Spring food


No, the spicebush isn’t blooming yet, but I can hope and look forward, can’t I? There are barely two months to go before it does bloom. Now that the temperature has risen into the 40s for two days running, with the promise of topping 50 degrees today, I feel that spring is in the air. It isn’t, but I can hope.

For us gardeners, spring is the time of hope. For wild creatures (and for our ancestors who lived off the land), spring was the starving time–the most dangerous time of the year. Just imagine that you are dependent on what the earth can produce in your immediate vicinity for everything you eat. Now imagine that your winter’s cache of food is dwindling fast, but you have no idea when spring will come. And spring will not bring much food, because plants must go through most of the year’s growth cycle before they produce nutritious food. The starving time, indeed. We are lucky enough to no longer experience this, but wild animals certainly do. So I encourage you to consider their needs when you plan your garden.

What do wild creature eat in spring? They’re better at taking advantage of scarce resources than we are. A few seeds remain from last year, and some trees produce their seeds early. Early spring is when most birds have their young, so there must be food for them. Most birds feed nutritious insects to their nestlings. What do insects, particularly flying ones like springtime’s tiny flies and wasps, eat? Mostly pollen and nectar. Early birds don’t rely on worms–they rely on pollinating insects. So if you want to attract birds to your garden, plant early flowering perennials and shrubs. And do not use pesticides. Pesticides kill the insects that birds rely on for food.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin, female flowers shown above) is one of our earliest-flowering native shrubs. The flowers are inconspicuous, but it blooms in early April, and the berries are extremely showy and will attract birds to your garden in late summer. Spicebush is a wetland plant, but it does quite well in my dry, sandy soil. Plant it in part shade, and plant several individuals, because it is dioecious–in other words, individual plants are either male or female, and you need at least one male to get fruit.

Another early-blooming shrub that’s extremely  useful to wildlife is serviceberry (Amelanchier species, sometimes called Juneberry or shadbush). These bloom in mid-April in our area, and there is nothing inconspicuous about them. It’s one of the most gorgeous spring bloomers we have, with delicate sprays of flowers that look like strings of pearls as they unfold. There are 25 or 30 species of Amelanchier, including shrubs and small trees. Choose one that’s the right size for your site.


Also important in early spring are the earliest blooming perennials–the spring ephemerals. These plants complete their entire yearly cycle—they emerge, flower, produce fruit, and go dormant—in early spring before the trees leaf out. Foremost among them are bloodroot (Sanginaria canadensis) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), both shown below in bloom.



Both prefer most soil and shade. Other spring ephemerals are wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), Dutchman’s breeches  (Dicentra cucullaria), native bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), and wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata). There are many, many others, including some that don’t go dormant in summer and therefore work well as ground covers. These include wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis). Choose a shady spot and a few of these plants, add some native ferns or perhaps the lovely variegated native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), and you’ve got a spring blooming garden that will be lovely to you and useful to wildlife.

When choosing plants, don’t forget the real backbone of the spring larder—the canopy trees that produce very early seeds. The most important of these are the birches and maples. These are some of the most important sources of spring food for wildlife in our area. Plant a river birch (Betula lenta) on a moist site or yellow birch (Betula lutea) on a dry one , and you’ll enjoy its beauty for many years to come, while wildlife enjoys its bounty.


The garden in snow

More snow yesterday–snow on top of snow, and the temperature hasn’t risen above 20 degrees for what seems like two weeks. The garden was particularly pretty yesterday afternoon while the snow was still falling.


Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is holding its seedheads high above the snow for the birds to take advantage of. Although most of the most nutritious seeds (such as sunflower) and berries (such as dogwood) are long gone, plenty of winter food remains for the birds we see everyday.


Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) should be called pinkberry. The berries remain bright pink all winter. So please, please consider this small, carefree native shrub instead of the invasive beautyberry.


If your garden isn’t feeding the birds all winter, check back soon for a list of plants you might consider for winter food.

A mast year


We’re having a mast year here in Bergen County, New Jersey, and, I suspect, in the wider area as well. “Mast” comes from a German word that means “forest food,” and a mast year, a phenomenon that happens every few years, is a year in which nut-bearing trees (in our area, oaks, hickories, and beeches) produce unusually large numbers of nuts. Notice it the next time you’re out walking–in some place there are so many fallen acorns that they blanket the ground entirely.


