March-April 2021

What to do in the garden in March & April

by cathym on March 15, 2021

Hellebore

Eager to garden? Keep in mind the weather conditions. March and April could be spring-like or snowy. Pruning can be done in wintery conditions, but the soil shouldn’t be worked until the soil is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Let’s get to work!

Winter DAMAGE
Clean up leaves and winter debris. This helps to increase soil drainage, improve water quality, and reduce algae growth later in the season.

Prune out or cut back branches damaged by the snow, wind, and ice.

Replant plants that have heaved from the freeze-thaw cycle as soon as possible to prevent further damage to the roots.

PRUNING
If you’re unsure how to prune a particular tree or shrub contact your local Cooperative Extension for guidance.

Prune summer flowering shrubs if they need restructuring or have been damaged by snow, wind, or ice.

Prune dormant Bradford pear, wisteria, butterfly bush, potentilla, honeysuckle, and flowering plums.

Don’t prune ash, oak, elm as they are “bleeders.” Don’t prune azalea, crab apple trees, forsythia, big leaf hydrangeas, lilac, mock orange, rhododendrons, weigela unless you don’t mind missing this year’s flowers which were formed last autumn. 

Prune fruit trees before bud break. Prune out any branches with cankers or black knot. Be sure to clean your pruners in between cuts so you don’t spread disease!

Prune brambles (raspberries, blackberries) during March to remove dead, diseased, or damaged canes and to increase air circulation. 

When pruning trees be careful not to cut flush to the trunk. Cut outside the branch collar. Wound dressing is no longer recommended. 

Prune roses when forsythia bloom. (This makes use of phenology, which refers to looking at the seasons by the behavior of plants and animals not just the calendar.) Cut back dead canes to the ground. Cut back crossing canes to about one-quarter inch above an outward-facing bud.

Cut pussy willows back drastically after they bloom to encourage stronger plants and more blooms next year.

Cut back lavender into green wood late in April.

THE PLANTS, PRESENT AND FUTURE
Cut back grasses and perennials that remained as winter interest before new growth is more than a few inches to have attractive plants this year.

Add cut plant material that has not harbored disease to the compost pile.

Move mulch away from emerging spring bulbs.

Pull emerging weeds so you don’t disturb the roots of emerging perennials and bulbs. Don’t know if it is a weed or not? Let it grow. You can always remove it later. That’s what makes gardening so interesting!

Divide perennials such as liriope, hostas, daylilies, coral bells (heuchera), and Shasta daisies only when the soil is workable. 

Scatter annual poppy seeds, cleome, and wildflower collection seeds for bloom later in the season.

Scrub and sterilize reusable pots and seed starter trays by washing in a dilute solution of bleach and warm water.

VEGETABLES
Plan your vegetable garden now. Be sure to rotate plant families at least every three years to prevent disease and to give time to replenish soil nutrients). Family examples include Solanaceae (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant); Brassiaceae (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli); and Cucurbitaceae (cucumber, melons, squash).

Direct-seed cool-season vegetables such as carrots, beets, radishes, kale, and onions.

Read seed packages so you know when to start seeds (indoors or out) and the time needed for producing plants to be set outdoors later in the season. Starting seeds indoors too early leads to tall leggy plants that won’t transplant well.

HOUSEPLANTS
Resume feeding of houseplants following directions for both dilution and applications.

Check houseplants for disease and insects. Check the roots to see if the plants need division or repotting. If you want a plant to grow larger, repot it in a container about one-inch greater in diameter but the same depth. If you want the plant to grow in the same container but its roots are taking up space, remove from the pot, root prune, and repot in fresh soil.

Prune out weak or leggy growth or toughed plant material which no longer produces leaves to stimulate new growth.

Make cuttings or divisions of appropriate plants for gifts, garden sales, or yourself.

GENERAL
If you didn’t clean and sharpen your garden tools, do it now.

Set up your rain barrel again.

Turn the compost pile.

Place new birdhouses at least twenty-five feet apart and at least five feet above the ground. Clean out and scrub older bird houses if you didn’t do it at the end of the breeding season last year.

Make cuttings to force branches of forsythia, weigelia, and pussy willows.

OTHER
Inspect stored summer tubers and rhizomes such as dahlias, caladiums, tuberous begonias, and gladiolas. Discard ones that have decayed.

If you overwintered zonal geraniums, make cuttings now.

Start seeds of slow growers now: celery, leeks, onions, pansies.

Replace fluorescent bulbs in grow lights that have been in use for more than two years.

—Carol Ann Harlos and Lyn Chimera, Master Gardeners, Erie County

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Story by Stacey Hirvela; photos courtesy Proven Winners

‘Miss Molly’ butterfly bush

You’ve probably read the news stories on the “insect apocalypse”: the recent steep decline in insect populations and the potentially dire consequences it holds for us and other animals. It’s easy to get discouraged listening to all the doom and gloom, but the good news is that this is an issue we can all play a part in resolving. The solution is so simple: plant something. Plants and their flowers play a crucial role in sustaining insects, and they in turn sustain everything that eats them, and this continues up the food chain.

The relationship between plants and insects is a vital, even foundational aspect of our ecosystem, and it’s well past time for us to rid ourselves of an antiquated “bugs are yucky” mindset. Inviting insects to your garden and observing their behavior, watching them interact with each other and with your plants, is truly one of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of being a gardener. Even if you’ve never planted a thing in your life, it’s not too late to get started and take the first step toward a better environment. Here are some tips to help you pick the right plants, plant them in the right places, and grow them with maximum benefit to insects—as well as to you and your community.

AnnualsPerennialsShrubs
“Vermillionaire” cuphea“Decadence” baptisia
(late spring bloom)
‘Ruby Anniversary’ abelia
(late summer-fall bloom)
“Heat It Up” gaillardia“Fun and Games” heucherella
(spring bloom)
“Miss” butterfly bushes
(summer-fall bloom)
“Suncredible” helianthus“Summerific” hibiscus
(summer bloom)
‘Kodiak’ diervilla
(summer bloom; foliage supports larvae of hummingbird moths)
“Truffala” pink gomphrena‘Sweet Romance’ lavender
(early summer bloom)
“Satin” roses of Sharon
(summer bloom)
“Luscious” lantana“Pardon My” monardas
(summer bloom)
“Gatsby Gal” and “Gatsby Pink” oakleaf hydrangea
(summer bloom)
“Snow Princess” lobularia‘Cat’s Meow’ + ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ nepeta
(late spring/early summer bloom)
“Scentlandia” itea
(summer bloom)
“Sunstar” pentas‘Midnight Masquerade’ penstemon
(summer bloom)
“Vanilla Spice” + “Sugartina” ‘Crystalina’ clethra
(summer bloom)
“Supertunia” petunia‘Denim n’ Lace’ perovskia
(late summer bloom)
“Double Play” ‘Doozie’ spirea
(late spring-fall bloom)
“Rockin’” salvia“Color Spires” salvia
(summer bloom)
“Bloomerang” lilacs
(late spring bloom, summer-fall rebloom)
“Meteor Shower” verbena“Magic Show” veronica
(summer bloom)
“All That Glitters”/“All That Glows” viburnum
(early summer bloom, fall fruit; foliage supports hummingbird moth and spring azure butterfly larvae)

A PLACE IN THE SUN
When planting to support pollinators, prioritize spots that get at least six hours of sun. Insects need the sun because their body temperature is dependent on their surroundings, and they quickly become sluggish and inactive in cool, shaded conditions. Plus, plants in the sun will bloom more, their flowers will produce more nectar, and they will see far more pollinator activity than plants in the shade. Though there are plenty of shade-tolerant plants that can benefit pollinators, choosing a sunny site is the most efficient way to support the most pollinators. 

HOST A BANQUET
To sustain all types of pollinators throughout the garden season, you’ll want plants that attract them from the earliest spring days to the last chilly moments of autumn. To do this well takes planning and research before you buy. Since spring tends to be the biggest garden center shopping time, most people’s gardens tend to favor early blooming plants that look great during this period and peter out later. Both you and the pollinators will find reward in expanding your garden to include plants that bloom in summer and beyond. Late season blooming plants, like abelia, caryopteris, and the September blooming seven-sons tree are especially valuable, since they provide new nectar sources when pollinators need them most—before they go dormant, lay eggs, and/or migrate.

One way to accomplish this is to include all three main types of plants in your garden: annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Annuals bloom all summer, helping to make up for any lulls between the bloom of perennials and woody plants. Combining all of these keeps your garden interesting to both you and to pollinators. Here are my top ten annuals, perennials, and shrubs for pollinators to get you started on your plant picking.

THE NECESSITY OF NATIVE PLANTS
Native plants are a key component of any garden for pollinators. Insects have evolved to rely on these plants for food, shelter, and reproduction, so they hold particular appeal. Even if a plant is not native to your specific area, you’ll likely find that native plants, in general, attract more or perhaps different pollinators than non-native plants do. A garden doesn’t have to be 100% comprised of native plants to support pollinators, but it should contain at least some native perennials and shrubs. 

TAKE IT TO THE BANK
When creating a pollinator garden, avoid planting just one of anything. It’s easier to create more naturalistic designs by grouping plants in odd numbers (three, five, or seven are all good numbers for residential landscaping), plus creating banks of plants encourages uninterrupted foraging for pollinating insects. It’s kind of the horticultural equivalent of your reaction to seeing a plate heaped with cookies versus a plate with just one. Abundance is simply more enticing!

LET THEM EAT LEAVES
Many people have an immediate negative reaction to seeing the leaves or flowers of their plants being chewed. And it is true that there are pest insects (Japanese beetles, for example) that cause enough damage that they may need to be managed. However, native insects feeding on leaves is completely natural and a sign that you are truly supporting insect populations. In fact, a caterpillar won’t turn into a butterfly or moth unless it feeds on leaves for several weeks first. If you see holes in the leaves of a plant, don’t automatically assume that chewing means something bad is happening—spend some time digging into the cause. Plants can easily withstand insects feeding on their foliage, and except in a few extreme cases, won’t suffer or be set back by it.

DON’T USE PESTICIDES
Obviously, if you are trying to support insect life, using synthetic chemicals or other strategies that kill insects is going to be counterproductive. The truth is that there are few cases where pest insects become so serious that they need control, and that by treating your garden as an ecosystem of multiple species working together to support one another, you create a self-sustaining predator-prey balance—provided you refrain from spraying pesticides, whether they are organic or conventional. 

This approach applies to more than just insects. For example, moles are important predators of grubs, and can play a key role in managing Japanese beetle and other pest beetle populations, so rather than get out the trap or poison at the first sign of a mole tunnel, think of them as free pest control.

GET TO KNOW YOUR NEW NEIGHBORS
It won’t take long for pollinators to begin stopping by your garden to check out the offerings. Get to know who’s visiting with these resources:

  • Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw. This picture-filled book is a fantastic value and a must-have for anyone looking to learn more about insects. 
  • Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm. Heavy on the photos and information, this very well-researched book will help you better understand the relationship between plants and pollinating insects.
  • Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation does lots of important work to sustain pollinating insects; its book is a great reference, as is ots website:
    xerces.org.
  • The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center—its native plant directory is outstanding and includes specific information about how the plant benefits insects. I rely on this heavily for information on caterpillar host plants especially. Visit the website at wildflower.org/plants-main.
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America—This fantastic website, butterfliesandmoths.org, is invaluable for identifying butterflies, moths, and their larvae. 
  • The internet in general—When I encounter an insect I can’t immediately identify, I find that I can quickly narrow it down by doing an image search using general terms, like “fuzzy, black-orange caterpillar.” If you’re able to snap a photo, you can also try something like Google Lens to match it to visually similar content online.

You can start making a difference today—so what are you waiting for? Get out there and plant something. Let’s stop the insect apocalypse together!

Stacey Hirvela is a graduate of the School of Professional Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. Her first book, Edible Spots & Pots, was published by Rodale in 2014. She currently works as the marketing manager for Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs.

We prefer not to use trademark symbols in this publication, so we’ve removed them here. Named cultivars are in single quotes, while trademarked names, which also sometimes designate a series, are in double quotes. All plants pictured here are from Proven Winners. —Ed. 

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Sustainable gardens and landscapes

by cathym on March 14, 2021

Story and photos by Filomena Cimino

Monarch butterflies on liatris

The year 2020 was surely challenging—I doubt anyone would deny that—but it did give us an opportunity to reassess many things as we all began spending more time at home. As our houses became our safe havens, we found ourselves either consciously or unconsciously reassessing what “home” meant to each of us. Many caught up on projects like cleaning out and donating possessions we didn’t need and organizing spaces. Some of us grew gardens, both vegetable and decorative. Ah … necessity, that grand mother of invention, perhaps re-invention in this case. 

My work as a landscape designer often has me literally grounded in the reality of today’s environmental challenges. Many of us appreciate and marvel at the sublime beauty of nature. We are finally beginning to realize that nature does not exist apart from us. What is required of us instead is that we recognize our integral role, how each one of us can turn the tide and in so doing create a living, sustainable planet for the future. I will elaborate on this a bit using native plants as an example.

The role that native species of plants play in the ecosystem is a strong one. With an alarming number of animal, bird, and plant species threatened with extinction (mostly since 1900), the argument for preservation is strong. For example, most of us are aware of the benefits of the humble bumblebee—without them, simply put, much of our food wouldn’t get pollinated. Two-thirds of the world’s crop species depend on natures creatures to transfer pollen between male and female flower parts. There are many pollinators including birds, butterflies, even bats, but no question—bees are the most important. Their wings beat 130 times per second, and this action, called buzz pollination, vibrates flowers until pollen is released. This behavior helps plants produce more fruit.

This garden is a mix of native cultivars and exotics
Monarch caterpillars on butterfly weed

So, the next time you consider purchasing insecticide sprays, flea and tick treatments, or chemical products for your vegetable garden or your farm, please think again. Instead, take an active role in our collective well-being. The food chain is a real and dynamic system which we are completely dependent on for survival. 

Back to plants. The argument to plant native species is significant, but it should also be recognized that an international mix of species will still engage in ecological processes that are like a naturally occurring community of plants. All species, both native and exotic, occupy specific ecological niches and interact with their environment and the plants around them. We need not completely exclude all plants that are not native. It is very important, however, to identify non-native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses that are considered invasive that should not be used in landscape plantings. These invasive exotic plants can displace native plant communities and the wildlife populations that they sustain. Their aggressive spread and growth enable them to out-compete native flora, enabling them to form large monocultures. The result is an obvious degradation of natural healthy biological systems. Native plants provide active dynamic landscapes with no loss of aesthetics—and with many more ecologically sound benefits than those that are merely decorative. 

Hummingbird in a field of mixed plants

Specifically, let’s cite real benefits of native plants:

  • Easy to grow! These babies have adapted and evolved here for millennia. They have truly stood the test of time.
  • Low maintenance. Everyone asks designers like me for “low maintenance” plants. The natives are the only true low maintenance plants. Why? Because they have adapted to our soils, climates, geology, and exist in harmony with our insect, bird, and mammal populations. Plus, because of these adaptations, they are less disease prone.
  • Many flowering natives are favored by native bees and other pollinating insects. That’s a huge benefit to know that you are contributing to the food chain that sustains life on Earth.
  • Particular species of forbs (flowering perennials) can be the sole nectar source for a specific butterfly or insect, for example: spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) for the rare Karner blue butterfly. How special! 
  • Certain species of forbs, like the cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) provide several benefits for birds: food, water, and cover. Food for goldfinches (the seeds produced by the plant); water for songbirds and butterflies that will drink after rain from the “cup” that lies at the leaf-stem junction of the plant; and shelter, since the large leaves provide small birds with cover from predators. These are the characteristics of a highly functional plant.
  • Deer resistance: Often natives are left untouched by deer. Again, they have an adaptive ecological niche in the landscape where deer have cohabitated. 
  • Monarch habitat: A monarch butterfly could live its life exclusively on milkweed (Asclepias spp.). We have three native species in central New York. Most monarchs live only three to five weeks. So, for the Monarchs’ return journey to Mexico to occur, the process of the migration takes four generations! These butterflies are facing population decline, so please consider making your gardens Monarch-friendly by adding milkweeds,  liatris, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and others.

A close friend of mine who, since 1972, has dedicated his life to his native plant nursery in the Midwest, writes: “Planting natives encompasses far more than just doing a good deed for nature—our very existence depends upon it.” 

Filomena Cimino of Skaneateles’s Turtle Island Landscapes is a Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional (CNLP) and a Master Gardener with twenty-five years of experience in working with native plants. Find her at turtleislandscapes.com. 

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