Neighborly Garden News
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One of the happy events that we experienced during the summer of 2020 was the abundance of hummingbirds that visited our gardens in Deerfield. With more time being spent at home, my husband and I were able to observe the group that lives in our back yard. It was pretty amazing to learn that the hummers have particular routes they like to follow, and definitely a pecking order for feeding on the flowers. These tiny birds came very close to us as they visited the different flowers available to them. They were even curious about our big hound dog, and would watch him from only 24” away.
I grow a combination of annuals, perennials and tropical perennials and trees each year. Tropical perennials and trees would be winter hardy within their hardiness zone range; I bring these plants inside and protect them from freezing, to keep them from year to year. This year the 2 plants with the most hummingbird visits were the perennial catmint, Nepeta sibirica, and an annual sage: Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’. I grew ‘Hot Lips’ in window boxes attached to our deck railing. From 4 inch starter pots, they quickly grew into small 2’ X 2’ shrubs, constantly in bloom, with hundreds of bright red and white flowers. The hummingbirds were fighting to have their turn sipping the nectar. The sight of 2 or 3 hummingbirds chasing each other around the yard was really something! Salvia microphylla prefers full sun and well drained soil. They are very heat tolerant and deer and rabbit resistant too.
Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’
Siberian catmint, Nepeta Sibirica is an upright growing member of the mint family. Catmint is very aromatic, and this variety has intense lavender blue spikes of small tubular flowers. Siberian catmint began blooming in May, before I planted the Salvia; the hummingbirds were at this plant constantly, as an early food source for them. Nepeta sibirica will grow to 2-3’ tall X 2-3’ wide in full to partial sun exposures, and will tolerate a wide variety of soil types. It is very tolerant of heat and dry conditions, as well as resistant to rabbit and deer browsing.
Hummingbirds stay in our area until late summer/early fall and need food to prepare them for their annual migration to Central America and Southern Mexico. The late summer blooming (Sept-Oct) Black Cohosh sends up 6’ tall spikes with bottle-brush shaped creamy white flowers. The bronze leaves have a ferny texture, and add interest in the garden before the blooms appear. Each individual flower along the spike is just the perfect shape for a hungry hummingbird to feed from. A huge bonus is their sweet fragrance that sends a perfumed cloud throughout your garden with each breeze. Black Cohosh can be found under a few botanical names-Actea racemosa, Cimicifuga simplex, or Cimicifuga ramosa. The cultivar ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ will grow 6’ tall X 4’ wide; happily grows in full sun to mostly shade and is not fussy about the soil type.
Cimicifuga ramosa ‘Hillside Black Beauty’
I was surprised to see how attractive the zinnias in the entryway garden were to the hummingbird group. I grew the tall (24-36”) zinnia ‘Northern Lights’ from seed this spring. It was a colorful mix of burgundy, purple and pink flowers. The bright petals or rays actually surround the petite true flowers at the center of each flower head. If you look closely you can see multiple tiny tubular flowers emerging from the central disk. These are what the hummingbirds sip nectar from. Zinnias are almost a staple of the annual garden flower palette. They make excellent cut flowers, lasting over a week in the vase. Zinnias are considered deer resistant, but I know from experience rabbits and woodchucks love them. True warm weather flowers, they prefer to be planted after all danger of frost. Zinnias need full sun to do their best flowering.
Zinnia ‘Northern Lights’
After the Catmint finished blooming the second most visited flower, in the backyard, was a potted upright lantana growing on the deck steps. I’ve been growing this lantana in the same pot for several years. It rewards me with non-stop flowers from May onwards. My favorite thing about lantana is their gorgeous multi-colored flowers. The flowers are comprised of many small tubular flowers held closely together in a flattened panicle. As each flower opens, it gradually changes color as it ages. Each panicle is exceptionally long lasting, so the overall effect is a patchwork of different colors. One of lantana’s common names is the ‘Calico Shrub’. This pest free plant only requires full sun, occasional deadheading and regular watering. Shear it back in the fall to a manageable size if you want to try to overwinter it, and bring it in before a killing frost. Grows to about 2’ tall X 3’ wide, and likes ordinary potting soil.
Lantana-the ‘Calico shrub’
I hope you will try and encourage more hummingbirds to visit your yard. Plant a few of these flowers and I’m sure you will be rewarded with visits from this smallest of birds.
