4/7/17: In the garden this week

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Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucularia) is up, about a week later than usual; it’s showing buds but not in bloom yet. Last year I divided one large clump, and this year there are three that I can divide again.

We’ve had over 4 inches of rain since last Friday–largest weekly total in over two years, I think. The streams are full, and there’s a vernal pool near the entrance to the Thielke Arboretum for the first time in several years. I’m hoping the drought is finally over.

I’ve been stealing a half hour here and there for my own garden, and it’s going to be a great weekend for outdoor work or play. Here are some of the things you could do in your garden now:

water new plantings: April Fool again! No need to water this week, 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 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.

— 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, until most plants are in active growth. There is one exception to this rule: if your garden, like mine, is covered with Norway maple leaves, which form a solid barrier to new growth, remove those leaves gently (and use them for compost).

Start dividing perennials as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky,  difficult 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.

continue to 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 leave 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. 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.

— 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 looking for signs of spring in the garden this week!

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The delicate flowers of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are just emerging in damp woods throughout our area.

 

5/13/16: In the garden this week

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This season’s first native geraniums (Geranium maculatum) are opening now. This lovely woodland native does well in poor soil and deep shade.

It’s really, really spring when the geraniums start to open. Our loveliest native geranium is a true spring ephemeral: it appears, blooms, and sets seed within no more than two months, then disappears until next spring. It’s so easy to grow that you can dig it up and move it while it’s in bloom. And as you can see in the photo, it combines will with other shade lovers–notice all the aster leaves.

As I write this the rain has begun, a few hours later than predicted so I was able squeeze in some planting this morning. Two of my clients’ plants arrived yesterday (as did mine). It will be a busy week! But the relatively cool, rainy weather is ideal for planting.

And here are some other things you might accomplish in your garden this week:

divide hardy perennials and grasses. Spring is the best time to divide plants; many will even bloom the same year if you divide them early enough. I start dividing as soon as each species is ready and stop when the weather gets hot, and I try to do it right before it rains (saves watering). Exception: it’s too late to divide tap-rooted plants such as columbine and orange butterflyweed, and many native grasses don’t respond well once they’ve put out a couple of inches of top growth. Wait until next year to divide these plants.

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 week or so.

— 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 until around May 20.

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. And unless you’ve seeded it,  lawn certainly doesn’t need watering, and it’s still 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.

It’s very hard to stay out of the garden in spring! Enjoy the garden this week.

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Our native Tiarella combines well with other shade-lovers, such as asters, ferns, columbine, and Heuchera.

 

4/15/16: In the garden this week

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Some serviceberry (Amelanchier) species are in full bloom, some are still just showing buds.

It’s turning out to be another dry spring. Despite the series of strong storms we’ve experienced recently, we’ve had less than 2 inches of rain over the past 30 days. This means that plants you installed last fall, as well as those you put in this spring, need supplemental water. Woody species in particular need extra water during dry spells for at least a year while they’re becoming established: aim for at least an inch a week. The main reason plants don’t survive is insufficient water while they’re becoming established.

Have you ordered your plants yet? The major mail-order suppliers of natives are running out of the most popular plants, so if you were intending to order but keep putting it off, do it now! Some suppliers have started shipping, and local nurseries will receive most of their spring shipments within the next six weeks.

In addition to ordering your plants, here’s what you can do in the 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 2-3 weeks and have enlarged several beds to receive these divisions and others later in the season.

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure to prepare for spring planting.

— because the nights are still cool, continue to direct-sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard, which is about to flower. 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. It’s too late to pull western bittercress, which has already gone to seed. 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.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— if you’re planning on ordering native plants from specialty nurseries, get your order in now! Many companies are already sold out of the most popular plants. Some companies 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, put 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. And it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

This will be a gorgeous weekend to be out in the garden. Enjoy!

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Our native plum tree, Prunus americana, rivals any ornamental plum for the beauty of its flowers.

Essential tools: The spading fork

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If I wanted to divide this clump of false Solomon’s seal or these shade asters, I would stick a spading fork in the ground and lift out part of the clump (although it would have been better to do it a few weeks ago when they first emerged).

The essential tools for the home gardener include a trug to hold all the smaller items, gloves, a sharp knife, a hand fork, a trowel, a rake, a leaf rake, pruners, hedge clippers, a small hand saw, and, most essential of all, a spading fork. Barbara Damrosch, gardener extraordinaire, wrote a great essay about the spading fork.

