Sun vs. shade

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Blossoms on a dogwood tree (Cornus florida) growing in full sun because of the death of a large canopy tree that used to shade it.

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A tree of the same species, on the same day. This tree is still shaded by another tall canopy tree.

Flowering dogwood is a very beautiful native tree that’s often used as a specimen, typically planted out on a front lawn in full sun. But this is never how the tree grows in nature, where it is always found growing under various species of oak trees. The only time dogwoods want full sun is in early spring, before those oaks leaf out.

The two dogwoods shown above are both growing on our front lawn. When I planted them, both were in shade, but since we lost two large trees last spring due to drought and decrepitude, the first one is now in full sun. The small oak we planted to shade it won’t be big enough to serve that function for several years. The tree in sun now blooms and leafs out considerably earlier than its relative only thirty feet away. It will experience a great deal more stress from heat and drought and will probably need supplemental watering. It is more likely to show the effects of anthracnose or other diseases. A native tree that’s adapted to a sunny site, such as a serviceberry, would do better in this spot.

Trees react to their environment in many ways. Pay attention to the total environment when you plant!

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Early spring

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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!

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

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

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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.

1/27/17: In the garden this week

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Winter is a great time to look for backyard birds. A tree with a dead limb, like this one, supplies ample food and shelter.

Do you see lots of birds year-round and pollinators (bees, butterflies) in summer in your garden? If not, this is a great time to plan some new plantings that will attract these valuable creatures. Order plants now–by spring, many of the best growers are sold out of their most popular plants. And while you’re thinking about the garden, consider these tasks as well:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, and the ground is not frozen, water all plants installed this spring or fall. We have received at least an inch of rain per week for the past two weeks, so no need to water right now, but check back here frequently for updates. 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. This past week we received just over 1 inch of rain.

— are your shrubs overgrown and in need of size reduction? it’s time to work on winter pruning of woody plants. Now, while plants are dormant, is the best time to do this: it’s easy to see the structure of the plant while the leaves are down, and the plant is most likely to react favorably while it’s resting. Contact me for coaching if you would like to learn to do this yourself, or for an estimate if you would like me to do it for you.

— if you haven’t already done so, 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. But don’t clean up the perennial garden. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter.

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Little bluestem is a natural bird feeder that supplies seed all winter long.

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. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. Mixed-species foraging flocks visit daily to take advantage of the bounty; lately I’ve seen nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets.

— plan for next season: Do it now, because later this winter everything might be covered in snow. 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? Plan to plant native perennials and shrubs on spring. And place your orders early, because native plant nurseries run out of the most popular species.

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 the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and find about the activities of our Bergen-Passaic chapter, or join your local garden club.

Enjoy the garden this week and always, and look forward to spring!

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Few plant rival the beauty of our native flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, in bloom.

 

10/21/16: In the garden this week

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Orange Aronia, yellow spicebush and coralberry, and dark red flowering dogwood show their colors in my front yard.

It’s been so warm that autumn is much delayed this year. Ash trees, which usually turn golden and drop their leaves in late September, are only showing full color now. As I look out my window, I see deep yellow ash leaves dropping one at a time, as if deliberately, in the light misty rain.

Delayed or not, autumn is finally here, which means it’s time to prepare for winter–and for spring. Here are some things you could do:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or last fall. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall or 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. When the rains ends on Saturday, I’ll check my rain guauge and decide whether to water my new trees on Sunday. And because the ground is so very dry, water well before doing any fall planting.

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). Pick fall crops of cool-weather plants like lettuce, spinach, and peas. First frost could happen at any time, although our current forecast doesn’t seem to indicate it.

— 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.

— 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. 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 ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe when the birds start to eat them. 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.

— 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. Other lawn care tips: 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. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

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

Enjoy the garden this week and always!

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Little bluestem is gorgeous when its seedheads glow in the autumn sunshine.

 

Spring buds

On this cold, dark day, I thought you’d enjoy seeing some pictures of spring buds that my husband took last Friday. You can see all the potential for this season’s growth encapsulated in these early buds. Notice particularly how the plants that bloom early produce fully formed flower buds along with the first tiny leaves.

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Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius, blooms in mid-May. Flower buds are not apparent yet, but aren’t the new leaves lovely!

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Cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) will bloom by late April. Notice the flower buds held proudly above the new pairs of leaves.

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Robert Frost was wrong: Nature’s first green is more often red than gold. Notice how the new leaves and flower buds of black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) emerge from the dark-red buds.

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Nothing is more exquisite than the flowering bracts of our lovely native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) as they slowly enlarge and turn creamy white.

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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) lights up the woods in early spring with its tiny green-gold flowers.

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Our native plum tree (Prunus americana) rivals any Japanese flowering plum tree for the beauty of its flowers–and it produces plums! I wish I could recommend this tree to more clients. Unfortunately it suckers prolifically so it’s hard to use in any but the most informal designs. (Full disclosure: this photo was taken on April 21, 2014. The buds looks just like this today. We are having a very early spring!)

Autumn unfolds

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The edge of my mini-woodland is filled in with bountiful flowers of volunteer goldenrod (species unknown) and white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum). A month ago, this shady area was dominated by great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), which has now gone quietly to seed (as has the sweet joe pye weed on the right). There’s still plenty of food for pollinators and birds.

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Look closely at this flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and you’ll see lots and lots of bright-red fruit. These trees are growing in part shade, which is their preferred siting. A dogwood tree placed in full sun would be severely drought stressed now, after more than a month of low rainfall. In nature, these shallow-rooted trees always grow under the shade of canopy trees, often at the woodland edge. Dogwood berries are especially nutritious, and birds never leave them on the trees or shrubs for long. Migrating birds will stop to eat these berries within the next few days. And speaking of berries . . .

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. . . back in July I showed you a picture of these cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) berries just as they were showing color. Compare that with the way they look now–ripe and juicy (edible to humans but very acidic). Usually birds don’t eat these berries until well into the winter, kind of as a last resort. This year they seem to be disappearing early, despite the abundance of other fruit. Maybe the cool nights have ripened them early.

I love to try to figure out the interactions of plants and animals in my garden and to watch autumn unfold.