8/4/17: In the garden this week


Two Hibiscus plants blooming side by side. Each flower blooms for one day; you can see buds and spent flowers on both plants. Both are varieties of H. moscheutos, rose mallow, a short-lived native perennial that’s incredibly easy to grow. The birds will enjoy the large black seeds in a month or so.

A hot, humid, mostly dry week, despite frequent predictions of rain: my rain gauge registered just under one inch of rain on Thursday morning after Wednesday’s prolonged showers. I watered my new trees last Sunday and will do so again this week unless we get significant rainfall tomorrow.

But this weather is pretty much ideal for tomatoes, which are the most finicky of plants. They love heat, but if it gets too hot they stop forming new fruits. They need moisture, but if they get too much, the fruit cracks as it ripens. And too little of course causes blossom end rot. The trick is to water consistently and deeply.

The summer hiatus is upon us—it’s too late to plant and to early to clean up. But it’s never too early to plan next year’s garden, so take careful notes on what did well and what didn’t, what could go more smoothly, and how things could be changed in future years. I’m thinking of eliminating more lawn in front and perhaps plant a couple of large trees that would eventually turn a sunny border into a shady on.

Here are a few more immediate chores you could do this week:

water new plantings: unless we get a decent amount of rain this weekend (and forecasts do predict rain), go ahead and water newly planted grasses, shrubs, and woody plants. 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. 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 buying seed. 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. Continue to remove the flowers from basil plants as they form; you should already have cut down the plants once to make pesto.

— 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 too late to plant. Wait 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 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 really 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 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.

Most people keep their lawns growing all summer by applying excessive amounts of water. I never water my lawn. Most summers it turns brown–it goes dormant. This summer, with normal rainfall amounts, it’s still green. So here’s another suggestion: stop watering and see what happens. The lawn will not die, and the earth will be grateful.


Two lawns in my neighborhood at the end of a recent dry summer. The lawn on the left is not routinely watered, but it will green up as soon as the weather cools down or some rain arrives.

— it’s almost time to prune woody plants. You want to prune when the plant is relatively quiescent—when it’s not using a great deal of energy growing, flowering, and fruiting that it has little to spare to healing a wound. This will happen between now and leaf drop 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 shrub that block sidewalks or diseased trees that might fall down.

Enjoy the garden this week!


The purple glow in this photo is the gazillion tiny flowers of purple lovegrass, Ergostratis spectabilis. This short (12-18″) native grass is impervious to heat and drought, demands poor soil, and displays a cloud of purple flowers and then seeds from August to October. Hard to find, but very easy to grow.



8/19/16: In the garden this week


Verbena stricta has been blooming since late June and shows no sign of letting up. At its feet is purple lovegrass and daisy fleabane. This is a new garden created by mulching part of the front lawn last fall. Both species of grasses you see here–purple lovegrass and little bluestem–were transplanted in very early spring and are blooming nicely.

I’ve been away for a few days, but the garden looks dry and there was no water in my rain gauge, so it looks like the scattered thunderstorms we were hearing about missed this area. But at least the heat has moderated a bit. So get out there and consider these seasonal garden chores:

water new plantings:  in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this spring or last fall. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall or 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. Sunday is my watering day, and I’m going to water my new trees and shrubs.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers: Monitor for insect eggs and larvae and remove them before infestations become serious. Throw out badly infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material). Cucumber vines are showing signs of wilt: remove them immediately to prevent the spread of this fungal disease.

— as tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits: provide no more than an inch of water per week. (If it rains, don’t water.) Keep removing suckers. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

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. In the fall or next spring, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

collect seeds. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day. So does seed of daisy fleabane, a lovely native annual. It pops up in different parts of my garden each year. Some seed of purple lovegrass is beginning to ripen, as are seeds of nodding prairie onion and monarda..

— it’s a good time to prune woody plants, but don’t  put it off much longer. Once growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively dormant, giving you a window of time to prune before they get ready for their next critical task: leaf abscission (shutting down for the winter). I do most of my pruning in winter, but I also prune back shrubs as needed after they have ripened their fruit.

