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.

Great weather for weeding

As a nice break from pruning this afternoon, I did a little weeding. The weather is perfect for it–it feels more like March than January. The soil is nice a moist, and because the winter has been so mild, the weeds are growing actively. You can easily weed out lawn grasses that are encroaching on your flower beds, plus winter annuals like chickweed and those tiny mustard plants, Cressamine species, that have become such a nuisance in the past few years.

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Common chickweed, Stellaria media, is a weedy winter annual. It germinates in late winter or spring and forms large mats if you don’t keep it under control. Pull it out now when the plants are small and the ground is moist and easy to work.

1/20/17: Beyond the garden this week

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American beech trees, especially young ones, retain their leaves in winter. Ever wonder why? An how will climate change affect our forests?

Yes, it’s a good time to prune woody plants, especially if the weather turns cold once more (but avoid pruning when the wood is damp–it spreads fungus disease). And it’s a great time to be planning this season’s garden and refining your wish lists, especially as the catalogs start to arrive. And be sure to check your garden for bird activity, which is a good indicator of the amount of food you’ve made available (and I don’t mean feeders). But I’m also feeling like I need to move beyond my own backyard environment and try to effect some change in the wider world. If you’re perhaps feeling the same way, here are some suggestions:

— If you live in Bergen County, take the Parks Survey.  It only takes a few minutes, and it allows you to say what you would like to happen to our precious remaining open space. While you’re on the CUES page, take a look at the list of public meetings and attend one if possible.

— Check out the People’s Climate Movement, which is gearing up for massive demonstrations in the spring. In the meantime, attend a 100 Hours of Resistance Vigil or meeting this weekend. Check out events near you, and find out more about the climate movement, here.

— Support a national environmental group: you know who they are. Pay your dues, make additional donations, sign petitions, make phone calls. Let the people who represent you know that you care about the environment.

— Take a long walk or hike. It will make you feel better if you’re stressed, reconnect you with nature, and remind you that this beautiful world needs your help and support. Find a hike near you on the website of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference or at NJHiking.com.

— 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.

Have a wonderful, peaceful, and environmentally friendly weekend.

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If the winter remains warm, we may see tiny hazelnut blooms early, perhaps a month from now.

New Year’s Resolutions: Go Green in ’17!

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) supplies welcome winter color and long-lasting food for birds and other neighborhood critters.

Happy new Year! It’s time to make (and keep) some resolutions that will help make the world greener and cleaner for all of us. Think about some of these ideas:

— the next time you have a short errand to run, walk or bike instead of driving (good for you as well as for the environment).

— the next time you replace a car, make it a hybrid or electric, or go down one car size. If you now drive a large SUV, can you make do with a medium-sized one?

— Stop idling! The next time you pick up your children from school or park outside the  dry cleaner, turn off the engine rather than leaving it running

— as you replace light bulbs, switch to LEDs or compact fluorescents

— if you need to replace your hot water heater, get a tankless one; buy Energy Star appliances when you need replacements

— turn the thermostat down 8-10 degrees at night (in summer, turn it up at night) and when you go out for several hours

— don’t waste water in your garden–don’t water unless it’s really needed, which really means only when you have newly planted shrubs and perennials

— if you absolutely cannot live without fertilizing your lawn (even though your lawn doesn’t need it at all) eliminate one yearly feeding from your program

— plant native perennials instead of annuals next spring–one little bluestem grass, one milkweed, and one aster will take up three square feet of space AND give you gorgeous color and attract pollinators from early summer through late fall AND be absolutely care free

— plant native shrubs such as serviceberry, gray dogwood, elderberry, and ninebark to attract birds and butterflies all season long

— start a compost pile to reduce the amount of waste your family produces and create your own topsoil

— participate in a citizen science project such as Monarch Watch to learn about the environment and to teach your kids the importance of science. Find reputable projects through government websites or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: there’s an extensive list here.

— get your garden certified as a wildlife habitat through Bergen Audubon or the North America Butterfly Association. You’ll find an extensive list of resources on the Jersey-Friendly yards website.

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Something to look forward to in spring: a garden of easy-to-grow native perennials.

Happy new year

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Native plum blossoms (Prunus americana) in spring.

The last leaves are down and gathered in from the oaks and Norway maples, so as far as I’m concerned, fall chores are done. And that means that the gardening year has turned: we switch our focus from the current season to the one that’s to come. So I wish all of you a very happy, healthy, and productive new year.

Certainly there are still this-year chores to do: as long as the ground isn’t frozen, you need to continue watering newly planted new woody plants. And once the weather turns cold, you can prune and shape your shrubs and trees. And you can always create a new garden bed for next year by smothering part of your lawn with mulch.

And you can plan. Begin by thinking about this year’s garden. Right now, are you seeing lots of birds? A garden rich in native plants will attract mixed-species foraging flocks all winter, plus year-round residents like mourning doves, cardinals, and jays. As soon as the robins and catbirds leave, juncos arrive in my garden, and I see them throughout the winter, sometimes as part of the mixed-species flocks and sometimes in single-species groups. All these birds are attracted to the wealth of seeds still on the plants and on the ground and to the insects and caterpillars overwintering in the leaf litter. To a bird, an untidy perennial border in winter is a lavish buffet. If your garden isn’t that welcoming, plan to incorporate a wide variety of native grasses, perennials, and shrubs next year.

Now that lawn care is done for the old year, it’s time to think about what you can do differently, perhaps more sustainably, in the new year. How many times per year do you fertilize your lawn? If you do it at all, you can do it less, and you can certainly stop using herbicides and pesticides. If you want birds, you must welcome bugs! And many plants you think of as lawn weeds–violets, for example–are host plants for gorgeous butterflies like the great spangled fritillary. If there were no violets, there would be no fritillaries; no nettles, no red emperors; and on and on. Plan for more diversity and maybe for a little more wildness in next year’s garden.

Did your garden require a great deal of maintenance during the past two very dry growing seasons? Did you have to water everything frequently, or did you lose a great many plants because of the drought? That’s the definition of an unsustainable garden. This is the time to plan to replace those unhappy plants  with others that are more appropriate for your site. Put the right plant in the right place next year and you’ll save time and money. If you have shade, plant a garden of ferns and shade-loving perennials; if you have a spot that’s always flooded after heavy rain, plant a rain garden. There’s a suite of beautiful native plants that’s right for any site. You have the whole winter to discover the plants that are right for yours.

This is just the beginning of planning for next year. I  wish you a nice big leaf pile that will turn into next year’s compost. Come back for more ideas throughout the winter.

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Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a lover of moist shade, is one of the first native plants to bloom in spring. These lovely blooms supply pollen to early-emerging bees. And they’re certainly something to look forward to!

Early fall lawn care

Well, it’s not early fall anymore, but while the weather is still warm, and the lawn is still in active growth, you can still reseed. So take a look at this article about some sustainable steps you can take to improve your lawn and make your lawn care easier. (Hint: a lot of these suggestions can best be characterized as “do nothing.”)

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A great way to make your lawn care regimen easier and more sustainable is to eliminate some lawn and plant shade-loving natives, like great blue lobelia, in its place.