Author Archives: Ellen Sousa

Taming Wildflowers

IMG_3534On St. Patrick’s Day today, our farm is still buried in snow with not a bit of green to be found! Except for one bowl of lettuce greens under lights in our sunroom, and some mini-greenhouses sown with perennial and shrub seeds “cold stratifying” outdoors  (left), the only gardening going on here is in the dreams of the gardeners.

IMG_2632So last week when this beautiful book arrived in the mail, crammed with gorgeous photos of wild flowers … well, let’s just say it made this winter-weary gardener’s soul very happy!

Taming Wildflowers: Bringing the Beauty and Splendor of Nature’s Blooms Into Your Own Backyard (written by my friend Miriam Goldberger who runs Wildflower Farm in Ontario), is a beautifully-illustrated guide to growing a garden filled with (mostly) native North American plants from seed.

This book is a treat for garden book lovers who value style and substance. IMG_2643Open it to any page and you’ll find stunning photos of distinctive beautiful native plants that will make you long for summer’s color and abundance — along with detailed instructions how to grow 60 American native plants that don’t just look pretty, but also support dwindling populations of butterflies, pollinators and birds. Wonderfully designed, bound and produced using recycled paper harvested from sustainably managed forests, it was also printed in Canada, not in China like most illustrated gardening books — including my own!

Taming Wildflowers is a great resource for gardeners learning to grow plants from seed, with valuable information about specific germination requirements of each plant. If you’ve ever tried growing swamp milkweed or orange butterfly milkweed (pictured below right) from seed, for example, you’ll know that it’s not easy to get seeds to germinate — milkweeds seem to sprout only after the seeds have experienced an extended cold period. This book guides you through the whole process.

IMG_2637 butterfly weed

The photos of each plant at the young seedling stage are also very useful to natural-style gardeners — learning to ID young seedlings makes it easy to recognize the good guys (plants you want to encourage or propagate) from the weeds when you work in your own gardens.

I am generally skeptical of garden books that span the entire North American continent with their plant recommendations. Here in New England we garden in a totally different climate than other parts of the country, and plants that are native to other areas might be totally inappropriate for our changeable climate, OR potentially become invasive and spread out of control. For the 60 native American plants that Taming Wildflowers profiles, each plant description lists the states where the plant is considered native, so readers can choose plants that work in their own region. For eco-savvy gardeners that want to attract beneficial insects and pest predators, each plant also lists the variety of short and long-tongued bee pollinators, predatory insects, and even birds attracted by the plant’s flowers or foliage.

profusion zinnia container

Dwarf Zinnia ‘Profusion’, easy to grow from seed.

One chapter encourages the growing of “Non-Native Must Haves” — exotic easy-from-seed annuals such as Zinnia, Mexican Sunflower and Larkspur that are not currently considered invasive but are worth growing in North American gardens for their beauty and function. Native plant purists won’t approve, but as a self-professed ‘color junkie’, I enjoy adding colorful annuals in and around my veggie and flower beds to add visual impact and attract lots of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Miriam’s book is filled with inspiration and ideas for nature-scaping your gardens using wild plants and will appeal to wildlife gardeners, herbalists, and organic farmers looking for cheap and easy plants to attract predatory insects to their crops. One chapter shows brides-to-be how to plan a DIY Wildflower Wedding, with photos and ideas for using wild flowers in stunning bouquets, boutonnieres, baskets and table arrangements. I so wish this book had existed when we planned our (mostly DIY) wedding many years ago!

IMG_2636No matter where you live in North America, Taming Wildflowers will inspire you to recreate a bit of natural beauty in your own space. Although it looks as though we probably won’t see bare ground here in central MA until April, in the meantime, Miriam’s gorgeous book will continue to feed my dreams of sunny summer days and meadows filled with butterflies, birds and dragonflies…

 


 

 

Book Details:

Taming Wildflowers: Bringing the Beauty and Splendor of Nature’s Blooms into your Own Backyard

Author: Miriam Goldberger

Published by St. Lynn’s Press, Pittsburgh PA

194 pages

Published 6th March 2014

Available for $18.95 (US) at bookstores, or directly from the author at Wildflower Farm.

Disclosure: I received this book from St. Lynn’s Press as a review copy. I received no payment for reviewing the book, and my opinions are entirely my own! I’m always happy to spread the word about inspiring books that help DIY gardeners fill their space with site-adapted plants to feed their bellies, souls, and wildlife too!

