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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The garden right now

I hope you enjoy these pictures of the early fall garden, taken yesterday, on this rainy day.

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The bright red fruits of cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) glowed in the sunshine. This is the most sun-tolerant of our native viburnums. Like its cousins it wants to be a very large shrub or small tree, but it can be kept to a reasonable size by judicious winter pruning. Foliage color will be a lovely dark red quite soon, and the berries will hang on until winter.

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The garden is bursting with fruit. There are so many raspberries this year that we actually get to eat some (I confess: the raspberries are everbearers from Burpee, planted with my kids when they were small, not a native species). I always let one pokeweed remain for the birds.You can also see elderberries and grey dogwoods in this shot; both have already finished fruiting.

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This big fat monarch caterpillar was eating voraciously yesterday. It’s on a leaf of Asclepias tuberosa, orange butterflyweed. Notice the milkweed bugs of a variety of life stages on the seed pods at the upper right. They do destroy some seed pods, but plenty remain undamaged, and they do not hurt the plant in any other way.

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This time of year, little bluestem shows the blue-purple tints that gave it its name; in autumn it will look silvery gold.

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Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a star of the early autumn garden. Unlike its red-flowered cousin, Lobelia cardinalis, blue lobelia is not fussy and will grow anywhere except in bright sunlight.

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This bed, with poor, sandy soil on the north side of my house, used to be quite bare. Then I discovered northern bush honeysuckle, the shrub with the red-tipped branches. The tall shrub in the center is Aronia arbutifolia, red aronia, and the berries are beginning to turn from green to red. The bed also contains Christmas ferns, a volunteer sedum, and the original foundation plantings: Japanese azaleas, mountain laurel, a rhododendron, and a boxwood that just won’t give up.

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Many shrubs are showing some fall color on their lower leaves–hints of what’s to come. Soon spicebush (Lindera benzoin) will turn this lovely lemon yellow color all over. If you look closely, you can see next spring’s fat round flower buds. Two weeks ago these plants were full of bright-red berries, but the birds devoured them the minute they ripened.

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Many native perennials display beautiful fall colors. The tall plant with red leaves is Penstemon digitalis (white flowers in early summer); the short one is Oenothera fruticosa (sundrops; yellow flowers in late spring).

 

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.

 

6/9/17: In the garden this week

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You’ve seen this perennial border before, in its High Summer mode, dominated by yellows and purples. Now, in early summer, white prevails as junegrass (Koeleria macracantha) begins to bloom at Penstemon digitalis reaches its peak. Columbine straddles late spring and early summer.

Because of the cool, wet spring, the garden is gorgeous. But because of the mild winter, it’s overrun with chipmunks and woodchucks and deer. The chipmunks seem to be using my herb pots as a larder; they dig in the soil every night. I’ve never found them to be a problem before. Someone is eating tarragon, and oregano, herbs that have always been immune before. And I doubt very much if either asters or boltonia will bloom this year. Critters are repeatedly eating them right down to the ground. It’s happened before, and the plants will survive, but it’s distressing all the same.

As serviceberries ripen (Amerlanchier), the bird activity in the garden reaches a frenzy. The berries in each cluster ripen one by one, and each morning the ripest are gone. If you grow this wonderful native shrub or tree (and you certainly should), try to taste at least a few berries yourself.

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Guess which serviceberry will be gone tomorrow morning?

Here are some tasks you might address in the garden this week:

water new plantings: Despite the rainy spring, we received less than half an inch in the past week, and the weather is about to turn HOT. If you’re still planting, water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and hand water as needed. It’s hard for plants to establish in hot weather. Also, this week you should water all plants installed this spring or last fall. Be sure to check your town’s watering regulations—many local areas have recently adopted more stringent rules.

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. I will be watering this weekend.

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The ash trees we planted last year have grown a lot! I will continue to water them during dry weeks this season, and they were treated to prevent emerald ash borer infestations last month.

— all vegetables, including tender crops like tomatoes and peppers and corn, should be planted out by now, and with the coming hot weather, 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.

—  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 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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Compare this border today with the way it looked in April when I did my annual spring cleaning. Looks pretty different now and will look even more different in July.

 

What I missed

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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.

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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.

6/5/15: In the garden this week

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Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) and penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) in bloom signal the beginning of summer in my garden.

Finally, rain this week: well over two inches of it. The plants responded by suddenly putting on their summer colors (see the photos below). I responded with a burst of renewed activity, returning to the moving and dividing of perennials that had ceased while the weather was so hot and dry. It’s been delightful.

The calendar says late spring, but to me, once the penstemon blooms, it’s summer. Spring blooming plants are finishing up, and many summer bloomers, particularly the milkweeds, are showing buds. The foliage of the perennials is particularly beautiful this time of year: everything looks fresh and green, and you can focus on the leaf shapes and textures rather than on the flowers.

Here are some other things you might attend to while you’re out there admiring your garden this weekend:

water new plantings: we got over two inches of rain this past week, so no watering is needed now, but keep watching. 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.

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?

warm-season crops should be out in the garden. These include tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

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.

— 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 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. 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 weekend!

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Firepink (Silene virginica) is in bloom now. Only a bit over a foot tall, this plant enlivens the early summer garden with really, really red flowers.

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And if you prefer yellow, sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) is hard to beat. Also only about a foot tall, it is completely drought resistant and easy to grow. This plant spreads by rhizomes, so it is also very easy to divide.

More native plants for fall color

I love autumn, and I particularly love watching it slowly unfold. And I most particularly love the colors of our native plants. Nowhere else on earth, to my knowledge, do leaves turn the brilliant scarlets and oranges our sugar maples achieve. Right now, every sugar maple seems to have one bright-colored branch, as if it’s teasing us with the beauty to come.

But even our native perennials turn gorgeous colors in fall. Following are three photos not of my garden but of a nearby garden that I designed and installed. Note the beautiful and harmonious effect of the remaining flowers with the colors of the leaves and even the seedpods. I’ve never seen milkweed seedpods turn such gorgeous colors as you’ll see in the second photo; in the third, note the contrasting reds of the penstemon and sundrops foliage.

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Back to my own garden, where the delicate, silvery seeds of little bluestem grass are now a main focus:

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In one perennial border, white now dominates, with little bluestem, heath aster, and white snakeroot vying for attention against a background of yellow elderberry leaves:

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In another, purple asters and multicolored foliage compete with the silver grasses:

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And amidst the signs of decay (which is what fall colors are), note the bright green foliage signalling lush and healthy growth next spring.