Masting results from chemical signalling among all the trees in the area (yes, plants send out chemical signals, both through the air and through their roots). It happens because, in most years, animals eat all the acorns and other nuts, so none remain to reproduce the trees. So every few years, the trees act together to produce such a large crop of nuts that the animals can’t possibly eat them all. Consequently, some will remain to germinate next spring. Next season, look for lots of seedling oak trees and a larger-than-normal chipmunk population. Isn’t nature wonderful?

Thanks to everyone who turned out for the Arboretum walk yesterday. It was a gorgeous day.


Six jars of jam


Last week, I produced 4 jars–count them 4 whole jars–of pectin-free jam from my elderberries and aronia berries plus some prune plums bought at the market (4 pounds of fruit made 4 small jars of jam). It’s quite delicious, tart and sort of wild tasting. Aronia is very astringent and doesn’t taste quite like other fruits we’re used to eating.

Then, over the past week, as the plums on my American plum trees ripened, I picked a bowlful every other day until I had about four pounds of fruit. I stewed half of it with honey and a cinnamon stick and a little bit of water and put it in the fridge to eat with yogurt and granola. The other half I macerated with sugar last night, and tonight I made 2 more little jars of jam (for a total of six). Right now, it’s cooling down after being sterilized in a boiling water bath.






Did you ever see anything such a gorgeous color as those plums? They’re orange-red on the outside with a lovely whitish bloom, and the flesh is apricot color.

OK, enough about my fruit/jam obsession. Please forgive me–I grew up in a small apartment in Queens, and I never made jam before last year.

Wait ’til next year

The weather is still remarkably cool, and it’s starting to look like fall. The plants are getting ready–the hazelnuts have formed small catkins (the male flowers that will bloom in very early spring), and perennials that have basal leaves throughout the winter have formed them. We can’t go outside without disturbing the goldfinches among the sunflowers and the catbirds among the pokeberries and raspberries (they’ve finished off the grey dogwood and elderberries). Berries of spicebush and flowering dogwood will show color soon.

It’s time to think about next year. Whatever the season, gardeners always focus on how the garden can be better, but starting now and extending through the winter, it’s all about next year. How can I improve my tomato harvest?  grow cucumbers despite wilt? cut back those rampant Rudbeckias so the shorter plants can thrive? get rid of the bare spot on the lawn without using chemicals? make my garden m ore sustainable? It’s time to list this year’s successes and failures while they’re still fresh in my mind, do some research, make some plans, and then, wait ’til next year.

What’s on your list for next year?

More plums



What is there to say? I’ve never seen such a color–what a shame it will change to purple. I don’t know what combination of rainfall and temperature and heaven knows what else led to this abundance and beauty. I only wish it would last. Or come back next year. But I can’t count on it. With a garden, you never know.

Early harvest


I’m just a little bit obsessed with fruit. I selected many of the shrubs I grow because they produce fruit, not necessarily for us but for the birds and other critters. Today we noticed that the birds were going crazy among the ripe Aronia berries. A friend picked about half my berries for jam about a week ago, and I was going to get around to picking some for my own jam–sometime soon. Except that if I hadn’t gathered them today, there would have been none left. The catbirds and robins had devoured at least half of what was left, so I shooed them away and picked almost two pounds of berries. And those birds know how to pick ripe fruit–the berries were soft and juicy, not hard like Aronia berries usually are.

The photo shows the Aronia berries (right) before I picked them over and washed them, plus some elderberries (bottom) that I picked and cleaned a few days ago and stored in the fridge, and some prune plums I bought in the market. The plums on my American plum trees are turning red, but they’re not ripe yet. All this fruit is macerating with sugar in the refrigerator, and I’ll make jam tomorrow using a formula for pectin-free jam I found online.

All summer I’d been planning a purple-fruit jam made entirely of my own wild fruits–Aronia berries, elderberries, and plums–but the plums did not oblige. However, the hazelnuts (Corylus americanus) seem to have ripened today along with the Aronia berries. A few days ago I checked them, hoping to get just a few before the squirrels devoured them all, as they do every year; they were still tight and green inside their husks. Today the ground under the shrubs was littered with husks and shells.


I searched long and hard for some nuts left on one of the trees. I managed to find a single remaining nut and took a rather poor photo of it, so at least you can see what it looks like if you’ve never seen a hazelnut on a tree.


It still looks green, doesn’t it? It sure fooled me, but not the squirrels.