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.



Joys of spring


In about a month, the shade garden in front of the house will look like this: orange columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and pink wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

I just spent a glorious hour clearing my shade beds of last fall’s leaves and the winter’s detritus (all carefully raked on to the leaf piles to preserve overwintering insects and their larvae). I realized a week or so ago that all the snow that fell on the driveway had been thrown on to the very spot where my earliest spring ephemeral, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), is planted. Now that the snow is gone and the rain stopped, I raked that garden clear and uncovered emerging leaves of columbine, wild geranium (both in bloom in the photo above), asters, tiarella, heuchera, Virginia waterleaf, and, of course, last  year’s ferns. It was lovely to see them all.

My very dry, sandy soil won’t support some of the showiest spring ephemerals, such as bloodroot and Virginia bluebells, and oh, how I wish it could. But here are some plants that come up reliably for me every spring.


Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), surrounded by foliage of fern, columbine, and shade aster, will bloom in April.


Don’t forget that violets are natives as well, and they are an important butterfly host plant. I encourage them in the lawn and in the shade beds.


Dutchman’s breeches, the earliest flower in my garden, usually blooms around April 1. It was buried in snow until very recently. No sign of it yet.


Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum Virginiana) will bloom in May. Solomon’s seal needs a wetter site than I have so it doesn’t spread much; the waterleaf loves the dry soil.


Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis) is a great groundcover for part shade. It spreads almost a bit too enthusiastically.

What plants are popping up to delight you in your garden?

5/15/15: In the garden this week


Flowers of columbine and false Solomon’s seal, and foliage of mayapple, white snakeroot, several different shade asters, among others grace a shady perennial border.

Mid-spring is my favorite time in my garden. The shade gardens in both the front and backyards burst into bloom, and although they’re not as colorful as the summer prairie gardens, they have their own quiet charm. As you can see, I like to plant many different species close together (it helps fool the rabbits and deer). In spite of the extremely dry spring we’re having, I have not watered these gardens.

In addition to admiring your handiwork, here’s what you could be doing in the garden this week:

— the soil is very dry, so 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 last week), 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, and eggplant.

— now that almost 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: 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. Lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it less frequently and more deeply to encourage deep root growth.

Enjoy your garden this weekend!


Virginia waterleaf, an excellent groundcover or flowering perennial for dry shade, opens its first flower; Solomon’s seal is in the background.

True and false

Two similar and frequently confused plants are gracing my shade gardens right now: Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and false Solomon’s seal, sometimes called Solomon’s plume (Smilacina racemosa). You can see right away why Latin plant names really are less confusing than common names, right?


Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)


Solomon’s plume (Smilacina racemosa). Notice the flower bud peeking out at the tip of the plant.

Notice how similar the form of the two plants is. The flowers and fruit are totally different, but the size and shape, bloom time, and preferred site are all the same. Both are about 18″ to 2′ tall, bloom in May, and fruit in late summer. They belong to the same plant family, the Asperagaceae (asparagus family). You’ll frequently see the two together in natural areas, and when they first emerge they can be hard to tell apart. Both spread by rhizomes. Both are shade plants that do best in damp, rich soil; although both do well in my dry, sandy soil, I suspect they would spread more quickly in richer soil.

The dangling white flowers of Solomon’s seal will turn into blue berries in late summer. The white plumy flowers of false Solomon’s seal will turn into clusters of bright red berries that the birds will eat the second they ripen. Here’s a closeup of the Solomon’s seal flowers and a not-very-good picture of false Solomon seal fruit.


Solomon’s seal: flowers


False Solomon’s seal–almost-ripe fruit in mid-September when the shade asters bloom.

Both of these plants are relatively easy to find, as native plants go, meaning they are not that easy to find. Avoid the commonly available Polygonatum odoratum, Japanese Solomon’s seal. Many garden centers and plant catalogs sell that, calling it simply variegated or fragrant Solomon’s seal. It is not a native plant. It’s worth seeking out the real thing! Remember to always check the name of the species.

These two species are excellent choices for almost any shady spot. If your soil is moist, combine them with appropriate ferns, Virginia bluebells,  jack-on-the-pulpit, golden alexanders, mistflower, even trilliums. If the soil is dry, try different ferns, mayapple, native geraniums, meadowrue, shade-loving asters. But do try them!