3/31/17: In the garden this week

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Soon: if you sow seeds this week, you can expect to eat tender young greens within a month.

Finally, a good soaking rain! An inch earlier in the week, and now the rain gauge is showing another inch since last night. The total for the last 365 days has risen to close to 90 percent of normal, whereas it’s been hovering between 15 and 20 percent below normal for more than a year. I am hopeful that the drought of the past two years is over.

Once the rain stops, it will be time to plant cold-tolerant crops in the vegetable garden (see below) and to get out into the woods to look for signs of spring. Skunk cabbage is well up, its bright green leaves half unfurled; pussy willow is in full bloom; many spring blooming plants are emerging.

Here are some more garden tasks for the coming week:

water new plantings: April Fool! We’ve had two inches of rain this week so far, so no need to water, but check back here weekly for updates. In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make 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 each week.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by raking the soil smooth and adding compost or well-rotted manure (compost can simply be spread on top of the soil; manure should be mixed in). And plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden.

— Don’t clean up the perennial garden yet. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter. Wait another few weeks, even a month, until most plants are in active growth. There is one exception to this rule: if your garden, like mine, is covered with leaves of Norway maple trees, which form a solid barrier to new growth, remove those leaves gently. I uncovered my shade gardens this week and found that asters, columbine, Virginia waterleaf, and many other native shade plants were putting out new growth.

but do collect seeds. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. Through the winter I saw nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets. Now the robins are back, and year-round residents like chickadees and cardinals are very active. Be sure to elave them some seed.

— plan for the coming season: 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? If not, plant a variety of native grasses, perennials, and shrubs. And place your orders early, meaning now, because native plant nurseries run out of the most popular species.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. The grass plants can’t possibly use all that nitrogen while the weather is so cool, so it just runs off into our streams and ponds. Wait until Memorial Day, and then use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Or best of all, don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. And remember, pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And they’re not so great for kids or pets either. Best to avoid them.

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 your local garden club or the Bergen-Passaic chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. This Sunday, we will be helping with garden cleanup at the NY-NJ Trail Conference headquarters, 600 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah, starting at 1:00 p.m. Come join us!

— 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.

Remember, it’s too early to plant many things, but it’s the best possible time to plant a large tree. Trees provide untold benefits to the environment: they clean and cool the air, moderate groundwater runoff, feed and house wildlife, and beautify our environment. Think about it.

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Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) will be emerging soon in moist woodlands such as the Saddle River County Park.

 

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1/27/17: In the garden this week

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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.

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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!

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

 

I am watching a large flock of robins

industriously sifting through the leaf litter in my minif0rest in search of food. There are so many of them, and they’re moving so rapidly, it looks like the ground is moving. More robins are arriving all the time; there are also mourning doves and squirrels and song sparrows, although they’re harder to see from 100 feet away! And as usual, there are juncos feeding in the leaf litter and on the plant stalks of the perennial garden outside my window.

I want to go outside to do some pruning, but I’m very reluctant to disturb all these creatures that rely on me for winter food (and without any feeders).

 

On a cold winter day

All day today, as I’ve sat at work at my computer, I’ve been entertained by a continual stream of wildlife in the large holly tree outside my office window. All morning, two or three grey squirrels (sometimes two, sometimes three), were doing acrobatics in the tree, scampering down the slender branches to get the few remaining berries, chasing each other. For much of the time, one of them seemed to be chasing one other. February to March is breeding season for our eastern grey squirrel; maybe I was watching a male pursuing a female. If so, she didn’t seem interested–when he chased her to the end of a branch, she leaped right over him to get away.

Right now a mixed-species foraging flock composed primarily of chickadees and titmice is occupying the tree. “Occupying” is not the right word: they’re energetically picking at the branches while simultaneously practicing gymnastics. Both these species, which are closely related, primarily eat insects, although they do eat some seeds and even feed from animal carcasses when they find them. Both species are cavity nesters; they use nest holes previously excavated by woodpeckers. So leave snags (dead trees) and dead branches in place as long as they’re not endangering anyone.

Mother and baby are doing fine

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About ten days ago we noticed a great deal of robin activity in a large elderberry close to one end of the patio. A pair of robins was taking turns on a nest. A couple of days ago we got our first glimpse of this little guy (or gal). The parents are even more active now, flying in and out to feed their baby almost continually.

The goldfinches are here, even though there don’t seem to be many seeds for them yet. They rear their young late because they are almost exclusively seed eaters. We generally see them in late summer when the Rudbeckia and perennial sunflowers have set seeds. Neither has even begun to bloom yet, although the Rudbeckia subtomentosa is showing large buds.