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.

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8/11/17: In the garden this week

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Some clients resist planting native grasses; resistance usually ends when they see the colors of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Look carefully at the blues and purples in this plant, and remember that every plant is slightly different.

We are into what I think of as the summer doldrums, or maybe just a reli=atively q uiet period in the garden. Certainly the prairie perennials continue to bloom with all their might, and there are all the asters to look forward to, but in the ornamental garden there’s not much to do except to keep things tidy (that is, if you like your garden to be tidy).

Still, there’s always something to do in the garden, and here are some suggestions:

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. We received just under an inch of rain so far this 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. 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 and 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; 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.

— it’s 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.

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A branch of a large native hazelnut shrub (Corylus americana). It has finished setting fruit as well as forming next spring’s flower buds–the tiny things hanging down from the leaf nodes will become the male flowers. The plant is resting before its last remaining task of the year, leaf abscission, so this is a good time to prune.

do not deadhead your perennials. It will soon be time to collect seeds, which represent winter food for birds and other creatures and new plants for you. Store your seeds in a cold place (such as an unheated garage) for next year’s planting or simply scattered on the ground where you want them to grow. Do deadhead potentially  invasive plants like butterfly bush, however.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Rudbeckia triloba is in bloom now and will put on a display through September and into October. This is a short-lived perennial that readily self-seeds, so new plant appear each year. It remains a manageable 3 feet tall and doesn’t spread aggressively. And the flowers are adorable!

 

 

7/29/16: In the garden this week

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You could go to the New York Botanical Garden to see the corpse flower in bloom, or you could admire gorgeous blooms in your own native plant garden. This is Hibiscus mosceutos, just beginning to bloom. The flowers are almost as large as dinner plates.

Today is the day the corpse flower is in full bloom, but in my garden something just as gorgeous but much more common is happening: Hibiscus moscheutos is beginning to bloom, and we’ll be enjoying it for a month or more. This is supposed to be a wetland plant, but I originally got the seeds from my next-door neighbor’s bone-dry garden, and it’s bloomed reliably for me ever since (and there are both seeds and seedlings to give away each year).

We finally got a bit of rain this week, but according to my rain gauge, the total from the two storms was well under an inch. I suspect the amount of rainfall varied a great deal locally, so your total may be different. This shows why it’s important to know how much rain you received in a dry period like the one we’re experiencing so you can care for your plants properly.

After a somewhat rainy weekend (yay!), temperatures are predicted to moderate next week. It’s been very hard to work outdoors in 90+ degree heat and humidity. I look forward to a productive week. And if you should feel ambitious, here are some things you might address in your garden this week:

water new plantings: depending on location, you probably got less than an inch of rain this week, so new plantings need supplemental watering. 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 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.

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. Keep removing suckers all summer long. 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, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

collect seeds. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day (although goldfinches are getting most of it). So does seed of daisy fleabane, a lovely native annual. It pops up in different parts of my garden each year. I’ve been collecting those and seeds of junegrass.

— it’s a good time to prune woody plants. Now that most 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! Elderberries and aronia berries are almost ripe, native plums are ripening; nonedible fruits such as grey dogwood berries are beginning to show color. The most plentiful crop in my garden is aronia, and I am planning 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!

Have a great weekend! And enjoy my latest Backyard Environmentalist column, “The Indomitables,” a group of native plants that are particularly easy to grow.

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Rudbeckia triloba is beginning to open its flowers this week. This lovely and easy-to-grow plant remains about 3′ tall and doesn’t spread aggressively like taller Rudbeckias. The flowers are only about 1 1/2″ across, but they’re just plain adorable.

New England Asters

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When the sun came out after the heavy morning rain, the first New England asters (Aster novae angliae) opened in my garden, and my husband captured this wonderful shot of a skipper nectaring on the first aster of the season. (If you can identify the species of this skipper, please let me know. This unknown species is present in my garden from spring to fall, so it must breed here and produce several flights per season. There are many skipper species, and I can’t figure out what this one is.) As you can see, the brown-eyed susans (Rudbeckia triloba) are still going strong as the fall flowers–asters, Boltonia, goldenrod–begin to open.

The asters and boltonia are recovering from severe rabbit and deer depredations last season. You may recall that the winter before last was unusually mild. I think that as a result, fewer critters than usual got killed off over the winter. The larger than normal populations dined so heavily and so repeatedly on my perennials last season that several species, including all the Phlox, the New England asters, the Boltonia, and the sunflowers (Helianthis species) never bloomed. The plants didn’t die, however, and now this season they’re back, although there are fewer of them. In the meantime, the less tasty plants, such as the Monarda and the Rudbeckias, are taking over. My number-one garden chore for next spring will be to clear out some of the Monarda fistulosa and Rudbeckia subtomentosa to make room for other, less aggressive and perhaps more tasty plants. A garden is always a work in progress.

Asters are the favorite late-summer and early fall butterfly plants. There have been almost no monarchs this season–I have seen one the entire summer–but in years when they are plentiful, my asters have been monarch magnets during the fall migration season. Let’s hope that this is merely a normal population fluctuation and not the beginning of the end for monarchs. And consider planting milkweed and asters next year.

 

8/23/13: In the garden this week

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Rudbeckia triloba (brown-eyed susan) is still going strong; note the about-to-open pods of orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) at the bottom left. Although the garden is showing many signs of fall, some perennials will continue to bloom for at least another month, and some, such as asters and boltonia, have barely begun. There will be food for pollinating insects and for birds for many months to come.

After a couple of hot days and the nearest we’ve been to a dry spell this summer, we seem to be back to moderate temperatures and rainfall. We had about an inch of gentle rainfall this week, which is ideal during the tomato harvest.

Consider these chores this weekend:

– plant your fall vegetable garden: cool-weather crops such as lettuce, arugula, peas, and mustards (brassicas).

– keep the grass long (3″ or more) to reduce mowing times. Mow with a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the lawn, where they will serve as natural fertilizer. There is no need to fertilize or water. We received about 1″ of rain this week.

– as perennials finish blooming, leave the dead flowers on the plants. Collect seeds as they ripen; let most remain to feed the birds next winter. For most perennials, I will not remove any growth until early next spring.

– harvest squash and beans before they get large and tough. Pull up bean plants when they stop producing.

– continue to stake tomato plants firmly as they grow and remove all suckers. While plants are producing fruit, cut back on watering to prevent cracking. Given the amount of rain we have received this week, there is no need to water.

– monitor the garden carefully for pests and diseases; remove and discard infected leaves on vegetable plants.

– identify pests before taking action: most insects are harmless or beneficial, and many harmful ones can be easily removed by hand-picking. Expect pest populations to decline naturally as the weather cools down.

– take advantage of the relatively cool weather to do garden chores: carry out remedial or cosmetic pruning as needed.

And as always, enjoy the weekend in the garden!

Rudbeckia (a.k.a. black-eyed susan)

Rudbeckias, also known as black-eyed susans and sometimes coneflowers (which is why it’s always best to use correct species names) are the star of my garden right now. I grow two species: R. subtomentosa and R. triloba. You could consider them as variations on a black-eyed-susan theme.

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R. submentosa, or sweet black-eyed susan, is a tough (you might say assertive) perennial that grows up to about 6′ high and blooms from July through first frost. Individual flowers are large–about 4″–and there are gazillions of them. This plant is completely pest- and disease free and the deer and rabbits mostly leave it alone. Like all native prairie flowers, it is a magnet for pollinators, although Rudbeckias do not seem to attract butterflies except for the occasional hairstreak.

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R. triloba, or brown-eyed susan, can only be described as adorable. The flowers are fairly small, about 2″ across, and a brilliant Crayola yellow-orange. This plant is smaller overall than R. submentosum, reaching about 3-4′. It does not spread underground like R. submentosum and is not truly perennial. Individual plants seem to last 3-4 years, but it self-seeds in my garden, so I always have seedlings. It is also pest- and disease-free, but it tends to be eaten by deer and rabbits. (I spread the plants around so the critters don’t find all of them.)

Members of this genus may be perennials, annuals, biennials, or triennials. The common black-eyed susan (R. hirta) is a biennial. In my experience, they take two years to bloom from seed or after being moved, as is true for most prairie plants. they need time to develop large root systems.

All Rudbeckias are native to North America., The genus belongs to the aster family (Asteraceae), and all species have flowers that botanists call composites. (Sometimes the family name Compositae is used instead.) That’s because all the plants in this family have flower heads made up of many tiny individual flowers. The brightly colored petals are actually rays, and the actual flowers make up the center disk. In all composite flowers, the individual flowers actually bloom in rows from the outside of the disk inward. You can often see pollinators working their way around the circle going from tiny flower to flower. Here’s a picture that clearly shows a flower head with the outer circle of flowers in bloom:

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The Asteraceae is a huge plant family that includes many native perennials (asters, echinacea, sunflowers), many familiar, though nonnative, garden plants (yarrow, marigolds, daisies), and many important food plants (artichokes, lettuce, sunflower seeds and oil). The many native perennials in this huge, happy family help bring variety, beauty, and sustainability to the garden. Plant some for yourself, and enjoy them for many years to come.

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.

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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.