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.

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1/6/17: In the Garden this week

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) is a jewel of the winter garden.

There’s always something to do in the garden.

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 start 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.

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.

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. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed with us when we walk to the compost pile. Mixed-species foraging flocks visit daily to take advantage of the bounty; lately I’ve seen 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.

There’s always something to do in the garden . . .

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. . . even if it’s just to wait until spring, when bloodroot appears again!

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!

4/10/15: In the garden this week

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Bloodroot (Sanguineum canadensis) in bloom in my garden in mid-April during a more favorable spring. Only about 6 inches tall, bloodroot is an important source of nectar for insects in early spring.

Do you remember when daffodils and forsythia used to bloom in mid-April and crab apples and lilacs bloomed reliably for Mother’s Day in mid-May? Perhaps I’m just showing my age, because when I was growing up, those were normal blooming times, whereas these days normal is about three weeks earlier. So you could think of this year as a normal, pre-climate change spring. Or you could just say, “I want it to be spring already!” like everyone else.

Today is dark and dreary, but less cold than it’s been, but the weekend is predicted to be warm and sunny. And once the weather warms up, the plants will react fast. So get out there this weekend and prepare your garden for spring:

direct sow seeds of early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes. They’ll germinate and grow slowly at first, but with any luck you’ll have fresh salad greens in about 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every two weeks to ensure a continuous supply of spring greens until the weather heats up.

— buy seeds of other vegetables and start them indoors according to this schedule so the seedlings will be ready for spring planting. If you started cold-season crops indoors, set them out in the garden now. Wait until late May to set out tender crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplant.

clean up your perennial beds. Grab a handful of stalks hear the ground and gently bend them to break them off. Rake the detritus away and either compost it on site or, if you don’t have room for it, take it to your town’s compost center.

evaluate the winter’s damage on your property. Don’t remove dead wood or broken branches unless they pose hazards to people or property, because they might be supplying food or shelter to winter-weary creatures, but see what needs doing. Do any areas need new mulch? Will your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage?

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area now to kill the grass. You’ll be able to plant in late April or May.

monitor your garden for bird activity. Spring migrants are arriving and winter residents are very active at foraging and nest building. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks winter food. There should still be perennial seeds, berries of less desirable plants, and leaf litter and dead wood for the birds to search for insects. If you’re not seeing birds, consider what you can do this season to attract them: for example, plant native perennials, stop pruning dead wood quite so aggressively, stop using pesticides.

order your perennials and woody plants now to get the best selection. (Most local nurseries sell only a very few native species, so I rely on mail order and on specialty nurseries that are up to four hours away.) If you wait until it’s time to plant, nurseries will be sold out of many species.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: wait until Memorial Day to fertilize. If you reseed bare areas, be sure to water often. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials.

— last but not least, water last year’s plantings as needed. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted in the fall need supplemental watering during dry spells throughout this entire growing season. 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.

Enjoy the weekend! It really is spring!

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The gorgeous flowers of serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) will bloom in late April this year, about three weeks later than usual.

First day of spring

In honor of today, the first day of spring, also known as the vernal equinox, here’s a gallery of spring ephemerals we’ll be seeing very soon. In April and May, look for these lovely little flowers in parks such as the path between the Glen Rock and Ridgewood duck ponds along the Saddle River or the Fyke Nature Center off of Godwin Avenue in Wyckoff. All these photos were taken by my husband, Bruce R. Thaler.

These plants prefer moist, shady sites, and all are true spring ephemerals: they complete their life cycles in early spring before the trees leaf out. All are quite small: a foot high or less. So plant them along with ferns, wild ginger (Asarum canadensis), native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) and other ground covers.

Because our native trees leaf out later than nonnative trees, you must plant these lovely little guys under native trees. Otherwise they will not receive enough spring sunlight and will gradually die off. But if you have the right conditions, they are readily available, very easy to grow, and will reappear reliably and increase in number every spring.

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Cardamine concatenata, cutleaf toothwort, a member of the mustard family.

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Erythronium americanum, trout lily, a diminutive member of the lily family. The common name refers to the leaves, which look like speckled trout. These should be appearing very soon in moist woods.

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Claytonia virginica, spring beauty, a member of the Portulaceae

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Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells, a member of the Boraginaceae. The buds are pink but the open flowers turn deep blue.

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Sanguinaria canadensis, bloodroot, a member of the poppy family. This plant grows from tubers and is only about 6 inches high. These last two plants gradually died out in my shade garden because it is located under a Norway maple, which leafs out too early.

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Phlox divaricata, woodland phlox. All phloxes belong to the Polemoniaceae. I could not keep this plant going my my shade garden because it is a favorite food of rabbits and deer. I miss it!

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And last but not least, our native geranium or cranesbill, Geranium maculatum, a member of the Geraniaceae. This blooms a bit later than the others, in May, grows from rhizomes, is very easy to move and divide, but is visible from only a few weeks in spring.