Category Archives: Habitat Gardening

Japanese Beetles, Chickens and the Habitat Farm

Here on our small farm, we love our small flock of chickens – their delicious and healthy eggs, their comical antics and their expert bug control are all reasons why we’ll always keep a few chickens around. One additional bonus? Chickens LOVE to eat Japanese beetles!!!

Anybody who gardens in New England is almost definitely familiar with the damage that Japanese beetles can do to plant foliage and lawns. Their grubs (juvenile form) eat plant roots and wreak havoc on the shallow roots of chemically-treated lawns.

japanese beetle damage on plum IMG_0681_2The adult beetles cause extensive damage to foliage when they congregate in throngs during July and August, mating and feeding on plants.

The frustration for gardeners and landscapers is that Japanese beetles are not simple to control. Because they are an imported pest, very little local wildlife are adapted to use them as a food source and they have few natural enemies to keep their numbers in check. Even if you spray all the grubs and beetles dead with a toxic concoction, very soon they will be back, usually arrived from neighbors’ properties. It’s not worth it, especially because the poisons also kill the beneficial insects that you want to encourage.

The encouraging news is that natural predators of Japanese beetles introduced by biologists do appear to be having an impact on their populations. Parasitic wasps and microscopic nematodes attack beetle grubs during the time they spend in the soil. A parasitic (tachinid) fly imported from Japan by biologists targets the adult beetle and does appear to be having an impact on breeding populations. I don’t think we’ll ever see Japanese beetles disappear completely from our landscape, but from these natural controls I do notice fewer beetles each year in the gardens of central Massachusetts.

In the picture below, the Japanese beetle on the left has a white dot on its thorax (behind its head), which is the egg of the parasitic tachinid fly. Many beetles will “wear” multiple dots. These eggs hatch into larvae that burrow into the beetle and consume its tissue from within, eventually killing the beetle within 5-6 days. Don’t kill these beetles! You want the eggs to hatch and the fly to complete its life cycle to continue its work on beetle populations.

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The beetle on the right has no spots on its thorax – but does have rows of 10-12 white spots on both its sides – these are NOT the eggs of the parasitic fly.

So what can you do if a favorite plant is swarming with adult beetles? The least-impact method of controlling adult Japanese beetles is manual removal. In the morning when the beetles are lethargic, sweep them (with your fingers or a small brush) right off the foliage of infested plants into a jar of water. They will thrash around in the water but can’t fly away. You can then flush them down a toilet or, if you have a chicken coop, throw them into the coop! Your chickens will go crazy for them! Because adult beetles lay eggs in the soil where they mate and feed, the more beetles you can remove from your property during their mating stage, the fewer grubs that will hatch out into beetles next year.

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My hens Millicent and Betty follow me around during my “beetle sweeps” so they can gobble the beetles right from my collection jars:

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As for grubs (the juvenile form of the Japanese beetle that eat grass roots), avoid at all costs the chemical grub control based upon Imidicloprid (sold in the US by the trade name Merit) a chemical that’s been banned in several European countries due to links between its use and the collapse of honeybee populations (aka Colony Collapse Disorder). If parts of your lawn are dying and you suspect grub damage, your lawn is under stress and chemical treatments will not fix the problem. You can try applying beneficial nematodes (microscopic wireworms) to attack the grubs in the short term, but longer term, if you convert to an organically-maintained lawn where grass roots can grow deep into the soil, the impact of the grubs will decline. And, supply suitable habitat for ground-feeding birds and the parasitic insects, and let them do their thing. It’s healthier for your lawn, your family, the bees and the planet.

To support those tiny parastic flies and wasps, make sure you have lots of nectar plants blooming to supply the sugary substance these beneficials need to fuel their flight. Without nectar when they need it, they won’t stick around. Pictured below are New England native plants boneset, Joe Pye weed and goldenrod blooming in late summer:

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When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

Dear readers, if I have not been writing much lately, here is just one of the reasons why:

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The freak Halloween nor’easter that hit New England on October 29th dumped 18″ of wet snow on our farm, wiped out our power for nearly a week, and caused extensive damage across the region. We will be cleaning up from this for many months…

We lost several trees that we were very fond of, including the beautiful red maple above that was a focal point of our small farm. Here’s the tree in happier times:

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Interestingly, this particular red maple was some kind of Acer rubrum cultivar, selected by plant breeders more for its beautiful glowing fall color than its ability to withstand freakish New England weather. We have a number of wild-seeded red maple trees on the farm that survived the storm intact. Those trees are really well adapted to early or late snow, and most of them just lost a few branches here and there.

One of the native red maples, just next to our driveway,  was completely topped completely:

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But look at the habitat that was created from the storm. A brand new snag! Check out the pre-drilled woodpecker holes near the top. This red maple snag may be newly created but clearly it’s already been used by wildlife for years:

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Conveniently situated with a clear view from the house, this is our new wildlife viewing zone for the winter of 2012. The snag may have to come down completely in future years — if it starts to lean over the driveway — but for now we’ll be able to watch the comings and goings of birds, squirrels and other wildlife making use of its many resources.

So the storm wasn’t all bad! Wildlife are grateful! Old trees and branches are part of natural ecosystems and support a huge variety of wildlife, from hawks, owls and bats, to lower life forms such as invertebrate insects, amphibians and even reptiles. In the spring, sapsuckers will drill the remaining living portion of the trunk for sap, attracting insects with a ‘sweet tooth’, many of whom will get stuck in the sticky sap and become food for birds.

But what to do with all those tree branches and brush that have fallen? If you have the room, use them to build a brush pile! We built what we consider the mother of ALL brush piles at the side of our pasture:

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This (ahem) carefully constructed brush pile (aka Winter Wildlife Resort at Turkey Hill Brook Farm) features snug bedrooms with fragrant pine bough ceilings, a lovely screened-in sunroom with a southerly view to safely bask in the sun on a bright winter’s day, as well as several large, fully-stocked pantries. If you’re a chickadee, you’ll find plenty of hemlock and pine cones to pick at all winter long. A chipmunk looking for a safe spot for your stash of acorns? Plenty of safe cover plus acorns free for the taking. If you’re a ground-feeding  junco, hopefully you can forage for seeds around the edge of this brush pile and dive into it when the neighborhood cats come prowling. Any woolly bear caterpillars still looking for a place to hibernate can burrow into the dead leaves under the pile.

OK, I know that most built-up areas can’t support a brush pile of this size in everybody’s back yard, but even if you have a small area to work with, a more modest brush pile still works:

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So if you’re faced with tree damage from the crazy weather we’ve experienced in the past year, remember that if life hands you tree debris, instead of burning it or sending it away with the trash, you can always just leave it alone. And call it a habitat!

(This is a reprint of my article posted on Wildlife Garden: Redefining Beautiful on Nov 21, 2011)

Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Happy New Year to my blog followers! With apologies to the Rolling Stones for this blog title, I’ll start the year talking about  some ways to help overwintering wild birds stay safe from bad weather and predators in your backyard. With many of our native bird species declining at an alarming rate, our feathered friends need all the help they can get from those of us who care about their future….

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With the exception of hummingbird feeders, winter is the only time of year I hang bird feeders here on our farm. To be honest, feeding wild birds is more about making us feel good than about really helping birds. Birds rely on a variety of natural food sources (seeds, berries, buds, and the various insect life forms that overwinter in leaf litter, plant stems or tree bark) to get themselves through winter, and the best way to help them is to plant as many bird-friendly plants and trees in your surroundings to provide food and habitat throughout the year.

But hanging a feeder is a great way to supplement natural food sources for birds especially after heavy snowfall has buried many seed plants and ground-level food sources, and a bird feeding station near the house is an low-impact way to enjoy nature from indoors. Especially in the worst of the horrid weather when even I (who LIVES to be outdoors) prefer to stay inside…

If you do hang feeders, locate them somewhere that birds can quickly dive for cover if necessary. Birds visiting a crowded feeder in an exposed location are sitting ducks for predators such as hawks looking for a quick meal. Evergreen shrubs and trees (including rhododendron, mountain laurel, yew, hemlock, pine, spruce, fir and cedar) are the best, because they also provide shelter from wind and harsh weather. But any shrub or tree with a twiggy or dense branching structure will give birds a safe place to rest in between feeding. Shrubs such as holly, crabapple and native viburnums are all great “shelter” trees for birds, plus they retain their fruits well into winter to feed hungry birds.

Any plant with thorns, including wild rose or hawthorn, also provide a safe haven for birds to hide from danger. Not many predators (especially cats!) are willing to fight with thorny stems for a meal.

If your family puts up a live Christmas tree at the holidays, consider re-using your discarded Christmas tree as temporary evergreen cover near your winter feeders. The very first year we tried this, within hours, we saw finches, sparrows and chickadees begin to use the tree as a hideout in between visits to our nearby feeding station. And within days, we witnessed real drama when a sharp-shinned hawk held some of them hostage inside the tree:

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Can you imagine his beady little eyes watching you inside that tree? This photo still makes me shiver…

The truth is, this hawk was just too slow for our speedy songbirds. At one point (after a good 20 minutes of waiting), a group of brave birds mad e a dash for the shrub border at the edge of our property. The hawk watched and waited a while longer, but after a few minutes, he gave up and flew away in search of easier pickings elsewhere.

So remember, feeding the birds is a nice idea, but make sure you’re not luring them to certain death at your feeders. Resolve to add some “bird shelter” to your gardens this year. I’ll be posting over the next few days with some more ideas…

Should I Pull This Plant?

I hear it all the time. “Should I pull this plant? I’m not sure if I like it…”  The answer usually is….it depends. I have some clients who are passionate about restoring their landscape with native plants in order to help rebuild lost or damaged local ecosystems. For them, the answer is easy. If it’s not native, yes, pull it up and replace with a native plant. But what if your property already has many nice (and expensive) landscape plants and you’re not sure whether they’re worth keeping? As a habitat gardener, you can decide whether to keep or remove a plant by answering a few key questions:

is it listed as an invasive plant in Massachusetts? If yes, definitely remove it to make room for native plants, who may be capable of recolonizing the area. Or, replace it with a native plant suitable for your garden conditions. Invasive non-native plants are a major threat to biodiversity and environmental health. Even if you don’t see a plant behaving aggressively in your own yard, many invasive plants are spread by birds eating their berries or seeds and pooping them into nearby natural areas, where they quickly form colonies that crowd out the native plants essential to local wildlife. See IPANE (Invasive Plants of New England) for the plants that are invasive in New England.chickadee magnolia

is it healthy without needing fertilization or regular watering? If so, it’s well suited to the spot it’s in and won’t need your constant fussing to keep it looking good.

Does it attract birds, butterflies or any other forms of wildlife? Do its flowers provide nectar and pollen for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators to use as a food source? Does it form nutritious berries, seeds, nuts or cones that are an important food source for many birds? Does the plant’s foliage feed caterpillars and other insects that most birds rely upon to feed their young? Does its structure and foliage provide shelter, protection and nesting sites for many birds and other wildlife?

If the plant supplies at least 2 or 3 of these last few attributes, it is wildlife-friendly and you should probably keep it. Its presence supports declining populations of birds and pollinators who help keep our environment in balance.

oie_IMG_5417On our property, we have several areas planted with Cotoneaster, (right) which is a low shrub often used as a groundcover planting in New England lanscapes. It’s not native here, and it’s not what I would call a spectacular plant, but I have never considered removing it because it has its benefits…it thrives along a brick walkway in dry, hot blazing sun without any care or attention from us except for a bit of occasional weeding. Its dense twiggy branching structure, especially when it’s pruned, is a safe place for overwintering songbirds to dive into when they visit our winter bird feeders. Its tiny pink flowers are a magnet to spring pollinators, who are in turn an abundant food source for migrating birds newly arrived from the south. In the fall, pollinated cotoneaster flowers form large red berries, which although I have never seen birds eating them, the berries persist right through winter and disappear in about March, so some hungry creature is eating them when food is scarce!

