4/17/15: In the garden this week


Serviceberry buds beginning to emerge. This picture was taken on the same day last year. the buds look just like this today.

Spring is finally here, and plants are emerging quickly and at at once. Forsythia, early magnolias, plums, and azaleas are finally in bloom. Ditto daffodils (all nonnative). I am looking every day for my Dutchman’s breeches and bloodroot. Ground-living bees are emerging. Birds are extremely active. Most perennials have poked their first shoots above the soil, so transplanting time is here. I am very, very busy.

Here are some things you might consider in your garden this week:

continue to direct sow seeds of early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes. They’ll germinate and grow slowly at first, but with any luck you’ll have fresh salad greens in about 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every two weeks to ensure a continuous supply of spring greens until the weather heats up.

— 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.

clean up your perennial beds. Grab a handful of stalks hear the ground and gently bend them to break them off. Rake the detritus away and either compost it on site or, if you don’t have room for it, take it to your town’s compost center.

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? Will your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage?

— 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. You’ll be able to plant in late April or May.

monitor your garden for bird activity. Spring migrants are arriving and winter residents are very active at foraging and nest building. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks winter 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.

order your perennials and woody plants now to get the best selection. (Most local nurseries sell only a very few native species, so I rely on mail order and on specialty nurseries that are up to four hours away.) If you wait until it’s time to plant, nurseries will be sold out of many species.

— 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.

— last but not least, water last year’s plantings as needed. It’s been a dry spring so far; the soil is quite dry. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted in the fall need supplemental watering during dry spells throughout this entire growing season. 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.


Buds of American plum, also taken on this same date last year.


Six jars of jam


Last week, I produced 4 jars–count them 4 whole jars–of pectin-free jam from my elderberries and aronia berries plus some prune plums bought at the market (4 pounds of fruit made 4 small jars of jam). It’s quite delicious, tart and sort of wild tasting. Aronia is very astringent and doesn’t taste quite like other fruits we’re used to eating.

Then, over the past week, as the plums on my American plum trees ripened, I picked a bowlful every other day until I had about four pounds of fruit. I stewed half of it with honey and a cinnamon stick and a little bit of water and put it in the fridge to eat with yogurt and granola. The other half I macerated with sugar last night, and tonight I made 2 more little jars of jam (for a total of six). Right now, it’s cooling down after being sterilized in a boiling water bath.






Did you ever see anything such a gorgeous color as those plums? They’re orange-red on the outside with a lovely whitish bloom, and the flesh is apricot color.

OK, enough about my fruit/jam obsession. Please forgive me–I grew up in a small apartment in Queens, and I never made jam before last year.

More plums



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

Late summer in black and white (and gold)


In the twenty years since I started gardening seriously, I don’t ever remember such a summer for wild fruits–such abundance. The birds can’t manage to eat them all. The branches of the black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa–above) are bent down from the weight of the fruits. Elderberries and grey dogwood berries (next two pictures) actually remain ripe on the bushes instead of being snatched by catbirds and robins and jays at every opportunity. There’s a continual screech of catbirds as they dive-bomb into the elderberry and raspberry bushes.


Fruits of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

And the plums! In the past, each tree has ripened maybe a dozen plums, which were devoured unseen during the night. But this year there are untold numbers of fruits, slowly, teasingly, turning from green to yellow to gold and soon to red and then purple. We may actually get some this year. I’m told they’re very good. (If there are any other devotees of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books out there, you surely remember a scene in which Laura and her Ma pick and preserve wild plums. It’s probably this species she’s describing.)

Plums (Prunus americana) finally ripening

Each year, goldfinches arrive in my garden in late summer. These tiny beams of light rear their nestlings late in the season and depend on the seeds of wild flowers to feed them (and, I suspect, on the multitude of pollinating insects that still swarm over the perennial beds), so we always see them just as the perennial sunflowers begin to open and the Rudbeckias begin to ripen seeds. Right now I can’t walk out the back door without disturbing at least a dozen of them feeding in the perennial garden. They squawk loud in irritation and take off, like flashes of sunlight, for the shelter of the hemlocks across the yard. Look closely among the Rudbeckias:



Summertime (I)

The garden in mid-July.

We’re approaching the height of summer, and the garden is blooming almost aggressively. Tomatoes are ripening–finally–and the weather is hot. (My apologies to the great Ira Gershwin.) The picture above features Rudbeckia subtomentosa, sweet black-eyed Susan, which I really must cut back severely next spring; Vernonia fasciculata, ironweed (purple); and some perennial sunflowers not yet in bloom (Helanthus mollis, downy sunflower). Today I saw goldfinches for the first time this season. These late breeders arrive when the prairie plants are ready to set seed, and they feed the seeds to their babies. They’ll be with us for the rest of the summer, hanging upside down on seedheads and providing great entertainment.

American plums--beginning to ripen.

The fruits on my native plum trees (Prunus americana) are finally ripening–notice the first hints of yellow. They first turn yellow, then red, and finally purple. As with most wild fruits, they ripen one-by-one, and we’ll almost never see a ripe one. The plum crop is heavy this year, but the birds get up earlier than I do.

Grey dogwood berries almost ripe.

Another plant that ripens its fruit one by one is grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa). This shrub is beautiful in all seasons, but I particularly love those red stems that signal to the birds that the fruits are almost ripe. The berries turn white when they’re ready to eat; as with the plums, we almost never see a ripe one.

Unripe pods of swamp milkweed.

Almost hidden among the Rudbeckias are the unripe seedpods of swamp milkweed (Asclepias  incarnata). When the seeds are mature, in another month or so, the pods will dry up and split open, and the seeds will drift away, each attached to a tiny parachute of milkweed down.

Elderberries ready to ripen.

This year also promises to be a bountiful one for elderberries (Sambucus canadensis). Notice that the stems are turning purple–the fruit will ripen soon. This is another favorite of the birds, and there will be great exultation among the catbirds when the fruit are ripe. I can usually manage to pick some of these, however,–perhaps to put in the Aronia jam I hope to make later in the season.

I have not seen any monarchs this year, and this is the time they usually migrate through. I am seeing a great abundance of fireflies, however, and I think of the presence of these delightful insects as a sign of a relatively healthy environment. Do you see lots of fireflies on your property? If you do, good for you. If you don’t, you might want to think about trying to manage your yard in a more sustainable way.

Missing plants: American plum tree

Did you know that there is a native American plum tree? The species is Prunus americana, and it’s native to all of the United States and Canada from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains. It’s a species that should be everywhere in northern New Jersey but isn’t anymore–except in my back and front yards. Here’s a closeup picture of the plums, taken today. They are about an inch long and will be ripe in another few weeks:


The American plum is a small tree or large shrub that sends out suckers and can form large colonies. However, the suckers can be easily controlled by mowing, so a good way to use the tree would be as a specimen in the middle of a lawn. It likes full sun, and although reference books say it likes wet places, it does very well in my dry, sandy soil. The flowers, which bloom in very early spring, are exquisite–pure white and delicate. And the suckers are easy to dig up and replant. All in all, a lovely tree.

I’ve grown these trees for more than 15 years, but I’ve yet to taste a ripe plum. The birds get them all the second they’re ripe. But that’s why I decided to grow them in the first place.