Rob's plants
home garden plants wildlife seed photos
plant sale journal topics plantlinks fun guestbook

Lehigh Valley gardening

You can help

On this page I've tried to collect information relevant to gardeners around the Lehigh Valley. If you know of information that's not here but could or should be, please tell me.

The lay of the land

Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley is in the Eastern part of the state, roughly defined by the Blue Mountain ridge to the North and South mountain ridge to the South. A little further North are the Poconos, a little further South the Delaware Valley (greater Philadelphia area), and the Delaware River borders the area on the East (with New Jersey on the other side).

The Valley encompasses several counties, and the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan region. The area was historically largely agricultural, but in recent decades it has become quite built up, a victim to sprawl. And so it is that our garden is part of a suburban development, where corn grew tall just fifteen years ago.

The weather

Our area is squarely in USDA zone 6, meaning winter temperatures don't typically drop below -10°F (-23°C). Philadelphia is a zone warmer, the Poconos a zone colder. And of course winter temperatures vary quite a bit from year to year - for several years recently, temperatures never dropped below 0°F, but last winter was characteristic of zone 6. We cannot count on a consistent snow cover to insulate the soil from the harshest temperatures, so marginally hardy plants are best mulched with a few inches of organic material.

Typical last frost dates are around early May (so the freeze on May 21, 2003 caught us quite by surprise), and the first frost in fall occurs anywhere between mid-September and mid-October. That leaves enough of a gardening season to grow almost any vegetable, although heat-loving crops such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers need an indoor headstart to start producing by mid-summer.

Summers have been variable as well: in our eleven years in this garden, we have suffered through two disheartening years of drought, and two unusually wet summers. For the most part, though, we can count on some stretches of the warm season where supplemental water is needed to keep garden plants alive and happy. Every summer brings plenty of hot and sticky days when gardening isn't particularly pleasant, but many plants that can't survive the humidity of the Southeast do OK here.

Getting gardening goods

Plants

The Lehigh Valley has plenty of outlets eager to quench gardeners' thirst for plants. Most of them provide the old standbys year after year. Some deserve Chinese water torture for the evils deeds they do unto their stock. But a few outlets around the Valley lovingly offer an interesting, ever-changing variety of garden plants. I list our favorites on my local nurseries page.

Compost and mulch

The best things in life are free. And for gardeners, it doesn't get much better than free compost and mulch! Many counties and municipalities throughout the area offer one or both of these products for free, generated at their recycling facilities. From personal observation, I suspect that (one of) the products at Bethlehem's recycling center is laden with wild onion seeds or bulblets, so I'd be hesitant to use it again. On the other hand, Lehigh County operates a composting operation at a grand scale. A few years ago they started charging for their materials, but luckily for me, Upper Macungie Township still offers them for free - they always have large piles of shredded material that's fine for utilitarian mulching, and usually also a smaller pile of nice and black compost. I try to keep a pile of this compost on hand at all times, and have yet to find any growth sprouting from the heap - so I'm sure the composting process achieves the temperatures required to kill off weed seeds (much unlike my lowly compost pile...) The county facilities are located just South of Schnecksville; call ahead to find out what the current pickup hours are, as they have become rather restrictive in recent years. The Upper Macungie Recycling Center maintains more reasonable hours. I suspect that the compost comes straight from the county, but the mulch is chopped-up yard waste contributed by the Township's residents, and varies in consistency - sometimes it's full of sticks and large shreds, but on a good day it's somewhere in between compost and wood-chip mulch, so that it both feeds the soil and acts as a weed-blocking, moisture-conserving, cold- insulating layer.

And other stuff

Other gardening supplies are plentiful at the usual outlets, although unusual items can be hard to find. It took me years to find a good source of chicken grit (finally found at Germansville Feed & Farm a few years ago), and getting Pro-Mix potting soil products can be tricky. Sometimes, the only way to get what you want is mail order. See my links page for a few sources I've found useful.

Finding other gardeners

The gardeners' community in the Lehigh Valley is dispersed and amorphous. Until recently, I had not managed to find an organization that meets my desire to share experiences and plants with like-minded serious gardeners. I've visited the local Parkland Garden Club once or twice. I thoroughly enjoy the garden tour every year in summer, affording an opportunity to see what other local gardeners do with their otherwise private spaces - I've found some gems in unexpected places that way.

There's also the Bethlehem Garden Club inthe area, which appears to be fairly active.

A somewhat local group, which counts me among its members, is the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group (HPS/MAG). The epicenter of the Society's activities is in the suburbs West of Philadelphia; I seldom can find the time to attend their organized events (presentations, garden tours, workshops). Still, the annual Spring and Fall plant sales are worth the drive, and the seed exchange alone is worth the price of admission. Recently, a new Lehigh Valley special interest group was founded, which brings together gardeners in our own area, to tours of each other's gardens and other activities. A great new development!

