Author Archives: thbfarm

A Very Berry Time of Year

‘Tis the season to be berry! Winterberry, that is…

There are some native plants that you grow, not so much for their flowers, or foliage, but for the blazing color of their berries. This is the time of year, in late autumn when the landscape is mostly brown and gray, that the winterberries come alive in the wetlands throughout New England:

Winterberries in full berry bloom along Route 9, Brookfield MA

Winterberries in full berry bloom along Route 9, Brookfield MA

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is native to the eastern US, and is our only deciduous native holly. It has become very popular as a landscaping shrub for its fall and winter interest.

Earlier in the fall, winterberries ripen to a bright glossy red, but are visible only as red swabs across a vast fiery canvas:

Winterberry holly at the pond, Garden in the Woods, Framingham, MA

Winterberry holly at the pond, Garden in the Woods, Framingham, MA

It’s winter, when all is replaced with white, that winterberry really shows its colors:

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Birds love the berries too (called drupes), but mostly overwintering birds such as cedar waxwings, robins and bluebirds who don’t migrate. Summertime birds don’t touch the berries because they don’t taste good until later in the year — when a few freeze and thaw cycles seems to make them edible. So thankfully for us, the beautiful red berries usually last through the first of the season snows before they are gobbled up.

Most of the winterberries sold in nurseries are cultivars selected for their compact habit (e.g. ‘Red Sprite’), larger berries (‘Jolly Red’) or even unusual berry coloring (‘Winter Gold’):

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Orange-gold berries on Winterberry ‘Winter Gold’ (in background) at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Boylston, MA

As a wildlife gardener, I’m concerned that the berries of some winterberry cultivars may not be as attractive to wild birds who rely on fall fruits for survival in early winter. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the berries found on wild-grown winterberry species disappear long before the berries found on the cultivars, so I’m curious to see whether this is true in my area. I have ‘Winter Red’ planted on my property, along with straight species nearby, but the berries of all of them are always gone by New Years. It makes sense that local birds might prefer food from local genetic provenance, as indigenous plants and bird species have co-evolved over millennia, and rely on each other’s presence in the landscape. Certainly local herbivores (mostly local insects which are crucial food for nesting birds) are more likely to prefer the locally-grown native winterberry foliage as a food source.

Position your Winterberry shrub within a sight line of a window, so you can enjoy viewing the berries and birds in wintertime!

Position your Winterberry shrub within a sight line of a window, so you can enjoy viewing the berries and birds in wintertime!

So if you’re looking for an eastern US native shrub to plant “for the birds” and  have an area with decent soil moisture and mostly sun, winterberry is an outstanding choice. Don’t forget that as a holly (Ilex), winterberries are dioecious, meaning that in order to produce fruits, female plants need a male winterberry planted nearby blooming at the same time, so that bees and other pollinators can transfer pollen from male to female flowers. Ask for a “male pollinator” at the nursery, and plant it within a bumble bee’s flight distance of your female winterberry (50-100′ or so).

Bumble bees are frequent visitors to winterberry holly flowers, and their pollination services are essential for female plants to produce their fruit “crop”. Susan Pelton photo from https://uconnladybug.wordpress.com/2015/06/23/little-flowers-can-have-a-big-impact/

Bumble bees are frequent visitors to winterberry holly flowers, and their pollination services are essential for female plants to produce their fruit “crop”. Susan Pelton photo from https://uconnladybug.wordpress.com/2015/06/23/little-flowers-can-have-a-big-impact/

Note on Male Winterberries: ‘Southern Gentleman’ is a male clone commonly sold at nurseries, but propagated from southern genetic stock, so not ideal for northern gardens — it’s genetically programmed to bloom at a different time than northern varieties. Ask your native plant society for growers that propagate their plant stock from regionally local genotypes to purchase your winterberry hollies.

This is reprinted from my original article posted in the now defunct Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens blog.

Native Shade Plants for Woodland Buffers (Or..Why To Say No to Free Vinca!)

The exotic (non-native) Japanese Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor), English Ivy (Hedera helix) and Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) have long been staples of New England gardens for their shade tolerance and ground covering habit. Go to any garden club sale or plant swap in the spring and you’ll find these plants available by the bucketload — but if you live in the northeast US and have a bit of woods separating your property from your neighbors, think twice before bringing any of these plants home.

