Category Archives: New England native plants

Native New England Shrubs for Pollinators: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

Thriving in lean soil and attracting the good bugs, New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a low flowering native shrub for full-sun areas of the garden.

Click below to read my profile of New Jersey Tea on Houzz:

Backyard Natives: Wild Cranesbill

Cranesbill has long been a staple plant of New England gardens for its pretty spring flowers and low ground-covering habit, but despite common names such as New Hampshire Purple, most of our garden cranesbills hail from Europe and Western Asia.wild cranesbill geranium maculatum

If you’re looking for easy and non-aggressive native plants to fill your garden with color and seasonal interest, our eastern native species Spotted Cranesbill/Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is worth growing if you have an area with moist soil and a bit of late-summer shade.

Wild Cranesbill blooms with cheery pink flowers in late spring, and its distinctive toothed lobed foliage add texture to a cottage or rock garden, a woodland edge, or nestled into gaps between shrubs in a border. With a long history of medicinal usages, this plant belongs in every modern herb garden.

Wild Cranesbill was once abundant along country roads in central Massachusetts, but the steady invasion of aggressive non-native plant species means its cheerful spring presence may become a thing of the past. By growing it in your own gardens, you can help maintain local populations of this hardy and (hopefully) resilient plant that (like many other native plants) is under threat in the wild.

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Wild cranesbill still grows on the edges of a nearby roadside — surrounded by exotic weeds including Multiflora Rose, Garlic Mustard and European agricultural grasses.

Several years ago, I collected seeds from these roadside plants and grew them in my own gardens, where they thrive tucked between larger shrubs in the leaf-enriched soils along the stream’s edge. Now that the dreaded invasive plant Garlic-Mustard has reached our neighborhood, I’m not sure if the wild roadside geraniums will survive the onslaught.

Garlic-Mustard: Another Threat to Woodland Biodiversity

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If you see this plant with small white flowers and scalloped leaf edges, yank it immediately! If it’s flowering, cut off and throw away the flower heads before the plant goes to seed!

Garlic-Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was rarely seen in this part of Massachusetts even 10 years ago. Introduced into the USA from Europe and Asia as an edible plant and kitchen herb, this plant has spread across the North American continent, seeding itself quickly into disturbed areas to form dense colonies. Garlic-Mustard is especially dangerous to eastern forests, because of its shade tolerance, and because its roots produce chemicals that kill the microbial soil life essential to the growth of native trees and understory plants.

I first noticed Garlic-Mustard growing on a roadside in our neighborhood in 2007, and since then have watched in dismay as it has quickly spread (by seeds distributed by wind and wildlife) through our river valley. If you see this plant on your property, act quickly before it can spread further. It is a biennial plant, so it blooms in its second year from seed, which is when most people tend to notice it. The best approach is to pull up any plants by the roots if they are first-year plants. If the plants are flowering or have already bloomed, cut off their flower heads before their seeds can disperse. Each plant can contain up to 6000 seeds which remain viable for at least 5 years, so throw these away in the trash and do not compost them! Click here for more pictures and information on Garlic Mustard.

The Year I Shall Win the Pachysandra War

Anybody who has heard me talk about gardening knows that I have an uneasy relationship with Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) which is easily the Number 1 planted shade groundcover in New England gardens. Oh sure, it spreads quickly to form a solid green mat in the shade under trees, and its evergreen foliage stays green all winter. You can find this plant at every garden club plant sale and divisions of it have been passed from gardener to gardener for at least a generation. There is probably not a single neighborhood in Massachusetts that doesn’t have an acre or two of of what horticulture guru William Cullina calls “the vinyl siding of landscaping” (an expression that makes me giggle every time)…

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 But this plant has a darker side, through no fault of its own other than the fact that it’s a foreign import into a landscape where it has no natural controls. Unfortunately, when Japanese pachysandra is planted near moist woodlands in New England, it can quickly spread into the woods through its underground roots, choking out anything else that happens to be growing there and threatening unique and fragile woodland plant communities. There are few (if any) native herbivores (insects or other leaf eaters) that can digest the foliage of this alien plant, or co-evolved pests that control its growth in any way. And once Japanese pachysandra is established in an area to its liking, good luck removing it. Ever!

