Plant Native Ground Covers & Make America Green Again

Here we see common violets, Virginia creeper and white wood asters all functioning as ground covers and so much more.

Common violets, Virginia creeper and white wood asters (in distance) all function as ground covers and so much more.

When I think about making America green again, I dream of filling in all those stark areas of unnatural red mulch. I fantasize about less lawn, too. But what my eco-tinted goggles really see is a decrease in the commonly planted ground covers like English ivy, Pachysandra and periwinkle. For although these ground-huggers are undeniably popular, we know that doesn’t mean they’re good choices for our gardens.

Excessively planted because of their uniformity, state of perpetual greenness, and alleged low maintenance, English ivy and its cronies have wreaked havoc across North America. They are not beneficial to wildlife—unless their propensity to harbor rats and help breed mosquitoes counts as critter friendly. These introduced plants are also designated as invasive in the Mid-Atlantic and in other parts of our country. Yes, invasive! That means they have absolutely no respect for us and our great American land. They easily escape into natural areas and outcompete our essential native plants for resources and, as in the case of English ivy, can climb and smother trees. But there’s a bright side. You don’t have to settle on these narcissistic garden center plants because there are many better, more benevolent options: native alternatives that help instead of harm our planet.

Why do we plant ground covers?

These are some common reasons why we choose ground covers:IMG_6390_x300

  aesthetics
  erosion control
  lower maintenance
  weed suppression
  wildlife habitat

You’ll find that the following native plants can satisfy most, if not all, of your ground-covering gardening objectives. Read on to learn what would work best for you. Continue reading

Nectar Sources for Large-Winged Butterflies of the Mid-Atlantic 

Ooooo, a monarch! It takes an erratic path across the garden, bright orange wings gliding and flapping, drifting and fluttering. It floats down and lights on a stalk of common milkweed and after a momentary pause, the dark abdomen curls and a single egg is precisely laid underneath a small, tender leaf. She repeats the process twice more. The mother butterfly discovers another stand of young shoots on the opposite side of the garden and continues her delicate dance. An egg here. Flutter flutter. Another egg gently placed there. Three years have quickly passed since I planted tiny milkweed plants and they now command ample portions of this wildlife habitat, creating a welcoming haven for monarchs—adults and larvae alike. It’s mid-summer, with clear skies and still air; the perfect conditions for butterfly spying.

A monarch caterpillar munches common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Plant this if you want to make more monarch butterflies.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and monarch caterpillars go hand-in-hand.

Scrutinizing the plants that make up this front yard garden, I stand in the warming sun and consider whether there’ll be sufficient nectar for any new monarchs when nearly a month from now the miraculous four stage metamorphosis, from egg to larva to pupa to butterfly, is complete. The smaller butterflies such as skippers and fritillaries frequent a wide variety of flowers but the large-winged beauties, I’ve noticed, are slightly more discerning. What flowers do they want? This question sent me on the most colorful of journeys…

Are you gonna eat that?

Butterflies are the magical creatures gracefully flitting through princess tales and are undeniably the most beloved of all our insects. Although not the most efficient pollinators when compared to native bees and flies, butterflies nonetheless play an important ecological role.

A monarch collecting nectar on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with proboscis extended.

A monarch collecting nectar on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with proboscis extended.

Most butterflies live on nectar from flowers and some also receive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion, dung, aphid honeydew and minerals found in wet sand or dirt. They have a proboscis, a long complex food canal that is straw-like and coiled when not in use. Proboscises come in different lengths and can dictate which flower a butterfly may drink from.

What else might make one flower more alluring to a particular butterfly than the next? Scent and color can be enticing components. Some researchers also identified butterfly morphology as a factor; they found that species with a “high wing load” generally preferred clustered or nectar-rich flowers. This would explain all the swallowtails on Joe Pye Weed!

You may be tempted to plant butterfly bush (Buddleja spp. and cultivars) because you notice your neighbor’s attracts butterflies late in the growing season. Please resist the urge to do so! Butterfly bush is an introduced plant from Asia that does not support local food webs. It’s also an invasive shrub that outcompetes native flora for resources and negatively impacts all our wildlife. Some prudent states have taken steps to ban the sale of butterfly bush.

