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.

 

In case you’re still in doubt

that we’re suffering from excessive heat and drought, a 600-year-old oak tree, a tree that was already 350 years old at the time of the Declaration of Independence, has died. Arborists believe that the current drought and heat dealt the final blow. Very old trees, like very old people, have trouble dealing with physical stress.

Many trees are suffering from the combined effects of heat and drought (it doesn’t help that today, October 17, the temperature has reached 80 degrees). Rainfall has been well below normal for the past two growing seasons: for the past 30 days, rainfall has been approximately 50 percent of the normal amount. Very young and very old trees suffer the most; well established plants that are sited correctly usually do well.

What are some signs of drought stress in trees? A few include drooping leaves, early leaf drop, and brown leaf margins. A tree that loses all its leaves much earlier than usual will usually not leaf out again next year. A dead crown (top of the tree) is a clear signal that the tree is dying. What can you do? If the symptoms are mild, water deeply once a week until frost (see the Guidelines for Sensible Watering page). If the symptoms are severe, it’s probably too late to save the tree. Make sure it’s not likely to do damage if it falls, and have it taken down as soon as possible. Leave a snag, or standing trunk, in place to provide shelter and food for wildlife.

9/30/16: In the garden this week (and Maine)

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A random patch of plants growing beside our small rented cabin on Swan Lake in mid-coast Maine. Almost every plant you see is native.

We’re just back from 2+ weeks in our beloved Maine. When our children were growing up, we vacationed there every year, staying in a small cabin on a pond, and it’s where I learned how a forest is put together. Here in New Jersey, most natural watercourses have been covered or dammed, ponds are covered with green algae caused by lawn fertilizer runoff, and the vast majority of plants are either nonnative or positively invasive, both in backyards and in natural areas. In Maine, there’s much more nature remaining, and being there is a wonderful vacation for the senses as well as for the body and mind. There are some more photos at the end of this post.

End of diatribe. What does this have to do with you and your garden? You can create a little oasis of nature in your own backyard, and if more and more people do that (and more and more are), our overall environment will improve.

It looks like the drought has broken to some extent in our area–my rain gauge was full when we returned, indicating well over an inch of rain over the two weeks, and the NOAA monthly and seasonal forecast calls for normal rainfall amounts in the Northeast. So watering is probably unnecessary right now, unless you’ve seeded a new lawn (see below). But here are some things you could be doing in your garden right now:

continue to practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers. This is particularly important as the season winds down. Monitor for insect eggs and larvae and remove them before infestations become serious. Throw out badly infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

— as tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits: provide no more than an inch of water per week. (If it rains, don’t water.) Keep removing suckers. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

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. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there as you collect them.

collect seeds. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of nodding joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe when the birds start to eat them, which usually happens quite late in the season.

— 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. As the weather cools down, it’s time to reseed bare areas. Be sure to keep those patches well watered until the grass is up. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Established 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!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. 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.

Leave the Leaves this year: use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.

And now for more Maine. I wish I were still there.

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We happened on this grouping of plants growing in a rock bald on top of a mountain. I couldn’t have designed a better arrangement. True inspiration from nature.

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Another view from the cabin: the sunset reflected over Swan Lake (you’re actually looking southeast).

 

Changing conditions

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A large Norway maple once shaded the shrub islands on my front lawn; it blew down this spring, and now a small oak replaces it. Those islands, planted with shade lovers, get too much sun now and are suffering drought stress as a result.

When conditions change, garden care must change as well. And changing conditions can make a sustainable garden less sustainable, at least for a while. When you put up an addition, or trees outgrow their site, or a tree comes down, conditions change drastically for plants. You may be able to adapt your plantings (plant more sun-lovers, for example); if not, you’ll certainly have to adapt your care routine. It will probably be 5 years or more before this swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) supplies much-needed shade to these islands. I’ll need to provide supplemental water during dry spells for the whole time. I had almost never watered these beds before. Now, during this very dry summer, I’ve had to water every couple of weeks.

7/22/16: In the garden this week

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The perennial border is at its most exuberant right now, as orange butterflyweed finishes flowering while Rudbeckias and tall purple ironweed begin. Little bluestem is stalking out, some asters are showing buds, and Hibiscus moscheutos (large leaves in the center) will open its dinner-plate size blooms very soon.

