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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).
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.
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
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
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
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:
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
- 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.
- Bill Wehr wrote to comment on the Peace Garden at Jordan United Church of Christ.
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
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.
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 email@example.com.