Vinca minor forms mats under trees, but can spread into nearby woods if not contained or blocked with edging or walkways. This small wooded buffer in Boston’s suburbs is completely covered with vinca which has crowded out the lady’s slippers, lowbush blueberries and solomon’s seal which once grew here.

Vinca minor forms mats under trees, but can spread into nearby woods if not contained or blocked with edging or walkways. This small wooded buffer in Boston’s suburbs is completely covered with vinca which has crowded out the lady’s slippers, lowbush blueberries and solomon’s seal which once grew here.

Because these plants spread aggressively by their roots or stems, when they are planted adjacent to moist woods in New England, they can quickly spread into the woodlands, choking out anything else that happens to be growing there and threatening unique and fragile woodland plant communities. English ivy and Wintercreeper also climb trees and can eventually kill them (not to mention the damage the  ivy can do to your house if you allow it to climb walls).

And once these plants are established in an area to their liking, good luck getting rid of them if you ever decide you’d like to plant anything else! Pictured below is a small woodland buffer in Sudbury, MA, highly valued by the homeowner for its summertime privacy screening from neighbors. The vinca, pachysandra and English ivy planted decades ago near the house have escaped into the woods and the homeowner is frustrated that the young trees are dying, and that she cannot get seem to get any other plants established here:

This client opted for professional removal of the invasive plants using a mixture of low-impact (non-herbicidal) removal methods and looks forward to establishing a woodland garden with plants such as trilliums, bugbane, wild phlox, baneberry, wild ginger and ferns.

This client opted for professional removal of the invasive plants using a mixture of low-impact (non-herbicidal) removal methods and looks forward to establishing a woodland garden with plants such as trilliums, bugbane, wild phlox, baneberry, wild ginger and ferns.

If you drive around the leafy outskirts of Boston MA, you might be impressed at the established trees, especially in older neighborhoods (more than 50 years old).  Many of the spaces between houses are heavily wooded — in New England, trees don’t need much encouragement to grow. But take a closer look at what else is growing under those trees. You’ll quickly notice those same few species of plants in just about every neighborhood.

You won’t see these plants on New England state invasive plants prohibition lists, simply because they don’t reseed themselves the way invasives such as Asiatic bittersweet do — by birds eating and dispersing their berries far and wide. They spread mostly from being planted in favorable conditions near moist woodlands. As so much of our region is now gobbled up by roads and development, those wooded buffers between homes are often the only wildlife habitat that remains in metropolitan areas of the northeast. Although birds might utilize the trees for their nesting opportunities and insect forage, a buffer taken over by invasives will lack most of the ecological benefits provided by a diverse understory of native woodland plants. For homeowners that understand that their yard plantings have an impact on the wider environment, a little effort to search out appropriate native plants will go a long way towards increasing the biodiversity and wildlife value of suburban yards. Not to mention, the results are much more interesting!

Woodland garden at New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA.

Woodland garden at New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA, with rhododendron, wild blue phlox, bloodroot, ferns, solomon’s seal and an abundant layer of leaf litter.

So, if you do border on moist woodlands, what are some “safe” alternative groundcover native plants to look for? Try the beautiful running foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), which is (mostly) evergreen and forms a thick weed-suppressing mat under trees:

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There is also a native pachysandra called Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) that hails from the southeast US, but grows happily in my zone 5 central Massachusetts garden. It looks a lot like Japanese pachysandra but its leaves are not as glossy:

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Early season foliage of Allegheny spurge is bright and green, and later in the season turns to a mottled pattern. It is not evergreen in my Zone 5 Massachusetts garden.

American Yew (Taxus canadensis) is a native yew that loves the cool, damp shade of New England forests. Unlike its popular Eurasian cousins that are standard as sheared foundation shrubs in the US (T.cuspidata, T. baccata, T. x media), this yew stays low (2-3′) and spreads up to 10′ from its base:

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Canada yew growing along a stream in Spencer, MA. It loves the cool damp microclimate of this forested north-facing valley slope.

