3/4/16: In the garden this week

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The crocuses will be just fine, as will the daffodils, just showing buds, that are interplanted with them.

Snow and cold–and temperatures in the 70s expected for the coming week. What’s a gardener to do? Here are a few suggestions:

— as soon as the snow melts, direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm, stall when it turns cold again, but cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— 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 and western bittercress in your garden plots. The 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.

Many streets in our area with older homes are graced with sugar maples as street trees. If you live on one of those lovely streets, or have sugar maples anywhere on your property, consider tapping your trees for sap. (I’m only half kidding.)

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Sugar maples in Glen Rock being tapped for syrup.

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3/27/15: In the garden this week

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Spicebush (lindera benzoin) is one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom. This easy-to-grow and adaptable plant thrives in part shade and is not fussy about soil. Look for its delicate chartreuse flowers in about two weeks.

Here in the central part of Bergen County, the snow is gone, although in more northern towns quite a lot remains. The temperature has reached the 50s for the first time, springlike temperatures are predicted for the week ahead, and we’ve had the kind of gentle rain that encourage birds to search for insect food in lawns. All week I’ve been catching glimpses of pairs of hairy woodpeckers and cardinals, and the bird condo in my front yard is sporting new nest holes. Skunks have emerged from hibernation. Hazelnuts are in bloom, and spicebush buds are swelling. It finally really is spring.

I know you’re dying to be out in the garden, so here are some things you could be doing this week:

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.

— as you see new growth emerge, begin to 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. This week I’ll begin clearing the shady gardens where spring-blooming perennials grow; by the first week in May, all the beds will be cleared and ready for division or additional plants.

— once you can explore your entire property, evaluate the winter’s damage. 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 will need doing. How much mulch will you need? 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 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 now, 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.

— buy your vegetable seeds and start them indoors according to this schedule so the seedlings will be ready for spring planting.

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This picture was taken in late December, but even now there are a surprising number of colorful berries left on the coralberry shrubs.

3/13/15: In the garden this week

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Not yet, but soon. By this time last year, the first crocuses had opened.

No, the crocuses aren’t up yet, even in the warmest spots in my garden, but they should be very soon–I can see the first shoots right now out the window. (This picture was taken on March 11 last year.) But even though spring is a bit late, its arrival is unmistakeable. The sun is so strong that snow was melting in sunny spots even when the temperature was still below freezing. Robins are back. At this moment, I am watching a blue jay in the holly tree perform a little dance, a repeated hop accompanied each time by a soft call, a descending minor third. A mating dance perhaps? Within the next week the snow should be gone and we should be seeing a great deal of bird activity. And although it’s too early to plant, there are lots of chores you could be getting out of way to prepare for the rush of spring gardening activity:

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.

— buy your vegetable seeds and start them indoors according to this schedule so the seedlings will be ready for spring planting. It’s time to start tomatoes!

— as soon as the ground is bare of snow and not too wet, direct sow seeds of early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix. Peas and radishes can be sown outdoors as well. 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 really heats up.

— once you can explore your entire property, evaluate the winter’s damage. 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 will need doing. How much mulch will you need? 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 April or May.

— finally, and most important, monitor your garden for bird activity. You should be seeing lots of it, as spring migrants arrive and winter residents continue to forage and begin to build nests. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks winter food. Does your garden feed birds year-round? I’ve still got seeds of ironweed and Rudbeckia as well as leaf litter and dead wood for the birds to search for insects. If you’re not seeing birds, consider what steps you can take this season: for example, plant native perennials, stop pruning dead wood quite so aggressively, stop using pesticides on your lawn.

Enjoy the signs of early spring!

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Within the next two weeks, we should see the tiny red female hazelnut flowers open and the male catkins expand to release pollen.

Planning for spring

Yes, we’re in the middle of a record-breaking blizzard. Yes, the accumulated snow will keep me from my winter work of pruning clients’ shrubs. Yes, there will soon be so much snow on the ground I won’t even be able to take measurements for clients’ designs. So I’m planning this year’s vegetable garden.

If you’ve never had a vegetable garden before, now is the time to plan. All you need is a small plot of ground, or even just some large pots, some rich soil, sun, and a plan for keeping critters away. A vegetable garden must get at least 6 hours of sun per day, and more is better.

Many early crops can be sown directly in the ground as soon as the soil is workable, usually by mid- to late March. These crops include lettuce, arugula and other bitter greens, spinach, mesclun mixes, and peas. Depending on the weather, I generally sow all these around mid-March. I begin to harvest the greens about six weeks after planting and the peas in early June. Once the weather gets good and hot, I pull all these crops up and plant something else in their place. A plot that’s roughly 4 x 4 feet gives us several large salads each week. So order your seeds now. Mid-March is only six weeks away!

