Monthly Archives: August 2008

Our Hay Days

It’s haying time! Life is put on hold in this valley when the hay is ready to bale, and we drop everything to get our winter’s worth of hay up and stacked in the loft before Saturday night’s predicted rain.

Hay may not seem a likely topic for a blog on Habitat Gardening, but our two horses (who eat the hay) do supply the copious compost that is my essential ingredient to lush gardens and a healthy lawn without chemicals. And since it’s my blog, hay is on my mind and hay will be today’s topic!

So anyway, yesterday we got our first wagon load from the Andrews farm on Paxton Road:

hayingSo we got our hay elevator working and started the sweaty work of stacking 93 bales of the scratchy stuff. Before we were halfway done with this load, though, another wagon arrived. Groan. What do normal people do after work each day?

View from the hayloft of Load #2

View from the hayloft of Load #2

We have one load still to arrive tonight or early tomorrow. While other New Englanders head to the Cape or to New Hampshire for the long holiday weekend, we’ll be loading, hauling and stacking another 200 bales. It’s always worth the sweat after the job is done, though! We’ll have a full hayloft to feed Rocky and Sneaks right through til June of next year, and all that hay will keep the barn insulated through the long winter.

Keeping horses is not always easy, but we sleep SO well at night during the Hay Days.

And Rocky and Sneaks’ verdict on the quality of this year’s hay? Eight hooves up!

Natural Invaders

The news from Worcester, Massachusetts in recent weeks is grim. The Asian Longhorned Beetle has been found in the city and has in fact been boring into our trees in stealth for several years, starting a process that could destroy New England’s hardwood forests if left unchecked.

Photo courtesy US Dept. of Agriculture

Photo courtesy US Dept. of Agriculture

Hitchhiking its way to central MA in packing material shipped from the Far East, the beetle’s arrival is an unfortunate side effect of a globalized trade system.

In other areas where this beetle has been found in the US (currently only Chicago, New York and New Jersey), the USDA declared a state of emergency and launched major (and costly) eradication campaigns. The end result? Over thirty thousand hardwood (maple, birch, willow, ash, poplar, sycamore and elm) trees were removed from the areas where the beetles were found. Yikes! That list pretty much includes most of the trees around here! Along with the imported Hemlock Wooly Adelgid pest threatening the Hemlock trees that blanket the Worcester Hills, arborphiles in central MA should be worried.

Imagine a New England devoid of spectacular maple foliage? This is not just about pretty trees, though. The extensive hardwood forests of northern New England sustain an economy built upon the timber industry. Autumn foliage brings millions of tourist dollars into our region. New England’s maple syrup industries rely on Sugar Maple trees, which are already at stress due to damage from road salt and road construction (which damages their shallow root systems). Habitat loss from development is already a serious problem for many New England birds, pollinators, plants and other wildlife who rely on trees and woodlands for part of their life cycle.

If that’s not enough to make you want to hug the nearest hardwood, trees in general provide many environmental benefits. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate our carbon emissions and improve air quality. They take up moisture through their roots, preventing soil erosion and flooding in urban and residential areas, and filtering pollutants that would otherwise flow through groundwater directly into our waterways. They also provide shade for homes and buildings, reducing energy costs as well as the urban heat effect. In other words, we need our trees!

Natural Selection Gone Bad
Scientists consider alien, or invasive, species to be one of the major threats to our environment. Invasive species such as the Asian Longhorned Beetle, free of the natural controls of their native lands, proliferate at an unnatural rate in their new home, causing rapid changes to the ecology of an area. Invasive plants, in particular, quickly overwhelm local ecosystems, altering natural environmental processes and patterns of ecological succession. Native plants and animals that have evolved together for thousands of years cannot always adapt to such rapid changes in their habitat, and either suffer extensive losses or disappear altogether.

Many argue that invasive species migration is no different than the natural geographic migration of species that has occurred since life began on this planet. However, the
processes of species migration has traditionally occured through natural events such
as floods and fires, or changes in resource availability due to glacial movement, volcanoes
and earthquakes.

Foreign species are nothing new around here, though. Dodging the emotive issue of whether European colonists to the New World were themselves exotic invaders or a natural migratory evolution, foreign plants and animals have been arriving on these shores since colonists first began settling here many centuries ago. Most of them settled happily into their new home without causing chaos. Think Cabbage, Tomatoes, Lilacs, Peonies, Hollyhocks or European Mountain Ash.

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Purple Loosestrife taking over a wetland in Leicester, MA.

Some of them, however, have already dramatically altered our landscape. Purple Loosestrife (pictured above), brought here as a garden plant in the 1800s, has jumped the garden gate and spread into wetlands across the northeast. It may be pretty, but Purple Loosestrife is responsible for degrading millions of acres of wetlands, choking out the native vegetation crucial to many forms of aquatic wildlife and birds. The American Chestnut, once the dominant hardwood tree in New England’s forests, was virtually extinct here by 1940, wiped out by a blight carried by by chestnut trees imported from Asia around 1900. The imported chestnuts carried their own disease strains with them, as well as their own immunity. The native chestnut wasn’t so lucky.

Although the arrival of the Asian Longhorned Beetle was accidental, the sad fact is that many of New England’s invasive plants were deliberately brought here for ornamental or agricultural use. Japanese Honeysuckle, Burning Bush (yes, the one you see on every street corner and strip mall) and Japanese Barberry are all popular landscape plants that have potential to degrade our natural areas.  The state of Massachusetts has recently passed legislation to halt the further distribution of these species, and time will tell if this will stem the tide of habitat destruction. Multiflora Rose was brought here for farmers to use as windbreaks, provide erosion control and to supply wildlife habitat. It is now a ubiquitous pest across New England, forming thorny thickets that are difficult to eradicate. In the old field behind our farm, Asiatic Bittersweet, the popular vine for creating holiday wreaths and decorations, has pulled whole stands of trees right down to the ground under the sheer weight of the vines.

One of my clients lives in Holden only a mile from one of the beetle sightings. She and her husband are understandably very worried about losing the large trees that initially attracted them to their shady, mature area of Holden. As the SWAT team descends upon Worcester, examining every tree within the “infestation zone”, she is waiting anxiously for the news of whether she will lose her trees. A helpless feeling, but there is much that we can do as homeowners to protect our unique New England landscape from further invasions.

Know Thy Weeds
Take some time to learn what is growing in your own backyard. Look at the New England Wild Flower Society’s photo gallery of New England invasive plants. You may be shocked to realize how many of your “wild” plants are actually invasive foreign invaders! The idea of removing them may be daunting, but each plant that you remove (and replace with a suitable non-invasive plant or tree) will reduce the damage that continues to undermine the stability of our environment.

Pictured below, Fringetree (Chianonanthus virginicus) makes a great alternative to Autumn Olive, which is a small tree (native to China, imported here during colonial times) that has escaped cultivation and now runs rampant along roadsides and woodland edges. Fringetree blooms in white clouds in spring, and birds like to dine on its dark berries. It blooms best in moist, fertile soil with at least 3-4 hours of sun.

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A beautiful blooming Fringetree growing in Spencer, MA.

Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary

Recently we had a tour of Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Monson, MA. Founded in 1939, the sanctuary has 1000s of acres of protected wildlife habitat, and well-maintained pond, woodland and pasture habitats brimming with plants native to the US.

I had never seen such large stands of one of (I believe) the best native plants for New England woodland and shade gardens, Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa). We were lucky to visit when it was in full bloom. I think the area looks like a spooky wood:


Black Cohosh is an excellent plant for attracting pollinators and grows best in rich, moist (but draining) soils such as a woodland edge.

Another thrill for me was to see Plymouth Gentian (Sabatia kennedyana) which is native to clean coastal pond edges of the east coast. Because of coastal development and water pollution, this plant is now very rare and very few wild populations still exist. Our tour-guide Leslie Duthie generously offered to send me some seeds from their population of Plymouth Gentian to try to grow on the edge of our farm pond.


Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) is another plant I have never seen growing in the wild, although I have admired it in William Cullina’s The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers. Here it’s growing in a sunny open field containing native grasses and perennials.


Mountain Mint’s numerous white flowers make it a good drought-tolerant substitute for Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) for dry areas of a natural habitat garden. Its pollen and nectar are valuable for pollinators so it’s a good butterfly plant. When we visited, this area was buzzing with thousands of pollinators of all shapes and sizes, none of which took any notice of us.

A beautiful field of the native grass Little Bluestem near the old barn:



I’d love to see this later in the year when the Little Bluestem has taken on its gorgeous reddish bronze hues. I’m sure the area is chock full of Goldfinches, Finches and other songbirds in winter, foraging on the seedheads of the grasses. Leslie told us that they always mow this field outside of bird nesting season, to provide safe nesting for ground-nesting birds who often suffer high mortality rates in New England hayfields.

The sanctuary was founded by Arthur Norcross, an early advocate of the cultivation of native plants and the protection of wildlife habitat from development. A true pioneer in the world of plant conservation, Norcross performed many “plant rescues”, saving native plants from development sites and transporting them to his sanctuary where many of these populations still flourish.

A gem in central/western Massachusetts, Norcross is worth a visit! Best of all, it has free admission and they hold many (free) education programs throughout the year.

Click for another (later) article about Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary.


Hummingbird Havens

Hummingbirds are one reason I really became interested in habitat gardening. Many summers ago, we bought a cheap hummingbird feeder and hung it on our sliding door. At the end of the season, we forgot to bring the feeder in for the winter and on a cold November day, I happened to notice a hummingbird at the feeder. Amazed, I looked in my Audubon Field Guide to New England, to identify the hummingbird, only to immediately realize that the hummer I had just seen at my feeder was not a Rubythroat rufousHummingbird, which is the only hummingbird species listed as being resident in New England.

After doing some research, I learned that my visitor was a vagrant, a migrating Rufous Hummingbird whose internal compass was out of whack and during his migration had ended up in New England instead of the tropics. Sadly, “Percy” disappeared after a few days, probably perishing in an early winter storm.

But I was hooked by this intimate view of a tiny creature’s struggle for survival, and I began to try to attract hummingbirds to our property.

The hummingbird diet is made up of nectar (from flowers), tree sap (from Yellow-bellied Sapsucker holes) and small insects. If your New England garden contains many trees, garden plants and shrubs, and you’re not a heavy pesticide user, your yard is probably already a hummingbird habitat. Tune into their world by listening for the “humming” of the male’s wings, and the chirping as they argue over territorial rights, and you’ll soon enjoy watching their feisty flying antics.

The Top 5 Hummingbird Plants at THB Farm:

DCF 1.0Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

This is by far our #1 hummingbird magnet plant. We have large sweeps of it on our pondside, and all summer long we watch aerial dogfights as hummers argue over its ownership! This year I am growing the native Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) from seed; it’ll be interesting to see if hummers like it as much as the (related) Bee Balm.DCF 1.0

Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Hummingbirds, with their long bills, have evolved alongside this New England native plant, finding the nectar prize hidden deep inside these tubular flowers and pollinating the plant at the same time. Trumpet Honeysuckle is a vine, and likes to ramble over fences, stone walls, or other shrubs.


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Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a native New England wild flower that grows abundantly in cool, damp, shady areas. They are a great filler for a natural habitat garden, because hummingbirds love their flowers, and they are easy to pull out from spots where you don’t want them. Kids of all ages also love to POP the seed pods of Jewelweed! (Touch-me-not is another name for Jewelweed, and if you grab a ripe seed pod you’ll see why…)

agastacheAgastache. I grow several types of Agastache here, none of them native to New England but all of them hummingbird magnets. Birds also love their seeds, so Agastache is a great plant for a habitat garden. Lavender Giant-Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a hardy western US native that reseeds abundantly on THB Farm. I have also overwintered Sunset Hyssop (Agastache rupestris) in a pot in an unheated workshop (see below). I find that growing hyssop can sometimes be difficult, it requires a lot of care and attention.