Because it’s a deer favorite, wild populations of American Yew are becoming rarer in Massachusetts, as suburbia pushes outwards and deer populations soar out of control. Unlike other conifers, however, American Yew will resprout after being pruned (by deer or hedge-clipper), so if you live where deer populations are somewhat under control (or you are willing to put up deer fencing), the evergreen Canada yew is worth growing to help preserve local populations and genotypes.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is another native that will fill an area in moist shade. It’s growing here at Garden in the Woods along with several types of fern and Allegheny Skullcap (Scutellaria serrata).

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More native eastern ground covers suitable for moist shade include mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) which typically grows in thick patches under oak trees:

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I don’t believe Japanese pachysandra or Vinca will disappear from our home landscapes any time soon, and admittedly, as long as they are contained, they should not cause much harm. A patch CAN be useful if you have dogs. Our border collie Speck hates the heat of summer and loves to cool off in pachysandra, which appears to bring him much relief. I have left one well-contained patch as his personal dog bed…

img_0503Read about my efforts to eradicate a large patch of pachysandra that spread into a nearby moist woodland area on my property in The Year I Shall Win the Pachysandra War. Several years later, I can attest that I have finally won this war (I only pulled a few persistent bits of root this year), and I now see native plants making a comeback.

This is a reprint of an article originally published in January 2014 at the now defunct Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens.

Growing Native Perennials from Seed

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Unlike many native perennials, Purple Coneflower is quick and easy to grow from seed.

Must be easy to spread yourself around when you’re a plant that produces lots of seeds, right? After all, look at what happens when kids blow the seeds off dandelions! Dandelions pop up everywhere next year!

Unfortunately, it’s an ironic fact of gardening life that whatever you are trying to grow takes some effort, whereas the plants that you don’t want (aka “weeds”) just seem to appear without any help from you.

Now, even though regionally native plants (if sited correctly) tend to be easier than exotic plants to grow in temperate climates such as New England, that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily establish and spread without some help from us. You can buy established container plants from native plant nurseries, but this gets expensive, plus many commercially available natives are cultivars – genetically identical clones that contribute little genetic diversity and resilience to the species as a whole.

Here’s where we hands-on, DIY gardeners come in, by helping nature along a little bit!

The beautiful Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is very rare in the wild, but is easy to grow from seed from existing plants.

The beautiful Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is very rare in the wild, but is easy to grow from seed from existing plants.

In an ideal world, our plants would bloom at the right time, be pollinated by the right kind of insect or bird, form seeds and fruits that ripen and are carried (again, by bird, insect or wind) to an appropriate location to germinate when the weather is just right. Some of them do, and if they survive the first year or two, may become established plants that flower, go to seed and continue the cycle.

In the real world, though, seedlings don’t have a high survival rate. Seeds that are not picked right off the stem by hungry birds might, if they have the misfortune to blow into a lawn or roadside ditch, be mown down repeatedly or doused with weedkillers. Some seedlings are crowded right out by vigorous exotic (non-native) plants that make up about 40% of the natural vegetation in New England. Other seeds will just never germinate, no matter what. Such are the laws of life, genetics, and human-controlled landscapes.

Native plants such as Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) are often expensive to buy because they are slow to propagate from seed. Photo used by permission of Vincent Normand.

Native plants such as Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) are often expensive to buy because they are slow to propagate from seed. Photo used by permission of Vincent Normand.

So what’s a native plant gardener to do, if they want large quantities of native plants? Why, collect seeds and grow your own, of course! You can help support local plant and wildlife communities and have a beautiful, natural native plant garden by collecting seeds from existing natives and growing and distributing the seedlings around the landscape via friends, family and fellow citizens.

Collect seeds from plants that are as locally native as you can find — in Massachusetts this usually means buying mature flowering plants from nurseries at New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods (Framingham and Whately) or our small nursery at Turkey Hill Brook Farm (Spencer). Try to find local plant suppliers that propagate from local seed banks. Avoid buying seeds from foreign suppliers or even other areas of the country–-seeds may not be adapted to grow in your particular climate. You can also collect seeds from native plants that you’ve seen growing and blooming locally – but never take more than about 10% of a plant’s seeds for your own use.

If you don’t have a cold frame, sow native seeds in recycled clear plastic containers with lids and place outdoors for the winter to protect them from critters or floods.

If you don’t have a cold frame, sow native seeds in recycled clear plastic containers with lids and place outdoors for the winter to protect them from critters or floods.

