Growing Greener

by A. Goldman

Bounty from the garden

Improving our landscapes can create environmental benefits. Gardens can create habitats for wildlife, help clean the air, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, help manage storm water runoff, and even reduce our carbon footprint by growing food in our own backyard.  

Here are a few suggestions for making your garden even greener.

Follow the principals of integrated pest management (IPM). Use the least invasive and toxic method possible to control pests and diseases.

Compost bin in vegetable garden

Yard waste comprises up to 20% of a landfill. Most of these materials are biodegradable and can contribute to soil health.   There is a technique to composting kitchen and yard waste if you want results quickly, but it does not need to be complicated. A simple heap of materials will eventually break down, no turning or management needed if you are patient.  No room for a compost pile? Consider “in place” or “trench” composting right in the soil.

You can also use yard waste to mulch in place. When trimming back your garden this fall use the chop and drop method. Chop up large leaves and stems and let fallen leaves remain around the plants.  Using green materials in place can prevent erosion, increase your soil’s viability and smother weeds. However, do not chop and drop if the plants are diseased – diseased materials should be removed.

Create a Habitat Pile for birds, toads, and small critters with excess of twigs and branches.  If you don’t have the room for that, just breaking up smaller twigs and adding to the garden makes a difference. These will break down quickly and the smaller they are, the less you will see them.  Larger pieces can be used for plant stakes, defining path edges, helping to hold soil back on a hill or even pot feet under your planters. 

Gardeners usually generate a significant number of empty nursery pots every season.  The best solution is reuse, especially since nursery pots are not usually recycled even if they are included in your recycling bin. If you know of a fellow gardener who shares or propagates plants from their garden, ask them if they could use quart or gallon pots. Pots can also be used in large planters at the bottom to make it lighter and reduce the amount of potting soil needed.   They are great for pot-in-pot planting. You bury a black plastic pot to ground level and then it can accept another already potted plant.  This allows you to change out what is planted in that particular spot at any time.  Planting spring bulbs this way allows you to protect bulbs from voles and if you put some hardware cloth over the top, from squirrels. Once the bulbs are done blooming, you can then opt for something else in that same spot. 

If possible, buy mulch and soils in bulk to avoid all the plastic bags. Consider re-using the bags you do get as trash bags in your shed or garage in place of a new trash bag.  Cleaned bags can be kept in your car when plant shopping.  Place your large plants or groups of smaller in a rolled down bag to keep them upright and contain any soil from the bottom of the pot.  

Tasks for the September Garden

Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee”

September is for planting! The soil is still warm but the air is cooler and moisture is (usually) more abundant. These conditions are great for establishing most herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs. Planting them now will give you a head start on spring. The exception to this is broad-leaf evergreens like rhododendrons, boxwood and hollies as well as plants that are borderline cold hardy (for us, zone 7 or higher). These are better planted in spring.

Zinnia

Give your ornamental planters a boost. Remove or trim back any ragged annuals. You can replace them with hardier fall plants.

Now is a good time to save some seeds for planting next year. Seeds from many annuals like Zinnia, Marigold, Cosmos, and Celosia are easy to save in a cool dry place. Just be aware that some hybrid varieties will not be identical when grown from seed.

Japanese Stiltgrass

Speaking of seeds – get after those weeds! Many weeds like Japanese stilt grass, yellow oxalis, pokeweed and various grasses are setting seeds. Getting rid of them now will help reduce populations next year. Also remove the flower heads of self-seeding annuals and perennials if you don’t want the seedlings.

There is still time to add cold hardy vegetable starts (lettuce, kale, broccoli, etc.) to the vegetable garden. If you are quick you can still seed in lettuce, radishes, kale and spinach.

Early Peony

While Peonies can live a very long time without dividing, now is the best time to divide them if you want to increase your plants.

Now is a good time to do soil tests. If pH needs to be adjusted, this is best done in fall to prepare for spring planting.

It’s also a good time to start a new planting bed by laying down cardboard and then layering woodchips, twigs, stems and fall leaves when they fall. By spring, the area should be ready for planting.

Think about bringing in any houseplants vacationing outside. They should come in before nights hit 50F. Inspect for pests (especially mice living in large pots – ask me how I know…). 

You can also bring in some herbs and place them in a cool, sunny spot in pots with good drainage.

Make a list of potential new plants to add to your landscape and have the list handy when fall plant shopping.  If you don’t have a specific plant in mind, make a list of the spaces you want to fill – including the amount of space, the light and moisture conditions and any height constraints. You can use this to help choose plants when shopping.

Keep swatting those lanternflies…

Mini and Dwarf Shrubs

Smaller is sometimes better

Article by A. Goldman

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers‘ in summer

There are many reasons to think about adding small shrubs to your landscape.  As many gardeners downsize or have mature plantings at their properties, it is wonderful to see new versions of old favorites being introduced.  Not everyone can devote enough real estate for a VW bug-sized shrub that may only bloom once a year but now you can get one that is only a fraction of its previous size. 

Replacing plantings of annuals with small shrubs can reduce maintenance and expense over time. Smaller shrubs can be tucked around existing trees and large shrubs to reduce the need to mulch. Small shrubs can even be planted in large containers to simplify annual planting and provide year round structure.

Here are a few suggestions for small shrubs. They are divided into mini shrubs which mature under two feet and dwarf shrubs  which are considerably smaller than the original but may still reach four feet or so.

Mini shrubs to consider:

  • Tiny Tuff Stuff Hydrangea: 18-24” re-blooming lace cap hydrangea
  • Lil Ditty Viburnum: 24” fragrant white flowers and fall color part shade tolerant
  • Yuki Cherry Blossom Deutzia: 1-2’ pink flowers, use as a groundcover
  • Double Play Gold Spirea: 24” golden foliage with hot pink flowers, deer resistant
  • Ground Hog Aronia: 14” native, white flowers and purple berries, tough plant
  • Carsten’s Wintergold Mugo Pine: 1-2’ winter golden needles, hardy to Z2, rugged
  • Petite Knock Out Rose:  18” same vigorous growth and continuous blooming

Dwarf shrubs to add:

  • Sugartina Clethra:36”  Native, easy care, bee attractor, fragrant flowers
  • Red Rover Dogwood: 5’ Native, great fall color, red stems, pollinator and bird beneficial
  • Little Quickfire/Little Lime Hydrangea:  5-6’ tried and true, die hard hydrangeas
  • Ruby Slippers Oak Leaf Hydrangea: 3-4’ with a large flower inflorescence and nice fall color
  • Scent and Sensibility Lilac: 3’ wider than tall, fragrant, purple and re-blooming
  • Crimson Kisses Weigela: 3’ re-blooming red flowers with white, easy care
  • Winecraft Gold Smokebush:  6’ golden foliage, smaller and denser than regular smokebush

Take a look around your landscape to consider where you might tuck in some added interest with these smaller shrubs.  They are a great transition from larger shrub and trees and make a nice backdrop to perennials.  Consider adding a few to offer more cover for the birds and critters that call your garden home.  Smaller is better!

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers‘ in fall

Beyond Milkweed

Bringing in the Butterflies

Many know the importance of supplying milkweed as a food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, but there are other plants you can add to your yard to support other butterfly species.

Zizia aurea in bloom

Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars will feast on Zizia aurea. This native perennial has cheerful unbrels of yellow flowers in spring and will grow in full sun or part shade. Eastern Black Swallowtail will also eat dill, parsley, fennel and carrots – if you are willing to share.

The Pearl Crescent relies on our native asters like Symphyotrichum cordifolium (blue wood aster), Symphyotrichum oblongifolium  (aromatic aster), Symphyotrichum laeve (smooth aster), or Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (new england aster). Asters are beautiful flowering plants that also provide late season nectar for butterflies and bees. There are many lovely cultivars to choose from – one to fit almost any garden space.

