Essential tools: The spading fork

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If I wanted to divide this clump of false Solomon’s seal or these shade asters, I would stick a spading fork in the ground and lift out part of the clump (although it would have been better to do it a few weeks ago when they first emerged).

The essential tools for the home gardener include a trug to hold all the smaller items, gloves, a sharp knife, a hand fork, a trowel, a rake, a leaf rake, pruners, hedge clippers, a small hand saw, and, most essential of all, a spading fork. Barbara Damrosch, gardener extraordinaire, wrote a great essay about the spading fork.

A spading fork is not a rake and it is definitely not a pitchfork. It is a long-handled tool with four heavy tines. You use it for loosening the earth before digging a hole, for lifting plants out of the ground, for loosening and removing turf, for dividing plants, for turning compost, for digging in compost, for digging up root crops. It’s much, much, easier to dig with a fork than with a spade. It’s always the first tool to use when you have to dig.

It’s important to use a spading fork correctly. Suppose you’re digging up a large perennial: Place the tines as close as possible to the base of the plant and push straight down as far as you can. Then step on one side of the fork with the heel of your foot–not the toe or the instep–to drive it in as far as it will go. If you use your toe, you’re likely to slide off and fall down; if you use your instep, you can break your foot. Use your heel, which is strong and powerful, to push down as hard as you can. Then push down on the handle, lifting the tines, and the plant will most likely pop right out of the ground. If it doesn’t, repeat all around the plant, loosening the roots. Eventually the plant will come right out, the roots unharmed.

Spading forks come in different weights and lengths. You want the heaviest one you can manage, and for length, you want the one that’s most comfortable for you. Be sure the handle and fork are attached firmly to the shaft–your fork will get a lot of heavy use.

Take a look at this New Yorker cartoon about the spading fork on the Conde Nast website.

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Spring food

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No, the spicebush isn’t blooming yet, but I can hope and look forward, can’t I? There are barely two months to go before it does bloom. Now that the temperature has risen into the 40s for two days running, with the promise of topping 50 degrees today, I feel that spring is in the air. It isn’t, but I can hope.

For us gardeners, spring is the time of hope. For wild creatures (and for our ancestors who lived off the land), spring was the starving time–the most dangerous time of the year. Just imagine that you are dependent on what the earth can produce in your immediate vicinity for everything you eat. Now imagine that your winter’s cache of food is dwindling fast, but you have no idea when spring will come. And spring will not bring much food, because plants must go through most of the year’s growth cycle before they produce nutritious food. The starving time, indeed. We are lucky enough to no longer experience this, but wild animals certainly do. So I encourage you to consider their needs when you plan your garden.

What do wild creature eat in spring? They’re better at taking advantage of scarce resources than we are. A few seeds remain from last year, and some trees produce their seeds early. Early spring is when most birds have their young, so there must be food for them. Most birds feed nutritious insects to their nestlings. What do insects, particularly flying ones like springtime’s tiny flies and wasps, eat? Mostly pollen and nectar. Early birds don’t rely on worms–they rely on pollinating insects. So if you want to attract birds to your garden, plant early flowering perennials and shrubs. And do not use pesticides. Pesticides kill the insects that birds rely on for food.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin, female flowers shown above) is one of our earliest-flowering native shrubs. The flowers are inconspicuous, but it blooms in early April, and the berries are extremely showy and will attract birds to your garden in late summer. Spicebush is a wetland plant, but it does quite well in my dry, sandy soil. Plant it in part shade, and plant several individuals, because it is dioecious–in other words, individual plants are either male or female, and you need at least one male to get fruit.

Another early-blooming shrub that’s extremely  useful to wildlife is serviceberry (Amelanchier species, sometimes called Juneberry or shadbush). These bloom in mid-April in our area, and there is nothing inconspicuous about them. It’s one of the most gorgeous spring bloomers we have, with delicate sprays of flowers that look like strings of pearls as they unfold. There are 25 or 30 species of Amelanchier, including shrubs and small trees. Choose one that’s the right size for your site.

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Also important in early spring are the earliest blooming perennials–the spring ephemerals. These plants complete their entire yearly cycle—they emerge, flower, produce fruit, and go dormant—in early spring before the trees leaf out. Foremost among them are bloodroot (Sanginaria canadensis) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), both shown below in bloom.

