9/29/17: In the garden this week

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Many native perennials display beautiful fall colors. The short plant with red leaves is sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), which blooms with yellow flowers in May-July; the taller one is Penstemon digitalis, which has white flowers at the same time.

After several weeks of unseasonable heat and drought, we finally feel a hint of fall today (thought still no rain in sight). Fruits have ripened, but most trees and shrubs are holding fast to their leaves, which for the most part look both green and sad. Some early-turning shrubs and trees are showing color, but the color is subdued. The drought and heat are having an effect.

In the vegetable garden the prolonged heat means that pests and diseases have longer than usual to weak havoc, and fall cool-weather crops are sparse. On the positive side, tomato plants are still producing.

Fall is a good time to plant, especially trees and shrubs (though not as good as spring). But the reason it’s good is the cool temperatures: plants concentrate on growing roots when the soil turns cool, top growth when it’s warm. So far this fall has NOT been a good time to plant, although lots of watering helps.

Fall is a good time for lots of other garden chores, however:

water new plantings this week: there’s been almost no precipitation for the past 3 weeks. In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all woody plants installed this season or last fall. The soil is very dry, so even perennials planted this spring might be in need of a little extra water. 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 water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week, and on Sunday I’ll water some of the perennials I put in this past spring.

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 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.

continue to plant cool-weather crops such as lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, and peas for fall harvest. I’m betting on a war fall.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then 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 now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, 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! Keep a lookout for fall monarch migration (they’re going south). Will they find nectar for the journey in your garden? If not, plant some asters!

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New England aster beats most other plants for attracting pollinators in fall.

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9/8/17: In the garden this week

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

8/18/17: In the garden this week

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The perennial border displays its brightest colors in August. Rudbeckia subtomentosa, Agastache foeniculum, and Hibiscus mosceutos vie for attention amid the greenery.

August may be a dull time of year, but not in the garden, when the floral display is at its height. This is the time to sit on the patio with a cold drink and enjoy the fruits of your labor. But while you’re out there, here are a few things you could be doing:

water new plantings: I watered my young trees last Sunday and will do so again this week unless we receive considerably more rain tonight and tomorrow: this morning’s downpour amounted to just over half an inch, and I aim for an inch to an inch and a half per week. Remember that perennials and woody plants that you planted this spring or last fall need supplemental water during dry periods throughout this growing season. The rule of thumb is at least an inch of water per week for newly installed plants. In dry weeks throughout the growing season (weeks with less than an inch of rainfall), you need to water all plants installed this spring or last fall. Trees need supplemental watering even longer: the rule of thumb is one year per inch of trunk diameter. 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.

— if you intend to plant a second crop of cool-weather vegetables, you should be starting seed. Water the vegetable garden deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread. Continue to remove the flowers from basil plants as they form. And pick those zucchini before they reach the size of baseball bats!

— continue to properly tie, stake, and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are much too small: 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.

—  do not plant ornamentals like perennials and shrubs until the weather turns cool in fall. During hot weather, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming rather than growing new roots. If you do continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water during dry periods, as explained above.

it’s also a bad time to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Lawn grasses are adapted to much cooler summers than we experience. All they want to do during this time of year is go dormant, so they can’t use any extra nutrients. Here’s a suggestion: don’t feed at all this year. The lawn will look just fine. Or wait until 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.

— this is a good time to prune woody plants. You want to prune when the plant is relatively quiescent—when it’s not using so much energy growing, flowering, and fruiting that it has little to spare to heal a wound. This quiescent period occurs between now and leaf drop (abscission) in fall. Basically, when you see that the plant has finished fruiting and that it has formed next year’s buds, but the leaf color is not fading yet, you have a window of time for pruning. Of course, you should prune diseased or injured plants at any time as well as remove any safety hazards, such as overeager shrubs that block sidewalks or diseased trees that might fall down.

do not deadhead your perennials. Seeds represent winter food for birds and other creatures and new plants for you. Collect seeds as they ripen, and store them in a cold place (such as an unheated garage) for next year’s planting, or simply scatter them on the ground where you want them to grow. Do deadhead potentially invasive plants like butterfly bush, miscanthus, and pennisetum grasses however.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Nodding pink onion (Allium cernuum) is not flashy, but it’s nonetheless a star of the August garden. This is a front-of-the-border plant that thrives on full sun and dry soil.

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Rudbeckia triloba has just started blooming. I’m always very happy to see it. The flowers are just so cute.

8/11/17: In the garden this week

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Some clients resist planting native grasses; resistance usually ends when they see the colors of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Look carefully at the blues and purples in this plant, and remember that every plant is slightly different.

We are into what I think of as the summer doldrums, or maybe just a reli=atively q uiet period in the garden. Certainly the prairie perennials continue to bloom with all their might, and there are all the asters to look forward to, but in the ornamental garden there’s not much to do except to keep things tidy (that is, if you like your garden to be tidy).

Still, there’s always something to do in the garden, and here are some suggestions:

water new plantings: unless we get a decent amount of rain this weekend (and forecasts do predict rain), go ahead and water newly planted grasses, shrubs, and woody plants. We received just under an inch of rain so far this week. Remember that perennials and woody plants that you planted this spring or last fall need supplemental water during dry periods throughout this growing season. The rule of thumb is at least an inch of water per week for newly installed plants. In dry weeks throughout the growing season (weeks 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.

— if you intend to plant a second crop of cool-weather vegetables, you should be buying and starting seed. Water the vegetable garden deeply during dry periods, particularly when the weather is hot, and watch carefully for pests and diseases. Removed diseased plants promptly to prevent spread. Continue to remove the flowers from basil plants as they form; you should already have cut down the plants once to make pesto.

— be sure to properly tie, stake, and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are much too small: 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 too late to plant. Wait until the weather turns cool in fall. During hot weather, plants put their energy into top growth and blooming rather than growing new roots. If you do continue to plant, water very thoroughly and keep an eye on those new plants. They will need extra water during dry periods, as explained above.

it’s a bad time to fertilize your lawn or to reseed bare patches, no matter what your lawn-care service tells you. Lawn grasses are adapted to much cooler summers than we experience. All they want to do during this time of year is go dormant, so they really can’t use any extra nutrients. 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 time to prune woody plants. You want to prune when the plant is relatively quiescent—when it’s not using a great deal of energy growing, flowering, and fruiting that it has little to spare to healing a wound. This will happen between now and leaf drop in fall. Basically, when you see that the plant has finished fruiting and that it has formed next year’s buds, but the leaf color is not fading yet, you have a window of time for pruning. Of course, you should prune diseased or injured plants at any time as well as remove any safety hazards, such as overeager shrub that block sidewalks or diseased trees that might fall down.

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A branch of a large native hazelnut shrub (Corylus americana). It has finished setting fruit as well as forming next spring’s flower buds–the tiny things hanging down from the leaf nodes will become the male flowers. The plant is resting before its last remaining task of the year, leaf abscission, so this is a good time to prune.

do not deadhead your perennials. It will soon be time to collect seeds, which represent winter food for birds and other creatures and new plants for you. Store your seeds in a cold place (such as an unheated garage) for next year’s planting or simply scattered on the ground where you want them to grow. Do deadhead potentially  invasive plants like butterfly bush, however.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Rudbeckia triloba is in bloom now and will put on a display through September and into October. This is a short-lived perennial that readily self-seeds, so new plant appear each year. It remains a manageable 3 feet tall and doesn’t spread aggressively. And the flowers are adorable!

 

 

Watering wisely

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An exuberant summer border should not require any watering once it’s established–if the plants were sited correctly in the first place. These plants are all perennials. This border is never watered or fertilized.

All horticulturists know that the main reason that plants die is improper watering. I see examples of this all the time, both insufficient watering and overwatering, and in this post I’ll explain some ways you can avoid it. But please refer, first of all to the watering guidelines page, which sets out general principles and explains the concept of “establishment.”

The first step is to pick the right plant for your site. If you place a wetland plant in a dry site, you may have to water it pretty much forever (although some wetland plants do quite well in dry sites, once properly established). A bigger problem is the opposite one: placing a plant adapted to dry conditions in a wet site, or in a site that’s watered continually. The plant is quite likely to rot away.

Many people start gardening by planting annuals, and when they go on to perennials, grasses, and shrubs, treat them like annuals. Annuals are plants that live for a single season. They include all vegetables and many ornamentals such as impatiens and marigolds. Because of their short lifespans, they do not develop large, deep root systems, so they do need continual shallow watering. (This is a big reason that I discourage clients from using annuals as ornamentals–growing them is just not sustainable.)

Most ornamentals, certainly almost all native ornamentals, are perennials: their lifespan ranges from several seasons to pretty much forever. These plants develop large, deep root systems. They put down roots that can mine the soil over a large area for minerals and moisture. To encourage them to develop these deep root systems, water infrequently, if at all, once they are established. A little drooping on a hot afternoon will not harm them. Recent research shows that stress is good for plants: it encourages them to grow deep, strong roots.

What does this mean for the average gardener? It means the following key points:

— during establishment, perennial plants need supplemental watering during dry periods only.

— once established, properly sited perennial plants do not need supplemental water except perhaps in periods of extreme drought.

— the rule of thumb for newly planted trees is one year of supplemental watering per inch of trunk diameter. So, for example, a tree with a 2-inch diameter should receive supplemental watering during dry periods for two years.

— established lawn grasses, which are perennial, do not need supplemental water, and if treated this way, they will go dormant during hot, dry periods but green up again with cooler weather or rain

— if you cannot tolerate a dormant lawn, provide deep but infrequent watering to encourage the development of deep roots

— for annuals such as vegetables, deep watering once or twice a week is better than daily shallow watering, which can lead to rot and all kinds of fungus diseases

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Optimal watering for a vegetable garden, made up of annual plants, is deep rather than shallow watering. Monitor rainfall and water only when it’s needed.

7/14/17: In the garden this week

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A luxuriant summer border–a bit too luxuriant this year. With all the rain, I have to keep cutting plants back.

Despite all the rain and warm temperatures throughout this growing season, when I look back at photos of past years’ gardens it’s obvious that many things are blooming 10 days to two weeks later than usual. Normally Rudbeckia subtomentosa begins around July 4; right now the first flowers are  opening, as you see in the picture above.

Over 4 inches of rain this week, and still counting! (It’s raining hard as I write this.) If you have a rain garden, or a spot that might become one, it’s probably been dry for the past 3 years, but it’s most likely nice and wet now. I’m seeing more powdery mildew than in recent seasons, and if it keeps raining, ripening tomatoes may crack on the vine. But all the rain is really good for our poor forest and street trees, which have had a thirsty time recently.

When it stops raining, here are some things you might do in the garden this week:

water new plantings: NOT! Rainfall for the week is well over 4 inches, so nothing should need watering. BUT keep monitoring: perennials and woody plants that you planted this spring or last fall need supplemental water during dry periods. The rule of thumb is at least an inch of water per week for newly installed plants. In dry weeks throughout the growing season (weeks 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’s 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. Remove the flowers from basil plants as they form, and cut down the plants to make pesto as soon as you have enough leaves for a batch.

— be sure to properly tie, stake, and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are much too small: 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 during dry periods, as explained above.

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 or diseased trees that might fall down.

It’s supposed to stop raining sometime tomorrow! get out and enjoy the garden this week.

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Rudbeckia flowers are enchanting as they open.

6/30/17: In the garden this week

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Rudbeckias will start to bloom very soon: this is Rudbeckia subtomentosa, the earliest one in my garden. It’s a large, tough plant, and it blooms nonstop from late June through September.

As you approach this long Fourth of July weekend, filled with outdoor activities, take some time to reassess your garden: would you like to spend more time enjoying the outdoors and less time on lawn care? would you like to see more birds and butterflies? Do you see fireflies? (You should, unless you poison them with lawn chemicals and insecticides.) Do your plants attract pollinators? (They should, unless they are sterile hybrids.) How could your outdoor environment be more sustainable and environmentally friendly?

Here are some additional seasonal tasks you might address during this long hoiday weekend:

water new plantings: We received almost no rain in the past week, so perennials and woody plants that you planted this spring or last fall need supplemental water: at least an inch of water, not just a little sprinkle. In addition, if you are still planting despite the hot weather, be sure to water well after planting to settle the new plants in the ground. In dry weeks throughout the growing season (weeks 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’s 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. Remove the flowers from basil plants as they form, and cut down the plants to make pesto as soon as you have enough leaves for a batch. If you don’t grow basil, it’s not too late to buy a flat and plant it out this season.

— be sure to properly tie, stake, and prune your tomato plants. Most tomato cages are much too small: 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.

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Monarda didyma, the red species, doesn’t do as well in my garden as the more familiar pink/lavender Monarda fistulosa. This year it’s quite lovely, and both are excellent pollinator plants.

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 or diseased trees that might fall down.

Enjoy the garden and the fireflies!

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A view of one of the pernnial beds taken this morning.