Category Archives: New England gardens

Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Resource Service (Courtesy of bugwood.org)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Give slug-gobbling toads a "toad abode".

Give slug-gobbling toads a “toad abode”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

halloween snow storm

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:

late october sun red maple

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)

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.

slope-terrace

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.

Seed catalog time

It’s February! With apologies to Andy Williams, I have to say that February starts the Most Wonderful Time of the Year for New England gardeners… we are but a hop, skip and a jump from spring now, and within the next month or two, it’ll be time to set up the cold frame and sow cold-season seeds outside, as well a start a few flats of flowering annuals indoors. I like to plant hundreds of annuals each year in various areas of my garden, and the only way I can afford such indulgence is to grow them myself from seed.

But first, I need to decide what I’m growing this year. That’s the fun part! Our coffee tables are strewn with thick magazine-style seed catalogs which have been arriving fast and furious in the past few weeks….nothing is better than sitting in front of a roaring fire on a cold February day, leafing through beautifully illustrated catalogs, planning our 2010 vegetable and flower gardens and putting together the annual seed order!

The Renee’s Garden catalog is particularly scrumptious this year, with wonderful photos and some great specialty seed collections designed for new gardeners, including “A Hummingbird Garden“, “Seeds for a Butterfly Garden“, and “A Native American Three Sisters Garden” to introduce you to the age-old concept of working with nature to grow healthy plants and crops.

I am definitely going to try growing the newly available yellow Zinnia Profusion‘ (shown above on the cover of Park’s Seed catalog). You cannot beat Profusion as a short (12″) zinnia that blooms its head off all summer for so little effort. I’ve used it in containers to bring butterflies up close to our patio, and it’s also excellent in garden beds to fill bare spots with pizzazz.  Pictured below is Zinnia ‘Profusion’ Apricot:

This year, I’ve decided to extend my “locavorous” shopping strategy and buy all my seeds from New England-based seed suppliers. As a locavore, I try to buy as much of our food from local farmers in order to support New England’s agricultural industries as well as help protect our region’s remaining open spaces for local, sustainable food production and habitat for declining wildlife species. Buying from suppliers who grow their plants in the tough climate of New England also means that their seeds should do well in my cold central Massachusetts valley garden.

So…..Turkey Hill Brook Farm’s 2010 seed orders will go to……(drum roll please)

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which is an employee-owned company based in Maine, offering good quality vegetable, cover crop, herb, and flower seeds. They are a member of the Safe Seed Initiative, meaning that they do not buy or sell genetically engineered or modified seeds or plants.

Select Seeds in Union, CT, specializing in old-fashioned fragrant flowers, flowering vines, and hard-to-find heirloom annuals and perennials. Their seed collections include butterfly habitat gardens, hummingbird gardens and an old-fashioned fragrance garden that looks and sounds very enticing!

John Scheepers in Bantam, CT – nicely illustrated catalog for home vegetable gardeners, containing recipes, lots of interesting and useful garden tips, plus seeds for fragrant flowers and collections for habitat flower gardens.

So let the 2010 Garden Season begin! If you’re looking for me this weekend, I’ll be on the couch with a couple of sleeping dogs and a glass of wine, flipping through catalogs, making my list and checking it twice!  I’ll blog later on about what seeds I ordered and why.

Special Note: I have no business relationship with any of these companies other than as a happy customer. If you know of any other New England-based seed companies that you think belong on my supplier list, let me know!