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Both prefer most soil and shade. Other spring ephemerals are wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), Dutchman’s breeches  (Dicentra cucullaria), native bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), and wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata). There are many, many others, including some that don’t go dormant in summer and therefore work well as ground covers. These include wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis). Choose a shady spot and a few of these plants, add some native ferns or perhaps the lovely variegated native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), and you’ve got a spring blooming garden that will be lovely to you and useful to wildlife.

When choosing plants, don’t forget the real backbone of the spring larder—the canopy trees that produce very early seeds. The most important of these are the birches and maples. These are some of the most important sources of spring food for wildlife in our area. Plant a river birch (Betula lenta) on a moist site or yellow birch (Betula lutea) on a dry one , and you’ll enjoy its beauty for many years to come, while wildlife enjoys its bounty.

More winter food

My garden feeds the birds and other wild critters throughout the winter, and I never put out feeders (to see why, please read this). Some foods are available in spring (when demand is highest and supply is actually lowest), some in summer, fall, or winter. Nature provides food for wild animals all through the year, and your garden can too. This post will focus on winter foods; check back soon for plant suggestions for the other three seasons.

Winter foods tend to be those that birds do not favor–they’re the fruits that don’t get eaten the second they ripen. From the bird’s point of view they’re an emergency cache; from our point of view, they’re winter color. Top choices include hollies (Ilex species), such as American holly, winterberry holly (I. verticillata), and inkberry holly (I. glabra) They’re lovely and colorful throughout the winter.

Most viburnums produce berries that get eaten as soon as they ripen. An exception is cranberrybush viburnum (V. trilobum). The bright-red berries remain on the plant for most of the winter.

Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is an underused plant. It’s a low-growing, spreading shrub that does well in dry soil and shade. It produces tiny, bright-pink berries that serve as winter food all season long.

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Don’t forget about the perennial garden when you think about winter food. The main reason I don’t clean up the perennial garden until spring is to provide sustenance through the winter. The most popular seeds–those of sunflowers, asters, grasses–are long gone, but plenty of plants are still full of seeds, particularly ironweed (Vernonia) and brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba). And if you let leaf litter remain on the ground among the plants, it will protect fallen seeds and overwintering insects that birds will forage for all winter whenever there’s no snow on the ground.

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Many birds, especially tiny ones like kinglets, chickadees, and nuthatches, and of course woodpeckeers, eat insects throughout the year. In winter, they find them under tree bark. They’re doing a good service to your trees by eating those insects, some of which can be harmful to trees. Do don’t be in a hurry to spray pesticides on your woody plants (this is the time of year when your tree care company is trying to sell you as many treatments as possible  for next season, so think carefully about what you really need). Spraying pesticides often means eliminating the food that can sustain our native bird populations throughout the year.

In the dead of winter

If there ever was a day to plan the coming season’s garden, that day is today: 18 degrees Fahrenheit and the beginning of a major winter storm, with 3 inches of fresh snow on the ground already. So here goes.

In the perennial beds, my major goal this year will be to cut back some of the more, shall we say, enthusiastic plants and introduce some additional species, with the overall objective being greater diversity. For example, in one bed Rudbeckia subtomentosa, sweet black-eyed Susan, is crowding out other plants; in another bed, the culprit is bergamot (Monarda fistulosa):

No effects of heat stress on prairie plants.

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Both of these are lovely plants–but I have too many of them, and they’re tall plants growing too close to the fronts of their respective beds. So I will dig some out, give them away, and plant lower-growing perennials and grasses to rebalance the plots. The plants I plan to order include prairie dropseed (a grass, Sporobolus heterolepsis), vervain (Verbena stricta), dotted mint (Monarda punctata), lanceleaf and rose coreopsis (C. lanceolata and C. rosea), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), and nodding pink onion (Allium cernuum). Some of these are new to my garden, some are proven favorites.

I will order most of my plants from Prairie Nursery, a mail-order nursery in Wisconsin that specializes in pure species of native plants. I have ordered from them many times over the years and have found both their plants and their shipping methods to be very high quality. They will start shipping for the season in mid-April, but if you order now, you will get free shipping.

In the shrub beds, the major need is pruning, and this weather will prevent it. We did major pruning last winter, but many multistemmed  shrubs require yearly maintenance to keep them healthy and to prevent them from growing too large for a small garden.With luck, we’ll have some storm-free days between now and mid-February to get the pruning done.

I plan to approach the vegetable garden differently this coming year than in the past. As I have mentioned here, I have a plot in the Glen Rock Community Garden, and while I am very happy to be included there and have met and learned from some great gardeners over the past three seasons, some members are not as vigilant as they should be about removing diseased plants. As a result, the garden becomes full of pests and diseases by late summer, and harvests suffer. To  combat these problems, I plan to concentrate on early and late crops, primarily greens of various types; herbs such as parsley and dill that the rabbits destroy in my garden (the community garden is well fenced in); quick-harvesting crops like peas and, perhaps, one sowing of green beans. I’ll grow my tomatoes at home to avoid all the blights that affect the garden.

I’m looking forward to the first taste of mesclun and mustard greens, typically sown in March and ready around May 1:

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On not feeding the birds

This afternoon I spent a pleasant quarter hour watching a small flock of sparrows–I think they’re chipping sparrows, but bird identification is not one of my strengths as a naturalist–feeding in the perennial border right outside my office window. I allow the fallen leaves to remain in place in the flower beds all winter, and they protect lots of overwintering invertebrates and seeds. The tiny sparrows were energetically grabbing and tossing up bunches of leaves to uncover the food below. I am proud to say that I provide these noisy, active creatures with abundant winter food. Throughout the winter, my garden routinely hosts mixed-species foraging flocks of native sparrows, juncos, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, and kinglets. But I don’t attract them by putting up feeders.

I don’t feed birds or other animals directly, although I plant native shrubs, flowering plants, and grasses that serve as natural food and cover. As a result, my yard is full of birds and other wildlife. After a great deal of research I took down my birdfeeders about a decade ago, and I strongly believe that feeding wildlife is harmful to the animals that eat the food, to humans, and to the environment in general. I’ll explain just a few of my reasons for this statement.

Feeding encourages nonnative species

Time and time again, people who feed birds complain about the proliferation of pesky nonnative birds, such as European starlings, pigeons, and sparrows, at their feeders. I see it myself—one of my neighbors, who has a feeder, is troubled by large numbers of pigeons, while the goldfinches and cardinals fly right past his yard and flock to mine. By putting up feeders, you encourage these alien species that outcompete native birds for food and nest space. (And you also attract rats!) By planting native plants and encouraging beneficial insects, you encourage native birds.

Feeding spreads disease

Aside from the problem caused by molds and bacteria that grow in feeders (hummingbird feeders are a prime example of this), the congregating of large numbers of birds at feeders has been shown to spread disease. The house finch, a North American bird that looks like a sparrow dabbed with raspberry juice, had its population plummet because of a devastating eye disease that causes blindness. This disease is spread by the close proximity of birds at feeders. If you watch birds feeding from a natural food source, you will see that they almost never come into very close contact, as they are forced to do at a feeder.

Feeding puts populations at risk

The presence of artificial food sources can cause unnatural increases in populations of certain species, often in areas to which they are not native. For example, mockingbirds now live year-round in this area, whereas they formerly migrated south for the winter. This change in behavior can cause a species to become completely dependent on food provided by humans; if the food is suddenly withdrawn (because you move away or you go away for a week and your feeders remain empty), populations that have become dependent may not survive. If, on the other hand, you provide natural food sources, those sources will remain whether you are here or not.

Feeding concentrates prey and encourages predators

Predators, such as housecats and hawks, are smart. If prey species congregate in one specific area, predators will come around for an easy kill. Because feeders are often placed out in the open, without nearby cover, birds don’t have a chance. When I had a feeder in my yard, a neighbor’s cat was always lurking. Now, although there are many, many birds around, I almost never see cats. In nature, predators have to work hard for a meal. When we make things easy for them, we tilt the balance of nature in their favor.

