11/3/17: In the garden this week

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Foliage of Penstemon digitalis has been this beautiful color since September, but I’m not complaining. Those are seed stalks of purple lovegrass, Ergostatis spectabilis.

The weather can only be described as freaky. I am longing for autumn–the two cool days this week were a mere teaser. Most trees are holding their leaves, although most perennials have finished blooming. I am still seeing monarchs almost every day. I wonder what they’re finding to eat.

Most garden chores for this week are the same ones I usually suggest in early September, except for this first one:

leave the leaves! Do not rake your leaves out to the curb–you are throwing away the fertility of your soil. Mow over them to use them as lawn fertilizer, use them as mulch on your planting beds, save them to use in compost, but use them in some way on your own property.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week because the rainstorm on Tuesday gave us approximately 1 1/2 inches of precipitation. But be vigilant, especially while the weather remains warm: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water thoroughly all woody plants installed this season or last fall. 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. I will not water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

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. When you clean up the garden, throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material). Fall-planted cool-season crops are not doing well this year!

— because of the warm weather, tomato plants have not died back yet, so keep picking, and keep removing suckers and diseased plant material (and again, don’t compost diseased material). Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes. And keep picking: don’t let the fruit rot in the garden.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then spread a 3-4” layer of shredded cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. You can also use a thicker layer (12-18″) of leaves. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Aster seeds are ripening. Milkweed seed is done.

— remove seeds of nonnative (potentially invasive) plants. If you grow butterfly bush (Buddleia), and I hope you don’t, remove the seed heads. The same goes for nonnative ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and Pennisetum. Remove and discard the seedheas–do not compost them. These plants are already invasive in the upper south and mid-Atlantic and will be here very soon. Better still, remove the plants and replace with native in the spring.

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Most perennials have finished blooming, but sweet black eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) still has a few flowers. Its seeds ripen late and will feed birds all winter. Note the leaves that fall on the garden and remain to insulate the soil and harbor butterflies, moths, and other creatures.

— 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. However, because of the warm weather, you could fertilize now (and legally you cannot fertilize after November 15). If you reseed bare areas this fall, be sure to water newly seeded areas frequently: grass seed will only germinate if kept moist, so give seeded areas a light sprinkling several times a day. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. If the lawn is doing well, let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Do not water, or if you feel you absolutely must water, water infrequently and deeply. And always remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

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

— do not clean up the perennial garden until spring: the seeds that remain will feed the birds all winter; the stems and dried leaves will shelter innumerable small creatures; and the detritus the ground harbors next season’s butterflies and moths.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is displaying rather dull fall color this year, and its leaves are handing on much later than usual. The berries are gone–the birds eat them as soon as they ripen. This is one of the best all-around native trees for partial shade.

 

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10/20/17: In the garden this week

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Not this year. Native plants, like this Virginia creeper vine, require crisp, cool nights to develop good fall color. This year the leaves turned a wimpy mottled reddish green.

Is everyone as sick of warm, dry weather as I am? I feel like I’ve moved to South Carolina. I want a beautiful northern fall.

We’ve had barely an inch of rain since the beginning of September; normal rainfall is over 4 inches per month. And temperatures remain stubbornly high–more than 10 degrees above normal most days. Tomorrow is supposed to be close to 80 degrees once again (a normal high for this time of year is in the low 60s). I look out my window at a backyard of persistent green. NOAA Predictions are for a winter with above-normal temperatures but normal precipitation.

What does this mean for the garden? A lot of chores we normally do in September, such as putting the vegetable garden to bed or feeding the lawn, can be put off until late October or even later (I’m still picking tomatoes). And we may have only a very short window for cold-dependent chores like shrub pruning, which should be done when the plants are completely dormant.

But there are always things you can do in the garden this weekend, if you can bear the heat:

water new plantings this week: there’s been almost no precipitation for the past 6 weeks. In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water thoroughly all woody plants installed this season or last fall. The soil is very dry, so even perennials planted this spring might be in need of water. 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. I will water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

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 infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material). Fall-planted cool-season crops are not doing well this year!

— because of the warm weather, tomatoes continue to ripen their fruit, but be sure to 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. And keep picking: don’t let the fruit rot in the garden.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then spread a 3-4” layer of shredded 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 now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Some aster seeds will be ripe soon. Milkweed seed are almost done. I try to harvest just when the pods split open so I can easily separate the seeds from the down.

