Spring cleaning

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One of my perennial borders in July. It looks very different now, as you’ll see below.

Gardens made up of native perennials and grasses are relatively easy to care for–no fertilizing and very little watering, if any–but they’re not maintenance free. The most important annual chore is spring cleaning: removal of last year’s dead growth to make way for the new. Remember that all these plants are perennials: in winter and spring the top growth is dead, but the roots are very much alive.

There are many reasons to clean up the garden in spring rather than in fall: first, it’s much easier, because the stalks are dry and easy to break off. In fall you would have to cut them. But ecologically it’s a very good idea to leave the dead material all winter: the remaining seed feeds the birds; the stalks provide shelter to many insects; the plant litter on the ground feeds and shelters ground-feeding birds; and all the material helps prevent groundwater runoff and erosion caused by winter storms.

This is what the same garden looked like a few days ago:

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A mess! Last year’s dead material was weighted down by snow and much of it has toppled over, although the toughest stalks remain upright. Some of the green you see is new growth; some is weeds.

Cleanup desperately needed! It’s a good idea to wait until you see lots of new growth, and that time is now.

The first step in cleanup is removing those tough, tall stalks and stems. Place a tarp on the ground to receive the detritus (whether you plan to compost it yourself or take it to a recycling facility, the tarp will facilitate removal and cleanup). Then grab the stalks by the handful and break them off near the base. Don’t pull–you might yank plants right out of the ground. Make a quick snapping motion with your wrist; if necessary, break the stalks in half in the same way (some of the plants in this garden are 8 feet tall). You’ll wind up with something that looks like this: a pile of detritus and lots of visible plants.

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With the stalks broken off, the new growth appears. The section you see here is about a third of this 30-foot long border.

At this point, you can see what’s growing. This includes both desirable and undesirable plants. This particular border always contains numerous “volunteers”–things I didn’t plant. The first category of volunteers is native undergrowth like violets, cinquefoil, and sedges. I leave these alone. The second is particularly noxious and fast-spreading weeds like garlic mustard and hairy or western bittercress. These mustards go to seed early, so I pull them the minute I see them. The third category is weeds that require digging–in this garden, wild garlic and ragwort.  I make a note of those and plan to come back later. Finally, there’s woody growth–small tree seedlings and stray offshoots of nearby shrubs. I’ll pull or cut those in a final pass through the garden.

The next step is to gently rake off the remaining material. Gently is the key word here. I use a large leaf rake and pull it through the material on the ground with quick, short, gentle strokes. I want to remove most of the leaf litter but leave the tender new growth. It’s not important to get rid of every dead leaf and bit of stalk. When you’ve done with this step, the garden looks like this:

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Remember what this garden will look like in July? Because my neighbor’s fence sits right on the property line, I won’t be able to get into this garden after the plants really start growing. So I have to do all the weeding, planting, and dividing now.

After removing weeds, I can divide plants, give plants away, and, most fun of all, add new ones. And watch the garden turn into a thing of beauty once more.

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Great weather for weeding

As a nice break from pruning this afternoon, I did a little weeding. The weather is perfect for it–it feels more like March than January. The soil is nice a moist, and because the winter has been so mild, the weeds are growing actively. You can easily weed out lawn grasses that are encroaching on your flower beds, plus winter annuals like chickweed and those tiny mustard plants, Cressamine species, that have become such a nuisance in the past few years.

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Common chickweed, Stellaria media, is a weedy winter annual. It germinates in late winter or spring and forms large mats if you don’t keep it under control. Pull it out now when the plants are small and the ground is moist and easy to work.

4/1/16: In the garden this week

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We lost a large Norway maple in the windstorm on Monday night. It smashed one of our cars; luckily, we were out, or it would have smashed both. The only good thing about this tree is that its rotten branches sheltered a lot of birds. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to see what’s left.

It’s been an eventful week, to say the least, in and out of the garden. Truly bizarre weather, very strong winds; it’s 70 degrees now, but it’s supposed to snow on Monday.

Are you absolutely itching to get out there and plant? It really is too early, but I did succumb to temptation yesterday afternoon and dig up and divide a couple of plants of very tough native grasses. Grasses respond best to being divided in early spring, and I knew we were going to have some rain, so I went for it. But I’ll hold off a while onger on the full-scale dividing and moving of perennials I do every spring.

In the meantime, here are some things you could be doing in your garden this week:

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure to prepare for spring planting.

— continue to direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm and stall when it turns cold. But cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard. It’s too late to pull western bittercress, which has already gone to seed. Mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— 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 it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year. I bet the grass will do just fine.

And here’s what’s left of that Norway maple–a large snag. Dead trees are excellent shelter for wildlife, so we left the trunk standing. Eventually we’ll plant a good-sized silver maple (Acer saccharinum) nearby. Silver maples are trees that were originally growing here in our sandy river-bottom soil but have been largely replaced by alien species.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Eventually we’ll disguise this snag with additional plantings. The front island will get too much sun now that the big tree is gone.

 

3/18/16: In the garden this week

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Elderberry leaves are beginning to unfold. If you have space for a large shrub, consider planting this gorgeous native. The birds will thank you!

It’s supposed to snow on Sunday and then get warm again. It’s definitely too early to plant; luckily, plants are not available yet, or this early spring would tempt me to plant too soon. But there are lots of things you could be doing if you’re dying to get into the garden this week:

— you should have cleaned up the vegetable garden last fall, but if you didn’t, do it now! Remove dead plants and weeds, spread compost or rotted manure, and get ready for spring planting.

— direct sow seeds of cool-weather crops such as lettuce, mesclun mix, spinach, arugula and peas. They’ll germinate and grow when the weather is warm and stall when it turns cold again. But cold weather won’t hurt them, and you’ll have spring greens as early as possible.

— start vegetable seeds for warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— Weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard and western bittercress in your garden plots. The mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

— it’s much too early to fertilize the lawn. Wait until Memorial Day. Even better, don’t fertilize at all this year.

And go out and see what’s growing in your garden.

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This is one of the many cultivars available of our native honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens. As you see, it begins to grow early in the season. I planted it over 20 years ago; today I would plant the species instead.

2/26/15: In the garden this week

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American hazelnut (Corylus americana) produces tiny, bright red female flowers in earliest spring–normally around the third week in March. They’re in bloom right now in my garden.

The weather can only be described as bizarre–warm, then cold; wet, then dry. Normally hazelnuts bloom in my garden at the same time as crocuses and right before spicebush. This year the hazelnuts are extra early, while the crocuses are barely showing above ground and the spicebush buds are just swelling slightly.

After quite a bit of rain followed by a couple of cold days, we’re in for a warm spell. It’s too late for winter pruning, but it’s a good time to do early spring chores like these:

— start vegetable seeds such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— the ground is wet and the weather is turning warm; it’s time to weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard and western bittercress in your garden plots. The mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

Finally, get out and look for the earliest signs of spring in our local natural areas. Skunk cabbage is up; hazelnuts are in bloom; you should see vernal witchhazel, pussy willow, and spicebush very soon. Enjoy the spring weather!

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Hazelnuts’ male flowers are borne on these long, dangling catkins that turn from green to golden as the pollen ripens.

 

One man’s weed . . .

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is another’s violet. A lot of people ask me how they can get rid of lawn weeds. “Violets and stuff like that,” they say. “What’s the best way to get rid of them?”

Why would you want to?

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Aside from the fact that they’re exquisitely beautiful, violets bloom in a range of colors from white to lavender to subtle stripes to purple–all these colors in different plants within inches of each other in my lawn. And if that weren’t enough, violets are the only food for the larvae of fritillaries, a large group of gorgeous native butterflies. No violets, no fritillaries. Fritillaries are as lovely as their name, and like many butterflies, they are important pollinators. Think about that before reaching for some weed killer.

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A new weed

Cardamine oligosperma

New to us in the northeast, anyway. This is Cardamine oligosperma, or little western bittercress. It’s a member of the mustard family, as is quite clear from its four-petaled (cruciform) flowers. It’s native to western North America but not to the east. The plant is all of 2 inches high, and I first noticed it two years ago, when, after a very mild winter, it was suddenly everywhere and blooming with all its might in January. Last spring, after it finished blooming and turned an ugly dusty brown, people kept asking me how to control it in their lawns, but that was the wrong time to do anything about it, as you’ll learn if you read on below. This year it’s in bloom right now. It likes wet places (like well-watered lawns).

The key to controlling this or any other weed is to understand its life cycle. This particular plant is a winter annual, meaning its seeds germinate in summer or fall, and the seedlings remain dormant throughout the winter and bloom in early spring. Like many other mustards, this one sets seed very quickly (the straight lines at the top of the plant are the seedpods), so to prevent a new generation from coming back to plague you next spring, you need to pull it now, today, before it produces seed. Notice in the photo above that the plant has both mature seedpods and flowers at the same time. Pull it up the second you see those white flowers begin to open. Because it’s an annual, it’s very easy to remove.

The other control technique you can use is to apply a pre-emergent herbicide in the fall before the seeds germinate. As with any control plan, timing is key. A pre-emergent won’t work if the seeds have already germinated; pulling the plants out won’t work it they’ve already scattered their seeds (more about that next month when the garlic mustard is in bloom). And a pre-emergent won’t work on other weeds that aren’t winter annuals or that don’t set seed at the same time. So in this as in all cases, you need to weigh carefully the cost versus the benefit of using potentially hazardous chemicals. And remember, this plant likes moist areas. Water your lawn less (your lawn doesn’t need all that water anyway), and you’ll have fewer weeds.