Meadows are Happening

I have been writing about turning excessive expanses of lawn into meadows for a few years now and I’m excited to say it is happening.  Last year, I met with Bonnie and Alan Robb.  They had a large lawn and after reading my columns and a few other sources promoting meadows, sought advice on whether they could turn their lawn into a meadow.  They had so many good questions, such as “after killing the current grass, should we leave the clippings or remove them because they might contain crabgrass seeds?” and “should we mow the meadow three times during the first summer to remove weeds as was recommended in a NY Times article?” and “what is the best time to plant?” and “should we irrigate?”.

I suggested they mow twice; the first time collecting the crabgrass seeds and the second time mow close to the ground and leave the clippings as a mulch. I do think mowing a new meadow three times during the first year is a good strategy to help control weeds.  The best time to plant warm season grasses is early May, when the soil has warmed up enough for good germination.  Since the grasses thrive during the summer months, they will continue to grow, unlike our cool season lawn grasses that go dormant during many dry summers.  The irrigation question was trickier because it depends on the rainfall we receive.  This past summer, we had plenty of rain and no irrigation was necessary.  The Robbs seeded 15,000 square feet of lawn to a meadow mixture in late spring after killing the existing turf, cutting it back closely, using a core aerator to open up the soil for good seed/soil contact and then letting our spring and summer rain water in their seed.  I just received another email in October with a photo of their blooming meadow.  They love the blooming black-eyed Susans and plan to add another section next year!

I also consulted with the landscape committee at the Village of Fox Meadow.  They have acres of shared open space in their community and most of it is meadow, forest or bioretention area.  They were having the meadow cut routinely three times per year, which included a fall cut, as specified by their county management plan.  This meant the meadow was mowed in late September when it was at its peak. We worked with the county to get this recommendation changed and they are enjoying goldenrods and warm season grasses this fall.  They have several new areas soon to be planted with meadow seed to increase the flowers at the edges of their meadow. I recently spoke to 40 plus interested homeowners about the importance of including natural spaces like their meadow in the suburban landscape.  The group was excited about the role they are playing in helping pollinators, supporting wildlife, increasing ground water recharge, cleaning our water and cleansing the air we breathe.

The Cartmel community, a part of the Kendal at Longwood’s suite of independent and assisted living communities in Kennett Square also recently sponsored a talk about converting lawn to other types of vegetation (including meadows) to provide the ecosystem services we all need to live and thrive.  Cartmel has a large meadow area and the landscape committee is hoping to convert several more mowed areas to meadow in the coming year.

Even my good friends who live in suburban Newark have converted their back lawn to a meadow.  I am still trying to get them to mow a path through the meadow so they can more easily access their beehives.  But, needless to say, the bees love the meadow and have much more opportunity to forage than when the back yard was mowed lawn.

Why don’t you join the cause?  Take that large lawn you mow every week and turn it into a beautiful meadow whose grasses sway in the breeze and whose yellow flowers lift their faces to the sun.

Bonnie and Alan Robb’s 6-month old meadow.

Forcing Bulbs for February Color

October is the time of year to begin potting your favorite spring bulbs to prepare them for winter flowering.  I usually forget to talk about forcing bulbs in the fall and only remember in December or January, when I am anxious for some sunny flower color.  If you forget to start your forcing now, you are relegated to use bulbs like paperwhites and Soleil d’Or, daffodils that do not need a cold treatment.  However, this year I remembered!  So, you can buy tulips, any type of daffodil, hyacinths, crocus, scilla, grape hyacinths or any other bulb sold for fall planting and spring bloom.  Most garden centers are carrying those bulbs for outdoor planting, but you can also force them to bloom early indoors and bring some color to your winter windowsill.

Begin by potting the bulbs in clean, sterile clay or plastic pots. Do not bury the bulbs; leave the “noses” of the bulbs exposed. The soil should be a mixture of good garden loam (three parts), peat moss (two parts), and sand (one part). You can also use a commercial soil-less mix, but be careful the medium doesn’t stay too wet.  Don’t worry about soil fertility or feeding bulbs because they have enough stored food to flower one time.

Plant the bulbs close together in the pot. Usually 6 tulip bulbs, 3 hyacinths, 6 daffodils, or 15 crocus, will fit into a 6-inch pot. Place the flat side of the tulip bulb next to the rim of the pot since the largest leaf will always emerge and grow on that side, producing a more desirable looking pot.  Fill the pot loosely with soil.  Don’t press the bulbs into the soil. Allow 1/4-inch of space at the top of the pot so it can be watered easily. Water immediately upon planting, and never allow the soil to become dry.