— 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. However, because of the warm weather, I would still hold off on fertilizing. If you reseed bare areas this fall, be sure to water newly seeded areas frequently: grass seed will only germinate if kept moist, so give seeded areas a light sprinkling several times a day. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. If the lawn is doing well, let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Do not water, or if you feel you absolutely must water, water infrequently and deeply. And always 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.

— do not clean up the perennial garden until spring: the seeds that remain will feed the birds all winter; the stems and dried leaves will shelter innumerable small creatures; and the detritus the ground harbors next season’s butterflies and moths.

Enjoy the garden this week and always. It’s not too cold for a cookout!

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Also not this year. My native shrubs, usually so colorful, seem exhausted by the hot, dry weather. They look dull and dispirited.

 

9/29/17: In the garden this week

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Many native perennials display beautiful fall colors. The short plant with red leaves is sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), which blooms with yellow flowers in May-July; the taller one is Penstemon digitalis, which has white flowers at the same time.

After several weeks of unseasonable heat and drought, we finally feel a hint of fall today (thought still no rain in sight). Fruits have ripened, but most trees and shrubs are holding fast to their leaves, which for the most part look both green and sad. Some early-turning shrubs and trees are showing color, but the color is subdued. The drought and heat are having an effect.

In the vegetable garden the prolonged heat means that pests and diseases have longer than usual to weak havoc, and fall cool-weather crops are sparse. On the positive side, tomato plants are still producing.

Fall is a good time to plant, especially trees and shrubs (though not as good as spring). But the reason it’s good is the cool temperatures: plants concentrate on growing roots when the soil turns cool, top growth when it’s warm. So far this fall has NOT been a good time to plant, although lots of watering helps.

Fall is a good time for lots of other garden chores, however:

water new plantings this week: there’s been almost no precipitation for the past 3 weeks. In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this season or last fall. The soil is very dry, so even perennials planted this spring might be in need of a little extra water. 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. I will water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week, and on Sunday I’ll water some of the perennials I put in this past spring.

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 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. And keep picking: don’t let the fruit rot in the garden.

continue to plant cool-weather crops such as lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, and peas for fall harvest. I’m betting on a war fall.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then 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 now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of nodding joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Milkweed seed needs to be collected almost daily. I try to harvest just when the pods split open so I can easily separate the seeds from the down.

— 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. Now that the nights are cool, it’s a good time to reseed bare areas. But be sure to water newly seeded areas frequently: grass seed will only germinate if kept moist, so give seeded areas a light sprinkling several times a day. 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 certainly do not need water. And always 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.

Enjoy the garden this week! Keep a lookout for fall monarch migration (they’re going south). Will they find nectar for the journey in your garden? If not, plant some asters!

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New England aster beats most other plants for attracting pollinators in fall.

11/18/16: In the garden this week

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A sustainable garden should be a bountiful buffet for birds and other wildlife throughout the winter and early spring. Don’t clean up your perennial beds until you see new growth in spring.

Finally a good soaking rain came to our area this past week: my rain gauge registered over an inch and a half, and all over northern New Jersey, sluggish streams came to life. It made for good weeding conditions.

The prolonged warm weather we now experience, in fall and also in spring, puts great stress on trees. Trees leaf out earlier and hold their leaves longer; they carry out photosynthesis for a longer season, and as a result, their water needs increase. Remember that our rainfall has been below normal for the past two growing seasons. Many trees, particularly the old and the young, are stressed.

It’s delightful to be outdoors on these warm, sunny fall days. Here are some gardening chores you might attend to while you’re enjoying the golden fall weather:

Leave the Leaves this year: Don’t blow your leaves out to the curb; recycle them on your property. Fallen leaves and grass clippings represent the fertility of your soil, so why give them away? Use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.

water new plantings: this week we received ample rainfall, but in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or fall. Perennials planted last season should be well-established, but those planted this year 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. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings this week.

clean up the vegetable garden carefully: remove the spent plants; compost healthy ones, but throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease.