Feeding tilts the balance of nature

This is really the overriding argument against feeders, in my opinion. Nature is so complicated, predators and prey live in such a delicate, precarious balance, that everything we do has unintended consequences. We just don’t know enough about even our local ecology to justify intervention. For example, many people who feed birds say that if they didn’t, the birds would die in the winter. Yes, some probably would, but that’s natural. It’s natural for animal and plant populations to fluctuate seasonally and over periods of years; that’s how balance is achieved. It’s natural for weak animals to die during a hard winter; that’s how nature ensures that the only the strongest will survive to breed in the spring. By altering this balance to suit ourselves, we help the weak to survive and we artificially tilt the balance of nature. If, however, we encourage wildlife by planting native species they need for food, we help maintain or reinstate that natural balance.

Ecology is a fascinating, bewildering study. It humbles me, because I’m continually discovering how much we don’t yet know! But the more I learn, the surer I become that the only way to improve our environment is to intervene less and, in every thing we do, to aim to restore the balance of nature. And feeding the birds simply doesn’t accomplish that.

The wild things are in the New York Times

Today’s New York Times has an article about a Virginia couple who transformed 100 acres of abandoned fields into what sounds like a gorgeous natural habitat by planting native plants. Be sure to look at the slide show and to check out the related piece about the tiny space the landscape architect, W. Gary Smith, designed for himself in Toronto.

We don’t all have 100 acres to work with. But you can do a lot with 1/4 acre or 1/2 or even a few hundred square feet. Here’s a winter shot from my own tiny little bluestem meadow.

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Plant a prairie

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Prairies (or meadows, to use the European term) are extremely diverse assemblages of flowering perennials and grasses. They are beautiful from spring to fall, and the seeds they produce feed the birds all winter. In this area prairies were always interim ecosystems—in a place where the forest canopy was destroyed by fire or flood or the activities of humans, a small prairie would appear and would remain for several decades until the woody growth took over.

I have three small prairies—most people would call them perennial borders. Each is four or five feet wide and up to thirty feet long. The picture above shows part of one of these gardens in June; the picture below shows a different one in August. They contain a wide variety of native flowering perennials and grasses. Two of these plots were planted around 15 years ago, one was begun about 8 years ago but has been extended several times. They have never received any fertilizers, chemicals, or soil amendment, and they are watered perhaps once or twice a season, if there’s a particularly dry spell. They provide glorious bloom from May through October and seedheads that feed the birds all winter.

You can start a prairie garden from seed (fairly difficult) or from plants (very easy). To start from plants, choose a site that gets full sun. Select plants that are well-adapted to your site, particularly in terms of whether it’s wet or dry, sunny or shady. To remove the existing lawn, you can do several different things, but the easiest is just to apply a thick (3-4”) layer of mulch, such as shredded hemlock bark. Lay the mulch down in fall and the ground will be ready to plant in spring. Plant right through the mulch. Do not amend the soil in any way.

When ordering plants, allow approximately one plant per square foot (so for a garden that is 4 feet wide by 20 feet long, you would need 4 x 20 or approximately 80 plants). As you select plants, be sure to consider height—some prairie species can grow 8 feet tall, and you probably don’t want too many of those in a small space. Choose plants of varying heights and bloom times, and be sure to select a mixture of flowering perennials and native grasses. In nature, forbs (flowering plants) and grasses always grow together; the grasses are beautiful year-round and the backbone of the prairie ecosystem. Grasses, like flowers, attract birds and butterflies, and their root structure complements the roots of the perennials so that the plants keep each other from flopping over.

Spring is the best time to plant. Once the plants are in the ground, water the garden thoroughly and keep it watered whenever there’s a dry spell during the first growing season. Some plants will be slow to take off, but some will bloom that first season. By the second season, and certainly by the third, the garden will be spectacular. You will be astounded by the variety of pollinators, butterflies, and birds it attracts.

A couple of details of care are radically different from everything you’ve ever been taught about perennial gardens. First, do not use any fertilizer or soil amendments—ever. Prairie plants are tough, and they build their own soil. Second, do not do any garden cleanup in the fall. Butterflies and other helpful insects will overwinter on the ground in the leaf litter, and birds will eat the seeds all winter.

Each spring, remove the previous season’s top growth, breaking down the tough stalks close to the soil level (they will snap off very easily). Once everything is on the ground, rake away the litter and either compost it yourself or take it to the town recycling center. That is the only maintenance involved.

Take some time this cold, snowy weekend to plan next year’s prairie garden.

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