Early spring


Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucularia) are in full bloom right now, and the plants are finally spreading in my garden. And the rabbits didn’t eat the flowers this year—yet!


The sepals of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) are beginning to enlarge, hinting of the beauty to come.


Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has reached full bloom, its tiny yellow-green flowers lighting up the garden.


There’s nothing quite as lovely are serviceberry (Amelanchier) buds in spring. Today they look like this; tomorrow they’ll be almost all quite and will look like strings of pearls.


4/7/17: In the garden this week


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!


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


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?



Blossoms of native plum (Prunus americana) continue to unfold despite the late frost.

I’m happy to report that all my tough native plants are doing just fine despite two nights when temperatures dipped down into the 20s. Even the plants that I had just divided look good. The photo above was taken in 2014, but the plum blossoms look just like that today.

This is a good year for Dutchman’s breeches (meaning that the rabbits didn’t eat the one measly flower stalk that comes up every year). If you have shade and rich soil, by all means try this lovely, early blooming native and its cousin, native bleeding heart (Dicentra cucullaria and D. eximia), as well as other spring-blooming denizens of rich, most soil such as blood root and Virginia bluebells.


Dutchman’s breeches (D. culcullaria) in a very shady spot in my front garden. I divided the tiny corms two years ago and three small clumps came up this year, but only one is in bloom.

Dutchman’s breeches


I planted the tiny corms of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) more than 15 years ago. It’s never bloomed abundantly for me, because it prefers richer soil than I have, but most years I see a few flowers around April 1. In recent years it hasn’t bloomed, so last year I divided the patch and moved the corms around, hoping to find a spot the plant liked better. Today this one bloomed in the original spot.

Dutchman’s breeches is named for the shape of the flower, which does look like a tiny pair of pantaloons hanging upside down. The plant is only a few inches high; it blooms in earliest spring and disappears very quickly. It’s in the same genus, Dicentra, as the bleeding hearts, which have showier pink flowers. Our native bleeding heart, D. eximia, which is about 8″ tall, will bloom soon. The showy old-fashioned bleeding heart is D. spectabilis, and it’s not native. The fourth member of the genus you might know is D. formosa, a non-native that’s very similar to D. eximia. If you have a shady spot with rich soil, D. cucullaria and D. eximia are well worth a try.