New England 'Habitat Gardening' Blog
New England Natural Habitat Gardening

Taming Wildflowers

Beautiful new book Taming Wildflowers by Miriam Goldberger on growing 60 native North American plants from seed.<< MORE >>

Bale Beds

In the past few years we've been experimenting with growing food crops in a variety of ways to determine how to squeeze as much organic food out of our small farm with a minimal of cost and effort. By a huge margin, our biggest successes have been using raised beds filled with our own farm compost.

Thanks to our 2 horses and a small flock of chickens, two materials that we have in abundance here on our small farm is locally-grown hay and compost:


We try to farm with a minimal of outside inputs that consume resources in their production and distribution, so building raised beds using old bales of hay that are too dusty to feed our horses makes a perfect solution to building "temporary" planting beds that last one season.

Bales + Compost = instant Mini-Farm with no digging in our horrible rocky soil required!



A couple of tractor buckets full of our most aged, best quality compost and beds are ready to plant…plus, my hubby gets some quality time with his beloved tractor.


We used to scramble each year to get rid of old bales of hay to make room in our barn for the season's new hay…now, the more we have left over, the more food we can grow that year!

Cucumbers, melons, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, kale, swiss chard, all of these love the deep rich soil of the raised beds:


Using companion "square foot planting", you can get two or three crops out of a single raised bed this size — for example, cucumbers and summer squash planted along with later maturing crops such as broccoli or kale. 

Probably the best crop of all for bale beds are potatoes, which are traditionally planted by digging a 3" trench for the potato spuds, then adding soil over the plants as they grow through the season. To grow potatoes in a raised bale bed, lay potato eyes about 12" apart at the bottom of the bed, and cover with 3" or so of soil/compost. When the plant foliage is about 12" high, add another layer of soil or compost around the potato stems. The new potatoes form along the stem above where your eyes were planted.


Compostable beds!

At the end of the season, the bale beds are easy to dismantle with the tractor, and the whole thing gets mixed back into the compost pile to make next year's garden fertilizer:


Here is this year's mini-farm all ready to plant! We harvested bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, kale, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, celery root, swiss chard, plus a variety of culinary herbs in this one area.


Because I like my gardens to be beautiful as well as functional, I "disguise" our raised beds with lots of flowering plants — they not only add color but the flowers attract pollinating bees and beneficial insects that control vegetable pests


As the season progresses, you can hardly tell that our pondside gardens are an intensive agricultural operation that feeds us well into winter….

Hints and Tips for Bale Beds:

Try not to saturate the bales when you irrigate the beds - the moisture will cause the hay or straw to begin decomposing, and you don't want them to collapse during the season. During seasons with lots of rain (such as 2013!), the bales do start to break down and sag a little, but they should stay intact until harvest. 

If you build a raised bed over existing grass or weeds, cover the ground at the base of the bed with a thick layer of cardboard or sheets of newspaper before adding your soil/compost. The cardboard layer kills the grass and prevents it from growing up into your compost layer and competing with your plants.

You can use straw or hay bales, whatever you can source locally. Straw is better — hay generally contains plant seeds that may sprout from compost it is made from, but both hay and straw make excellent compost additions. 

In the spring and early summer, look for free ads such as Craigslist for local farms looking to sell or give away old hay bales.

Also check with local farms for compost to fill beds — many farmers offer bulk compost for free or very little cost compared to buying by the bag.

Left: These bale beds contain tomato plants underplanted with parsley and cilantro, mulched with dried ferns sourced on-site. This bed cost us only a few dollars total to build, plant and grow...

Fall Frenzy

Here on our farm and across the central Massachusetts landscape, the fall plant frenzy of foliage, fruits and flowers is in full swing. The bright colors everywhere feel like Nature's Disney World and the falling leaves sound like a gentle rain...


Haying is done for the year so plenty of time to admire the scenery from the hilltop at St. Joseph's Abbey:



It's harvest time on our little farm!



Still lots of food and blooms in the veggie beds. Single-blooming Marigolds support late-season pollinators looking for nectar, and the Arugula is going to seed for next year's crop. 



