6/16/17: In the garden this week

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Penstemon digitalis (the white flowers) is an early-summer stalwart of the prairie garden. It self-seeds all the time, and some of the seedlings have dark-red stems or leaves or flowers with lavender throats. But note the purple-flowered plant in the foreground. This is one to divide and carefully maintain!

We had our first bout of really hot weather this week, following a prolonged dry spell, and parts of my garden, particularly beds that have lost their shade covering due to fallen trees, needed emergency watering. It’s important to remain vigilant, especially during hot, dry weather.

Established prairie plants had no trouble during the heat wave and should not need any supplemental water unless the drought is very prolonged. As you can see in the photo above, many are about to bloom: orange butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, Culver’s root, mountain mint, and Monarda are all showing swelling buds. In the sunniest parts of the garden, they’re already in bloom. Sundrops are in full bloom, and coreopsis would be, except this year the rabbits and woodchucks and deer have eaten every plant down to the ground. Coreopsis, asters, and boltonia will most likely not manage to bloom this year because of the repeated chewing. But after one really cold winter, they will be back in full force. I hope we’ll get a cold winter sometime soon.

Here are some garden chores you might be doing this week:

water new plantings: We’ve received no rain this week, and today’s light sprinkles don’t amount to much. Always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and 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.

—- Addendum 6/17: over an inch of rain fell last night and this afternoon. No watering needed for now!—-

— all vegetables, including tender crops like tomatoes and peppers and corn, should be planted out by now, and it will soon be time to remove early greens like lettuce and spinach. Water deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread.

— be sure to properly tie, stake and prune your tomato plants. Tomato cages are pretty useless: the plants outgrow them before they start to bear fruit. And unless tomato plants are properly pruned, by pinching out the suckers, they will be so bushy that they’ll be especially susceptible to fungus infections like verticilium wilt.

—  It’s a bit late to clean up the perennial garden or to divide and replant. Once the weather turns hot, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming. I would no longer move or divide plants, but if you continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water.

it’s too late to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Here’s a suggestion: don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Or wait until around Labor Day and use one application of a slow-release organic fertilizer. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. 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.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Orange butterflyweed in full sun is already in bloom. The small blue flowers are Campanula rotundifolia. As the milkweed plants crowded them out, the Campanula responded by increasing in height. Usually they’re less than a foot tall.

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Spigelia marilandica, Indian pink, was an impulse buy and an experiment last year, but it did great. Probably the mild winter had some good effects. The scarlet buds are about to open and reveal their bright yellow throats.

 

10/7/16: In the garden this week

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Is your garden still full of pollinators throughout October? If not, consider planting some late-blooming natives, such as asters, goldenrod, and boltonia. This garden feeds wildlife year-round.

Despite the depradations of hurricane Matthew (a mere thousand miles away), our weather continues warm and sunny. No storm in sight, no hint of frost, and most likely not a good year for fall color–you need both cold nights and sunny days for that. And still not enough rain.

Despite the lingering warmth, winter will surely come, and after winter will come another spring. Gardeners are all very sure of that. Here are some things you can do in your garden now to ensure a lovely spring next year:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, like this week, water all woody 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. Sunday and Wednesday are my watering days, and Igave my new trees and shrubs a good soaking.

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.

— 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.

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 there as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of nodding joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe when the birds start to eat them. I grow two species, and one is ripe but the other is not yet.

— 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.

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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Milkweed seeds continue to ripen throughout the autumn. This is orange butterflyweed (A. tuberosa).

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And where there are milkweed pods, there are milkweed bugs. They don’t harm the plants but they do cut down on seed production to some extent.

Milkweed bugs

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Milkweed bugs (actually, nymphs of various stages) feeding on milkweed pods.

If you grow milkweed (Asclepias species), you will also grow milkweed aphids, milkweed bugs, milkweed beetles, and, if you’re lucky, monarch butterflies. The past few years I’ve been much more likely to see the aphids and the bugs than the butterflies, but they’re all good.

All milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides, poisonous chemicals that are deadly to most creatures. All the insects that feed on milkweeds are able to do so without being poisoned because they can digest these deadly substances. Evolution is a game of one-upmanship. Asclepias plants evolve a poison that insects can’t eat, so insects evolve a way to metabolize that poison. Those protected insects benefit: they themselves become poisonous to predators. They flaunt this advantage with bright red or orange colors so their prey recognizes their defense mechanism and leaves them alone.Then other insects evolve similar coloration, but without the defense mechanism–they’re free-loading on evolution. It’s all really, really cool.

Reliably in late summer or early fall, some of the many milkweed plants in my garden are infested with milkweed aphids and bugs. The adult bugs are a little less than an inch long and very handsome. Here’s a picture:

Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus

Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus (R. Bessin, 2001)

Typically you see the adults mating on the milkweed pods, and about three weeks later you see a scene like the one at the top of this post: lots and lots of nymphs all over the pods. They have piercing mouth parts, which they use to feed on the seeds within the pods. They destroy the pods they feed on, meaning that perhaps 10 percent of the seed in my garden is lost. There’s still plenty to collect, and the bugs don’t harm the plants in the slightest. And they’re so very, very cool looking!

