Category Archives: Ecological Landscaping

As Drought Continues…


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:


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:


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:


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:

helenium pond

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:


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.

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





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…


Mulch – Use What You’ve Got!


If you grow vegetable gardens, you probably know that mulching around plants is essential – not only does a thick layer of mulch control weed growth in your beds, but it shades the soil, keeping it cooler and helping retain soil moisture during the dry spells of summer.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on bagged mulch, though. Look around. You might have materials that can double as mulch and save you money. Cut sheets of cardboard into long strips and lay them between rows of vegetables to cover the soil. Stockpile your dry fall leaves, and run them through a chipper or shredder to use as mulch for next year’s gardens.  If you bag your lawn clippings during mowing, use a few inches of clippings as a nutritious garden mulch that will also feed the soil as it breaks down. Important: NEVER use grass clippings from lawns that have been treated with Weed & Feed or other pesticides! You don’t want those chemicals in your food.

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

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

hayscented fern armload IMG_0269_2

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

Below: the green fronds dry out and turn beige after a few days.hayscented fern tomato mulch IMG_0277

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

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

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


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

hayscented fern steps IMG_0901

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

Book Review: Energy-Wise Landscape Design

sue-reed-bookThe THB Farm blog has been sadly neglected in recent months due to deadlines and commitments, but I’m back , this time to post a review of Massachusetts landscape architect Sue Reed’s excellent new book “Energy-wise Landscape Design: A New Approach for your Home and Garden“.  This book is a must-read for anybody looking to build or renovate a home, especially in the temperate climate of New England, where the siting, positioning and surrounding landscaping of a home can directly influence the energy efficiency and environmental footprint of your property.

Sue’s book is timely for many reasons. As our utility bills go through the roof and natural resources continue to suffer enormous  pressure from development, industry, the spread of invasive, non-native plant species, and an increase in devastating storm damage, homeowners have every incentive to reduce their energy usage and landscape their properties in a way that contributes to environmental health rather than degrading it further.

The book is structured into useful sections such as ‘Arranging the Landscape to Help Cool a House in Summer’, ‘Situating New Homes with Energy in Mind’ and ‘Fitting the Landscape to the Land’, which shares excellent tips for landscaping on slopes.  Even if you’re in the midst of a current landscaping or construction project, the section “Revise your Ideas to Fit the Terrain” is worth reading before you do any more work! In New England, where every property seems to be situated on some kind of hill, Sue’s book will help you understand how to work with the challenges of your landscape and turn them into design features that enhance your property’s beauty and usefulness.


Topographically challenged? Sue Reed has lots of good advice for landscaping on slopes.

Landscaping sections include designing gardens to reduce water usage, how to have a green, healthy lawn without using toxic chemicals, and information on how to properly plant trees and shrubs. Considering that most plant deaths that happen in the first few years occur because of improper planting (by homeowners as well as poorly trained landscapers!), this is advice that will save you money!

Construction and installation-related topics include building wood structures for long life, installing efficient outdoor lighting, how to lay durable patios, paths and stone walls, and ways you can generate your own energy from your property using sunlight, wind, water and geothermal heat. Clear diagrams and pictures illustrate complex concepts such as how to read and understand the effects of sunlight on your property based on your geographic location, altitude and time of year.

Although Energy-Wise Landscape Design is a practical, comprehensive guide that could be used as a textbook for a sustainable design curriculum, Sue’s writing style is friendly and the book is a surprisingly good read, considering the technical nature of its subject. It’s no surprise that Sue taught for many years at the renowned Conway School of Landscape Design, her writing reflects her ability to explain complicated concepts in a way that students can understand. I read half this book in one sitting, but I know I’ll be returning to it time and time again as a technical reference on future projects. My only disappointment was that the beautiful photos of ecologically-friendly landscapes were not in full color, but I’m sure this kept the book’s price at an affordable price.

Energy-Wise Landscape Design belongs on the bookshelf of everyone who dabbles (or works!) in construction, gardening and landscape design. Even if the only greenery in your yard is a lawn, you will learn from this book, and in the process, save money, time and protect our precious natural resources.

Visit Sue Reed’s website  at to learn more and order a signed copy of the book.

The Leaves They Are A’Changin’

It’s that time of year..the leaves are falling fast and furious now and my thoughts are turning towards the annual hibernation that gardeners are forced to take in New England. I have to say, after a summer full of garden tours, classes, stone path building and other hard work in the garden, I am ready to call it quits for another year.

As a habitat gardener, I don’t feel at all guilty about putting my feet up, either. While some gardeners do a thorough cleaning of their perennial beds each fall, scalping them and raking them clean of every bit of plant debris, one of the tenets of habitat gardening is to leave your gardens a little messy at the end of the year.  Allowing the flower heads to stand supplies a valuable seed source for foraging birds right into winter. As I write, my dying flower gardens are still buzzing with life, with American Goldfinches and Chickadees feasting from the smorgasbord of Coneflower, Rudbeckia, Ironweed, Verbena, Zinnia, Cosmos and Cleome seed heads. Of course, when I brought my camera outdoors, they all dove into the safety of the woods…:


Conventional gardening wisdom states that you should clean up your gardens at the end of the season to destroy the eggs of plant pests, but I take the opposite approach. Most of the tiny creatures that overwinter in my gardens are probably beneficial in some way…they are the “good guys”. Butterflies and other pollinators, predatory bugs, dragonflies, ladybird beetles, most of them spend the winter here in some form, as an egg, chrysalis or adult. They need those fallen leaves, plant stems, old stumps, loose bark and piles of brush to survive through the winter. A few of the “bad guys” don’t worry me – they are usually eaten by something else before they can cause much damage. (the exception to this rule is vegetable gardens, which harbor many pests and should be cleaned up each fall!)

DCF 1.0The falling leaves don’t bother me either. Why go to all the trouble of raking, bagging and disposing of leaves, when they are one of nature’s best soil improvers? Leaves are a great source of nutrients to feed your soil and help it retain moisture. Don’t trash your fall leaves…they are one of your yard’s most valuable resources! Here are some ways we have learned  to deal with all our leaves:

  • rake them into piles and let them rot for 6 months or a year. The result is called “leaf mold” which is an excellent FREE alternative to buying bark mulch or cocoa mulch for your garden beds!
  • add them to our compost pile which, being heavy on the nitrogen (horse manure), really benefits from the influx of a carbon source. We have friends and family who also happily bring us their bags of leaves!!
  • mow them into shreds! Rob mows right over the leaves in our lawn with a mulching mower, shredding them into tiny pieces that blow into the grass and into my garden beds.  The shreddings in the grass quickly disappear, as soil micro-organisms decompose them into a valuable soil amendment to the lawn.

We have an area next to our driveway which has always frustrated me because it looks so awful. It is a cold north-facing slope under the dense shade of Hemlock trees, with cement-like soil compacted from driveway construction. For years, I have lamented because little would grow there except invasive weeds such as Asiatic Bittersweet and Glossy Buckthorn.  In the past few years, however,  I have noticed an exciting transformation. The process of mower-mulching the leaves from our driveway onto the drivewayside is creating an amazingly rich woodland soil, and native woodland wild flowers such as Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, (below) White Wood Aster and False Solomon’s Seal have all appeared there, all on their own! Presto – a woodland garden! It is amazing what will grow, when you work with nature instead of trying to control it…

IMG_5353 solomons sealSo anyway, gardeners, don’t waste your time stripping your gardens this fall. Use the beautiful weather to go for a hike or take the kids apple picking. I, for one, won’t be gardening much any more. It’s time for me to devote some much-needed attention to my young pony Sneaks, who I started “under saddle” this summer…

Tomatoes and potatoes and cucumbers..oh my!

As you can see from the tattered remains of my vegetable garden, summer is coming to an end. However, we’re still harvesting baskets of produce, and the flowering plants in and around our 100_2309veggie gardens provide a valuable food source for migrating hummingbirds, pollinating insects and seed-eating songbirds. The presence of insect-gobbling birds near the veggie patch helps to control pests on the plants that continue to yield their bounty. If garden pests are overriding your vegetable patch, you might want to do some research into locating a pest prevention service such as Adam’s Pest Control – you can find their website here:

My vegetable garden might look a little wild and uncultivated, but in fact the effect is entirely deliberate. The Nasturtium attracts aphids away from other plants. Allowing the Cilantro to flower and go to seed provides nectar for tiny pollinators, who in turn become a protein source for birds who eat crop pests. Flowering nectar plants such as Black-eyed Susan, Agastache (Lavender Giant-Hyssop) and Goldenrod attract pollinators who help improve crop yields, and later produce lots of free birdseed for songsters such as American Goldfinches, Chickadees and Sparrows.

Because (or in spite) of all the rain we had this summer, we also had our best tomato harvest ever. The cherry tomatoes above have next to no foliage left but they are still groaning under the weight of the fruits. Our secret to organic tomato growing is to grow plants in soil enriched with our very best compost, and apply a 2-3″ mulch after the soil has warmed (usually July here) to suppress weeds and retain soil moisture. We also trim all browning leaves from the plant as they develop through the summer.


Marigolds (Tagetes) planted with cherry tomatoes. The strong scent of the Marigold foliage helps plants helps repel pests from the veggie patch in an example of companion planting, in which certain plants help each other to control pest damage and enhance growing conditions. Companion planting helps your garden become a balanced ecosystem, in which nature keeps itself in balance.

The Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) in the background grows like crazy in late summer, but we leave it standing until later in September because its flowers are a magnet for migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, who appreciate a meal and rest stop on their way to the tropics. The annual Jewelweed is easy to pull out later, and makes a good addition to our compost pile.100_2255

We’re harvesting our Yukon Gold potatoes fast and furious now (right). I think it’s fun. Rooting around in the soil for ‘taters is like an Easter Egg hunt…keep hunting around and you keep finding more!

Last year I lost most of my potato crop to a tunneling mammal who dined on my potatoes from underground without my noticing. This year I kept a closer eye on the plants and occasionally poked around for tunnels in the raised beds. I also planted a lot more potatoes this year so that a few nibbles wouldn’t affect my yields too much.

This was also the first year that I saw next to no Colorado Potato Beetles on my potatoes. Thank you to all our bats, birds and beneficial insects for providing free pest control!