to eat the ripe pokeweed berries. Yes, pokeweed is large and weedy, and poisonous, but I leave one or two plants in hidden corners of the garden. The birds adore it. Native plums are ripening, and the crop is large enough that we may get some this year. The squirrels made quick work of the hazelnuts: one day the shrubs were heavy with nuts, the next morning there were piles of shells on the ground.

And the flowers! The more I cut and bring inside, the more there seem to be. And many of these plants, especially the Rudbeckias, will continue to bloom until frost. The photo above shows just a few of the native perennials in bloom right now. The pollinator activity is enormous and unceasing: bees, wasps, and butterflies are around all day, and moths take over at night. The birds eat the insects, and they will soon be eating the seeds. Goldfinches have made their yearly appearance.

We’ve had very little rain in the last month: my garden received less than half an inch last week and this week, despite storm systems passing through. But the heat wave has moderated to some extent, and the plants are looking happier. If you’re growing tomatoes, they’re probably setting fruit again; they stop when the temperature rises much over 90 degrees.

Here are some things you might be doing in your garden this week:

water new plantings: newly installed plants and annuals, like vegetables, need watering. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this spring or last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall and this spring need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? An old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants makes a great rain gauge. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers: 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). Cucumber vines are showing signs of wilt: remove them immediately to prevent the spread of this fungal disease. Pick frequently: smaller vegetables taste better.

— As tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits. Keep removing suckers all summer long. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

Plan the fall vegetable garden: second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach can seeded directly in the garden in August.

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. In the fall, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn about a month ago and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.

— this is a good time to prune woody plants. Once all growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively, but not completely, dormant, giving you a window of time to prune before they get ready for their next critical task: leaf abscission (shutting down for the winter). I do most of my pruning in winter, but I also prune back shrubs as needed after they have ripened their fruit.

— 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 now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. (Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials.) Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day (watering every day is likely to cause fungal diseases). But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow! If you follow my advice and hold off on watering entirely, your lawn is dormant now, but it will green up as soon as we get some rain.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Aren’t these flowers adorable? This is Rudbeckia triloba, a wonderful plant, easy to grow and a great size for the middle of the border.

Planting a fall vegetable garden

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A small garden of cool-season crops (from front to back, carrots, lettuce, and peas) in late May. This scene could be easily replicated in September (except for the basil).

Many common crops that thrive in cool weather immediately bolt, or go to seed, in the heat of summer: lettuce and spinach are prime examples. They do well as long as the soil and air remain cool in spring but must be pulled up once things heat up. Other crops that thrive in cool temperatures are beets, peas, carrots, and leafy greens such as kale and chard. All of these can be grown in fall as easily as in spring.

To grow a fall vegetable garden, you need to know two things: your estimated last frost-free date and how long a given crop takes to mature. For example, suppose your average date of last frost is October 15 and you want to grow beets, which take approximately 60 days to mature from seed. Count back 60 days from October 15: you can plant beets any time up to August 15. If you want to grow lettuce, which take only about 45 days, you can start as late as September 1. Some crops, such as radishes and mustard greens, mature so quickly that you have time for several fall sowings.

This article on growing fall crops give you the approximate number of days to maturity of many common crops, as well as other useful information. If you don’t know your USDA plant hardiness zone, start here. And note that the map was updated in 2012. If you are quite sure that you’re in Zone 6, you might be surprised to find that you’re now in Zone 7.

When the weather cools down later this week, I’ll be weeding the vegetable bed, removing spent crops, and planting lettuce, beets, and maybe even some snow peas.

7/31/15: In the garden this week

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Little bluestem, one of the toughest native grasses and, to my eyes, one of the most beautiful, is putting out its seed stalks now and will soon flower.

We’re having a heat wave; this weather shows the benefit of planting natives. Tough prairie plants stand up to heat and drought and just go on blooming. The sunny border is at its most colorful and exuberant right now.

Yesterday’s rain was abundant in some places, but according to my plastic rain gauge, we got less than half an inch, so the vegetable garden and newly planted shrubs and perennials need supplemental watering this week. Other than that, there is little to do in the garden:

water new plantings: newly installed plants and annuals, like vegetables, need watering. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this spring or last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall and this spring need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? An old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants makes a great rain gauge. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers: 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). Cucumber vines are showing signs of wilt: remove them immediately to prevent the spread of this fungal disease. Pick frequently: smaller vegetables taste better.

— As tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits. Keep removing suckers all summer long. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

Plan the fall vegetable garden: second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach can seeded directly in the garden in August.

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. In the fall, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn about a month ago and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.

— it will soon be a good time to prune woody plants. Once all growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively, but not completely, dormant, giving you a window of time to prune before they get ready for their next critical task: leaf abscission (shutting down for the winter). I do most of my pruning in winter, but I also prune back shrubs as needed after they have ripened their fruit.

— 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 now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. (Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials.) Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day (watering every day is likely to cause fungal diseases). But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow! If you hold off on watering entirely, your lawn will go dormant until the next rain, but it will not die.

Stay cool! I wish everyone a shady patio and a glass of lemonade this weekend.

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Sometimes Rudbeckias are almost too exuberant. You can find them in any size to suit your garden. This is R. subtomentosa, which grows up to 5′ tall. I give away plants every spring.

7/17/15: In the garden this week

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Everything’s finally turning yellow: Rudbeckia subtomentosa will dominate the sunny border from now through September. Compare this picture with the one taken on July 3.

It’s a funny summer season: some plants, like Rudbeckia, are blooming a bit late; others, like Boltonia, are early. Shade asters are showing buds–surely it’s almost a month too early for that to happen–but sun-loving asters are not.

In the shade garden, Eupatorium purpureum has reached the height of bloom, and the butterflies love it, as they do all plants in this large genus.

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Eupatorium purpureum in part shade, surrounded by some plants that have finished blooming and some others that haven’t begun yet.

Besides relaxing in the shade, here are some tasks you might accomplish in the garden this week:

water new plantings: for the first time in quite a while, we had a dry week, so newly installed plants need watering. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this spring or last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall and this spring 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.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers: 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). Cucumber vines are showing signs of wilt: remove them immediately to prevent the spread of this fungal disease.

— As tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits. Keep removing suckers all summer long. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. In the fall, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn about a month ago and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen. Columbine is almost finished ripening seed, and coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day.

— it will soon be a good time to prune woody plants. Once all growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively dormant, giving you a window of time to prune before they get ready for their next critical task: leaf abscission (shutting down for the winter). I do most of my pruning in winter, but I also prune back shrubs as needed after they have ripened their fruit.

— 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 now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. (Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials.) Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day. But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Toward the back left of the photo, you’ll see Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe,’ a handsome cultivar I put in late last summer. So far, I’m pleased with it, but I’m not sure yet that it attracts pollinators as well as the species. This grouping also includes culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum; white), a perennial sunflower (but I can’t remember which one), lavender hyssop (Agastache foenicuoum; light purple), and Rudbeckia (R. triloba and subtomentosa).