The garden right now

I hope you enjoy these pictures of the early fall garden, taken yesterday, on this rainy day.


The bright red fruits of cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) glowed in the sunshine. This is the most sun-tolerant of our native viburnums. Like its cousins it wants to be a very large shrub or small tree, but it can be kept to a reasonable size by judicious winter pruning. Foliage color will be a lovely dark red quite soon, and the berries will hang on until winter.


The garden is bursting with fruit. There are so many raspberries this year that we actually get to eat some (I confess: the raspberries are everbearers from Burpee, planted with my kids when they were small, not a native species). I always let one pokeweed remain for the birds.You can also see elderberries and grey dogwoods in this shot; both have already finished fruiting.


This big fat monarch caterpillar was eating voraciously yesterday. It’s on a leaf of Asclepias tuberosa, orange butterflyweed. Notice the milkweed bugs of a variety of life stages on the seed pods at the upper right. They do destroy some seed pods, but plenty remain undamaged, and they do not hurt the plant in any other way.


This time of year, little bluestem shows the blue-purple tints that gave it its name; in autumn it will look silvery gold.


Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a star of the early autumn garden. Unlike its red-flowered cousin, Lobelia cardinalis, blue lobelia is not fussy and will grow anywhere except in bright sunlight.


This bed, with poor, sandy soil on the north side of my house, used to be quite bare. Then I discovered northern bush honeysuckle, the shrub with the red-tipped branches. The tall shrub in the center is Aronia arbutifolia, red aronia, and the berries are beginning to turn from green to red. The bed also contains Christmas ferns, a volunteer sedum, and the original foundation plantings: Japanese azaleas, mountain laurel, a rhododendron, and a boxwood that just won’t give up.


Many shrubs are showing some fall color on their lower leaves–hints of what’s to come. Soon spicebush (Lindera benzoin) will turn this lovely lemon yellow color all over. If you look closely, you can see next spring’s fat round flower buds. Two weeks ago these plants were full of bright-red berries, but the birds devoured them the minute they ripened.


Many native perennials display beautiful fall colors. The tall plant with red leaves is Penstemon digitalis (white flowers in early summer); the short one is Oenothera fruticosa (sundrops; yellow flowers in late spring).



6/23/17: In the garden this week


June is bustin’ out (couldn’t resist) in a perennial bed glorious with yellow sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and bergamot/beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), plus grasses and numerous species that have finished blooming or not yet bloomed. This border gets full sun and was originally planted over 20 years ago. The soil, which is very sandy, has never been amended in any way.

During the past few years of drought, I had forgotten what a gardening season with normal rainfall looks like. I had forgotten how the plants grow so exuberantly that I have to keep cutting them back along paths, in front of patio chairs, near the air conditioner, how quickly tomato plants grow (more on that below). And what it’s like not to have to exhort clients to keep newly-installed plants well watered until they’re established. It’s a pleasant change.

As I write this, the predicted rain has just started. Can I confess that given a choice between a dry weekend and a good soaking rain, I’d vote for the rain in most cases? But the thing about gardening is that we don’t get a choice.

Here are some things you might consider in your garden this week (after the rain stops, of course):

water new plantings: We received about 1 1/2 inches of rain in the past week, so no watering should be necessary this week. However, you should always water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground. In dry weeks (those with less than an inch of rainfall), you need to 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.

— all vegetables, including tender crops like tomatoes and peppers and corn, should be planted out by now, and it will soon be time to remove early greens like lettuce and spinach. Water deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread.

— be sure to properly tie, stake and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are pretty useless: the plants outgrow them before they start to bear fruit. And unless tomato plants are properly pruned, by pinching out the suckers, they will be so bushy that they’ll be especially susceptible to fungus infections like verticillium wilt. You’ll find general guidelines for growing tomatoes here and specific watering instructions here.

—  It’s a bit late to clean up the perennial garden or to divide and replant. Once the weather turns hot, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming. I would no longer move or divide plants, but if you continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water.

it’s too late to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Here’s a suggestion: don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Or wait until around Labor Day and use one application of a slow-release organic fertilizer. Avoid pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. 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, in addition to killing butterfly host plants like violets, are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— it’s also a bad time to prune woody plants. The plants are using so much energy growing, flowering, and fruiting that they have little to spare to healing a wound. There will be short window of time later in the summer. Of course, continue to prune diseased or injured plants at any time and to remove any safety hazards, such as overeager shrub that block sidewalks.

And don’t forget to count the fireflies! The more you see, the healthier and more sustainable your garden is.


We moved the patio chairs forward to get out of the way of the raspberries. The elderberries (white flowers in background) are especially tall and vigorous this year.

The garden right now


Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is displaying a lovely clear yellow color this year. This mid-sized tree is an excellent wildlife plant, like all cherries, but its tendency to form thickets makes it difficult to use in most gardens. You have to give it room to spread.


Many native perennials provide a second burst of garden interest in the form of vivid leaf color. The bright red is sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa.


From left to right: orange chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), yellow spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and dark red flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).


A detailed look at those chokeberry leaves.


Seeds of little bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium) turn a tranclucent silver in the autumn sunlight. After the birds eat them, the stalks will turn pink and remain through the winter.


Most perennials have gone to seed, but New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) will continue to bloom for a few more weeks.


Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) never fails to delight. Its autumn color is usually a brilliant orange red, but right now, the few remaining leaves are a deep russet.

These photos were all taken yesterday. Enjoy the bright colors on this dark, rainy day. And remember how badly we need the rain!

6/5/15: In the garden this week


Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) and penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) in bloom signal the beginning of summer in my garden.

Finally, rain this week: well over two inches of it. The plants responded by suddenly putting on their summer colors (see the photos below). I responded with a burst of renewed activity, returning to the moving and dividing of perennials that had ceased while the weather was so hot and dry. It’s been delightful.

The calendar says late spring, but to me, once the penstemon blooms, it’s summer. Spring blooming plants are finishing up, and many summer bloomers, particularly the milkweeds, are showing buds. The foliage of the perennials is particularly beautiful this time of year: everything looks fresh and green, and you can focus on the leaf shapes and textures rather than on the flowers.

Here are some other things you might attend to while you’re out there admiring your garden this weekend:

water new plantings: we got over two inches of rain this past week, so no watering is needed now, but keep watching. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, 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. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.

finish harvesting early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes. As greens bolt, or go to seed, pull the plants and plant something else. A row of beans, perhaps?

warm-season crops should be out in the garden. These include tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

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.

— 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 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. It’s too late now to reseed bare areas: wait until early fall. 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 weekend!


Firepink (Silene virginica) is in bloom now. Only a bit over a foot tall, this plant enlivens the early summer garden with really, really red flowers.


And if you prefer yellow, sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) is hard to beat. Also only about a foot tall, it is completely drought resistant and easy to grow. This plant spreads by rhizomes, so it is also very easy to divide.

Choosing plants


Part of a sunny border at the end of June, including long-established and new plants, all very attractive to pollinators. From left to right: yellow sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), purple beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), white dotted mint (Monarda punctata), orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), more sundrops and butterflyweed, and white new jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), plus grasses and taller perennials that will bloom later in the season.

I have a mental checklist that I use to choose plants for my garden. It goes like this:

1. Is it pretty? If I like the plant’s looks, I go on to:

2. Is it native to this area? There are many definitions of “native plant.” I mean, according to good authorities, was it growing here, in northern New Jersey, before European settlement? If it most likely was, the next question is:

3. Is it a pure species? I greatly prefer species to hybrids or cultivars or varieties. Species are fertile, and I want to be able to collect seeds. Species were designed by nature, not by plant growers or scientists, so they are likely to produce flowers in colors that pollinators can recognize and that are not so big the stems can’t support them. If I can find a pure species, the next question is:

4. Is it adapted to the specific site? No matter how pretty or how native, there’s no point in planting something that can’t survive in the specific soil, water, and light conditions; there’s no point in planting a large tree in a small bed or groundcover where you need a shrub or a wetland plant in dry soil. If it is adapted to the site, I ask:

5. It is useful to wildlife? I plant for the birds and the butterflies and the myriad pollinators too small to notice or to name. I check reference books and field guides to find out what the critters want to eat. Chokecherry yes, redbud no. Space is limited, and one is useful to a wider variety of species than the other. If it’s a good wildlife plant, I ask:

6. Is it common in the area? There are few plants more useful to a wider range of animal species than oaks, but there are already lots of oaks (there are also lots of redbuds, because people plant them as front-lawn specimens). So I’ll plant something else, equally useful, that used to be common but is now missing–like serviceberry and elderberry. Once I decide on that rarer plant, I need to ask:

7. Can I find a commercial source? This is usually the problem. I choose plants for clients for a living, so I’ve developed a fairly wide range of sources, but I often wind up substituting a different species after a fruitless search. Sometimes the plant I want finally appears on the market, sometimes it never does. I would like a local source but will settle for a midwestern one. If I can find a source, the final question is:

8. How was the plant grown? I want healthy plants, and I particularly want plants that were grown in a nursery, not collected from the wild. I would prefer to inspect the plants myself, but I’ll settle for mail order from a reputable grower if absolutely necessary.


Chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) at the end of July. The birds devour them the second they are fully ripe.

Autumn unfolds

I started to show you pictures of fall color on September 11; it’s six weeks later and our local trees are just reaching their peak. The sugar maples (orange) and hickories (yellow) are particularly beautiful this year. I’m not fortunate enough to have either–the soil is wrong for them in this part of Glen Rock–but I do have dogwoods, Virginia creeper, and lots of native perennials that show lovely fall color. So here’s what’s happening in my garden now.



Virginia creeper ranges in color from a delicate peach to the deepest Bordeaux. And sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), a ridiculously easy-to-grow native plant with bright, bright yellow flowers in early summer, puts on a second show in fall, when its foliage becomes speckled with red.


Thoreau sketched the beautiful arrangement of milkweed seeds in their pods. It’s fascinating to watch the clusters of seeds slowly unfold as the wind teases them apart. This fascinating process is happening in my garden right now. Sometimes I watch and forget to collect the seeds.


And finally, about 20 years ago we planted five everbearing raspberry canes from Burpee, because we love raspberries. When my now grown-up sons come home to visit, they still go outside to look for raspberries. Although the canes are crowded by perennials on one side and the mini-forest on the other, they continue to produce fruit every year. The catbirds in particular adore them, and in fall, when they’ve left for the season, we manage to eat a few raspberries ourselves.


A little hint of early summer in the middle of fall (complete with fruit fly). And notice the Rudbeckia seedheads on the left.

It’s not too late to put in some raspberries. You could be enjoying your own crop next year.

More native plants for fall color

I love autumn, and I particularly love watching it slowly unfold. And I most particularly love the colors of our native plants. Nowhere else on earth, to my knowledge, do leaves turn the brilliant scarlets and oranges our sugar maples achieve. Right now, every sugar maple seems to have one bright-colored branch, as if it’s teasing us with the beauty to come.

But even our native perennials turn gorgeous colors in fall. Following are three photos not of my garden but of a nearby garden that I designed and installed. Note the beautiful and harmonious effect of the remaining flowers with the colors of the leaves and even the seedpods. I’ve never seen milkweed seedpods turn such gorgeous colors as you’ll see in the second photo; in the third, note the contrasting reds of the penstemon and sundrops foliage.




Back to my own garden, where the delicate, silvery seeds of little bluestem grass are now a main focus:


In one perennial border, white now dominates, with little bluestem, heath aster, and white snakeroot vying for attention against a background of yellow elderberry leaves:


In another, purple asters and multicolored foliage compete with the silver grasses:


And amidst the signs of decay (which is what fall colors are), note the bright green foliage signalling lush and healthy growth next spring.