Bulbs require a cold temperature treatment of 35– 48 degrees F for about 12–13 weeks, but this varies by bulb (see chart below). This cold treatment can be provided by either in a cold frame, an unheated attic or cellar, or even your refrigerator’s vegetable section. In the refrigerator, the pots should be covered with plastic bags that have had a few breathing holes punched in them. With cold frames, cover pots with deep mulch for insulation. Do not allow the bulbs to freeze.

Bulb Chill time Time to bloom after chilling
Crocus 8-15 weeks 2-3 weeks
Daffodil 2-3 weeks 2-3 weeks
Grape hyacinth 8-15 weeks 2-3 weeks
Hyacinth 12-15 weeks 2-3 weeks
Iris 13-15 weeks 2-3 weeks
Paperwhite daffodil None 3-5 weeks
Snowdrops 15 weeks 2 weeks
Tulip 10-16 weeks 2-3 weeks

When you bring bulbs indoors, a temperature of 50–60 degrees F is preferred for the first week or until the shoots and leaves begin to expand. Then, they can be moved to warmer locations such as the living room. Avoid direct sunlight. Once the bulbs are blooming, move the pots to a cool location each night. The cooler temperatures will prolong the life of the flowers. Small pots of crocus can even be placed in your refrigerator overnight. Discard tulips, narcissus, crocus, and hyacinths after flowering as they normally are “spent” and are not likely to ever flower satisfactorily again.

Hyacinths, crocus, and narcissus also can be forced in water. Special clear, glass vases are made for hyacinths or crocus. Place the bulb in the upper portion, water in the lower portion. Keep the vase in a cool, dark room (preferably under 50 degrees F) for four to eight weeks until the root system has developed and the top elongates. At this point place it in a bright window, where the plant soon will blossom.

Fall is for Lawns

Why does everyone think about his or her lawn in the spring?  In fact, the best time to work on your lawn is the fall.  Grass plants put resources into top growth—the stuff we need to mow—in the spring, so if you fertilize your lawn in the spring, you are pushing leaves to grow taller and faster and increasing the need to mow.  Grass plants put resources into root and tiller growth in the fall.  Fall fertilization promotes deep, healthy root systems and encourages grass to spread by tillers.  If you use a fertilizer that includes at least 35% slowly available nitrogen, you can apply two pounds of actual nitrogen or 20 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer on your lawn once in the fall, between late August and early October.  If you use a fertilizer with quick release nitrogen, you should split the application, applying one pound in the early fall (late August – September) and one pound in mid-late fall (October – November).  Splitting the application ensures fertilizer uptake by the grass plants and prevents leaching of nitrogen into our water system.

Delaware Livable Lawns is a program initiated by the Delaware Department of Transportation to educate people and provide incentives for healthy lawn care that protects our environment.  The Environmental Protection Agency considers stormwater runoff from yards, streets, parking lots, and other areas to be one of the most significant sources of contamination in our country’s waters.  The Delaware Livable Lawns Program certifies lawn care providers who follow a set of best management practices for lawn care.  If you have a professional manage your lawn, why not hire a Certified Livable Lawn Provider to ensure your lawn is cared for in an environmentally sound way. Certified lawn care companies are listed at https://www.delawarelivablelawns.org/certified-businesses.  We are looking for more lawn care companies to join the program.  If your lawn care provider is not on this list, ask him or her to become certified.

If you care for your own lawn, you can still have a Livable Lawn.  Go to the website (https://www.delawarelivablelawns.org/for-homeowners) and read the eight requirements for a Livable Lawn.  They includeTest your soil every 3 years.

  1. Apply nitrogen based in the guidelines in the fertilizer chart (recommended above).
  2. Avoid phosphorus fertilization if soil tests show high levels in the soil.
  3. Do not apply fertilizer between June 16 and August 14 or December 7 and February 15.
  4. Keep fertilizer and grass clippings off sidewalks, driveways, streets and storm drains.
  5. Do not apply fertilizer within 15 feet of waterways.
  6. Record the pounds of nutrients applied and dates on which you applied fertilizer.
  7. Watch the Livable Lawns Video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j41z5xueghU&feature=youtu.be)

Once you agree to these requirements and send in your application, you will receive a free soil test kit.  At the end of the fall following your application, complete and send in your reporting sheet.  Then, you will receive a free $50 gift certificate to purchase native plants for your home at participating garden centers.  What a deal, plus your lawn will look great!

The other major lawn care activity in the fall is re-seeding or over-seeding.  It is best to reseed cool season grass (the kind in our lawns) in the fall because grass seed needs warm soil to germinate.  Soils are warm in August and September. Once the grass has germinated, it needs cool temperatures to grow.  Newly established or renovated lawns can grow into the fall when temperatures cool and days shorten.  Spring, the time most people think about seeding their lawns, is just the opposite.  The soil is cool in early spring, and air temperatures continue to rise into late spring and early summer when grass is trying to become established.  In addition, many summer annual weeds crop up in late spring to compete with newly establishing grass.  There are many fewer winter annual weeds causing problems for young grass plants in a fall seeding.

If you have ever read my Delaware Gardener column before, you probably know I am a proponent of less lawn.  Plant lawn where it is useful—as pathways, gathering spaces or  sports areas—and turn the rest of your yard into something more productive for the environment, like a landscape bed filled with native plants, meadow or forest.  If everyone joins in, we can provide the ecosystem services we need (clean water, clean air, carbon sequestration, pollination, human engagement and more) to live happy, healthy lives.

Visit the Delaware Livable Lawns website (https://www.delawarelivablelawns.org) to learn more about healthy lawn care to keep our water clean and our environment thriving.

This beautifully managed lawn provides a pleasant gathering space at this North Wilmington home.

Veggies – Boom or Bust?

August is when the vegetable garden is in full throttle.  If you planted zucchini, you are trying to give them away to everyone you know.  Tomatoes are ripening faster than you can eat or cook into tomato sauce.  And your corn is as high as an elephant’s eye (according to the 1943 musical, Oklahoma).  But, is it?  We’ve had a relatively wet summer in Delaware, so far. Of course, rain is good, but too much can cause problems in the garden.  Tomato plants with fruit cracks can be caused by hot, rainy weather.  Some plants have leaf roll, where older leaves near the bottom, roll up from the outside towards the center, caused by high temperatures and too much pruning.  Various leaf spots are starting to reduce the ability of tomato plants to capture the sun for photosynthesis.  One solution is to be sure to space your tomatoes far enough apart for sufficient air circulation.  Avoid watering tomatoes from the top, which spreads disease spores (although hard to avoid when rain is doing the watering).  Always rotate the location of tomatoes in the garden.  Many fungal diseases overwinter as spores in the soil, so if you have a problem one year, you will probably have it the next unless you plant tomatoes in a different location. Bacterial leaf spot is also a problem on tomatoes and peppers and is favored by rain and high humidity.  You can pick off the worst leaves and/or use copper sprays for large plantings.

My two zucchini plants have succumbed to squash vine borers and look like a wilted mess.  If you catch these borers early, when one or two leaves are first starting to wilt, you can carefully remove the vine borer by making a slit in the stem with a sharp knife.  Sometimes parts of the zucchini vine will even re-root in rich soil.

Corn has thrived in our 2017 summer weather.  I have never seen corn so tall and green! Remember to plant corn in blocks, rather than long straight rows.  Corn must cross-pollinate. Pollen from the top of one corn plant must fall on the silks of a neighboring plant.  That works best when the corn is in blocks.  Plant corn several times during the season, so it doesn’t all ripen at the same time.  Or use different varieties with varying days to harvest.  Corn varieties vary from 60 to 100 days from planting to harvest.

Beans, especially when picked young and tender are one of the best garden vegetables.  Purple beans are fun because they are easy to see and pick.  They do turn green when you cook them.  Can you tell the difference between wax beans and green beans?  One of the activities around my family dinner table was to close your eyes, receive either a wax or green bean, and guess the color.  Statistically speaking, my family is a fan of all beans, regardless of color.  The key to successful green, purple or wax bean crops is multiple plantings.  Beans will produce for 2-3 weeks. If you space out plantings by about 3 weeks, you will always have a new crop to harvest.

Lettuce and other leafy greens, like arugula, kale and spinach are cool season crops.  That doesn’t mean they can’t be planted in the summer, but they will bolt and become bitter more quickly in hot weather.  So, plant multiple crops and harvest them young.

If all this sounds too complicated, here is a solution – buy your vegetables from a local farm stand, a CSA (community supported agriculture where you buy a share at the beginning of the season and receive a box of veggies each week) or from the UD Fresh to You Garden.  The UD Fresh to You stand is located off Route 896 near the University’s

Townsend Hall — across from the historic farmhouse.  Just follow the signs down Farm Lane.  Produce is sold on Fridays from 11 AM to 4 PM.

Fresh produce ready now and young plants at the UD Fresh to You Garden in Newark.

Delaware Goes Native on the Roadsides

My daughter recently sent me a link to a podcast entitled “How Stupid is Our Obsession with Lawns?” You can find it at WYNC Studios Freakanomics.  I was listening to an explanation of how we became obsessed with lawn and why it is not a great idea for the environment, when to my surprise, I heard a man from New Castle, Delaware start to speak.  He described what a shame it is to have miles of mowed roadsides and the missed opportunity for pollinator habitat and other ecosystem services.  He specifically mentioned the I95 rest area in Delaware.