Wild Asters don't look like much all season long, but this time of year is when they do their thing:


(Swamp Aster and New England Aster)

When New England Asters are in full bloom, they can take on the form and shape of a flowering shrub:



Billows of native asters and grasses with Sugar Maple in a park in Peterborough:


(Keith Tetreault photo)

Speaking of asters, if you want to find bumble bees and other pollinators this time of year, just look at any blooming aster, that's where you'll find them:



The native woodland viburnum berries are ripening: 



If these Witherod Viburnum fruits look like little candies, it's no coincidence. The bright colors of both foliage and fruit are the plant's tactic to attract birds to eat its fruit and disperse its seeds...
Most native Viburnum fruits are edible by people too - as the berries ripen, they turn dark and shrivel like raisins - hence one of their common names Wild Raisin.

The fluffy seed attachments of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) are ready to blow away with the wind....now is the time to collect the seeds to sow this beautiful orange-blooming plant for next year's garden...



In a few short weeks, the bright leaves and most of the color will be gone, but for now, it's time enjoy the spectacle of a fruitful New England fall!

Reasons Not To Spray

If you're an organic gardener, you probably know that lady beetles (aka ladybugs) play an important role in controlling aphid pests. Adult lady beetles, and more especially their young larval form, vacuum up hundreds to thousands of aphids during their life span. But did you know lady beetles also prey upon small pest caterpillars?





Check out this larval lady beetle working on a Cabbage White Moth caterpillar who (along with several dozen of his brothers and sisters) was devouring our Brussels Sprout foliage:



So if you see one of these alligator-like red and black larvae crawling around on the leaves of your plants, don't panic! They are baby lady beetles. Leave them alone and let them do their work. 

Just one of the many reasons we never spray insecticides here! Spray the bad guys, and you'll nail the good guys too...and once the good guys are gone, the bad ones tend to come back with a vengeance...

Asian Lady Beetle from WikipediaYou can buy Lady Beetles to release into your gardens, but I wouldn't bother.  Here's why. If you buy packaged lady beetles, they are more than likely going to be Asian lady beetles—imported for crop pest control—which have become something in a nuisance in New England for invading houses in the fall looking for a winter home (and causing an allergic sting to some people). And as it often happens, importing a foreign insect introduces unwanted consequences — not only do they introduce foreign diseases and parasites that impact the indigenous species, Asian lady beetles are highly cannabalistic and feed upon the native species with gusto. Will the native lady beetle species disappear completely over time as a result? 

(Asian Lady beetles tend to be larger than our native lady beetles, and often have more spots. Click here to learn more about the difference between Asian and native lady beetles)

So, to attract and support beneficial lady beetles, your property should supply food for both the adults and the larval form. Flowering nectar plants supply the adult beetle with the energy it needs to fly, so include a variety of plants that bloom through the season such as coreopsis, phlox, nepeta, asters and other daisy-like composite plants. Grow culinary herbs such as oregano, thyme, cilantro, dill, parsley, basil, common chives and garlic chives (pictured),  allow some of them to flower to attract the adult beetles. 


As for the larvae, adult lady beetles lay their eggs on plants known to attract aphids and other soft-bodied pests, knowing that there will be plenty of food for their offspring once they hatch and begin to feed. If you're a gardener, and you don't spray insecticides, you're most likely already there...

Pictured at right: A juvenile lady beetle, gobbling up aphids on the back of a milkweed leaf. You can see this one has almost reached its adult form. Milkweeds are prone to aphid attack, but try to think of them as prime lady beetle habitat!





Norcross Sanctuary - Hidden Jewel of Monson, MA


The small south-central Massachusetts town of Monson (population 3,800) is home to a nature lover's dreamland, Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary. Free and open to the public - Norcross has over 1000 acres of fields and trails, beautiful vistas and an education center that offers free classes, tours and lectures throughout the year.

I'll be doing a free talk on Pollinator-friendly Landscaping at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary on Saturday, February 23rd at 1.30pm. Reservations are required because space is limited - please call 413-267-9654 or email Leslie Duthie to reserve a seat. 

It's worth coming back to Norcross during the warm season though. Norcross covers an area of over 1000 acres, containing a variety of different natural habitats found across New England, including wet and dry meadows, ponds and streams, upland and wet woods, plus cultivated culinary, herb and rose gardens near the visitors' center. If you're looking for plant combination ideas and inspiration for your own garden conditions, a trip to Norcross is definitely worth the drive!