October’s ‘to-do’ list
This was a challenging growing year for gardeners in Western MA. After experiencing a rather dry, yet mild winter, we headed right into a very dry growing season. We are still in the throes of a moderate drought, with no real relief in sight. Many trees shed their leaves prematurely, because of a combination of foliar disease and drought. My veggie garden fared okay, but without regular watering would have perished way back in July. On the plus side, my experiment with the Downy Mildew resistant variety of Basil ‘Rutgers Devotion’ was a great success! They are still healthy and growing as I write this newsletter. I can also give high marks to the hybrid cherry tomato ‘Apero’. It is still producing fruit, of very high quality. The flavor was very good, the perfect balance of sweet/acid and was also very resistant to cracking, and leaf problems. A real winner, if you choose to try growing your own next year.
Because of the drought it is essential to keep up with watering any recently planted (within the last 3 years) trees, shrubs and perennials. Older trees and shrubs, and those that were showing signs of weakness would benefit from additional water too. If you are unsure, please consult with your landscape professional for their advice. If you have watering restrictions, Countryside can provide watering services to get your plants through this dry period.
Last call to plant spring and summer flowering bulbs; we only have about 4-6 weeks before the ground freezes, and that is just enough time for new bulbs to set down roots. You can probably get some good deals on your basic spring flowering bulbs this time of year. Don’t delay, you will be so happy when they bloom next spring; bringing some color and life into your yard after a long winter.
Plant garlic now for next summer’s harvest. Sow garlic cloves 1-2” deep, spacing them 6” apart. They may sprout a few green leaves before winter sets in, this is normal, and won’t affect next year’s crop. Mulch the row with a few inches of chopped leaves or straw to keep the garlic cloves protected from thaws and freezes.
If you noticed your garden not growing as well as you thought it should, despite fertilizing and watering, you may want to check the soil pH. In New England our soil type tends to be on the acidic side of normal. Incorrect pH, can limit a plant’s ability to uptake nutrients from the soil. It is recommended to apply lime to garden beds every other year or as needed. Fall is the best time of year to apply lime to your soil. The natural freeze/thaw action helps physically move the mineral into the soil structure. If you grow vegetables, replenishing lime is an important component to maintain the fertility of your beds. Adding lime will alter the pH, or acidity/alkalinity of the soil. Countryside can do a basic pH test to determine your needs.
Reduce winter damage caused by rodents by clearing away turf and weeds from the base of fruit bearing trees and shrubs. A trunk that is girdled by gnawing will likely cause the tree to die. Wrap the stems or trunks with hardware cloth (a kind of wire screening) to keep critters from gnawing the bark.
Keep mowing your lawn until it stops growing. Be sure to make the final cut of the year a short cut, so long grass won’t compact and smother itself under the snow.
Falling leaves mean it’s time to clean out your gutters before winter. Clogged gutters can create ice dams (frozen blocks of ice that prevent your gutters from free-flow) over the winter. Frozen gutters often lead to leaky roofs and big headaches down the road.
Plan on collecting at least some of those falling leaves; to be shredded and composted into leaf mold. Leaf mold is a free alternative to peat moss; it’s a superb soil additive that will increase the water holding capacity of your garden soil. You can also use your shredded leaves to insulate borderline hardy plants; surround the plant with a wire fencing ‘cage’, then fill the caged area with your shredded leaves up over the top of the plant.
Need a hand with fall clean-up? Thinking about screening out the deer this winter? Give our office a call to schedule your fall and winter services: (413) 458-5586 or email email@example.com
8 Uses for fallen leaves!
- Mow over the leaves a few times. The chopped leaves will break down quickly in spring and add valuable organic matter and mineral nutrients to the lawn. The trick is to mow frequently, before over six inches of leaves fall. Another trick is to remove the bagging attachment with the first pass. Mow the leaf piles and allow them to fall onto the turf. Then make a second pass with the bagging attachment in place. The chopped leaves will now be sucked into the bag.
- Spread them as protective mulch for the landscape. Chopped leaves can be spread around trees, shrubs and gardens to help conserve moisture and control weed growth. Leaves make a good insulating cover for overwintering tender perennials or root crops stored in the ground. Leaf cover allows fall-planted garlic to root without sprouting, and prevents shallow-rooted strawberries from heaving during winter’s freeze-thaw cycles.