— pick fruit! Aronia berries are almost ripe, native plums are ripening; elderberries and nonedible fruits such as grey dogwood berries are almost gone–both are bird favorites. The second crop of everbearing raspberries is ripening—yum! The most plentiful crop in my garden is aronia, and I made a batch of aronia/plum jam.

— 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 hot now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. 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! Don’t you feel like we’re starting to transition to fall?


As sweet joe pye weed finishes blooming, great blue lobelia takes over and asters are still to come in this shade garden.




We walked out our front door this morning to find the path strewn with hazelnut shells and husks. The squirrels and chipmunks must have had a party.

This is the most we ever see of the abundant hazelnuts (Corylus amaericana) that our trees bear–the shells that remain after the critters eat them. This year the nuts are being devoured even before they’re ripe. It’s at least two weeks earlier than hazelnuts usually ripen, and all the husks are still green. I wonder if there’s less food than usual because of the continuing drought, or more critters because of the mild winter.

Another thing that’s early is the flowering of several different prairie grasses: purple lovegrass, little bluestem, and prairie dropseed are all blooming now, again at least two weeks earlier than usual. Purple lovegrass in bloom, with its airy crown of tiny purple flowers, is lovely, but the seeds, which are darker purple and a bit larger than the blooms, are even more striking. This is a terrific plant for poor, dry soil and a hot, sunny site.


Purple lovegrasss (Eragrostis spectabilis) in bloom.

Summertime (II)

Sweet joe-pye weed beginning to bloom.

To me, summertime in the garden is all about the promise of autumn. In my garden, sweet joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) is just coming into bloom. The plants are not expending all that energy to look pretty for us. They’re doing it to attract pollinators, which will allow them to produce seed. For plants, as for most living things, it’s all about the next generation. They do it all for the children.

Little bluestem just stalking out.

Different types of plants have different strategies for reproducing. This picture shows little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), two different individuals with different colorations, just putting up their flower stalks. Little bluestem is one of the dominant plants of the midwestern prairies, but in nature it occurs frequently in the northeast as well. It’s an extremely tough, drought-resistant, deer-resistant plant that grows no more than 3′ high and has beautiful fall color. An excellent choice for the perennial border.

Grasses are pollinated by the wind, not by insects. There are two major groupings of flowering plants, dicots and monocots, named for the number of embryo leaves contained in their seeds. Grasses, bamboos (which are grasses), sedges, palm trees, orchids, and lilies are all monocots. They evolved more recently than dicots, which include most of the trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals we are most familier with.  Take a close look look at the flowers of grasses sometime and see how different they are from the flowers of, say, roses or violets. You’ll have to take a very close look because the flowers are generally quite small.


Purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) is just coming into bloom, and this is a sight as spectacular as its species name implies. Note the lavender flower buds. This short grass (6-8″) still grows along roadsides throughout the northeast but is hard to find in nurseries. After looking for it in vain for years, I finally realized that it was growing in my front yard, dug it up, and now enjoy it in my perennial border. Look for roadsides carpeted in lavender haze in late July and early August–that’s purple lovegrass.

Brown-eyed susan just opening its eyes.

Another plant I eagerly anticipate each summer is my favorite Rudbeckia, R. triloba (brown-eyed susan). Isn’t it lovely (this one is the first to open–the flower will be larger in a day or so)? This plant is shorter (usually about 3′) than most other Rudbeckias, the flowers are smaller and Crayola orange-yellow, and they can only be described as adorable. The plant will bloom until first frost.

Unripe seedpods of new jersey tea.

This post is all about fruition (or at least it started out that way), so it’s appropriate to end with a fruit. Do you remember New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)? This is its fruit capsule, and it’s quite strange looking. Definitely not a member of the rose family! These capsules will gradually turn brown. They contains hundreds of tiny seeds that are typically dispersed by birds and small mammals. The seeds are hard to germinate–like the seeds of many other trees and shrubs, they must pass through the gut of an animal before they can germinate.

We’ll be in southern California for a few days–a completely different climate and environment than my beloved northeast, but I’ll try to check out some native plants and farmer’s markets while I’m there.