2/17/17: In the garden and beyond


True, the snow is nearly gone and we’re in for some warm weather, but don’t be fooled into thinking that winter is over.

Are you ready for 60 degrees in February? That’s predicted for the coming week. But no matter the weather, remember that it’s still winter. Don’t begin cleaning up your perennial garden for at least another month or six weeks. But here are some things you can be doing in your garden in the next couple of weeks:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, and the ground is not frozen, water all plants installed this spring or fall. We have received approximately an inch of precipitation each recent week (rain or snow), so no need to water right now, but check back here frequently for updates. 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 total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings each week.

— are your shrubs overgrown and in need of size reduction? Time is running out to work on winter pruning of woody plants. The best time to do this is while plants are dormant, but with the predicted warm weather, woody plants may break dormancy soon. Contact me for coaching if you would like to learn to do this yourself, or for an estimate if you would like me to do it for you.

— start vegetable seeds indoors. You’ll find a schedule here.

— Don’t clean up the perennial garden yet. It supplies food and cover for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife all winter.

but do 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. Or use a thick layer of leaves (12″ or more). You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds in the mulch as you collect them.

collect seeds. Even though I’ve been collecting seed since last summer, plenty remains for the birds. Mixed-species foraging flocks visit daily to take advantage of the bounty; lately I’ve seen nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, juncos, several species of sparrows, woodpeckers, kinglets.

— plan for next season: 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. Did you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring. Is there plentiful food for birds now? Plan to plant native perennials and shrubs on spring. And place your orders early, because native plant nurseries run out of the most popular species.

join a garden club or native plant society: you’ll meet like-minded gardeners, learn a lot, and find out about local resources. For example, join the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and find about the activities of our Bergen-Passaic chapter, or join your local garden club.

— If you live in Bergen County, take the Parks Survey.  It only takes a few minutes, and it allows you to say what you would like to happen to our precious remaining open space.

— 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.

Enjoy the garden and nature this week and always.


American hazelnut is the first shrub to bloom in my garden, usually by mid-March. These male catkins are still dormant, but they will elongate and release pollen in just a few weeks.



Environmental news roundup


The environment includes your backyard. Something as simple as a screen of evergreens can greatly improve the environment for overwintering birds.

Since the weather suddenly got cold, we’ve been hearing a lot about the polar vortex. This is simply the normal circular flow of cold air around the Arctic that sometimes moves south and brings with it abnormally cold temperatures. It’s not unusual, and it’s not a sign that global warming is a hoax. Check out the National Weather Service‘s excellent explanation and graphics. The actual prediction for the coming winter is for slightly above-normal temperatures in our area.

The effects of global warming are most extreme in the polar regions, where the climate is heating up fast. For a fascinating article about how this is affecting residents of the Arctic, both human and nonhuman, read this article. It explains what happens to polar bears when the sea ice they need for hunting disappears, and what happens to people when, as a result, the polar bears show up in their villages.

All environmental news is not bad. In recent years the cost of renewable energy, particularly solar power, has declined precipitously, making it cheaper to use clean energy than many forms of greenhouse-increasing energy such as coal. Solar is rapidly becoming the cheapest source of new electricity. Market forces are at work.

Local governments all over the world are on board with renewable energy: San Diego; Rochester, MN; Burlington, VT; Barcelona; Adelaide; and countless more. You can read a report from the International Energy Agency here or google the phrase “renewable energy local government” to find many more examples. And you can encourage your local government to join in.

And don’t forget to check out Global Weirding every two weeks for a new episode of this information and funny YouTube series.

Stay warm.

8/14/15: In the garden this week


My favorite Rudbeckia, R. triloba, is almost unbelievably floriferous. It won’t let up until frost.

The weather is about to turn hot: starting tomorrow, we’re due for almost a week of 90-degree days. By all indications, the relatively cool weather we’ve enjoyed for the past two years, with pleasant summers and cold, snowy winters, is ending. A strong El Nino in the Pacific means heavy rain for the western United States; for us, it means above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation over the next few months.

If you followed my advice and planted a fall vegetable garden, be sure to water carefully. Germinating seeds are particularly vulnerable to heat and lack of water. This is one circumstance in which is makes sense to water frequently and somewhat shallowly: while seeds are germinating, they need to stay moist.

I’ve started collecting seeds of summer perennials. Early bloomers like milkweeds, monarda, and coreopsis are ripening their seeds now. In addition to collecting seeds and admiring the continual floral display, here are a few other chores you might consider:

water new plantings: newly installed plants and annuals, like vegetables, need watering. 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? An old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants makes a great rain gauge. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers: 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). Cucumber vines are showing signs of wilt: remove them immediately to prevent the spread of this fungal disease. Pick frequently: smaller vegetables taste better.

— As tomatoes ripen their fruit, cut back on watering to avoid split fruits. Keep removing suckers all summer long. Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes.

