6/9/17: In the garden this week


You’ve seen this perennial border before, in its High Summer mode, dominated by yellows and purples. Now, in early summer, white prevails as junegrass (Koeleria macracantha) begins to bloom at Penstemon digitalis reaches its peak. Columbine straddles late spring and early summer.

Because of the cool, wet spring, the garden is gorgeous. But because of the mild winter, it’s overrun with chipmunks and woodchucks and deer. The chipmunks seem to be using my herb pots as a larder; they dig in the soil every night. I’ve never found them to be a problem before. Someone is eating tarragon, and oregano, herbs that have always been immune before. And I doubt very much if either asters or boltonia will bloom this year. Critters are repeatedly eating them right down to the ground. It’s happened before, and the plants will survive, but it’s distressing all the same.

As serviceberries ripen (Amerlanchier), the bird activity in the garden reaches a frenzy. The berries in each cluster ripen one by one, and each morning the ripest are gone. If you grow this wonderful native shrub or tree (and you certainly should), try to taste at least a few berries yourself.


Guess which serviceberry will be gone tomorrow morning?

Here are some tasks you might address in the garden this week:

water new plantings: Despite the rainy spring, we received less than half an inch in the past week, and the weather is about to turn HOT. If you’re still planting, water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and hand water as needed. It’s hard for plants to establish in hot weather. Also, this week you should water all plants installed this spring or last fall. Be sure to check your town’s watering regulations—many local areas have recently adopted more stringent rules.

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. I will be watering this weekend.


The ash trees we planted last year have grown a lot! I will continue to water them during dry weeks this season, and they were treated to prevent emerald ash borer infestations last month.

— all vegetables, including tender crops like tomatoes and peppers and corn, should be planted out by now, and with the coming hot weather, it will soon be 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.

—  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 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.

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.

— 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!


Compare this border today with the way it looked in April when I did my annual spring cleaning. Looks pretty different now and will look even more different in July.



First sightings on Mt. Tammany

Hiking Mt. Tammany at the Delaware Water Gap with my family today, I saw some plants I had never before spotted in the wild. These are cellphone pictures, so you’ll have to take my word about the details:


Trailing arbutus (Epigeae repens), in bloom. Look carefully for the tiny white bell-shaped flowers.


Moss pink (Phlox subulata) almost at the top


Serviceberry (Amelanchier) in bloom. You’ll have to take this one on faith: it’s the little bits of white just above the man in the foreground. This was right on top, in a very exposed spot.

It’s always wonderful to see natives in nature. I also saw partridgeberry, Solomon’s seal, and, down below in wetter areas, lots of spicebush in bloom. A lovely cluster of nodding trillium right near the parking lot. The woods are primarily chestnut oak and hemlock; hemlocks near the trailheads had lots of woolly adelgids, those far from the road were healthy. Invasives (garlic mustard, barberry, wineberry), but mostly near the parking lots and near the summit. And speaking of the summit, a bald eagle soared right overhead.

Early spring


Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucularia) are in full bloom right now, and the plants are finally spreading in my garden. And the rabbits didn’t eat the flowers this year—yet!


The sepals of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) are beginning to enlarge, hinting of the beauty to come.


Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has reached full bloom, its tiny yellow-green flowers lighting up the garden.


There’s nothing quite as lovely are serviceberry (Amelanchier) buds in spring. Today they look like this; tomorrow they’ll be almost all quite and will look like strings of pearls.

4/15/16: In the garden this week


Some serviceberry (Amelanchier) species are in full bloom, some are still just showing buds.

It’s turning out to be another dry spring. Despite the series of strong storms we’ve experienced recently, we’ve had less than 2 inches of rain over the past 30 days. This means that plants you installed last fall, as well as those you put in this spring, need supplemental water. Woody species in particular need extra water during dry spells for at least a year while they’re becoming established: aim for at least an inch a week. The main reason plants don’t survive is insufficient water while they’re becoming established.

Have you ordered your plants yet? The major mail-order suppliers of natives are running out of the most popular plants, so if you were intending to order but keep putting it off, do it now! Some suppliers have started shipping, and local nurseries will receive most of their spring shipments within the next six weeks.

In addition to ordering your plants, here’s what you can do in the garden this week:

divide hardy perennials and grasses. Many of the toughest native plants–many grasses, asters, rudbeckias, boltonia, columbine, to name just a few–have been in active growth for weeks. I start dividing as soon as each species is ready, and I try to do it right before it rains (saves watering). I’ve been at it for 2-3 weeks and have enlarged several beds to receive these divisions and others later in the season.

— 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.

— because the nights are still cool, continue to direct-sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas.

— 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, which is about to flower. This noxious weed is particularly easy to remove–grab the base of the plant, and unless the soil is compacted, you’ll get the whole root system in one firm tug. 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.

— if you’re planning on ordering native plants from specialty nurseries, get your order in now! Many companies are already sold out of the most popular plants. Some companies have started shipping. Once the plants arrive, get them in the ground as soon as you can. If you must hold them for a few days, put them in the shadiest spot you can find.

— 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.

This will be a gorgeous weekend to be out in the garden. Enjoy!


Our native plum tree, Prunus americana, rivals any ornamental plum for the beauty of its flowers.

Saving ecosystems starts at home


Ripening serviceberries in June will draw birds to your garden

Bergen Audubon has a new program to certify backyards as natural areas. Check out their website for more information and an application. The program is similar to the National Wildlife Federation’s certified backyard habitat system or the butterfly garden certification program of the North American Butterfly Association.

All these programs have the same goal and go about it in the same way: they require you to provide food, water, cover, and a variety of native plants. They’re all based on the same premise: that in the suburbs, the environment is the sum total of all of our backyards, so the small steps that each of us take, especially planting a variety of native plants, will greatly improve the environment for wildlife of all kinds.

As you plan this year’s garden, keep the birds and bees in mind.

red admiral

A red admiral nectaring on blooming ninebark in spring. Want to see butterflies this year? Plant natives!

Catbird fledglings

Gray catbird, fledgling

I’ve seen a stump-tailed catbird fledgling on the ground almost every day this week. I think there must be one nest in a dense Virginia creeper vine growing up the garage wall (about a week ago, there was half a turquoise-blue eggshell on the ground under the vine) and another perhaps in the holly outside my office window. One fledgling was on top of the compost pile, which is beneath the holly. The parents have been continually arriving with caterpillars, in the interim gorging themselves on the ripe serviceberries outside the back door. It’s been a great show!

The image above is from the website of Project Noah,  an organization that links citizen scientists who participate in investigations of wildlife all over the world. Check out the great wildlife photos!

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.