Category Archives: Wildlife gardens

Beneficial Garden Insects: Tachinid Fly, Enemy of Japanese Beetles

The white dot on the beetle's thorax (behind its head) is the egg of the machined fly.

The white dot on the beetle’s thorax (behind its head) is the egg of a tachinid fly. Some beetles may contain multiple eggs. DO NOT KILL any beetles with the white dots!

New England gardeners have waged war on plant-devouring Japanese beetles for generations now — especially those who grow roses and grapes! But the extensive damage these beetles cause could become a thing of the past, thanks to a tiny specialized fly called a Tachinid fly (Istocheta aldrichi). A parasite of adult Japanese beetles, the female fly glues her eggs onto young adult Japanese beetles (see the white dot on the beetle at the right?). Over the course of about a week, the eggs hatch into fly larvae, which then burrow into the beetle’s body to eventually consume and kill it.

Tachinid flies look like house flies but are more bristly (Robert Sousa photo)

Tachinid flies look a little like house flies but have bristly hairs (Robert Sousa photo)

Thanks to this beneficial insect, I’ve observed a noticeable reduction in Japanese beetle populations over the past ten years here in central MA. This host-specific tachinid fly species was initially introduced in the US as a control method in the 20th century, but it has taken many decades to become widely established. You can help speed up the process locally, though. Here’s how:

Attract tachinid flies to your property by planting plenty of flowering nectar plants (flower nectar and aphid honeydew are food for adult tachinid flies), and avoiding any pest control method that involves killing all the adult beetles present (including pheromone traps!). You don’t want to kill any beetles that are infected with the fly eggs — this will terminate the fly’s life cycle. You want the baby flies to live through to maturity and expand their local populations in your yard.

Japanese beetles can skeletonize plant foliage

Japanese beetles in large numbers cab skeletonize plant foliage. This beetle has no white spot (tachinid fly eggs), so flick it right into a bowl of water to drown.

To really speed up the process of building up tachinid fly populations, work on selective culling of beetles NOT infected with the fly eggs. Do this when you see adult Japanese beetles present (usually the month of July in northern climates). This involves an occasional walk through your gardens with a bowl of water, using your hands to sweep adult beetles into the water, where they will float on the surface but cannot fly away. Look carefully for any beetles that are infected with fly cocoons (the white dots), and flick those beetles out so they can live a bit longer (wear gloves if you find it icky to touch them). The infected beetles’ death from the fly larvae will happen very soon, and they won’t damage your plants for much longer.

If you have chickens, they LOVE to eat Japanese beetles, so feed them your unparasitized beetles. Otherwise, just leave the uninfected beetles to drown in the bowl.

My hens follow me around during my beetle hunts clucking for their bowl of beetle treats!

chicken eating japanese beetles IMG_0713Use the bowl method as often as possible during the month or so that the beetles are active. Over time, you will notice that more and more beetles are infected with the parasitic fly, and overall beetle numbers will begin to go down within a few years. Yes, this is a long-term approach, but one that does not require toxic insecticides that also kill beneficial species

The first year I started this method of Japanese beetle control (when they defoliated my pink and white Virginia roses, it was out and out WAR), I found perhaps 1 in 15 or 20 beetles infected with the fly larvae. Every year since, I’ve found and released higher numbers of infected beetles, and this year three-quarters (75%) of Japanese beetles were sporting the white dots. For the first time ever, my roses and my New England Asters (some of their favorite plants!) show very little damage from the dreaded beetles.

It just goes to show…with a little help from determined gardeners and the avoidance of pesticide use, some of our worst imported garden pests may just go away on their own, thanks to the natural balances provided by Mother Nature.

I DO feel badly for my hens, though. They’re wondering what happened to their daily beetle treats!

Where are our beetle treats?

Where are our beetle treats?

Controlling Japanese beetle grubs: Japanese beetles also cause plant damage at other times in their life cycle — their underground grubs (beetle larvae) love to eat grass roots, and large populations of these white grubs can destroy lawns especially in areas with zero habitat for tachinid flies (neighborhoods with mostly lawns, few flowering plants, and pesticide usage). Avoid using any insecticides containing Imidicloprid, a neo-nicotinoid insecticide that is highly toxic to bees and other insects. (Imidicloprid is sold in stores under such trade names as Bayer Merit). Instead, reduce Japanese beetle grub populations using a natural insecticide called Milky Spore, which contains bacteria that specifically kill Japanese beetle grubs and not other insects. Sprinkle Milky Spore granules (spores) into your lawn when grubs are actively feeding (fall and spring) — the grubs need to ingest the spores to become infected and die. In northern climates, spread of the spores in our cold soils can be slow, so expect to see results after about 3-5 years.

