What I missed

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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.

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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.

7/29/16: In the garden this week

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You could go to the New York Botanical Garden to see the corpse flower in bloom, or you could admire gorgeous blooms in your own native plant garden. This is Hibiscus mosceutos, just beginning to bloom. The flowers are almost as large as dinner plates.

Today is the day the corpse flower is in full bloom, but in my garden something just as gorgeous but much more common is happening: Hibiscus moscheutos is beginning to bloom, and we’ll be enjoying it for a month or more. This is supposed to be a wetland plant, but I originally got the seeds from my next-door neighbor’s bone-dry garden, and it’s bloomed reliably for me ever since (and there are both seeds and seedlings to give away each year).

We finally got a bit of rain this week, but according to my rain gauge, the total from the two storms was well under an inch. I suspect the amount of rainfall varied a great deal locally, so your total may be different. This shows why it’s important to know how much rain you received in a dry period like the one we’re experiencing so you can care for your plants properly.

After a somewhat rainy weekend (yay!), temperatures are predicted to moderate next week. It’s been very hard to work outdoors in 90+ degree heat and humidity. I look forward to a productive week. And if you should feel ambitious, here are some things you might address in your garden this week:

water new plantings: depending on location, you probably got less than an inch of rain this 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: provide no more than an inch of water per week. 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.

— pick fruit! Elderberries and aronia berries are almost ripe, native plums are ripening; nonedible fruits such as grey dogwood berries are beginning to show color. The most plentiful crop in my garden is aronia, and I am planning a batch of aronia/plum jam.

— 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!

Have a great weekend! And enjoy my latest Backyard Environmentalist column, “The Indomitables,” a group of native plants that are particularly easy to grow.

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Rudbeckia triloba is beginning to open its flowers this week. This lovely and easy-to-grow plant remains about 3′ tall and doesn’t spread aggressively like taller Rudbeckias. The flowers are only about 1 1/2″ across, but they’re just plain adorable.

3/18/16: In the garden this week

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Elderberry leaves are beginning to unfold. If you have space for a large shrub, consider planting this gorgeous native. The birds will thank you!

It’s supposed to snow on Sunday and then get warm again. It’s definitely too early to plant; luckily, plants are not available yet, or this early spring would tempt me to plant too soon. But there are lots of things you could be doing if you’re dying to get into the garden this week:

— 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, and get ready for spring planting.

— direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm and stall when it turns cold again. But cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— 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 and western bittercress in your garden plots. The 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.

— it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year.

And go out and see what’s growing in your garden.

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This is one of the many cultivars available of our native honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens. As you see, it begins to grow early in the season. I planted it over 20 years ago; today I would plant the species instead.

5/29/15: In the garden this week

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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!

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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.

The catbirds are back

And oh, how I love them. These noisy creatures migrate south in September and don’t return until May, so they are the essence of summer to me. When I planted my miniforest, I unknowingly created a little catbird paradise. Catbirds are edge dwellers that nest in shrubs and eat fruit. When the raspberries and elderberries ripen, we watch them all day long, dive-bombing into the bushes, screeching in exultation, and flying away with the fruit. It’s better than Broadway.

Hints of fall

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It’s been a remarkably cool summer. We’ve barely used our central air conditioning, and many nights we’ve had to turn off the attic fan because it cooled down the house too much. Delightful! Actually, if you look back at historical weather records, it’s been a normal summer. It’s just that over the past 20 years or so we’ve become accustomed to brutal, sultry summers. This one and last one were welcome respites.

My garden is still in late-summer mode, with Rudbeckias going strong, Boltonias just beginning to bloom, asters and goldenrod showing swelling buds, native grasses in bloom, and tomatoes ripening daily. Nevertheless, I see signs of fall all around me, due, no doubt, to the cool nighttime temperatures. The picture above shows spicebush (Lindera benzoin), planted in one of the shrub islands in my front lawn (and abundant in this area in shady, wet places). We noticed catbird activity in the island, and a quick check verified that the berries were ripening. The birds always know before we do!

Notice all the yellow leaves. You’ll often see just a few yellow or red leaves on a shrub with ripe fruit. I think the plant is using so much energy to ripen its fruit that it has to let go of a few relatively unimportant leaves. But leaf coloration, which we call a foliar flag, also signals ripe fruit to birds. So perhaps the spicebush is sending out a yellow leaf signal in addition to the red berry one. Or perhaps the nights have been so cool that leaf abscission has begun. I am also seeing yellow leaves on my ninebark shrubs and on plane trees in my daily walks around town. (I didn’t have time to post a list of garden chores this week, but if I had, I would have told you to stop pruning until woody plants go completely dormant. Do not prune while plants are using energy to shut down for the season.)

The birds are having a bonanza, or perhaps a smorgasbord, in my garden right now. In addition to the spicebush, the grey dogwood is also ripening its berries, and the Aronia and elderberries have just disappeared. The noise is unbelievable–catbirds let out ear-piercing screeches as they divebomb into shrubs for fruit. It’s highly entertaining. I will miss these noisy aerial acrobats when they migrate south in a few more weeks.

And then, of course, there are the goldfinches in the Rudbeckias and sunflowers:

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Elderberry in bloom

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The elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are in full bloom, about a week later than last year. All this beauty, plus delicious elderflower syrup, and berries for the birds and for making jam in August. Seriously, why aren’t you growing elderberry? They used to grow abundantly in Bergen County. Let’s put them back and help restore the environment to its natural bounty