FROM EGG TO ADULT: Support a butterfly’s full life cycle

While wildflower nectar is a necessary habitat component for butterflies, other plant life such as native grasses, vines, shrubs and trees are equally crucial for food and shelter. A landscape with tons of plant diversity will help not only butterflies but also our other wild critters— great and small and every life in between.

The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar relaxing on one of its host plants, spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

A spicebush swallowtail caterpillar lounging on one of its host plants, spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

Let’s grow butterflies! It’s easy to do: just add the plant that their larvae will eat. These specific plants that caterpillars need for food are called host plants. Monarchs, as we know, require milkweed or Asclepias species to reproduce. Host plants are not optional for caterpillars and some, like those of the zebra swallowtail, the pipevine swallowtail and the monarch, have only one genus of plant that they can eat. What Do Caterpillars Eat by the Washington Area Butterfly Club lists some common butterflies and their typical host plants.

Did you know that butterflies need water, too? You can provide essential moisture and minerals by filling a shallow dish with damp sand or mud. It’s a bit of maintenance but well worth it if you spy even a tiny skipper taking a drink, as I have. And don’t forget to leave the leaf litter! There are butterfly and moth species that overwinter as egg, larva or pupa in the blanket of fallen leaves and debris. Let’s not be tossing out the butterflies we’re trying to encourage.

FLOWER POWER!

Here the spotlight is thrown on a handful of sun-loving native herbaceous plants that large–winged butterflies such as the monarch and swallowtails have been observed to frequent. The bloom times are varied, beginning in early summer and ending in fall, when late-season nectar is crucial for migrating butterflies. These lovely plants will naturally support smaller butterflies, native bees and insects, as well as other animals throughout the food web. If the plant is a known Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillar host, that information from Doug Tallamy’s research is included as well. Remember to choose native plant species that occur naturally in your area to keep wild areas functioning. Happy butterfly watching!

I do not include plant hardiness zone information because if you’re planting regionally native plants, as I hope you are, that information is unnecessary.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with eastern tiger swallowtail and a few other friends.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with an eastern tiger swallowtail and a few other friends, including a silver-spotted skipper. Note the huge leaves designed for hungry monarch caterpillars.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Height: 3 – 5 ft, up to 8 ft
Bloom time: June – August
Sun: Full
Moisture: Medium to Low
Soil: Medium to fine sandy, clay, well-drained loamy, rocky calcareous; pH moderate
Natural habitat: Fields, pastures, roadsides
Notes: The large leaves of this Asclepias species are sought by monarchs looking to lay their eggs.
USDA Forest Service: “Common milkweed is Nature’s mega food market for insects. Over 450 insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant.”
Some gardeners consider A. syriaca to be a thug. Any shoots that pop up where they’re not wanted are easy to pull or cut.
Milkweeds are host to 12 species of native caterpillars including the monarch butterfly.
Other optionsSwamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a moisture-loving species.
More information: USDA Forest Service Plant of the Week: Asclepias syriaca

A zebra swallowtail on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Out in the wild: a zebra swallowtail on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Zebra swallowtails have only one host plant: paw paw (Asimina triloba).


Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Height: 1 – 3 ft
Bloom time: May – August
Sun: Full
Moisture: Low
Soil: Rocky, poor, well-drained; pH moderate
Natural habitat: Dry open woodlands, fields, roadsides
Notes: Butterfly weed has grown successfully in well-drained clay in my Northern Virginia garden.
It’s best to give thought to where it’s planted because the large taproot doesn’t like to be transplanted once established.
Deer don’t typically browse Asclepias foliage but they may gobble up the tender seed pods, milkweed bugs and all.
Host to 12 native butterfly and moth species, including the monarch.
More information: Virginia Native Plant Society 1992 Wildflower of the Year: Asclepias tuberosa

Eutrochium spp. covered in swallowtails. Tiger swallowtails have many host plants including black cherry (Prunus spp.), willow (Salix spp.) and basswood (Tilia spp.) trees. Photo by miss-myers/flickr/cc. 


