Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Bleached botanical stencils

by cathym on September 15, 2020

by Cathy Monrad

Create a one-of-a-kind fashion statement using some bleach, water, and plant material. A new shirt, old dress, or thrift store find can be transformed within a few minutes. A few notes before beginning:

  • Good ventilation is key; making this project outside is best.
  • Choose a day with no wind to avoid bleach splatter and prevent foliage from moving.
  • Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes, and old clothes in case a breeze pops up.
  • If children want to help, they can safely lay plant material onto clothing, but I recommend adults perform the bleach spraying step.

Materials & Tools
– Clean shirt or other garment; if new, wash before starting project
– 3–4 pieces of cardboard; 1–2 to place inside garment and 2 for flattening foliage
– Clean, empty spray bottle with adjustable nozzle
– Bleach
– Water
– Foliage of your choice (I used rose of Sharon cuttings; foliage with large leaves work best)
– A few small rocks to use as weights
– Safety glasses 

  1. Arrange foliage on one piece of cardboard with leaves and/or flowers. Place second piece of cardboard over foliage. Lay heavy items such as books or bricks on top to flatten plant material for a couple of hours.
  2. Mix a 50/50 ratio of bleach and water in spray bottle.
  3. Place remaining cardboard inside garment.
  4. Place flattened foliage in desired collage pattern on garment. Weight any leaves or flowers down with small rocks as needed.
  5. From about 3-4 feet above your project, slowly and lightly spray bleach mixture onto garment—oversaturating the fabric will cause bleach mixture to seep under the foliage. The bleach mixture will begin to change the fabric color within 30 seconds. Wait a full 5 minutes to determine if you need to respray an area. 
  6. Once you’ve achieved the desired look, carefully remove the rocks and foliage from the garment. 
  7. Let fabric dry completely. Remove cardboard from the inside and rinse garment thoroughly with cold water before washing per manufacturer’s instructions.
Foliage laid out on shirt
Rocks placed stategically to hold down leaves; bleach mixture sprayed lightly over shirt is just beginning to change fabric color
Rocks and foliage removed after desired look achieved

Cathy Monrad is the graphic designer and garden crafter for Upstate Gardeners’ Journal.

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Miracle monarchs

by cathym on September 14, 2020

by Liz Magnanti

September is a key time to see one the most interesting animals in our region—the monarch butterfly. The monarch makes an amazing migration down to Mexico every year—a journey that can be more than 3,000 miles! The best thing is, the monarch is relatively easy to attract to your yard.

Monarch Butterfly on New England Aster. Photo courtesy Flickr: Greg Thompson, US Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Monarch butterflies are in the insect order Lepidoptera—an order that consists of butterflies and moths. Lepidoptera literally translates to “scale wing,” and for good reason: These creatures’ wings are covered in tiny scales, which give them their beautiful colors. All butterflies and moths go through a complete metamorphosis throughout their life cycle. This means that each stage of their life is physically very different from the last. They begin their life as an egg, the egg hatches, and out comes the caterpillar. The caterpillar has chewing mouthparts that allow it to spend its life eating, and then it pupates, forming a chrysalis (or cocoon for moths.) The butterfly will hatch out of the chrysalis and readily visit gardens to drink nectar with a straw-like proboscis and start the egg laying process all over again. 

Most butterflies need a specific “host plant” on which to lay their eggs and have their hatchling caterpillars eat. Once they are adult butterflies they will feed from completely different plants. The monarch butterfly, however, could live its life exclusively on milkweed plants. The female monarch will soar over fields and gardens on the hunt for milkweed. When she lands on a likely candidate, she can “taste” that she is on the right plant with specialized chemoreceptors on her legs and abdomen. In her lifetime, a female monarch will lay about 500 eggs, but only about one in twenty of these will make it to adulthood. The egg is laid on the underside of the milkweed leaf and will hatch after three to four days. The whole lifecycle is temperature dependent, with warmer temperatures speeding up the process. After hatching, the caterpillar will eat milkweed leaves religiously for another ten to fourteen days. Once nice and plump, the caterpillar morphs into a light green chrysalis where it will stay for another ten to fourteen days. The chrysalis will begin to turn dark, and the pattern of the black and orange monarch wing will show through it once the butterfly is about to emerge. When it emerges, its wings are wet and crumpled. The monarch will pump its wings and blood from its abdomen will fill the veins in its expanding wings. 

Monarch butterflies and caterpillars are toxic to most predators. They acquire their protective toxin from the milkweed plant, which has a milky sap containing cardenolides that are poisonous to most vertebrates.  The bright orange coloration of the monarch is its way of telling possible predators that it is not a good meal. This type of warning coloration is known as aposematic coloration. 