 

Where are the Monarchs?

 

DCF 1.0Where oh where have the Monarch butterflies gone? I heard this question many times this past summer. Mostly, it seems the weather was to blame, at least in New England. Butterflies need sun and warmth in order to fly, and they need to fly to locate Milkweed plants to lay their eggs. Their wings are like little solar chargers, soaking up the sun to fuel their flight. This year’s cold and rainy weather in New England provided few opportunities for female Monarchs to fly to areas containing Milkweed plants (Asclepias species), which is the only plant that Monarch butterfly caterpillars can use as a food source.

The good news is that this could be just a regional blip. According to Journey North, a project that documents Monarch numbers during their fall and spring migration, in the past week, Monarchs have been seen crossing into northern Mexico in numbers that have not been seen in years. Hopefully this means that although Monarchs were scarce in New England this year, the weather simply kept them away.

But the weather isn’t the only problem affecting Monarch populations. Illegal logging in the forested regions of central Mexico, where Monarchs make their winter home, has reduced the winter habitat available to those butterflies who survive the long flight south. And according to research at the University of Georgia, since 1976 the female-to-male ratio of Monarch butterflies shows a major decline east of the Rockies. Because females can lay up to 400 eggs over the course of their lifetime, any reduction in their numbers is troubling for population stability.

Researchers are not sure why female populations are declining, but as gardeners we can all help Monarch populations by planting Milkweeds in our yards and gardens to provide food for Monarch caterpillars. If you think they’re weedy looking, think again. There are several types of Milkweed that will grow in New England, and whatever your conditions, there’s a beautiful variety suitable for your garden.

Well-drained, sunny spot? Just perfect for the neon-orange Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), shown below with our Farm Director “Speck”:

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If your soil contains some moisture, Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a good choice. It’s tolerant of drier soils, too. Besides being the sole food source for Monarch caterpillars, Milkweed flowers contain huge amounts of sweet nectar that all butterflies (not just Monarchs) love. Below, a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly sips nectar from Swamp Milkweed flowers:

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If you have a larger property with areas that you can let “go wild”, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has gorgeous ball-shaped pink flowers with an intoxicating honey scent. Common Milkweed grows naturally in waste places and old fields in New England, so who knows, if you have an area that you can leave unmowed, it may just pop up on its own…

Although not native to New England, Scarlet Milkweed or Bloodflower (A. curassavica)is a worthwhile annual to include in flower beds and patio pots. Its flowers bloom in a striking red, orange and yellow:

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The first year we planted Scarlet Milkweed in a container on our patio, almost immediately a Monarch butterfly found it and laid her eggs. To our delight, two of them hatched, and one climbed onto a nearby trellis to start its transformation into a butterfly:

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Below is the chrysalis that eventually morphed into a brand new adult Monarch butterfly:

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How do they do it?

Scientists and naturalists have always been fascinated by the complex life cycle of the Monarch butterfly, but new research published in Science magazine is showing just how these tiny creatures are able to navigate their way 2000 miles to the same small region of Mexican forest each fall to spend the winter. It turns out that Monarchs have a type of GPS navigation system and circadian clock built right into their antennae, which allows them to use the sun to guide their travel as well as to correctly adjust their direction based on the time of day. Amazing!

Remember, no  Milkweed, no Monarchs. Let’s help these unique winged wonders survive for future generations to enjoy by growing Milkweeds anywhere we can!

Nature’s Highlights (Frost in the Garden)

Anybody who has taken one of my classes knows that I always harp on about NOT doing the traditional fall cleanup of the garden…instead of scalping your perennial beds to the ground in fall and removing most of the dead plant material, I persuade my students to leave plant stems standing right into the winter, and delay the cleanup til the following spring. Seed heads provide valuable forage for those birds who spend the winter here, and the leaf litter, hollow plant stems and decaying plant materials all provide plenty of opportunities for beneficial insects to hibernate through the winter in some form. Remember, many of those bugs are are the superheroes of the insect world, who will wake up and start patrolling for pests starting in early spring! And hungry birds picking around your gardens in the dead of winter will appreciate those insect eggs, caterpillars and other protein-rich insect morsels hiding in your garden beds.

