11/18/16: In the garden this week


A sustainable garden should be a bountiful buffet for birds and other wildlife throughout the winter and early spring. Don’t clean up your perennial beds until you see new growth in spring.

Finally a good soaking rain came to our area this past week: my rain gauge registered over an inch and a half, and all over northern New Jersey, sluggish streams came to life. It made for good weeding conditions.

The prolonged warm weather we now experience, in fall and also in spring, puts great stress on trees. Trees leaf out earlier and hold their leaves longer; they carry out photosynthesis for a longer season, and as a result, their water needs increase. Remember that our rainfall has been below normal for the past two growing seasons. Many trees, particularly the old and the young, are stressed.

It’s delightful to be outdoors on these warm, sunny fall days. Here are some gardening chores you might attend to while you’re enjoying the golden fall weather:

Leave the Leaves this year: Don’t blow your leaves out to the curb; recycle them on your property. Fallen leaves and grass clippings represent the fertility of your soil, so why give them away? Use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.

water new plantings: this week we received ample rainfall, but in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or fall. Perennials planted last season should be well-established, but those planted this year 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. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings this week.

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.

— fall is the best time to 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. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is disappearing fast, because the birds love it. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed. Seeds of asters, joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda are ripe. Right now it’s hard to keep up with the seed collecting. And plenty of seed will remain for the birds to eat this winter.

don’t clean up the perennial garden: leave the plants until spring. The birds will enjoy the seeds all winter, and the dead stalks will be easy to remove in spring.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: it’s too late to fertilize or reseed. If you did reseed this year, keep the seeded area moist until the grass is germinated. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. As the leaves fall, mow over them, don’t rake or blow them. Your mower will chop them into small pieces that will quickly disintegrate, returning valuable nutrients to the lawn. Established 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!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. 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 you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.


Native perennials, like native trees and shrubs, and great for fall color. This is what sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa, looks like in early fall.



Blue berries


Cornus sericea (red osier dogwood) growing in shade–look carefully and you’ll see the truly blue berries.

There are few truly blue fruits or flowers, perhaps because very few creatures can see the color blue (birds and primates are the most important groups that can). Some viburnums and dogwoods make blue berries, but with most of the these very tasty plants, you almost never see a ripe fruit–the birds eat them the second they ripen. If you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll see a number of ripe blue berries among the green unripe ones. I took this photo early yesterday evening, and all the ripe berries were gone this morning. (The colors and contrast on the photo were enhanced a bit.)

By the way, Cornus sericea is one of the most adaptable native shrubs: in nature it usually grows in very wet places, often in full sun. In my garden it’s growing in dry, sandy soil and almost complete shade.

Saving ecosystems starts at home


Ripening serviceberries in June will draw birds to your garden

Bergen Audubon has a new program to certify backyards as natural areas. Check out their website for more information and an application. The program is similar to the National Wildlife Federation’s certified backyard habitat system or the butterfly garden certification program of the North American Butterfly Association.

All these programs have the same goal and go about it in the same way: they require you to provide food, water, cover, and a variety of native plants. They’re all based on the same premise: that in the suburbs, the environment is the sum total of all of our backyards, so the small steps that each of us take, especially planting a variety of native plants, will greatly improve the environment for wildlife of all kinds.

As you plan this year’s garden, keep the birds and bees in mind.

red admiral

A red admiral nectaring on blooming ninebark in spring. Want to see butterflies this year? Plant natives!



Look carefully at the center of the picture, and you’ll see an almost-sharp picture of a female goldfinch feeding on Rudbeckia seeds in my perennial border. This time of year, we can’t open our back door without disturbing a flock of these noisy little guys–sometimes more than a dozen at a time shoot out of the border and take flight across the backyard. They’re hard to photograph because they move so fast. But yesterday I finally captured this one.

Each year, from the time the first seeds ripen on plants in the Asteraceae–the enormous aster family, which includes all the Rudbeckias and sunflowers, in addition to the asters–we see and hear goldfinches all day, every day. Goldfinches are exclusively seed eaters, and they nest late so there will be lots of seeds available to feed their young. And this particular perennial border, full of sunflowers and Rudbeckia, is a cafeteria for goldfinches. We see and hear them from the beginning of August through early fall each year. When I planted the perennials, I expected to get pretty flowers, but I didn’t know I would get entertainment as well.


Summertime (I)

The garden in mid-July.

We’re approaching the height of summer, and the garden is blooming almost aggressively. Tomatoes are ripening–finally–and the weather is hot. (My apologies to the great Ira Gershwin.) The picture above features Rudbeckia subtomentosa, sweet black-eyed Susan, which I really must cut back severely next spring; Vernonia fasciculata, ironweed (purple); and some perennial sunflowers not yet in bloom (Helanthus mollis, downy sunflower). Today I saw goldfinches for the first time this season. These late breeders arrive when the prairie plants are ready to set seed, and they feed the seeds to their babies. They’ll be with us for the rest of the summer, hanging upside down on seedheads and providing great entertainment.

American plums--beginning to ripen.

The fruits on my native plum trees (Prunus americana) are finally ripening–notice the first hints of yellow. They first turn yellow, then red, and finally purple. As with most wild fruits, they ripen one-by-one, and we’ll almost never see a ripe one. The plum crop is heavy this year, but the birds get up earlier than I do.

Grey dogwood berries almost ripe.

Another plant that ripens its fruit one by one is grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa). This shrub is beautiful in all seasons, but I particularly love those red stems that signal to the birds that the fruits are almost ripe. The berries turn white when they’re ready to eat; as with the plums, we almost never see a ripe one.

Unripe pods of swamp milkweed.

Almost hidden among the Rudbeckias are the unripe seedpods of swamp milkweed (Asclepias  incarnata). When the seeds are mature, in another month or so, the pods will dry up and split open, and the seeds will drift away, each attached to a tiny parachute of milkweed down.

Elderberries ready to ripen.

This year also promises to be a bountiful one for elderberries (Sambucus canadensis). Notice that the stems are turning purple–the fruit will ripen soon. This is another favorite of the birds, and there will be great exultation among the catbirds when the fruit are ripe. I can usually manage to pick some of these, however,–perhaps to put in the Aronia jam I hope to make later in the season.

I have not seen any monarchs this year, and this is the time they usually migrate through. I am seeing a great abundance of fireflies, however, and I think of the presence of these delightful insects as a sign of a relatively healthy environment. Do you see lots of fireflies on your property? If you do, good for you. If you don’t, you might want to think about trying to manage your yard in a more sustainable way.

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.


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.