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.

 

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.

4/7/17: In the garden this week

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Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucularia) is up, about a week later than usual; it’s showing buds but not in bloom yet. Last year I divided one large clump, and this year there are three that I can divide again.

We’ve had over 4 inches of rain since last Friday–largest weekly total in over two years, I think. The streams are full, and there’s a vernal pool near the entrance to the Thielke Arboretum for the first time in several years. I’m hoping the drought is finally over.

I’ve been stealing a half hour here and there for my own garden, and it’s going to be a great weekend for outdoor work or play. Here are some of the things you could do in your garden now:

water new plantings: April Fool again! 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 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 each week.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by 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.

— Don’t clean up the perennial garden yet. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter. Wait another few weeks, until most plants are in active growth. There is one exception to this rule: if your garden, like mine, is covered with Norway maple leaves, which form a solid barrier to new growth, remove those leaves gently (and use them for compost).

Start dividing perennials as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky,  difficult 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.

continue to collect seeds. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. Through the winter I saw nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets. Now the robins are back, and year-round residents like chickadees and cardinals are very active. Be sure to leave them some seed.

— plan for the coming season: 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. Did you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring. Is there plentiful food for birds now? If not, plant a variety of native grasses, perennials, and shrubs. And place your orders early, meaning now, because native plant nurseries run out of the most popular species.

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 they’re not so great for kids or pets either. 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 looking for signs of spring in the garden this week!

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The delicate flowers of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are just emerging in damp woods throughout our area.

 

3/24/17: In the garden this week

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With more settled weather, the vegetable garden could look like this in about 2 months.

Normally I scatter seeds for mesclun and other cool-weather greens around mid-March, hoping for a harvest in mid-May. This year, right now, my vegetable plot is almost clear of the foot of  snow that fell on it 10 days ago, so I may be able to plant this week. The weather seems to grow increasingly unpredictable, making it very hard to tell, even for the coming week, what garden tasks might be doable. But here are some you might consider:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, and the ground is not frozen, water all plants installed this spring or fall. Right now precipitation is at normal levels, and it’s predicted to rain all week, so no watering will likely be needed, but keep an eye on it. 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 each week.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by 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 plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, and beets.

— Don’t clean up the perennial garden yet. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter. Wait another few weeks, even a month, until most plants are in active growth.

but do collect seeds. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. Mixed-species foraging flocks visit daily to take advantage of the bounty; through the winter I saw nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets. And robins are back!

— plan for the coming season: 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. Did you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring. Is there plentiful food for birds now? Plan to plant native perennials and shrubs on spring. And place your orders early, because native plant nurseries run out of the most popular species.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. The grass plants can’t possibly use all that nitrogen while the weather is so cool, so it just runs off into our streams and ponds. 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.

join a garden club or native plant society: you’ll meet like-minded gardeners, learn a lot, and find out about local resources. For example, join the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and find about the activities of our Bergen-Passaic chapter, or join your local garden club.

— 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.

Now that the snow has melted, it would be great to get out into the woods to see the earliest signs of spring. Pussy willow and skunk cabbage are blooming, native hazelnuts bloomed before the storm, and spicebush will bloom very soon.

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The delicate green flowers of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) will turn into bright-red berries in August. This wetland understory shrub does equally well in dry soil as long as it doesn’t get too much sun.

1/6/17: In the Garden this week

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) is a jewel of the winter garden.

There’s always something to do in the garden.

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, and the ground is not frozen, water all plants installed this spring or fall. We have received at least an inch of rain per week for the past two weeks, so no need to water right now, but check back here frequently for updates. 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 just over 1 inch of rain.

— are your shrubs overgrown and in need of size reduction? it’s time to start winter pruning of woody plants. Now, while plants are dormant, is the best time to do this: it’s easy to see the structure of the plant while the leaves are down, and the plant is most likely to react favorably while it’s resting. Contact me for coaching if you would like to learn to do this yourself, or for an estimate if you would like me to do it for you.

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. But don’t clean up the perennial garden. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter.

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. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed with us when we walk to the compost pile. Mixed-species foraging flocks visit daily to take advantage of the bounty; lately I’ve seen kinglets.

— plan for next season: Do it now, because later this winter everything might be covered in snow. 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. Did you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring. Is there plentiful food for birds now? Plan to plant native perennials and shrubs on spring.

There’s always something to do in the garden . . .

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. . . even if it’s just to wait until spring, when bloodroot appears again!

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.

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.