My goodness it’s hot outside, hot and dry. I actually watered my perennial beds this week, something I rarely do more than once or twice a season. Pay careful attention to your plants, especially woody plants that are newly installed, very old, or planted on the wrong site. River birch, which, as its name suggests, likes a moist site, needs supplemental water in this kind of dry spell. So do understory trees planted in full sun and many evergreens.   They’ll suffer most from the drought.

If you have the energy to work outside in this heat, here are some things you moight do:

water new plantings: we got no rain this past week, so new plantings need supplemental watering. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this spring or last fall. 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.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers: Monitor for insect eggs and larvae and remove them before infestations become serious. Throw out badly infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material). Cucumber vines are showing signs of wilt: remove them immediately to prevent the spread of this fungal disease.

— As tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits. Keep removing suckers all summer long. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

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. In the fall, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

collect seeds. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day (although goldfinches are getting most of it). So does seed of daisy fleabane, a lovely native annual. It pops up in different parts of my garden each year. I’ve been collecting those and seeds of junegrass.

— it’s a good time to prune woody plants. Now that most growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively dormant, giving you a window of time to prune before they get ready for their next critical task: leaf abscission (shutting down for the winter). I do most of my pruning in winter, but I also prune back shrubs as needed after they have ripened their fruit.

— 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. It’s too hot now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. 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!

Remember: a brown lawn is a victory for Nature! Enjoy the garden this week.

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Aronia berries are ripening fast. There are so many, I may get some for jam this year.

 

Nuts

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We walked out our front door this morning to find the path strewn with hazelnut shells and husks. The squirrels and chipmunks must have had a party.

This is the most we ever see of the abundant hazelnuts (Corylus amaericana) that our trees bear–the shells that remain after the critters eat them. This year the nuts are being devoured even before they’re ripe. It’s at least two weeks earlier than hazelnuts usually ripen, and all the husks are still green. I wonder if there’s less food than usual because of the continuing drought, or more critters because of the mild winter.

Another thing that’s early is the flowering of several different prairie grasses: purple lovegrass, little bluestem, and prairie dropseed are all blooming now, again at least two weeks earlier than usual. Purple lovegrass in bloom, with its airy crown of tiny purple flowers, is lovely, but the seeds, which are darker purple and a bit larger than the blooms, are even more striking. This is a terrific plant for poor, dry soil and a hot, sunny site.

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Purple lovegrasss (Eragrostis spectabilis) in bloom.

Still drought

Last year we experienced very low rainfall for almost the entire growing season; this year is only a little better. According to the various data sources I’ve looked at, our total rainfall in northern New Jersey is somewhere around 15 to 25 percent below normal, and the lowest rainfall totals occurred during the key spring months. And you can see the effects all around you. Notice all the evergreen trees with brown patches or dead limbs, the dead pine trees, the mature hardwood trees with dead limbs and dead crowns. Two, or even three years of drought are unlikely to affect a mature, healthy tree that’s growing in an appropriate site, but trees that are stressed are showing severe effects of drought. This includes newly planted trees that haven’t been watered properly, trees planted on the wrong site (for example, shade lovers placed in full sun, wetland species planted in dry soil), and trees approaching the end of their natural lifespan.

The Norway maples that were planted as street trees throughout much of this area around 50 or 60 years ago are particularly hard hit: many are diseased, and most are at the end of their lifespan. The two large Norway maples that we lost and replaced this spring are examples. Not that I’m sorry to lose these ugly and invasive trees, but the various towns’ Shade Tree Commissions and Departments of Public Works will have a great deal to do over the next few years. And it will take a while to regrow the street tree canopy we’re losing. Here in Glen Rock, we will be planting only native trees. Is your town doing the same?

You can’t do anything about the drought, but you can do something to protect your treasured plantings. Here are a few suggestions:

— Water new plants correctly at least for the first year; large trees can require supplemental watering even longer.

— If you have a tree with dead branches or, even more serious, a dead crown, consult an arborist and have it properly pruned or removed, especially if it’s endangering people or structures.

— When planting, always choose the correct plant for the site. This will minimize watering needs over the long term and help ensure the health of your garden.