Best Way to Sow Natives?

The easiest way to grow from seed is by simply allowing plants to go to seed and letting nature do the seeding, but you may have little success with this if your gardens are heavily mulched or lots of critters are present to dine on the seeds. Because most native plant seeds need an extended period of time (sometimes several years) before they will germinate,  you’re usually better off sprouting native seeds in a protected area outdoors, such as a cold frame or greenhouse, and letting them take the time they need.

Learn Your Seed’s Needs

Do some homework to find out whether your seeds have any special requirements for germination. For example, our native milkweed and bee balm seeds require at least one winter outdoors in a moist environment before they will sprout. Wild cranesbill seeds are hydrophilic and should not be allowed to dry out in storage. Seeds from wild senna and goat’s rue require scarification/scraping of the seeds to loosen their hard seed coats to allow for germination. I use William Cullina’s book Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada from New England Wild Flower Society, which lists germination requirements for each plant native to North America. Miriam Goldberger’s new book Taming Wildflowers also lists germination requirements for plants along with other tips for growing wild plants from seed. Prairie Moon Nursery has online germination requirements for the various native seeds that they sell.

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At Garden in the Woods, Trilliums and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) are sown in raised nursery beds where seeds can sit through several winters and grow until plants reach their flowering stage. At that time, the best selections are transplanted to the garden or potted up for sale in the nursery.

Rudbeckia and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) are easy to grow from seed sown when they ripen on the plant.

Rudbeckia and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) are easy to grow from seed sown when they ripen on the plant.

Easy Native Perennials from Seed

For your first attempt, try growing the following eastern natives from seed — fresh or dried seeds usually germinate easily without any special treatment (cold exposure or scarification) in New England:

  • Aster
  • Lobelia
  • Helianthus
  • Rudbeckia

Native Seeds that Require At Least 1 Full Winter Before Germination:

Most of our northeast natives will only germinate after being exposed to several months of cold, snowy weather….in other words WINTER. As moisture-filled seeds freeze and thaw through winter and into spring, their outer seed coats break up, signaling seeds to germinate when temperatures get warm again. Locally-evolved plants are smart — their seeds know better than to germinate too early and have their babies get zapped by the cold.

  • Liatris seeds readily germinate in spring after a winter outdoors in moist soil.

    Liatris seeds readily germinate in spring after a winter outdoors in moist soil.

    Asclepias (also needs light to germinate, sow seeds on soil surface)Aquilegia

  • Echinacea
  • Eupatorium
  • Eutrochium
  • Geranium (hydrophilic seeds, do not let dry out)
  • Goldenrod
  • Liatris
  • Monarda
  • Phlox
  • Pycnanthemum
  • Tiarella
  • Verbena
  • Vernonia
  • Viola
  • Zizia

Some native plants only germinate after multiple winter/spring cycles of freezing/thawing:

  • Trillium
  • Actaea
  • Senna*
  • Polygonatum* (hydrophilic seeds, do not let dry out)

If you start early by sowing seeds in fall or early winter after collection, you might be able to coax seedlings from these the first spring after sowing.

img_1422-300x265Winter Sowing in Containers

On our farm, my free-range chickens love to pick at seeds and scratch up seedlings in my plant beds, so I collect seeds from my best plants in fall and germinate them in recycled plastic containers with lids, to protect them until they can germinate and grow a little bit.

Here is the native plant nursery that lives on our patio from early winter and spring each year — by late spring, I transplant seedlings into individual containers or directly into the garden:

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To sow seeds in plastic produce containers, poke holes in the bottom and top of the container, sow seeds on a few inches of moistened seedling mix, water well, and place the containers outdoors for the winter. When warm temperatures arrive in spring and seeds begin to germinate, open the lids on warm days. When seedling roots reach the bottom of the containers, you can transplant them, either right into the ground, or into containers to grow on until they are larger.

Winter sown seedlings grown in containers will be tiny in their first spring, but very hardy! Unlike seedlings grown indoors, they need no hardening off after lids have stayed open for several days and nights.

More Info on Native Plants and Winter Sowing:

WinterSown.org

Winter Sowing FAQs at GardenWeb 

How to Germinate Native Seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery

This article is reprinted from its original posting in May 2014 at the now-defunct Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.

As Drought Continues…

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Our farm pond is the lowest we have ever seen it and most of the fish are gone. The continued drought is unprecedented in our own lifetimes.

We’re winding up another hot and dry growing season here on the farm, and the continued drought conditions have been a serious challenge. Despite a few storms that gave us a few inches of rain and filled the empty rain barrel, our barn well has been dry since July and our farm pond is more of a large puddle than a pond.

The pond is backup water for our farm animals, and a primary irrigation source for our vegetable gardens and my native plant nursery, so needless to say, we have tried to conserve as much as we can. The vegetables have needed frequent watering in this hot year, but the perennials, shrubs and trees all had to get by with what fell from the sky — not much!

So what’s a gardener to do to maintain lush gardens and landscapes in this new climate? As towns and cities begin imposing bans on the use of outside water and irrigation systems, choosing the ‘right plant for the right place’ is more important than ever now. Drought does provide opportunities to assess drought tolerance and resilience in our garden plants.

Here are a few of the drought-tolerant superstars of our own central MA gardens — native plants that seem to shrug at the heat, humidity, and lack of rain! These Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are still looking fabulous in mid-September:

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People scoff at this plant because it’s so commonly planted, but what else blooms for so long and requires such little care and attention?!

Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) also appears impervious to the drought, blooming along with White Wood Aster in partial shade and generally moist soil on the edge of our stream:

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This eastern native doesn’t require moist soil though — it’s also happily blooming on a high and dry hillside in full sun:img_5573

 

Canada Windflower (Anemone canadensis)

A 2-year-old patch of Canada Windflower (Anemone canadensis) (blooming at right in June) is spreading nicely despite the drought in a dry, shady spot. It makes an excellent alternative to Japanese Pachysandra or Vinca minor as a ground cover that grows in shade (read my thoughts on Japanese Pachysandra here).

Canada Windflower does spread by underground roots, so it’s best planted where it won’t interfere with nearby perennials. Under a tree or shrub is perfect:

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Canada Windflower growing in dry shade as a native ground cover, to replace the Japanese Pachysandra next to it.

The orange/yellow Helen’s Flower (Helenium autumnale) hasn’t skipped a beat since it began blooming in July, proving that this beautiful native perennial that grows naturally on pond shores does not require moist or wet soils to thrive:

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Another name for Helenium autumnale is Fall Sneezeweed. Despite its name, its pollen is not allergenic for people, it is so named because it a dried powder of the plant was used by Native Americans to ease congestion by inducing sneezing.

The plant shown above is Helenium ‘Moorheim Beauty’, which is a hybrid of the native Helen’s Flower bred in Europe. Until recently, this and other cultivars such as ‘Mardi Gras’ were the only Helen’s Flower plants available in the nursery trade.

Seed-grown Helenium autumnale grown from seeds collected from central MA plants

Seed-grown Helenium autumnale grown from seeds collected from central MA plants

This year I am happy to offer the true New England native Helenium autumnale from my native plant nursery in Spencer, MA. These are seed-grown from seeds collected at Breakneck Hill Conservation Land in Southborough, MA, where we are in the process of planting several Pollinator Gardens. Their pure yellow blooms are so cheerful!

I’ll have some of these native lovelies for sale at this Saturday’s Harvest Fair on the Common in Leicester, MA. Look for the Turkey Hill Brook Farm tent next to the booth for Common Ground Land Trust!

 

 

Drought? No Problem. We’re Native.

Late-season-blooming New England Aster, central MA, September 25th

It’s been a challenging summer for gardeners in central MA, where we’ve barely had a drop of rain in months. In my own garden, (with the exception of vegetables and annuals), I only water plants during their first season in the ground — after that, they’re on their own to live on rainfall alone. So it’s been interesting to observe how my garden plants have done in this year’s severe drought. We’ve had dry years in our 11 years here at THB Farm, but this spring and summer’s drought has been unprecedented, with the underground well at our barn dry since July now.

Not surprisingly, most of the eastern native plants did just fine. They’re well-adapted to the vagaries of the New England climate, with some summers a washout and others dry as a bone. The late-blooming New England Aster (pictured above) grows wild in the moist meadows of the eastern US, but apparently it does not require moist soil to bloom and thrive!