A spading fork is not a rake and it is definitely not a pitchfork. It is a long-handled tool with four heavy tines. You use it for loosening the earth before digging a hole, for lifting plants out of the ground, for loosening and removing turf, for dividing plants, for turning compost, for digging in compost, for digging up root crops. It’s much, much, easier to dig with a fork than with a spade. It’s always the first tool to use when you have to dig.

It’s important to use a spading fork correctly. Suppose you’re digging up a large perennial: Place the tines as close as possible to the base of the plant and push straight down as far as you can. Then step on one side of the fork with the heel of your foot–not the toe or the instep–to drive it in as far as it will go. If you use your toe, you’re likely to slide off and fall down; if you use your instep, you can break your foot. Use your heel, which is strong and powerful, to push down as hard as you can. Then push down on the handle, lifting the tines, and the plant will most likely pop right out of the ground. If it doesn’t, repeat all around the plant, loosening the roots. Eventually the plant will come right out, the roots unharmed.

Spading forks come in different weights and lengths. You want the heaviest one you can manage, and for length, you want the one that’s most comfortable for you. Be sure the handle and fork are attached firmly to the shaft–your fork will get a lot of heavy use.

Take a look at this New Yorker cartoon about the spading fork on the Conde Nast website.

5/8/15: In the garden this week

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The exquisite flowers of chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) are in full bloom. In August, birds will be eating the large, black berries.

I’m spending a lot of time right now finding native plants for clients. Because of the late spring, most nurseries will receive all their spring plant shipments this week and next week, so this is the time to get out there and ask local nurseries for native plants (you’re shopping for mom anyway, right? Go to the website of the Native Plant Society of NJ for cards you can print, fill out, and give to nursery owners to request specific native plants. If we don’t ask, they won’t know we want them!  I’m happy to say that more and more local nurseries are stocking more and more natives, but there’s still plenty of barberry and purple loosestrife out there as well, so be careful when you buy.

The spring is advancing fast. Serviceberry is finished blooming; flowering dogwood, lilacs, and crab apples (Mother’s Day plants) are just about at their peaks; ferns are unfolding, and many local flowering natives, like jack in the pulpit, spring beauty, trout lily, and Solomon’s seal, are in full bloom. This would be a beautiful weekend to explore a local natural area like the Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock. Take a walk in the woods, admire the native wildflowers, and notice the progress we’ve made in removing the garlic mustard over the past couple of years. (And if you see garlic mustard, pull it now. For the most part, it hasn’t set seed yet.

And after you buy Mom a plant and take her for a nice walk in the woods, help her attend to her garden:

— the soil is very dry, so 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 last week), 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.

harvest early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes.

— 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. the nights are still quite cool.

— now that most 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.

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? Do your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage? Do it as soon as new growth appears.

— 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.

monitor your garden for bird activity. Birds are very active at foraging and nest building. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks 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.

— 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. Lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it less frequently and more deeply to encourage deep root growth.

Enjoy the beautiful Mother’s Day weather!

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Foamflower (Tiatella cordifolia) a diminutive groundcover, is in full bloom now. After the flowers fade, the variegated leaves will provide visual interest all season. On the left is a columbine, which is showing buds but isn’t quite in bloom yet.

5/1/15: In the garden this week

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Our gorgeous native flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is slowly opening its bracts to reveal the tiny flowers hidden inside.

What a busy week it’s been! I am out with clients or in at the computer all day; I get to work on my own perennials and shrubs only in short, stolen moments of time, and I don’t have time for the vegetable garden at all. Finally spring is here, most plants have emerged (except for some milkweeds and Ruellia, always the last to appear), and it’s time to divide and move and plant NOW. The cool weather is great for spring gardening, giving newly installed plants more time to make roots. We could use a little more rain, however.

Here’s what you should be doing in your garden this week:

weed! This is the perfect time to rid your property of garlic mustard and to pull out tiny seedlings of annoying plants like English ivy and Norway maples (those are my particular annoyances; every property has some). Garlic mustard is blooming now, so get it before it seds seed.

continue to 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 luck you’ll have fresh salad greens in about 6 weeks.

— 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.

— now that most 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.

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? Do it as soon as new growth appears.

— 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.

monitor your garden for bird activity. Birds are very active at foraging and nest building. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks 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. (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.)

— 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.

— We had a dry week, so water new plantings: 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, 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 will 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.

It’s almost time to put out the garden furniture–enjoy the spring weekend!

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Flowers of Aronia melanocarpa, black chokeberry, are about to bloom.