Don’t Be Too Quick To Clean Up In Spring

It’s mid-March. Next week is astronomical spring, otherwise known as the vernal equinox. If you’re lucky, you have some signs of spring coming up in your yard or somewhere nearby.

I must encourage you, though, please don’t be too quick to tidy up in the yard. We gardeners are a manic bunch, aren’t we, hating to see even a leaf out of place? What is it we think might happen?

Please leave some of the leaf litter in place until some real warmth takes place and holds awhile.

This would be the same for some plant stems–if you left any in the garden in the fall.

Why am I asking you to leave your garden messy? Simple. There are “things” living in the leaves and the plant stems that need time to emerge and find new homes. If you clean up leaf litter too early,  you might be destroying overwintering butterfly larva, or worse yet, the lovely mourning cloak butterflies that are sunning themselves there.

If you cut down and discard hollow plant stems, you might be discarding all sorts of beneficial bugs, including valuable native bees.

When we talk about all the “good bugs” in the garden, these are the ones that you want. If you’re not seeing them, ask yourself if your clean-up practices might be accidentally contributing to their demise. You surely wouldn’t want that.

On a warm spring day, go outside and take a walk instead. That will help you get over the urge to tidy too soon–and you won’t feel too lazy!


The Unofficial Winter Forecast

According to the “mets” in the know (and “mets” is a familiar term not for a New York baseball team, but for meteorologists) just about this time, give or take a few days, we are in for a winter weather pattern shift over the northeastern two thirds of the United States.

The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO for short) is about to go “negative” on us and that can lead to a much colder pattern of air taking hold, particularly in a La Nina year. So hello and welcome Polar Vortex! Brrr!

A few other things are leading the mets to this conclusion that winter weather will be arriving–and possibly a snowy pattern, or at least a stormy patterns–along with it. I will spare you the technical details.

So of course what did I do around the end of November when I started hearing all this talk of negative NAOs?  I consulted my squirrels!

For those of you not familiar with the long accustomed practice of consulting squirrels’ nests as a way of predicting winter weather, it goes like this: the higher up in a tree the squirrel’s nest is, the colder (and presumably snowier, but I am not sure they actually predict precipitation–just cold!) the winter will be.

I usually try to find a squirrel’s nest right on my own property. I knew that I must have one in an oak off the edge of my property because every morning and evening my dog loses her mind  barking when she sees the squirrels running up and down the tree trunk. So I started looking up into the tree.

Oaks are funny because they hold a lot of their leaves, even into the winter, so it’s sometimes tough to see into the canopy.


Finally I spotted the nest, almost at the top of the tree. (But you can tell just from this photo how difficult that was. It’s about mid-photo, way up high, right where there’s an awkward looking crooked branch. )

So I guess the mets are right. It’s Polar Vortex time. Better break out the woolies. I’m already wearing the long underwear. Not sure how much more I can pile on!



Mast, and What It Means for Gardeners

Have you heard the expression “a heavy mast year?” Or perhaps you might have heard the whole thing as a sentence,  as in “we are having a heavy mast year.”


This is what a heavy mast year looks like,  the “mast” in this case being the maple seeds from Norway maples. You can barely see the grass in places, they have fallen so heavily.

What is mast? Generally it is defined as seeds or nuts–acorns, pinecones, seeds from various types of trees. It is generally not fruit–in other words, a drupe or a pomegranate, soft bodies which first flower and then produce fruit surrounding areas single or multiple seeds.

Many of what we technically think of as vegetables meet the definition of fruit and only are legally defined as vegetables because the courts and commerce have said so–but that’s a long, complicated topic that takes us away from this one.

When there is a heavy crop of anything–pine cones,  acorns or these nasty maple seeds,  wildlife benefits.  Birds, small mammals, and in the case of acorns,  deer have a much better survival rate as they go into winter torpor (again mammals, for the most part,  go into a dormant state called torpor. They don’t really hibernate.  But that’s a different post too).

White footed mice and voles–2 creatures that are especially problematic for our gardens–have a much better survival and breeding rate in high mast years.

So when you see something like this on the lawn, look out! And expect some damage to the garden next season. (And let’s not even talk about those awful weed seedlings!)

It’s Pollinator Week–How Can I Help?

Pollinator Week occurs every year this time.  You can find out more about the initiative at the website,

It was designed to draw attention to our dwindling pollinators like the monarchs,  originally.  But then bats became affected by white nose syndrome and it became clear that honeybees were in trouble, and our native bees were becoming more scarce and so Pollinator Week has really expanded to include all sorts of pollinators and to bring awareness to ways of gardening and backyard living that can help them.

Another cool thing that Pollinator Week does is draw attention to all the other different types of pollinators besides the ones mentioned above. Birds, flies, beetles, my beloved ants and insects–all of those can be pollinators and some of these can be endangered as well.

So how can you help? First, check out the website.  It will have resources for your part of North America  (sorry if you aren’t in North America–perhaps you recognize some of the plants mentioned for a similar latitude?)

Next, even if you can’t add any plants to your garden, practice responsible pesticide use in the garden you have.  We use no pesticides–& a pesticide is defined as a fungicide,  a herbicide or an insecticide–on our property. We don’t even use algacides in our pond.

But if you do, please use them responsibility.  Read and follow the label directions.  If you are spot treating something,  try to do it at a time when no or few pollinators are present–dusk is often a good time. And that is usually better for the plants (& the gardener) as well since it is cooler and causes less stress.

Finally if you are adding plants, consider natives.  It is a proven fact that they feed all wildlife in all stages of their lives more often than ornamentals.  But don’t feel that you must go crazy.  I will show you why  ( I hope) on Friday.

Happy Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day.  Thank you to all who have served our country.

I honor this day in a bit of a strange way.  I always plant my tomatoes on Memorial Day. What on earth might that do with honoring the memory of veterans, you ask?

Well,  for years, I used to plant tomatoes with my Dad, who was a World War II vet. Even after we gardened in different places, I still grew tomatoes for him and, if I had to,  I shipped them to him.

He will be gone 17 years this summer,  but the tomato planting always helps me to remember him–& all veterans.

As a bonus this year, my poppies opened this weekend too.  Very fitting.

Pollinators Are Great–but What if I Grow Edibles?

Okay, think about this for a moment. Food crops are the hottest “new” thing in gardening. It seems that everyone wants to grow them and everyone is trying to grow them creatively–in containers, vertically, in raised bed, or even in with ornamental plantings (a bit more about that on Wednesday).

And that’s great. I’m all for it. I’ve been growing fresh veggies and herbs for 45 years now. And for the most part, I’ve been doing it organically. Because after all, if you want vegetables that have been sprayed with chemicals, you can just go down to your market and buy those. Why go to the effort to grow them? Growing your own can be a bit of work!

But the payback is enormous, of course. Not only do you get delicious fresh vegetables (or fruits if you are growing those. I don’t talk much about fruits because I don’t grow many of my own. But the concept is identical), but you get the satisfaction of your own harvest, and the benefits of working in your own garden, no matter how large.

Just being outside, even if you are harvesting a few patio tomatoes from a pot on a balcony, puts you in touch with nature. I used to garden on a balcony in Hartford on the 7th floor of a condo. And the first thing I did every morning and the last thing I did every evening was to go outside on that balcony every single day of the year. It told me the air temperature, whether it was damp, or humid, I got to listen to a few moments of bird song (and car horns!) and I just generally got to experience nature. I faced south so I could see both sunrises and sunsets. It was lovely.

But no matter what we are growing, or where, we need pollinators. Nothing sets fruit without something to pollinate it. That’s why I encourage you, if you are growing plants in the ground, to include flowers in your edible garden. I always include alyssum, and I have plenty of herbs that flower for my pollinators: dill, fennel, parsley (not that that flowers, but the swallowtail caterpillars feast on it) occasionally cilantro, marigolds and nasturtium.

Not only does this make the pollinators happy, but it makes the garden pretty too. You should try it!

Bee Counted!

An aspect of the Million Pollinator Challenge is to register as many gardens as possible and to try to create a network of gardens and landscapes for these pollinators so that they can have safe spaces to breed, nectar and migrate.

So far over two hundred thousand gardens have been registered. Anyone can register a garden and gardens of any size–from a container habitat to large prairies–can register.

You may already have a garden that qualifies. I did–I have the garden that I call my “Wildlife Garden” that has lots of native plants and nectar plants and of course when I plant, I try to specifically enhance that garden for butterflies and bees. It’s not that they will ask you much about the garden–they will ask your street address to register your garden.

The next step is to get that garden registered in the Million Pollinator Garden challenge. That’s where the “street address” part comes in.  Go to the site I’ve linked to throughout these posts.

Go here to register your garden.  Don’t worry if you don’t have a photo (and completely ignore that YouTube stuff unless you want to–I didn’t even upload a photo!).

It’s a simple process. They basically want your name, address, a user name so that you can remember how to get back onto the site (that may be the hardest thing) and a little description from drop down boxes about your garden–in other words, is it rural, suburban, city, etc.

There is also a drop down box for Organization/partnership Affiliation. If you do not belong to another organization, select “Association for Garden Communicators (GWA)”. That will tell the GWA that you are registering because you read about this in a GWA-member post somewhere.  They like to know that stuff.

As I mentioned, I love to do this sort of thing. It’s called “citizen science,” and it helps the “real” scientists out. I do it as a bird watcher and a weather spotter and I’ve got my garden registered as a backyard habitat and now as a pollinator garden.

For me, I think I get back more than I give. If you’ve never done it, you should give it a try.