This white-flowering Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) grows in a wet meadow with the grass-like wetland sedge (Carex). This calming, pollinator-friendly combination is easy to replicate in a small area with moist to wet soil and sun:



Norcross is home to the biggest patch of black bugbane (Actaea racemosa) that I've ever seen. I think this area looks like a spooky wood when the cohosh is blooming:



A large old millpond on the property is being encouraged back into native shoreline plant communities. In summer, you can see the beautiful blooms of Plymouth gentian (Sabatia kennedyana), a plant native to freshwater ponds near the coast — now very rare in the wild due to development on New England's coastline.



In a small sandy garden near the visitors' center is a stand of spotted beebalm aka horsemint (Monarda punctata), with its interesting pink/yellow stacked blooms:



I long to grow this plant for its impressive blooms, but it prefers sandy soil, which we do not have here on our farm. If I can find seeds for it, I may try growing it on a sunny hillside where drainage is good, but I don't have high hopes that it will ever look this good.
 
Because Norcross's founder established it in 1939 as a wildlife and plant sanctuary, no hunting is allowed at Norcross, which puts the sanctuary staff in the awkward position of trying to try to protect native understory plants from being grazed out of existence from the abundant population of white-tailed deer. 

Unfortunately, deer fencing in certain wooded areas has been the only solution to allow native "deer candy" such as trilliums, lilies, Canada mayflower and most woody native shrubs to flourish. In the rest of the sanctuary, deer have grazed most of the native understory layer out of existence, and careful management is needed by sanctuary staff to ensure that these areas don't fill with invasive non-natives such as barberry,  burning bush and Asiatic bittersweet.


Come visit the sanctuary, walk the trails, attend a free class or even take a free van tour of the sanctuary (pre-booking required). Afterwards, visit the town of Monson and stop for lunch. They'll appreciate the business. Monson was hit very hard during the Tornado that blew a terrifying path across southern MA on June 1st, 2011. The photo below was taken over a year after the tornado hit — all the houses and trees on this hillside were destroyed. The homes have now been rebuilt, but it will be many years until the woods will fill in again.





Use Your Weeds! Violets as Groundcover

It's funny how people tend to hate violets so much..maybe because it creeps into lawns? I know that violets can be voracious growers in some soils, but if violets grow in your yard, instead of scorning it as an unwanted weed, why not find a use for it? It's a native plant, pretty in bloom and beneficial to wildlife (it's the sole host plant for fritillary butterfly caterpillars), so why not encourage it to grow in a spot where you need something low-maintenance to cover the ground?

Common blue marsh violets (Viola cucullata) love the moist soil on parts of our farm and in places, they grow to epic size. 

So....I use its weedy nature to my advantage...I transplanted clumps to use as a no-fuss edging plant for my raised vegetable beds:



They bloom early in the year before the veggies are planted, but grow so quickly that by mid summer, as you can see, they cover the wooden edges completely:



Another useful spot I found for blue violets is on the very edge of our horse paddock, just above the pond - I can't take credit for this idea because nature planted the violets on her own, but it makes a perfect "filter" buffer to intercept horse waste (nutrients from manure and urine) and prevent it from leaching into the pond. I'm sure I couldn't cultivate anything here and have it survive so a violet "border" is perfect - thanks mother nature!



Later in the summer, the violets start to extend well into the gravel pathway but once a season we hack them back to keep the path open. I love when problems solve themselves with very little effort from me! That's my kind of gardening..



Above: Common blue marsh violets mingle beautifully with other spring bloomers in moist soil near our pond. Whatever your soil type, there's a type of native violet that probably thrives in your garden...


Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

Do you grow vegetables at home? If so, I'm sure you don't welcome wildlife into your veggie patches. Rabbits, groundhogs, deer, slugs, you name it, there's some animal just waiting to devour your plantings and destroy all your hard work. Fencing (or a resident dog on duty 24/7) is usually the only way to keep the four-footed animals out, but what about the tomato hornworms, the slugs and the beetles that can't be kept out with fencing? 
Above: The kitchen gardens at circa 1730 Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield, MA. Colonial farmers knew that food gardens interplanted with lots flowering plants helped keep pests under control.