Arguably the most impressive feature of monarchs is the ability to migrate long distances. In the fall monarchs begin their migration southward to Mexico. This journey can take months and thousands of miles. While most monarchs only live for two to five weeks, the migratory population will live for eight or nine months. Once in Mexico, the monarchs will congregate to oyamel fir tree forests in high, mountainous elevations. They will spend the winter in these forests until March, when they begin the journey back north. These monarchs will mate and lay eggs along their journey and ultimately die off. Those eggs will continue their whole life cycle and turn into adult monarchs, called the first generation, and will continue the journey north, laying eggs all the while. This process continues for four generations. The monarchs that first make their way up to New York tend to be the third generation. It is the fourth generation that migrates back down to Mexico, meaning that those monarchs that migrate are the great-great grandchildren of the monarchs who migrated south the year before. It is a true spectacle of nature!

Monarch butterflies are relatively easy to attract to your garden. Planting nectar-producing plants like blazing star (liatris), Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower, New York ironweed, aster, and butterfly bush will attract adult monarchs. The one plant you definitely need to plant, of course, is milkweed. 

In Upstate New York there are three milkweed species you are likely to find: common milkweed, swamp milkweed and butterfly weed. The common milkweed is very often found in fields, along roadsides, and parks. It has large leaves that are great for monarch caterpillars but can spread and get a bit unruly in the garden. Swamp milkweed can often be found in garden centers, especially if they have native plant sections. Its leaves are smaller and thinner but will still provide monarch caterpillars with the nutrition they need. The same goes for butterfly weed, which can also often be found in garden centers. Its bright orange, nectar producing flowers are a great treat for butterflies and it looks beautiful in the landscape. 

The peak dates to see monarchs in our area are in early to mid-September. Monarchs travelling south from Canada are passing through here on their migration southward. Fields of asters and goldenrod are a great place to look. Planting for monarchs can be very rewarding, especially when you get your first visit of the season floating into the garden. These long-distance migrants are not only beautiful, but like many other pollinators, are facing population declines. So consider making your yard more monarch friendly! 

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford. 

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What to do in the garden in September & October

by cathym on September 11, 2020

Hips on Rosa rugosa

SEPTEMBER 
Ornamentals
Continue to deadhead some perennials and annuals to keep them blooming, others to avoid self-sowing. You may want to leave seedheads for the birds on plants like echinacea. 

Stop deadheading most roses. This will allow them to start transitioning to winter. Rosehips are an added bonus with some kinds of roses.

Keep container plants watered and fertilized.

Evergreens, including conifers, should be planted by mid-September to allow them plenty of time to root. The newly planted broadleaf evergreens will need winter protection from sun and wind. Continue to water all newly planted woody plants. Ten to fifteen gallons of water is needed weekly when rainfall is less than one inch. 

Protect tree trunks from buck rub as soon as possible.

Plan to protect woody plants from browsing by deer, rabbits and rodents. The bark and the buds on the branches are all susceptible.

Bearded irises should have been divided and/or planted last month but if you do so in September, place a stone or brick on top of the rhizome to prevent winter heaving (this tip courtesy of the Southern Tier Iris Society).

Keep water gardens full. Continue to prevent mosquito development. Use mosquito dunks if necessary—these contain a type of natural Bt that kills mosquito larvae.

September is the best time to renovate or install a lawn. Cooler weather and hopefully more moisture allow better germination and growth of the grass seedlings. Mowing the lawn as high as possible results in a healthier lawn with deeper roots more tolerant of drought and denser turf that will prevent germination of some weed seeds. 

Now is a good time to move spring-blooming bulbs if you can locate them. Many will already have roots so don’t let them dry out.

Photograph your garden and make notes of needed changes. I put notes on next year’s calendar so I don’t forget what I wanted to do next April or May.

Now is a good time to plant hardy perennials and woody plants. Keep them watered to encourage rooting.

Narcissus is best planted in September after the soil has cooled a little. Delicate bulbs such as fritillaria and trout lilies should be planted as soon as you get them. Winter aconite tubers and Anemone blanda tubers should be soaked in lukewarm water for several hours before planting. This is very effective for A. blanda, less so for winter aconites, which are best propagated by seed.

Nursery stock goes on sale and may be a good money saver if it has been well cared for. Score the rootball of pot-bound plants with vertical cuts to ensure root growth into the surrounding soil. If rain is insufficient, water weekly. Continue watering until the ground freezes.

Check viburnums for viburnum leaf beetle (VLB) adults, especially if the shrubs were defoliated by the larvae. Consider a pesticide treatment to save the shrubs. Do NOT cut back branches just because the leaves have been eaten or damaged. Scratch the bark with your fingernail, if it’s green underneath, the branch is alive. Snip off and destroy the twigs that contain the VLB eggs. Although the egg-laying sites are most obvious in the fall, one actually has until April to trim the affected twigs.  

It is too late to fertilize woody plants, as doing so may encourage tender late growth that may not harden off in time for winter.

It is also too late to prune woody plants, except for dead or diseased wood. Be especially mindful not to prune spring-blooming shrubs that have already formed next spring’s flower buds, such as forsythia.

Bring in poinsettias and Christmas cacti to get them adapted to indoor conditions. Start exposing them to long nights (short days) for flower buds to set. After checking for insects, bring in houseplants before nights cool off too much outside and heating systems start operating. 

Consider having windowsill herbs for winter use. You may pot up small ones or take cuttings—basil, sage, rosemary (especially susceptible to drying out in my experience) are some of the possibilities. Chives are a hardy perennial; pot them up and bring them inside in late fall.

If you live in a cold site, you may want to dig tender bulbs such as dahlias, tuberous begonias, and cannas before the frost hits. This winter I am planning to keep canna ‘Stuttgart’ growing on a windowsill. Cannas do not need a rest period.  Gladioli seem to be marginally hardy even in my cold site. One has persisted and bloomed for three years outdoors now, and others survived last winter, but may not bloom this year. I may leave them all in the ground and see what happens!

Edibles
You should already have harvested garlic.

Keep up with weeding! If you can’t remove all the weeds right away, at least don’t let them go to seed.

Renew the mulch in your veggie garden or consider planting hardy cover crops to improve the soil.

Pick fall raspberries every day, especially if the weather is wet or humid. If raspberries or other soft fruits look moist or misshapen, check for the maggots of the spotted wing drosophila fruit fly. Destroy all the bad fruit. If a lot of fruit has been set, you can then use row cover to keep the fruit flies out, but this will also prevent further pollination. Also look out for the brown marmorated stink bug. 

Keep harvesting veggies and herbs and continue to water if it is dry.

If you garden in a cold site, start watching for frost after October 1 be prepared.  (The average first frost in zones 5 and 6 is in mid-October.) 

Now is a good time to do a soil test and make pH amendments as needed but wait until spring to apply fertilizer.


OCTOBER
Ornamentals
Continue to water newly planted woodies. You can continue to plant hardy perennials and woody plants such as tall phlox, hostas and lilacs. The shallow-rooted perennials such as Heuchera should have been planted earlier.

This is the best time to move peonies. Normally, they don’t need to be moved or divided unless they are growing in too much shade. It may take a couple of years for them to recover after dividing or moving. Do not plant them too deeply; doing so may cause them not to bloom.

Continue to plant spring-blooming bulbs. Tulips can be planted last. Many spring-blooming bulbs are deer-resistant, such as alliums, winter aconite, snowdrops, snowflake, Siberian squill, glory-of-the-snow, puschkinia, fritillaria, and Anemone blanda. Grape hyacinths send up fall foliage but even when it’s browsed it doesn’t seem to affect their vigor.

Cut off all the peony foliage down to the ground to remove botrytis spores.

Some perennials can be cut back now for the winter, if the foliage has senesced already.  Leave stalks of natives in place in case beneficial insects use them for overwintering.  Also, do not trim back the stalks of certain plants that overwinter better with the protection of the old stalks. This group includes mums, lavender, culinary sage, Kniphofia and butterfly bush.

Late in the month, look for spring bulbs on sale. Consider forcing some: daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, and smaller bulbs like Siberian squill all force well. Tulips can be forced, too, but they require a longer rooting period and stronger light in the foliage-growing stage or they will be leggy and floppy.

Edibles
Listen to the fall forecasts and be prepared to protect tender plants from an early frost with old sheets, towels, etc., as we frequently get a couple weeks of nice weather afterwards. Otherwise, when frost is predicted, do a quick harvest to get produce indoors.

Mid to late October is the best time to plant garlic. Be sure to rotate garlic; pick a new spot with lots of sun and good drainage. I mulch it with a couple inches of woodchips to give it plenty of time to root but preferably not to sprout.

Remove all the brown asparagus ferns to reduce the number of overwintering asparagus beetles.

Continue weeding, watering and mulching as needed.

— Pat Curran and the Tompkins County Master Gardeners

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