In the photo above, this lush border of pachysandra needs to be rigorously “pushed back” with a sharp spade twice a year, to keep it from becoming an entire backyard of pachysandra….

When we moved onto our small farm six years ago, we were delighted to find a beautiful stream flowing through it, and even more thrilled to discover unique native plants such as trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpit, Christmas and sensitive ferns, and winterberry holly growing in the rich, moist soil along its banks. I did find some Japanese pachysandra also growing along with Japanese barberry (another invasive planted by a previous well-meaning gardener), but I targetted those for removal in hopes of expanding the populations of the native plants. I spent a few hot summer days standing in the cool water of the stream pulling the roots out by hand (it was not a very large area), and thought my work was done.

Fast forward a year or two, when I noticed that not only was the pachysandra still holding on along the streamside, but that it had literally jumped the garden gate, and had spread at least 10′ into the woods:

pachysandra streamside

I began beating back the pachysandra again – trying carefully not to damage tree roots and the now-tattered jack-in-the-pulpits. I do not use the weed killer Roundup (or its cousin Rodeo) because of its negative impacts on amphibians, not to mention the fact that this heavily-used neuro-toxic herbicide is being increasingly linked with fetal cell death in humans, along with other alarming impacts to people and wildlife. So armed with only a small garden fork and my hands, I have opted for hand-to-hand pachysandra combat. This spring, I declared 2011 “The Year I Shall Remove the Pachysandra Regime”, and each day I’ve resolved to pull out pachysandra roots for 15 minutes until the pachysandra is completely GONE. Wish me luck! I hope to report back in a few years on the newly restored native plant populations that should be making a comeback!

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is one of the cool New England bog plants that I’m trying to save from a thickening mat of Japanese pachysandra in our “wet woods” (Photo of jack-in-the-pulpit copyright Trudy Walther) 

A note about hand-weeding: Pulling weeds by hand might seem like a lot of work, but its slow and steady pace is great for teaching you about the makeup of your soil and how certain plants impact their surroundings. I’ve noticed that where my pachysandra roots form a tangled mass of stolons (runners), they seem to suck up all the soil moisture from an otherwise boggy area, and the resulting soil becomes dry and lifeless. In my pachysandra monoculture, I find no other plants, no tiny decomposing insects or butterfly caterpillars looking for leaves they can eat, no salamanders or frogs, nothing at all except the thick white pachysandra roots. It’s clear to me that the pachysandra has, in a few short years, impoverished my rich woodland soil, and nearby plants (and their associated wildlife) are all suffering from these rapid changes to their environment.

If you’re also battling pachysandra, please share your control stories from the trenches!

 

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!

White Wood Aster…the New England “Grow-anywhere” Plant

As a garden coach, I am often asked the question “What can I plant in dry shady garden conditions?” Most of New England’s landscape is dominated by trees (and if you don’t believe me, look down when you fly across most of Massachusetts…mostly what you see are trees and water!), and gardening in the shade of a dense tree canopy can be a major challenge to gardeners here. Limited light in summer means less flamboyant blooms, and evergreen trees (which soak up water from the surrounding soil) leave little moisture for understory plants to grow. Peek inside a dense Hemlock or Pine forest and you’ll see very little undergrowth.

