Enjoy! Spring will come again!
Seasonally cold weather is finally here, and along with it, almost-adequate precipitation (just under an inch this week, and annual totals back up to normal). Most fall color has faded, and the leaves are finally coming down. But there’s still plenty to do in the garden:
— 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, 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 over two different rainfalls. 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 (we finally had a killing frost this week). 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 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.
— 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.
— do not clean up the perennial garden until spring: the seeds that remain will feed the birds all winter; the stems and dried leaves will shelter innumerable small creatures; and the detritus the ground harbors next season’s butterflies and moths.
Enjoy the garden this week! And Happy Thanksgiving to all!
I took this photo in one of the desert gardens at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, just outside Pasadena. It’s a semitropical desert environment, and many of the plants used throughout these spectacular gardens come from desert regions throughout the world. But the basic design would work for any kind of border.
First, notice the curves. Curves are dynamic; they draw the eye and force the viewer to take in the entire design. Straight lines, in contrast, are static. Always edge a border with curves.
Now look at the arrangement of plants. Create layers by using short plants in front, taller ones in back, of course. But notice the contrast of texture, color, and shape. Let’s consider how you might mimic this design with plants native to New Jersey.
For a shady border, you might begin with ferns instead of the Euphorbia (the short plants with burgundy foliage). Or, if you wanted red foliage here, you could use Heuchera villosa. For variegated foliage, and for dry soil, you have two excellent choices: Heuchera americana or Pachysandra procumbens. The next row (substituting for the aloes) could be a mid-height fern if you choose Heuchera for the front, or Aralia racemosa, which forms a beautiful green clump for most of the season but sends up large white flower plumes in early summer. Another possibility would be Leucothoe or Diervilla lonicera, two small shrub with pleasant vased-shaped forms. You have many choices for the tallest level (the palms in the photo). If you want an evergreen, consider Ilex glabra, Taxus canadensis (native yew), or the more unusual was myrtle (Morella cerifera). For deciduous plants, you could use Aronia melanocarpa, one of the beautiful Amerlanchiers, Viburnum acerifolium, or many others.
A sunny border gives you almost limitless possibilities. In front, I would choose something with a very long bloom time, such as Coreopsis verticillata or lanceolata (both with yellow flowers). The mid height level could be Penstemon digitalis, especially a cultivar with burgundy foliage, or a showy grass, such as little bluestem, which is beautiful almost year-round. Fr the shrub layer, the other chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, an Amelanchier (they’re adaptable), or Viburnum trilobum, American cranberry bush. There are many, many other choices, depending on your soil.
I hope you enjoy these pictures of the early fall garden, taken yesterday, on this rainy day.
Hiking Mt. Tammany at the Delaware Water Gap with my family today, I saw some plants I had never before spotted in the wild. These are cellphone pictures, so you’ll have to take my word about the details:
It’s always wonderful to see natives in nature. I also saw partridgeberry, Solomon’s seal, and, down below in wetter areas, lots of spicebush in bloom. A lovely cluster of nodding trillium right near the parking lot. The woods are primarily chestnut oak and hemlock; hemlocks near the trailheads had lots of woolly adelgids, those far from the road were healthy. Invasives (garlic mustard, barberry, wineberry), but mostly near the parking lots and near the summit. And speaking of the summit, a bald eagle soared right overhead.
I just spent a glorious hour clearing my shade beds of last fall’s leaves and the winter’s detritus (all carefully raked on to the leaf piles to preserve overwintering insects and their larvae). I realized a week or so ago that all the snow that fell on the driveway had been thrown on to the very spot where my earliest spring ephemeral, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), is planted. Now that the snow is gone and the rain stopped, I raked that garden clear and uncovered emerging leaves of columbine, wild geranium (both in bloom in the photo above), asters, tiarella, heuchera, Virginia waterleaf, and, of course, last year’s ferns. It was lovely to see them all.
My very dry, sandy soil won’t support some of the showiest spring ephemerals, such as bloodroot and Virginia bluebells, and oh, how I wish it could. But here are some plants that come up reliably for me every spring.
What plants are popping up to delight you in your garden?