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Floppy Plants

My last blog entry lamented about the cold, wet summer of 2009, in which many plants grew so tall from all the moisture that they fell right over, creating a huge mess in many of our gardens…

Large plantings of Bee Balm and Obedient Plant on the pond banks collapsed in a tangle, their flowers smothered. So much for my lush summer pondside color display and all that nectar for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds!  And there is nothing more sad than beautiful peonies flattened by heavy rain. Looking on the bright side, my husband (who has a hidden talent in flower arranging!) tells me that the longer stems were great for big flower vases. But what can a gardener do about floppy plants?

It’s OK to pinch plants!
Staking plants is definitely an option, but somehow that seems like too much work to me. Not to mention, the plants still might flop over. Gardener’s Supply sells plastic stem supports (kind of like horticultural girdles) which seem to work, but they are expensive for those on a budget. Next year, I plan to pre-emptively prune some of the worst offenders on this summer’s flop list. In late spring, after the plants have emerged and are between 4-8″ tall, shear or pinch their stems closer to the the ground, leaving some foliage intact to help the plant rebound quickly. Each stem then sprouts multiple stems from from where it was cut, resulting in slightly smaller (but more numerous) flowers and sturdier stems less likely to fall over later in the year.

Below: the flowering stems of Sedum (Autumn Stonecrop) toppled over:

IMG_1603-1Below: Sedum when grown in half-decent soil with some moisture, benefits from an early season stem pinching to keep the plant stems from toppling from the sheer weight of its blooms.Autumn Stonecrop is a late-season pollinator magnet, and as long as it gets some sun, will grow in most New England garden soils. It usually needs no pruning at all in poor,dry soils, making it a good low-maintenance choice for a dry roadside planting or an area with hot blazing sun.

sedum-drivewayYou might be asking yourself, why pinch plants back if the aim is to have a natural garden? Plants growing in the wild seem to stay upright without any help from us. But take a look an old field blooming with wild flowers and notice how dense the vegetation is. There’s no room for flopping, because the crowd of plants hold each other up. And chances are, the soil in that old field is not as rich as your typical garden bed, so plants do not grow as tall. So if you are trying to achieve a meadow effect of your own, plant the area as thickly as you can to allow plants to support themselves on their own. And don’t over-fertilize. A little compost on occasion is all a natural-style garden should ever need to keep itself thriving.

Plants suitable for pinching to control height:

The following plants will grow sturdier, more heavily branched stems  (and more flowers!)  if you cut their stems back early in the season:

New England Aster
New York Aster
Tall Sedum varieties (Autumn Joy, Blackjack, etc)
Bee Balm
Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)

Some plants, such as peonies, are just not suitable for cutting back to prevent collapse. Your only option for the larger flowering peonies is to either situate them where their heavy flowers can cascade freely over the edge of a wall during bloom time, or stake the stems and keep the plants rigid using peony rings. Horticulturalist and plant author Tracy DiSibato-Aust also suggests removing the first terminal flower bud on peonies to prevent the weight of the large first flower from pulling the remaining plant down.

In a large scale landscape design, pinching back your plants is probably too labor-intensive, but for most of us with smaller garden areas or vignettes of natural habitat, pinching plants can keep a habitat garden tidier and more manicured, something your neighbors might appreciate if you live in the ‘burbs.


One of the reasons I love to host garden tours here is because when lots of gardeners get together, I never know what great information I’m going to pick up myself. The collective knowledge, experiences and diverse perspectives of a group of gardeners always seems to result in an exciting and dynamic interchange of information and useful advice. Not to mention, sometimes I learn a thing or two about my own gardens.

IMG_3952This weekend I hosted a tour of our habitat landscaping, sponsored by New England Wild Flower Society. As we passed one of the Serviceberry (Amelanchier) trees on the property, somebody pointed out  a large caterpillar on one of the  leaves. When I finally spotted what she was pointing at, I saw this little guy, very well camouflaged on the leaf:

We all marvelled at her sharp eyesight for picking this caterpillar out of the green background! His green and yellow coloring almost perfectly matched his surroundings. That’s a survival tactic on the part of the caterpillar to make itself invisible to birds looking for a nice juicy caterpillar snack.

But what kind of caterpillar was it? What butterfly or moth does it morph into at a later stage of its life? Not to worry, Bonnie Drexler (Education Director at NEWFS and a teacher/naturalist herself) happened to be on the tour. She took one look and said Tiger Swallowtail! That makes sense – we have lots of those butterflies here in summer (see photo below). Bonnie also went on to explain that what appear to be large eyes on the top of the caterpillar are not actually eyes but another protective device, to try to look like a snake to scare off predators. Their eyes are actually at the opposite end of the caterpillar. This survival tactic must be fairly successful, because I see Tiger Swallowtail butterflies in just about every garden that I visit for my work.

SwallowtailI later checked one of my caterpillar books, and sure enough, Amelanchier (aka Shadblow, Serviceberry or Juneberry) is listed as one of the host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars, although they are more frequently seen on plants in the Cherry or Magnolia family. Cherries and Magnolias are very common in home gardens and natural areas of the northeast, which is why this beautiful creature is one of New England’s most familiar butterflies.

If you are a garden club or nature organization looking to book a tour at Turkey Hill Brook Farm, click here for details.

When Life Gives You Rocks, Make Terraces!

If life presents you with a sticky situation, such as emergency excavation work, why not turn it into a gardening opportunity?!


When we recently arrived home from a much-needed break, to our horror we found a flooded lawn from a burst well pipe that necessitated excavation work to repair (see above). We watched, cringing, as a backhoe removed half our lawn, patio and stone wall to uncover the burst pipe.  However, much of what the backhoe removed was enormous rocks. A plan started to form….instead of paying the contractor to remove the rocks to “somewhere else”, why not use them to create new gardens?

I talked the contractor into dumping a truckload of the excess rocks at the top of an unused hill on our property, which he was happy to do. The area is rough and steep, and covered in  Asiatic Bittersweet (an exotic invasive that is choking out native plants all across New England).  Why not terrace this steep hill, smother the weeds with cardboard, fill the terraces with compost, and use it to grow vegetables? The area is nicely sheltered and receives full sun in summer. Perfect for vegetables!

Fast forward a few weeks. After carefully rolling some of the rocks down the hill into position, we were able to fill each level with a foot of good compost using our tractor, and plant immediately. As we have time, we’ll continue to build more terraces into this section of hill and refine their appearance, but in the meantime, potatoes are already thriving on the top terrace and I have just planted squash and beans in the lower levels. Marigolds and Sweet Peas will brighten the beds and attract beneficial insects and help repel pests.


When life gives you rocks, make gardens!

Action at the Winter Feeders

It may be deepest winter, but there is still lots of bird activity on THB Farm.

Chickadee with its feathers fluffed up from the cold and wet

Chickadee with its feathers fluffed up from the cold and wet

Generally (except for nectar feeders for the hummingbirds) we don’t keep many birdfeeders here. Most of the year, there are plenty of natural food sources for them (seeds, berries, insects, worms, etc). But in winter, we always hang a few feeders just outside our windows so we can watch the bird action from our hibernatory state indoors! And judging by the number of visitors, the birds really do appreciate an easy snack at a time when insect populations are at their lowest and many seed plants are deep under snow.

Chickadees are probably our most common feeder visitors, and we love watching them develop “superhighway” flight paths to and from the feeders. Those visiting the feeder always fly the low route, while those returning to nearby tree perches always take the high road out. Amazing how well organized they are, and we never see collisions…

We always keep a winter feeder filled with Thistle seed. Tiny seed-eating birds such as American Goldfinches, Chickadees and Tufted Titmice all feed from it, and the small holes of the feeder prevent squirrels from ravaging the seed supply…

We also fill a tray feeder with Safflower seed, which attracts many of our feathered friends but not squirrels or House Sparrows (the “thugs” of the local bird world). And, a couple of Suet feeders at the front window attract insectivorous Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, as well as a Song Sparrow who is a year-round resident and a highly talented songster:

songsparrow_closer If you look carefully at the picture below, you’ll see a bright red Northern CardinalCardinal Richelieu (as Rob has named him…) spends a lot of time here during bad weather. He sits at the edge of a grove of Rhododendron shrubs, scoping out the scene near the feeder, and making an occasional flying visit for some Safflower seed. Birds won’t visit a feeder unless they feel safe, so dense evergreen shrubs planted nearby gives them a safe place to dive if predators such as Hawks pay a visit.


A few weeks ago, I was surprised to see a Carolina Wren (below) at our feeding station. They are not usually resident in New England, but their populations do drift northwards during milder years. When really bad weather hits, though, they often seek food and shelter at residential bird feeders. We had a string of several snow storms over the past few weeks, which is probably why he was here.  The last time I saw one of these birds was in the very bad winter of 2003, when one took shelter from the wind inside our patio chiminea. They are shy and never stay for long, and they have such a beautiful song, so I always feel lucky to have them visit…


This plump little Carolina Wren had to squeeze hard to get through holes designed to keep larger birds from hogging the suet.

And finally, on the subject of winter bird feeding, check out this winter scene from our brook. The seed heads on the right are Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and birds are still foraging from them! If you can stand it, leave some of your garden plant stems standing into the winter. Not only are the seeds a source of winter food for birds, but many important pollinators and other beneficial insects overwinter (or lay their eggs) inside hollow plant stems. It’s always tempting to clean up your perennial beds in the fall, but even leaving a few patches of plant stems and seed heads standing will help sustain bird populations through our tough New England winters…


Stay warm and don’t forget the wildlife outside your door!

Garden Genius

I’ve always heard that a messy desk is the sign of a genius. I am not sure if the inverse is necessarily true, but my husband has a meticulously tidy desk at work and he’s not that dumb!

As somebody who has always – at work and at home – had a desk overflowing with piles of papers, books, things to read, etc, I naturally would like to agree with the mantra. But does the same hold true in the garden?

As I’ve mentioned before, a natural habitat garden can be, by nature, a little disheveled. Packing in a diversity of plants and plant types not only provides shelter and housing for many tiny critters, it also means that the garden, when viewed from a distance, literally brims with colors, textures and shapes of all sizes. Some might even call it – gasp – untidy?!

Lilly F garden 2But I’d like to argue that both a messy desk and a messy garden is the sign of an effective mind. My piles of papers and books contain information that I know I’ll need again sometime soon for my work (although I admit I could do with a good filing system!). My habitat gardens reflect a gardening style that aims to create natural balance on my little patch of earth, that supplies all the essential ingredients for a healthy “bio-stew” of micro-organisms, insects, animals, plants that together create a healthy, functioning ecosystem that requires no toxic chemical input from me.

Genius? You don’t have to be, as long as you follow my golden rules of natural landscaping:

  • Choosing plants suited for your particular site conditions, rather than trying to change your
    conditions to suit certain plants.
  • Replacing all or part of your lawn with areas of plants, shrubs and trees that provide benefits for birds, pollinators and beneficial insects, and reducing your need to mow
  • Reducing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in favor of organic techniques and products such as companion planting and compost
  • Identifying and removing ecologically invasive plants from your landscape to prevent them from forming monocultures, which reduce the overall biodiversity of the area
  • Using native plants wherever possible to reduce the need for fertilizing, spraying and watering, as well as provide essential resources for the native wildlife who have evolved to depend on them
  • Recognizing that most bugs are “good bugs”, most bees are gentle and do not sting, and that insects in general are essential to healthy ecosystems.
  • Letting go of the idea that we need fussy, high-maintenance exotic plants in order to have a beautiful garden.

You’ll notice that most of these tenets require you to observe and respect the rules of nature. In other words, letting nature take care of itself. Now that‘s genius.

DCF 1.0


Snowbirds heading South

While I was out doing barn chores this morning, I heard the familiar honking of a huge flock of Canadian Geese flying overhead, heading for warmer climes. They were flying north to south, probably following the path of Turkey Hill Brook, and really struggling to fly against a strong southwesterly wind. I stopped my work for a minute to listen. For a few moments, their honking masked all other noise, and I felt enveloped by the sound, as though I was suddenly thrust into the middle of somebody else’s conversation.

I always find it amazing how Canadian Geese fly in their V formation, in which the flapping of each bird’s wings creates an uplift that reduces air resistance for the bird flying behind. The V constantly forms and reforms as each bird does its share of flying in front, allowing the former lead birds to rest behind. They have an instinctive spirit of cooperation that ensures the survival of most of the flock. As a species, we could do well to learn from nature, because like the Canadian Geese, we are all in this together, and flying against the wind is a lot easier when everybody pitches in and does their share…

Crazy for Cleome

DCF 1.0

I first saw Cleome (Spider Flower) many years ago, tucked between shrubs in front of an old farmhouse in Berlin, MA. It was love at first sight! This is an easy annual plant to grow from seed, and will probably reseed itself every year in your garden, so you only need to plant it once. Hummingbirds and other pollinators love it, and its tall stems bearing pink, rose and white blooms add an airy, delicate touch to any sunny garden.

For impatient “lasagna gardeners“, Cleome will grow in almost any soil, so it makes a great filler plant for a brand new lasagna bed. I never actually dig new beds on my own property, but rather I smother the existing grass with layers of wet newspaper, and then spread layers of composted horse manure (of which we have plenty!!) on top of the newspaper. Worms start to work their magic and within 6 months to a year, I have a great area for planting. In the meantime, though, the area can look a…..rough. Cleome comes to the rescue. Dig up the Cleome seedlings that pop up elsewhere in your yard, and transplant them into the lasagna bed. They will quickly fill the area. Let a few reseed for next year.


The photo at left shows a new garden bed (created in May 2008) on THB Farm. June transplants of Cleome and Cucumber are all thriving on August 1st. The Cleome is blooming its head off, so if I allow these seed heads to remain into autumn, I’ll have Cleome growing here next year, as well as plenty of free seed for the birds.