But sometimes, it’s not about the wildlife at all. In summer, it might be the colors of a palm-sized zinnia flower or the scent of a rosebush in full bloom that stops you in your tracks to marvel with all your senses. Late fall might not have such flamboyance, but it has its own highlights. Early in the morning, seed heads, touched by an early morning frost or dusted with little snow caps, might give you pause to stop for a moment and take in an unexected but quite lovely view of the familiar. And in this crazy world we live in, dictated by schedules and commitments, any pause to consider nature has got to be a good thing…

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Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) flowers tipped by frost on a cold October morning

Backyard Habitat in Autumn…part two

Nature continues to take center stage in central Massachusetts this week, with American Beech foliage stealing the show:

Our habitat pond is a relaxing place to drink in the view and look for frogs, before they dig themselves into the pond’s muddy bottom for the winter:

Ornamental shrubs against a backdrop of mature trees creates a layered look on a steep north-facing slope:

I’ve blogged about summer’s “profusion vases” before, but the fall has its own flower bounty…my husband’s creation of New England Aster, Goldenrod and grass stems lights up the breezeway:

Asters, Goldenrod and ‘Chocolate’ Eupatorium are still blooming, despite being hit by several frosts now. Their flowers continue to provide late-season nectar for whatever pollinators are still active…

Backyard Habitat in Autumn

As any New England ‘leaf peeper’ will tell you, there’s a unique beauty to the annual decay of our natural surroundings. Our Massachusetts backyard, landscaped as a natural habitat, takes on a whole new life in the autumn, when berries ripen, plant stems are loaded down with seeds and the songbirds that eat them, and foliage changes to its fall plumage of earth tones. I always love the contrast of the earliest changing plants (usually ferns) which are a harbinger of the symphony of color still to come:

Below: Possum-haw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) berries are starting their transformation from green to pink to purple. They will continue to ripen into the winter, providing valuable food for our winter birds. Viburnum is a shrub with multi-season interest – in the months to come, their leaves will also take on a gorgeous burnished tone…

Gardens are now a medley of reds, browns, yellows and everything in between:

Below: Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) climbing up a pine tree. Did you know that poison ivy is one of the best native vines for birds? Yes, there IS something good about poison ivy!! Its white berries are a food source for more than 50 species of birds. But poison ivy is one plant I would NEVER recommend planting in gardens. Its foliage and stems cause a severe allergic reaction in most people that touch it…even if you seem to be immune now, you can lose immunity at any point in your life. This is not a plant to encourage in your yard, but if it pops up in an out of the way area where people or pets do not travel, why not let it climb up a tree and provide food and perhaps even nesting for your local birds? It will reward you with its flaming red, orange and yellow foliage:

The View from the Porch: Great Blue Heron

This time of year, we spend a lot of time on the back porch. Skies are clear, temperatures are comfy once again and the mosquitoes are gone! We sit with friends, laugh at the dogs, feed raisins to our chickens and watch birds crashing around the gardens as they forage on seed stems of old plants.

IMG_4311But when the dogs are indoors and all is quiet, that’s when we see the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) flying towards our pond. He’s kind of hard to miss, looking like a giant pterodactyl flapping its enormous wings as it lands:

Standing 4′ tall  with a 6′ wingspan, the Great Blue Heron is the largest heron in North America, and we are always thrilled to see one visiting our small farm pond to hunt for frogs and fish. I can’t say the same for my horses though…when the heron flies directly over them as he lands or takes off, those nervous horses dive for the safety of their stalls!

The heron always uses the same landing strip (the road to our barn) where he first checks out the scene to make sure everything’s safe:

IMG_4304From there, he makes a quick flyover to the other side of the pond where he stands silently in the shallows, like a living sculpture, waiting to spear an unsuspecting frog or catfish for dinner.

IMG_4310-1Great Blue Herons will visit small backyard ponds and water features, which does not make them popular with pond owners who raise expensive Koi and Goldfish! A small, shallow water feature full of brightly colored exotic fish is like laying out an all-you-can-eat buffet for herons, raccoons and neighborhood cats. But, in a natural ecosystem backyard pond containing deep pools, aquatic plants and other places for fish and frogs to hide, the Heron is simply part of the food chain in action. In our pond, they mostly eat the abundant catfish, minnows and frogs, but they also eat mice, snakes and some insects, so they can be useful in keeping other undesireable populations under control.

We’ve noticed that our heron usually visits early in the morning, when the farm is quiet. Our 3 dogs have a zero tolerance for large forms of wildlife on the property, so they usually run the Heron out of town when they see him! But on a still evening, we might get lucky and see the Great Blue Heron at work in our pond…and witness nature in action. All that from the back porch!

