11/3/17: In the garden this week

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Foliage of Penstemon digitalis has been this beautiful color since September, but I’m not complaining. Those are seed stalks of purple lovegrass, Ergostatis spectabilis.

The weather can only be described as freaky. I am longing for autumn–the two cool days this week were a mere teaser. Most trees are holding their leaves, although most perennials have finished blooming. I am still seeing monarchs almost every day. I wonder what they’re finding to eat.

Most garden chores for this week are the same ones I usually suggest in early September, except for this first one:

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.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week because the rainstorm on Tuesday gave us approximately 1 1/2 inches of precipitation. But be vigilant, especially while the weather remains warm: 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.

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. When you clean up the garden, 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, tomato plants have not died back yet, so keep picking, and keep removing suckers and diseased plant material (and again, don’t compost diseased material). 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 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. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Aster seeds are ripening. Milkweed seed is done.

— 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 seedheas–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 native in the spring.

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Most perennials have finished blooming, but sweet black eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) still has a few flowers. Its seeds ripen late and will feed birds all winter. Note the leaves that fall on the garden and remain to insulate the soil and harbor butterflies, moths, and other creatures.

— 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, you could fertilize now (and legally you cannot fertilize after November 15). 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 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!

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Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is displaying rather dull fall color this year, and its leaves are handing on much later than usual. The berries are gone–the birds eat them as soon as they ripen. This is one of the best all-around native trees for partial shade.

 

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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.

 

New Year’s Resolutions: Go Green in ’17!

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) supplies welcome winter color and long-lasting food for birds and other neighborhood critters.

Happy new Year! It’s time to make (and keep) some resolutions that will help make the world greener and cleaner for all of us. Think about some of these ideas:

— the next time you have a short errand to run, walk or bike instead of driving (good for you as well as for the environment).

— the next time you replace a car, make it a hybrid or electric, or go down one car size. If you now drive a large SUV, can you make do with a medium-sized one?

— Stop idling! The next time you pick up your children from school or park outside the  dry cleaner, turn off the engine rather than leaving it running

— as you replace light bulbs, switch to LEDs or compact fluorescents

— if you need to replace your hot water heater, get a tankless one; buy Energy Star appliances when you need replacements

— turn the thermostat down 8-10 degrees at night (in summer, turn it up at night) and when you go out for several hours

— don’t waste water in your garden–don’t water unless it’s really needed, which really means only when you have newly planted shrubs and perennials

— if you absolutely cannot live without fertilizing your lawn (even though your lawn doesn’t need it at all) eliminate one yearly feeding from your program

— plant native perennials instead of annuals next spring–one little bluestem grass, one milkweed, and one aster will take up three square feet of space AND give you gorgeous color and attract pollinators from early summer through late fall AND be absolutely care free

— plant native shrubs such as serviceberry, gray dogwood, elderberry, and ninebark to attract birds and butterflies all season long

— start a compost pile to reduce the amount of waste your family produces and create your own topsoil

— participate in a citizen science project such as Monarch Watch to learn about the environment and to teach your kids the importance of science. Find reputable projects through government websites or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: there’s an extensive list here.

— get your garden certified as a wildlife habitat through Bergen Audubon or the North America Butterfly Association. You’ll find an extensive list of resources on the Jersey-Friendly yards website.

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Something to look forward to in spring: a garden of easy-to-grow native perennials.

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.

Happy new year

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Native plum blossoms (Prunus americana) in spring.

The last leaves are down and gathered in from the oaks and Norway maples, so as far as I’m concerned, fall chores are done. And that means that the gardening year has turned: we switch our focus from the current season to the one that’s to come. So I wish all of you a very happy, healthy, and productive new year.

Certainly there are still this-year chores to do: as long as the ground isn’t frozen, you need to continue watering newly planted new woody plants. And once the weather turns cold, you can prune and shape your shrubs and trees. And you can always create a new garden bed for next year by smothering part of your lawn with mulch.

