12/22/17: In the garden next year

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Is your garden still full of food for wildlife? If not, consider how you can become a better provider next season.

At this time of year, when we are about to be deluged by garden catalogs, it’s time to take stock of this year’s garden and do some serious planning for next season. What do you want your garden to be, and what steps can you take to move it in that direction? (One of the best things about being a serious gardener, I think, is that a garden is never, ever finished.)

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in gardening more sustainably, in adding native plants, and in attracting wildlife. So based on those goals, here are some things to consider as you plan for next year:

Are there lots of insects in your garden? Insects are the basis of the animal food chain: lots of insects means lots of birds; lots of pollinating insects means lots of seeds and fruit. The garden should look alive with insects, especially on a warm, sunny day. If it doesn’t look like that, here’s what you can do:

— stop using pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Pesticides kill all insects, bumblebees, ladybugs, and butterflies as well mosquitoes and Japanese beetle larvae. Fungicides kill the most important decomposers in the garden, and herbicides have been shown to be harmful to animals as well as plants. The vast majority of insects are beneficial. There are much less harmful ways to address the very few that aren’t than blasting them with chemicals.

— plant native species instead of alien and hybridized plants. Sure, natives are beautiful and easy to grow, but the real reason for planting them is that they are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Everyone knows about monarchs and milkweed: monarch caterpillars can eat only milkweed. But many, many insects are that specific: skippers need native grasses, fritillaries need violets, spicebush swallowtails need spicebush (no surprise there). The list goes on and one. The best way to ensure a natural, sustainable ecosystem is to plant a wide variety of native plants.

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New England aster flowers supply plentiful late-season pollen, and the plant itself is the host for dozens of species of native insects.

Is the garden lively in all seasons? We tend to be outdoors only in the warm months, but birds and other wild creatures are outside all year, and they need food and shelter. And I’m not referring to bird feeders. Even without them, my garden is full of birds all year round, and we see more birds in winter than in summer. Here’s how to ensure a plentiful supply of food for wild creatures throughout the year:

— plant for all seasons: with planning, you can supply fruit and seed throughout the year and flowers from late March through October or November. Early-fruiting native trees like birches are important food sources for birds and small mammals; trees and shrubs that hold their fruits through the winter, like hollies and some crab apples, fill in the other end of the year. Many birds search for insects in tree bark throughout the winter, not just in the warm months. A row of evergreens supplies shelter from winter storms.

— clean up the garden in spring, not in fall. Standing grasses and perennials supply both food and shelter throughout the winter; if you concentrate on planting pure species rather than cultivars or hybrids, your plants will produce seed for you as well as for wildlife.

— leave the leaves. Ground-feeding birds will energetically sift through the leaf litter beneath my plants all winter. Why? Because many insects overwinter in the leaf litter. If you keep your leaves and use them as mulch, you will see more birds throughout the winter and more butterflies and moths next season.

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If you don’t clean up the garden until spring, native grasses and perennials will supply food and cover to birds and other creatures through the winter.

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11/17/17: In the garden this week

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Ripe holly berries are a favorite winter food of squirrels, jays, and cardinals.

Seasonally cold weather is finally here, and along with it, almost-adequate precipitation (just under an inch this week, and annual totals back up to normal). Most fall color has faded, and the leaves are finally coming down. But there’s still plenty to do in the garden:

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. You can find complete directions here.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week; we received a scant inch of rain over two different rainfalls. But be vigilant: Until the ground freezes, 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.

clean up the vegetable garden thoroughly: remove all spent plant material (we finally had a killing frost this week). Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

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. Most seeds are ripe, so collect before the birds eat them all. But leave some for the birds that remain through the winter. Seeds of native plants need a cold period before they can germinate, so store them in an unheated garage or shed, or scatter them where you want the plants to grow in spring.

— 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 seedheads–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 natives in the spring. Try this experiment: plant an aster or liatris near your butterfly bush next spring. When the plants are in bloom, watch the butterflies ignore the butterfly bush in favor of the native plants.

— 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 late to fertilize now, and because the weather has turned cold, it’s too late to seed as well. 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.

— 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! And Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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Consider joining a CSA next year, and you too might be the proud owner of a beautiful collection of squashed like this one.

 

10/6/17: In the garden this week

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New England asters began blooming late this year (because the deer and rabbits ate them down to the ground repeatedly all season), but they’ll continue through October.

I don’t know about you, but I could have done without the return of summer temperatures. A little more precipitation would be nice as well (last night rainfall was less than a quarter inch). In other words, wouldn’t it be nice to have fall, with crisp days, chilly nights, and lots of colorful leaves?

Although warm, dry weather is not good for fall planting, there are still lots of things you can do in the garden:

water new plantings this week: there’s been almost no precipitation for the past 4 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; last Sunday I’ll even watered 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).

— 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.

continue to plant cool-weather crops such as lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, and peas for fall harvest. I’m betting on a warm fall, which means an extended season.

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 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. 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 think good thoughts about rain, followed by crisp, colorful autumn leaves.

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White snakeroot, a native plant that volunteers in gardens and along roadsides. Sometimes I think it’s a bit too enthusiastic, but the pollinators love it.

 

9/27/13: In the garden this week

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

OK–I’m cheating. This photo was taken in the Thielke Arboretum here in Glen Rock, not in my garden. My site is much too dry for most ferns and for red maple.

The lovely cool weather continues, and rainfall amounts have been normal over the past month and year. I heard on NPR today that the season has been absolutely perfect for apples and that New York State will have its best apple harvest ever. So put apple picking and pie baking on your list of things to do this fall.

I am going on vacation soon, so this will be my last weekly update for a while. Here’s a list of tasks you might consider over the next few weeks:

– keep the grass long (3″ or more) to reduce mowing times. Mow with a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the lawn, where they will serve as natural fertilizer. There is no need to water unless you are also reseeding. Remember that the lawn will be in active growth as long as the temperature is above about 40 degress F.

– fall is the time to renew your lawn. If you fertilize your lawn (although this is not something I recommend), this is a good time to do it, using a slow-release organic product. If patches need reseeding, buy seed, sow it, and keep the newly sown patches damp. The weather is perfect. If you have places where grass won’t grow, consider planting something else there next spring!

– as perennials finish blooming, leave the dead flowers on the plants. Collect seeds as they ripen; let most remain to feed the birds during the winter. For most perennials, I will not remove any growth until early next spring.

– think about next year’s perennial garden: what needs to be cut back, moved, divided, replanted? The same goes for the vegetable garden: what did well or poorly? what pests or diseases appeared this season? what would you like to have more of?

– pick cool-weather crops such as greens and peas that you planted in late summer. Allow winter squash to ripen after harvesting.

— Pull up and discard (do not compost) warm-weather plants such as cucumbers, squash, beans, and tomatoes that are attacked by insects or disease. Start cleaning up the vegetable garden: remove warm-weather plants as they stop producing.

– Take advantage of the relatively cool weather to do garden chores: carry out remedial or cosmetic pruning as needed.