4/21/17: In the garden this week

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Violets are not weeds! They’re an extremely important larval food source for a large group of butterflies. No violets, no fritillaries. And they’re lovely as well.

After a bizarre start, with the late snowstorm in mid-March, spring is unfolding in a normal and reassuring way (although for those of us who remember when lilacs bloomed reliably for Mother’s Day, everything is still insanely early). Violets are blooming, most native trees are beginning to leaf out, early bloomers like spicebush and native plums have finished blooming, flowering dogwood (which used to bloom around Memorial Day) is almost at its peak. None of my native shrubs were affected by the late frost, although many exotics, such as the early-flowering Asian magnolias, bloomed sparsely if at all.

In the understory, bloodroot is in bloom right now, as are Virginia bluebells. Columbine is showing buds, Solomon’s seal is raising its delicate head above the leaf litter, and native geraniums are showing buds. Most summer-blooming perennials are up, with the exception of milkweeds and wild petunia, which always come late to the party. They must feel the need to make an entrance.

There’s a lot to do in the garden this week and throughout the spring:

water new plantings: Although the past two weeks have been dry, we received an inch of water last night, so no need to water this week. But 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—plants grow roots when the soil is cool, so the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up.

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 are subject to emerald ash borer. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can them 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 and squash for another few weeks.

Clean up the perennial garden. It’s finally time! Compost as much as the detritus as you can, and treat it gently: it contains the pupae and larvae of valuable insects, bees, and butterflies. And leave a little on the ground for birds to use as nesting material. As I glance out the window, a robin is collecting bits of grass and stalks I left behind.

—Divide perennials 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.

it’s much 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. And remember, 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 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–the weather and the soil moisture will be perfect!

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The delicate flowers of native plum, Prunus americana, are intensely fragrant and as lovely as any exotic cherry can produce.

 

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!

4/15/16: In the garden this week

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Some serviceberry (Amelanchier) species are in full bloom, some are still just showing buds.

It’s turning out to be another dry spring. Despite the series of strong storms we’ve experienced recently, we’ve had less than 2 inches of rain over the past 30 days. This means that plants you installed last fall, as well as those you put in this spring, need supplemental water. Woody species in particular need extra water during dry spells for at least a year while they’re becoming established: aim for at least an inch a week. The main reason plants don’t survive is insufficient water while they’re becoming established.

Have you ordered your plants yet? The major mail-order suppliers of natives are running out of the most popular plants, so if you were intending to order but keep putting it off, do it now! Some suppliers have started shipping, and local nurseries will receive most of their spring shipments within the next six weeks.

In addition to ordering your plants, here’s what you can do in the garden this week:

divide hardy perennials and grasses. Many of the toughest native plants–many grasses, asters, rudbeckias, boltonia, columbine, to name just a few–have been in active growth for weeks. I start dividing as soon as each species is ready, and I try to do it right before it rains (saves watering). I’ve been at it for 2-3 weeks and have enlarged several beds to receive these divisions and others later in the season.

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure to prepare for spring planting.

— because the nights are still cool, continue to direct-sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard, which is about to flower. This noxious weed is particularly easy to remove–grab the base of the plant, and unless the soil is compacted, you’ll get the whole root system in one firm tug. It’s too late to pull western bittercress, which has already gone to seed. Mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— if you’re planning on ordering native plants from specialty nurseries, get your order in now! Many companies are already sold out of the most popular plants. Some companies have started shipping. Once the plants arrive, get them in the ground as soon as you can. If you must hold them for a few days, put them in the shadiest spot you can find.

— if you or your lawn service has sown grass seed, water several times a day until the grass is up. Otherwise you’re just scattering birdseed. And it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

This will be a gorgeous weekend to be out in the garden. Enjoy!

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Our native plum tree, Prunus americana, rivals any ornamental plum for the beauty of its flowers.

Survival

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Blossoms of native plum (Prunus americana) continue to unfold despite the late frost.

I’m happy to report that all my tough native plants are doing just fine despite two nights when temperatures dipped down into the 20s. Even the plants that I had just divided look good. The photo above was taken in 2014, but the plum blossoms look just like that today.

This is a good year for Dutchman’s breeches (meaning that the rabbits didn’t eat the one measly flower stalk that comes up every year). If you have shade and rich soil, by all means try this lovely, early blooming native and its cousin, native bleeding heart (Dicentra cucullaria and D. eximia), as well as other spring-blooming denizens of rich, most soil such as blood root and Virginia bluebells.

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Dutchman’s breeches (D. culcullaria) in a very shady spot in my front garden. I divided the tiny corms two years ago and three small clumps came up this year, but only one is in bloom.

Spring buds

On this cold, dark day, I thought you’d enjoy seeing some pictures of spring buds that my husband took last Friday. You can see all the potential for this season’s growth encapsulated in these early buds. Notice particularly how the plants that bloom early produce fully formed flower buds along with the first tiny leaves.

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Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius, blooms in mid-May. Flower buds are not apparent yet, but aren’t the new leaves lovely!

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Cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) will bloom by late April. Notice the flower buds held proudly above the new pairs of leaves.

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Robert Frost was wrong: Nature’s first green is more often red than gold. Notice how the new leaves and flower buds of black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) emerge from the dark-red buds.

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Nothing is more exquisite than the flowering bracts of our lovely native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) as they slowly enlarge and turn creamy white.

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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) lights up the woods in early spring with its tiny green-gold flowers.

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Our native plum tree (Prunus americana) rivals any Japanese flowering plum tree for the beauty of its flowers–and it produces plums! I wish I could recommend this tree to more clients. Unfortunately it suckers prolifically so it’s hard to use in any but the most informal designs. (Full disclosure: this photo was taken on April 21, 2014. The buds looks just like this today. We are having a very early spring!)

3/25/16: In the garden this week

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Buds of native plum (Prunus americana) are swelling; spring is coming about 3 weeks earlier than the last two years.

Unseasonably warm weather continues, and spring is well advanced, even though it’s only four days old by the calendar.

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure to prepare for spring planting.

— continue direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm and stall when it turns cold. But cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard and western bittercress in your garden plots. The mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— if you or your lawn service has sown grass seed, water several times a day until the grass is up. Otherwise you’re just scattering birdseed. And it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year.

Many spring ephemerals are up, so I’ve started to uncover my shade gardens (because the autumn leaves that mulch my perennial beds are Norway maple leaves, which form solid layers that plants can’t grow through. Other kinds of leaves don’t need to be removed in spring). But it’s too early to divide or plant. Resist the temptation for a couple more weeks!

Enjoy the spring weather!

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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is just coming into bloom.

More plums

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What is there to say? I’ve never seen such a color–what a shame it will change to purple. I don’t know what combination of rainfall and temperature and heaven knows what else led to this abundance and beauty. I only wish it would last. Or come back next year. But I can’t count on it. With a garden, you never know.