Good news – DelDOT is already in the process of changing the mowed lawn syndrome on Delaware roadsides and is installing two major plantings along I95.  The large mound at the north end of the rest area was planted with clusters of eight native trees, 48 in all.  Small trees were planted because they are more likely to survive the tough roadside conditions.  Once they establish, they will provide shade, flower color and fall color for motorists travelling the I95 corridor.  The mound was also planted with a mix of grasses and forbs attractive to pollinators.

A second planting of over 400 native trees and shrubs was installed last week along southbound I95 between the Route 141 and Route 7 exits.  The first step was to seed a pollinator meadow.  Next, the locations of each plant were marked with a flag or spray-painted “X”.  It took almost one full day to unload and stage the plants close to their planting sites.  Then planting began.  Large shade trees, including scarlet oak, sour gum, sweetgum and red maple were installed.  Grove-forming trees, pawpaw and persimmon, should spread into large native clusters.  Redbuds will bloom with pink flowers in the spring and blackhaw viburnum will have large clusters of white flowers a bit later.  Eastern red cedar and American holly will provide some evergreen cover for the salvage yard on the other side of the right of way.  A wide variety of native shrubs will fill in to provide a complex native landscape.  We reap so many benefits from this type of landscape beyond the obvious fact that is simply looks much more interesting than mowed lawn.  We provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.  We allow water to soak into the ground rather than run off into ditches and surface water bodies.  We clean the air, removing pollutants and particulates. In addition, we sequester carbon.

DelDOT has also reduced mowing along Route 1, mowing only a beauty strip on the edges of the medians and mowing just past the ditch line on the roadsides.  Some medians have been seeded with native warm season grasses and others have been allowed to grow with existing vegetation.

Keep an eye on these locations as plantings develop and see how Delaware roadsides can make a difference for the environment!

Plant staging for the I95 southbound planting between Route 141 and Route 7 exits.

Central Park in NYC

Way back in the 70’s I was a student in Plant Science at University of Delaware.  Two of my classmates were Susan D’Innocenzo (now Susan Brutico) and Doug Blonsky.  Susan now teaches plant materials at Longwood and works in visitor services at Chanticleer and Doug is the CEO of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City.  We had a little reunion last week and got a fascinating insiders tour of Central Park.  New Yorkers and visitors love Central Park as a great escape from the bustle of NY City, but it is also a great garden destination.  Over 150 years ago, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed this amazing park in the heart of Manhattan.

Doug started working in Central Park in 1985 when it was filled with drug dealers and addicts.  He has seen and been significantly responsible for its current renaissance.  He took us up to the northern end of the park and showed us the recent renovation of The Ravine.  This area had become choked with vegetation, views obliterated and water sat stagnant until Doug’s team of landscape architects, conservancy gardeners and volunteers began the arduous process of clearing out unwanted plants, removing sludge, restabilizing banks and planting many wonderful native plants.  We walked under an arch (The Huddleston Arch) made of massive boulders of Manhattan schist.  Doug told us the story of the day in 1865 when the interior scaffolding was removed and the work crew witnessed
Vaux’s brilliant engineering as the arch stood strong with the stones “huddling” against one another.

It is easy to forget you are in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the world as you listen to the sound of water flowing over stones and birds chirping. Charming woodland paths and rustic bridges lead you to a natural swamp that provides a great stopover for those birds as they rest along one of the major north/south flyways.

The Mall in Central Park is lined with American elms, some old ones that have survived Dutch elm disease and many Dutch elm disease resistant varieties planted more recently.  It is reminiscent of the UD green, without the academic buildings outside the path.  Each elm has asters planted at its base to protect the trunk from sloppy lawn mower operators—a strategy that could be used in many other public landscapes.  Some of the park trees have unmowed grasss at their bases, another good way to protect their trunks without ringing each tree in a circle of mulch.

Wandering the park after we left Doug to the rest of his busy day, Susan and I talked to the gardener of the Dene slope as she worked with volunteers to weed the newly established meadow and make room for a new planting of native bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia).

Earlier in the day (at about 6 AM) I joined hundreds (maybe thousands) of runners, walkers and cyclists all using the park for healthy exercise.  Later, we saw mothers pushing strollers and toddlers scampering on playgrounds equipment as others gathered for a pleasant conversation as their dogs romped in the dog park.  It was a far cry from the scary, drug-ridden park of the not-so-distant past.  Central Park in New York City is definitely worth a visit!

A natural area with banks stabilized by a planted coir log.

Susan and Doug admiring the Huddleston Arch