Plant the fall vegetable garden: second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach can seeded directly in the garden in August. But be sure to keep them well watered, especially as they begin to germinate.

— 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. In the fall, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn about a month ago and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.

— this is a good time to prune woody plants. Once all growth, flowering, and fruiting are done, the plants are relatively, but not completely, dormant, giving you a window of time to prune before they get ready for their next critical task: leaf abscission (shutting down for the winter). I do most of my pruning in winter, but I also prune back shrubs as needed after they have ripened their fruit.

— 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 early 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.) Let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. 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 (watering every day is likely to cause fungal diseases). But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow! If you follow my advice and hold off on watering entirely, your lawn is dormant now, but it will green up as soon as we get some rain.

Stay cool and enjoy the garden this week!


American plum trees (Prunus americana) are ripening their fruit. This picture was taken 5 days ago; today the plums are a rosy orange color. They’ll be ripe in a day or so, and there are so many this year that we may actually get some.

Lilacs blooming for Mother’s Day

used to be normal. This year, because of the unusually cold winter, that’s what they’re doing, but most years lilacs now bloom in this area around the third week in April. That’s a huge change that’s happened over no more than the past thirty years. Climate change is real, as a new report, the National Climate Assessment, makes clear. Here’s today’s lead in the NY Times, summarizing the findings, and here’s a link to the report itself.

In case you don’t think climate change will affect you personally, here are just a few possible effects: more insect pests such as mosquitoes and tree-killing borers and beetles as increasingly mild winters fail to keep populations down; more insect-borne disease; more major storms that knock down trees and cause extensive and expensive flooding; more invasive plants, as destructive species such as miscanthus grass (already invasive in the southern states) and kudzu move north; more flooding as the sea level continues its inexorable rise; more expensive food as drought tightens its hold on major agricultural areas.

Don’t be fooled by this year’s unusually cold winter. That’s just one year. More important are the trends, which are harder for us humans to see (until we remember that lilacs bloomed for Mother’s Day when we were kids). According to the Times article, “over the past half-century, the proportion of precipitation that is falling in very heavy rain events has jumped by 71 percent in the Northeast.”  More storms, more damage, more destruction.

I’d rather be gardening


I don’t know about you, but now that spring is really here, if I have a choice between writing about gardening and gardening, I’ll choose gardening. So I don’t have a lot of time to write this blog or my column right now.

But I thought I’d share some interesting links–after all, you have to come inside sometime. The NY Times ran an article today about the late spring we’re having and how because so many things have been delayed, many species that usually bloom sequentially will bloom all at once. I can’t wait. And I’ve been following a really interesting blog called Beautiful Wildlife Garden written by a group of wildlife gardeners from all over the country. Somehow they all seem to get great pictures of the wild animals in their gardens.

I’ve GOT to get my cold-weather vegetable seeds in.

Odds and ends


Yesterday’s New York Times published an opinion piece about the damage caused by outdoor cats. I always thought the scientific consensus was that they killed about 1 billion birds per year. Turns out it’s more like 2.5 billion. Think about that in a time when our environment is already fragmented and degraded. We’re starting to realize that what we do in our own backyards has a large impact on the environment we all share.

And speaking of our backyards, every gardener I know is longing to get out there and start planting, but the weather remains stubbornly cold. Right now the temperature is 20 degrees, and snow is predicted for tomorrow night. Every day I plan to sow some early spring greens and uncover my earliest flower beds. Then I look at the weather forecast and decide to wait. It is supposed to get warmer on Thursday and stay in the 50s and 60s for at least a week after that. For at least the past month, the temperature has been persistently colder than the forecasts.

So it’s too early to plant and too late to prune (woody plants are no longer dormant), but there are lots of things you could be doing if, like me, you can’t bear staying indoors any longer: clean up the garden, neaten the edges, put down mulch, trim overgrown vines (Virginia creeper grows on our garage walls, and every spring we give it a haircut). I’m raking the backyard lawn to get the leaf pile back into shape–winter scattered the leaves around quite a bit. The raking also helps loosen the ground in areas where I intend to sow grass seed. And you can always look out the window and enjoy the crocuses.



Winter woes


OK, it’s not pretty anymore. It’s just boring and annoying and frustrating and COLD, and another storm is expected on Monday. And according to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, we have an above-average chance of below-average temperatures (isn’t that a great phrase?) for the next month.

The sun is now so strong that even on a day when the temperature doesn’t go above the mid-twenties, the water remains liquid in the puddles. If we weren’t still buried under almost a foot of frozen snow, the snowdrops, winter aconites, and crocuses would be blooming, the daffodil foliage would be up, and I’d be thinking about sowing seeds for cool-season greens this weekend. And checking the hazelnut and spicebush shrubs for the first signs of bloom.

But still, spring is bound to come, right? Have a good weekend, and stay warm.