So what plants do thrive in dense evergreen shade in New England? More than you might think. Once again, let nature be your guide, and take a look around nearby natural areas and see what’s growing already. Use a good field guide so you can rule out any of the invasive non-native plants (eg Garlic Mustard!) that are muscling their way into our forest ecosystems. In cold areas such as north-facing hills with evergreen Hemlock trees, you’ll probably notice different types of Ferns, as well as low berry-producing groundcovers such as Wintergreen (Gaultheria species) and Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). You might be lucky enough to see the Massachusetts state flower Trailing Arbutus aka Mayflower (Epigaea repens), and soak up the jasmine-like fragrance of its blooms. In drier upland woods, you may see Canada Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Lowbush Blueberry  (Vaccinium angustifolium), or Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) with their diminutive but not unattractive blooms. All of these plants are garden-worthy for a naturalized “edge” garden, but a little hard to find at nurseries.

One native plant that I see growing in just about every growing condition in Massachusetts is White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricatus). On our property, it even grows (and blooms!) at the base of an old Hemlock tree in bone-dry conditions and heavily-compacted soil from our 3 dogs chasing each other round and around the tree! (see below):

white wood aster hemlockGranted, its blooms are somewhat sparse under these inhospitable conditions, but the fact that it returns each year to bloom again is certainly a testament to this plant’s iron constitution! White Wood Aster does grow more luxuriously in areas with some moisture and sun, and has recently started popping up on the partly-shaded edges of our stream, where Jewelweed, Boneset, Goldenrod and Swamp Aster are also thriving. I always welcome these garden “volunteers”, because they are nature’s way of telling me what plants are suitable for the unique conditions in my yard. If they seed themselves in an inconvenient spot, just dig them up and move them somewhere more suitable. Your shade garden will quickly fill with color and life!

_MG_4215White Wood Aster is an excellent plant for a natural woodland “edge” to link your lawn with nearby woods. Pollinators find ample supplies of nectar and pollen in the aster’s pale late summer blooms, and if you leave their seedheads standing into winter, birds can feast on the numerous seeds produced late in the season.

So if you are looking for a tough plant to add a little pizzazz to shady areas of your garden, give White Wood Aster a try. You won’t find it at the big-box stores or the supermarket (yet!) but it is now readily available from nurseries selling native plants. In central MA I have seen it sold at Bigelow Nurseries in Northborough, Project Native in the Berkshires and the nursery at Framingham’s Garden in the Woods. It is easy to grow from seed collected from wild plants. Or, if you see it growing in one of your neighbor’s yards, ask them if you can dig up a seedling or two. Chances are, they’ll have plenty to spare, and you only need one or two plants to start your own populations of this native plant.

Seeds of Content!

It’s a Sunday in mid February and we are having yet more snow! This has been the longest and toughest winter I remember in 9 years of being back in New England. We groaned when we heard the weather forecast (another “biggie”), but I don’t mind too much because today I put in my annual seed order from Johnny’s Selected Seeds! I always order from Johnny’s – they are based in Maine so not only am I supporting our regional New England economy, but I know that anything that’s hardy enough to grow in Albion, Maine will probably survive our cold valley winters in central MA.

Johnny’s is a very wise company, sending their catalogues out in early January to tempt us flower-starved northern gardeners with lush photos (I call them “eye candy”)! I usually spend a month looking through the catalogue and making my list. It’s fun to dream about summer flowers in the dead of winter when the world outdoors is covered with the white stuff….

So, here’s what I ordered. I grew “Purple Majesty” Ornamental Millet (Pennisetum glaucum) (below, the tall plant with dark foliage) a few years ago and really liked the vertical structure and contrast it brought to my “butterfly garden”. Not to mention, later that fall, I saw American Goldfinches picking at the seeds from the tall waving stems. Anything that feeds the Goldfinches is always welcome here!  The birds did beat me to all the seeds, eating them before I had a chance to collect a few for myself! So I’ve shelled out for a new packet of 10 seeds. I have a new bed next to the barn paddock where I plan to grow it this year. I just need to plant them far enough from the fence that the horses can’t munch the seed heads, which is what they did to my tall Sunflowers last year…

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I also ordered seeds for American Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum), an eastern native plant which is excellent for natural-style gardens, offering white flowers that attract hordes of enthusiastic pollinators. I first fell for this plant when I saw it growing in a moist meadow garden at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary (below) happily mingling with native Sedge (Carex), Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Goldenrod. Choosing plants that grow naturally in those kinds of conditions means that this established meadow area requires no irrigation or fertilization. I plan to try Mountain Mint in my dry, upland meadow garden as well as right next to our farm pond, to figure out where it will best thrive.