Walk into any hardware or big-box store and you can take home a variety of cheap but toxic concoctions that will kill upon contact. Although this might stop some of the pests for the moment, spraying ultimately does more harm than good. Crop pests are well-adapted to the various poisons farmers have used for decades, and they'll usually stage a quick comeback. Not to mention, do you really want to use increasingly complicated chemical compounds — mostly untested for long-term health impacts and their interactions with other common chemicals — on the food that you eat?

Above: If you spray for pests, you're also killing the natural predators of the pest, such as this hoverfly (aka syrphid fly), a common non-biting fly that visits flowers for nectar - their larvae eat large numbers of our garden pests.
So how can you grow food without resorting to harmful chemicals? It requires a bit more thought than just just spraying something from a bottle, but it's not complicated.  

Basically, you enlist the help of the natural world...and tap into its natural checks and balances.
Above: Vegetable gardens at Tower Hill Botanic Garden - colorful, whimsical, functional, and "friendly" to the "good bugs" that eat garden pests.
When dealing with pests, think prevention, not cure. Here are a few Golden Rules:

  • Provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds who are natural predators of your garden pests. Give them what they need, and they'll help keep pest populations under control.

  • Confound pests by companion planting your vegetables with plants with strong scent or other characteristics that confuse or repel pests, and rotate crop plants from year to year to stay one step ahead of pests.

  • Grow your plants in healthy, living soil that is rich in beneficial soil organisms - healthy soil means healthy plants that can withstand a bit of pest damage. Avoid synthetic chemical "power" fertilizers that kill soil life - these actually encourage the sappy, weak leaf growth that attracts pests.

  • In and around your veggie gardens, plant a variety of flowering annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines and trees to attract nectar-and-pollen seeking pollinators and predatorial insects such as hover/syrphid flies, soldier beetles, lady beetles, parasitic wasps and flies, and many, many more. Your aim is to keep the area buzzing with a variety of beneficial insect activity right through the seasons. 

    Above: Ring your beds with single-flowering marigolds (Tagetes spp). The bright, nectar-rich blooms attract beneficial insects right until first frost. Plus, the strongly-scented foliage seems to repel (or confuse) many pests, and they are less likely to find your plants.
    The nectar found in flowering plants is what keeps those insects flying - it's the fuel that keeps them patrolling your garden for pests, so make sure there's something blooming all through the seasons to keep them fed. Yes, some flies are pests and certain wasps do sting, but most of the bugs flying out there are beneficial - preying on other insects, pollinating plants, and as a food source for other wildlife.
    Check out this braconid wasp, which is in the process of laying its eggs inside a gypsy moth caterpillar - which means this caterpillar is doomed:

    Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Resource Service (Courtesy of bugwood.org
    You don't have to worry about these wasps hurting you - they don't have a hive to defend and they don't sting! If you grow tomatoes, you'll want to attract another type of braconid wasp that uses tomato hornworm caterpillars as its host:

    Above: The rice-like cocoons on this tomato hornworm caterpillar are from a braconid wasp that will eventually consume the caterpillar. If you see a caterpillar like this, don't kill it! You want the wasp to complete its life cycle and continue controlling hornworms every year.

    If you are reading this because you have problems with hornworms skeletonizing your tomatoes, resolve to start adding plants for parasitic wasps for next year's tomato crop. They'll do a fine job keeping the hornworms under control for you.

    Above: Rudbeckia and great blue lobelia bloom their heads off in the rich soil next to our veggie beds - at the same time attracting lots of parasitic wasps and flies who prey on garden pests.

    Other common predatorial bugs that you want to attract to your habitat include assassin bugsambush bugs and certain types of stink bug, who feed on insect eggs, caterpillars and other creatures that can harm plants. You'll find all of these in and among flowering nectar plants, weeds and wherever bugs hang out.

    A garden buzzing with insect life also brings in the "big guns" of bug control, including birds, dragonflies, bats, amphibians (toads & frogs) and other wildlife whose diet consists largely of flying insects and/or insect eggs, caterpillars and grubs. Healthy local populations of these predators will cut WAY down on your pests:

    Above: Nesting boxes for birds and other winged wildlife at Garden in the Woods, Framingham MA. Nesting birds can feed their hatchlings hundreds of caterpillars every day, so provide them with nesting opportunities near your gardens.
    Include some locally native plants in your landscaping- these are best for attracting nesting birds because they tend to support the most diversity in herbivorous insects — in other words, plenty of caterpillars to feed hungry baby birds!

