5/14/17: In the garden this week

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all. This plant will bloom within the next week or 10 days.

These next couple of weeks are the loveliest of the year in the garden, and we will miss it all—we are going on vacation. So I thought that in this post I would look ahead a bit and tell you what to expect in the next two or three weeks. In that time, the garden will switch from spring to summer.

It’s delightful that the drought of the past two years seems to have lifted. Rainfall is slightly above average for the past 30 days and normal for the year to date. As a result, we are enjoying a truly lovely spring. And the relatively cool temperatures mean that all the beauty around is lasts a bit longer than it would if the weather suddenly turned hot. It gives us all a longer spring planting season as well. I like to stop planting when the weather really warms up.

So here are some things you could be doing in your garden over the next few weeks:

water new plantings if the weather turns dry: Rainfall totals are finally normal or even a bit above, at least in the short term. We’ve received approximately an inch and a half of rain this weekend, so no need to water. But always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and 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 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.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up. Same goes for perennials and grasses. The earlier the better. If you must keep planting once the weather really turns hot, be sure to water copiously.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees should be treated for emerald ash borer. The best time is while they are leafing out, so it’s a bit late. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can then recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, 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 make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes, squash, basil, and eggplant until the last week in May. Right now the nights are still too cool, and the plants will not grow properly.

—  After cleaning up the perennial garden, continue to plant perennials and to divide and move them as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed. IF the weather turns hot, either stop planting or increase the amount of water you provide.

the cool weather is a great time to reseed bare patches of lawn, but be sure to keep the seeded areas moist until the seed sprouts. It’s too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. 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. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Remember that 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.

I hope you’re enjoying this lovely, slow-to-emerge spring as much as I am. It’s very hard to tear myself away from the garden.


Canada anemone, Anemone canadensis, is a lovely ground cover, but it can be a bit of a thug in the garden. Be sure to plant it where you can contain it.


Joys of spring


In about a month, the shade garden in front of the house will look like this: orange columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and pink wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

I just spent a glorious hour clearing my shade beds of last fall’s leaves and the winter’s detritus (all carefully raked on to the leaf piles to preserve overwintering insects and their larvae). I realized a week or so ago that all the snow that fell on the driveway had been thrown on to the very spot where my earliest spring ephemeral, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), is planted. Now that the snow is gone and the rain stopped, I raked that garden clear and uncovered emerging leaves of columbine, wild geranium (both in bloom in the photo above), asters, tiarella, heuchera, Virginia waterleaf, and, of course, last  year’s ferns. It was lovely to see them all.

My very dry, sandy soil won’t support some of the showiest spring ephemerals, such as bloodroot and Virginia bluebells, and oh, how I wish it could. But here are some plants that come up reliably for me every spring.


Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), surrounded by foliage of fern, columbine, and shade aster, will bloom in April.


Don’t forget that violets are natives as well, and they are an important butterfly host plant. I encourage them in the lawn and in the shade beds.


Dutchman’s breeches, the earliest flower in my garden, usually blooms around April 1. It was buried in snow until very recently. No sign of it yet.


Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum Virginiana) will bloom in May. Solomon’s seal needs a wetter site than I have so it doesn’t spread much; the waterleaf loves the dry soil.


Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis) is a great groundcover for part shade. It spreads almost a bit too enthusiastically.

What plants are popping up to delight you in your garden?

5/29/15: In the garden this week


The highlight of the late-spring shade garden is Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), a plant that spreads a bit too enthusiastically. Also in bloom are columbine, native geranium, and Virginia waterleaf. It looks like the sweet joe pye weed will be as tall as it was last year.

Late spring ushers in lovely blooming shrubs: ninebark, grey dogwood, and, very soon, elderberry. The first summer perennial–in my garden, that means Penstemon digitalis–is just open, and many others are showing buds. All the vegetables are planted. Because it’s been so dry, there’s not much weeding to do. It’s almost summer!

But there are always things to do in the garden:

water new plantings: Water the plot thoroughly before planting, and give all newly installed plants a good soaking as soon as you put them in the ground to settle them in and eliminate air pockets in the soil. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this week and the past three weeks), water all woody plants installed this spring or last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall and this spring 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.

harvest early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes. As greens bolt, or go to seed, pull the plants and plant something else. A row of beans, perhaps?

— If you started warm-season crops indoors, set them out in the garden now. It’s finally time to set out your tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, and cucumbers.

— now that all perennials have emerged, move and divide plants as necessary. This is the best time to divide perennials: root systems are small and easy to handle, and plants recover fastest this time of year. But be sure to water the plot before doing any planting. The soil is very dry.

— 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. Then plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. If you reseed bare areas, be sure to water often, especially now that the weather is hot. Lawn grass is really adapted to a much cooler climate than outs. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. 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!

Enjoy the garden this week!


A detail of that lovely anemone. If you plant it, be sure it has room to spread.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.