- Use them as a weed barrier for spring plantings. Chopped or left whole, leaves make excellent mulch for vegetable crops, blueberries (and other berries), and ornamental shrubs. They not only suppress weeds and help retain soil moisture, but because they contain no weed seeds themselves, they won’t encourage the spread of new weeds.
- Make compost for a valuable soil amendment. Carbon-rich leaves pair well with summer’s nitrogen-rich grass clippings. Layer three or four inches of old leaves with an inch of fresh grass clippings or other green leafy yard waste.
- Make leaf mold. Leaf mold is a special kind of all-leaf compost much beloved by English gardeners. It simply involves collecting and storing leaves, shredded or not, in plastic bags or wire bins. Keep the leaves moist, and let the fungi take over. After two or three years, the leaves will have disintegrated into a dark, sweet-smelling, soil conditioner, high in essential minerals. It’s exceptional.
- Store root vegetables. If you have a cool, humid spot, you can store carrots, beets, and other root vegetables between layers of crisp, freshly fallen leaves. Sprinkle each layer of leaves with water (don’t let them get soggy). If you don’t grow your own vegetables, visit a farmers’ market and try to find a vendor who will sell you half a bushel or more of your favorite root crops.
- Make a playground. My kids and I used to have tons of fun leaping around in the big leaf piles we’d rake from our lawn each fall. Back when I was a kid, we used to burn the leaves each fall. Most jurisdictions rightly prohibit open leaf-burning these days to reduce air pollution, but the smell of a burning leaf still triggers powerful memories from another era.
- There’s no end to crafts that use fall leaves. My favorite: preserving the rich fall colors by soaking them in a glycerin solution. Pick a few stems of the most colorful leaves; choose healthy looking leaves without any tears or holes. Open up the stems by lightly tapping the stem ends with a hammer, to facilitate absorption of the glycerin solution. Prepare the solution by adding 17oz of vegetable glycerin to ½ gallon of water; add 4-5 drops of liquid dish soap. Soak the whole branch in a bucket, or lay them out in a pan so they are covered in solution. You may have to weigh them down to stay under the glycerin solution. Store the leaves or branches 3-5 days, in a shady area, to allow time for them to absorb the solution. After the 5 days, remove them from the solution; the leaves will feel supple, and colors will be intensified. You can use the whole branches in arrangements or pluck off individual leaves for your projects.
Evergreen trees enhance the fall and winter landscape. As a backdrop to fall foliage colors, or a windbreak screen for winter winds, evergreens are our beacons of green until spring returns. Adaptable plants, there is an evergreen for almost any growing condition.
Abies balsamea var. Phanerolepis, the Canaan Fir is an exceptionally cold hardy native Fir. Some botanists consider this tree to be a naturally occurring hybrid between Balsam Fir and Frasier Fir, while others think it is an ecotype of Balsam Fir. It is a densely growing evergreen tree with a very uniform pyramidal habit. Canaan Fir has dark green needles, and interesting, elongated cones. Grows 40-60’ tall X 20-25’ wide. Prefers full sun exposure, and well drained soil.
Picea omorika, the Serbian Spruce is a graceful, slow growing tree with a semi-weeping habit. Serbian Spruce has a slender trunk forming a narrow pyramidal profile. Lustrous dark green needles, have an underside of silvery green. This adaptable evergreen prefers rich moist soil and some protection from strong winds. It will tolerate some shade, and grows 50-60’ tall X 50’ wide at maturity.
Pinus flexilis, the Limber pine is another very cold hardy native evergreen. Limber Pine has outstanding dark blue-green needles, and is a dense broadly pyramid shaped tree in its youth, becoming a broad flat topped tree at maturity. Limber Pine prefers moist yet well-drained soil and can be grown on rocky slopes in full sun to partial shade. Slow growing to 40’ tall X 30’ wide.
Thuja occidentalis or Eastern Arborvitae has been hybridized to mature at varying heights, depending on the cultivar. There is a growth range for every sized yard. Some cultivars have showy, variegated leaves. It is usually easy to grow, and will tolerate marshy conditions, as they are found on stream banks in the wild. Soft flattened needles form a dense canopy, making this one of the best native trees for screening, and windbreaks, or as a specimen. Arborvitaes do best with full sun exposure. It can be sheared, grows 12-40’ tall x 4-10’ wide depending on the variety.
Eastern Arborvitae ‘Emerald Green’