    Even if you don't like the taste of cilantroparsley, fennel or dill, always try grow lots of these culinary herb plants - they are cheap and easy to grow from seed, and make good companions for tomatoes. Allow some plants to flower - their clusters of numerous tiny flowers (called umbels) contain individual portions of sweet nectar for small beneficial insects. These fellow members of the carrot family of plants are also a host for the caterpillars of the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly:
    Don't kill these caterpillars! They turn into beautiful butterflies. Give them their own patch of dill or parsley to eat, or relocate them to queen anne's lace or wild carrot plants.
    The tiny white flowers of cilantro attract parasitic wasps and many other beneficials:
    Leave some areas of bare ground in the vicinity of your vegetable beds to provide nesting opportunities for squash bees (important pollinators of squash and cucumbers) and other native bees that excavate tiny tunnels in the ground to build their nests:
     
    Above: Not ant hills, but nesting sites under construction by a metallic-green digger bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset.

    Hang wooden blocks for wood-nesting bees and beneficial insects near your gardens. Many native bees and insect predators use tunnels in old wood or tubular plant stems as a snug winter home for their offspring:
     
    Above: Nesting block for bees and other insects - showing telltale signs of use by mason bees, grass-carrying wasps and other beneficial insects.
    Above: Bumble bees are crucial pollinators for many food plants such as tomatoes and blueberries. Although they do raise a communal hive, they are very gentle and won't sting unless physically threatened. Give them lots of nectar plants (right through the season) and a place to nest near your gardens.
    Problems with slugs? Slugs LOVE the moist conditions of well-mulched, well-watered vegetable gardens and can decimate plants in just a few nights of feeding. Bring in the toads - who hunt the soil at night for slugs, grubs and worms - by giving them a cool, damp place to spend their days:
    Give slug-gobbling toads a "toad abode"
    Feed the soil, not the plants! In other words, provide habitat for the soil food web, or the (mostly micro-biotic) wildlife that lives in the soil. Each year, amend your vegetable beds with compost, farm-animal manure, leaf mold, seaweed or fish-based fertilizer - whatever you can get your hands on locally:

    Pests tend to attack stressed plants. Encourage healthy plants by amending your soil with good quality compost (above) and mulch well with organic materials to help retain soil moisture and build soil tilth.
    Try to rotate your crops each year to stay ahead of pests. Many pests lay their eggs in and around their host plants - in the spring, when pests emerge, they won't have such an easy time finding their favorite plants if they are growing elsewhere, and are more likely to be eaten by a predator if they have to travel in search of food. Another way of doing this (assuming you have the room) is to scatter a crop around your property instead of a single location or bed. If a pest infests one area, they may not reach them all.
    Below: These raised veggie beds on our small Massachusetts farm may look a tad weedy, but the surrounding plants attract so many beneficial insects and bird predators that pest damage is minimal. 
    I hope this gives you some ideas of how to keep your vegetable gardens healthier for you, your children and pets, and the planet! Gardening with and for wildlife may mean your gardens might look a little messier than the "not a petal out of place, not a weed to be found" landscaping tradition, but free, natural pest control and the amazing array of predators and prey that will take up residence in your backyard? I hope you will agree, those are worth taking up a new beautiful wildlife gardening aesthetic...

    NOTE: This is a reprint of my 24/Sep/2012 article "Can Vegetable Gardens be Wildlife-friendly" from Beautiful Wildlife Garden.

    Japanese Beetles, Chickens and the Habitat Farm

    Here on our small farm, we love our small flock of chickens - their delicious and healthy eggs, their comical antics and their expert bug control are all reasons why we'll always keep a few chickens around. One additional bonus? Chickens LOVE to eat Japanese beetles!!!

    Anybody who gardens in New England is almost definitely familiar with the damage that Japanese beetles can do to plant foliage and lawns. Their grubs (juvenile form) eat plant roots and wreak havoc on the shallow roots of chemically-treated lawns. 
    The adult beetles cause extensive damage to foliage when they congregate in throngs during July and August, mating and feeding on plants.

    The frustration for gardeners and landscapers is that Japanese beetles are not simple to control. Because they are an imported pest, very little local wildlife are adapted to use them as a food source and they have few natural enemies to keep their numbers in check. Even if you spray all the grubs and beetles dead with a toxic concoction, very soon they will be back, usually arrived from neighbors' properties. It's not worth it, especially because the poisons also kill the beneficial insects that you want to encourage.

    The encouraging news is that natural predators of Japanese beetles introduced by biologists do appear to be having an impact on their populations. Parasitic wasps and microscopic nematodes attack beetle grubs during the time they spend in the soil. A parasitic (tachinid) fly imported from Japan by biologists targets the adult beetle and does appear to be having an impact on breeding populations. I don't think we'll ever see Japanese beetles disappear completely from our landscape, but from these natural controls I do notice fewer beetles each year in the gardens of central Massachusetts. 

    In the picture below, the Japanese beetle on the left has a white dot on its thorax (behind its head), which is the egg of the parasitic tachinid fly. Many beetles will "wear" multiple dots. These eggs hatch into larvae that burrow into the beetle and consume its tissue from within, eventually killing the beetle within 5-6 days. Don't kill these beetles! You want the eggs to hatch and the fly to complete its life cycle to continue its work on beetle populations. 


    The beetle on the right has no spots on its thorax - but does have rows of 10-12 white spots on both its sides - these are NOT the eggs of the parasitic fly.

    So what can you do if a favorite plant is swarming with adult beetles? The least-impact method of controlling adult Japanese beetles is manual removal. In the morning when the beetles are lethargic, sweep them (with your fingers or a small brush) right off the foliage of infested plants into a jar of water. They will thrash around in the water but can't fly away. You can then flush them down a toilet or, if you have a chicken coop, throw them into the coop! Your chickens will go crazy for them! Because adult beetles lay eggs in the soil where they mate and feed, the more beetles you can remove from your property during their mating stage, the fewer grubs that will hatch out into beetles next year. 




    My hens Millicent and Betty follow me around during my "beetle sweeps" so they can gobble the beetles right from my collection jars:




    As for grubs (the juvenile form of the Japanese beetle that eat grass roots), avoid at all costs the chemical grub control based upon Imidicloprid (sold in the US by the trade name Merit) a chemical that's been banned in several European countries due to links between its use and the collapse of honeybee populations (aka Colony Collapse Disorder). If parts of your lawn are dying and you suspect grub damage, your lawn is under stress and chemical treatments will not fix the problem. You can try applying beneficial nematodes (microscopic wireworms) to attack the grubs in the short term, but longer term, if you convert to an organically-maintained lawn where grass roots can grow deep into the soil, the impact of the grubs will decline. And, supply suitable habitat for ground-feeding birds and the parasitic insects, and let them do their thing. It's healthier for your lawn, your family, the bees and the planet.

    To support those tiny parastic flies and wasps, make sure you have lots of nectar plants blooming to supply the sugary substance these beneficials need to fuel their flight. Without nectar when they need it, they won't stick around. Pictured below are New England native plants boneset, Joe Pye weed and goldenrod blooming in late summer:







    Mulch - Use What You've Got!


    If you grow vegetable gardens, you probably know that mulching around plants is essential - not only does a thick layer of mulch control weed growth in your beds, but it shades the soil, keeping it cooler and helping retain soil moisture during the dry spells of summer.
     
    You don't have to spend a fortune on bagged mulch, though. Look around. You might have materials that can double as mulch and save you money. Cut sheets of cardboard into long strips and lay them between rows of vegetables to cover the soil. Stockpile your dry fall leaves, and run them through a chipper or shredder to use as mulch for next year's gardens.  If you bag your lawn clippings during mowing, use a few inches of clippings as a nutritious garden mulch that will also feed the soil as it breaks down. Important: NEVER use grass clippings from lawns that have been treated with Weed & Feed or other pesticides! You don't want those chemicals in your food.

    Get creative! Do you have anything growing that you could sacrifice for mulch? One plant growing in abundance here on our farm is hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula). This aggressive native fern takes over my planting beds, so I occasionally pull up armloads of the stems to keep the ferns from invading nearby garden areas. 

