4/28/17: In the garden this week


Early spring ephemerals are subtle, like this Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). The showier variegated species that’s more often found in garden centers is NOT native.

At this time of year I can either work in the garden or write about the garden, and most of the time I choose the former. But I want to briefly keep you up-to-date on seasonal developments:

water new plantings: Rainfall totals are finally normal or even a bit above, at least in the short term. We received approximately an inch and a half of rain this week, so no need to water. But be sure to water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground, and 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 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.

plant trees and other woody plants. Don’t wait too long—plants grow roots when the soil is cool, so the earlier you plant, the more time trees and shrubs will have to establish before the weather really heats up.

provide prophylactic care for trees. Several native tree species are at great risk of succumbing to invasive insect infestations. Hemlocks should be sprayed with dormant oil (which is not a pesticide) in early spring and early fall. Ash trees should be treated for emerald ash borer. Consult a qualified arborist if you’re not sure if you have hemlocks or ashes; he or she can them recommend the best treatment options.

— continue to start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here. Get the vegetable garden ready for the coming season by weeding, 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 make sure it’s not fresh manure. Once the soil is prepared, you can plant seeds of cool-weather crops such as mesclun, spinach, arugula, peas, and beets in the garden. Do not set out warm weather crops like tomatoes and squash for another few weeks.

—  After cleaning up the perennial garden, continue to plant perennials and to divide and move them as they emerge. The earlier you divide or move perennials and grasses, the quicker they will establish. Even finicky, hard-to-divide plants will respond well. And it’s much easier to divide and replant a few plants at a time than to dig up an entire bed.

it’s much too early to feed your lawn, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. 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. Remember that 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 are carcinogens. Best to avoid them.

— 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.

Plant something for the butterflies this week! You’ll reap the benefits all summer long!


Tiarella is the star of the late-April shade garden. Ferns are emerging, and columbine and geraniums will open their first flowers in the coming week.



5/13/16: In the garden this week


This season’s first native geraniums (Geranium maculatum) are opening now. This lovely woodland native does well in poor soil and deep shade.

It’s really, really spring when the geraniums start to open. Our loveliest native geranium is a true spring ephemeral: it appears, blooms, and sets seed within no more than two months, then disappears until next spring. It’s so easy to grow that you can dig it up and move it while it’s in bloom. And as you can see in the photo, it combines will with other shade lovers–notice all the aster leaves.

As I write this the rain has begun, a few hours later than predicted so I was able squeeze in some planting this morning. Two of my clients’ plants arrived yesterday (as did mine). It will be a busy week! But the relatively cool, rainy weather is ideal for planting.

And here are some other things you might accomplish in your garden this week:

divide hardy perennials and grasses. Spring is the best time to divide plants; many will even bloom the same year if you divide them early enough. I start dividing as soon as each species is ready and stop when the weather gets hot, and I try to do it right before it rains (saves watering). Exception: it’s too late to divide tap-rooted plants such as columbine and orange butterflyweed, and many native grasses don’t respond well once they’ve put out a couple of inches of top growth. Wait until next year to divide these plants.

Harvest cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. Plant parsley and dill plants, but hold off on basil for another week or so.

— you should have started vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash a while ago. (You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.) Hold off on putting these tender crops in the ground until around May 20.

Plant! The weather is perfect. Most reliable mail-order nurseries have started shipping. Once the plants arrive, get them in the ground as soon as you can. If you must hold them for a few days, open the boxes, water as necessary, and keep them in the shadiest spot you can find.

— 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 unless you’ve seeded it,  lawn certainly doesn’t need watering, and it’s still too early to fertilize. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

It’s very hard to stay out of the garden in spring! Enjoy the garden this week.


Our native Tiarella combines well with other shade-lovers, such as asters, ferns, columbine, and Heuchera.


5/8/15: In the garden this week


The exquisite flowers of chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) are in full bloom. In August, birds will be eating the large, black berries.

I’m spending a lot of time right now finding native plants for clients. Because of the late spring, most nurseries will receive all their spring plant shipments this week and next week, so this is the time to get out there and ask local nurseries for native plants (you’re shopping for mom anyway, right? Go to the website of the Native Plant Society of NJ for cards you can print, fill out, and give to nursery owners to request specific native plants. If we don’t ask, they won’t know we want them!  I’m happy to say that more and more local nurseries are stocking more and more natives, but there’s still plenty of barberry and purple loosestrife out there as well, so be careful when you buy.

The spring is advancing fast. Serviceberry is finished blooming; flowering dogwood, lilacs, and crab apples (Mother’s Day plants) are just about at their peaks; ferns are unfolding, and many local flowering natives, like jack in the pulpit, spring beauty, trout lily, and Solomon’s seal, are in full bloom. This would be a beautiful weekend to explore a local natural area like the Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock. Take a walk in the woods, admire the native wildflowers, and notice the progress we’ve made in removing the garlic mustard over the past couple of years. (And if you see garlic mustard, pull it now. For the most part, it hasn’t set seed yet.

And after you buy Mom a plant and take her for a nice walk in the woods, help her attend to her garden:

— the soil is very dry, so 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 last week), 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 cold-season crops indoors, set them out in the garden now. Wait until late May to set out tender crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplant. the nights are still quite cool.

— now that most 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.

evaluate the winter’s damage on your property. 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 needs doing. Do any areas need new mulch? Do your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage? Do it as soon as new growth appears.

— 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.

monitor your garden for bird activity. Birds are very active at foraging and nest building. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks 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, 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.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: wait until Memorial Day to fertilize. 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 less frequently and more deeply to encourage deep root growth.

Enjoy the beautiful Mother’s Day weather!


Foamflower (Tiatella cordifolia) a diminutive groundcover, is in full bloom now. After the flowers fade, the variegated leaves will provide visual interest all season. On the left is a columbine, which is showing buds but isn’t quite in bloom yet.

All at once

Spring began later than usual this year, but as predicted by many experts, later-bloomers have caught up with early bloomers, and now everything seems to be in bloom at once. It’s wonderful and glorious and hard to keep up. Right now, flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), and nannyberry (Viburnum prunifolium) are in full bloom in my garden, and cranberry bush viburnum (V. trilobum) isn’t far behind. This picture shows flowering dogwood, chokeberry, and cranberry bush (greenish flower clusters at top and bottom right) in my miniforest.


I don’t like to play favorites, but the spring-blooming perennials are among the plants I love best. Today the first native geranium (G. maculata) opened, while tiarella is in full bloom and columbine is just beginning its show.


I am so happy to welcome these good friends back to my garden year after year. It’s very hard for me to tear myself away from my garden in spring.


You must be ruthless

There are lots of ways to kill a lawn to prepare the area for planting something more useful and beautiful (you know I’m not a big fan of lawns, right?). You can use herbicides (not really recommended), you can dig up the grass, or you can smother it. Some people use the lasagna method, which involves a layer of newspapers, a layer of leaves, another layer of something else, and so on. I’m sure it works, but it sounds way too complicated. It’s much simpler to smother the lawn with mulch.

Generally when I know I’m going to extend an old bed or create a new one in the spring, I put down 2-3 inches of cedar or hemlock bark mulch the autumn before. By spring, the grass is dead, and I just plant right through the mulch. (Weed-blocking fabric is another thing that seems way too complicated to me. I mean, weeds grow in the mulch above the fabric, and you have to take it off every time you want to plant. It’s a pain.)

But I just decided today to extend one of the spring-wildflower gardens in front of the house, so I had to kill the lawn quickly. And at the same time, I was removing the winter covering of leaves from a nearby bed. (Those are the leaves that I leave in place in fall.) So instead of carrying the leaves to the backyard compost pile and going out to buy mulch, I decided to try using the same leaves on the new bed. They’ll definitely kill the lawn–I put down a nice thick layer 3-4 inches deep. My only concern is that they’ll form a solid mat that will smother plant growth, as Norway maple leaves are wont to do. But I’m betting those leaves are already decomposed enough that they won’t be able to form a solid surface. And they weren’t all maple leaves–they were everything the wind happened to deliver, and there are oaks nearby.

Here’s the bed I cleared of winter mulch–it’s a semicircle at the front of a shrub island (I left the leaf mulch under the shrubs). The shrubs are coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), with one big black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), and the flower bed has ferns, heuchera, tiarella, columbine, wild geranium, false solomon’s seal, shade-loving asters, and lots of violets.


And here’s the new bed with the leaves spread on it to kill the lawn. The new part of the bed is on the right.


Isn’t it delightful to be out in the garden at long last? I’m trying to squeeze an hour a day out of my schedule. I’ve never enjoyed spring cleanup as much!

Hi there!

I finally got to spend an hour in the garden today–an hour with no snow and no rain and free time to putter a bit and begin to attack the springtime chores. I removed the matted leaves from the patio, where they are staining the pavers, patched part of the backyard lawn, and raked the leaves off parts of the beds with the earliest flowers (although nothing much is showing yet). I expected to see bloodroot or Dutchman’s breeches, but all I uncovered was what will be a lovely patch of Heuchera and Tiarella.


Even without raking aside any covering leaves, I noted that sundrops are bursting up as strongly as ever.


And I drooled over some sorrel, wondering how long it will be before I can pick some of those tart, lemony leaves. There’s nothing better in a green smoothie.


Nature in miniature

Tiarella is one of my favorite spring-blooming natives. It’s in bloom right now. It perhaps is 8 inches high on a good day; I wish it were 8 feet. Here’s a photo of a small clump that’s growing in one of my shade gardens:


There are several species of Tiarella native to North America and Eurasia. Tiarella cordifolia is our native eastern species. It likes partial or full shade and medium soil moisture (my soil is very dry and sandy, so although the tiarella comes back every year and blooms nicely, it doesn’t spread as enthusiastically as I would like it to). The leaves are heart-shaped and somewhat variegated. If your site is even somewhat moist, this plant could gradually form a lovely groundcover for you.