Other crops can be started from seeds indoors, either under lights or in a sunny window, and then transplanted into the garden after the last frost date (which, depending on the source you trust, is somewhere around the end of April here in Bergen County). Working back from a last-frost date of April 30, here’s when you could start seeds indoors for a variety of popular crops:

  • End of January: Asparagus
  • End of February: Lettuce, onions
  • March 5: Broccoli, endive, escarole
  • March 12: Tomatoes
  • March 19: Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, kale
  • March 26: Beets
  • April 2: Leeks, summer and winter squash
  • April 9: Cucumbers, melons

Other tender crops, such as corn and beans, are sown directly outdoors, but not until the soil is good and warm, usually sometime in May.

If all goes well, by late May (just four months from now!), your vegetable garden may look like this:

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Late May in the vegetable garden: peas grow up the fencing at the rear; spring greens are in the middle, and the first row of beans is up front.

Tired of waiting

for spring to really burst out. The problem is that although most days have been warm lately, the nights are quite cold–down into the 30s F. So the plants are biding their time.

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In the Thielke Arboretum, skunk cabbage leaves are beginning to emerge beside the wide-open flowers.

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In my garden, hazelnuts shrubs are almost finished blooming. These male catkins were waving gently in the breeze yesterday, but they’ve already released their pollen. Soon they’ll fall off. Here’s a picture of the female flower, taken last week.

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It’s really too cold to start transplanting, although we have begun the spring cleanup. I raked the leaves off my shadiest garden, but there’s still almost nothing to be seen there–just a few fern fronds and leaves of almost-forgotten daffodils. Up close you can see the buds of ginger leaves, a few tiny columbine leaves, and rosettes of great blue lobelia leaves. There are more than a dozen species of perennials, ferns, grasses, and sedges there. But it pretty much just looks bare.

DSCN1367 I planted my vegetable garden last Thursday with seeds of mesclun mix, leaf lettuce mix, peas, snow peas, and two Japanese mustards. But that’s bare ground too. It’s supposed to be warmer later this week . . .

Growing spring greens: Got your seeds yet?

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It’s hard to believe, but in most years, March 1 (nine days from now) is a good time to start planting spring greens around here. The pictures above were taken on May 3 and 5 of last year. They show arugula almost ready for harvest and pea plants growing up a simple trellis. I had planted both crops on March 31 (later than usual, because last spring was particularly cold). Usually, I plant in early March. I expect to harvest early spring greens in mid-May and peas in June.

Yes, I know there’s still a foot of snow on the ground. But it is starting to melt, and eventually it will melt entirely. So start ordering your seeds if you haven’t already done so. I’m almost ashamed to say that because the weather has been so wintry, I haven’t placed my order yet!

Nothing could be easier than growing cold-weather crops like lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, or mesclun mixes of greens. I like to harvest a mix of greens leaf by  leaf, rather than cut or pull whole plants, so I broadcast the seeds. Mark off a section of ground, and make sure the soil is smooth and weedfree. Generally a packet of seeds (around 2 grams) will sow about 8 to 10 square feet.

Sprinkle the seeds as evenly as possible over the plot and water gently. Keep the plot damp until the seedlings are a good size. If the weather is warm, you may begin to harvest in three weeks; if cool, it may take 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every 2 weeks or so to extend your harvest (although most of these crops must be pulled up as soon as the weather gets hot–they go to seed and taste bitter). Generally, unless the weather is very hot, we will eat our own greens from mid-May until the end of June, when the CSA takes over.

Greens and fresh herbs are almost ridiculously easy to grow as soon as you have a sunny spot, no matter how small. Try it this year. Start a small garden with your children. Don’t let the season pass you by.

7/5/13: In the garden this week

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Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), an iconic native perennial, the one everyone knows and loves, doesn’t do well in my garden. Critters devour it, and it really prefers a site that’s wetter than mine. But every year one or two pop up to surprise me, as this one did yesterday. Just two of the many benefits of growing native species are that they are very tough, and they can self-seed.

The weather is finally heating up, so stay cool and enjoy the garden. In summer, what I mostly do in the garden is admire it:

– keep the grass long (3″ or more) to reduce mowing times. There is no need to fertilize or water—we’ve had more than enough rain. In hot weather the grass wants to go dormant, so let it.

– as perennials finish blooming, leave the dead flowers on the plants. Collect seeds as they ripen throughout the season; most will remain to feed the birds next winter.

– if you have not already done so, pull out early spring greens, such as arugula, spinach,  and lettuce, as well as pea plants after they finish producing; compost all these plants unless they are diseased

– continue to plant beans, kale, chard, and other members of the brassica clan if you have room; harvest squash, and beans before they get large and tough.

– continue to stake tomato plants firmly as they grow and remove all suckers

– monitor the vegetable garden carefully for pests and diseases

Raspberries are ripening in my garden, and if I’m very lucky this week I will beat the catbirds to at least a few of them.