4/28/17: In the garden this week


Early spring ephemerals are subtle, like this Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). The showier variegated species that’s more often found in garden centers is NOT native.

At this time of year I can either work in the garden or write about the garden, and most of the time I choose the former. But I want to briefly keep you up-to-date on seasonal developments:

water new plantings: Rainfall totals are finally normal or even a bit above, at least in the short term. We received approximately an inch and a half of rain this week, so no need to water. But be sure to water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and check back here weekly for updates: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, 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.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—plants grow roots when the soil is cool, so the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees should be treated for emerald ash borer. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can them recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, raking the soil smooth, and adding compost or well-rotted manure. Compost can simply be spread on top of the soil; manure should be mixed in, and make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes and squash for another few weeks.

—  After cleaning up the perennial garden, continue to plant perennials and to divide and move them as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Wait until Memorial Day, and then use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Or best of all, don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Remember that 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 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.

Plant something for the butterflies this week! You’ll reap the benefits all summer long!


Tiarella is the star of the late-April shade garden. Ferns are emerging, and columbine and geraniums will open their first flowers in the coming week.



Indian pink


Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) in bloom in my garden today.

I planted this last year and forgot about it, but a few days ago a glimpse of red caught my eye, and since then I’ve been checking it every day. The buds are red; the flowers open as you see here. The plant is entrancing.

Indian pink is a shade plant that grows about 18″ tall and, according to all references I’ve seen, prefers soil that’s moister and richer than mine. It also doesn’t compete well with aggressive plants, and I’ve got it in a bed overrun with Canada anemone. And it’s not actually native this far north. Every once in a while you’ve just got to try a plant, even if it’s not quite right for your site. After all, many wetland plants do just fine in my bone-dry, sandy soil.

5/27/16: In the garden this week


Columbine, along with many other spring blooming native perennials, are giving it their all right now. Notice all the tiny bugs on and in the flowers–how many can you count? 

Suddenly the weather has turned hot–much too hot for spring planting. Plants make roots when the temperature is cool and top growth when the temperature is hot, but without enough root growth, heat will just make them droop. Be sure to water your new plantings thoroughly.

Memorial Day is traditionally the time to put in cold-sensitive plants like tomatoes and basil and to feed the lawn for the first time in the season. It’s also time to get out the deck furniture, overhaul the grill, and enjoy the outdoors. I hope you’ll get to do all that this weekend. But first, think about these garden chores:

— divide hardy perennials and grasses. Spring is the best time to divide plants, but now that the weather has turned hot, it’s too late to divide tap-rooted plants such as columbine and orange butterflyweed, and many native grasses don’t respond well once they’ve put out a couple of inches of top growth. Easy-to-divide plants like asters and boltonia can be handled for another week or so, but be sure to water well. That goes for anything you plant now–perennials, grasses, shrubs, or trees. Give them at least an inch of water after planting, and continue to water throughout the entire growing season.

— Harvest cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula, and peas. Remove them and plant warm-weather crops in their place. Plant parsley, dill, and basil plants, and get those tomatoes in the ground!


— continue to water newly seeded lawn while the weather is hot. If you feel you absolutely, positively must feed your lawn, use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Better yet, don’t feed at all this season, or wait until Labor Day for the single feeding. The planet will thank you, and the lawn will look just fine.

Enjoy a lazy holiday weekend in the garden!


Diervilla lonicera (northern bush honeysuckle) is my new favorite shrub. The new growth is this gorgeous golden bronze color all season long, and the yellow flowers complement it beautifully. Try it if you have a dry, shady spot.


5/13/16: In the garden this week


This season’s first native geraniums (Geranium maculatum) are opening now. This lovely woodland native does well in poor soil and deep shade.

It’s really, really spring when the geraniums start to open. Our loveliest native geranium is a true spring ephemeral: it appears, blooms, and sets seed within no more than two months, then disappears until next spring. It’s so easy to grow that you can dig it up and move it while it’s in bloom. And as you can see in the photo, it combines will with other shade lovers–notice all the aster leaves.

