Author Archives: thbfarm

Postcard from the Hummingbirds: We’re On Our Way!

The hummingbirds are coming! The hummingbirds are coming! As of this week, ruby-throated hummingbirds have been spotted making their way north into the Carolinas and Virginia!

Hummingbird Migration Map

Disinfect feeders with a dilute bleach solution and fill with a sugar/water solution of 1 part sugar: 4 parts water

Fill feeders with a sugar/water solution of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water.

There’s still a foot of snow on the ground here on our farm, so I’m guessing no hummer will even consider making their way to New England for another 3 or 4 weeks yet, when bugs are flying and sapsucker wells are flowing freely. The males usually arrive here in central MA sometime in April, scouting out good breeding habitat. Females don’t usually arrive til later in the spring, when nectar plants begin blooming and insect food is plentiful.

But if they could, I’m sure our summertime visitors would send a postcard saying “We’re on our way. Looking forward to our visit! See you soon. p.s. Get those feeders up and please plant more of that Coral Honeysuckle for us! Love, the Rubythroats”

So it’s time to get those sugar-water feeders cleaned and hanging! They’re coming soon! Keep watching the migration map and please help out by reporting any sightings!

Hummingbirds love the red tubular flowers of Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Hummingbirds love the red tubular flowers of Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

p.s. and plan to grow some native Coral Honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens) in a sunny spot on your property this year. The hummingbirds will appreciate it, and may well decide to return to your habitat every year if they like what you have to offer!

Hardy New England Hummingbirds: It’s always hard to believe any tropical bird would consider the cold New England climate as a good place to live and breed, but our few months of warm and wonderful summery weather with a glorious variety of blooming flowers and plenty of flying insects means that many ruby-throated hummingbirds DO consider our New England “rainforest” region to be a perfect place to raise a family. At least, in the summertime. Come August and September, they’re on the way back to the tropics for the winter, and after this particularly brutal winter of 2015, I can’t say I blame them!

It’s that time of year again in New England. Leaves are everywhere!

When it comes to leaves, one man's trash is most definitely another's treasure!

When it comes to leaves, one man’s trash is most definitely another’s treasure!

Some nearby towns allow homeowners to put their bagged leaves out by the curb for pickup with the trash. Am I the only one with the urge to pull over and grab these bags of leaves for my compost pile? Fall leaves are one of a gardeners’ greatest resources, and most of them get thrown away!

Leaf mold is gardeners' gold

Leaf mold is gardeners’ gold

Tree leaves are full of nutrients and trace minerals pulled from deep in the earth by tree roots. Recycle them back into your garden by piling them in a shady spot and letting them rot for a while. Broken-down leaves (leaf mold) make an excellent soil amendment that you can use in your gardens, containers and potting mixes instead of buying bagged peat moss.

Best of all – leaves are free!

If you have any trees on our near your property (which is true just about everywhere in New England), now is the time to stockpile at least some of those leaves for future use. You can keep leaves from blowing away using a simple enclosure made from stakes woven into chicken wire:

The leaves at the bottom of this leaf mold pile break down first, but you can use your leaf mold for mulch or as a soil amendment at any time during the decomposition process.

In New England where we get a lot of rain and snow through the year, leaves break down into leaf mold in 6 months to 3 years, depending on the type of leaves (see below). You don’t have to wait that long though, you can use it whenever you need it. The leaves will continue to break down in the presence of moisture and soil organisms.

Shredding leaves first with a mulching mower or shredder will help break them down more quickly. Shredding also reduces volume and the tendency for whole leaves to mat together, but it’s not necessary. Bear in mind that shredding may kill any cecropia, luna, woolly bear and other moth caterpillars that might be hunkered down in the leaves for the winter.

You can also mix your fall leaves with “green” materials such as farm animal manure or grass clippings to make leaf compost. A mix of about 2/3 greens and 1/3 leaves (brown) will heat up quickly and break down into nutrient-rich compost or mulch to use in next year’s vegetable beds, flower gardens and lawns.

