6/9/17: In the garden this week

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

Full bloom

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Serviceberry (Amelanchier) is finally in full bloom–wasn’t it worth waiting for? For more information on this wonderful and underused plant, see this post. For a look at serviceberry trees in bloom, hurry to the FairLawn Arboretum on FairLawn Avenue between Radburn and Well Drive. Walk to the back, where you’ll see three exquisite trees in bloom. But hurry. It won’t last long.

Missing plants: Serviceberry

Of all the plants that used to be common in the northeastern United States but have gone missing, serviceberry is the one you most need to know about.

Serviceberries belong to the genus Amelanchier (pronounced am-e-lank-er), which includes around 30 species of tall shrubs and small trees, all but two native to North America and all very much alike, with small leaves, white flowers, and edible purple berries. Different species range in height from six to twenty-five or thirty feet. They are the earliest ornamental shrubs to bloom, and they are very ornamental indeed—they produce elongated clusters of pure white blossoms in mid-April (see photos below). At that time, their delicate flowers should adorn the edges of the woods throughout the northeast. They are also the first berries to ripen, and through the month of June, birds should be feasting on their abundant berries.

Serviceberries, like many shrubs, normally grow in openings in the woods or along the edges of the forest. Serviceberries are successional plants—in other words, when this area was forested, they would pop up whenever a forest opening appeared, and they would be shaded out as the taller forest trees grew up. They would persist only in areas where tall trees do not grow, such as along stream banks or in swamps. Many shrubs fill this same ecological niche—elderberries and several species of dogwood and viburnum, to name just a few. Most of them, like serviceberries, are now rare or have disappeared entirely, crowded out by alien invasive plants.

We know that serviceberries were once very common because we have so many different names for them. Shadbush and shadblow refer to the fact that they bloom in early spring when the shad run in the streams—or used to. Juneberry refers to the time they set fruit, as does serviceberry: In colonial times, these shrubs fruited when the rivers became navigable and traveling parsons could reach the backcountry to perform wedding services. Another explanation the name is that early explorers thought the plants were related to Sorbus species, a large group that includes mountain ashes. In Canada they are called Saskatoon berries.

The berries look like small, purple apples (Amelanchiers are closely related to apples). They are edible to humans—the fruit is grown commercially in some parts of the midwest and Canada—and delectable to birds. The berries grow in clusters, but as with many wild fruits, they ripen one at a time. Each fruit starts out green and changes day by day through dull pink, bright pink, red, and finally purple. As the first fruits start to turn color, the birds start checking out the berries. Large birds like cardinals, robins, catbirds, and jays seem the most interested. I have a mature bush, full of fruit, right outside my back door, and this year the bird surveillance began on Tuesday, June 4. I saw a catbird busy in the bush; when it flew away, I checked the berries, and sure enough, a few were bright pink. Each evening, during the brief season, I look for almost-ripe fruit, and each morning, when I check again, the ripe fruit is gone. The early birds get the berries.

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Serviceberries are pest-free and lovely in all seasons. Their spring flowering is brief but exquisite. Here is a sequence of photos taken in April:

Serviceberry buds beginning to swell in early April.Two days later--leaves opening.

Almost open.

In fall, the leaves turn a variety of bright colors, depending on the species, and the bark of mature plants takes on a silver-gray color. As long as they get at least a half- day of sun, they will fruit abundantly (the plants do well in shadier areas, but they produce less fruit). They can be grown as part of a shrub border or as specimen plants. Some want to be small trees and some want to be many-stemmed shrubs, so be sure you get a species that’s right for your site. Two or three years after you plant your serviceberry, when the birds start eating the fruit, you and they will be helping to restore the native seed bank.