3/31/17: In the garden this week


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.


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


4/1/16: In the garden this week


We lost a large Norway maple in the windstorm on Monday night. It smashed one of our cars; luckily, we were out, or it would have smashed both. The only good thing about this tree is that its rotten branches sheltered a lot of birds. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to see what’s left.

It’s been an eventful week, to say the least, in and out of the garden. Truly bizarre weather, very strong winds; it’s 70 degrees now, but it’s supposed to snow on Monday.

Are you absolutely itching to get out there and plant? It really is too early, but I did succumb to temptation yesterday afternoon and dig up and divide a couple of plants of very tough native grasses. Grasses respond best to being divided in early spring, and I knew we were going to have some rain, so I went for it. But I’ll hold off a while onger on the full-scale dividing and moving of perennials I do every spring.

In the meantime, here are some things you could be doing in your garden this week:

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure to prepare for spring planting.

— continue to 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 and stall when it turns cold. 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. It’s too late to pull western bittercress, which has already gone to seed. 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.

— 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 it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

And here’s what’s left of that Norway maple–a large snag. Dead trees are excellent shelter for wildlife, so we left the trunk standing. Eventually we’ll plant a good-sized silver maple (Acer saccharinum) nearby. Silver maples are trees that were originally growing here in our sandy river-bottom soil but have been largely replaced by alien species.

Enjoy the garden this week!


Eventually we’ll disguise this snag with additional plantings. The front island will get too much sun now that the big tree is gone.


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).