12/8/17: In the garden this week

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) is one of the few bright spots of color remaining in the garden. The best part is that this tough, low-growing shrub will look like this almost all winter. And yes, that’s a blanket of leaves serving as mulch under the shrubbery.

Winter is finally settling in–snow tomorrow, and cold temperatures for most of next week. I always hope for a really cold winter, what I think of as a real winter. Cold weather will kill or slow the spread of harmful insects and control the population of out-of control herbivores like deer and rabbits. The garden will look much better next season if we have a cold winter.

Cold or not, there are always garden chores to address:

— start pruning your shrubs. Winter is the time to do this. We used to recommend that you start around the end of December and stop by the beginning of February, to ensure complete dormancy, but as the climate warms, it’s best to snatch at any period of cold weather. Why prune during cold weather? Most important, because the plants will recover best when they don’t have to expend energy on other important tasks. Also because fungi and other disease-causing organisms are less likely to be spread in the cold.

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 (see the photo above), save them to use in compost, but use them in some way on your own property. You can find complete directions here.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week; we received a scant inch of rain. And of course you can’t water if the temperature is at or near freezing. But be vigilant: Until the ground freezes, 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.

clean up the vegetable garden thoroughly: remove all spent plant material. Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

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. Most seeds are ripe, so collect before the birds eat them all. But leave some for the birds that remain through the winter. Seeds of native plants need a cold period before they can germinate, so store them in an unheated garage or shed, or scatter them where you want the plants to grow in spring.

— 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 seedheads–do not compost them. These plants are already invasive in the upper south and mid-Atlantic states and will be here very soon. Better still, remove the plants and replace with natives in the spring. Try this experiment: plant an aster or liatris near your butterfly bush next spring. When the plants are in bloom, watch the butterflies ignore the butterfly bush in favor of the native plants.

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Native asters are butterfly magnets. Butterflies will fly right past a nonnative butterfly bush to nectar on a native aster. This Delaware skipper is enjoying a New England aster.

— 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 to fertilize now, and because the weather has turned cold, it’s too late to seed as well. 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.

— 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. I bet those dead annuals look pretty terrible now. Plan to replace them with native perennials next year.

The garden catalogs are starting to arrive! Here’s to next year.

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A few aster seeds remain–this is a shade aster planted so long ago I don’t remember which species it is. A diverse native plant garden will feed the birds all winter.

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8/18/17: In the garden this week

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The perennial border displays its brightest colors in August. Rudbeckia subtomentosa, Agastache foeniculum, and Hibiscus mosceutos vie for attention amid the greenery.

August may be a dull time of year, but not in the garden, when the floral display is at its height. This is the time to sit on the patio with a cold drink and enjoy the fruits of your labor. But while you’re out there, here are a few things you could be doing:

water new plantings: I watered my young trees last Sunday and will do so again this week unless we receive considerably more rain tonight and tomorrow: this morning’s downpour amounted to just over half an inch, and I aim for an inch to an inch and a half per week. Remember that perennials and woody plants that you planted this spring or last fall need supplemental water during dry periods throughout this growing season. The rule of thumb is at least an inch of water per week for newly installed plants. In dry weeks throughout the growing season (weeks with less than an inch of rainfall), you need to water all plants installed this spring or last fall. Trees need supplemental watering even longer: the rule of thumb is one year per inch of trunk diameter. 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.

— if you intend to plant a second crop of cool-weather vegetables, you should be starting seed. Water the vegetable garden deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread. Continue to remove the flowers from basil plants as they form. And pick those zucchini before they reach the size of baseball bats!

— continue to properly tie, stake, and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are much too small: 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 verticillium wilt. You’ll find general guidelines for growing tomatoes here and specific watering instructions here.

—  do not plant ornamentals like perennials and shrubs until the weather turns cool in fall. During hot weather, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming rather than growing new roots. If you do continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water during dry periods, as explained above.

it’s also a bad time to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Lawn grasses are adapted to much cooler summers than we experience. All they want to do during this time of year is go dormant, so they can’t use any extra nutrients. Here’s a suggestion: don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Or wait until 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.

— this is a good time to prune woody plants. You want to prune when the plant is relatively quiescent—when it’s not using so much energy growing, flowering, and fruiting that it has little to spare to heal a wound. This quiescent period occurs between now and leaf drop (abscission) in fall. Basically, when you see that the plant has finished fruiting and that it has formed next year’s buds, but the leaf color is not fading yet, you have a window of time for pruning. Of course, you should prune diseased or injured plants at any time as well as remove any safety hazards, such as overeager shrubs that block sidewalks or diseased trees that might fall down.

do not deadhead your perennials. Seeds represent winter food for birds and other creatures and new plants for you. Collect seeds as they ripen, and store them in a cold place (such as an unheated garage) for next year’s planting, or simply scatter them on the ground where you want them to grow. Do deadhead potentially invasive plants like butterfly bush, miscanthus, and pennisetum grasses however.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Nodding pink onion (Allium cernuum) is not flashy, but it’s nonetheless a star of the August garden. This is a front-of-the-border plant that thrives on full sun and dry soil.

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Rudbeckia triloba has just started blooming. I’m always very happy to see it. The flowers are just so cute.

7/14/17: In the garden this week

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A luxuriant summer border–a bit too luxuriant this year. With all the rain, I have to keep cutting plants back.

Despite all the rain and warm temperatures throughout this growing season, when I look back at photos of past years’ gardens it’s obvious that many things are blooming 10 days to two weeks later than usual. Normally Rudbeckia subtomentosa begins around July 4; right now the first flowers are  opening, as you see in the picture above.

Over 4 inches of rain this week, and still counting! (It’s raining hard as I write this.) If you have a rain garden, or a spot that might become one, it’s probably been dry for the past 3 years, but it’s most likely nice and wet now. I’m seeing more powdery mildew than in recent seasons, and if it keeps raining, ripening tomatoes may crack on the vine. But all the rain is really good for our poor forest and street trees, which have had a thirsty time recently.

When it stops raining, here are some things you might do in the garden this week:

water new plantings: NOT! Rainfall for the week is well over 4 inches, so nothing should need watering. BUT keep monitoring: perennials and woody plants that you planted this spring or last fall need supplemental water during dry periods. The rule of thumb is at least an inch of water per week for newly installed plants. In dry weeks throughout the growing season (weeks with less than an inch of rainfall), you need to 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.

— all vegetables, including tender crops like tomatoes and peppers and corn, should be planted out by now, and it’s 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. Remove the flowers from basil plants as they form, and cut down the plants to make pesto as soon as you have enough leaves for a batch.

— be sure to properly tie, stake, and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are much too small: 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 verticillium wilt. You’ll find general guidelines for growing tomatoes here and specific watering instructions here.

—  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 during dry periods, as explained above.

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.

— it’s also a bad time to prune woody plants. The plants are using so much energy growing, flowering, and fruiting that they have little to spare to healing a wound. There will be short window of time later in the summer. Of course, continue to prune diseased or injured plants at any time and to remove any safety hazards, such as overeager shrub that block sidewalks or diseased trees that might fall down.

It’s supposed to stop raining sometime tomorrow! get out and enjoy the garden this week.

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Rudbeckia flowers are enchanting as they open.

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.