8/29/14: In the garden this week


The first New England asters are open, a sure sign of fall. (I’m cheating a bit with this photo, which was taken last year. It’s been too breezy to take closeups in the garden.) The cool nights have been delightful–we’ve barely used our air conditioning this year. In the past week or so, I’ve been seeing hints of color everywhere, especially on the dogwoods and Virginia creeper. Many trees have dropped substantial numbers of leaves. So if you would like to start saving leaves for a compost pile or if you’ve run out of last year’s leaves, now’s the time.

With the shift in seasons comes a shift in garden chores:

– For the first time this season, the ground is quite dry, so if we don’t get significant rain very soon, water newly installed perennials and woody plants and vegetables. The recommended amount is 1 inch per week during dry spells. Established plants should not need watering.

stop pruning woody plants. Many trees and shrubs have begun leaf abscission, the complicated process of shutting down for winter. This takes a lot of energy, so plants don’t have energy to spare for making scar tissue. The next pruning window will come when plants reach dormancy in late fall.

– tomato vines are still ripening fruit, so give them no more than 1 inch of water per week. Remember to take rainfall amounts into account when determining how much to water. Water in the morning, and water deeply. Continue to stake and tie tomato plants and to remove suckers.

plant fall crops such as lettuce, spinach, and other salad greens.

perennials should need no care. Leave seedheads in place–birds will eat the seeds you don’t collect.

– if you fertilize your lawn, apply a slow-release organic fertilizer. Fertilizing is quite unnecessary, but for those who choose to do it, this is the one recommended feeding. Lawns do not need watering, even in a dry period: the more you water, the more you have to mow! Use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the grass.

start your autumn leaf collection: save your autumn leaves for compost. Decide where you will keep them.

consider fall planting. Many perennials and woody plants can be safely installed in fall. Wait for the weather to cool down a bit. Late September to mid-October is usually a good window of time in this area, while woody plants can be planted until the ground freezes.

Enjoy this lovely holiday weekend (but hope for some rain)! And do think about saving those leaves. This cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) certainly thinks it’s fall.



How about growing this: Grey dogwood


This is what grey dogwood (Cornus sericea) looks like right now in my garden–shrubs covered with bright red stems that held abundant greyish-white fruit less than a week ago. The second the berries ripen, the birds eat them. This is what the shrubs looked like as the fruit was ripening, about a week ago:

Fruits of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

And this is what the fragrant flowers looked like in early June:

Flower cluster of grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), the loveliest dogwood of all.

Seriously, why aren’t you growing this gorgeous member of the dogwood genus? Cornus sericea is naturally found in sunny wet places, often in company with arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). If you visit the Celery Farm preserve in Allendale, NJ, you will see the two growing together in the wetland area.Grey dogwood is also plentiful along the stream in the new FairLawn Arboretum. My site is anything but wet (dry, dry, sandy soil), but both these shrubs do extremely well for me along an east-facing brick wall. They seem to do well in every situation from full sun to almost complete shade.

Grey dogwood will grow up to 12′ tall and 3 wide. It spreads quite enthusiastically by means of rhizomes, but it’s easy to keep it shorter and smaller by removing the largest stems each year or so. About every two years, I cut thin out the largest shrubs, either in the winter or just after the fruit ripens and disappears. I also frequently dig out small shrubs in spring and give them away.

In addition to their beautiful flowers and fruit, these plants have the lovely dark-red fall color common to dogwoods. They are well worth growing both for their ornamental value and for their value to wildlife.


7/25/14: In the garden this week

I’m going to cheat a bit here and refer you back to last week’s post for specifics on seasonal garden chores. It’s still a good time to prune woody plants if you don’t want to wait until next winter; you still need to keep weeding; and now that tomatoes are ripening their fruit, you certainly want to cut back on watering so the fruits don’t crack. Again, most areas around here (Bergen County, NJ) had an inch of rain this week, so there’s no need to water at all.

What’s really going on in my garden is flowers and native grasses.


In this picture you see orange butterflyweed, still going strong; Rudbeckia subtomentosa, just reaching full bloom; anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), licorice-scented lavender flowers at bottom left; bright purple ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata); and, on the right, little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), which is just stalking out now.


From dawn to dusk, the garden is so full of pollinators that it would take a motion picture to really show it. Notice the bee working its way around the central disk of the Rudbeckia flower. One row of tiny true flowers blooms at a time, as you can see clearly in the last picture in this post, and this bee knows that and it taking full advantage. Isn’t the color of the ironweed lovely?


In the midst of summer we see hints of fall. This cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum) is ripening its fruit in the summer sun. This plant produces one of the prettiest fruits I’ve ever seen, and it remains on the plant for most of the winter–the birds only eat it as a last resort. Most viburnum berries are devoured as soon as they ripen.

Speaking of ripe fruits, grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), and elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) are all ripening their fruits now. I hope I can get enough chokeberries and elderberries to make a little jam before the birds get it all.

Happy picking! 

6/6/14: In the garden this week


The first flowers of elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) will open any minute. This is one of those plants that we should see everywhere in our area but that has, sadly, been replaced by Norway maples and yew and Asian euonymus and and pachysandra. What are the poor birds to do? Come to my garden in July when the berries ripen and spread the seeds around, I hope.

Now that the warm weather has settled in and the nights are getting steadily warmer, garden chores should shift from spring to summer mode:

– continue to plant warm weather crops such as basil, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, and beans, as well as annuals such as begonias. Begin to stake tomatoes and other large plants immediately on planting. Pick spring greens often and remove them when they begin to bolt.

—  throughout the growing season, monitor your vegetable garden for pests and diseases and take immediate action (such as hand-picking Mexican bean beetles before the infestation gets out of control, and removing wilted plants immediately.)

– it’s just about time to stop planting and dividing perennials and woody plants. Be sure to keep newly installed plants well-watered throughout the growing season. The recommended amount is 1 inch per week during dry spells.

do not do any pruning except removal of dead or diseased material while woody plants are in active growth. They are using all their energy to accomplish the vital tasks of leafing out, blooming, and setting fruit. They have no energy to spare for making scar tissue. The next window of pruning time will come in midsummer.

– for better bloom next year, remove the flowers of spring-blooming shrubs such as lilacs after they finish blooming. The exception, of course, is fertile, fruit-bearing shrubs such as native species. The lovely flowers on this Viburnum dentatum (arrowwood viburnum) will turn into purple berries that the birds will devour in August.


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.


Back to winter

Another 6 or 7 inches of snow, just when we were getting a break! But I must admit that right now, while the snow is still falling, the world looks remarkably pretty. The temperature is hovering right at freezing, so the snow is heavy and wet and sticky, and it piles up on every slender branch.


On the hazelnut I just pruned last week as well as the dogwood, serviceberry, and ninebark that share a shrub island with it


On the slender branches of viburnum and dogwood on the side of the garage


On the row of hemlocks that shelters so many birds all winter


And on the forest we planted almost 20 years ago

More winter food

My garden feeds the birds and other wild critters throughout the winter, and I never put out feeders (to see why, please read this). Some foods are available in spring (when demand is highest and supply is actually lowest), some in summer, fall, or winter. Nature provides food for wild animals all through the year, and your garden can too. This post will focus on winter foods; check back soon for plant suggestions for the other three seasons.

Winter foods tend to be those that birds do not favor–they’re the fruits that don’t get eaten the second they ripen. From the bird’s point of view they’re an emergency cache; from our point of view, they’re winter color. Top choices include hollies (Ilex species), such as American holly, winterberry holly (I. verticillata), and inkberry holly (I. glabra) They’re lovely and colorful throughout the winter.

Most viburnums produce berries that get eaten as soon as they ripen. An exception is cranberrybush viburnum (V. trilobum). The bright-red berries remain on the plant for most of the winter.

Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is an underused plant. It’s a low-growing, spreading shrub that does well in dry soil and shade. It produces tiny, bright-pink berries that serve as winter food all season long.


Don’t forget about the perennial garden when you think about winter food. The main reason I don’t clean up the perennial garden until spring is to provide sustenance through the winter. The most popular seeds–those of sunflowers, asters, grasses–are long gone, but plenty of plants are still full of seeds, particularly ironweed (Vernonia) and brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba). And if you let leaf litter remain on the ground among the plants, it will protect fallen seeds and overwintering insects that birds will forage for all winter whenever there’s no snow on the ground.


Many birds, especially tiny ones like kinglets, chickadees, and nuthatches, and of course woodpeckeers, eat insects throughout the year. In winter, they find them under tree bark. They’re doing a good service to your trees by eating those insects, some of which can be harmful to trees. Do don’t be in a hurry to spray pesticides on your woody plants (this is the time of year when your tree care company is trying to sell you as many treatments as possible  for next season, so think carefully about what you really need). Spraying pesticides often means eliminating the food that can sustain our native bird populations throughout the year.