Category Archives: Pollinator-friendly gardens

Drought? No Problem. We’re Native.

Late-season-blooming New England Aster, central MA, September 25th

It’s been a challenging summer for gardeners in central MA, where we’ve barely had a drop of rain in months. In my own garden, (with the exception of vegetables and annuals), I only water plants during their first season in the ground — after that, they’re on their own to live on rainfall alone. So it’s been interesting to observe how my garden plants have done in this year’s severe drought. We’ve had dry years in our 11 years here at THB Farm, but this spring and summer’s drought has been unprecedented, with the underground well at our barn dry since July now.

Not surprisingly, most of the eastern native plants did just fine. They’re well-adapted to the vagaries of the New England climate, with some summers a washout and others dry as a bone. The late-blooming New England Aster (pictured above) grows wild in the moist meadows of the eastern US, but apparently it does not require moist soil to bloom and thrive!

Earlier this summer, the Monarda cousins (Wild Bergamot and the red-flowering Bee Balm) both appeared oblivious to the drought conditions:

Pink blooms of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in a summer with almost no rain

Pink blooms of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in a summer with almost no rain

We are so grateful for our farm pond, which we use to irrigate our vegetable plants (which are NOT native and NOT happy to live on rainfall alone!). But the native bee balm and Helen’s flower (Helenium autumnale) growing on the pond banks don’t receive a drop of irrigation other than rain, and they bloomed just fine:

Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is native to moist, open areas in the northeast, but will thrive in ordinary dry soil, and attracts hordes of hummingbirds to its bright red summer flowers!

Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is native to moist, open areas in the northeast, but will thrive in ordinary dry soil. Bee Balm attracts hordes of hummingbirds to its bright red summer flowers!

The Canada Goldenrod covered itself in its bright yellow flowers for almost a month, keeping a variety of small butterflies, bees and beneficial insects very busy foraging for pollen and nectar!

Canada Goldenrod is too aggressive for planting in gardens, but if you have a space where it can grow on its own, it's one of the best plants for pollinators, beneficial predator insects, and birds! Goldenrod does NOT cause hay fever, it is falsely accused for the wind-blown, allergenic pollen of RAGWORT, which is the real culprit in fall allergies!

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is too aggressive for planting in gardens, but if you have a space where it can grow on its own, it’s one of the best plants for pollinators, beneficial predator insects and birds! Goldenrod does NOT cause hay fever, it is falsely accused for the wind-blown, allergenic pollen of RAGWORT, which is the real culprit in fall allergies!

Rudbeckia and Great Blue Lobelia (in the background behind the vegetable bed) are asking Drought? What drought?

Vegetables are still going strong well into September (even tomatoes and cucumbers) BUT they do receive irrigation from our farm pond.

Vegetables are still going strong well into September (even tomatoes and cucumbers) BUT they do receive irrigation from our farm pond.

Fall is here and I’m hoping all my garden friends have had a bountiful and successful season!  It’s not over yet though…fall bloomers are still providing late-season color and nectar for pollinators! Here’s our mist flower/hardy ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum, formerly classified as Eupatorium coelestinum) blooming cheerfully in late September without a drop of rain since late July:

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Conoclinium coelestinum is native to moist meadows from New Jersey southwards, but grows well in New England too. It forms stands from a spreading root system, so plant it where it can have a bit of room.

Fall is a great time to plant perennials and shrubs in southern New England — plant roots will have a few months to establish before the ground freezes. Consider including some drought-tolerant native beauties into your garden now for next year’s blooms, wildlife value and reduced watering needs!

 

 

 

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:

Taming Wildflowers

IMG_3534On St. Patrick’s Day today, our farm is still buried in snow with not a bit of green to be found! Except for one bowl of lettuce greens under lights in our sunroom, and some mini-greenhouses sown with perennial and shrub seeds “cold stratifying” outdoors  (left), the only gardening going on here is in the dreams of the gardeners.

IMG_2632So last week when this beautiful book arrived in the mail, crammed with gorgeous photos of wild flowers … well, let’s just say it made this winter-weary gardener’s soul very happy!

