4/21/17: In the garden this week

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Violets are not weeds! They’re an extremely important larval food source for a large group of butterflies. No violets, no fritillaries. And they’re lovely as well.

After a bizarre start, with the late snowstorm in mid-March, spring is unfolding in a normal and reassuring way (although for those of us who remember when lilacs bloomed reliably for Mother’s Day, everything is still insanely early). Violets are blooming, most native trees are beginning to leaf out, early bloomers like spicebush and native plums have finished blooming, flowering dogwood (which used to bloom around Memorial Day) is almost at its peak. None of my native shrubs were affected by the late frost, although many exotics, such as the early-flowering Asian magnolias, bloomed sparsely if at all.

In the understory, bloodroot is in bloom right now, as are Virginia bluebells. Columbine is showing buds, Solomon’s seal is raising its delicate head above the leaf litter, and native geraniums are showing buds. Most summer-blooming perennials are up, with the exception of milkweeds and wild petunia, which always come late to the party. They must feel the need to make an entrance.

There’s a lot to do in the garden this week and throughout the spring:

water new plantings: Although the past two weeks have been dry, we received an inch of water last night, so no need to water this week. But 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 are subject to 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.

Clean up the perennial garden. It’s finally time! Compost as much as the detritus as you can, and treat it gently: it contains the pupae and larvae of valuable insects, bees, and butterflies. And leave a little on the ground for birds to use as nesting material. As I glance out the window, a robin is collecting bits of grass and stalks I left behind.

—Divide perennials 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. And remember, 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.

Enjoy the garden this week–the weather and the soil moisture will be perfect!

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The delicate flowers of native plum, Prunus americana, are intensely fragrant and as lovely as any exotic cherry can produce.

 

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3/31/17: In the garden this week

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Soon: if you sow seeds this week, you can expect to eat tender young greens within a month.

Finally, a good soaking rain! An inch earlier in the week, and now the rain gauge is showing another inch since last night. The total for the last 365 days has risen to close to 90 percent of normal, whereas it’s been hovering between 15 and 20 percent below normal for more than a year. I am hopeful that the drought of the past two years is over.

Once the rain stops, it will be time to plant cold-tolerant crops in the vegetable garden (see below) and to get out into the woods to look for signs of spring. Skunk cabbage is well up, its bright green leaves half unfurled; pussy willow is in full bloom; many spring blooming plants are emerging.

Here are some more garden tasks for the coming week:

water new plantings: April Fool! We’ve had two inches of rain this week so far, so no need to water, but 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 yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by 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 plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden.

— Don’t clean up the perennial garden yet. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter. Wait another few weeks, even a month, until most plants are in active growth. There is one exception to this rule: if your garden, like mine, is covered with leaves of Norway maple trees, which form a solid barrier to new growth, remove those leaves gently. I uncovered my shade gardens this week and found that asters, columbine, Virginia waterleaf, and many other native shade plants were putting out new growth.

but do collect seeds. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. Through the winter I saw nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets. Now the robins are back, and year-round residents like chickadees and cardinals are very active. Be sure to elave them some seed.

— plan for the coming season: Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit. Did you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring. Is there plentiful food for birds now? If not, plant a variety of native grasses, perennials, and shrubs. And place your orders early, meaning now, because native plant nurseries run out of the most popular species.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. The grass plants can’t possibly use all that nitrogen while the weather is so cool, so it just runs off into our streams and ponds. 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. And remember, pesticides kill butterfly and firefly larvae and native ground-dwelling bees as well as “bad” insects. And they’re not so great for kids or pets either. Best to avoid them.

join a garden club or native plant society: you’ll meet like-minded gardeners, learn a lot, and find out about local resources. For example, join your local garden club or the Bergen-Passaic chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. This Sunday, we will be helping with garden cleanup at the NY-NJ Trail Conference headquarters, 600 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah, starting at 1:00 p.m. Come join us!

— 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.

Remember, it’s too early to plant many things, but it’s the best possible time to plant a large tree. Trees provide untold benefits to the environment: they clean and cool the air, moderate groundwater runoff, feed and house wildlife, and beautify our environment. Think about it.

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Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) will be emerging soon in moist woodlands such as the Saddle River County Park.

 

Spring fever

Yesterday, for the first time, my shade garden was free of snow, which leads me to wonder when I should rake off the protective layer of leaves that covered it all winter. If you read this blog, you know that I don’t do any fall cleanup–I just leave the fallen leaves in place on the beds to serve as winter mulch. And if you have oaks or almost any other type of tree, you can leave them in the spring as well. However, I have maples (wretched, invasive Norway maples), and maple leaves break down slowly and form an impermeable layer that smothers new growth. So I must rake the leaves off most of my perennials beds in the spring. I do this gradually, starting with the shadiest bed in the back, because that has the earliest spring ephemerals. Hence the question: should I remove the leaves now or wait until things warm up a bit? I’ll probably go ahead and do it, because the plants growing there are all tough little guys, and they can take another cold spell if one should come along.

Removing last year’s growth from all my perennial beds is my biggest springtime chore; I’ll start very soon and end with the sunniest beds around May 1. (Look for future posts about spring–not fall–garden cleanup.) As I clear, I’ll weed as necessary, because once the plants grow tall I won’t be able to see most of the weeds anymore. My gardens are closely planted. Then I’ll move and divide plants as needed, and plant the new perennials I’ve ordered to arrive on April 25 (expect a couple of posts about that). Also, throughout the spring, I’ll be pulling up invasive weeds, particularly seedlings of Norway maples and English ivy in my mini-woodland.

Those are my normal springtime chores, and once they’re done, most of the garden work is accomplished for the year. Every year, in addition, there’s a list of special chores: things I noticed last year that need fixing or improving or changing. Here’s a partial list for this coming season:

— remove taller perennials, especially Rudbeckia subtomentosa (sweet black-eyed susan) that has spread to the front of the main perennial bed. It’s gorgeous, but there’s way too much of it, and it’s too tall to be at the front of the border.

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— making everything look neater, which will involve reseeding the lawn in spots, adding mulch, and digging cleaner edges

— enlarge one of the shrub beds along the sidewalk by mulching a larger area and spreading out the spring-blooming perennials and ferns already growing there

Look for updates as spring advances. Soon we’ll be enjoying scenes like these:

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