— fall is the best time to 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. Or use a thick layer of leaves (12″ or more). You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds in the mulch as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is disappearing fast, because the birds love it. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed. Seeds of asters, joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda are ripe. Right now it’s hard to keep up with the seed collecting. And plenty of seed will remain for the birds to eat this winter.

don’t clean up the perennial garden: leave the plants until spring. The birds will enjoy the seeds all winter, and the dead stalks will be easy to remove in spring.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: it’s too late to fertilize or reseed. If you did reseed this year, keep the seeded area moist until the grass is germinated. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. As the leaves fall, mow over them, don’t rake or blow them. Your mower will chop them into small pieces that will quickly disintegrate, returning valuable nutrients to the lawn. 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. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

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Native perennials, like native trees and shrubs, and great for fall color. This is what sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa, looks like in early fall.

 

Environmental news roundup

Just one of the reasons why it's called red maple

Red maple (Acer rubrum) is one of our best native trees for autumn color. Each plant has a rhythm—when red maple begins to drop its leaves, many ferns are still green.

I couple of weeks ago I discovered Global Weirding, a series of climate-change videos on YouTube. Check out all of them, but this one about the long history of global warming is particularly interesting. The answer to the question “How come we’re just finding out about global warming?” is, “We’ve known for almost 200 years.”

Inhabitat.com is a blog that focuses on technological innovations that foster sustainability. Check it out to read about a 1000-year-old English cathedral that will soon be completed run by solar power, living bricks that can turn sunlight and wastewater into energy-generating plants, and much more.

To see great fall color, all you have to do is head to Manhattan (or look outside your window). The big news: the tupelo in Central Park is displaying full color.

“Not Doomed Yet,” The Atlantic‘s climate-change newsletter, contains the excellent news that the Paris Agreement has become international law; also, for the first six months of 2016, U.S. carbon emissions were the lowest since 1991. Check out the newsletter and its many information links for more news, not all of it so good.

Trees that turn red

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Foliage of the black tupelo tree, Nyssa sylvatica. We live in the northernmost part of native range of this beautiful and stately tree.

The underlying color of foliage is yellow–leaves begin yellow and turn green when they begin to produce chlorophyll. So why do some trees go to the trouble of turning fiery red in fall?

There are several theories. Some woody plants, vines in particular, turn red to signal to birds that their berries are ripe (birds have excellent color vision). Virginia creeper and poison ivy, two native vines that are particularly beneficial to wildlife, turn fiery red in fall, usually while the trees around them are still green. Ecologists call this a foliar flag.

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A foliar flag: poison ivy growing up a tree trunk turns red in early fall, while the tree that supports it is still green, to signal to birds that its berries are ripe.

But maples and tupelos both flaunt bright red foliage in fall, although their fruits ripen much earlier in the season. Why do the trees waste all the energy it takes to produce red pigment? There are many theories: to protect against insect damage or sunburn at the crucial time of leaf abscission,  or to fool insects into thinking the tree is dying; they’re neatly summarized in today’s NY Times. Read about it there, and be sure to get outside and enjoy the short-lived show. There are lots of lovely red and sugar maples around our area, and even a few tupelos.

I’ll leave you with a brain teaser: the foliage of which native shrub turns a deep purple/pink color in fall?

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Native sugar maples are plentiful in our area; they turn beautiful shades or red and orange. Many dogwoods and viburnums turn dark red.

 

After the storm

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The Virginia creeper that covers my garage wall looked like this on Thursday. Today, after the rain, the stems are bare of leaves.

The complex weather system that’s bringing us our first taste of fall is still blowing through–the sun is shining brightly now, but more rain is forecast for tonight. The rain so far isn’t as much as I had hoped; my rain gauge shows about 1 1/4″. According to today’s NY Times, rainfall in New York City is still 20 percent below normal for the year. Keep watering!

On the positive side, if you were planning on doing some fall planting, this is the time. The soil is moist and the temperatures are supposed to remain cool this week. The weather is perfect for weeding–pleasant temperatures and moist soil. Once things dry out and the wind dies down, be sure collect some leaves. And we may have a freeze Wednesday night, so harvest your remaining tomatoes and other tender crops. The next few days will be great days in the garden.

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Look carefully at the top of the pole and you’ll see an enormous raptor that spend most of Friday afternoon drying its wings in front of my house.