6/9/17: In the garden this week


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.


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.


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!


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.



What I missed


In the past three weeks, Penstemon digitalis (white flowers) has attained enormous height and begun to bloom; columbine (Aquilegia canadensis—orange flowers) is still going strong.

I went on vacation in spring and came back to summer. And not only summer, but a summer with abundant rainfall, for the first time in three years. The garden has grown so much we could hardly find the driveway. There’s nothing like a relatively cool, rainy spring.

Penstemon to me is the first of the summer prairie plants. It usually begins to bloom in late May, and from the looks of it, it started early this year. The plants are almost four feet tall; usually they’re no more than three. Canada anemone and grey dogwood are in full bloom; junegrass, milkweeds, and elderberries are about to bloom; arrowwood  and maple leaf viburnums are almost finished. We completely missed the blooming of ninebark and of my single lovely pink peony (it’s one of two nonnative plants, the other being a lilac). There’s a lot of weeding, pinching, and cutting back to be done! I haven’t checked the vegetable garden yet, but I’m sure there’s rhubarb ready for harvesting. I will surely need to weed. And it’s time to plant basil, tomatoes, and other warm-weather crops.


Elderberries (large flat flower clusters) are about to bloom, and fragrant grey dogwood is in full bloom. The somewhat aggressive grey dogwood is slowly crowding out the elderberry in this area.

Columbine duskywing


Native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

Who knew that columbine has a species-specific butterfly? I didn’t until I noticed a few skeletonized leaveson a couple of plants–chewed leaves with nothing left but the ribs. Normally columbine leaves do not get chewed, and the plant’s only pest is leaf miners, which don’t appear until summer. Looking closely at the leaves, I saw a few more with damage only at the leaf margins, a sign that caterpillars were at work rather than, say, beetles.

Looking even more closely, I saw a few tiny green caterpillars clinging to the edges of a few leaves. (Sorry about the quality of this image–it was a very windy day.)


Caterpillars of columbine duskywing, Erynnis lucilius, on native columbine.

I turned to my trusty Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies, which has an index to host plants as well as to butterfly species–an extremely useful feature. I looked up columbine and found that there is a species-specific butterfly, that its caterpillar is green with some yellow features, and that the season is correct. Bulls eye. I also found more about the species’s life cycle on the Butterflies and Moths of North American website.

For those of you who worry about insect damage to your plants, be aware that this small plant is in bloom while the chewing is going on. So if you want to see butterflies, hold off on the pesticides and be willing to tolerate a few chewed leaves.

Also, remember that ecological gardening takes time. I’ve been growing columbine for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen this caterpillar before. According to the references, this butterfly inhabits woodlands and rocky slopes (where columbine lives in the wild), not suburbs. So how did the mother butterfly find my columbine plants last fall? And think what would have happened if I did a rigorous garden cleanup in fall–the overwintering eggs probably would have been destroyed. Think about all the things that must go right for a few tiny caterpillars to survive.

Once again, this story shows that if you plant it, they will come. It’s always amazing.

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?

Snow day


Spring will come, so prepare for it now! Today wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) are sleeping under a foot of snow, but they will bloom in little more than a month.

What better time than a snow day to prepare for spring in the garden? Are you one of those people who doesn’t plan for spring until the weather warms up? There’s a problem with that approach: the best suppliers of native plants are sold out of the plants you want long before you’re ready to order. Right now, today, when you have a little extra time, go online (you’re already there!) and browse native plants. Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon, and Toadshade Wildflower Farm are all excellent, reliable mail-order suppliers and growers. Toadshade is right here in New Jersey.

While you’re online, do a little research. Check out the website of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey: read about native plants, find local suppliers, and register for the annual meeting, to be held this coming Saturday. Or take a look at the fabulous website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, with its searchable database of native plants. Or check out the Xerces Society for fascinating information about pollinators and the plants they love.

Finally, for the simplest way to plan and order a pollinator garden, Glen Rock residents can take advantage of the Environmental Commission’s preplanned butterfly garden project. But hurry up! The order period ends tomorrow.


If you want to enjoy a colorful garden this summer, the time to plan and order is now.

5/6/16: In the garden this week


As soon as the sun comes out, native columbine (acquilegia canadensis) will leap into bloom, and hummingbirds will appear. This plant does best in poor, dry soil.

In the spring, I can either work or blog, and usually I choose to work! And all the rain we’ve been having is great for planting, and the cool, cloudy weather is wonderful root growth. I’ve been trying to plant ahead of every predicted rainy spell. Finally, a week with enough precipitation for newly installed plants!

Because the weather turned cool, the arrival of spring finally slowed down, and we’re right back on schedule. The catbirds arrived this week, almost the same date as the past couple of years. Flowing dogwood and lilacs are in bloom, birds are extremely active, spring ephemerals will bloom as soon as the sun comes out. The last trees to leaf out, ashes and hackberry, are swelling their leaf buds.

This is the busiest time of year in the garden–the height of planting season. It’s easiest to establish new plants while the soil is still cool, so get your new plants in the ground as soon as you can. Consider a native tree or large shrub for a Mother’s Day gift. In my garden, last year’s lovely red chokeberry is in bloom right now.

In addition to buying Mom a present and taking her out for brunch, here are some things you could be doing in your garden this week:

divide hardy perennials and grasses. Many of the toughest native plants–many grasses, asters, rudbeckias, boltonia, columbine, to name just a few–have been in active growth for weeks. I start dividing as soon as each species is ready, and I try to do it right before it rains (saves watering). I’ve been at it for about a month and have enlarged several beds to receive the divisions. And as usual, I’ve given lots of plants away to friends, clients, and local parks and natural areas.

Harvest cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. Plant parsley and dill plants, but hold off on basil for another couple of weeks.

— you should have started vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash a while ago. (You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.) Hold off on putting these tender crops in the ground for another couple of weeks–until at least May 20.

Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions. Pull garlic mustard if it hasn’t yet set seed. This noxious weed is particularly easy to remove–grab the base of the plant, and unless the soil is compacted, you’ll get the whole root system in one firm tug. Once it’s gone to seed, it’s too late to remove it. Mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

Plant! The weather is perfect. Most reliable mail-order nurseries have started shipping. Once the plants arrive, get them in the ground as soon as you can. If you must hold them for a few days, open the boxes, water as necessary, and keep them in the shadiest spot you can find.

— if you or your lawn service has sown grass seed, water several times a day until the grass is up. Otherwise you’re just scattering birdseed. Otherwise, the lawn certainly doesn’t need watering. And it’s much too early to fertilize. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

Happy Mother’s Day! enjoy the garden this week!


Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is in full bloom now. Red chokeberry (A. arbutifolia) has prettier fruit, but black chokeberry has larger flowers and its larger fruit are more attractive to birds.



Earth Day: In the garden this week


Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is unfurling its fronds right now. This native fern grows in deep shade and poor, dry soil and remains green all winter.

Happy Earth Day! Instead of the usual Friday list of garden chores, here are some photos of the garden taken yesterday.


Native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is stalking out and will begin to bloom very soon.


Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) will bloom very soon. This plant does great in sun or shade.


About a dozen species of violets are native to New Jersey, and all are hosts to fritillaries.

Enjoy Earth Day in the garden (and don’t forget to water newly installed plants–we’re having another dry spring.)