Fall Frenzy

Here on our farm and across the central Massachusetts landscape, the fall plant frenzy of foliage, fruits and flowers is in full swing. The bright colors everywhere feel like Nature’s Disney World and the falling leaves sound like a gentle rain…

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 Haying is done for the year so plenty of time to admire the scenery from the hilltop at St. Joseph’s Abbey:

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It’s harvest time on our little farm!

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Still lots of food and blooms in the veggie beds. Single-blooming Marigolds support late-season pollinators looking for nectar, and the Arugula is going to seed for next year’s crop.

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Wild Asters don’t look like much all season long, but this time of year is when they do their thing:

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When New England Asters are in full bloom, they can take on the form and shape of a flowering shrub:

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Billows of native asters and grasses with Sugar Maple in a park in Peterborough, NH:

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Keith Tetreault photo

Speaking of asters, if you want to find bumble bees and other pollinators this time of year, just look at any blooming aster, that’s where you’ll find them:

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The native woodland viburnum berries are ripening:

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If these Witherod Viburnum fruits look like little candies, it’s no coincidence. The bright colors of both foliage and fruit are the plant’s tactic to attract birds to eat its fruit and disperse its seeds…

Most native Viburnum fruits are edible by people too – as the berries ripen, they turn dark and shrivel like raisins – hence one of their common names Wild Raisin.

The fluffy seed attachments of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) are ready to blow away with the wind….now is the time to collect the seeds to sow this beautiful orange-blooming plant for next year’s garden…

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In a few short weeks, the bright leaves and most of the color will be gone, but for now, it’s time enjoy the spectacle of a fruitful New England fall!

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.

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.

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)

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

Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Happy New Year to my blog followers! With apologies to the Rolling Stones for this blog title, I’ll start the year talking about  some ways to help overwintering wild birds stay safe from bad weather and predators in your backyard. With many of our native bird species declining at an alarming rate, our feathered friends need all the help they can get from those of us who care about their future….

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With the exception of hummingbird feeders, winter is the only time of year I hang bird feeders here on our farm. To be honest, feeding wild birds is more about making us feel good than about really helping birds. Birds rely on a variety of natural food sources (seeds, berries, buds, and the various insect life forms that overwinter in leaf litter, plant stems or tree bark) to get themselves through winter, and the best way to help them is to plant as many bird-friendly plants and trees in your surroundings to provide food and habitat throughout the year.

But hanging a feeder is a great way to supplement natural food sources for birds especially after heavy snowfall has buried many seed plants and ground-level food sources, and a bird feeding station near the house is an low-impact way to enjoy nature from indoors. Especially in the worst of the horrid weather when even I (who LIVES to be outdoors) prefer to stay inside…

If you do hang feeders, locate them somewhere that birds can quickly dive for cover if necessary. Birds visiting a crowded feeder in an exposed location are sitting ducks for predators such as hawks looking for a quick meal. Evergreen shrubs and trees (including rhododendron, mountain laurel, yew, hemlock, pine, spruce, fir and cedar) are the best, because they also provide shelter from wind and harsh weather. But any shrub or tree with a twiggy or dense branching structure will give birds a safe place to rest in between feeding. Shrubs such as holly, crabapple and native viburnums are all great “shelter” trees for birds, plus they retain their fruits well into winter to feed hungry birds.

Any plant with thorns, including wild rose or hawthorn, also provide a safe haven for birds to hide from danger. Not many predators (especially cats!) are willing to fight with thorny stems for a meal.

If your family puts up a live Christmas tree at the holidays, consider re-using your discarded Christmas tree as temporary evergreen cover near your winter feeders. The very first year we tried this, within hours, we saw finches, sparrows and chickadees begin to use the tree as a hideout in between visits to our nearby feeding station. And within days, we witnessed real drama when a sharp-shinned hawk held some of them hostage inside the tree:

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Can you imagine his beady little eyes watching you inside that tree? This photo still makes me shiver…

The truth is, this hawk was just too slow for our speedy songbirds. At one point (after a good 20 minutes of waiting), a group of brave birds mad e a dash for the shrub border at the edge of our property. The hawk watched and waited a while longer, but after a few minutes, he gave up and flew away in search of easier pickings elsewhere.

So remember, feeding the birds is a nice idea, but make sure you’re not luring them to certain death at your feeders. Resolve to add some “bird shelter” to your gardens this year. I’ll be posting over the next few days with some more ideas…

Small Habitat Gardens of Worcester MA West

It’s tough to drive safely around here when summer gardens are at their peak! I’m sure other gardeners can relate to what I call garden rubbernecking, when you really ought to be watching the road but wow! did you see those dahlias!! and WHAT is that gorgeous tree? oooh! beautiful hanging baskets! Recently I’ve been carrying a camera on my travels, snapping photos of front-yard gardens and the colorful containers and window boxes that are in their full glory right now in the Worcester area. Here’s a selection of some small urban gardens and container plantings that I consider habitat-friendly. In other words, they don’t just look pretty, but their flowers, seeds and foliage supply food, shelter, structure and other resources to a variety of birds, beneficial insects and even amphibians that will visit an urban habitat.

First stop on my tour is downtown Spencer, where Appleblossoms has beautified its corner of Main and Mechanic St. for the past several years with these stunning window boxes.The flowering penta, impatiens and bacopa bring hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators right into the urban landscape, and the lush and colorful display must cheer many an early morning commuter along route 9:

_MG_5990Next stop is a side street just uphill from downtown, where I noticed this sidewalk retaining wall planted entirely with colorful hummingbird and butterfly-friendly annuals, including spider flower (Cleome) and blue and pink salvia:

spencer-ch-stI’m sure this garden attracts hordes of hummers all through the day. It certainly brings color and beauty to a once-elegant but now sadly neglected area of Spencer.

On to West Brookfield, where the historic town common features several large flowering containers worth a mention. This one is made up of scarlet runner bean vine (its orangey-red flowers are a hummingbird magnet) and bacopa (with tiny white flowers that bees love), plus other foliage plants that provide shelter and a resting place for tiny forms of wildlife through the summer:

west brookfield containerI’m not sure who waters and maintains these containers, but their extra-large size enables them to withstand drought much better than your average patio pot or window box, which in hot weather usually needs watering once or even twice per day. When it comes to containers, the larger the better, unless you use self-watering containers or automatic irrigation.

A few miles to the east in Worcester, here’s a front-yard garden near Tatnuck Square where, instead of wasting an otherwise unused space on a bit of ailing lawn, the homeowners have filled the front with plants that flower right through the seasons, providing a small oasis of biodiversity smack in the middle of a busy city intersection:

tatnuck-streetside-gardenGranted, this might be a little too ‘naturalized’ for some urban tastes, and the curb is overgrown with weedy, invasive stuff that most people don’t want in their yards, but this garden certainly grabs the attention as you pass through, and might even encourage a ponder about the possibilities, and wasted opportunities, of the typical American front yard. There is probably more life per square foot in this garden than anywhere else in the city of Worcester!

Last but not least, I love this charming front-yard garden on a side street of Worcester’s West Side. You can see that this little garden is lovingly tended, and with its colorful variety of shrubs and perennials, I’m sure it has something blooming right through the season. The hydrangea, pink garden phlox, purple coneflower, coreopsis are all great nectar plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and the dense shrubbery protects songbird nests from bad weather and predators.The annuals sweet alyssum, blue salvia and orange marigold fill in the gaps for an eye-popping show of refreshing color during the dog days of summer. I’d love to live across from this gardener’s house!

worcester-west-sideSo…my message is that you really don’t need a lot of space to invite wildlife and nature into your lives. Whether you garden on a 1/4 acre or just a porch railing, you can bring the beauty and life-sustaining qualities of plants into the smallest of garden spaces. In the process, you’ll be making your little patch of the earth a little healthier, prettier, and friendlier to all those who pass…

Raising Herbert – Part 3: Free to Fly (or be Eaten)

Good news from Turkey Hill Brook Farm! The monarch butterfly chrysalis shed its skin and finally metamorphosed into its adult butterfly form about a week after Herbert the caterpillar turned himself into a cocoon on August 8th:

I missed a few days of checking his progress on the milkweed plant, but on August 14th, you could clearly see the orange and black markings forming on the butterfly’s wings inside the chrysalis:

monarch-chrysalis-nearly-th

I never saw the adult butterfly emerge, but on the evening of the 16th, I checked the leaf and Herbert was gone, and all I could see of this amazing metamorphosis was his tattered skin, showing that he had emerged and flown away!monarch-chrysalis-final

I’ve seen some fresh-looking monarch butterflies flying around our butterfly gardens this week, so I’m hoping that Herbert is one of them and hasn’t already been eaten by a hungry bird or other predator. As for whether he is male or female, I’ll never know, but a recent garden visitor pointed out a tiny monarch butterfly caterpillar about 1/2″ long and perhaps 3mm wide dining on a leaf of the same milkweed plant where Herbert did his changeover. Could Herbert have used the same plant to lay her eggs? If so, she might need a name change…maybe Hebe?

Since then, I haven’t seen the second caterpillar again, so it could have been parasitized by a tiny predatorial wasp that uses the bodies of caterpillars as a host to lay their eggs, which then hatch and begin feeding on the caterpillar from the inside out. Kind of gruesome, I know, but nature isn’t always pretty, and the predator/prey relationship is what keeps nature in balance. Without parasitic wasps to keep monarch caterpillar populations in check, the cats would probably eat their own milkweed food plant right out of existence. And no milkweeds? No monarchs!