    Hay-scented fern makes an excellent natural-looking mulch! 


    You can bundle small amounts of fern foliage together and fit them between rows in your garden. The green fronds dry quickly and unlike other weed plants, ferns won't bring scads of unwanted seeds into your beds.

    Below: the green fronds dry out and turn beige after a few days. 



    It's easy to fold the stems into angles to neatly fit around each plant. Always keep mulch a few inches away from plant stems to prevent stem rot and the introduction of pathogens.

    Another great "free" mulch is the trimmings from ornamental grasses when you cut them down to the ground in early spring. Dried stems and leaves make great mulch for strawberry plants or potatoes. I've heard of gardeners who grow large grasses just for the sheer bio-mass they produce, which can be used to feed compost piles too.

    In the woods of New England, hay-scented fern colonizes areas of moist shade, such as this slope at our farm. There was once a garden here, but the fern has taken over completely:


    Below: Hay-scented fern growing out of our front steps. Yep - this is one of our most tenacious weeds...


    Do you have weeds that can play double-duty as garden mulch? I've been known to use the enormous leaves of burdock leaves as a temporary mulch around newly planted veggie seedlings to shade the soil. Be careful what you choose though - don't pull up weeds that have gone to seed, and don't introduce roots from weeds that spread through underground rhizomes (milkweed, some goldenrods) - they may root in your garden.

    Groundcovers for Moist Shade

    I've heard a lot of questions lately about substitutes for the 'old standby' shady groundcover plants Japanese Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) and Periwinkle (Vinca minor). Both of these imports have been used for generations for the shady blanket effect under trees, but for nature-friendly gardeners who want to increase biodiversity in their yards, these plants offer very little value to birds, beneficial insects and soil health. Not to mention, but they can also become invasive in moist woods where they spread out of control - read about my ongoing battle with Japanese Pachysandra.

    Here are some suggestions for native groundcover plants for New England to replace the invasives:

    Running Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) - this is my all-time favorite native New England groundcover. In early May, it's covered with a sea of soft white gasp-inducing blooms:



    The rest of the year, its foliage forms a nice weed-suppressing mat - as long as it's grown in moist, rich woodland-type soil. An area under deciduous trees where leaves and duff are allowed to build up in the soil is ideal.

    Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is an essential component of New England native plant gardens as green "filler" to weave in and around larger plants - forming a living mulch that keeps the soil cool and prevents weed formation. Its dull-red flowers form in early spring - at ground-level to cater to ground-dwelling pollinating insects.
     
    Shown below at the right of the photo, the heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger mingle beautifully with ferns and other woodland plants - remaining green and lush after the spring ephemerals are long gone:



    Another native plant that will quickly cover a moist shady area is Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), shown here growing under oak trees at Garden in the Woods in Framingham MA:



    Mayapple will dominate surrounding plants, so give it an area all its own where it won't dwarf its neighbors.

    Bunchberry or Creeping Dogwood (Cornus canadensis) is a native woodland plant with late-spring flowers that look like small dogwood blossoms:



    Bunchberry is late to fully form its foliage in the springtime, so it's not as effective at suppressing weeds at Pachysandra, but if grown in a cool, moist soil, it will happily spreads into large patches that can be occasionally mowed to keep other weeds at bay.

    Last but not least, did you know there is a Pachysandra native to the eastern US? Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) grows wild in rich woods from West Virginia and Kentucky south to Louisiana and Florida, but it is quite hardy in most of New England (to zone 4). It's semi-evergreen (unlike its evergreen Asian cousin Japanese Pachysandra) with spring flowers that smell like cinnamon:



    In my experience, Allegheny Spurge needs consistent moisture in its first few years, but becomes quite drought-tolerant once established. It's most happy with some summer shade in New England, and spreads nicely from clumps rather than the aggressive underground runners of the Asian variety which invade moist woods here in Massachusetts. 

    Native wildlife gardening purists might disagree with using southern native in the northeast where it's not traditionally native, but as average temperatures continue to rise in the coming decades, we may find that growing southern species here in New England will support their co-adapted pollinators and other specialized insects as they migrate north in an effort to survive. As we struggle to maintain biodiversity in an era of mass species extinctions, these kinds of assisted migrations may become essential...



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