MountainMint

The foliage has a minty taste, so Mountain Mint is worth investigating as a deer-resistant plant. Many of my clients have a problem with deer devouring their prize plantings, so I’m always looking for plant suggestions that might be less likely to become deer forage.

I also picked up seeds for pink and white cultivars of Hummingbird Sage (Salvia coccinea). I love the “Lady in Red” cultivar of Salvia coccinea because of its vigorous growth and  drawing power for hummingbirds and other long-tongued pollinators, so this year I’m adding some more varieties to add to some garden areas that need a little pizzazz from mid to late summer. Below is “Lady in Red” growing in a pot hidden in a Cotoneaster bed, bringing those Hummingbirds right up close to our porch!

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Another new plant I’m trying this year is Flax (Linum usitatissimum). In winter, I feed my horses ground-up Flax seed to add some valuable Omega-3s to their hay-based winter diet. So this year I’ll try growing a small patch of Flax, and if it does well without too much
fussing, I’ll set aside a larger area for it in future years. I try to make the most of our small but fertile patch of earth, and if I can save money on my equine costs and reduce our carbon footprint by “growing it ourselves”, all the better.
The tiny flowers of Flax look as though they are insect-pollinated, so hopefully they will provide good yields in our “pollinator-friendly” landscape here at Turkey Hill Brook Farm.

So….what’s stopping you? Start dreaming of spring and order some seeds of wildlife-friendly plants.The days are getting longer and it won’t be long til the lush greenery of summer returns to our frozen landscape! Promise!

Blue-eyed Grass

In another example of the “it’s amazing what will grow if you let it” category, today’s blog entry is devoted to Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium), shown below at Garden in the Woods:

Blue eyed Grass Sisyrinchium reducedNot actually a grass but a member of the Iris (Iridacaea) family, this cute little New England native plant blooms in early summer with small blue flowers with yellow eyes. This spring, I happened to notice a small population of Blue-eyed Grass growing in a small grassy clearing next to our barn, where Rob’s mower hadn’t yet reached. I would never have noticed it except for its blooms! Otherwise it just looked like a few blades of grass. I dug them up and transplanted them into another bed, where they appear to be thriving.

Blue-eyed Grass does well in moist areas with some sun, and if happy in its spot, will spread to form stands. Its diminutive size is perfect for adding a grasslike effect to a small garden area where an ornamental grass would be too overwhelming.

Garden Blues

If you have boggy or moist areas in your garden, Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is the plant for you. With its bright blue flowers (rare in the horticultural world),  this striking plant is a native New England perennial plant that grows naturally along streams and in wooded areas. Rich in nectar, hummingbirds and other pollinators are attracted to its flowers, and birds hang onto its tall stems snacking on the tiny seeds later in the year.

rudbeckia blue lobelia tomatoes IMG_0752 - Version 2A relative of our other native lobelia, Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), I have found Great Blue Lobelia to be the hardier of the two in my central MA garden. The photo above shows it growing on the edge of our farm pond.

Lobelia siphilitica, as its Latin name indicates, was used medicinally by Native Americans, who used it to treat Syphilis. In fact, Native Americans sold this secret to early European colonists who were desperate for a cure for the disease.  However, it has never been proven as an effective treatment for Syphilis, perhaps because Native Americans used it in conjunction with other native plants in their treatment.

According to the Plants for a Future database, some Native American tribes also used the finely ground roots of Great Blue Lobelia to calm the fury of arguing couples and prevent divorce. Whether it was successful in resolving marital difficulties is not clear, but as the roots can induce vomiting, therapy is probably a better bet.