What I missed

IMG_20170603_154124

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.

IMG_20170603_154151

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.

4/8/16: In the garden this week

DSC_4617

Serviceberry buds have reached their “string of pearls” stage. Gorgeous!

It’s cold again! A cool spring means that most plants stay in bloom longer, so enjoy the early spring bloomers. And if you want to brave the weather and get out into the garden this week, there’s plenty to do:

— 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 to 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. 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.

— it’s really a bit too early to divide and plant perennials, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve been dividing and moving very hardy, early appearing plants for a couple of weeks now: purple lovegrass and Junegrass (but not little bluestem, which isn’t in active growth yet); ginger, shade asters, sedges; coreopsis and sun-loving asters are among the plants that are extremely cold hardy and surviving early division quite well.

— if you’re planning on ordering native plants from specialty nurseries, get your order in as soon as possible. Many companies are already sold out of the most popular plants. Reputable companies will start shipping in late April or early May.

— 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.

What’s in bloom in your garden?

_DSC4485

Native plum tree is in full bloom, while most native trees aren’t even thinking of leafing out yet. The light-green growth at top right is a Norway maple. The big ash tree at center left is still bare.

A warm, wet winter

NOAA‘s one-month weather model predicts warmer-than-average temperatures for the Northeast; the three-month model predicts both above-average temperature and precipitation. Many people are enjoying the warm weather we’ve had this fall. From a horticultural point of view, however, a warm winter is a disaster for a number of reasons.

First of all, fooled by the warm weather, many woody plants are showing swollen buds if not actual flowers. My lilacs, fooled by the warm temperatures, are making faint efforts to bloom right now. Any energy a plant expends now is energy it will not have in spring, and worse case, plants can be killed if they leaf out before a sudden cold snap. Expect a less-beautiful than normal spring.

Second, a mild winter will mean large populations of deer and rabbits next season. The last time we had a very mild winter, the critters repeatedly ate many perennials down to the ground: phlox, asters, and boltonia never bloomed that year. The past two cold winters have finally given the plants time to recover.

Third, insect pests and diseases will be more prevalent than usual after a mild winter, because cold weather kills off fungal spores and insect eggs. In particular, the last two cold winters slowed the steady advance of pests that are moving north along with global warming, such as the southern pine bark beetle. A warm winter will allow them to resume their northward advance.

And last but not least, a warm winter will encourage the northward march of many invasive plants. For example, butterfly bush is now highly invasive in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey and is becoming a problem in our area. Miscanthus grass is extremely invasive in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. How long do you think it will be before it becomes a serious problem here as well?

Sure a warm winter brings some benefits: lower heating costs, less snow removal, less salt on the roads, less danger of accidents. But it’s not all good!

Water and the lack thereof

_DSC7607

The lawn on the left has been allowed to go dormant, which is what lawns naturally do in August. It will green up as soon as it rains. The lawn on the right has been kept artificially green through continual watering.

Our situation can’t be compared with that of the western United States, but we are nonetheless experiencing a drought. April, May, and July were unusually dry, although we got a nice break in June, and temperatures have been higher than we’ve seen in a couple of years. Ridgewood Water has just imposed Stage II water restrictions, which means that homeowners who get their water from that company can water only two days per week (Tuesdays and Saturdays for properties with odd-numbered addresses, and Wednesdays and Sundays for properties with even-numbered addresses).

As a result of the drought, many plants are water stressed, and it’s easy to observe the different ways that various plant react. Large trees have such extensive root systems that they will suffer little permanent damage, but many have set seed unusually early (notice the heavy crops of maple seeds and acorns on the ground this early in the season). Many smaller trees and large shrubs will do fine as well, although they may show a little stress: leaves looking a bit droopy, a few leaves changing color early or dropping, smaller flower clusters. Perennials, if they are well established and properly sited, should be fine. The problem is plants that are not yet well established or that were sited incorrectly. Let’s consider each of those situations.

When you move a plant, it takes more time than you may realize to become established, or completely acclimated, in a new site. The bigger the plant, the more time it needs. A large perennial will probably need an entire growing season, a very small plant may be established within weeks, a shrub will take at least a year, a large tree will take several years. And for all that time, the plant needs supplemental watering during dry periods to help it produce new roots that reach far into the soil in its new home.

There’s a simple rule for determining how much water a plant needs. For the entire growing season, the plant needs at least 1 inch of water per week over its entire root system, either from precipitation or from supplemental watering. So if there’s half an inch of rain that week, give it half an inch more. If there’s 1 1/2 inches of rainfall, don’t water at all. If the weather is very hot, it can’t hurt to give it a total of 1 1/2 to 2 inches. In hot weather, more moisture evaporates from the soil.

How do you know how much precipitation you’ve received or how much water you’ve given? You place some sort of container–a cat food or tuna can, a yogurt container, any kind of container–on the ground among the plants, and you leave it there. After a rain or after watering, you measure the amount of water in the container. Once you’ve watered a few times, you’ll know how long it takes to deliver an inch of water with your sprinkler system or hose and sprinkler. I bet it’s longer than you expected.

Most people do not water deeply enough, especially those who use automatic sprinkler systems. Watering for 7 to 12 minutes per day, either every day or every other day, is very shallow watering. Shallow watering results in shallow root systems: the plants never develop deep, strong, healthy root systems that can help them withstand difficult conditions. Frequent shallow watering also encourages the growth of disease-causing fungus, especially water applied in the evening. On the other hand, deep watering just once a week encourages plants to develop deep root systems. Water deeply, and water early in the day.