Earlier this summer, the Monarda cousins (Wild Bergamot and the red-flowering Bee Balm) both appeared oblivious to the drought conditions:

Pink blooms of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in a summer with almost no rain

Pink blooms of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in a summer with almost no rain

We are so grateful for our farm pond, which we use to irrigate our vegetable plants (which are NOT native and NOT happy to live on rainfall alone!). But the native bee balm and Helen’s flower (Helenium autumnale) growing on the pond banks don’t receive a drop of irrigation other than rain, and they bloomed just fine:

Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is native to moist, open areas in the northeast, but will thrive in ordinary dry soil, and attracts hordes of hummingbirds to its bright red summer flowers!

Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is native to moist, open areas in the northeast, but will thrive in ordinary dry soil. Bee Balm attracts hordes of hummingbirds to its bright red summer flowers!

The Canada Goldenrod covered itself in its bright yellow flowers for almost a month, keeping a variety of small butterflies, bees and beneficial insects very busy foraging for pollen and nectar!

Canada Goldenrod is too aggressive for planting in gardens, but if you have a space where it can grow on its own, it's one of the best plants for pollinators, beneficial predator insects, and birds! Goldenrod does NOT cause hay fever, it is falsely accused for the wind-blown, allergenic pollen of RAGWORT, which is the real culprit in fall allergies!

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is too aggressive for planting in gardens, but if you have a space where it can grow on its own, it’s one of the best plants for pollinators, beneficial predator insects and birds! Goldenrod does NOT cause hay fever, it is falsely accused for the wind-blown, allergenic pollen of RAGWORT, which is the real culprit in fall allergies!

Rudbeckia and Great Blue Lobelia (in the background behind the vegetable bed) are asking Drought? What drought?

Vegetables are still going strong well into September (even tomatoes and cucumbers) BUT they do receive irrigation from our farm pond.

Vegetables are still going strong well into September (even tomatoes and cucumbers) BUT they do receive irrigation from our farm pond.

Fall is here and I’m hoping all my garden friends have had a bountiful and successful season!  It’s not over yet though…fall bloomers are still providing late-season color and nectar for pollinators! Here’s our mist flower/hardy ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum, formerly classified as Eupatorium coelestinum) blooming cheerfully in late September without a drop of rain since late July:

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Conoclinium coelestinum is native to moist meadows from New Jersey southwards, but grows well in New England too. It forms stands from a spreading root system, so plant it where it can have a bit of room.

Fall is a great time to plant perennials and shrubs in southern New England — plant roots will have a few months to establish before the ground freezes. Consider including some drought-tolerant native beauties into your garden now for next year’s blooms, wildlife value and reduced watering needs!

 

 

 

Beneficial Garden Insects: Tachinid Fly, Enemy of Japanese Beetles

The white dot on the beetle's thorax (behind its head) is the egg of the machined fly.

The white dot on the beetle’s thorax (behind its head) is the egg of a tachinid fly. Some beetles may contain multiple eggs. DO NOT KILL any beetles with the white dots!

New England gardeners have waged war on plant-devouring Japanese beetles for generations now — especially those who grow roses and grapes! But the extensive damage these beetles cause could become a thing of the past, thanks to a tiny specialized fly called a Tachinid fly (Istocheta aldrichi). A parasite of adult Japanese beetles, the female fly glues her eggs onto young adult Japanese beetles (see the white dot on the beetle at the right?). Over the course of about a week, the eggs hatch into fly larvae, which then burrow into the beetle’s body to eventually consume and kill it.

Tachinid flies look like house flies but are more bristly (Robert Sousa photo)

Tachinid flies look a little like house flies but have bristly hairs (Robert Sousa photo)

Thanks to this beneficial insect, I’ve observed a noticeable reduction in Japanese beetle populations over the past ten years here in central MA. This host-specific tachinid fly species was initially introduced in the US as a control method in the 20th century, but it has taken many decades to become widely established. You can help speed up the process locally, though. Here’s how:

Attract tachinid flies to your property by planting plenty of flowering nectar plants (flower nectar and aphid honeydew are food for adult tachinid flies), and avoiding any pest control method that involves killing all the adult beetles present (including pheromone traps!). You don’t want to kill any beetles that are infected with the fly eggs — this will terminate the fly’s life cycle. You want the baby flies to live through to maturity and expand their local populations in your yard.

