The garden right now

I hope you enjoy these pictures of the early fall garden, taken yesterday, on this rainy day.


The bright red fruits of cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) glowed in the sunshine. This is the most sun-tolerant of our native viburnums. Like its cousins it wants to be a very large shrub or small tree, but it can be kept to a reasonable size by judicious winter pruning. Foliage color will be a lovely dark red quite soon, and the berries will hang on until winter.


The garden is bursting with fruit. There are so many raspberries this year that we actually get to eat some (I confess: the raspberries are everbearers from Burpee, planted with my kids when they were small, not a native species). I always let one pokeweed remain for the birds.You can also see elderberries and grey dogwoods in this shot; both have already finished fruiting.


This big fat monarch caterpillar was eating voraciously yesterday. It’s on a leaf of Asclepias tuberosa, orange butterflyweed. Notice the milkweed bugs of a variety of life stages on the seed pods at the upper right. They do destroy some seed pods, but plenty remain undamaged, and they do not hurt the plant in any other way.


This time of year, little bluestem shows the blue-purple tints that gave it its name; in autumn it will look silvery gold.


Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a star of the early autumn garden. Unlike its red-flowered cousin, Lobelia cardinalis, blue lobelia is not fussy and will grow anywhere except in bright sunlight.


This bed, with poor, sandy soil on the north side of my house, used to be quite bare. Then I discovered northern bush honeysuckle, the shrub with the red-tipped branches. The tall shrub in the center is Aronia arbutifolia, red aronia, and the berries are beginning to turn from green to red. The bed also contains Christmas ferns, a volunteer sedum, and the original foundation plantings: Japanese azaleas, mountain laurel, a rhododendron, and a boxwood that just won’t give up.


Many shrubs are showing some fall color on their lower leaves–hints of what’s to come. Soon spicebush (Lindera benzoin) will turn this lovely lemon yellow color all over. If you look closely, you can see next spring’s fat round flower buds. Two weeks ago these plants were full of bright-red berries, but the birds devoured them the minute they ripened.


Many native perennials display beautiful fall colors. The tall plant with red leaves is Penstemon digitalis (white flowers in early summer); the short one is Oenothera fruticosa (sundrops; yellow flowers in late spring).



First sightings on Mt. Tammany

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:


Trailing arbutus (Epigeae repens), in bloom. Look carefully for the tiny white bell-shaped flowers.


Moss pink (Phlox subulata) almost at the top


Serviceberry (Amelanchier) in bloom. You’ll have to take this one on faith: it’s the little bits of white just above the man in the foreground. This was right on top, in a very exposed spot.

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.

Early spring


Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucularia) are in full bloom right now, and the plants are finally spreading in my garden. And the rabbits didn’t eat the flowers this year—yet!


The sepals of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) are beginning to enlarge, hinting of the beauty to come.


Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has reached full bloom, its tiny yellow-green flowers lighting up the garden.


There’s nothing quite as lovely are serviceberry (Amelanchier) buds in spring. Today they look like this; tomorrow they’ll be almost all quite and will look like strings of pearls.

Joys of spring


In about a month, the shade garden in front of the house will look like this: orange columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and pink wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

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.


Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), surrounded by foliage of fern, columbine, and shade aster, will bloom in April.


Don’t forget that violets are natives as well, and they are an important butterfly host plant. I encourage them in the lawn and in the shade beds.


Dutchman’s breeches, the earliest flower in my garden, usually blooms around April 1. It was buried in snow until very recently. No sign of it yet.


Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum Virginiana) will bloom in May. Solomon’s seal needs a wetter site than I have so it doesn’t spread much; the waterleaf loves the dry soil.


Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis) is a great groundcover for part shade. It spreads almost a bit too enthusiastically.

What plants are popping up to delight you in your garden?

Snow day


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.


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

1/27/17: In the garden this week


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.


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!


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


Offers and upcoming events


Look ahead to spring, when ferns, columbine, and tiarella can grace your shade garden.

Yesterday I told you about Prairie Nursery‘s offer of free shipping on spring orders, available now through January 24 (plants will arrive on the date you specify in spring). Today the catalog for the annual plant sale of the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College arrived. This is an opportunity to obtain a number of hard-to-find plants, such as spring beauty, golden groundsel, and alternate-leaved dogwood. Place your order by Feb. 21 and pick up your plants in April. Both of these excellent suppliers offer only pure species, which can be better at attracting pollinators than hybrids or cultivars.

On Jan. 25 at 7:30, the Bergen-Passaic chapter of the Native Plant Society of NJ meets for the first time in our new location, the headquarters of the NY-NJ Trail Conference, 600 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah. The meeting will be extremely interesting to native plant enthusiasts: the speaker will be Carolyn Summers, author of Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East, and horticulturist at the Native Plant Center. Carolyn will have copies of her book for purchase and signing. At this meeting, we’ll also discuss plans for spring and summer field trips, including one to Carolyn’s garden in the Catskills, so be sure to attend. Contact with any questions.


Aronia melanocarpa (black chokeberry) is one of the wonderful native shrubs you can find at both Prairie Nursery and the Native Plant Center plant sale.