Category Archives: Massachusetts

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:

MountainMint

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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 EnergyWiseLandscape.com to learn more and order a signed copy of the book.

A Wander at St Joseph’s Abbey

After a rainy, dismal week, the sun has returned to the farm. It hasn’t been a great year for foliage (due to the drought, I wonder?), and heavy rains have forced many leaves to the ground already, so our days of viewing central Massachusetts’ stunning fall foliage are nearly behind us. With that in mind, I grabbed my camera and headed to the nearby St. Joseph’s Abbey this morning. This is an enormous hillside farm in North Spencer, now owned and maintained by Trappist Cistercian monks who converted the farm buildings to a monastery and jam production facility.

st josephs abbey IMG_0021The farm, formerly called Alta Vista Farm, was one of the largest dairy farms in Spencer in the early 1900s, and was famous for its prize-winning Ayrshire cattle.

Thousands of native and other ornamental trees grow there, including many gorgeous sugar maples.

sugar maples st josephs abbey IMG_2231 Unfortunately, the sugar maples are not at their peak yet, but it was a beautiful day for a hike and I saw some really cool stuff, including a plant that is on the Endangered Species list for Massachusetts. On the side of the road to the abbey, underneath some pine seedlings, I noticed this mat of ground-hugging stems that looked like miniature cacti:

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It reminded me of the diminutive clubmoss princess pine but the foliage was more dense and it had cute yellow pine-coney fruits (called strobili). When I got home, I checked my Cullina/New England Wild Flower Society book Native Ferns, Moss & Grasses and sure enough, what I had spotted is a relative of princess pine, a type of fern called foxtail clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum). This plant is widespread across its range (in the East along the coastal plain from Maine to Florida), but is endangered in Massachusetts, perhaps because it thrives best in a sunny moist areas with little competition from other plants. Unfortunately, sunny areas with consistent moisture in New England tend to naturally revert to woodlands over time, or be developed, so foxtail clubmoss is rare except in areas where succession is kept under control through brushcutting or logging.

I also saw a cute white fuzzy caterpillar crossing the road from some woodlands towards a large field:

tussock moth IMG_6570 I am pretty sure it’s a hickory tussock moth caterpillar, can anybody confirm? I certainly noticed many hickory trees on my hike, as well as oak, willow and ash which are also food trees for these caterpillars.

Gray squirrels were busy collecting acorns from underneath the oak trees. They’ll bury most of them, and some of the acorns buried by a forgetful squirrel might later sprout to form new generations of New England’s massive oaks. I don’t see many gray squirrels on our own farm, our dogs are less than hospitable, so I enjoyed watching their industrious work.

By the way, the monks at St Joseph’s Abbey make GREAT jam from their fruit trees, and buying their jam not only supports the monastery, but also helps preserve the pastoral views and agricultural heritage of their beautiful farm. I highly recommend the blueberry preserve…

To all my wildlife garden friends, enjoy the great weather this Columbus Day Weekend! Schedule yourselves a quiet walk in the woods and keep your eyes peeled. You never know what you’ll spot when you unplug for a few hours!

Microclimates…or Garden Hotspots

Here's somebody who LOVES snow...especially rolling in it!

Here’s somebody who LOVES snow…especially rolling in it!

Despite a few days above freezing this week, most of our central MA farm is still under a thick blanket of snow. As I look out my front window, I can see the farm across the valley from us, completely free of snow. Why is that? It’s all about topography and the angle of the sun as it moves across the sky. Our farm is perched low on the north-facing slope of a river valley. The low angle of the winter sun passing across the southern sky means that this time of year, many areas are in the shade for most of the day. Cooler air also settles at the bottom of the valley, keeping temperatures a few degrees lower than the rest of town. The farm across the valley is on a south-facing slope, and their fields are perfectly positioned to capture the sun’s heat all day, melting their snow more quickly. It’s no surprise that apples were once grown on that side of the valley, but not on this side. It’s too cold!

Melting snow can tell us a lot about our garden conditions. Watch where the snow melts first in your yard in the spring, and you’ll learn where the warmer microclimates are. Use them  to your advantage to grow heat and sun-loving plants such as tomatoes and flowering plants that will sulk in a colder spot.

The back wall of our garage faces south, trapping the sun’s heat on sunny days and releasing it slowly overnight. The wall also protects plants from cold north winds, keeping the area quite warm and sheltered. This is the only area of my garden where I can grow Mediterranean herbs that need hot, blazing sun to thrive. A mulch of pea-stone gravel also absorbs the heat, warming the ground faster in spring and helping the crowns of plants from rotting in my high-moisture soil.

So watch the snow as it melts in your gardens, and figure out your garden hot spots!

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Great Backyard Bird Count

BGGCWhat are you doing this weekend? Can you spare a few minutes of bird watching to help scientists understand our wild birds better? Be a citizen scientist and contribute data about the winter bird populations in your region of the United States. Scientists use the information to learn how birds are adapting to environmental changes, and to answer puzzling questions about why bird populations fluctuate in areas from year to year.

Here’s all you need to do. Simply make a note (and number) of the birds you see this weekend between February 12th and 15th. Enter your results online on the form at the Great Backyard Bird Count  website. You have until March 1st to enter your results.

For a list of birds you are most likely to see in your region, click here for a checklist. If you need help identifying the birds you see in your yard, use visit the Online Bird Guide.

Here’s a shot of one of our winter bird gardens from last January. Look carefully and you can spot at least 3 birds in this photo:

cardinal-chickadeeSo, look out your windows this weekend at the trees, and write down which birds you see. Even better, take a hike in the woods with a digital camera and a field guide to birds. Log your tallies online, and submit your best photos to the Photo Gallery. And, don’t forget to check the GBBC results page later to see which birds your neighbors also saw!