Japanese beetles can skeletonize plant foliage

Japanese beetles in large numbers cab skeletonize plant foliage. This beetle has no white spot (tachinid fly eggs), so flick it right into a bowl of water to drown.

To really speed up the process of building up tachinid fly populations, work on selective culling of beetles NOT infected with the fly eggs. Do this when you see adult Japanese beetles present (usually the month of July in northern climates). This involves an occasional walk through your gardens with a bowl of water, using your hands to sweep adult beetles into the water, where they will float on the surface but cannot fly away. Look carefully for any beetles that are infected with fly cocoons (the white dots), and flick those beetles out so they can live a bit longer (wear gloves if you find it icky to touch them). The infected beetles’ death from the fly larvae will happen very soon, and they won’t damage your plants for much longer.

If you have chickens, they LOVE to eat Japanese beetles, so feed them your unparasitized beetles. Otherwise, just leave the uninfected beetles to drown in the bowl.

My hens follow me around during my beetle hunts clucking for their bowl of beetle treats!

chicken eating japanese beetles IMG_0713Use the bowl method as often as possible during the month or so that the beetles are active. Over time, you will notice that more and more beetles are infected with the parasitic fly, and overall beetle numbers will begin to go down within a few years. Yes, this is a long-term approach, but one that does not require toxic insecticides that also kill beneficial species

The first year I started this method of Japanese beetle control (when they defoliated my pink and white Virginia roses, it was out and out WAR), I found perhaps 1 in 15 or 20 beetles infected with the fly larvae. Every year since, I’ve found and released higher numbers of infected beetles, and this year three-quarters (75%) of Japanese beetles were sporting the white dots. For the first time ever, my roses and my New England Asters (some of their favorite plants!) show very little damage from the dreaded beetles.

It just goes to show…with a little help from determined gardeners and the avoidance of pesticide use, some of our worst imported garden pests may just go away on their own, thanks to the natural balances provided by Mother Nature.

I DO feel badly for my hens, though. They’re wondering what happened to their daily beetle treats!

Where are our beetle treats?

Where are our beetle treats?

Controlling Japanese beetle grubs: Japanese beetles also cause plant damage at other times in their life cycle — their underground grubs (beetle larvae) love to eat grass roots, and large populations of these white grubs can destroy lawns especially in areas with zero habitat for tachinid flies (neighborhoods with mostly lawns, few flowering plants, and pesticide usage). Avoid using any insecticides containing Imidicloprid, a neo-nicotinoid insecticide that is highly toxic to bees and other insects. (Imidicloprid is sold in stores under such trade names as Bayer Merit). Instead, reduce Japanese beetle grub populations using a natural insecticide called Milky Spore, which contains bacteria that specifically kill Japanese beetle grubs and not other insects. Sprinkle Milky Spore granules (spores) into your lawn when grubs are actively feeding (fall and spring) — the grubs need to ingest the spores to become infected and die. In northern climates, spread of the spores in our cold soils can be slow, so expect to see results after about 3-5 years.

Saving Birds with Cat Scrunchie Collars

cat king cole

Meet Cat King Cole, our farm cat. He is gentle and amiable with people — but he does have a dark side. He is a highly skilled and ruthless assassin — of mice and plant-destroying voles (good), but also of our beloved wild birds, including hummingbirds and young song sparrows that nest in our shrubs and trees.

As a rescue cat who was originally a stray, we have a hard time keeping him indoors–it seems the more we try to keep him from leaving the house, the more stealthy he becomes trying to find a way to escape to go hunting for baby birds! As a wildlife gardener who tries to attract birds, this is not a good thing! I’m pretty sure if the National Wildlife Federation knew about the birds he has killed, we’d be immediately stripped of our certification as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat!

The good news is that I have finally found the magic wand I’ve been looking for — something that keeps Cat King Cole from killing birds! Introducing the BirdsBeSafe collar:

OK, he does look a bit ridiculous in his ruffled collar, but it really seems to work!

OK, he does look a bit ridiculous in his ruffled collar, but it really seems to work!