Canada Columbine
(Aquilegia canadensis) is a native columbine which blooms in spring, making it a valuable nectar source for migrating Rubythroats returning from the tropics to their summer homes up north.


Red flowers of Canada Columbine, growing along with Wild Blue Phlox and Solomon’s Seal at Garden in the Woods, Framingham MA.

Container Plants for Hummingbird Habitats

I love to experiment with hummingbird plants for containers. We place the pots near our porch and patio seating areas so we can view hummingbirds up close when they come to feed at the flowers. Here are a few of my plant trials from the past few years…

Hummers especially love red tubular flowers, which are perfectly formed to accommodate their long bill and tongue. Below is Fuschia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt near our porch. With its red tubular flowers, it seems to have all the hallmarks of a hummingbird plant:fuschia-gartenmeisterDespite my nursing this plant all last winter in a sunny window (it is not hardy in the north), and lots of blooms this summer, I have not seen a single hummer visiting its blooms this year. Maybe because it’s right next to a hummingbird feeder with a perch…why waste energy hovering in front of flowers when you can sit for a drink? Japanese Beetles also seem to prefer this plant, so sadly, this plant is destined for my compost heap. Strange, because hummingbird advocate Jayne Amico of The Recovery Wing Inc. who lives in nearby Connecticut, has raved to me about how the hummers loved this plant.

Another hummingbird plant that I have been trying out in a pot is Penstemon barbatus ‘Iron Maiden. It is marginally hardy in zone 5, so I overwintered the pot in our unheated workshop last winter. It came back happily and bloomed its head off in its pot. The hummers LOVED it! Check out the inside of its flowers below. The striped pattern and beckoning shape of the flowers draws hummingbird straight to the nectar inside the flower like a neon sign on Broadway!

penstemon-iron-maiden penstemon-container-cr

This type of unusual and colorful flower design is part of a plant’s survival strategy. By having the most noticeable flowers, the plant is more likely to attract the attention of a pollinator (our hummingbirds, for example) who will enable the plant to form seeds and ensure future generations.

agastache-rupestrisAt right is Sunset Hyssop (Agastache rupestris) which loves the good drainage of a pot. This plant not only attracts hummingbirds, but its foliage smells and tastes like licorice. You can even brew up your own tea from the leaves.

Salvia coccinea ‘Lady in Red is not your average service-station Red Salvia. Hummingbirds LOVE this flower, and in the photo below (taken last year), they even ignored the nearby sugar water feeder to choose the ‘Lady in Red’ Salvia in a container at the left of the photo. Salvia coccinea is also suitable for beds, planted en masse.

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These are just a few of the plants that make our little farm a haven for hummingbirds.

Crazy for Cleome

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I first saw Cleome (Spider Flower) many years ago, tucked between shrubs in front of an old farmhouse in Berlin, MA. It was love at first sight! This is an easy annual plant to grow from seed, and will probably reseed itself every year in your garden, so you only need to plant it once. Hummingbirds and other pollinators love it, and its tall stems bearing pink, rose and white blooms add an airy, delicate touch to any sunny garden.

For impatient “lasagna gardeners“, Cleome will grow in almost any soil, so it makes a great filler plant for a brand new lasagna bed. I never actually dig new beds on my own property, but rather I smother the existing grass with layers of wet newspaper, and then spread layers of composted horse manure (of which we have plenty!!) on top of the newspaper. Worms start to work their magic and within 6 months to a year, I have a great area for planting. In the meantime, though, the area can look a…..rough. Cleome comes to the rescue. Dig up the Cleome seedlings that pop up elsewhere in your yard, and transplant them into the lasagna bed. They will quickly fill the area. Let a few reseed for next year.


The photo at left shows a new garden bed (created in May 2008) on THB Farm. June transplants of Cleome and Cucumber are all thriving on August 1st. The Cleome is blooming its head off, so if I allow these seed heads to remain into autumn, I’ll have Cleome growing here next year, as well as plenty of free seed for the birds.