Floppy Plants

My last blog entry lamented about the cold, wet summer of 2009, in which many plants grew so tall from all the moisture that they fell right over, creating a huge mess in many of our gardens…

Large plantings of Bee Balm and Obedient Plant on the pond banks collapsed in a tangle, their flowers smothered. So much for my lush summer pondside color display and all that nectar for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds!  And there is nothing more sad than beautiful peonies flattened by heavy rain. Looking on the bright side, my husband (who has a hidden talent in flower arranging!) tells me that the longer stems were great for big flower vases. But what can a gardener do about floppy plants?

It’s OK to pinch plants!
Staking plants is definitely an option, but somehow that seems like too much work to me. Not to mention, the plants still might flop over. Gardener’s Supply sells plastic stem supports (kind of like horticultural girdles) which seem to work, but they are expensive for those on a budget. Next year, I plan to pre-emptively prune some of the worst offenders on this summer’s flop list. In late spring, after the plants have emerged and are between 4-8″ tall, shear or pinch their stems closer to the the ground, leaving some foliage intact to help the plant rebound quickly. Each stem then sprouts multiple stems from from where it was cut, resulting in slightly smaller (but more numerous) flowers and sturdier stems less likely to fall over later in the year.

Below: the flowering stems of Sedum (Autumn Stonecrop) toppled over:

IMG_1603-1Below: Sedum when grown in half-decent soil with some moisture, benefits from an early season stem pinching to keep the plant stems from toppling from the sheer weight of its blooms.Autumn Stonecrop is a late-season pollinator magnet, and as long as it gets some sun, will grow in most New England garden soils. It usually needs no pruning at all in poor,dry soils, making it a good low-maintenance choice for a dry roadside planting or an area with hot blazing sun.

sedum-drivewayYou might be asking yourself, why pinch plants back if the aim is to have a natural garden? Plants growing in the wild seem to stay upright without any help from us. But take a look an old field blooming with wild flowers and notice how dense the vegetation is. There’s no room for flopping, because the crowd of plants hold each other up. And chances are, the soil in that old field is not as rich as your typical garden bed, so plants do not grow as tall. So if you are trying to achieve a meadow effect of your own, plant the area as thickly as you can to allow plants to support themselves on their own. And don’t over-fertilize. A little compost on occasion is all a natural-style garden should ever need to keep itself thriving.

Plants suitable for pinching to control height:

The following plants will grow sturdier, more heavily branched stems  (and more flowers!)  if you cut their stems back early in the season:

New England Aster
New York Aster
Tall Sedum varieties (Autumn Joy, Blackjack, etc)
Bee Balm
Ironweed
Coneflower
Eupatorium
Helianthus
Goldenrod
Heliopsis
Boltonia
Helenium
Leucanthemum
Chrysanthemum
Dendranthema
Lobelia
Hibiscus
Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)

Some plants, such as peonies, are just not suitable for cutting back to prevent collapse. Your only option for the larger flowering peonies is to either situate them where their heavy flowers can cascade freely over the edge of a wall during bloom time, or stake the stems and keep the plants rigid using peony rings. Horticulturalist and plant author Tracy DiSibato-Aust also suggests removing the first terminal flower bud on peonies to prevent the weight of the large first flower from pulling the remaining plant down.

In a large scale landscape design, pinching back your plants is probably too labor-intensive, but for most of us with smaller garden areas or vignettes of natural habitat, pinching plants can keep a habitat garden tidier and more manicured, something your neighbors might appreciate if you live in the ‘burbs.

Lessons from a Wet Summer

Anybody who gardens in New England will agree that this year has been a tough year for growing things. A rainy spring that continued right through July, then something like one week of heat and humidity, and now we’re straight into fall. What happened to summer? And where are my tomatoes?

While New England weather has always been changeable, what we’re seeing now is the effects of climate change, and as gardeners, we need to get used to it. More severe weather patterns, wetter summers, and crazy swings of temperatures during all seasons now seem to be the norm rather than the occasional blip on the weather map.

How can gardeners adapt?  To be honest, adapting is the essence of being a successful gardener. Observing what works, what doesn’t work. Picking your battles and learning from your mistakes. If a plant doesn’t thrive, either move it somewhere else or move on to something more appropriate for your conditions. Accept that nature usually has the final word.

So what worked and what didn’t here in our cold (z4/5a) north-facing valley farm in central MA? In our raised veggie beds, our leafy crops did fairly well as long as they got a little sun at the start of the season. Onions, garlic, carrots, arugula, radishes, leeks, spinach and lettuce were all bumper crops, most likely because for these crops you want to encourage green leafy growth rather than flowers. My basil plants took a while to get going, but a rare warm sunny spell in early July gave them a kick start and I have had 4 great harvests. My freezer is now full of small portions of homemade pesto, which will bring a welcome whiff of summer into our cold winter evenings.

Cherry tomatoes (below) seemed unbothered by rain clouds, and we had a decent harvest of those. But our late (large) tomatoes were a bust. Those huge green tomatoes simply rotted on the vine for lack of heat and sunshine. Peppers were small and their “heat” only lukewarm. Next year I might just give up on growing the big toms and peppers and buy them from our local farmstand.  My beans never even germinated (too much rain), but our squash and cucumbers provided a small harvest, thanks to an occasional reprieve from the rain when pollinators were able to do their job. Potato plants grew tall and provided a decent harvest, although many tubers were small and could have used an extra month of summer heat to grow to full size.

As for flowers, I watched sadly as beautiful white peonies were flattened by heavy rains and my Gateway Joe Pye Weed flopped over into the pond, its flowers drowned. The Bee Balm collapsed under the weight of the rainfall and took down most other plants around it. Very disappointing to the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who rely on all that sugary nectar to fuel their high-octane lifestyles. Next year, I’ll pinch back the growing stems of some of these plants early in the season to control their height and prevent these kinds of garden disasters.

Plants that stood tall

In spite of the weather, a few of the flowering plants in our gardens stood out from the crowd. Our 4 year old patch of Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana) stood unperturbed from the rain and produced its finest floral show since we planted it 4 years ago. Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) also stayed upright despite the wind and torrential rain battering its snowball flowers. The flowers were a little smaller than usual, but their fragrance was still strong and I saw butterflies and hummingbirds visit them frequently. This season was very tough on butterflies (who need sunny warm weather to complete their life cycles), so the nectar-rich Phlox (both white and hot pink varieties) was welcomed by many winged creatures right into September this year.

One plant that grew to monster proportions yet still remained upright was Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Shown below (back left) is a single plant that I put in last year. Obviously it likes these conditions…in the wild it usually grows to about 2-3′ but this plant grew to at least 7′ without a single stem flopping over!

A close relative of the more common Bee Balm (M. didyma), Wild Bergamot has pink flowers that attract every pollinator in the neighborhood, including hummingbirds. Like Bee Balm, Bergamot plants tend to mildew as the summer goes on, but with the Wild Bergamot, I am finding that the ghostly grey-tinted foliage actually looks nice contrasted with nearby plants later in the season. I don’t need to resist the urge to cut down the mildewed stems the way I always do with Bee Balm…

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) laughed at the rain and clouds and bloomed their cheerful heads off right into September this year, without flopping once. This plant is one of the most reliable of flowering plants for New England gardens, requiring little irrigation and fuss, and its flowers provide a huge bounty of nectar for pollinators and seeds for hungry birds trying to bulk up for winter.

Low-growing plants with small flowers such as groundcover Sedum, Coralbells (Heuchera), Running Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and Lamb’s Ear also enjoyed the summer’s extra moisture, producing lush new growth and spreading by leaps and bounds. Although not native to our region, Lamb’s  Ear (Stachys byzantina) is a great nectar plant for bees and its soft feltlike foliage makes an excellent groundcover that contrasts well with just about everything else in the garden. I usually cut flowering stems down after blooming, to allow the remaining foliage to fill in and and keep plants tidier (as a non-native plant, they are not a significant food source for local birds so I do not let them go to seed).

Plants with less weighty flowers such as native grasses, sedges and rushes also fared well and stayed upright through torrential rains. Grasses and grass-like plants are great “filler” plants for your flower beds, instantly adding a natural effect to your garden. They are also an essential food source for the caterpillars of many butterfly and moth species, and their seed heads feed many birds.

As for the plants that flopped over, next year, I plan to pre-emptively prune some of the worst offenders on this summer’s flop list. My next blog entry will discuss pinching back plants to control height prevent them from falling over later in the year.

Above: Lambs’ Ear and Black-eyed Susans thrived during this year’s wet summer, growing lush without flopping over. Tall varieties of Sedum (Black Jackwith the pink flowers at left) when grown in rich soil, benefits from having its stems pinched back early in the season to create a sturdier plant that doesn’t fall over from the weight of its blooms.

The good news is that the rain and cool weather made it a great year for newly installed plants, shrubs and trees.  I was able to divide perennials and plant new gardens for clients right into August, when normally I wouldn’t consider either of these past late June. Most new shrubs and trees responded to the extra rainfall by putting out healthy new growth and establishing good root systems.  And for habitat gardeners who allow their plants to set seed to feed the birds, it was an excellent year for increasing your plant populations through self-sowing plants.

Reseeders running rampant

Although w
eeds were a real problem for gardeners this year, the wet conditions did provide excellent conditions for existing plants to reseed themselves. New England Aster, Swamp Milkweed, Butterfly Milkweed, Boneset, Liatris, Helianthus, Globe Thistle, Yarrow, Goldenrod, Joe Pye Weed, Solomon’s Seal, Evening Primrose, Purple Coneflower, Agastache, Sweet Alyssum and Foxglove, to name a few, all responded to this summer’s consistent moisture by germinating here and there across our zone 5a garden of mixed woods, lawn and fields. Many of them I will be able to share with friends, family and my garden coaching clients. I’ll move others to a suitable spot elsewhere on the farm. 

Reseeding lets you strike a great deal with your local birds and plants. You just  leave the flowers alone after they bloom, allowing them to turn brown and set seed, the birds will feast on the seeds, and excrete them elsewhere in your yard. New plants for almost no effort!

 
Above: This self-seeded Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) grew to almost shrublike proportions from this year’s constant rain. In areas with full sun, their stems did not flop over at all, but some stems collapsed on plants in shadier areas. Boneset flowers feed hordes of tiny pollinators during their long blooming cycle.

2009…the summer that nearly wasn’t

Because they need the heat from the sun to live and fly, summer butterfly populations were noticeably low in our yard (which is a message I am hearing from other butterfly gardeners up and down the east coast). Even though we grow many different Milkweed species here, we saw very few Monarch butterflies or their caterpillars, compared to previous years. Time will tell how this year’s weather will impact their populations, but hopefully our little Monarch way-station will have nourished a few of them on their long journeys south. Eastern US Monarch populations are at risk due to habitat loss in their southern home (a forested mountain range in central Mexico), so they need all the help they can get from us gardeners along their migration path.

Butterflies are back!

But now that September has brought some sunny weather and warm days, our butterfly populations seem to be on the rebound. Last week I found a single Black Swallowtail caterpillar on my self-sown Dill plants (picture below) and today I noticed a Monarch butterfly. Yellow Bear caterpillars (the juvenile form of the white day-flying Virginian Tiger Moth) have been spotted on our front porch, as well as autumn’s familiar Wooly Bear (the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth).

Dragonflies are again cruising open areas on the farm, gobbling up the season’s last mosquito populations to fuel their migration. And thanks to the ever-abundant Goldenrod, Boltonia and New England Asters, late season pollinators bulking up for winter still have plenty of nectar and pollen, which means good seed supplies for birds this winter.

Still to bloom on the farm this gardening season are Eupatorium ‘Chocolate’ (Eupatorium rugosum) and the single pink daisy-like Korean Mums (Dendranthema rubella), which will give me a late blast of color in my autumn-fading gardens, as well as a rare nectar source for whatever pollinators are still alive next month. My own gardening season is over, due to a bad accident early this month that will keep me from gardening or riding for some time. For now, I can only sit back and watch life unfold in our backyard habitat. Not a bad way to recuperate!

 

White Wood Aster…the New England “Grow-anywhere” Plant

As a garden coach, I am often asked the question “What can I plant in dry shady garden conditions?” Most of New England’s landscape is dominated by trees (and if you don’t believe me, look down when you fly across most of Massachusetts…mostly what you see are trees and water!), and gardening in the shade of a dense tree canopy can be a major challenge to gardeners here. Limited light in summer means less flamboyant blooms, and evergreen trees (which soak up water from the surrounding soil) leave little moisture for understory plants to grow. Peek inside a dense Hemlock or Pine forest and you’ll see very little undergrowth.

So what plants do thrive in dense evergreen shade in New England? More than you might think. Once again, let nature be your guide, and take a look around nearby natural areas and see what’s growing already. Use a good field guide so you can rule out any of the invasive non-native plants (eg Garlic Mustard!) that are muscling their way into our forest ecosystems. In cold areas such as north-facing hills with evergreen Hemlock trees, you’ll probably notice different types of Ferns, as well as low berry-producing groundcovers such as Wintergreen (Gaultheria species) and Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). You might be lucky enough to see the Massachusetts state flower Trailing Arbutus aka Mayflower (Epigaea repens), and soak up the jasmine-like fragrance of its blooms. In drier upland woods, you may see Canada Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Lowbush Blueberry  (Vaccinium angustifolium), or Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) with their diminutive but not unattractive blooms. All of these plants are garden-worthy for a naturalized “edge” garden, but a little hard to find at nurseries.

One native plant that I see growing in just about every growing condition in Massachusetts is White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricatus). On our property, it even grows (and blooms!) at the base of an old Hemlock tree in bone-dry conditions and heavily-compacted soil from our 3 dogs chasing each other round and around the tree! (see below):

white wood aster hemlockGranted, its blooms are somewhat sparse under these inhospitable conditions, but the fact that it returns each year to bloom again is certainly a testament to this plant’s iron constitution! White Wood Aster does grow more luxuriously in areas with some moisture and sun, and has recently started popping up on the partly-shaded edges of our stream, where Jewelweed, Boneset, Goldenrod and Swamp Aster are also thriving. I always welcome these garden “volunteers”, because they are nature’s way of telling me what plants are suitable for the unique conditions in my yard. If they seed themselves in an inconvenient spot, just dig them up and move them somewhere more suitable. Your shade garden will quickly fill with color and life!

_MG_4215White Wood Aster is an excellent plant for a natural woodland “edge” to link your lawn with nearby woods. Pollinators find ample supplies of nectar and pollen in the aster’s pale late summer blooms, and if you leave their seedheads standing into winter, birds can feast on the numerous seeds produced late in the season.

So if you are looking for a tough plant to add a little pizzazz to shady areas of your garden, give White Wood Aster a try. You won’t find it at the big-box stores or the supermarket (yet!) but it is now readily available from nurseries selling native plants. In central MA I have seen it sold at Bigelow Nurseries in Northborough, Project Native in the Berkshires and the nursery at Framingham’s Garden in the Woods. It is easy to grow from seed collected from wild plants. Or, if you see it growing in one of your neighbor’s yards, ask them if you can dig up a seedling or two. Chances are, they’ll have plenty to spare, and you only need one or two plants to start your own populations of this native plant.

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One of the reasons I love to host garden tours here is because when lots of gardeners get together, I never know what great information I’m going to pick up myself. The collective knowledge, experiences and diverse perspectives of a group of gardeners always seems to result in an exciting and dynamic interchange of information and useful advice. Not to mention, sometimes I learn a thing or two about my own gardens.

IMG_3952This weekend I hosted a tour of our habitat landscaping, sponsored by New England Wild Flower Society. As we passed one of the Serviceberry (Amelanchier) trees on the property, somebody pointed out  a large caterpillar on one of the  leaves. When I finally spotted what she was pointing at, I saw this little guy, very well camouflaged on the leaf:

We all marvelled at her sharp eyesight for picking this caterpillar out of the green background! His green and yellow coloring almost perfectly matched his surroundings. That’s a survival tactic on the part of the caterpillar to make itself invisible to birds looking for a nice juicy caterpillar snack.

But what kind of caterpillar was it? What butterfly or moth does it morph into at a later stage of its life? Not to worry, Bonnie Drexler (Education Director at NEWFS and a teacher/naturalist herself) happened to be on the tour. She took one look and said Tiger Swallowtail! That makes sense – we have lots of those butterflies here in summer (see photo below). Bonnie also went on to explain that what appear to be large eyes on the top of the caterpillar are not actually eyes but another protective device, to try to look like a snake to scare off predators. Their eyes are actually at the opposite end of the caterpillar. This survival tactic must be fairly successful, because I see Tiger Swallowtail butterflies in just about every garden that I visit for my work.

SwallowtailI later checked one of my caterpillar books, and sure enough, Amelanchier (aka Shadblow, Serviceberry or Juneberry) is listed as one of the host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars, although they are more frequently seen on plants in the Cherry or Magnolia family. Cherries and Magnolias are very common in home gardens and natural areas of the northeast, which is why this beautiful creature is one of New England’s most familiar butterflies.

If you are a garden club or nature organization looking to book a tour at Turkey Hill Brook Farm, click here for details.