Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East – A Book Review

by Glenn Steinberg

Carolyn Summers’ Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East (New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 2010) is an excellent book.  It begins by laying out the reasons to garden with native plants (which the book insistently calls “indigenous plants”).  Its reasons include providing habitat for birds, bees, and bugs, as well as making use of fantastic indigenous plants that simply don’t get enough play in the big-box nursery business.  The book also discusses the jargon of the nursery business and the implications of that jargon for the gardener who wants to be ecologically responsible (such as how to know when cultivars and hybrids successfully function like native plants and when they don’t).
It spends considerable time talking about native alternatives to popular invasive species (such as Norway Maple, Bradford Pear, and Forsythia).  The most interesting part of the book (to me) was a lengthy section on how to use native species in popular garden designs (including the street tree, traditional foundation plantings, a Japanese garden, and a cottage garden).  Another section discusses how to mimic natural landscapes in your  garden (such as woodlands, meadows, sandplain grasslands, heaths, and salt marshes).  Needless to say, the book covers a lot of ground, and for that reason, my one criticism of it is that there were times when I’d have liked more depth and less breadth.  But overall, it is an excellent book for anyone interested in incorporating more native plants into the garden.

The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard

Our annual plea for sustainable fall landscaping care has been recycled below.

by Joanne Mullowney

The first frost has come and gone and today it is sunny, humidity-free and gorgeous.  We love autumn.  We are finally leaving the hot, sticky days of summer behind for the cooler, more breathable days of fall.  Soon the neighborhood trees will blanket the ground with their last gift of the growing season.  This seasonal leaf drop can recharge your landscape and create habitat for wildlife.  So, don’t treat your leaf litter as trash, but rather as the gift that it truly is to the millions of tiny creatures that are a part of our gardens’ ecosystems.

The Benefits of Leaf Litter

Raking up and disposing of our leaves, chopping down dead flower stalks and grasses all contribute to a manicured appearance which we have been conditioned to think of as the norm.  However, in nature, trees don’t drop their bounty at the curb for pick up, but rather they blanket the earth while providing a host of ecological benefits.

Leaves provide an insulating winter cover in the garden for plants and those tiny creatures that sustain life in the garden.   We encourage you to mulch with fallen leaves.  Wherever possible, leave them to decompose where they fall in your garden beds.  Or settle the leaves under the branches of your shrubs. Give it a year or so and your leaf litter will have broken down while providing mulch and increasing the soil’s water retention abilities.

You can also rake out some of the leaves from the beds that are simply too much and might smother tender plants and cause them to rot over the winter. Add them to the compost pile or the leaf pile on the lawn while the rest remain in the beds. Then take your mulching mower and chop them up into small pieces.  Rake up most of the chopped leaves and place them back in the garden around shrubs and plants.   Now that they are greatly reduced in volume they contribute to the more manicured look that suburban mores demand.  The remainder can stay on your lawn and decompose there. Do this as needed until the end of the season and the leaves will break down over the winter providing your soil with valuable nutrients all the while enhancing wildlife habitat.  One incidental benefit is that of reduction of Township resources allotted to fall cleanup, saving taxpayer dollars.

While you might think that this leaves the yard looking a little less than perfect, you are nourishing the landscape and providing valuable resources and habitat for wildlife.

The Benefit of Providing Habitat

This somewhat messy yard contributes yet another important benefit – habitat.  While not a traditional concern of the average gardener, we believe it should be.  Did you know that despite its not so perfect look, leaf litter provides an important foraging space and shelter for a wide variety of birds, small mammals and insects?  Also providing benefit is the untrimmed garden where ladybugs and lacewings reside in native grasses and pollinating bees settle in hollow plant stems.  Butterflies and moths winter in chrysalides on the ground and baby spiders hide out amid the decaying plant stems. Birds feed from dried seed heads in winter.

Some wildlife use the leaf litter and other dead vegetation to insulate them from winter’s chill, while others, such as earthworms feed on the litter, breaking it into smaller pieces. Bacteria and fungi in turn convert theses smaller pieces into nutrients which then sustain neighboring plants. They in turn help support biodiversity by becoming food themselves. Toads, beetles, ladybugs and much more also live in your backyard’s leaf litter. Each is an integral part of the food web.

Support Wildlife Thru Your Not So Perfect Yard

We recommend the following practices from the Habitat Network to help you in your quest to provide habitat and reduce your ecological impact.  Adopting good practices in the fall also leaves you well set for spring in the garden.

  • Leave your leaves on the property (Leaves are too valuable a resource to dispose of!)
  • Leave them in the garden beds when you can, mow them or compost them.
  • Allow dried flower heads of some of your garden favorites to stay standing in your garden.
  • The dark stems and flower heads of some of our native flowers look gorgeous against the snow and nothing is more exciting than seeing our small winged friends feasting upon the seed heads.
  • Let your ornamental grasses grow tall and seed.
  • Don’t cut down your ornamental grasses. They provide shelter for the insects that pollinate our gardens and feed fledgling birds and other wildlife. Not to mention that they also look fabulous swaying in the wind.  They make a fabulous addition to the fall (and winter) landscape.
  • Build a brush pile with fallen branches instead of removing them.
  • If you build it, they will come. This author no sooner established a small brush pile in a back corner in the yard and it was inhabited.
  • Forget the chemicals. (This one is not hard. Just do it!)
  • Finally, don’t be in a rush to begin your garden cleanup in the spring. Wait until after several 50℉ days to begin, when spring has really arrived, allowing overwintering pollinators to move on first.  You gave them a home all winter; don’t yank it away from them too soon.

Vanishing Habitat

As habitat for wildlife is decreasing, so too is wildlife, and at an alarming rate.  A recent National Wildlife Federation newsletter states:  More than half the world’s wildlife has vanished since 1970.1  This includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.  Quite simply, we’re destroying our planet’s ability to support our way of life.

Wildlife needs habitat to survive and we need to do a better job balancing the need to provide habitat for animals’ survival against commercial forces.  Habitat requires food, water and shelter and even a small yard can support birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, and small animals thru proper landscaping and landscaping habits.  They need more than lawn and it is important to provide trees, shrubs, and other plants (particularly native varieties and a topic for another post) that shelter and feed wildlife.

We ask you to adopt a somewhat messy yard and eschew the leaf disposal.  Keep your leaves so that they can decompose naturally in your own yard and support the butterflies and other small insects that live in the leaf litter.  During this season of renewal so essential to preserving the next generation of wildlife, we invite you to join with us and pledge to garden messy.  Then put your feet up and enjoy the season.

Printable brochure of sustainable fall landscaping tips.

  1. Source:  Living Planet Report 2016 by World Wildlife Fund http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/lpr_living_planet_report_2016.pdf

 

Noah’s Garden – A Book Review

by Glenn Steinberg

In Noah’s Garden, Sara Stein argues for creating suburban landscapes that allow for greater biodiversity and wildlife. It isn’t a new argument, but she’s very forceful, even eloquent. For example, she writes, “Spaciousness to us means not only roomy in area but visually open, expansive, uncluttered, uniform in texture, low in growth, without impediment to view. To others [i.e., wild animals], ‘spacious’ is closer to the biblical paradox, ‘My father’s house has many mansions.’ The diversity and complexity of vegetation creates a spacious landscape for animals by offering each kind the opportunity to earn its living in its unique way. Remove the pheasant’s cover or the butterfly’s flower and you have erased its space. The less variety of habitat the landscape offers, the less space there is until, when all is mowed, even an expanse the size of a golf course becomes just a hole in the world” (p. 46). What we see as open space is nothing but “a hole in the world” to wildlife.

Sometimes it’s as though Sara Stein is speaking for me, saying the words that I’ve often thought but haven’t gotten around to articulating yet. At one point, Stein writes about an Eastern Bluebird that takes up residence on her property, and she says, “The Bluebird had assessed our real estate. He had noted the lay of the land: the availability of water, the potential for insects in the meadow, the protection of surrounding trees. I’m proud that our property rates a bird’s approval. But I wish its richness to be valued by humans, too. I want us as a culture to depart from the old tradition of evaluating land according to what can be extracted from it as a commodity or abstracted from it as social asset and turn instead toward a new tradition of valuing land by the life it harbors” (p. 243).  Noah’s Garden isn’t a how-to guide for creating a wildlife garden, but it’s a welcome exploration of the philosophy and rationale for creating such gardens — without a lot of jargon but with a lot of heart.

Native Plants in the ESCC Courtyard Pollinator Garden

We are delighted to report once again on the progress made this season in the new ESCC Courtyard Pollinator Garden.  From small plugs just three months ago, we now have plants that are growing strongly with some small amount of blooms.  We should explain that when you start your garden with small perennial plugs, they tend to put most of their energy the first season into developing their root systems and whatever is left into flowering.  This strategy will enable them to better weather the first winter.   The gardeners among you have undoubtedly heard of the adage about perennials: “the first year they sleep, the second year they creep. and the third year they leap.”   So, we are delighted with the small floral display and eagerly anticipate next year.

We thought that we would share the list of the natives that we planted.  They were all chosen for their high wildlife value.

  • Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) This extremely adaptable woodland spring bloomer thrives in a variety of conditions.  It handles all light conditions from full sun, to part shade, to shade..  It also will will thrive in a range of moisture conditions.  It has red and yellow bell-like flowers with backward-pointed nectar tubes, making them a hummingbird and pollinator favorite.  It will self-seed freely in optimum conditions, naturalizing to form large colonies.  It is a great choice to support early wildlife.
  • Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) Like the columbine, wild geranium also thrives in a variety of conditions, making it extremely useful anywhere in the garden.  It also works in a full spectrum of light environments and handles dry to medium soil moistures.  Lavendar blooms grace the plant in May and June and the plant works for the front of the border as it is on the shorter side (1 – 2′).    It retains is attractive foliage throughout the growing season.  It is long -lived and will spread to form nice clumps.
  • Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) What native garden does not boast Coreopsis within its borders?  The cheerful golden-yellow blooms last for weeks in the full sun garden.  It doesn’t need much water, thriving on the drier end of the moisture spectrum.  It blooms in June and July and does well near the front of the bordebluesr with it’s shorter 2 – 3′ stems.
  • Labrador Violet (Viola labradorica) Labrador violet was chosen for the shady end of the bed, handling full sun as well as part shade.  It is a tiny plant, only 3 – 6″tall and blooms from June – August.  It is a pale bluish purple.  It is beloved by cardinals and other song birds who eat the seeds and is also a larval food source for fritillary butterflies.
  • Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) Great Blue Lobelia is a late summer, early fall bloomer.  It has a spiky aspect and is covered in blue flowers that attract hummingbirds and other pollinators.  It enjoys full sun to part shade and soils on the moister side.  It is an excellent choice for a rain garden.  This is a lovely choice for those of us who love blue in the garden, usually in short supply.
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)  This popular native abounds in our local gardens, and for good reason.  It blooms profusely in mid to late summer ((July – September) and is a great nectar sources for butterflies, bees  and hummingbirds.  New Jersey’s state bird, the American Goldfinch, as well as other birds, love the seedheads, so be sure to leave them on.  They plant loves full sun, but will bloom in part shade.  It thrives in all soil types and likes it on the dry to medium side.  It is a medium/tall plant, growing 3 – 4′ tall.  The plant has been extensively hybridized with a wide array of colors.  However, their value to wildlife is questionable and we wonder “do native cultivars provide the same ecological function in nature?”  If a sterile cultivar that does not produce seeds, the straight species  undoubtedly has the best wildlife value.
  • Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) Black-eyed Susan is a garden favorite and for good reason. The bright yellow blooms are a charming and cheerful addition to any garden and the plant self seeds and blooms extravagently and lastingly.  It has great wildlife value, extended at the end of its blooming season by the seedheads which are enjoyed by finches and other birds.   It handles most soil and moisture types and enjoys full sun to part sun conditions.  It’s 1 – 3′ stems are covered in blooms from June through September.  And, if you leave the stems standing at the end of the season, they not only provide high wildlife value for the birds, but their blackened stems look fantastic against the winter snow.
  • Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) Bergamot, aka Bee Balm, is a well loved North American natives that is used extensively in our gardens, and for good reason.  The lavender pink flowers attract bees and butterflies and possibly hummingbirds.  It likes full to part sun and all soil types and moistures.  It can range from 2 – 5′ in height and blooms from July through September.  A member of the mint family, it spreads readily, but not obnoxiously.
  • Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum) Mistflower is one of our new favorite plants. It grows from 1 -3′ high and is covered in small blue-violet flowers from late summer until frost.  It likes moisture and does well in a rain garden.  It likes a part shaded location, but will handle full sun when given sufficient moisture.  It is a pollinator magnet and is covered in bees and other pollinators when in bloom.  It is also known as Wild, or Hardy Argeratum.
  • Blue Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) Goldenrod is a wonderful addition to the late season garden. It’s bright yellow blooms attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators in August and September.   It enjoys full sun to part shade and a full range of soil types.  Goldenrod likes soil conditions on the drier side, thriving in dry to medium soils.  There are numerous varieties which you should investigate depending upon your garden conditions.  Goldenrod does NOT cause hay fever, as reported.  Some varieties can spread aggressively, but have always been easy to pull out.
  • Sky Blue Aster (Aster azureus) Native Asters are the quintessential fall garden favorite.  The plant is covered in blue blooms from August through October and enjoys full sun to part shade conditions.  They, too, like it on the drier side.  They are a wonderful late season treat for the birds and other pollinators.  They can get a bit leggy and might be best served with a Memorial Day and Independence Day pruning.
  • Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)  We went a little light on our grasses in the courtyard garden, opting for more flowers with our budget $.  However, Switchgrass provides excellent habitat for birds and is reputed to stand up over the winter better than all other grasses.  We will see.  It likes full sun, but a wide range of soil and moisture conditions.  It is tall, growing from 3 – 6′ and blooms in August and September.  It turns straw gold in the fall.
  • Pink Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) A flat of the Monarch Butterfly larval host plant was donated by the Farnham family.  It is very popular will all kinds of pollinators, including moths, butterflies of all types, bumble bees and even, occasionally, a hummingbird.  Asclepias prefers full sun in all soil types on the moister side making it an excellent addition to your rain garden.  It is tall, growing from 3 – 5′.  In June and July it is covered with red/pink flowers.   The plant provides late season interest from the seed pods that develop following bloom.   If you want to join in the effort to save the Monarch butterfly, be sure to plant some in your garden.

Come and take a look at our garden.  If you have any questions, please email them to ewinggreenteam@gmail.com.

Early August Pollinator Garden Update

The wet days of May, June and July have really worked their magic on our new ESCC Pollinator Garden.  The tiny plugs that we planted in early May in the courtyard have come a long way.  We have had virtually no plant losses and while the above ground greenery is coming along and we do have some flowers, we are confident that we are enjoying quicker plant establishment as the roots rapidly establish themselves down into the soil.   The smaller plants experienced less transplant shock and yet the size of the plug assured us that there was plenty of root for each transplant.

We have provided a for a water supply to help meet the needs of any visiting birds – our bird bath is now in place. And, although you can’t see it in the photo, we have hung a bird house in the tree.  We hope during the fall planting season to start adding a few shrubs that we didn’t get in the ground early enough in the spring.

The following photos are from just a few days ago.

Ewing’s 2018 Through the Garden Gate Tour Promotes Beauty and Sustainability!

Saturday, July 7th was 4th Annual Through the Garden Gate Tour of Ewing and its environs, featuring noteworthy gardens in and around our community.  We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to show off our gardens!

The gardens were a smashing success, exemplifying everything that the Green Team is attempting to promote, from sustainable gardening practices such as “upcycling”, composting and naturalizing and showing pesticide and chemical free organic living spaces, to our certified wildlife and butterfly gardens, to the wonderful aesthetics.  It was delightful to wander through the gardens.  There was so much to learn , so much to admire; so much to emulate.  These gardens do indeed make Ewing a much prettier and better place to live.

The experience had something to offer everyone.  The gardeners got to view and learn from the efforts of their fellow gardeners during our pre-tour visits.  And Tour guests were encouraged to learn from the examples of our exemplary gardeners.  The following paragraphs  on the inside cover of our tour booklet summarizes the message we hoped was  conveyed during the event.

Message from the Ewing Green Team to the Garden Tour Visitors

Why do we garden? We garden to bask in the warmth of the sun and enjoy the touch of a fresh summer breeze. We garden to savor the feeling of peace and serenity from a beautiful space that we ourselves have created. We garden to refresh our souls. We may garden not just for ourselves, but also to create a home and landscape in which we can take pride.

We also garden because it makes us feel close to nature; to all of the precious wildlife that share this planet with us. If you think that gardening is for the birds, we agree. Gardening is for the birds, and the butterflies, and the bees. We are facing a critical biodiversity crisis and we believe that gardening can be an important tool in combating it. That is why we are taking this opportunity to encourage all gardeners to become responsible stewards of the land.

Responsible stewardship includes working with nature to reduce pollution and enhance wildlife habitat. It requires thoughtful yard care, elimination of fertilizers and pesticides, reduction in lawn area and outdoor water usage; and establishment of native plants. Adoption of these sustainable landscaping practices will not only add beauty and value to your homes and neighborhoods, but enhance your own connectedness to nature and its enjoyment in your own backyards.

We believe that habitat loss and degradation is one of the greatest threats to the natural world. Suburban neighborhoods have exchanged healthy native habitats for vast stretches of manicured lawns which contribute little of ecological value. It incumbent upon us all to become more responsible stewards of the land if we are to avert an oncoming extinction crisis!

We urge all gardeners to garden as if our futures depend upon it. Programs such as the National Wildlife Federation’s Gardening for Wildlife or the North American Butterfly Association’s Butterfly Garden certification can help you to make a difference.  Join us as we work to make our community more sustainable and a sanctuary for our vanishing wildlife!

Click on this link to view a slide show of the gardens in the 2018 Garden Tour.

The Journey Begins One Garden/One Plant at a Time

The Ewing Community Wildlife Habit Project Team embarked upon their journey to bring our backyards in Ewing back to life on Saturday, May 12th as they completed the first steps in the installation of a new pollinator garden in the Courtyard of the Ewing Senior and Community Center (ESCC).

It was great day for planting – cool, with more rain in the forecast and team members Karen Kissel, Heidi Furman, Mary Corrigan, Joe Mirabella and Joanne Mullowney gathered in the ESCC courtyard to prepare the site and set in the initial plantings in the new pollinator garden.  “Working on a project like this will benefit the many Ewing residents who frequent the Center,” said team member Heidi Furman.  “Not only will the courtyard offer a pleasant escape for the many Seniors who use the site, but it will enable them to enjoy nature up close as it will create habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.”

The plants in the 33′ by 8′ garden were specifically chosen for their ability to feed and nurture all kinds of local pollinators from bees, to wasps,  to butterflies and moths, to beetles and even hummingbirds.  They include black-eyed susans, asters, liatris, bee balm, purple coneflowers, columbines, wild geraniums, coreopsis, goldenrods, lobelias, mistflower, switchgrass and milkweed.

This initial planting was the first project of our newly established Ewing Community Wildlife Habit Project Team who will monitor the site throughout the planting season.  We hope that it will serve as an example of the relatively simple steps residents can take to establish a small habitat garden on their own properties.  According to the National Wildlife Federation’s backyard certification program,  providing food, water and shelter are the basic requirements that you need to meet to attract and support wildlife on your property.  In addition, sustainable landscaping practices such as eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and adding natural ingredients such as compost will ensure that your garden is a healthy, safe place for wildlife as well as you and your pets.

If you have any questions about establishing your own wildlife garden please be sure to use our contact form to get in touch.  We will be glad to help you get started.