6/26/15: In the garden this week

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Hoary verbain (Verbena stricta) has been in my garden for three years now, and I enjoy it more and more.

Some parts of our area got hit by thunderstorms this week, but all the rain passed us by, so the soil is pretty dry once again. I’m hoping for rain this weekend and early next week to refresh my new plantings. Established perennials and shrubs are doing fine, however. Milkweed, bergamot, and coreopsis are in full bloom; rudbeckia is showing buds. Native grasses are lush and full.
There’s really not much to do in the garden in midsummer except enjoy the results of your springtime labor. Attention turns primarily to the vegetable garden:
finish harvesting 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?

water new plantings: Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, 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.

— 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 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. It’s too late now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. 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!

Most of all this week, take time to enjoy the garden.

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Another new plant in my garden, but I’m not so sure about this one: I looked for Monarda didyma, red bergamot, for years, and finally settled for this cultivar, ‘Jacob Kline.” The color is great, but the flowers are not entirely satisfactory.

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Spending time in the garden makes us all happy.

First monarch

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This monarch spent much of the morning checking out the milkweed plants in my garden and finally settled on this clump of orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). The white flowers are daisy fleabane (Erigoren), a native annual.

We used to see a lot of monarchs in our garden: in July, they’d come to lay eggs on the milkweed, and in September members of the next generation would stop to nectar on the asters and liatris as they migrated south. On a warm, still autumn day, we might see a dozen on a single plant. But in recent years their numbers have dwindled. I’ve seen perhaps one in the past two years.

This morning the monarch you see here spent at least an hour in the backyard looking for milkweed–both A. tuberosa and A. incarnata are in bloom. When monarchs look for milkweed, they hover over or barely touch each plant. If it’s not milkweed, they move on immediately; if it is, they seem to check it out carefully. lighting on different parts of the plant, sometimes nectaring if it’s in bloom. I think this individual finally decided to lay eggs. Take a look at the photo below: she curves her body beneath the plant as many butterflies do when they deposit eggs, although I’ve never seen a monarch do this in a flower cluster before. Usually they choose a leaf. But you can bet I’ll be checking this plant for pupae.

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Three square feet

If you have a sunny spot, you can have a beautiful, sustainable, environmentally friendly garden in just three square feet of space. How? Plant one milkweed,

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Red or swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, blooms in June and July, grows about 4 feet tall, and is not fussy about soil. Other choices include orange butterflyweed (A. tuberosa, shorter and fond of dry soil), or common milkweed (A. syriaca, pale pink flowers, not fussy about soil). Avoid tropical milkweed, A. curvassicava, which is not native.

one aster,

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New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) begins blooming in August and doesn’t stop until hard frost. There are hundreds of Aster species for sunny sites. In addition to providing late season color, all are pollinator magnets and host plants for many species of native insects.

and one native grass.

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Little bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium, 2-3 feet tall) is beautiful in all seasons and provides abundant seeds for birds in autumn. Grasses are host plants for the many species of butterflies in the skipper family. Little bluestem prefers poor soil; if your soil is richer, try prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis, also 2-3 feet). Most native grasses bloom in late summer.

You will have flowers from late May through October, food for multitudes of insects, and host plants for many types of butterflies. And as an added bonus, deer and rabbits don’t eat milkweed or most native grasses.

A glimmer of hope for monarchs?

The New York Times reported last week that monarch populations in Mexico increased this year over last (which had the lowest count on record). In several previous posts I’ve described the monarch’s complicated life cycle and intricate relationship with milkweed. The Times article succinctly states the several causes of the species’s recent and precipitous population decline:

The orange-and-black butterflies are suffering from loss of milkweed habitat in the United States, illegal logging in Mexico and climate change.

So maybe there’s some hope. If you would like to help by planting milkweed this year, you might want to start with plants, not seeds, because milkweeds take three years to bloom from seed. And do not plant tropical (annual) milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which is not native to this region and screws up the butterflies’ life cycle by blooming at the wrong time. Instead, buy plants of one or more of these easy-to-grow and very beautiful native species:

Red or swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata): 3-5′ tall, pink flowers June-august, full sun, not fussy about soil

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

The rosy-pink flowers of red or swamp milkweed, the tallest of the natives.

Common milkweed (A. syriaca): up to 4′ tall, lavender flowers June-August, full sun, not fussy about soil

Common milkweed. Image copyright UMass Extension.

Orange butterflyweed (A. tuberosa): 2-3′ tall, orange flowers June-August, full sun, prefers dry soil

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Orange butterflyweed, the lowest growing of our native milkweeds, prefers a dry, sunny site.