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?


1/6/17: In the Garden this week


Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) is a jewel of the winter garden.

There’s always something to do in the garden.

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, and the ground is not frozen, water all plants installed this spring or fall. We have received at least an inch of rain per week for the past two weeks, so no need to water right now, but check back here frequently for updates. 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. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings this week. This past week we received just over 1 inch of rain.

— are your shrubs overgrown and in need of size reduction? it’s time to start winter pruning of woody plants. Now, while plants are dormant, is the best time to do this: it’s easy to see the structure of the plant while the leaves are down, and the plant is most likely to react favorably while it’s resting. Contact me for coaching if you would like to learn to do this yourself, or for an estimate if you would like me to do it for you.

clean up the vegetable garden carefully: remove the spent plants; compost healthy ones, but throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease. But don’t clean up the perennial garden. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter.

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. Or use a thick layer of leaves (12″ or more). You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds in the mulch as you collect them.

collect seeds. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed with us when we walk to the compost pile. Mixed-species foraging flocks visit daily to take advantage of the bounty; lately I’ve seen kinglets.

— plan for next season: Do it now, because later this winter everything might be covered in snow. 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? Plan to plant native perennials and shrubs on spring.

There’s always something to do in the garden . . .


. . . even if it’s just to wait until spring, when bloodroot appears again!

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.

What’s up?

Very little–this spring is at least 3 weeks behind most recent years. And today is particularly cold, windy, dark and un-springlike. But it is nevertheless time to begin clearing away last year’s growth from the perennial beds, so for the past few days I’ve been working in my shade garden. The spring ephemerals that dominate this garden are the first to emerge, and if I wait too long to clear it, I risk smothering the new growth. Regular readers of this blog know that I advocate leaving the leaves that fall on the perennial beds to provide winter cover and insulation, and I practice what I preach. And in most gardens, I would not have to carefully remove the leaf layer at the first sign of new growth: plants can grow right through most leaf mulch. But my garden is surrounded by Norway maple trees, and their leaves form thick, impermeable layers. If I left them, the tender plants would not be able to get sunlight, and they would die. So I must remove the leaf mulch as well as last year’s growth of stalks that are still standing.

I’ve uncovered most of the shadiest bed, the one where the earliest wildflowers return year after year. The only new growth to be seen was leaf buds of wild ginger (Asarum canadensis); small basal rosettes of columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and great blue lobelia (lobelia siphilitica); last year’s fern leaves, still nicely green; and tiny leaves of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). I can’t believe I’ve never written about the latter plant before.

public domain image from Wikipedia

This is a great plant. It’s related to borage; it’s about 18 inches tall and works well as part of a shade garden or groundcover in the shade. It’s called “waterleaf” because the leaves look like they’ve been splashed with water. It blooms in May, and the flowers are most often lavender but may also be white. It spreads showly by means of rhizomes but never becomes aggressive, although it holds its own nicely against more aggressive spreaders like Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis).

Spring gardening



The lovely native red maples (Acer rubrum–red flowers) are in bloom right now, as are the wretched invasive Norway maples (Acer platanoides–green flowers).

I’ve finally been able to make time for gardening over the past three or four days, and I’ve got most of my perennial beds cleaned up, meaning I’ve removed last year’s stems and leaves and set them aside for composting as needed. Because of the warm, sunny days, many plants are showing signs of growth, but because of the very cool nights, just as many are still dormant, so I’m very careful about where I dig. Because my beds are planted so thickly, I have very few markers. There are just too many plants for me to be able to mark them all! I do try to mark all new plants, because I may not recognize them when they come up the next spring.

The prairie beds, also known as sunny borders, still look very sparse. The shade garden, which is full of early emerging spring ephemerals, is almost solid green, although there are few flowers yet. Fern fronds are starting to unfurl. I am gradually dividing shade-lovers to fill in the newly expanded shade garden in the front. It’s a nice break from clearing perennial beds.

Lawns are finally greening up, but it’s much too early to feed them. I know that the Scott’s commercials tell you to fertilize twice in spring, but this is totally unnecessary and goes against current horticultural knowledge. If you must fertilize your lawn, only two yearly applications are necessary, around Memorial Day and Labor Day, and both should be organic products. This is a good time to reseed bare patches (although early fall is better), or to decide that you have places where grass just won’t grow. There’s still plenty of time to plant perennials or shrubs instead of lawn.

This is NOT a good time to prune woody plants, except to remove diseased or damaged growth. Plants are in active growth, and they have no energy to spare to heal the wounds that pruning causes. Early bloomers like forsythia can be cut back after they finish blooming. but don’t prune late bloomers in spring or you’ll get no flowers this year.

Here are some pictures taken in the Thielke Arboretum today:


Skunk cabbage is leafed out. Here it’s framed by the delicate yellow flowers of spicebush.


Fern fronds, skunk cabbage, and the tiny emerging leaves of Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense).



Dutchman’s breeches


I planted the tiny corms of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) more than 15 years ago. It’s never bloomed abundantly for me, because it prefers richer soil than I have, but most years I see a few flowers around April 1. In recent years it hasn’t bloomed, so last year I divided the patch and moved the corms around, hoping to find a spot the plant liked better. Today this one bloomed in the original spot.

Dutchman’s breeches is named for the shape of the flower, which does look like a tiny pair of pantaloons hanging upside down. The plant is only a few inches high; it blooms in earliest spring and disappears very quickly. It’s in the same genus, Dicentra, as the bleeding hearts, which have showier pink flowers. Our native bleeding heart, D. eximia, which is about 8″ tall, will bloom soon. The showy old-fashioned bleeding heart is D. spectabilis, and it’s not native. The fourth member of the genus you might know is D. formosa, a non-native that’s very similar to D. eximia. If you have a shady spot with rich soil, D. cucullaria and D. eximia are well worth a try.

Celebrating wildflowers


I just stumbled upon the US Forest Service’s Celebrating Wildflowers website, and I strongly suggest that you check it out. What a wealth of information! Research on natives and invasives, wildflower viewing areas (none nearby), cultural information, and much more. Click on the “Special Features” tab and then on “Plant of the Week” to explore dozens of interesting plants in depth.

And the current plant of the week is a spring ephemeral that’s common in this area, cut-leaved toothwort (Cardamine concatenata). My husband shot the photo above on a spring walk a couple of years ago. Walk along the river in the Saddle River County Park between Glen Rock and Ridgewood in April and you’ll see these pretty little members of the mustard family by the hundreds, along with trout lilies (shown below), spring beauty, violets, and other early spring flowers. Something to look forward to an we anticipate another snowstorm.