And you can plan. Begin by thinking about this year’s garden. Right now, are you seeing lots of birds? A garden rich in native plants will attract mixed-species foraging flocks all winter, plus year-round residents like mourning doves, cardinals, and jays. As soon as the robins and catbirds leave, juncos arrive in my garden, and I see them throughout the winter, sometimes as part of the mixed-species flocks and sometimes in single-species groups. All these birds are attracted to the wealth of seeds still on the plants and on the ground and to the insects and caterpillars overwintering in the leaf litter. To a bird, an untidy perennial border in winter is a lavish buffet. If your garden isn’t that welcoming, plan to incorporate a wide variety of native grasses, perennials, and shrubs next year.

Now that lawn care is done for the old year, it’s time to think about what you can do differently, perhaps more sustainably, in the new year. How many times per year do you fertilize your lawn? If you do it at all, you can do it less, and you can certainly stop using herbicides and pesticides. If you want birds, you must welcome bugs! And many plants you think of as lawn weeds–violets, for example–are host plants for gorgeous butterflies like the great spangled fritillary. If there were no violets, there would be no fritillaries; no nettles, no red emperors; and on and on. Plan for more diversity and maybe for a little more wildness in next year’s garden.

Did your garden require a great deal of maintenance during the past two very dry growing seasons? Did you have to water everything frequently, or did you lose a great many plants because of the drought? That’s the definition of an unsustainable garden. This is the time to plan to replace those unhappy plants  with others that are more appropriate for your site. Put the right plant in the right place next year and you’ll save time and money. If you have shade, plant a garden of ferns and shade-loving perennials; if you have a spot that’s always flooded after heavy rain, plant a rain garden. There’s a suite of beautiful native plants that’s right for any site. You have the whole winter to discover the plants that are right for yours.

This is just the beginning of planning for next year. I  wish you a nice big leaf pile that will turn into next year’s compost. Come back for more ideas throughout the winter.

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Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a lover of moist shade, is one of the first native plants to bloom in spring. These lovely blooms supply pollen to early-emerging bees. And they’re certainly something to look forward to!

10/21/16: In the garden this week

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Orange Aronia, yellow spicebush and coralberry, and dark red flowering dogwood show their colors in my front yard.

It’s been so warm that autumn is much delayed this year. Ash trees, which usually turn golden and drop their leaves in late September, are only showing full color now. As I look out my window, I see deep yellow ash leaves dropping one at a time, as if deliberately, in the light misty rain.

Delayed or not, autumn is finally here, which means it’s time to prepare for winter–and for spring. Here are some things you could do:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all 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. When the rains ends on Saturday, I’ll check my rain guauge and decide whether to water my new trees on Sunday. And because the ground is so very dry, water well before doing any fall planting.

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. First frost could happen at any time, although our current forecast doesn’t seem to indicate it.

— 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.

— 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. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe 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.

— 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. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

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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Little bluestem is gorgeous when its seedheads glow in the autumn sunshine.

 

9/30/16: In the garden this week (and Maine)

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A random patch of plants growing beside our small rented cabin on Swan Lake in mid-coast Maine. Almost every plant you see is native.

We’re just back from 2+ weeks in our beloved Maine. When our children were growing up, we vacationed there every year, staying in a small cabin on a pond, and it’s where I learned how a forest is put together. Here in New Jersey, most natural watercourses have been covered or dammed, ponds are covered with green algae caused by lawn fertilizer runoff, and the vast majority of plants are either nonnative or positively invasive, both in backyards and in natural areas. In Maine, there’s much more nature remaining, and being there is a wonderful vacation for the senses as well as for the body and mind. There are some more photos at the end of this post.

End of diatribe. What does this have to do with you and your garden? You can create a little oasis of nature in your own backyard, and if more and more people do that (and more and more are), our overall environment will improve.

It looks like the drought has broken to some extent in our area–my rain gauge was full when we returned, indicating well over an inch of rain over the two weeks, and the NOAA monthly and seasonal forecast calls for normal rainfall amounts in the Northeast. So watering is probably unnecessary right now, unless you’ve seeded a new lawn (see below). But here are some things you could be doing in your garden right now:

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).

— 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. 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, which usually happens quite late in the season.

— 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. 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.

And now for more Maine. I wish I were still there.

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We happened on this grouping of plants growing in a rock bald on top of a mountain. I couldn’t have designed a better arrangement. True inspiration from nature.

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Another view from the cabin: the sunset reflected over Swan Lake (you’re actually looking southeast).