Monthly Archives: January 2010

It’s cold and snowy, but so, so beautiful

Don’t let the draw of that cozy, warm fire keep you from venturing out into winter’s cold.  This season can be so amazingly beautiful .  All you have to do is bundle up your skin and open your eyes to take it all the striking scenes so frequently left unnoticed.  Here are some I’ve captured in my own yard this winter.

Symmetry of astilbe stems or hydrangea branches reaching up from the snow.

winter astilbe 1-10      winter hydrangea-3 1-10     

Contrast of a still colorful blue fescue versus a spent hydrangea bloom.

blue fescue in winter 12-09

Carex under snow or euonymus standing strong in spite of snow.

      carex under snow      euonymus in snow

Look up to see crisp blue skies of midday and orangey, purpley sunsets at dusk.

winter trees-blue sky      sunset-January 2010

Look down to witness the reds of a decaying log and bark in healthy grays.

reds of decay      bark in shades of grey

spring fed pool in winter And a spring-fed pool of water that never freezes and offers fresh drinks to four-legged passers-by.

It’s cold.  It’s snowy.  Still, it is so, so beautiful.

Make a difference. Plant natives.

Bringing Nature Home-inside Garden as if life depended on it!  Doug Tallamy wrote these words in my copy of his book, Bringing Nature Home.  No, I’m not a special friend or acquaintance, he wrote similar, if not identical words inside all the books he signed that day.  On the other hand, though, I am special.   I’m a gardener with extraordinary power … I can choose to plant whatever I want.  You are also extraordinary, as you have exactly the same power as I.  And if we, as gardeners, do just a little of what Tallamy suggests – increase the number of native plants growing in each of our gardens– we, individually and together, may be able to make a significant difference in the nature of our future.

Professor Tallamy chairs the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark.  There he teaches insect taxonomy and ecology courses and researches how insects and plants interact.  You can delve into his research simply by searching his name in Google Scholar.  You’ll see studies like Squash beetle feeding behavior in the journal Ecology, or Effects of non-native plants on the native insect community of Delaware in Biological Invasions … you get the picture, he’s an insect junkie.  But he’s still able to write compelling, and very readable non-scientific explanations of the side-by-side evolution of local insects and local plants that enables them to support not only each other but the many birds and other creatures farther up the food chain … and how non-native plants are simply not as palatable or user-friendly, so to speak, to local insects … and when faced with fewer or no native food, insects either vastly decline or disappear … and when this happens local birds have fewer insects and caterpillars to feed their little bird babies … and weaker or fewer bird babies means fewer birds to feed other creatures farther up the food chain.  Ok, any grammar or English teacher reading this is probably cringing at my run-on sentence, but I think I’ve made my, or more correctly Tallamy’s point.  Fewer natives = fewer bugs = fewer birds = less food for all.

ladybug 11-2009 Time and again Tallamy has found substantially more insect biomass (bird food) surviving on native shrubs, trees, and plants as opposed to alien greenery growing in the same area.  One of his students, Meg Ballard, as her master’s thesis, conducted a two-year comparison of insect biomass (bird food) found on six herbaceous natives – eastern black nightshade, black-eyed Susan, devil’s beggarticks, ragweed, horseweed, and goldenrod – and six herbaceous aliens – lambsquarters, cocklebur, velvetleaf, jimsonweed, pigweed, and cosmos.  Compared with aliens, the natives produced nearly 6-times more generalist insect herbivore biomass – that’s science-speak for insects that eat just about any plant (generalists) rather than specialize on specific plants and therefore provide a good amount of bird food.  This comparison produced no evidence that generalists prefer alien plants, Tallamy writes, or that alien plants produce as much insect biomass (bird food) as native plants.

Black-eyed Susan Some of you are likely thinking, ‘You want me to plant plants that attract more bugs?’  The short answer is yes.  More native plants = more native bugs = more bird food.  An example is black-eyed Susans.  They grow with virtually no work, offer color throughout mid to late summer, and provide food for local birds.

Tallamy’s arguments for planting natives focuses more on trees.  Consider oaks (Quercus), the mightiest when it comes to supporting Lepidoptera species (moths and butterflies).  Oaks support 534, followed by willows (Salix) and cherry or plums (Prunus) at 456 each, birch (Betula) at 413, poplars/cottonwoods (Populus) at 368, and crabapples (Malus) at 311.  Whereas beech (Fagus) support just 126.  (Get the book and read the list on page 147.)

Bringing Nature Home includes color photos of native trees, native perennials, and native insects, as well as lists of natives for all regions of the continental U.S. – sorry Alaska, Hawaii, and other island locales – and this alone makes it a valuable reference.  It also argues persuasively that gardeners move away from planting only for aesthetics and toward planting more to achieve a balanced food web.  Tallamy even cites the success he and his wife have had in converting their own suburban yard from a lawn near-wasteland to a richly diverse insect-laden, bird-friendly, native-plant haven.

Humans have disrupted natural habitats in so many ways and in so many places, and this is increasingly evident in ever decreasing numbers of amphibians, butterflies, birds, and other creatures.  But as gardeners and stewards of our land, we are empowered to reverse some of this disruption, simply by planting natives.

I, for one, plan to rise to Tallamy’s challenge by planting more shrubs and perennials native to Connecticut.  Check out the links below to learn how you can be so empowered as well.

Bringing Nature Home



How life’s guide steers your gardening path

winter Irving-3 1-10 Winter months present northern gardeners with ample opportunities to slow down and reflect, and in doing so I began to wonder how a quote I live by has guided my gardening path.

This thought was sparked by one of the blogs I try to visit regularly.  At first glance you might think BIKE WITH JACKIE is about bicycling, but it’s not.  Jackie writes about finding inner strength and turning obstacles into opportunities.  In a recent post, Quotes to live by, she asked readers to list a favorite quote they refer to when times or events get tough.  Her favorite , by Margaret Thatcher, inspired Jackie to write a list of good, uplifting thoughts to consider when needing a self-confidence boost – but you’ll have to visit BIKE WITH JACKIE to read these.

I had no problem coming up with a quote in response to Jackie’s request.  It’s from one of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen.  In her book, Black and Blue Quindlen writes, “The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.”  I read this book years ago, but this one line hit home so deeply with me that I have it written in an easily referred to place … and I do refer to it often.  This quote has helped guide me through so many life events.  It certainly pertains to my life-long desire to immerse myself in learning about plants and gardening, and most recently helped me decide to pursue certification in landscape design. Translation: your current trade doesn’t need to be your only trade.

Extending this line of thinking towards more tangible, daily garden-related affairs, I realized just how often I apply the mantra ‘If it doesn’t work, FIX IT!’ which, in essence, is the same message as Quindlen’s above. Here’s some examples:

The lawn you have need not be made only of grass.  When grass would not grow at in more shady areas of the lawn, but moss did, guess which won.  The variety of mosses that have replaced previously seeded grass is much more interesting and much less labor intensive than lawn grass could ever be.

If deer like the plants you’ve planted, plant those the deer don’t like.  I refuse to look at munched, unattractive shrubbery and plants, and can’t come up with the bucks to fence deer out completely.  So where they roam, I plant things they don’t particularly like – foxglove, lamb’s ear, anemone, peony, Siberian iris, thyme, low-growing sedum, astilbe, campanula, sage, lady’s mantle, globe thistle, and narcissus to name a few.  Then I give winter protection to any evergreens I want to keep unmunched.  Yes, deer might nibble a little on some of these unprotected plants in early spring, but this I can live with.

anemone 8-09 sedum 10-2009 thyme-2 11-2009

The vegetable garden need not be the only place tomato or pepper, or lettuce plants grow.  When the fenced in vegetable beds no longer offered ample growing space, containers filled in.  When the vole population grew incrementally after a mild winter and voraciously ate the roots of nearly everything planted in the vegetable beds, I planted veggies in large plastic pots sunk into the soil.  When we constructed a fenced in area elsewhere, I interspersed edibles with perennials to further thwart the voles.

Of course, this line of thought also explains why a pink dogwood tree had two homes before I finally opted to leave it planted in its current location.  Why an Endless Summer hydrangea spent a full summer potted on the deck and a full winter healed into a fallow veggie garden bed, before it found a permanent home next to a lace-cap cousin.  Why a globe-shaped boxwood became the center focus of a circular stone-walled planting bed after its twin succumbed to winter and could no longer balance the other side of the steps where the pair originally resided.  Why I rearrange so many perennials in the spring and fall to try and fix what ever it was about their current location that just didn’t make it.

I know, as a gardener, I am not alone in these actions, but other gardeners must use other guiding quotes.  So what’s your quote?  What mantra or words of wisdom guide your life, and how do your gardens reflect its message?