What I missed


In the past three weeks, Penstemon digitalis (white flowers) has attained enormous height and begun to bloom; columbine (Aquilegia canadensis—orange flowers) is still going strong.

I went on vacation in spring and came back to summer. And not only summer, but a summer with abundant rainfall, for the first time in three years. The garden has grown so much we could hardly find the driveway. There’s nothing like a relatively cool, rainy spring.

Penstemon to me is the first of the summer prairie plants. It usually begins to bloom in late May, and from the looks of it, it started early this year. The plants are almost four feet tall; usually they’re no more than three. Canada anemone and grey dogwood are in full bloom; junegrass, milkweeds, and elderberries are about to bloom; arrowwood  and maple leaf viburnums are almost finished. We completely missed the blooming of ninebark and of my single lovely pink peony (it’s one of two nonnative plants, the other being a lilac). There’s a lot of weeding, pinching, and cutting back to be done! I haven’t checked the vegetable garden yet, but I’m sure there’s rhubarb ready for harvesting. I will surely need to weed. And it’s time to plant basil, tomatoes, and other warm-weather crops.


Elderberries (large flat flower clusters) are about to bloom, and fragrant grey dogwood is in full bloom. The somewhat aggressive grey dogwood is slowly crowding out the elderberry in this area.


5/14/17: In the garden this week

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all. This plant will bloom within the next week or 10 days.

These next couple of weeks are the loveliest of the year in the garden, and we will miss it all—we are going on vacation. So I thought that in this post I would look ahead a bit and tell you what to expect in the next two or three weeks. In that time, the garden will switch from spring to summer.

It’s delightful that the drought of the past two years seems to have lifted. Rainfall is slightly above average for the past 30 days and normal for the year to date. As a result, we are enjoying a truly lovely spring. And the relatively cool temperatures mean that all the beauty around is lasts a bit longer than it would if the weather suddenly turned hot. It gives us all a longer spring planting season as well. I like to stop planting when the weather really warms up.

So here are some things you could be doing in your garden over the next few weeks:

water new plantings if the weather turns dry: Rainfall totals are finally normal or even a bit above, at least in the short term. We’ve received approximately an inch and a half of rain this weekend, so no need to water. But always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and check back here weekly for updates: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? You can make a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old plastic container or tin can placed among the plants. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up. Same goes for perennials and grasses. The earlier the better. If you must keep planting once the weather really turns hot, be sure to water copiously.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees should be treated for emerald ash borer. The best time is while they are leafing out, so it’s a bit late. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can then recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, raking the soil smooth, and adding compost or well-rotted manure. Compost can simply be spread on top of the soil; manure should be mixed in, and make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes, squash, basil, and eggplant until the last week in May. Right now the nights are still too cool, and the plants will not grow properly.

—  After cleaning up the perennial garden, continue to plant perennials and to divide and move them as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed. IF the weather turns hot, either stop planting or increase the amount of water you provide.

the cool weather is a great time to reseed bare patches of lawn, but be sure to keep the seeded areas moist until the seed sprouts. It’s too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Wait until Memorial Day, and then use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Or best of all, don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Remember that pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And garden chemicals are not so great for kids or pets either; common herbicides, in addition to killing butterfly host plants like violets, are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— 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.

I hope you’re enjoying this lovely, slow-to-emerge spring as much as I am. It’s very hard to tear myself away from the garden.


Canada anemone, Anemone canadensis, is a lovely ground cover, but it can be a bit of a thug in the garden. Be sure to plant it where you can contain it.

5/29/15: In the garden this week


The highlight of the late-spring shade garden is Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), a plant that spreads a bit too enthusiastically. Also in bloom are columbine, native geranium, and Virginia waterleaf. It looks like the sweet joe pye weed will be as tall as it was last year.

Late spring ushers in lovely blooming shrubs: ninebark, grey dogwood, and, very soon, elderberry. The first summer perennial–in my garden, that means Penstemon digitalis–is just open, and many others are showing buds. All the vegetables are planted. Because it’s been so dry, there’s not much weeding to do. It’s almost summer!

But there are always things to do in the garden:

water new plantings: Water the plot thoroughly before planting, and give all newly installed plants a good soaking as soon as you put them in the ground to settle them in and eliminate air pockets in the soil. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this week and the past three weeks), water all woody plants installed this spring or last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall and 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.

harvest early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes. As greens bolt, or go to seed, pull the plants and plant something else. A row of beans, perhaps?

— If you started warm-season crops indoors, set them out in the garden now. It’s finally time to set out your tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, and cucumbers.

— now that all perennials have emerged, move and divide plants as necessary. This is the best time to divide perennials: root systems are small and easy to handle, and plants recover fastest this time of year. But be sure to water the plot before doing any planting. The soil is very dry.

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area now to kill the grass. Then plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

— 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, be sure to water often, especially now that the weather is hot. Lawn grass is really adapted to a much cooler climate than outs. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. 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!

Enjoy the garden this week!


A detail of that lovely anemone. If you plant it, be sure it has room to spread.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

How about growing this: Grey dogwood


This is what grey dogwood (Cornus sericea) looks like right now in my garden–shrubs covered with bright red stems that held abundant greyish-white fruit less than a week ago. The second the berries ripen, the birds eat them. This is what the shrubs looked like as the fruit was ripening, about a week ago:

Fruits of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

And this is what the fragrant flowers looked like in early June:

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Seriously, why aren’t you growing this gorgeous member of the dogwood genus? Cornus sericea is naturally found in sunny wet places, often in company with arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). If you visit the Celery Farm preserve in Allendale, NJ, you will see the two growing together in the wetland area.Grey dogwood is also plentiful along the stream in the new FairLawn Arboretum. My site is anything but wet (dry, dry, sandy soil), but both these shrubs do extremely well for me along an east-facing brick wall. They seem to do well in every situation from full sun to almost complete shade.

Grey dogwood will grow up to 12′ tall and 3 wide. It spreads quite enthusiastically by means of rhizomes, but it’s easy to keep it shorter and smaller by removing the largest stems each year or so. About every two years, I cut thin out the largest shrubs, either in the winter or just after the fruit ripens and disappears. I also frequently dig out small shrubs in spring and give them away.

In addition to their beautiful flowers and fruit, these plants have the lovely dark-red fall color common to dogwoods. They are well worth growing both for their ornamental value and for their value to wildlife.


Late summer in black and white (and gold)


In the twenty years since I started gardening seriously, I don’t ever remember such a summer for wild fruits–such abundance. The birds can’t manage to eat them all. The branches of the black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa–above) are bent down from the weight of the fruits. Elderberries and grey dogwood berries (next two pictures) actually remain ripe on the bushes instead of being snatched by catbirds and robins and jays at every opportunity. There’s a continual screech of catbirds as they dive-bomb into the elderberry and raspberry bushes.


Fruits of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

And the plums! In the past, each tree has ripened maybe a dozen plums, which were devoured unseen during the night. But this year there are untold numbers of fruits, slowly, teasingly, turning from green to yellow to gold and soon to red and then purple. We may actually get some this year. I’m told they’re very good. (If there are any other devotees of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books out there, you surely remember a scene in which Laura and her Ma pick and preserve wild plums. It’s probably this species she’s describing.)

Plums (Prunus americana) finally ripening

Each year, goldfinches arrive in my garden in late summer. These tiny beams of light rear their nestlings late in the season and depend on the seeds of wild flowers to feed them (and, I suspect, on the multitude of pollinating insects that still swarm over the perennial beds), so we always see them just as the perennial sunflowers begin to open and the Rudbeckias begin to ripen seeds. Right now I can’t walk out the back door without disturbing at least a dozen of them feeding in the perennial garden. They squawk loud in irritation and take off, like flashes of sunlight, for the shelter of the hemlocks across the yard. Look closely among the Rudbeckias:



Summertime (I)

The garden in mid-July.

We’re approaching the height of summer, and the garden is blooming almost aggressively. Tomatoes are ripening–finally–and the weather is hot. (My apologies to the great Ira Gershwin.) The picture above features Rudbeckia subtomentosa, sweet black-eyed Susan, which I really must cut back severely next spring; Vernonia fasciculata, ironweed (purple); and some perennial sunflowers not yet in bloom (Helanthus mollis, downy sunflower). Today I saw goldfinches for the first time this season. These late breeders arrive when the prairie plants are ready to set seed, and they feed the seeds to their babies. They’ll be with us for the rest of the summer, hanging upside down on seedheads and providing great entertainment.

American plums--beginning to ripen.

The fruits on my native plum trees (Prunus americana) are finally ripening–notice the first hints of yellow. They first turn yellow, then red, and finally purple. As with most wild fruits, they ripen one-by-one, and we’ll almost never see a ripe one. The plum crop is heavy this year, but the birds get up earlier than I do.

Grey dogwood berries almost ripe.

Another plant that ripens its fruit one by one is grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa). This shrub is beautiful in all seasons, but I particularly love those red stems that signal to the birds that the fruits are almost ripe. The berries turn white when they’re ready to eat; as with the plums, we almost never see a ripe one.

Unripe pods of swamp milkweed.

Almost hidden among the Rudbeckias are the unripe seedpods of swamp milkweed (Asclepias  incarnata). When the seeds are mature, in another month or so, the pods will dry up and split open, and the seeds will drift away, each attached to a tiny parachute of milkweed down.

Elderberries ready to ripen.

This year also promises to be a bountiful one for elderberries (Sambucus canadensis). Notice that the stems are turning purple–the fruit will ripen soon. This is another favorite of the birds, and there will be great exultation among the catbirds when the fruit are ripe. I can usually manage to pick some of these, however,–perhaps to put in the Aronia jam I hope to make later in the season.

I have not seen any monarchs this year, and this is the time they usually migrate through. I am seeing a great abundance of fireflies, however, and I think of the presence of these delightful insects as a sign of a relatively healthy environment. Do you see lots of fireflies on your property? If you do, good for you. If you don’t, you might want to think about trying to manage your yard in a more sustainable way.

The garden in June

So many plants come into bloom in early June that it’s hard to keep track; here are a few of my favorites, all shot in the past couple of days.

First, a closeup of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa) in bloom. The flower clusters look to me like tiny bridal bouquets, and I think this is the loveliest dogwood of them all. It’s also one of those plants that’s ridiculously easy to grow, as long as you have half a day of sun:

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Next, elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). These large shrubs used to be everywhere in northern New Jersey, especially in wet places (although they do fine in my dry soil). They are happiest in full sun. Now the only nearby place I know of where they grow wild is the Thielke Arboretum here in Glen Rock. I took this picture in my backyard today:

Elderberry (Sambusus canadensis) coming into bloom.

The fluffy white flower heads of junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) are also just opening. I planted this grass for the first time last season, and it is blooming abundantly this year, along with the penstemon:

Flower heads of junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) just opening.

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) finished blooming last week, and now the seed capsules have turned lovely shades of beige, pink, and russet. The best part is that the color will remain through the entire season:


And finally, a bit of serendipity–a colorful grouping of bright-red firepink (Silene virginica), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), and penstemon blooming in a sunny border in my front yard: