Help Your Garden Recover from Tough Summer

September 5th, 2010

High Temperatures & Low Rainfall in the NE Were Big Stressors: 

It has been one of the hottest summers on record this year and precipitation has not kept up with the heat. The combination of high temperatures and low rainfall are very stressful to ecosystems, lawns and gardens will be feeling the aftermath for some time.

Many transplants and new plantings suffered with the heat, even if they were irrigated. Plants are not so different form people; they are stressed when temperatures reach extremes that are not the norm. The added stress of irregular water doubles problems in the garden. Many lawns also are “burnt” and brown and though they will recover, they will not do so completely. Folks with irrigation systems tend to run the systems every other day which is ideal for weeds. While last year we saw a big upsurge in clover which is actually beneficial to grass when it’s not edging it out, this year many lawns were overrun by crabgrass which thrives in hot conditions particularly in lawns that are being watered every other day.

This fall is the time to repair the damage done by heat extremes. Many trees, shrubs and perennials will be putting out new roots and storing energy for the spring to come. Make sure they get deep regular watering. Every other week for an hour or more should be good depending on the topography of your property. Weed heavily and if mulching, make sure you apply a little organic nitrogen fertilizer to the mulch so that the mulch does not pull nutrients from the soil. Prune out dead wood and deadhead flowers unless you want the plants to go to seed. Plants will put energy they would normally store into their seeds, so removing the flowers (Where seeds develop) allows the plant to store more energy for itself.

Weed, aerate, and overseed your lawn. Remove weeds by hand, or spray them with vinegar. Or even spot spray with an herbicide. Do not apply a granular broadcast weed killer however. Though easier, this will kill anything alive in your soil that helps the grass digest nutrients. Once the weeds are dead and/or removed, fill that space by core aerating the soil and overseeding. Core aeration involves pulling plugs of soil out of the ground which not only greatly enhances seed germination, but also increases flow of gasses between the soil and the air, and allows for greater water absorption.

Pepper Wax for Critters

June 27th, 2010

I bumped into some friends in the Pelham cafe this weekend who mentioned that their impatiens are being eaten by squirrels. They wanted to know if peppers would be a good deterrent for the squirrels, who apparently are eating their flowers up. I have never heard of squirrels eating impatiens so I googled “squirrels eating impatiens” and found mentions of squirrels and even cats eating impatiens. Both blog posts recommended spraying hot pepper on the plants to deter this from happening. Further researching the hot pepper spray, it was also mentioned as a deterrent for pigeons and rabbits.Rabbits are critters we are starting to see with regularity in Pelham and rabbits eat a wide variety of greens. A recent Snapple cap informed me that Australia was originally populated with 24 rabbits by the colonials and within 6 years there were 6 million rabbits on the continent. Though I take that with a grain of salt given that another cap claimed that one in eight Snapple “facts” are fake, the impressive ability of rabbits to reproduce is well known and so if we are seeing rabbits regularly in Pelham now, there will be a heck of a lot more of them in the near future, so we all better get busy with the pepper wax if we want to save our gardens.  Here is a popular recipe from the garden blogs that is also recommended for killing aphids and other sucking insects as well:

1 pint of hot peppers
1 bulb of garlic
2 tbs dish soap 
2tbs vegetable oil
1 5 gallon bucket and 4 gallons of water
cheese cloth

Puree the peppers and garlic then add a little water and puree more.
Add pepper mix to water and cover. Let the mix sit over night. Strain through cheese cloth into a 2 gallon garden sprayer. Add soap and oil.
Spray plants leaves stems and around the trunks on the ground. DO NOT Spray in the heat of the day or when the plants are in direct sun as it can burn the plants. Must be reapplied after rain or watering.

Read more: Crabbergirl’s Hot Pepper Spray Recipe | Controlling Pests & Diseases you don’t have the time to make your own, there are hot pepper waxes available through outletters like Amazon:

Good luck saving your impatiens, flowers, veggies and herbs from all those hungry animals!bunnies.jpg

How Much Should You Pay for Garden Materials

June 13th, 2010

Selecting Garden Materials: Quality vs. Price

Now more than ever, so many of our decisions are based on price. When making choices about garden areas here are some considerations:

1)      What will the space be used for? Who will use it and how?

2)      What are the materials of the house and pre-existing work done in the area?

3)      What colors, textures, “looks/styles” do you (and anyone else involved) like?

4)      Have you made a plan that considers and balances the above?

5)      How much money do you have for the project?

6)      What are the available choices given what’s already present?

7)      How much time will you get out of each choice and is it worth it to spend a little more now if it means longer term resolution to the use of the space?

If you can make it through the first three questions, it should be easy to make a plan and execute it from there. Plans don’t necessarily have to cover exact materials, they can be what we call “concept drawings” that designate “I want a retaining wall here, and a tree there” but not necessarily the materials that will go into the wall or the exact tree. Once you have a concept that is functional then comes the budget. This plus the pre-existing conditions will help with the material selection.  For example I have a back yard (currently being used to store lumber scraps and overgrown shrubs); I have come up with a plan/concept for it that involves planters, a patio area, moving and replanting existing material, enhancing the access to this area so we (our whole family) use it more.

Once you have a plan, as I do, there are usually  three budgetary ways to execute it, high, low, and medium material quality and prices. In my case, all the previous garden work from the last owner was low end in terms of materials. Not that they look cheesy, they just were not premium selections and being a landscape designer, I think have certain standards  (the joke being that inaction has caused this area to look worse than the lowest end solution). On the high end, you get quality materials that will in all likelihood last longer and look better let’s say stone walls which though lovely will add another material to compete with the stucco house and the pre-existing railroad tie retaining walls. On the medium, less so and less expensive-maybe block walls with stucco to match the house, and on the low end you get value but less curb appeal using a railroad tie wall. In my case, it seems like a no brainer, pick up the stucco or match the railroad ties but the price difference between these even these materials vs. the feeling and quality that each material exudes can make this a tough decision.

Having executed low cost choices and then redone them a few years later, I have kicked myself for not ponying up  extra money and doing it “right” the first time. However, ultimately, if you have considered the seven questions above, you are better off opting for the inexpensive solution rather than nothing at all. Just make sure you thoroughly understand the lifecycle of the materials you are considering and make sure you can make the chosen material work for your needs  today. Incremental improvement is still improvement after all.


Cleaning up Those Tulips & Daffodils

May 15th, 2010

Welcome to Holland?

A question I get a lot when Im out looking at properties is “when should I cut back my daffodils and tulips?”. Along with that they tell me that they know you are supposed to tie your daffodil leaves into knots and leave them until they yellow, and so on.

The pat answer used to be that tulips wont acclimate to our zone and thought they do come back a second and a third year, they really are not worth saving as the blooms are much smaller. We basically told folks to rip out the bulbs and start over if they want a real burst of color. However, this is less true than it once was. We are noticing that there are many properties where tulips are coming back five, six, seven years now and looking just as good as they did the first year. True, not all the bulbs are coming back, but those that are seem to be acclimated.  

Today, we leave tulips in the ground and once the leaves start to yellow, we cut them back to the ground. Really you don’t even need to cut them, give the leaves a twist (not a pull) and they will come right off the bulb. Once leaves begin to yellow, they are no longer photo synthesizing and sometimes drain the bulb more than they help it, so removing them is easy since the bulb is ready to let go.

Daffodils on the other hand wont yellow right away. They will first flop to the ground indicating that the bulb is reducing support for the leaves since they are minimally recharging the bulb at this stage. However, wait a week to ten days from the time the daffodils go flat before trying to remove the leaves. Again, a good twist will usually release the leaves if the bulb is ready to let go. So what about all that knot tying you may well ask?

Daffodil flowers will develop seed pods, if you want the seed pods to germinate and produce more daffodils; you have to leave the yellowing collapsed leaves (and seed pods) which looks messy. Some clever gardener decided to tie them into knots which says “, I am not a sloppy gardener,  I am keeping these yellow nasty leaves for a reason”. The other reason you might want to do this when ripening the seeds is because the leaves flop right on top of every other perennial struggling to reach the light through the daffodils, and bundling the leaves into a nice tight know gives other plants room to grow. If you’re not keen on having your daffodils seed,  then just twist or cut them off. In fact, a downside of allowing them to seed is less energy is stored in the bulb (because its going into the seed) and next year’s flowers will be smaller.

Containers for Color

April 18th, 2010

Instant Colorc-3.jpgc-5.jpg

With spring having arrived a few weeks earlier this year, many folks are still on accelerated garden expectations and retailers are struggling to keep up. Big box stores already have impatiens and petunias for example with gardeners anxious to get a blast of color for their homes now that the bulk of the flowering trees, shrubs, and bulbs are blooming out. However, an early spring does not mean there still is no risk of frost and unlike pansies, summer annuls do not like frost. Despite weather changes in our region, there is still a risk of frost in the tri-state vicinity through May 1st.

That does not mean you cannot plant annuals now, it just means please be careful. Start with containers that can be brought in doors when frost is imminent. Containers are also a great way to focus color and limit how much maintenance you need to perform in terms of watering and weeding. Containers also allow one to plant unusual combinations of textures, colors, and heights that would be more difficult if not completely ineffective to blend in the standard annual bed in your garden.

When selecting plants for containers there are several considerations; color and size of the planter, the light  the container will be in, the vertical elements of the container, the combinations of colors (also influenced by light) and the juxtaposition of leaf size and texture as well as “bloom” size and texture.

Some Basic Rules: Color is influenced by light, lower light does not support bright color well, so select more muted colors for lower light areas (though a bright color inserted in a pastel palette may make all the colors pop more if the bright color is not too dominant). Make sure your plant group hits the “highs and lows” meaning you want foliage to reach up to close to half the height of the container when mature and foliage should reach down and at least break the line of the rim or the planter if not reach half the height of the planter or more when mature. Pick plants that have different textures; some of the most revered container planting gurus combined large almost weed like acanthus with little flowered salvias or Angelina and textures in between.

Some of my favorite materials and combinations come from Beds and Borders nursery in Laurel, NY. The combinations shown here were created by Kathy Pufahl founder of B&B who left us in 2003. I will be guiding  a container class open to the public at the Pelham Art Center  as part of their Earth Day Celebration from 1:30 to 3:30 featuring plant material from Beds and Borders. These will be available for sale and use at the art center as well as soil and pots,( though we would strongly suggest bringing your own planter). Any proceeds will benefit the art center. Planters should be at minimum 14” wide to get enough variety of material into the container.

Early Spring Tips

March 29th, 2010

Early Spring an Omen of Things to Come?

Early spring like we are experiencing in the Northeast is always just a little bit of a tease to all us garden enthusiasts. The crocuses and daffodils are up early, forsythia coming out, everything seems to be humming along,  and all of a sudden we want to replant the whole garden. The only problem is limited plant availability. Fresh plant material is usually dug around the same time and does not hit the local nurseries until a couple of weeks later. Additionally, the grass still looks ratty and is not greening up fast enough, and nothing else seems to be growing!

Some things we can do while we wait:

1)      Dethatch your lawn; go after is with a rake and rake out all those dead blades that the grass failed to consume for one reason or another.

2)      Give your lane a little nitrogen boost. This can be done with corn gluten which will also inhibit weeds from germinating.

3)      Transplant that tree or bush you have been  wanting to move for the last year. Now is the time to do it and it will make space for  the new plant material your anxious to get this spring.

4)      Hand weed or spot spray weeds before they get going. Hand weeding may be more labor intensive, but it will spare those good microbes in the sol that even a little spot spraying will kill.

5)      Prune out deadwood from hedges and ornamental trees

6)      Give deciduous hedges like privet a hard prune (but leave alone spring bloomers like forsythia)

7)      Go buy a composter and start composting your organic waste for re-use in the garden

8)      Cut back any ornamental grasses from last year, cut back damaged liriope, or dead perennials you may have missed.

9)      Spread some composted topsoil lightly over your lawn if you have poor soil quality

10)   Soil test to find out what the pH and nutrient needs of your lawns and beds are. You cant really feed the soil if you don’t know what’s in it already and if your pH is too high or low, the plants won’t be able to absorb the nutrients anyway.

With any luck, the warmer temperatures will hold and we will have a fabulous garden year!

Go to an Expert to Nurture Your Landscape

March 22nd, 2010

Buyer Beware:

Out making the rounds last weekend, a Pelham resident told me they had a tree company trimming a their shrubs and fertilizing the whole property (including the lawn) organically. The shrub beds had moss growing in them indicating a pH imbalance. Basically anyplace moss grows, most plants are unable to absorb nutrients well (with a few exceptions) and the plants and/or sod fail over time. When I asked if they had ever soil tested the answer was no, but I could, and give him the results to take to them (even though they never noticed the moss or thought of soil testing). Going through the “value shopper” envelope, I found a termite pesticide company who also is applying organic fertilization for landscapes and lawn. The ad never mentions soil testing, just what a great value their organic service is. A fall out of the new economy is that companies that developed in one niche are trying to expand into others. Many of them do this with some success because consumers tend to view services as commodities. This impression is re-enforced by “mow and blow” companies that send out crews with limited knowledge. People fallaciously have the impression that anyone can plant a shrub, prune and/or shear them, and anyone can fertilize plant material. Landscapes are hopefully complex ecosystems with intricate relationships that are all impacted by any kind of change. The basis for plant health is the combination of light, water, soil, air, and human/animal interaction with plants. We cant control sun and air, we can influence soil and water. However, this should not be done lightly or randomly. If a company is fertilizing your property, or amending the soil and they have not assessed the condition of the soil, they are flying blind. Its sort of like adding oil or fuel to your engine without checking to see if you need it first, best case, the extra fuel/oil/fertilizer washes off, worst case it damages the engine or plant material. The best case scenario is not a good one for the environment, in fact, whether your organic or chemical, fertilizing with something that the soil and plants can’t absorb leads to fertilizer in the local water ways and even drinking water depending on the area.

Spring Cleaning in the Garden

March 7th, 2010

Spring Cleaning

This week is hanging in the fifties, fine weather for moving the agenda of spring forward. Early bulbs are coming out, and forsythia is getting ready to burst forth once again. This is the ideal time to transplant  that tree or shrub that has gotten too big for its britches or that specimen plant that somehow got buried over the years.

Like many folks who are less planned about the development of their gardens than perhaps they should be, my garden is a collection of plants that have arrived in layers of inspiration. When I first worked this garden, I spent a lot of time opening it up and adding in the occasional weeping white pine or white Birch as accents. A layer of perennials  introduced by my wife Katherine were planted, and a year or two later, the next layer of rose, spirea, and some  barberry GASP -which has made it to the invasive species list. Of course the weeping white pine is now hiding in the back where no one can see it, there are perennials hiding behind shrubs, and shrubs that are edging out more perennials with their formidable development.

In some gardens, this sort of insane layering where smaller plants end up behind larger plants happens all at once due to folks hiring landscapers who have limited knowledge of plant development. This can be easily remedied of course by hiring companies that have a strong background in landscape, or garden design, and horticulture. 

In other cases,  it’s a matter of plans changing over the years, or maybe too many gardeners in one garden,  and the garden taking a new direction, again and again(and again). Regardless of the cause, inevitably many gardens end up with poor layering, and plants playing peek-a-boo out from under massively over grown shrubs.

Fortunately, spring is a terrific time to transplant just about anything and though I would love to tell you the best thing to do is make a plan of where everything will go and have at it, much like re-arranging furniture, it’s a more intuitive process then that. Yes, if you have some key pieces you want to show off, (like a weeping white pine for example), you will want to identify a focal point in the garden for that plant, but for many shrubs and perennials it really is a combination of their needs in terms of light, water, and soil, and where they will look best when layered properly. Some plants may need to go entirely. You have to have guts, Give it away, Use it, Throw it away, Sell it.

Pre- planning involves first identifying plants you want to show off, specimens, or plants that have colors you want to “punch”. Where will they go? What are the focal points, or areas that are seen from key garden entry, windows, and/or seen from multiple locations? Also, what will the proper sequence of plants be in terms of layering or height order? What textures do you want to combine or set off? For example, large leaf plants with fine leaf plants, or blue foliage plants near burgundy leafed ones. What is the bloom order and how do you want to group the plants by bloom time if this is an issue? Last of all, what’s left over and how will you use these plants. These are usually filler plants sort of like angel’s breath in a rose flower arrangement. Pre planning can be fairly loose, and you are allowed to change your mind as you go through the process.

Next, the fun part, dig it all up carefully preserving the root balls. You can leave the root balls loose if  you won’t  be moving them to many times . I like to lay all the plants on a tarp so I can see them separately from the landscape and so that I done trash the lawn in the process. Spend some time placing the plants like you would furniture. Honestly I will do a lot of my “pre” planning while I’m actually digging plants up since this is a time consuming process, and I can reminisce on what the material did last year while I dig. If your soil is not so good, this might be a  good time to mix some cow manure or composted material you have been making( since you are a dedicated reader and do everything suggested in these writings) .

Once you have an idea of where your plants are going, plant away and be sure to take this opportunity to prune back material as disturbing the roots will force the plants to re-focus their energies more on root development this spring. If you want to learn more about soil culture, composting and compost tea, there will be a “Tea Party”   at the Pelham Art Center on March 14th sponsored by Greener by Design promoting education in this area. Call 914 637 9870 if you are interested in attending. Leslie of Lola’s Tea House will also do a presentation on teas and be serving some sample tea’s there.

Garden Idea Books & Designers

February 22nd, 2010

Thinking Spring: Create a garden Idea Book

Though there is still snow on the ground and February has yet to pass as I write this, spring is around the corner. Yes there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Now is the time to consider how you want to use your outdoor space and what you would like to see there.

Success in conceptualizing gardens -and just about anything- is based on trying to visualize the elements that will become the building blocks of design. In my professional experience, there are a couple of varieties of clients for example, those that want to be wowed with minimal input, and those who collaborate in the design process. The ones who want to be “wowed” usually have some idea of what they like, but want a designer to guess, while the collaborators have some ideas but don’t know how to work them into their space.

Inevitably, the collaborators are happier with the finished product in the long run. They go through magazines and web sites looking for what they find exciting and stimulating, they are actively involved in the design process, while the other type of client takes very short lived pleasure in the final outcome of their garden because they tend to be less personally invested.

This is the time to start dreaming. First, how would you like to use your outdoor space? What room or rooms will it be? What do you need to do to make it more effective? What textures and color palettes would you like to draw form? How can you create this look and most benefit the local ecology? The last question in some ways is the most important since the health of your garden is very much dependent on beneficial insects and wildlife that interact with it. If you choose to get the help of a garden designer, their role will be to take the ideas you have assembled, let you know which will work with the architecture of your home, where they can be used successfully, and which plants will best marry your dreams, and thrive in your area.

Dreaming costs you nothing. We are all concerned about what 2010 is going to look like, especially since we are getting such mixed signals from the “experts”. Start collecting ideas for your outdoor space by collecting pictures and putting them in an idea file. Once you feel you have the right group of ideas, you can implement them in stages as you feel you can afford them. Don’t let concerns about the future dampen your enthusiasm for a garden of your dreams, just temper the speed with which you reach for it with whatever your economic reality is today.

Indoor Herbs

February 7th, 2010

The Toughest Herbs:

If you have been following along for the last few weeks, perhaps you just cant wait for spring. Many herbs are suitable not only for starting indoors, but for growing indoors. No fancy hydroponics are needed, just a window with fairly good light.

The following is a list of herbs that are relatively happy indoors:

  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Mint
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Angelica
  • Chamomile
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Lavender
  • Geranium
  • Chives
  • Planting herb pots can be great fun with the kids. Buy some small clay pots, and let them paint them before you plant them. You will want to get some acrylic paint or some kind of paint not affected by water. Maybe even some colored sharpies if that is easier. Make sure you supervise this closely as acrylics (and sharpies) can be hard to remove.

    Proper seed and/or plant selection  is key to successful plant development. Try or Both are very reliable suppliers, or if you really want to simplify things, you can order a seed kit from, or a whole soiless herb seed starter kit pots and all


    Chia Herbs on Amazon                                                                            Herb assortment from Amazon

    Once the pots are decorated and planted, Find a sunny spot to grow your indoor herb garden. Ideally, it should be south facing, but if this isn’t possible try a spot that gets strong morning or afternoon light. That would be any window but North that is not shaded. Regular watering is important, but not too much. Most indoor plants die form over watering. Once a week should be sufficient. Make sure you feel the soil first before you water.

    You can also go to the Greener by Design fan page on Facebook for more info on herbs.