The idea of the collar is that it is bright, colorful and very conspicuous, making him much more visible to songbirds who can fly away to safety before he can pounce. Cole has been wearing his BirdsBeSafe collars for a few years now, and he never catches birds any more. He certainly still hunts them, but this collar seems to have finally ended the terror regime he inflicted on our wild bird population. I’m not sure if we’re ready to put our bird nesting boxes back up, but we can certainly breathe easier knowing that he is unlikely to take out more of our vulnerable nesting birds.

The collar is made of patterned fabric that covers an elastic breakaway cat collar that will break apart if caught in something. Only once has he lost his collar, and within just one day he caught a small songbird — proof that the collar is really effective in controlling his bird predation.

Eastern Phoebe nest every year just outside our front door. This year's clutch is 5 eggs which the female is incubating now!

Eastern Phoebes nest every year just outside our front door. The female is incubating 5 eggs this year!

Ideally, domestic cats should not live outdoors at all, to protect them from being killed by wildlife or cars, but nurseries and farms such as ours need cats on site for their non-toxic pest control. Cats are especially useful for controlling the voles that can chew on plant trunks and roots and kill plants. But, they are never selective, and still kill birds. It’s estimated that cats kill hundreds of millions of birds in the US each year, a serious problem for many species who are already in decline due to habitat loss and other factors.

So if you have a cat that cannot be kept indoors, dress him up in a patterned ‘scrunchie’ cat collar. He might look a little comical, and your friends and family will laugh, but that’s a small price to pay for keeping visiting birds safe.

cole hay wagon

Cat King Cole doesn’t seem to mind wearing his collar at all — he can still groom and do all his other favorite cat activities while wearing it.

The newly patented BirdsBeSafe collar is available mail order for $9.99 from BirdsBeSafe.com, a small home-based business based in Vermont. If you are handy with a sewing machine, you could probably whip up a cat collar yourself using brightly patterned fabric, and fit it around a breakaway collar available at pet stores.

Sneezeweed growing in the kitchen gardens at Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield MA

Sneezeweed: All Smiles, No Sneezes

If you enjoy growing new and unusual perennials, take a look at the yellow-flowering Fall Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) for cheerful late-season blooms. Actually not new at all (only at nurseries), sneezeweed is a native plant that grows wild in wet areas across most of New England, providing nectar and pollen to butterflies and late-season pollinators.

Fall sneezeweed grows right on the edge of the pond at Garden in the Woods in Framingham MA

Fall sneezeweed grows right on the edge of the pond at Garden in the Woods in Framingham MA

Although a wetland plant in the wild, sneezeweed doesn’t require wet soil, and really shines in decent garden soils that aren’t too terribly dry. Long-blooming, sneezeweed (also called Helen’s Flower) begins blooming in August and continues right until a killing frost here in central MA (Zone 5).

And despite its name, Sneezeweed does NOT cause hay fever! Its pollen is heavy and pollinated by bees rather than wind (which carries lighter-weight allergenic pollen dust).

The native yellow-flowering Helenium autumnale is still very hard to find at nurseries (at least in New England), available only at Project Native (please hit Reply if you know of others!), although hybrids bred in Europe are beginning to become widely available in nurseries. The hybrids are bright and showy, usually with flaming orange-yellow flowers.

A note on hybrids and cultivars: On my own Massachusetts habitat farm, I’m moving from growing cultivars of natives (nativars) to growing locally-native plants — this is helping to maintain native strains with adaptations to local climate and co-evolved wildlife. Most sneezeweed cultivars such as ‘Mardi Gras‘ and ‘Moerheim Beauty‘ originate from European breeding programs. Depending on their seed provenance, they may contain some native genetic materials, but because they’re selected from plants growing in faraway garden climates, they may not be best adapted to local conditions, and there is no guarantee that they have the characteristics that local wildlife rely upon. Read more about the complicated issues of choosing native plant hybrids for wildlife value.

Sneezeweed growing in the kitchen gardens at Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield MA

Sneezeweed growing in the kitchen gardens at Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield MA

 

Native New England Shrubs for Pollinators: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

Thriving in lean soil and attracting the good bugs, New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a low flowering native shrub for full-sun areas of the garden.

Click below to read my profile of New Jersey Tea on Houzz: