Spring cleaning

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One of my perennial borders in July. It looks very different now, as you’ll see below.

Gardens made up of native perennials and grasses are relatively easy to care for–no fertilizing and very little watering, if any–but they’re not maintenance free. The most important annual chore is spring cleaning: removal of last year’s dead growth to make way for the new. Remember that all these plants are perennials: in winter and spring the top growth is dead, but the roots are very much alive.

There are many reasons to clean up the garden in spring rather than in fall: first, it’s much easier, because the stalks are dry and easy to break off. In fall you would have to cut them. But ecologically it’s a very good idea to leave the dead material all winter: the remaining seed feeds the birds; the stalks provide shelter to many insects; the plant litter on the ground feeds and shelters ground-feeding birds; and all the material helps prevent groundwater runoff and erosion caused by winter storms.

This is what the same garden looked like a few days ago:

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A mess! Last year’s dead material was weighted down by snow and much of it has toppled over, although the toughest stalks remain upright. Some of the green you see is new growth; some is weeds.

Cleanup desperately needed! It’s a good idea to wait until you see lots of new growth, and that time is now.

The first step in cleanup is removing those tough, tall stalks and stems. Place a tarp on the ground to receive the detritus (whether you plan to compost it yourself or take it to a recycling facility, the tarp will facilitate removal and cleanup). Then grab the stalks by the handful and break them off near the base. Don’t pull–you might yank plants right out of the ground. Make a quick snapping motion with your wrist; if necessary, break the stalks in half in the same way (some of the plants in this garden are 8 feet tall). You’ll wind up with something that looks like this: a pile of detritus and lots of visible plants.

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With the stalks broken off, the new growth appears. The section you see here is about a third of this 30-foot long border.

At this point, you can see what’s growing. This includes both desirable and undesirable plants. This particular border always contains numerous “volunteers”–things I didn’t plant. The first category of volunteers is native undergrowth like violets, cinquefoil, and sedges. I leave these alone. The second is particularly noxious and fast-spreading weeds like garlic mustard and hairy or western bittercress. These mustards go to seed early, so I pull them the minute I see them. The third category is weeds that require digging–in this garden, wild garlic and ragwort.  I make a note of those and plan to come back later. Finally, there’s woody growth–small tree seedlings and stray offshoots of nearby shrubs. I’ll pull or cut those in a final pass through the garden.

The next step is to gently rake off the remaining material. Gently is the key word here. I use a large leaf rake and pull it through the material on the ground with quick, short, gentle strokes. I want to remove most of the leaf litter but leave the tender new growth. It’s not important to get rid of every dead leaf and bit of stalk. When you’ve done with this step, the garden looks like this:

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Remember what this garden will look like in July? Because my neighbor’s fence sits right on the property line, I won’t be able to get into this garden after the plants really start growing. So I have to do all the weeding, planting, and dividing now.

After removing weeds, I can divide plants, give plants away, and, most fun of all, add new ones. And watch the garden turn into a thing of beauty once more.

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10/28/16: In the garden this week

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Got your leaves yet? Recycle your leaves on your property: they are better than any lawn fertilizer or mulch you can buy. And if you want to make compost, you need lots of leaves!

Finally fall! Crisp temperatures, brisk winds, even a hint of frost last Tuesday night. And rain—over an inch of rain yesterday and last night! This is horticulture in heaven.

Fall is late, or maybe it’s just a new normal. My large white ash tree just lost its leave this week; reference books say that this species drops its leaves in late September. Many people were still harvesting tomatoes until this week. Sugar maples are only showing peak color now, and asters are still blooming. Holly berries are finally turning red.

I hope you enjoy the autumn as much as I do, and while you’re outside taking it all in, here are some garden chores you could be doing:

Leave the Leaves this year: Don’t blow your leaves out to the curb; recycle them on your property. Fallen leaves and grass clippings represent the fertility of your soil, so why give them away? Use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.

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

clean up the garden carefully now that warm-season crops are finally winding down: Remove the spent plants and compost healthy ones. Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

— fall is the best time to 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 in the mulch 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. I collected the first aster seeds this week. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe: you can tell when the birds start to eat them. 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.

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.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: it’s too late to fertilize or reseed. If you did reseed this year, keep the seeded area moist until the grass is germinated. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. As the leaves fall, mow them, don’t rake or blow them. Your mower will chop them into small pieces that will quickly disintegrate, returning valuable nutrients to the lawn. 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. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is a highlight of the fall and winter native garden. This low-growing shrub is extremely easy to grow but needs room to spread.

 

9/9/16: In the garden this week

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Summer-blooming perennials are still going strong, but asters are beginning to make their presence felt in the early fall garden.

It’s hot, hot and dry. Once again, one weather system after another passes us by. I have actually watered some of my established perennials–that’s how dry it’s been. Perhaps we’ll finally get some relief over the weekend.

Once it cools down a bit and you feel like getting out into the garden, here are some seasonal tasks to consider:

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 is my watering day, and I’m going to water my new trees and shrubs.

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).

— 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. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day. So does seed of daisy fleabane, a lovely native annual. It pops up in different parts of my garden each year. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripening, as are seeds of nodding joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda.