DCF 1.0

If earthworms find your compost pile, they will help speed up the breakdown process by consuming tiny bits of leaves. Their rich castings stimulate beneficial bacteria that will heat up the pile and turn it into fine, dark humus that is pure gardener’s gold.

Leaves contain chemical tannins that can only be digested by specialized microbes (mostly fungal in origin)

Leaves contain chemical tannins that are only digestable by specialized fungi that have evolved in northern forest ecosystems. Most bacteria cannot tolerate the acidity of pure leaves and do not readily break them down.

So what’s better, leaf mold or leaf compost? It depends on what you want to use it for.

Leaf mold is pure leaves with no green materials mixed in. It is broken down slowly by “cold” natural processes involving moisture and specialized soil fungi that have evolved with trees since the last ice age. Loaded with beneficial fungi (mycorrhyzae) that tree roots use to feed themselves, leaf mold is the single best mulch for use in woodland gardens and under your trees.

Leaf mold is the soft and spongy "duff" layer that you find on the forest floor of mixed woodlands in New England. If you have trees on your property as well as wooded areas with perennial native understory perennials, your tree leaves left in place should will keep them in good health.

Leaf mold is the soft and spongy “duff” layer that you find on the forest floor of mixed woodlands in New England. If you have trees on your property as well as wooded areas with perennial native understory perennials, your tree leaves are the only fertilizer they will ever need.

Leaf compost is created by hot processes dominated by bacteria that feed upon the greens and convert their nutrients into a form that can be taken up easily by plant roots. With a higher pH than leaf mold, leaf compost is a highly-nutritious, near-perfect product for vegetables, annuals, and lawn grasses which prefer a neutral or high pH, as well as lots of nitrogen for fast growth, high yields and exceptional flowers.



Pure leaf mold is best for native plants such as the beautiful white trillium. Trees feed themselves and their understory partner plants by dropping their leaves to the ground, which are broken down by fungal networks that in turn make nutrients available to plant roots. Scratch the soil of a healthy forest floor and you can see some of these vast networks of fungi that mine the soil for moisture and nutrients.

Use leaf mold and compost as a replacement for peat moss in gardens or in potting mixes for moisture retention and soil porosity. Peat moss is not considered a renewable and sustainable product in the US because it is trucked long distances from Canada, where it’s mined from sphagnum bogs that took millions of years to produce the peat moss that we buy in bags.

Note that most earthworms are not native species in New England forests–not since the last Ice Age wiped them out, anyway. Most earthworms found in the northern US were brought here in Colonial ship ballast and have been welcomed by centuries of farmers for their capacity to rapidly turn farm waste into crop fertilizer. Earthworm populations in woodland soils is not good for long-term forest health–their ravenous appetite for leaves means that they break down leaf litter much faster than natural fungal processes, and earthworm castings (manure) feed bacteria that raise soil pH and release nitrogen, creating an environment highly favorable to invasive exotic weed species that often outcompete the natives.

07-15-trashed-leavesIf you want to create “pure” leaf mold (for native plants) without earthworms, bag your leaves and store on a surface where earthworms cannot enter the leaves from the soil below. Or place a wire cage on a hard surface to exclude them. If you bag leaves, you will need to water the leaves occasionally to encourage the moist conditions that fungi love.

Trees that hold onto their leaves long after other trees have dropped theirs generally take longer to break down Beech leaves are pictured above still on the tree in February.

Trees such as oak and beech that hold onto their leaves long after most other trees drop theirs generally take years to break down into humus. Pictured is a young Beech still holding most of its leaves in February.

Different tree species have varying levels of tannins, and leaves with the highest tannins take the longest to break down. Oak leaves, especially, are high in tannins and can take quite a few years to break down.

Fastest: Maple, Ash, Cherry, Poplar, Linden, Willow, Poplar, Elm (6 months to 1 year)

Slower: Oak, Beech, Birch (2-3 years)

Slowest: Needles from Pine, Hemlock, Spruce and Fir–not because of high tannins but these leaves have a waxy coating that slows decomposition – 3+ years minimum





Rain Chains – A Classy Alternative to Gutter Downspouts


Our rain chain has ornamental tulip-shaped cups that spill water down through holes in the bottom of each cup.

One of the cool perks of being a garden writer is that companies often send me “freebies” in hopes that I’ll rave about their products and give them some free publicity. I don’t accept many of these offers, because unlike so many of our politicians, I can’t be “bought”, but occasionally I receive a product I really wanted to try anyway, so I’m happy to review it here.

A company called Rain Chains Direct sent me this copper rain chain to install as an alternative to our traditional metal downspouts. Instead of a long metal or plastic tube to direct rainwater out of roof gutters, a rain chain is made up of connected links that trap and drain water down from the gutter outflow. Its flexibility means you can direct the outflow into a nearby garden bed, an underground pipe, or a rain barrel to collect for future use.

A few days after installing our rain chain, we had a monsoon-type storm which dropped 3″ of rain overnight — an excellent test of the water distribution capabilities of our new rain chain. I’m pleased to report that the rain chain worked like a charm. The water splashed down through the chain like a beautiful fountain, and there was little to no splashing onto nearby wood siding:

rain chain

Robert Sousa photo

Who wants an ugly metal downspout when there are attractive alternatives that perform the same job? Thank you to for our floral-themed rain chain —  in the central MA rain forest where we live, it should get LOTS of use over the years.



Backyard Natives: Wild Cranesbill

Cranesbill has long been a staple plant of New England gardens for its pretty spring flowers and low ground-covering habit, but despite common names such as New Hampshire Purple, most of our garden cranesbills hail from Europe and Western Asia.wild cranesbill geranium maculatum

If you’re looking for easy and non-aggressive native plants to fill your garden with color and seasonal interest, our eastern native species Spotted Cranesbill/Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is worth growing if you have an area with moist soil and a bit of late-summer shade.

Wild Cranesbill blooms with cheery pink flowers in late spring, and its distinctive toothed lobed foliage add texture to a cottage or rock garden, a woodland edge, or nestled into gaps between shrubs in a border. With a long history of medicinal usages, this plant belongs in every modern herb garden.

Wild Cranesbill was once abundant along country roads in central Massachusetts, but the steady invasion of aggressive non-native plant species means its cheerful spring presence may become a thing of the past. By growing it in your own gardens, you can help maintain local populations of this hardy and (hopefully) resilient plant that (like many other native plants) is under threat in the wild.


Wild cranesbill still grows on the edges of a nearby roadside — surrounded by exotic weeds including Multiflora Rose, Garlic Mustard and European agricultural grasses.

Several years ago, I collected seeds from these roadside plants and grew them in my own gardens, where they thrive tucked between larger shrubs in the leaf-enriched soils along the stream’s edge. Now that the dreaded invasive plant Garlic-Mustard has reached our neighborhood, I’m not sure if the wild roadside geraniums will survive the onslaught.

Garlic-Mustard: Another Threat to Woodland Biodiversity

DCF 1.0

If you see this plant with small white flowers and scalloped leaf edges, yank it immediately! If it’s flowering, cut off and throw away the flower heads before the plant goes to seed!

Garlic-Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was rarely seen in this part of Massachusetts even 10 years ago. Introduced into the USA from Europe and Asia as an edible plant and kitchen herb, this plant has spread across the North American continent, seeding itself quickly into disturbed areas to form dense colonies. Garlic-Mustard is especially dangerous to eastern forests, because of its shade tolerance, and because its roots produce chemicals that kill the microbial soil life essential to the growth of native trees and understory plants.

I first noticed Garlic-Mustard growing on a roadside in our neighborhood in 2007, and since then have watched in dismay as it has quickly spread (by seeds distributed by wind and wildlife) through our river valley. If you see this plant on your property, act quickly before it can spread further. It is a biennial plant, so it blooms in its second year from seed, which is when most people tend to notice it. The best approach is to pull up any plants by the roots if they are first-year plants. If the plants are flowering or have already bloomed, cut off their flower heads before their seeds can disperse. Each plant can contain up to 6000 seeds which remain viable for at least 5 years, so throw these away in the trash and do not compost them! Click here for more pictures and information on Garlic Mustard.

Bale Beds

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

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


mini farm bale beds IMG_1407We try to farm with a minimum of outside inputs that consume resources in their production and distribution, so building raised beds using old bales of hay that are too dusty to feed our horses makes a perfect solution to building “temporary” planting beds that last one season.

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


bale beds filling IMG_1404

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

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

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

bale bed july IMG_0549

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

Probably the best crop of all for bale beds are potatoes, which are traditionally planted by digging a 3” trench for the potato spuds, then adding soil over the plants as they grow through the season.

bale bed potatoes

To grow potatoes in a raised bale bed, lay potato eyes about 12″ apart at the bottom of the bed, and cover with 3″ or so of soil/compost. When the plant foliage is about 12″ high, add another layer of soil or compost around the potato stems. The new potatoes form along the stem above where your eyes were planted.

Compostable beds!

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

bale bed dismantling

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

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

pond raised bed gardens

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

Hints and Tips for Bale Beds:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fall Frenzy

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

sugar maples st josephs abbey IMG_2231

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

foliage st josephs abbey IMG_2219

It’s harvest time on our little farm!

butternut squash IMG_2245

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

veggie beds october IMG_2243

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

asters at bridge IMG_2370

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

new england aster IMG_2389

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

aster peterborough keith

Keith Tetreault photo

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

new england aster bumble bee IMG_2200

The native woodland viburnum berries are ripening:

viburnum witherod fruits IMG_2627

If these Witherod Viburnum fruits look like little candies, it’s no coincidence. The bright colors of both foliage and fruit are the plant’s tactic to attract birds to eat its fruit and disperse its seeds…

Most native Viburnum fruits are edible by people too – as the berries ripen, they turn dark and shrivel like raisins – hence one of their common names Wild Raisin.

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

butterfly weed seeds IMG_2201

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

Reasons Not To Spray

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

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

ladybug lady beetle eating caterpillar medium size IMG_2035

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

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

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

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

garlic chives herb garden medium size IMG_1962So, to attract and support beneficial lady beetles, your property should supply food for both the adults and the larval form. Flowering nectar plants supply the adult beetle with the energy it needs to fly, so include a variety of plants that bloom through the season such as coreopsis, phlox, nepeta, asters and other daisy-like composite plants. Grow culinary herbs such as oregano, thyme, cilantro, dill, parsley, basil, common chives and garlic chives (pictured),  allow some of them to flower to attract the adult beetles.

lady beetle larvae eating aphids medium size IMG_6288As for the larvae, adult lady beetles lay their eggs on plants known to attract aphids and other soft-bodied pests, knowing that there will be plenty of food for their offspring once they hatch and begin to feed. If you’re a gardener, and you don’t spray insecticides, you’re most likely already there…

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




Norcross Sanctuary – Hidden Jewel of Monson, MA

The small south-central Massachusetts town of Monson (population 3,800) is home to a nature lover’s dreamland, Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary. Free and open to the public – Norcross has over 1000 acres of fields and trails, beautiful vistas and an education center that offers free classes, tours and lectures throughout the year.norcross-little-bluestem-meadow-october-IMG_1016

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

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

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


 Norcross is home to the biggest patch of black bugbane (Actaea racemosa) that I’ve ever seen.:

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


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


I long to grow this plant for its impressive blooms, but it prefers sandy soil, which we do not have here on our farm. If I can find seeds for it, I may try growing it on a sunny hillside where drainage is good, but I don’t have high hopes that it will ever look this good.

Because Norcross’s founder established it in 1939 as a wildlife and plant sanctuary, no hunting is allowed at Norcross, which puts the sanctuary staff in the awkward position of trying to try to protect native understory plants from being grazed out of existence from the abundant population of white-tailed deer.

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

norcross sign IMG_1028

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

monson tornado damage IMG_1032

Use Your Weeds! Violets as Groundcover

IMG_9896_2It’s funny how people tend to hate violets so much..maybe because they seed into lawns? I know that violets can be voracious growers in some soils, but if violets grow in your yard, instead of scorning them as an unwanted weed, why not find a use for them? Violets are a native plant, pretty in bloom and beneficial to wildlife (it’s the sole host plant for fritillary butterfly caterpillars), so why not encourage them to grow in a spot where you need something low-maintenance to cover the ground?

DCF 1.0Common blue marsh violets (Viola cucullata) love the moist soil on parts of our farm and in places, they grow to epic size.

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

violets raised bed IMG_9762

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

violets raised beds late summer IMG_0550

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


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

foamflower violets medium IMG_2817

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

Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

Do you grow vegetables at home? If so, I’m sure you don’t welcome wildlife into your veggie patches. Rabbits, groundhogs, deer, slugs, you name it, there’s some animal just waiting to devour your plantings and destroy all your hard work. Fencing (or a resident dog on duty 24/7) is usually the only way to keep the four-footed animals out, but what about the tomato hornworms, the slugs and the beetles that can’t be kept out with fencing?


The kitchen gardens at circa 1730 Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield, MA. Colonial farmers knew that food gardens interplanted with lots flowering plants helped keep pests under control.

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

syrphid fly aster IMG_0986

If you spray for pests, you’re also killing the natural predators of the pest, such as this hoverfly (aka syrphid fly), a common non-biting fly that visits flowers for nectar – their larvae eat large numbers of our garden pests.

So how can you grow food without resorting to harmful chemicals? It requires a bit more thought than just just spraying something from a bottle, but it’s not complicated.

Basically, you enlist the help of the natural world…and tap into its natural checks and balances.

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Vegetable gardens at Tower Hill Botanic Garden – colorful, whimsical, functional, and “friendly” to the “good bugs” that eat garden pests.

When dealing with pests, think prevention, not cure. Here are a few Golden Rules:
  • Provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds who are natural predators of your garden pests. Give them what they need, and they’ll help keep pest populations under control.
  • Confound pests by companion planting your vegetables with plants with strong scent or other characteristics that confuse or repel pests, and rotate crop plants from year to year to stay one step ahead of pests.
  • Grow your plants in healthy, living soil that is rich in beneficial soil organisms – healthy soil means healthy plants that can withstand a bit of pest damage. Avoid synthetic chemical “power” fertilizers that kill soil life – these actually encourage the sappy, weak leaf growth that attracts pests.

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

marigolds peppers IMG_0972_2

Ring your beds with single-flowering marigolds (Tagetes spp). The bright, nectar-rich blooms attract beneficial insects right until first frost. Plus, the strongly-scented foliage seems to repel (or confuse) many pests, and they are less likely to find your plants.

The nectar found in flowering plants is what keeps those insects flying – it’s the fuel that keeps them patrolling your garden for pests, so make sure there’s something blooming all through the seasons to keep them fed. Yes, some flies are pests and certain wasps do sting, but most of the bugs flying out there are beneficial – preying on other insects, pollinating plants, and as a food source for other wildlife.

Check out this braconid wasp, which is in the process of laying its eggs inside a gypsy moth caterpillar – which means this caterpillar is doomed:

04-09-braconid wasp

Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Resource Service (Courtesy of

You don’t have to worry about these wasps hurting you – they don’t have a hive to defend and they don’t sting! If you grow tomatoes, you’ll want to attract another type of braconid wasp that uses tomato hornworm caterpillars as its host:

tomato hornworm IMG_0864_2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nesting boxes for birds and other winged wildlife at Garden in the Woods, Framingham MA. Nesting birds can feed their hatchlings hundreds of caterpillars every day, so provide them with nesting opportunities near your gardens.

Nesting boxes for birds and other winged wildlife at Garden in the Woods, Framingham MA. Nesting birds can feed their hatchlings hundreds of caterpillars every day, so provide them with nesting opportunities near your gardens.

Include some locally native plants in your landscaping- these are best for attracting nesting birds because they tend to support the most diversity in herbivorous insects — in other words, plenty of caterpillars to feed hungry baby birds!

Even if you don’t like the taste of cilantroparsley, fennel or dill, always try grow lots of these culinary herb plants – they are cheap and easy to grow from seed, and make good companions for tomatoes. Allow some plants to flower – their clusters of numerous tiny flowers (called umbels) contain individual portions of sweet nectar for small beneficial insects. These fellow members of the carrot family of plants are also a host for the caterpillars of the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly:

Don't kill these caterpillars! They turn into beautiful butterflies. Give them their own patch of dill or parsley to eat, or relocate them to queen anne's lace or wild carrot plants.

Don’t kill these caterpillars! They turn into beautiful butterflies. Give them their own patch of dill or parsley to eat, or relocate them to queen anne’s lace or wild carrot plants.

The tiny white flowers of cilantro attract parasitic wasps and many other beneficials

The tiny white flowers of cilantro attract parasitic wasps and many other beneficials

Leave some areas of bare ground in the vicinity of your vegetable beds to provide nesting opportunities for squash bees (important pollinators of squash and cucumbers) and other native bees that excavate tiny tunnels in the ground to build their nests:

Not ant hills, but nesting sites under construction by a metallic-green digger bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset.

Not ant hills, but nesting sites under construction by a metallic-green digger bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset.


Hang wooden blocks for wood-nesting bees and beneficial insects near your gardens. Many native bees and insect predators use tunnels in old wood or tubular plant stems as a snug winter home for their offspring:

newfs beneficial insect nest box IMG_6759

Nesting block for bees and other insects – showing telltale signs of use by mason bees, grass-carrying wasps and other beneficial insects.


Bumble bees are crucial pollinators for many food plants such as tomatoes and blueberries. Although they do raise a communal hive, they are very gentle and won’t sting unless physically threatened. Give them lots of nectar plants (right through the season) and a place to nest near your gardens.

Problems with slugs? Slugs LOVE the moist conditions of well-mulched, well-watered vegetable gardens and can decimate plants in just a few nights of feeding. Bring in the toads – who hunt the soil at night for slugs, grubs and worms – by giving them a cool, damp place to spend their days:

Give slug-gobbling toads a "toad abode".

Give slug-gobbling toads a “toad abode”.

Feed the soil, not the plants! In other words, provide habitat for the soil food web, or the (mostly micro-biotic) wildlife that lives in the soil. Each year, amend your vegetable beds with compost, farm-animal manure, leaf mold, seaweed or fish-based fertilizer – whatever you can get your hands on locally:

Pests tend to attack stressed plants. Encourage healthy plants by amending your soil with good quality compost (above) and mulch well with organic materials to help retain soil moisture and build soil tilth.

Pests tend to attack stressed plants. Encourage healthy plants by amending your soil with good quality compost (above) and mulch well with organic materials to help retain soil moisture and build soil tilth.

Try to rotate your crops each year to stay ahead of pests. Many pests lay their eggs in and around their host plants – in the spring, when pests emerge, they won’t have such an easy time finding their favorite plants if they are growing elsewhere, and are more likely to be eaten by a predator if they have to travel in search of food. Another way of doing this (assuming you have the room) is to scatter a crop around your property instead of a single location or bed. If a pest infests one area, they may not reach them all.

These raised veggie beds on our small Massachusetts farm may look a tad weedy, but the surrounding plants attract so many beneficial insects and bird predators that pest damage is minimal. 

These raised veggie beds on our small Massachusetts farm may look a tad weedy, but the surrounding plants attract so many beneficial insects and bird predators that pest damage is minimal.

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to keep your vegetable gardens healthier for you, your children and pets, and the planet! Gardening with and for wildlife may mean your gardens might look a little messier than the “not a petal out of place, not a weed to be found” landscaping tradition, but free, natural pest control and the amazing array of predators and prey that will take up residence in your backyard? I hope you will agree, those are worth taking up a new beautiful wildlife gardening aesthetic

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