The closest local Chapters of the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) are in New Jersey to the East and the Delaware Valley to the South. I recently joined the Society, mostly for its legendary seed exchange; local events have the same distance drawbacks as those for HPS/MAG, but perhaps I'll feel inspired to explore now that I'm a member.

I recently did find out about the Lehigh Valley Orchid Society, which meets once a month in Allentown. More for indoor gardeners, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn about them.

New in Spring 2016, there is a Lehigh Valley chapter of Plant a Row for the Hungry, who are trying to get as many fellow gardeners as possible on board in their efforts to raise nutritious crops for donating to local food banks. That sounds like a great opportunity to commune with local veggie gardeners, so please consider participating in this wonderful project.

Luckily, it's getting easier to find like-minded local gardeners. There are plenty out there - after all, they keep the quality nurseries in business, and I've met a good number of them through random pathways. If you, dear reader, fit that description, please don't hesitate to drop me a line.

Gardens, parks, arboreta

There's nothing like a stroll through someone else's horticultural creation to get new ideas on plants to use and garden design. Besides the annual Parkland garden tour mentioned elsewhere on this page, the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas have plenty of opportunities to do just that. I'll list a few below:

  • Pool Wildlife Sanctuary, tucked in a bend of the Little Lehigh Creek between Emmaus and Allentown, is a 72-acre treasure of varying terrain, from wooded hills to riparian vegetation, with a modest arboretum as well.
  • A ways North of Bethlehem and off the beaten track, Graver Arboretum offers a quick getaway to a sizeable plot of woods and meadows. I've only visited once, in autumn, but I'm sure it offers lots to see in all seasons. It was there that I first saw the woodland plant Actaea pachypoda (or alba), and its berries that give rise to its common name "doll's eyes". Also lots of interesting conifers - I should really return there sometime soon.
  • I'm not much of a rose afficionado, but the Allentown Rose Garden is good for a leisurely stroll along Cedar Creek, best in early summer. As a matter of fact, many parks in the Allentown Park System are worth visiting, including Trexler Park and the Lehigh Parkway.
  • Farther afield, a few renowned public gardens await your visits. We are quite familiar with Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square (West of Phila), although all of our visits have been in fall. I enjoy the great diversity of plantings and settings, from topiary to rock gardens, and from huge conservatories to idea gardens and children's gardens. Truly something for everyone.
    I also recently made the trek to Chanticleer Garden, a self-proclaimed pleasure garden, with a variety of boldly and creatively landscaped, distinct gardening areas laid out along a mile-long walking loop. My visit was in mid-Spring - there were plenty of spectacles to admire already (and plenty of evidence that the Delaware Valley is a few weeks ahead of the Lehigh Valley in its climate) but not many of the garden's trademark potted tropical displays were out yet. Chanticleer is a little closer to us than Longwood, so I hope to visit again in the future.
    In the same general area, there's also Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, an excellent landscape featuring not just trees but plantings of all kinds, including marvellous mixed gardens, a stunningly planted rock wall, and plenty of art.
  • A little-known asset of the Valley is the Lehigh Daylily Garden, the private garden of hemerocallis hybridizers Ron and Megan Skinner, right in the city of Allentown. They grow many named cultivars, and even more that are still under observation. The garden is at its peak in June and July, and visitors are welcome with advance appointment.
  • Bill Wehr wrote to comment on the Peace Garden at Jordan United Church of Christ.
  • Mark Driver wrote to invite people to his garden (complete with train garden) on weekends in May and June.
  • Let me take this opportunity to invite you to our garden! The developed garden area is modest, and the design decidedly unprofessional, but the sheer number of different plants is hard to beat in a garden of this scale. If you'd like to visit, just drop us a line.

Miscellaneous resources

Advice

I've not personally used their services, but I have been told that the Penn State Cooperative Extension for Lehigh County is a valuable source of horticultural advice, especially when it comes to identifying and dealing with pests and diseases. Visit them online, or call 610-391-9840.

Organic gardening on display

Along Rt 222 between Allentown and Kutztown is the Rodale Institute Experimental Farm, a large plot where organic methods are put to the test for agricultural and horticultural purposes. They have a field day once a year in summer, a good time for a casual stroll around the composting devices, learning about green cover crops, and whatever the latest trends are in organic farming. Quite a number of outside vendors set up shop as well, and last time we visited, many native plants were featured among the plants for sale from the greenhouse.

They also welcome volunteers for their many activities. You can read a little more about that here.

Greenhouse tour

Dan Schantz Farm and Greenhouses, who operate a greenhouse in Zionsville, with 25 acres of wholesale growing space, offers tours of their facilities to children as well as adults. Tours feature plant propagation and transplanting areas, huge soil filler rooms, and plants in all stages of growth. The average tour takes about two hours, shorter for children and seniors. For information, inquire at advertising@danschantz.com.