Category Archives: New England native plant gardens

Use Your Weeds! Violets as Groundcover

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

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

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

violets raised bed IMG_9762

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

violets raised beds late summer IMG_0550

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

 

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

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

Virginia Rose

Have you always loved roses, but hate the spraying, fertilizing, watering and pruning they require to keep them from looking a mess? Please meet the lovely Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana). Unlike its highly-bred, cultivated cousins (hybrid tea roses and modern cultivars of climbing roses) this native eastern rose is hardy to the coldest parts of New England, grows happily in almost any soil, needs little to to no irrigation except for rainwater, and blooms its head off through June with pink flowers with the most heavenly fragrance. Not to mention, their beautiful red fruits (hips) persist right through the winter, feeding birds and providing winter interest when the landscape is otherwise white and brown. What’s not to love?

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IMG_4918 virginia rose hip closeup snow reduced

Most Virginia roses bloom in light or medium pink, although there are white-flowering cultivars available too (I’ve not had good experience with the white-flowering form, however). Their flowers might not have the fluffy allure of the larger double-formed hybrids, but their single-flowering form makes them much more attractive to butterflies and other pollinators, who don’t have to fight their way through many layers of petals to access the sweet nectar and pollen at the center of the flower. And did I mention its fragrance?

When it’s happy, which is in any decent soil with good drainage and plenty of sunshine, Virginia rose will spread fairly rapidly within just a few years, so if you have a large area you’d like to fill in quickly with a wildlife-friendly native plant, Virginia makes a great choice.

In bloom, a pink tapestry of Virginia rose mingles beautifully with foxglove, cranesbill and other late spring bloomers and will form a low, thorny hedge that offers excellent year-round predator protection for the birds visiting your gardens. This sunny hillside of our farm was planted with a single container of Virginia rose in 2006, and by June 2009 it had happily spread to form a sizeable thicket:

IMG_3641 virginia rose thicket reduced

As you might imagine, its spreading habit (through underground roots that snake in every direction) makes Virginia rose unsuitable for small gardens, where its roots will eventually take over surrounding plants and form dense canes that shade them out. A better-behaved but just as pretty wild rose is Virginia’s closest cousin, Carolina or pasture rose (R. carolina) which spreads by slowly enlarging clumps rather than spreading roots.

In the thicket above, an annual mowing stops Virginia rose runners from spreading into the adjacent lawn, but you can also contain its advancing roots with a hard root pruning every few years with a sharp shovel. A driveway also makes a good boundary, as long as you don’t use large amounts of salt to de-ice your driveway.

Note: Please let it be known that I would dearly love for the above Virginia rose thicket to spread and cover the entire hill, but hubby has drawn a literal line in the sand (with rocks!) where his lawn cannot be further encroached! I am hoping he won’t notice the line has moved a few times

So planting Virginia rose in beds with other perennials is not a good idea, but in a new planting of a large area, you can interplant with self-seeding annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials to fill the bed for the first few years while the rose spreads….I initially planted the above bed with common sage, purple coneflower, cranesbill, foxglove, cosmos and cleome, and after 4 years, mostly only the foxglove remains in the area, probably because its seedlings are more shade-tolerant than the others. The others I have simply moved to other areas of the garden or given away to friends.

If you’ve grown roses before, you’ll appreciate that Virginia’s foliage is very resistant to most of the common diseases that disfigure roses. Like all roses (wild or cultivated), Japanese beetles love to eat its foliage, but if your plant is healthy and vigorous, it should shrug off any damage. These roses bloom in June in central Massachusetts, and Japanese beetles don’t tend to arrive in large numbers in our area til early July, so by the time the beetles start chewing, you should have other beautiful blooming plants to distract you from a few holes in their leaves.

 Virginia rose canes top out at about 4′, so you should never need to prune them for height, especially because you’d be cutting off one of the plant’s best features, its plump red hips that you barely notice until the first winter snows suddenly bring them to life:

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The hips must be pretty sour to taste, because the birds don’t seem to touch them at all during the winter. They disappear around the beginning of spring here, so winter’s deep freezes must sweeten them up a bit, or else late winter birds are too hungry to be picky. I often see their thorny stems used as a temporary hideout by foraging winter birds, who get spooked by hungry hawks hovering around my bird gardens and feeders. The white background makes tiny birds much more visible to larger predators (my dogs will confirm this because they constantly mistake them for chipmunks!) but even a cat is unlike to risk those nasty thorns and go in after them…

If your garden conditions are boggy or wet, the best native roses for garden use are swamp rose (R. palustris) and New England rose (R. nitida), although these bloom a little later than the field roses in summer.

If you look, you may still find native roses growing wild in natural areas. More often than not, though, roses that you see in the wild are the invasive multiflora rose (R. multiflora), which is often assumed to be native but is an introduced rose from Asia that has been steadily overtaking old fields in New England for decades:

19-x Multiflora rose closeup cropped reduced Although birds do eat their berries, multiflora rose has a highly negative impact on its surroundings, forming enormous thickets that crowd out the native plants that underpin balanced and healthy ecosystems. Chances are, if you see a large, fragrant sprawling wild rose with white flowers and arching stems, it’s multiflora rose. Removing these from your property can be a great contribution to protecting local biodiversity…you can either replant with one of our native New England roses, or use the “wait, weed and watch” approach, which means simply rooting out any remaining multiflora canes that pop up over time, and allowing any native plants that are still hanging on to make a comeback.

If you try the wait, weed and watch approach, be prepared for a funny thing to happen. You’ll begin to notice an increasing variety of birds, butterflies and other interesting wildlife that visit your naturalized area, many more so than your more cultivated garden areas, and eventually you will realize that your wildlife garden, with all the life it attracts, is your most beautiful and favorite garden of them all…

** BY THE WAY ** Apologies to my email blog subscribers who received a half-written article on Wednesday by email – I hit the “Publish” button instead of the “Save” button and the article went out as is  {deep embarrassment}. The complete article is available here: Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Red Buckeye

Last week I did a talk on pollinator-friendly landscaping at the annual conference of the Ecological Landscaping Association. It was a great place to spend a Friday, because the conference and marketplace was something of a meeting of the minds of every 21st century plant geek on the right coast. Case in point: After I finished my talk, a woman approached me and told me that she grows Red Buckeye, (which I had mentioned in my talk as a good tree for pollinators), and that when it blooms, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are ALL OVER the flowers. She lives in central New Hampshire, which is a similar climate to our cold Worcester Hills river valley.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is an understory tree native to the woods from North Carolina southwards, so it’s not a tree you’d see in the wild here in Massachusetts. I’ve seen it growing at Garden in the Woods (the botanic garden of New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, MA) where it blooms in early June:

Red-Buckeye

When you look at the flowers (below) you can immediately see why this tree is so popular with hummingbirds. The red tubular flowers are perfectly adapted for them to drink nectar from the base of the flower, using their extra-long tongues (pollinating the flowers in the process).

Red-Buckeye-closeupWhen choosing native plants for my own garden, I tend to look for plants that are native to the ecosystems of central Massachusetts. Plants that originate locally are best for a wildlife garden because they are adapted to meet the needs of the local wildlife who co-evolved alongside them.

But, when somebody tells me about a non-native Hummingbird magnet plant that is not invasive here, I simply MUST grow it!  The presence of feisty Hummingbirds in our garden is something that inspired my interest in gardening for habitat, so I’ll plant anything that brings ’em in. The Red Buckeye shown above is growing in the moist meadow-edge garden at Garden in the Woods….just the habitat that we have in abundance here!

Now, where can I find a Red Buckeye, either plants or seeds? It’s now on my Plant List for 2009 ….

Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary

Recently we had a tour of Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Monson, MA. Founded in 1939, the sanctuary has 1000s of acres of protected wildlife habitat, and well-maintained pond, woodland and pasture habitats brimming with plants native to the US.

I had never seen such large stands of one of (I believe) the best native plants for New England woodland and shade gardens, Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa). We were lucky to visit when it was in full bloom. I think the area looks like a spooky wood:

Cohosh

Black Cohosh is an excellent plant for attracting pollinators and grows best in rich, moist (but draining) soils such as a woodland edge.

Another thrill for me was to see Plymouth Gentian (Sabatia kennedyana) which is native to clean coastal pond edges of the east coast. Because of coastal development and water pollution, this plant is now very rare and very few wild populations still exist. Our tour-guide Leslie Duthie generously offered to send me some seeds from their population of Plymouth Gentian to try to grow on the edge of our farm pond.

PlymouthGentian

Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) is another plant I have never seen growing in the wild, although I have admired it in William Cullina’s The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers. Here it’s growing in a sunny open field containing native grasses and perennials.

MountainMint

Mountain Mint’s numerous white flowers make it a good drought-tolerant substitute for Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) for dry areas of a natural habitat garden. Its pollen and nectar are valuable for pollinators so it’s a good butterfly plant. When we visited, this area was buzzing with thousands of pollinators of all shapes and sizes, none of which took any notice of us.

A beautiful field of the native grass Little Bluestem near the old barn:

LittleBluestemField

 

I’d love to see this later in the year when the Little Bluestem has taken on its gorgeous reddish bronze hues. I’m sure the area is chock full of Goldfinches, Finches and other songbirds in winter, foraging on the seedheads of the grasses. Leslie told us that they always mow this field outside of bird nesting season, to provide safe nesting for ground-nesting birds who often suffer high mortality rates in New England hayfields.

The sanctuary was founded by Arthur Norcross, an early advocate of the cultivation of native plants and the protection of wildlife habitat from development. A true pioneer in the world of plant conservation, Norcross performed many “plant rescues”, saving native plants from development sites and transporting them to his sanctuary where many of these populations still flourish.

A gem in central/western Massachusetts, Norcross is worth a visit! Best of all, it has free admission and they hold many (free) education programs throughout the year.

Click for another (later) article about Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary.