12/8/17: In the garden this week

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) is one of the few bright spots of color remaining in the garden. The best part is that this tough, low-growing shrub will look like this almost all winter. And yes, that’s a blanket of leaves serving as mulch under the shrubbery.

Winter is finally settling in–snow tomorrow, and cold temperatures for most of next week. I always hope for a really cold winter, what I think of as a real winter. Cold weather will kill or slow the spread of harmful insects and control the population of out-of control herbivores like deer and rabbits. The garden will look much better next season if we have a cold winter.

Cold or not, there are always garden chores to address:

— start pruning your shrubs. Winter is the time to do this. We used to recommend that you start around the end of December and stop by the beginning of February, to ensure complete dormancy, but as the climate warms, it’s best to snatch at any period of cold weather. Why prune during cold weather? Most important, because the plants will recover best when they don’t have to expend energy on other important tasks. Also because fungi and other disease-causing organisms are less likely to be spread in the cold.

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 (see the photo above), 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. And of course you can’t water if the temperature is at or near freezing. 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. 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 states 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.

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Native asters are butterfly magnets. Butterflies will fly right past a nonnative butterfly bush to nectar on a native aster. This Delaware skipper is enjoying a New England aster.

— 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. I bet those dead annuals look pretty terrible now. Plan to replace them with native perennials next year.

The garden catalogs are starting to arrive! Here’s to next year.

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A few aster seeds remain–this is a shade aster planted so long ago I don’t remember which species it is. A diverse native plant garden will feed the birds all 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.

 

10/20/17: 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.

 

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.

 

3/10/17: In the garden this week

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Right now it looks like this outside . . .

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But yesterday it looked like this. And tomorrow?

Yesterday shorts, today snow boots. The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not spring yet–no matter what the weather on any particular day, it’s too soon to remove last year’s growth or plant new perennials. And it’s too late to prune. So what can you do?

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. It’s snowing today, so no need to water right now, but in general precipitation has been below normal for the past 30 days. 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 each week.

— start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here.

— Don’t clean up the perennial garden yet. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter.

but do 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 in 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; through the winter I saw nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets. And robins are back!

— plan for the coming season: 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.

–and speaking of planning this season’s garden, if you live in Glen Rock, you can order a preplanned butterfly garden designed by me for the GR Environmental Commission

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.

— If you live in Bergen County, take the Parks Survey.  It only takes a few minutes, and it allows you to say what you would like to happen to our precious remaining open space.

— Support a local farmer by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) this season. CSAs allow you to support small-scale, sustainable agriculture and help limit the environmental effects of factory farming. You’ll also find that the produce tastes much, much better than what you buy in the supermarket. For the past 5 years or more, we have joined Hesperides Organica, a family-run farm located in Hawthorne, NY. They deliver weekly to various locations in Bergen County.

Maybe we need a reminder that it’s still winter out there! Enjoy the garden this week!

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Spring always comes, and with it the lovely blooms of spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

 

 

1/20/17: Beyond the garden this week

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American beech trees, especially young ones, retain their leaves in winter. Ever wonder why? An how will climate change affect our forests?

Yes, it’s a good time to prune woody plants, especially if the weather turns cold once more (but avoid pruning when the wood is damp–it spreads fungus disease). And it’s a great time to be planning this season’s garden and refining your wish lists, especially as the catalogs start to arrive. And be sure to check your garden for bird activity, which is a good indicator of the amount of food you’ve made available (and I don’t mean feeders). But I’m also feeling like I need to move beyond my own backyard environment and try to effect some change in the wider world. If you’re perhaps feeling the same way, here are some suggestions:

— If you live in Bergen County, take the Parks Survey.  It only takes a few minutes, and it allows you to say what you would like to happen to our precious remaining open space. While you’re on the CUES page, take a look at the list of public meetings and attend one if possible.

— Check out the People’s Climate Movement, which is gearing up for massive demonstrations in the spring. In the meantime, attend a 100 Hours of Resistance Vigil or meeting this weekend. Check out events near you, and find out more about the climate movement, here.

— Support a national environmental group: you know who they are. Pay your dues, make additional donations, sign petitions, make phone calls. Let the people who represent you know that you care about the environment.

— Take a long walk or hike. It will make you feel better if you’re stressed, reconnect you with nature, and remind you that this beautiful world needs your help and support. Find a hike near you on the website of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference or at NJHiking.com.

— Support a local farmer by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) this season. CSAs allow you to support small-scale, sustainable agriculture and help limit the environmental effects of factory farming. You’ll also find that the produce tastes much, much better than what you buy in the supermarket. For the past 5 years or more, we have joined Hesperides Organica, a family-run farm located in Hawthorne, NY. They deliver weekly to various locations in Bergen County.

Have a wonderful, peaceful, and environmentally friendly weekend.

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If the winter remains warm, we may see tiny hazelnut blooms early, perhaps a month from now.

12/9/16: In the garden this week

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The garden is waiting for spring: male catkins of native hazelnut (Corylus americana) are fully formed, ready to release their pollen in early spring.

If you’re like most people, you’re too busy this time of year to do many gardening chores. Lucky it’s a quiet time: leaves are finally gathered, garden cleanup is complete (or should be), it’s too late to work on the lawn and too early to prune. But there are always things you can do in the garden:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this past week), 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. This past week we received only about 3/4 inch of rain.

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.

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 them both. Seeds of all prairie perennials 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. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed. Mixed-species foraging flocks have formed to take advantage of the bounty.

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.

— 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.

work to protect the environment. Most Americans want clean air and water, are concerned about climate change, and want the government to work to mitigate it. When something happens in opposition to your basic environmental values, speak out. Write to your elected representatives, donate to an environmental organization, volunteer, march–there are many ways to make your voice heard.

In the rush of holiday preparation, take time to enjoy the garden!

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Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) holds its berries until frost makes them more palatable to birds.