Note that I’m concerned only with newly installed perennials, shrubs, and trees, not with established plants or lawns. Neither should ever require watering. Lawns naturally go dormant during hot, dry weather and green up as soon as it rains. Established plants have extensive root systems that allow them to mine the soil for every available molecule of water.

Established plants that wilt during dry weather to the point that they require regular watering present a different problem. These are plants that were planted in the wrong place: for example, shade plants placed in full sun or wetland plants placed in dry soil. These plants will need supplemental watering pretty much forever. To avoid this problem, do some research before you plant, and put the right plant in the right place.

_DSC7836

A healthy flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) full of bright red fruits in early fall. This tree was planted on the north side of taller trees that shade it from direct sun. Flowering dogwoods always grow in shade in nature, but most people make the mistake of planting them in full sun, which causes chronic stress, often leads to disease, and shortens their lives.

5/29/15: In the garden this week

_DSC0771

The highlight of the late-spring shade garden is Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), a plant that spreads a bit too enthusiastically. Also in bloom are columbine, native geranium, and Virginia waterleaf. It looks like the sweet joe pye weed will be as tall as it was last year.

Late spring ushers in lovely blooming shrubs: ninebark, grey dogwood, and, very soon, elderberry. The first summer perennial–in my garden, that means Penstemon digitalis–is just open, and many others are showing buds. All the vegetables are planted. Because it’s been so dry, there’s not much weeding to do. It’s almost summer!

But there are always things to do in the garden:

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. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this week and the past three weeks), 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.

harvest 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?

— If you started warm-season crops indoors, set them out in the garden now. It’s finally time to set out your tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, and cucumbers.

— 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 now 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. If you reseed bare areas, be sure to water often, especially now that the weather is hot. Lawn grass is really adapted to a much cooler climate than outs. 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 week!

_DSC0792

A detail of that lovely anemone. If you plant it, be sure it has room to spread.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

5/15/15: In the garden this week

_DSC0704

Flowers of columbine and false Solomon’s seal, and foliage of mayapple, white snakeroot, several different shade asters, among others grace a shady perennial border.

Mid-spring is my favorite time in my garden. The shade gardens in both the front and backyards burst into bloom, and although they’re not as colorful as the summer prairie gardens, they have their own quiet charm. As you can see, I like to plant many different species close together (it helps fool the rabbits and deer). In spite of the extremely dry spring we’re having, I have not watered these gardens.

In addition to admiring your handiwork, here’s what you could be doing in the garden this week:

— the soil is very dry, so 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. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this week and last week), 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.

harvest early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes.

— If you started warm-season crops indoors, set them out in the garden now. It’s finally time to set out your tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplant.

— now that almost 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 now to kill the grass. Then plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: wait until Memorial Day to fertilize. If you reseed bare areas, be sure to water often. 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 less frequently and more deeply to encourage deep root growth.

Enjoy your garden this weekend!

_DSC0700

Virginia waterleaf, an excellent groundcover or flowering perennial for dry shade, opens its first flower; Solomon’s seal is in the background.

5/8/15: In the garden this week

DSC_5537

The exquisite flowers of chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) are in full bloom. In August, birds will be eating the large, black berries.

I’m spending a lot of time right now finding native plants for clients. Because of the late spring, most nurseries will receive all their spring plant shipments this week and next week, so this is the time to get out there and ask local nurseries for native plants (you’re shopping for mom anyway, right? Go to the website of the Native Plant Society of NJ for cards you can print, fill out, and give to nursery owners to request specific native plants. If we don’t ask, they won’t know we want them!  I’m happy to say that more and more local nurseries are stocking more and more natives, but there’s still plenty of barberry and purple loosestrife out there as well, so be careful when you buy.

The spring is advancing fast. Serviceberry is finished blooming; flowering dogwood, lilacs, and crab apples (Mother’s Day plants) are just about at their peaks; ferns are unfolding, and many local flowering natives, like jack in the pulpit, spring beauty, trout lily, and Solomon’s seal, are in full bloom. This would be a beautiful weekend to explore a local natural area like the Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock. Take a walk in the woods, admire the native wildflowers, and notice the progress we’ve made in removing the garlic mustard over the past couple of years. (And if you see garlic mustard, pull it now. For the most part, it hasn’t set seed yet.

And after you buy Mom a plant and take her for a nice walk in the woods, help her attend to her garden:

— the soil is very dry, so 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. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this week and last week), 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.

harvest early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes.

— If you started cold-season crops indoors, set them out in the garden now. Wait until late May to set out tender crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplant. the nights are still quite cool.

— now that most 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.

evaluate the winter’s damage on your property. Don’t remove dead wood or broken branches unless they pose hazards to people or property, because they might be supplying food or shelter to winter-weary creatures, but see what needs doing. Do any areas need new mulch? Do your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage? Do it as soon as new growth appears.

— 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 now to kill the grass. Then plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

monitor your garden for bird activity. Birds are very active at foraging and nest building. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks food. There should still be perennial seeds, berries of less desirable plants, and leaf litter and dead wood for the birds to search for insects. If you’re not seeing birds, consider what you can do this season to attract them: for example, plant native perennials, stop pruning dead wood quite so aggressively, stop using pesticides.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: wait until Memorial Day to fertilize. If you reseed bare areas, be sure to water often. 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 less frequently and more deeply to encourage deep root growth.

Enjoy the beautiful Mother’s Day weather!

DSC_5677

Foamflower (Tiatella cordifolia) a diminutive groundcover, is in full bloom now. After the flowers fade, the variegated leaves will provide visual interest all season. On the left is a columbine, which is showing buds but isn’t quite in bloom yet.