Hollow Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum)
Height: 5 – 7 ft, can grow taller
Bloom time: May – August
Sun: Full, Part, Shade
Moisture: Medium
Soil: Rich
Natural habitat: Floodplain forests, alluvial and seepage swamps, riverbanks, wet meadows, ditches
Notes: The frothy flowers are some of the best for attracting pollinators.
Song birds eat the ripened seeds.
Eutrochium spp. are host to 42 species of native caterpillars.
Other options: Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Spotted Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Three-nerved Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium)
More information: Maryland Native Plant Society Wildflowers in Focus: Joe Pye Weed

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and eastern tiger swallowtails.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and eastern tiger swallowtails in a wild meadow.

 


Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Height: 1 –  5 ft
Bloom time: June – August
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: Medium, Medium-Low
Soil: Adaptable, rocky, rich, sand, clay
Natural habitat: Mesic to dry upland forests, rocky woodlands, clearings, forest edges, meadows, fields, roadsides
Notes: Bumblebees, hummingbird moths and hummingbirds also frequent wild bergamot.
It colonizes by rhizomes but it’s easy to control.
Monarda spp. are host to seven species of native caterpillars.
Other options: the red-flowered Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
More information: Virginia Native Plant Society 1993 Wildflower of the Year: Wild Bergamot

A monarch on New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Photo by David Marvin/flickr/cc.

A monarch on New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Photo by David Marvin/flickr/cc.


New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
Height: 1 – 6 ft and taller
Bloom time: August – October
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: Medium
Soil: Adaptable, rich, sand, loam, clay
Natural habitat: Moist, open woods, wet meadows, stream banks, alluvial fields
Notes: New England aster has a long bloom period and is enjoyed by many insects.
It can get leggy in a garden setting; some gardeners continually pinch it back before July to control its height, but note that the blooms may open later.
New England aster reseeds abundantly!
Asters are known to host 112 species of native caterpillars.
Other options: Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii)

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) at left and grass-leaved goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) on right. Photos by Putneypics/flickr/cc & Lisa Bright/Earth Sangha.

 


Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Height:  1 – 6 ft
Bloom time:  August – October
Sun: Full
Moisture: Medium, Low
Soil: Adaptable, loam, clay
Natural habitat: Dry, open forests, woodlands, clearings, roadbanks
Notes: Goldenrods are for pollinators; hummingbirds have also been observed sipping nectar.
Plant goldenrod with purple asters for a fabulous fall display.
Solidago spp. are host to 115 species of native caterpillars. Euthamia spp. host five.
Other options: There are many species of goldenrod adapted to varying habitats. Here are some sun-loving options: Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea), Sweet Goldenrod (Solidago odora), Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

Hoary mountain mint (Pycnanthemum incanum) growing in a natural area. The swallowtails are delighted! Photo by Lisa Bright/Earth Sangha.


Hoary Mountain-Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum)
Height: 2 – 6 ft
Bloom time: June – July
Sun: Sun, Part
Moisture: Medium, Dry
Soil: Loam, sand, rocky, well-drained; pH acid-based
Natural habitat: Forests, forest borders, rocky woodlands, clearings, roadsides
Notes: Deer resistant like most plants in the mint family, (Lamiaceae).
Pycnanthemums are host to three species of butterflies and moths.
Other options: There are many Pycnanthemum species; Clustered Mountain-Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is another fine choice for luring swarms of pollinators.

 

Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) blooms just when the insects need it.

Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) blooms just when our insects need it.


Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Height: 1 – 2 ft
Bloom time: August – September
Sun: Sun, Part
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Moist loam, sand, clay
Natural habitat: Floodplain forests, stream banks, swamps, moist to wet meadows, clearings
Notes: Spreads quickly by rhizomes and self-sowing in optimum conditions; easily lifted to share with friends and neighbors.
Skippers and small pollinators enjoy mistflower as much as the larger butterflies.
Usually deer resistant.
Although not a known Lepidoptera host plant, mistflower is nonetheless an important habitat plant.

New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and monarch. Photo courtesy Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council.

Pretty New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and monarch. Photo courtesy Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council.

 

 


New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
Height: 3 – 8 ft
Bloom time: July – September
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Rich, adaptable; pH acid to neutral
Natural habitat: Floodplain forests, alluvial swamps, riverbanks, wet meadows, low fields, tidal swamps
Notes: Seedheads attract birds such as goldfinches.
Vernonia spp. are host to 19 species of Lepidoptera.
Other options: Broad-leaf Ironweed (Vernonia glauca); this species requires less moisture than New York ironweed.
More information: Virginia Native Plant Society 1995 Wildflower of the Year: New York Ironweed

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia). Photo by Vicky DeLoach/flickr/cc.

Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia). Photo by Vicky DeLoach/flickr/cc.

 

 


Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia)
Height: 3 – 10 ft
Bloom time: August – October
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Rich
Natural habitat: Floodplain forests, alluvial swamps, riverbanks, low meadows, fields
Notes: Wingstem is a prolific self-seeder.
The rough leaves help make this plant deer resistant.
Sixteen native caterpillar species are hosted on Verbesina.

 

 

 

Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) on the left and field thistle (Cirsium discolor), a taller-growing species, on the right. C. discolor photo by Lisa Bright/Earth Sangha.

 


Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum)
Height: 1 – 3 ft
Bloom time: June – August
Sun: Full
Moisture: Medium, Low
Soil: Poor, clay, well-drained
Natural habitat: Clearings, meadows, fields
Notes: Pasture thistle is an uncommon garden plant that’s fun to grow regardless of the pokey spines.
It’s a shorter species that may be better suited for garden habitats.
Bumble bees enjoy the pollen of the large 2-3 inch flower heads.
Many of the commonly seen thistles like bull thistle and Canada thistle are introduced and considered invasive.
Host to 27 Lepidoptera species.
Other options: There are many native thistles; Field Thistle (Circium discolor) is a tall species, shown on the right side of photo.

 

Dense blazing star (Liatris spicata) is a wonderful addition to the moist garden. Photo by Debbie Roos.


Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
Height: 3 – 6 ft
Bloom time: July – September
Sun: Full
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Rich, well-drained
Natural habitat: Moist to wet meadows, clearings, riverside prairies, seeps
Notes: Stunning when massed; the tall spikes add vertical structure to a garden.
Known to attract hummingbirds.
Host to four species of native caterpillars.
Other options: There are many! Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa), Grass-leaf Blazing Star (Liatris pilosa), Eastern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa), Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera)

 

 

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Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and a worn but beautiful monarch. Photo by JanetandPhil/flickr/cc.

 


Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
Height: 3 – 8 ft
Bloom time: July – September
Sun: Full
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Rich, adaptable
Natural Habitat: Floodplain forests, alluvial clearings, low meadows
Notes: The large clasping leaves form ‘cups’ that collect water.
A prolific reproducer.
Birds enjoy the seeds, and the thick hollow stems make excellent nests for native bees.
Host to four species of Lepidoptera.


 

 

 

Shrub bonus!

The following two woody plants are nearly always recommended as excellent sources of butterfly nectar.

Spicebush butterfly on a spicebush flower ball (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Photo by John Flannery/flickr/cc.

A spicebush butterfly on a buttonbush flower sphere (Cephalanthus occidentalis). The spicebush caterpillar requires the leaves of its host plants, spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Photo by John Flannery/flickr/cc.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Height: 6 – 12 ft and up
Bloom time: June – August
Sun: Full, Part
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Poor, sand, clay
Natural Habitat: Marshes, tidal shrublands, open swamps, floodplain pools, depression ponds, usually in seasonally or semi-permanently flooded habitats
Notes: Typically grown as a small tree; the long-lasting flowers attract a multitude of insects.
Nineteen species of Lepidoptera are hosted on Cephalanthus.
More information: Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia: Buttonbush

 

 

 


Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) has fragrant wands of flowers that attract oodles of pollinators. Photo by Wendy Cutler/flickr/cc.

Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) has fragrant wands of flowers that attract oodles of pollinators. Photo by Wendy Cutler/flickr/cc.

Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
Height: 3 – 6 ft, up to 12 ft
Bloom time: July – August
Sun: Part, Shade
Moisture: High, Medium
Soil: Adaptable, sand, clay; pH acid
Natural Habitat: Mesic to rather dry, acidic upland forests, wet flatwoods, seepage swamps, and bogs
Notes: The leaves emerge late in spring; lovely yellow fall color.
Clethra hosts 9 species of native butterflies and moths.
More information: Virginia Native Plant Society 2015 Wildflower of the Year: Sweet Pepperbush

  

 

 

Asters and goldenrod are excellent choices for the habitat garden.

Asters and goldenrod are excellent choices for the habitat garden.

Resources & Information:

Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Albemarle County, Virginia: Piedmont Native Plants

Plant NOVA Natives

The Xerces Society: Mid-Atlantic Region Pollinator Plants

National Wildlife Foundation: Attracting Butterflies

Virginia Native Plant Society: Wildflowers for Butterfly Gardens

Maryland Native Plant Society: Using Native Plants to Attract Butterflies

Fairfax County: Using Native Plants to Attract Butterflies, Moths, Bees and Other Pollinators in the Washington DC Area

Butterfly Fun Facts

Northern Woods: The Butterflies of Winter

Research: Factors influencing the degree of generalization in flower use by Mediterranean butterflies

Researchgate: Butterfly nectaring flowers: Butterfly morphology and flower form

 

How to Feed a Hummingbird Part II: Flowers & Nectar

This is Part II in a two-part series.

Photo by Jason Means/flickr/CC.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) pollination. Photo by Jason Means/flickr/CC.

Part I of How to Feed a Hummingbird: Insects & Protein revealed that 80 percent of a hummingbird’s diet is comprised of insects and spiders. Eighty percent! Knowing how crucial those often maligned arthropods are to our ruby-throated hummingbirds will hopefully inspire you to embrace the bugs and add a variety of native plants to your garden.

If you are at all curious about hummingbirds you’re probably assuming the missing 20 percent or so of their diet comes from nectar — and you’d be right. Let’s explore the flowering native plants our high-metabolic friends count on for a full-on sugar rush.

THE BIG THREE Wildflower Nectar Sources

Just like bees and butterflies and other pollinators, ruby-throated hummingbirds rely on a constant source of nectar from early spring into fall. Nectar is found in flowers adapted for hummingbirds: long and tubular with a typically pendulous and perchless form. These floral traits are perfect for long beaked, hovering hummers but not convenient for insects that cannot easily reach the hidden nectar. Another evolutionary adaption is the color red. Red is not seen by bees however it quickly signals keen-eyed migrating hummingbirds that a sugary treat awaits.

What combination of plants provides an overlapping progression of blooms? Potowmack Chapter President of the Virginia Native Plant Society, Alan Ford, names the following BIG THREE flowering natives as attracting and supporting our ruby-throats throughout their days in the Mid-Atlantic: Continue reading

How to Feed a Hummingbird Part I: Insects & Protein

Photo by Tibor Nagy, Flickr cc.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Photo by Tibor Nagy/flickr/CC.

This is Part I of a two-part series.

There’s high excitement on this lovely afternoon as a male ruby-throated hummingbird guzzles at our feeder. It’s my first sighting of this wee bird this year. “Oh, have I been waiting for you!” Last spring’s first long distance traveler made his fueling pit stop in our garden around this time so I was prepared for today’s little fella.

Shimmering green with the identifying ruby throat patch flashing in the sun, he perches for a long while, taking in the homemade sugary solution. “Drink up, my friend.” If there’s a repeat of the previous years’ pattern, this particular hummer will continue his journey north to other breeding grounds and a short time later two or sometimes three other hummingbirds will frequent our garden and make this area in Northern Virginia their summer home. Zooming, flitting, hovering and thoroughly delighting, our resident hummingbirds have become very special guests in our wildlife habitat.

So, what’s the secret to supporting these extraordinary creatures during their stay here in the Mid-Atlantic? It’s not simply hanging up a sugar-filled feeder. Continue reading

Virginia ‘Rabbit Proof’ Native Plants

Precious pink wiggly nose, slender silken ears, a fuzzy snowball of a tail  — all wrapped up in a cuddly but voracious plant-chomping package. Ahhh, our Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) are undeniably adorable but they can be destructive in gardens, continually reducing a plant of its foliage until it (the plant) runs out of energy and expires.

An Eastern cottontail nibbles grasses. Photo by Matthew Hunt/flickr/cc.

There aren’t any cottontails foraging in our garden currently — perhaps because we have a fox, a few hawks and a high number of domestic dogs and free-roaming cats in our neighborhood. Rabbits are certainly fair game to all sorts of predators. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries writes, “Cottontails have been referred to as the “protein pill” of the animal kingdom. They are perhaps the most heavily preyed upon game species in Virginia. In most years, 80% or more of adult cottontails are killed.”

I have seen the damage a few marauding cottontails can do so at the request of a client, who reluctantly surrendered his garden to the bunnies, I did some hopping around on the web and found that there’s very little information out there on native plants that rabbits find unpalatable. Our deer receive all the attention.

I then turned to the people who I could count on to garden with native plants: the Virginia Master Naturalists, Arlington Regional Chapter (or ARMN, my alma mater). “What non-woody plants do your bunnies ignore?” I asked. Their comments and observations were crossed referenced with the information I found online and the following document was generated. A checkmark indicates if the rabbit-rejecting plant info was found through the web, ARMN, or both.

Continue reading

How I Killed a Tree (and the Lessons I Learned)

This was a sad day for me and the oak.

This was a heartbreaking day for me.

Once upon a time, not long ago, I shared my property with a handsome, thriving tree.  It’s now dead.  The oak had lived for 55 years, less than half its natural lifespan.  While alive it provided services to many.  It was a perch for birds, a home to squirrels and a source of food and shelter for an untold number of other life forms.

It made me happy.

My tree is gone now, chain-sawed, chipped and hauled away.  I think I helped kill it.  No, actually (full disclosure here) I now know that I did.

Trees are such familiar life forms themselves that we assume we know all about them and what’s best for them.  But there are so many surprisingly interesting things about trees that most of us don’t know but would be delighted, and wiser, to discover.

Why did this fine oak die?  What actions helped to speed its untimely death?  What would I do differently today?  I found my answers in a particularly dynamic lecture given by Joseph Murray, professional educator and arborist, and through some additional investigative research and personal observations. Continue reading

Native Plants for Nesting Birds: Top 12 Picks

Derek Stoner, Project Coordinator for the Delaware Nature Society, helped restore the 860-acre Middle Run Natural Area by “intensive habitat management”, including planting 12,000 trees and shrubs.  His lecture, ‘Native Plants for Nesting Birds: Connecting Flora and Fauna’, given to a group of enthusiasts at the Millersville Native Plant Conference in Pennsylvania, focused on his observations.

Here are Derek’s landscaping recommendations for attracting birds:
  • Plant shrubs in clusters (“habitat circles”) that will create the dense cover that birds desire for nest protection.
  • Locate clusters of bird-favored plants close to existing patches of habitat to allow for easier travel by birds.
  • Plant taller shrub species in close proximity to low-growing bushes to create a layered effect that will host multiple bird species.
  • Encourage “suckering” or basal shoots, as these tightly packed stems create ideal nesting pockets for birds.
  • Dense clusters of stems are best for many birds to nest within, but some species need a more open branch structure to build their nests upon.

Continue reading

The Brush Pile: Build it for our Wild Friends

A brush pile is an uncomplicated, no-cost structure.  It’s basically a large pile of sticks that offers habitat to all sorts of wildlife.  Squirrels climb and hide, chipmunks zip under and out and a whole host of birds routinely hop through the network of limbs that occupies our garden.  Oh, and yes, I need to mention the mice…  But before you decide a brush pile isn’t for you, consider that all carnivorous and omnivorous animals eat mice.  Coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, snakes and raccoons don’t think twice about snatching up a mouse for a meal.

Our trap camera captured this fox on the hunt.  The brush pile provides sanctuary for potential fox food.

A trap camera photo of a hunting red fox. The brush pile provides sanctuary for potential fox food.

The components of our two small brush piles consist of fallen tree branches gathered on our property and found curbside around the neighborhood and include larger chain-sawed limbs.  We don’t have a large lot – it’s less than a ¼ of an acre – but reducing lawn has left us with more room to accommodate critters.  Building both habitats was quick and easy, and wearing architect as well as artist hats made the handiwork enjoyable. Constructing a brush pile to support our wild friends is definitely a fun and creative project for families to do together – and to enjoy for many years.

The Three S’s: Sanctuary, Shelter and Snacks

Why should you create a brush pile?  There are three elements a brush pile provides:

1. Sanctuary.  Brush piles create a sanctuary for our wildlife.  Birds, salamanders, snakes, turtles, small mammals (and more!) all need a helping hand, especially in our stripped-down suburban areas.  A properly built brush pile provides a place for our creatures to hide from their many predators.

2. Shelter.  In times of extreme weather a brush pile is the perfect shelter.  In winter it’s particularly vital for protecting our birds.  If your property is void of mature evergreen shrubs and trees that birds need for protective cover, evergreen foliage placed over a brush pile during the winter months will create a dry interior birds can safely roost in.

3. Snacks.  Many insect species are attracted to the decaying wood and will make it their home.  Insects found in brush piles are an additional source of protein-rich food for woodpeckers and other bug eating animals. Continue reading

The Hummingbirds: A Poem

Every spring, Robert and Arlene anticipate the arrival of the ruby-throated hummingbirds to their mountain home.  They observe in awe as these tiny beings nest and feed and hover and swoop around their wooded land.  But with autumn closing in, the ruby-throats recently bid farewell to their Linden, Virginia, residence and have begun their long migration south.  This is a poem written by Robert and inspired by his and Arlene’s very favorite guests.

Coming in for a landing!

Coming in for a landing!

The Hummingbirds by Robert Foster
It’s amazing to me that they travel so far
Feisty and noisy and small that they are
Emerald and ruby just buzzing about
A pause and a sip with a curious shout
 
In spring when they come, so tired and wan
In fall when they leave it’s so quiet at dawn
Longing and left, the silence pervading
I’d smile once again at your raucous invading
 
I’m left here alone at the break of the day
No tweets of good morning to light up my way
Color and humming recede to the last
Departure your sign, that the summer has past
 
This time of year as the fall will descend
With a hitch in my throat, just to see you again
Saddened and hoping you’re safe on your flight
I pause with a sigh as I’m left without sight
 
Who would’ve thought such a small little bird
Would cause such a break when no longer it’s heard
Wishing and praying won’t lengthen your stay
But oh how I wish to have just one more day
 

The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most delightful visitors to our gardens.  They eat tiny insects and draw nectar from a variety of flowers — most of which are red and tubular.  In the Mid-Atlantic, some of the best native choices are eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) and jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).

Read more about our amazing hummingbirds on Audubon.

Reflections on Establishing a Native Plant Garden…

Beverley Rivera, a transplant from Australia and world traveler, reflects on her most recent journey: discovering our native plants.

Reflections on establishing a native plant garden…

As summer starts to fade, a sea of late-blooming goldenrods explode with sunny yellow, their honey-like fragrance enticing thousands of busy pollinators to my native plant garden. Swarms of purple asters and fizzy white boneset create a buzzing corridor of life. Goldfinches, which my neighbor lamented hadn’t been seen around here in years, are now back in residence; and I was recently rewarded for my gritty labor by our first hummingbird sighting, now a regular visitor to our garden. When I first ventured into planting native plants, I was told that natives would attract wildlife to my backyard, but I was also motivated by the theory that thoughtfully-planted gardens could be used to help offset some of the monumental environmental destruction that modern society is inflicting on our larger landscape. Now, as my garden’s first full summer winds up to a showy finale, I’m witnessing those theories coming to life. Continue reading