For a foundation or walkway planting, you can prune cotoneaster into an attractive low hedge that satisfies even the most formal-style gardeners. My own hubby, who loves a crisp, clean Zen-garden style of landscaping, that often – um – clashes with my own more natural style of gardening, loves our cotoneaster hedge because it gives him that controlled look he craves while satisfying my requirement that a plant in such a visible location should not just look good, but also support the wildlife we invite into our backyard habitat.

Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus)

If you’re a New England gardener looking for a large-impact shade perennial that blooms in early summer, you can’t go wrong with Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus). Perfect for a partly-shaded woodland edge, its creamy white flowers are especially striking contrasted with a darker background:

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Native to the rich woods of Pennsylvania southward, Goat’s Beard grows quickly in spring from a woody crown, with flowering stems that can reach 6′ in moist soil. Flowering in late June in my zone 5b central Massachusetts garden, Goat’s Beard seems to do best with about half a day of morning sunshine. It usually takes a few years to get established, but once mature, it fills a good size area, so give it plenty of room.

Don’t confuse the native Goat’s Beard to the commonly planted Astilbe, which is also sometimes called Goatsbeard. Astilbe is much shorter than the native Aruncus, growing only about 2′.

aruncus-seeds-feb-2010Goat’s Beard is a good plant for New England habitat gardens…its flowers attract hordes of beneficial pollinating insects, and its long seed tassels persist well into winter. Don’t these winter seed stems look like a nice meal for birds?

Aruncus dioicus is dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants.  Only the female plants produce the seed heads, and their flowers are slightly showier than the males, so plant several Goat’s Beard at a time to ensure that you have at least one female plant. Even if you are lucky enough to find this plant for sale in a nursery, you’ll probably get some blank stares if you ask what sex they are! In central MA, this plant is sometimes available at Bigelow Nurseries in Northborough as well as Garden in the Woods in Framingham. I also have them for sale during the season at Turkey Hill Brook Farm (Spencer, MA).

Nature’s Highlights (Frost in the Garden)

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

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

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

Backyard Habitat in Autumn

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

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

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

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

Lessons from a Wet Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants that stood tall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reseeders running rampant

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

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

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

2009…the summer that nearly wasn’t

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

Butterflies are back!

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

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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!

Summer Vases

Habitat gardens are not just for wildlife! Bird and pollinator-friendly plants not only feed birds and butterflies but they also produce abundant blooms which make great bouquets! Plant lots of seed-producing and nectar plants that bloom at various times throughout the season so you’ll have plenty of flowers to share with family and friends.

Some flowering plants such as Zinnia will actually bloom more heavily if some of its flowers are cut.

Here’s a vase from the last week at Turkey Hill Brook Farm, containing Shasta Daisy ‘Alaska’, Lamb’s Ear, Catmint, Hydrangea, and Phlox.

vase-white-flowers

Below is another vase I cut yesterday. This one contains Drumstick Allium, Purple Coneflower, Musk Mallow, Shasta Daisy and Catchfly. All these plants (except for the Allium) reseed on our central MA farm. If I don’t like where they pop up, I just move them to a better spot, or I pot them up and give to friends and clients.

summer-vase-pink

 

Here are some other easy-to-grow bird and butterfly-friendly plants suitable for our climate that you can cut for flowers:

Verbena bonariensis (reseeding annual in New England)
Sunflower (annual and perennial)
Swamp Milkweed (perennial)
Black-eyed Susan (perennial)
Cosmos (annual)
Zinnia (annual)
Gayfeather/Liatris (perennial)
Lilac (shrub)
Blanket Flower (perennial)
Yarrow (perennial)
Goldenrod (perennial)
Korean Mint (perennial, heavy reseeder)
Globe Thistle

The Habitat Gardening Ideas page at THBFarm.com has more pictures of summertime vases.