9/8/17: In the garden this week


This is what one of my perennial beds looked like at this time last year: a lovely combination of summer and early fall flowers and grasses.


Here’s the same bed, today. Where have all the flowers gone (sorry)? The very mild winter allowed lots of plant-eating critters–deer and rabbits and woodchucks–to live and reproduce, and they love those native perennials. Phlox did not bloom in my garden this summer, and there will be very few asters or boltonia flowers. New seedlings of Rudbeckia triloba, a short-lived perennial, seem to have been crowded out by the little bluestem. I have a lot of work to do in this bed next spring.

It feels like fall is coming early. The evenings and mornings are crisp, and many trees are already showing color. I hope it’s a sign of a cold (dare I say normal?) winter. However, the National Weather Service is predicting above-normal temperatures for the Northeast over the next three months. We must adjust to the new normal: zone 7 rather than zone 6; more fungus diseases of plants; more insect pests.

At least rainfall has been normal this year, even slightly above average (approximately 52 inches for the past year versus a normal of 49). The garden doesn’t look nearly as tired as it usually does in September; I’ve had to water my newly installed trees only two or three times. Normal rainfall is good for the street trees, too: they really suffered during the drought of the previous two growing seasons.

The weather over the next few days promises to be perfect for gardening, so here are some things you might address:

no need to water new plantings this week: we received approximately 2 inches of rain the past week. But in general, in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this season or last fall. Perennials planted this spring should be well-established by now. 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 will not water my new trees or the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers. This is particularly important as the season winds down. Monitor for insect eggs and larvae and remove them before infestations become serious. Throw out badly infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

— as tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits: provide no more than an inch of water per week. (If it rains, don’t water.) Keep removing suckers. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes. And keep picking: don’t let the fruit rot in the garden.

plant cool-weather crops such as lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, and peas for fall harvest.

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. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there as you collect them.

collect seeds. Coreopsis seed ripens nearly every day. So does seed of daisy fleabane, a lovely native annual. It pops up in different parts of my garden each year. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripening, as are seeds of nodding joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Milkweed seed needs to be collected almost daily. I try to harvest just when the pods split open so I can easily separate the seeds from the down.

— 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. Now that the nights are cool, it’s a good time to reseed bare areas. But be sure to water newly seeded areas frequently: grass seed will only germinate if kept moist, so give seeded areas a light sprinkling several times a day. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Lawns certainly do not need water. And always remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. 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.

Enjoy the garden this week!


Although the critters have eaten most of my sun-loving asters this season, they’ve left the shade-lovers, which are just as important for pollinating insects. This garden, which is along the sidewalk in front of our house, is full of native geraniums and columbine in the spring, asters in the fall. If you look carefully at the upper left, you’ll see ripening dogwood berries.



And in a sunny part of the garden . . .


bright-colored native perennials are finally putting on a show. All the plants in this perennial bed are relatively short (3′ or less). The brilliant red is Silene virginica, or fire pink, although it’s definitely red, very bright red. This plant likes dry, sandy or rocky soil and full sun. It grows less than 2′ high and is a very short-lived perennial, although it self-seeds easily. I planted it quite a few years ago, and new plants keep popping up.

The brilliant pink is western spiderwort, Tradescantia occidentalis, although it occurs naturally here in the East. Like all spiderworts, this is an easy plant to grow in sun or part shade, although the rabbits do love to eat it, so sometimes I have trouble establishing new plants. It’s very easy to divide. It disappears in early summer, so be sure to plant summer or fall bloomers or grasses in the same spot.

The tiny blue flowers are Campanula rotundifolia, harebell. These plants are less than 1′ high. They bloom for most of the summer, take a short rest, and bloom again in the fall. The foliage is threadlike; often the flowers look like they’re floating on air.

Also planted in this same area are lanceleaf coreopsis, orange butterflyweed, and several grasses, including purple lovegrass (my favorite). Come back for more pictures later in the season.