— 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. Even though Labor Day is past, hold off until the weather cools down a bit. And it’s still too hot to reseed bare areas. Early fall is the best time to do this, but wait until things cool down. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to 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!

— 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.

I love this time of year in the garden! The asters are finally blooming, and the native grasses are glowing in the sun. Enjoy the garden this week.

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New England aster

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Little bluestem

8/12/16: In the garden this week

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The perennial garden is a riot of color in mid-August. Yellow Rudbeckias vies for attention with pink Hibiscus and purple Agastache, while native grasses and asters provide a calming backdrop. Most asters won’t start blooming for at least another couple of weeks.

I heard on NPR this morning that El Nino is ending in the Pacific; so, it seems, are our two years of moderate temperatures and drought. Notice how the weather has changed in the past couple of weeks? (I particularly notice it because I often have to work outdoors, and the heat and humidity have been punishing.) And there’s little relief in sight.

If you can manage to go outdoors, there’s plenty to do, in addition to admiring the beautiful summer flowers:

water new plantings: depending on location, you probably got more than an inch of rain last week—my garden got an inch just last night. So I will not be doing any waterint this week. However, in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, 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 is my watering day, and I’m going to water my new trees and shrubs.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers: 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). Cucumber vines are showing signs of wilt: remove them immediately to prevent the spread of this fungal disease.

— 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. In the fall, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

rain brings weeds! Keep up with your weeding so things don’t get out of control.

collect seeds. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day. So does seed of daisy fleabane, a lovely native annual. It pops up in different parts of my garden each year. Some seed of purple lovegrass is beginning to ripen.

— it’s a good time to prune woody plants. Once growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively dormant, giving you a window of time to prune before they get ready for their next critical task: leaf abscission (shutting down for the winter). I do most of my pruning in winter, but I also prune back shrubs as needed after they have ripened their fruit.

— pick fruit! Aronia berries are almost ripe, native plums are ripening; elderberries and nonedible fruits such as grey dogwood berries are almost gone–both are bird favorites. The second crop of everbearing raspberries is ripening—yum! The most plentiful crop in my garden is aronia, and I am planning a batch of aronia/plum jam.

— 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 hot now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to 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!

Enjoy the garden this week, and think how much your plants are enjoying the rain!

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Garden phlox is in full bloom in my garden, as the first Boltonia flowers open.

 

1/8/16: In the garden this week

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Little bluestem is beautiful all year although by this time every winter, many of the seeds are gone.

Happy new year! Since the weather turned cold, I have been too busy with winter pruning to post here. Now that it’s finally cold and looks to stay that way for a while, get out those clippers and saws and loppers and get to work on your shrubs. Most shrubs need some reduction in size after they’ve been in place for a while, and now’s the best time to do it.

In addition to pruning, it’s time to make New Year’s resolutions, and perhaps to put some of them in place as you plan next season’s garden. Garden catalogs are arriving–as you enjoy all those gorgeous pictures, think beyond beauty to a plant’s role in the vital ecosystem you can create right in your own backyard.

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Catkins–in this case, the male flowers of American hazelnut–decorate the shrubs all winter. In the spring they’ll release pollen for the tiny female flowers, and in August there will be hazelnuts for the squirrels.

 

The garden right now

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Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is displaying a lovely clear yellow color this year. This mid-sized tree is an excellent wildlife plant, like all cherries, but its tendency to form thickets makes it difficult to use in most gardens. You have to give it room to spread.

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Many native perennials provide a second burst of garden interest in the form of vivid leaf color. The bright red is sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa.

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From left to right: orange chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), yellow spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and dark red flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).

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A detailed look at those chokeberry leaves.

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Seeds of little bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium) turn a tranclucent silver in the autumn sunlight. After the birds eat them, the stalks will turn pink and remain through the winter.

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Most perennials have gone to seed, but New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) will continue to bloom for a few more weeks.

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Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) never fails to delight. Its autumn color is usually a brilliant orange red, but right now, the few remaining leaves are a deep russet.

These photos were all taken yesterday. Enjoy the bright colors on this dark, rainy day. And remember how badly we need the rain!

Still blooming

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The perennial border today, still in bloom despite the drought.

Despite this season’s drought, a garden of well-chosen native perennials can still provide plenty of late-season interest for you (and food for wildlife). The photo above, taken today, shows part of a perennial border that has never been watered this season. The plants were all chosen for their ability to thrive in full sun and very dry, sandy soil. The garden started blooming in May, with columbine, and will probably end sometime in mid-October. The late bloomers include several species of aster, Boltonia asteroides, and two species of Rudbeckia, plus the visual interest supplied by an abundance of colorful autumn leaves, seeds, and fruits. (Notice in the left foreground the golden leaves of a red milkweed plant.)

Below is a wider view of the perennial borders that surround the patio (sadly, we put the patio furniture away this morning). You can see the different colors of the two aster species; on the right,you can see the white and yellow of white snakeroot and goldenrod that volunteer from the miniforest that’s just outside the picture. And aren’t the grasses lovely in the sun!

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