Antennaria plantaginifolia in bloom

Antennaria plantaginifolia is a food source for the American Painted Lady butterfly . The caterpillars roll the plant’s leaves to make sheltered cocoons. This plant makes an attractive low growing ground cover in sunny, dry well drained places.

Woody plants contribute to butterfly survival too. The Spicebush Swallowtail depends on our native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and native Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum). Wild cherry (Prunus serotina) supports Spring and Summer Azure caterpillars and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. If you grow our native Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba) not only could you get tasty fruit, you might be lucky enough to see a Zebra Swallowtail.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Having a less than perfect lawn is also a big benefit to butterflies. The Great Spangled Fritillary relies on common violets. Leaving violets in your lawn (or having a patch as a groundcover) is vital to these beautiful butterflies. White clover supports a host of butterflies including the Orange Sulphur, the Gray Hairstreak, the Eastern Tailed Blue and the Clouded Sulphur. It is also a terrific source of nectar and pollen for bees and improves soil by sequestering nitrogen.  

Since some butterflies and moths winter over as caterpillars or chrysalises (and sometimes even as adults) in leaf litter and plant debris, try to wait till the weather warms in spring before doing too much clean up. Wherever possible, leave fallen leaves in place. This will protect hibernating butterflies (as well as other critters) and will provide you with free, nutritious garden mulch – its a win-win.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Tithonia rotundifolia

February Fun in the Garden

By A Goldman and C StClair

With days getting a bit longer, the urge to get outside and “do something” starts to grow. Here are a few tasks to consider tackling this month. But keep in mind, soggy, wet soils compact very easily. Avoid walking or driving on wet soil whenever possible.

Keep outdoor evergreens well-watered and even deciduous plants if they were planted late in the season.  Dry roots and drying winds will challenge evergreens to stay hydrated. Check for any deer browsing and net or apply repellent if evergreens are being chewed.

Keep an eye open for perennials that have heaved out of the soil due to freeze thaw cycles and gently push them back in place to prevent roots from drying out.

If you have bird baths, try to keep fresh and unfrozen water in them for not only birds but other animals that need a drink. 

On mild days, go outside and clean out your birdhouses for future residents.

Its hard to resist the desire to start garden clean up on those mild days that pop up here or there, but try not to disturb the gardens too much yet (except for maybe pulling out some of the evil Hairy Bittercress). There are valuable critters sleeping in the debris and they need days consistently above 50 F to wake up for the season.

Use downed branches to start or add to a brush pile for the critters that share your property.  These are great in far corners away from view and help with habitat.  For information on brush piles click here.

If the weather is nasty, there are indoor tasks to do as well.

Dust your indoor house plants.  They can photosynthesize much better without a layer of dust on their leaf surface. Be careful not to over water or fertilize.  They are not as energetic in the winter, quite like us!

Take some time to peruse catalogs and on-line plant sources. Dreaming about amazing new additions to the garden is half the fun. Before you place those orders, stop to consider and reassess where those plants will go in your landscape and if you will have time to plant/care for them.  Unusual items are worth the order but more “common” plants might be purchased at your local nursery in a larger size for the same cost.

Now is a good time to organize your records and get your plant tags ready for spring.  If you have records of plant purchases for the previous year, use that for making tags to place when weather is mild or when spring finally arrives.

Planning Your 2020 Garden

By A. Goldman

Anticipation is a gardener’s motto and thinking about the possibilities for next year’s garden is what eases the long winter months.  We may not be able to physically be out in the garden, but mentally we are! 

Winter allows a more leisurely approach to assessing and considering changes and can help avoid planting something in haste during the season just to get it in the ground. 

If you took pictures of your garden throughout the season, now is the time to revisit them to consider additions, changes, removal or repeating of certain plants.  Get a notebook out and make some notes before the thought or idea evaporates.

If you have a section of your garden you are not happy with but don’t quite know why, try converting the photograph to black and white. Sometimes the problem is too many plants of similar size, shape or texture. It’s much easier to identify this without the distraction of color.

When the weather allows, stroll around your property admiring nature that is visible now that you may not have normally noticed. 

If you do not see any birds or other wildlife then plan to add a feeder, a bird bath and more evergreens for winter protection. 

If winter winds bring down branches consider creating a brush pile in a remote location for critter habitat instead of disposing of them. 

Winter is also a great time to assess where to prune rubbing or crossing branches and dead wood as they are more noticeable without foliage. These branches can be added to your new brush pile critter habitat too.

If you have outdoor planters that contain woody plants, consider where those plants could make an impact in your landscape come spring.  Also plan for any plants that didn’t quite make it into the garden from end of season sales. You can also make note of plants that need dividing and where those divisions can be placed. Come spring, you’ll be ready for action.

In the winter and early spring when you are reading gardening magazines and garden blogs about all the new plant introductions, make some notes of things that would work in your landscape.  You’ll appreciate those notes when spring 2020 plant shopping starts and you encounter all the new introductions.  Your notes will allow you to make better choices, clear the “should I buy this” brain fog – and hopefully save you money too!

Spotted lanternfly on tree
Photo courtesy of Penn State Extension

A very important subject to think about for 2020 is how to deal with the onslaught of spotted lantern fly on your property.  This is a very serious threat to many tree species and the trees will need help to cope and survive.

Here are some resources for spotted lanternfly to help you plan your strategy.

Some Seed Sources

Now that winter is here – it’s seed catalog time! On a cold, snowy day there is nothing more fun than perusing seed catalogs and imagining how glorious your garden will be next year.

We thought we’d share some of our favorite seed vendors so you can check them out. In no particular order…

Johnny’s Selected Seeds – A great seed source for vegetables, herbs, cutting flowers and some annual bedding plants.  This site is also a treasure trove of information to help with successful seed starting. They have calculators to help with timing your starts and succession planting, information on cultivar choice based on growing conditions, and detailed germination information. Their Growers Library is well worth a look.  Although much of it is written for small market growers, it is also invaluable to home gardeners.

Select Seeds – This family owned business has an emphasis on heirloom flower seeds but also offers herbs and vegetables as well as some more recent introductions of annuals, biennials and perennials. The images and descriptions are useful and heirloom seed varieties are clearly marked. They have now added some live plants to their offering.

Prairie Moon Nursery – This company offers plants and seeds native to North America. Although they are located in the Midwest, most of their offerings are also native to the mid-Atlantic. They provide information on how to germinate native plant seeds (which can be tricky). I also like their Native Plant-Insect Interactions Chart as a reference.

Burpee Seed Company – Burpee has been growing, hybridizing and selling seeds since 1881. The company is local – you can visit their display gardens and research facility (Fordhook Farm in Doylestown) on open days. Burpee has a large variety of vegetable and flower seeds. Its always interesting to find out what is new for the coming year and they have cultivars unique only to them. Seed prices can be higher than other places though.

Geo Seed – This seed company is really targeted at professional and market growers but they do sell to home gardeners. They have a large selection of annual and perennial seeds at reasonable prices. Since they are more of a commercial supplier their catalog has limited information and no pictures so you may need to do research on the different varieties. You can view their catalog on line but they do not have on-line ordering. But, if you know what you want are fine with getting a larger amount of seed they are a great resource.

Swallowtail Garden Seeds – A nice collection of annuals, perennials, vines and vegetables at decent prices. A good source for bedding plant seeds.

Preventing Deer Damage in the Winter

By A. Goldman

They can eat a lot…

Once all your fall gardening is done you might think everything is complete but if you live where deer are a nuisance, get back outside for some self-defense. If you haven’t tackled “deer defense” this fall, here are some things you can do to get your plants through the winter.

The first tip is to keep deer from habitually visiting your garden in the future. It’s easier to maintain a beautiful landscape if deer are not nibbling on a regular basis. 

One way to do this is to provide screening. As you view your winter garden, determine if you can strategically plant “unfriendly” plants that will discourage deer from traveling through and screen the more tasty morsels from their view. It is often easier to see where to place screening plants in the winter landscape. Think about spiny, evergreen plants like Mahonia or American Holly (Ilex opaca) that will form a barrier and screen in all seasons.

That’s fine for the future, but what can you do to prevent significant damage from deer winter grazing right now?   

 You can create a barrier around specific important shrubs. For small shrubs, use nylon netting from a fabric store that is sold by the yard and is 72” wide. It comes in many colors but black or green are the least noticeable.  This netting is fine and will not trap birds or catch on spiny plants like hollies—this is important for spring removal.  To use this netting, guesstimate how much netting you will need, cut, wrap completely around shrub and then fold both ends together over once creating a “seam” and then use a standard stapler to keep it closed.  Gather the bottom closed and staple that closed too to avoid snouts eating from the bottom up.

Stapling it closed allows you to adjust it to your shrub or small tree and in the spring it is a cinch to pull it open.  Fold it up for storage and if there are large tears, just cut down to a smaller size for use next year on a smaller plant. With the 72” width, you can protect up to a six-foot tree or shrub. 

Spray on repellents work when the days are warmer but the scent is diminished as the temps drop. Handmade sachets of Milorganite hung at deer head height are easy and inexpensive to make using a loose weave fabric. If you do not sew, use snack sized bags with small holes punched in them with a small hole for a twist tie to be inserted into.  After winter use these “sachets” can be emptied on the ground as Milorganite is a good nitrogen fertilizer. 

You can also try applying clove, eucalyptus or peppermint oil to small cotton or wool strips and tying them at five-foot height on shrubs and trees.  In the spring you can drop these on the ground and they will disintegrate.

Keep the tree wrap to protect from rodent damage

Young trees can be severely damaged and even snapped in half by bucks rubbing the velvet off their antlers.  Protecting bark from buck rub is usually done in the fall by putting trunk wrap on young trees.  Leave this protection up through the winter as an extra precaution.  The protective wraps may also protect trees from being girdled by rodents eating the bark if we have a snowy winter.  They can be re-used used for several years but should be taken off in the spring and put back on the following fall. 

Fencing to protect vulnerable plants

Another tactic which will take more time is to fully enclose an area with particularly susceptible plantings.  Rebar or fence posts with either plastic or metal fencing are great although the plastic fencing can collapse with a heavy snow if not properly taut.  Plastic is easier to roll up and use from year to year.

It may seem extra work to protect your plantings from hungry deer but when you consider the time, effort, and money it took to create your garden, why should the deer reap the benefits of that hard work?!

If you have any clever methods to prevent winter deer damage, please share them in the comments.

Gifts for the Gardener

Article by A. Goldman and C. StClair

The gift giving season is fast approaching. Most gardeners are practical folks who have no need for fussy items for the garden.  Here are a few gift suggestions to consider.  

  • The gift of education! In the winter months when gardening is limited, classes are a wonderful way to gain new knowledge and scratch the gardening itch.  Mt. Cuba Center and Longwood Gardens both offer many classes and workshops.  A membership to these gardens is also a great idea.
  • Consider practical items that gardeners need but do not always want to invest in. Things like good organic fertilizers, coir bricks to add to lightweight potting soil, flexible carrying tub trugs,  and heavy duty hoses—ones that can stand getting run over! A good quality hose end watering wand is always appreciated.
One author’s beloved and abused, 20 year old weeding knife…
  • Quality tools can make the gardening experience so much more enjoyable.  Some of our “must-have-it’s-my-favorite” tools include good quality hand pruners, Japanese weeding knife (so many uses!), a digging and spading garden fork (better than a shovel for digging up many things), a stirrup hoe (perfect for all the vegetable gardeners), a serrated soil scoop (more uses than a hand trowel).
  • Consider a gardening book that is specific to your gardener’s situation and interests like deer resistant or shade. Often works on a specific topic are more useful than general gardening books.  Want some recommendations on our favorites? Let us know in the comments.
  • If you would like to impress your gardener, wrap up a box of soil with a promise of a delivery of quality compost in the spring.  Gardeners never have enough compost and there will be much gratitude for such a thoughtful gift – especially if it includes some of your labor to spread said compost!

Stocking stuffer ideas…

  • A serious gardener can almost never have too many pairs of work gloves. Gloves with lightweight rubber coating are invaluable for keeping your hands clean and dry.  If heavy pruning or shoveling is planned, gloves with padded palms are appreciated. Having multiple pairs makes it easy to trot off and start the day.  A pair in the car is fab as well.   
  • Maybe some scissors or flower snips.  Pairs of inexpensive scissors in can be tucked planters around the house for impromptu deadheading or for gathering flowers.  These are under $5.00 and can be sharpened.  
  • Gardening twine or plant ties (I like the reusable Velcro ties).
  • Gift certificates to mail order plant or seed suppliers and a copy of the catalog.

One last piece of advice… Use caution with those kitschy garden ornaments.  If you don’t know the gardener’s tastes well, it might end up the equivalent to the ugly Christmas sweater…interesting but embarrassing to use. 

Tasks for the November Garden

Article by A. Goldman and C. StClair

The growing season may be winding down but there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy your property this month. A few tasks to consider…

Oakleaf Hydrangea in fall
  • Take a stroll around to assess what grew well, what may have struggled, and needs to moved, empty spots that will need a new plant next year (shopping!!). Make notes for future reference or else document the needs with your phone camera.
  • Harvest seed pods, dried ornamental grass tops, pine cones, interesting twigs, sweet gum balls, and other potential natural holiday decorations.  Please leave a quantity for wildlife to enjoy throughout the winter but if you are using these items outside they can still nosh on them in a wreath or porch pot.
  • Bring inside any delicate garden ornaments.  Freezing temperatures and winter weather along with winds and maybe a falling tree branch can do damage to beloved garden art. 
  • For not yet planted plants, assess your possibilities for overwintering if they just can’t make it in the ground.  Group together near a wall for protection but make sure they still receive moisture.  You can tuck them into a compost pile, wrap pots with bubble wrap and overwinter in a larger planter, or if you can’t deal with so many….gift them to another gardener!
  • Finish planting spring bulbs. Bulbs can be planted until January as long as the ground is not frozen.
  • Keep spreading downed leaves around shrubs and trees.  Leaves are nature’s soil blanket and soil builder.  Many pollinators and amphibians overwinter in leaves so next season’s spring peeper may be snuggled up under your shrubs!
  • Make sure evergreens that have been planted in the last two years have sufficient water going into winter.  Evergreens lose moisture through their needles all year round and if the ground is frozen, this depletes their reserves and browning or death can occur.  
  • Compost in place.  If your limp Hosta leaves are challenging your garden aesthetics, cut them down and leave them on the ground. No worries as they will soon decompose right there and enrich your soil doing it.   This works best for softer items but can be done if woodies are cut up in small pieces. 
  • If you are planning a new garden bed or the expansion of an existing one next year, get a head start now. Cover turf areas with newspaper. Top that with alternate layers of leaves and green compostable items like grass clippings and vegetable waste to a height of about 18 inches. Come spring, the area will much more friendly for planting.
  • For bird lovers; clean out birdhouses and then add bits of soft fabric (natural fibers) for overwintering.  On bitter cold nights birds will seek shelter in houses and often with other birds to help retain heat.  In the spring the bits of fabric can be placed on the ground for nest building. 
  • If you do not already have a bird feeder on your property, consider installing one for your important garden assistants.   They are still inspecting your trees for harmful insects and watching colorful bird antics in the winter months makes for great entertainment.  Feeders provide supplemental food when winter conditions are harsh. Buy quality bird seed.  Something you would like if you were a bird!
  • Don’t throw out your hanging basket. You might want to recycle that after reading December’s issue.
Leaves make great mulch!