As I write this the rain has begun, a few hours later than predicted so I was able squeeze in some planting this morning. Two of my clients’ plants arrived yesterday (as did mine). It will be a busy week! But the relatively cool, rainy weather is ideal for planting.

And here are some other things you might accomplish in your garden this week:

divide hardy perennials and grasses. Spring is the best time to divide plants; many will even bloom the same year if you divide them early enough. I start dividing as soon as each species is ready and stop when the weather gets hot, and I try to do it right before it rains (saves watering). Exception: it’s too late to divide tap-rooted plants such as columbine and orange butterflyweed, and many native grasses don’t respond well once they’ve put out a couple of inches of top growth. Wait until next year to divide these plants.

Harvest cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. Plant parsley and dill plants, but hold off on basil for another week or so.

— you should have started vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash a while ago. (You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.) Hold off on putting these tender crops in the ground until around May 20.

Plant! The weather is perfect. Most reliable mail-order nurseries 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, open the boxes, water as necessary, and keep 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 unless you’ve seeded it,  lawn certainly doesn’t need watering, and it’s still too early to fertilize. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

It’s very hard to stay out of the garden in spring! Enjoy the garden this week.


Our native Tiarella combines well with other shade-lovers, such as asters, ferns, columbine, and Heuchera.


5/22/15: In the garden this week


Our lovely native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a highlight of a spring perennial garden.

The drought continues! Despite all the predictions and lots of cloudy weather, we received well under an inch of rain this week, so the soil is very, very dry–unusual for this time of year. So watering new plantings is a high priority. Established plants, if they are sited properly, should not need supplemental water, however.

In addition to enjoying a Memorial day barbecue, here are some things you could be doing in the garden this holiday weekend:

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 two 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.

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, 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. 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!


Another highlight of the spring garden is native geranium, Geranium maculatum. This plant thrives in dry shade and goes dormant after blooming and setting seed.

First day of spring

In honor of today, the first day of spring, also known as the vernal equinox, here’s a gallery of spring ephemerals we’ll be seeing very soon. In April and May, look for these lovely little flowers in parks such as the path between the Glen Rock and Ridgewood duck ponds along the Saddle River or the Fyke Nature Center off of Godwin Avenue in Wyckoff. All these photos were taken by my husband, Bruce R. Thaler.

These plants prefer moist, shady sites, and all are true spring ephemerals: they complete their life cycles in early spring before the trees leaf out. All are quite small: a foot high or less. So plant them along with ferns, wild ginger (Asarum canadensis), native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) and other ground covers.

Because our native trees leaf out later than nonnative trees, you must plant these lovely little guys under native trees. Otherwise they will not receive enough spring sunlight and will gradually die off. But if you have the right conditions, they are readily available, very easy to grow, and will reappear reliably and increase in number every spring.


Cardamine concatenata, cutleaf toothwort, a member of the mustard family.


Erythronium americanum, trout lily, a diminutive member of the lily family. The common name refers to the leaves, which look like speckled trout. These should be appearing very soon in moist woods.


Claytonia virginica, spring beauty, a member of the Portulaceae


Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells, a member of the Boraginaceae. The buds are pink but the open flowers turn deep blue.


Sanguinaria canadensis, bloodroot, a member of the poppy family. This plant grows from tubers and is only about 6 inches high. These last two plants gradually died out in my shade garden because it is located under a Norway maple, which leafs out too early.


Phlox divaricata, woodland phlox. All phloxes belong to the Polemoniaceae. I could not keep this plant going my my shade garden because it is a favorite food of rabbits and deer. I miss it!


And last but not least, our native geranium or cranesbill, Geranium maculatum, a member of the Geraniaceae. This blooms a bit later than the others, in May, grows from rhizomes, is very easy to move and divide, but is visible from only a few weeks in spring.