Taming Wildflowers: Bringing the Beauty and Splendor of Nature’s Blooms Into Your Own Backyard (written by my friend Miriam Goldberger who runs Wildflower Farm in Ontario), is a beautifully-illustrated guide to growing a garden filled with (mostly) native North American plants from seed.

This book is a treat for garden book lovers who value style and substance. IMG_2643Open it to any page and you’ll find stunning photos of distinctive beautiful native plants that will make you long for summer’s color and abundance — along with detailed instructions how to grow 60 American native plants that don’t just look pretty, but also support dwindling populations of butterflies, pollinators and birds. Wonderfully designed, bound and produced using recycled paper harvested from sustainably managed forests, it was also printed in Canada, not in China like most illustrated gardening books — including my own!

Taming Wildflowers is a great resource for gardeners learning to grow plants from seed, with valuable information about specific germination requirements of each plant. If you’ve ever tried growing swamp milkweed or orange butterfly milkweed (pictured below right) from seed, for example, you’ll know that it’s not easy to get seeds to germinate — milkweeds seem to sprout only after the seeds have experienced an extended cold period. This book guides you through the whole process.

IMG_2637 butterfly weed

The photos of each plant at the young seedling stage are also very useful to natural-style gardeners — learning to ID young seedlings makes it easy to recognize the good guys (plants you want to encourage or propagate) from the weeds when you work in your own gardens.

I am generally skeptical of garden books that span the entire North American continent with their plant recommendations. Here in New England we garden in a totally different climate than other parts of the country, and plants that are native to other areas might be totally inappropriate for our changeable climate, OR potentially become invasive and spread out of control. For the 60 native American plants that Taming Wildflowers profiles, each plant description lists the states where the plant is considered native, so readers can choose plants that work in their own region. For eco-savvy gardeners that want to attract beneficial insects and pest predators, each plant also lists the variety of short and long-tongued bee pollinators, predatory insects, and even birds attracted by the plant’s flowers or foliage.

profusion zinnia container

Dwarf Zinnia ‘Profusion’, easy to grow from seed.

One chapter encourages the growing of “Non-Native Must Haves” — exotic easy-from-seed annuals such as Zinnia, Mexican Sunflower and Larkspur that are not currently considered invasive but are worth growing in North American gardens for their beauty and function. Native plant purists won’t approve, but as a self-professed ‘color junkie’, I enjoy adding colorful annuals in and around my veggie and flower beds to add visual impact and attract lots of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Miriam’s book is filled with inspiration and ideas for nature-scaping your gardens using wild plants and will appeal to wildlife gardeners, herbalists, and organic farmers looking for cheap and easy plants to attract predatory insects to their crops. One chapter shows brides-to-be how to plan a DIY Wildflower Wedding, with photos and ideas for using wild flowers in stunning bouquets, boutonnieres, baskets and table arrangements. I so wish this book had existed when we planned our (mostly DIY) wedding many years ago!

IMG_2636No matter where you live in North America, Taming Wildflowers will inspire you to recreate a bit of natural beauty in your own space. Although it looks as though we probably won’t see bare ground here in central MA until April, in the meantime, Miriam’s gorgeous book will continue to feed my dreams of sunny summer days and meadows filled with butterflies, birds and dragonflies…

 


 

 

Book Details:

Taming Wildflowers: Bringing the Beauty and Splendor of Nature’s Blooms into your Own Backyard

Author: Miriam Goldberger

Published by St. Lynn’s Press, Pittsburgh PA

194 pages

Published 6th March 2014

Available for $18.95 (US) at bookstores, or directly from the author at Wildflower Farm.

Disclosure: I received this book from St. Lynn’s Press as a review copy. I received no payment for reviewing the book, and my opinions are entirely my own! I’m always happy to spread the word about inspiring books that help DIY gardeners fill their space with site-adapted plants to feed their bellies, souls, and wildlife too!

 

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.

marigolds peppers IMG_0972_2

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:

04-09-braconid wasp

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:

tomato hornworm IMG_0864_2


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:

newfs beneficial insect nest box IMG_6759

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

bumble-bee-box-newfs

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.

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.

japanese beetle parasitic fly eggs IMG_0709

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:

millie eating japanese beetles IMG_0675

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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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).