12/22/17: In the garden next year

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Is your garden still full of food for wildlife? If not, consider how you can become a better provider next season.

At this time of year, when we are about to be deluged by garden catalogs, it’s time to take stock of this year’s garden and do some serious planning for next season. What do you want your garden to be, and what steps can you take to move it in that direction? (One of the best things about being a serious gardener, I think, is that a garden is never, ever finished.)

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in gardening more sustainably, in adding native plants, and in attracting wildlife. So based on those goals, here are some things to consider as you plan for next year:

Are there lots of insects in your garden? Insects are the basis of the animal food chain: lots of insects means lots of birds; lots of pollinating insects means lots of seeds and fruit. The garden should look alive with insects, especially on a warm, sunny day. If it doesn’t look like that, here’s what you can do:

— stop using pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Pesticides kill all insects, bumblebees, ladybugs, and butterflies as well mosquitoes and Japanese beetle larvae. Fungicides kill the most important decomposers in the garden, and herbicides have been shown to be harmful to animals as well as plants. The vast majority of insects are beneficial. There are much less harmful ways to address the very few that aren’t than blasting them with chemicals.

— plant native species instead of alien and hybridized plants. Sure, natives are beautiful and easy to grow, but the real reason for planting them is that they are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Everyone knows about monarchs and milkweed: monarch caterpillars can eat only milkweed. But many, many insects are that specific: skippers need native grasses, fritillaries need violets, spicebush swallowtails need spicebush (no surprise there). The list goes on and one. The best way to ensure a natural, sustainable ecosystem is to plant a wide variety of native plants.

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New England aster flowers supply plentiful late-season pollen, and the plant itself is the host for dozens of species of native insects.

Is the garden lively in all seasons? We tend to be outdoors only in the warm months, but birds and other wild creatures are outside all year, and they need food and shelter. And I’m not referring to bird feeders. Even without them, my garden is full of birds all year round, and we see more birds in winter than in summer. Here’s how to ensure a plentiful supply of food for wild creatures throughout the year:

— plant for all seasons: with planning, you can supply fruit and seed throughout the year and flowers from late March through October or November. Early-fruiting native trees like birches are important food sources for birds and small mammals; trees and shrubs that hold their fruits through the winter, like hollies and some crab apples, fill in the other end of the year. Many birds search for insects in tree bark throughout the winter, not just in the warm months. A row of evergreens supplies shelter from winter storms.

— clean up the garden in spring, not in fall. Standing grasses and perennials supply both food and shelter throughout the winter; if you concentrate on planting pure species rather than cultivars or hybrids, your plants will produce seed for you as well as for wildlife.

— leave the leaves. Ground-feeding birds will energetically sift through the leaf litter beneath my plants all winter. Why? Because many insects overwinter in the leaf litter. If you keep your leaves and use them as mulch, you will see more birds throughout the winter and more butterflies and moths next season.

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If you don’t clean up the garden until spring, native grasses and perennials will supply food and cover to birds and other creatures through the winter.

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New Year’s Resolutions: Go Green in ’17!

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) supplies welcome winter color and long-lasting food for birds and other neighborhood critters.

Happy new Year! It’s time to make (and keep) some resolutions that will help make the world greener and cleaner for all of us. Think about some of these ideas:

— the next time you have a short errand to run, walk or bike instead of driving (good for you as well as for the environment).

— the next time you replace a car, make it a hybrid or electric, or go down one car size. If you now drive a large SUV, can you make do with a medium-sized one?

— Stop idling! The next time you pick up your children from school or park outside the  dry cleaner, turn off the engine rather than leaving it running

— as you replace light bulbs, switch to LEDs or compact fluorescents

— if you need to replace your hot water heater, get a tankless one; buy Energy Star appliances when you need replacements

— turn the thermostat down 8-10 degrees at night (in summer, turn it up at night) and when you go out for several hours

— don’t waste water in your garden–don’t water unless it’s really needed, which really means only when you have newly planted shrubs and perennials

— if you absolutely cannot live without fertilizing your lawn (even though your lawn doesn’t need it at all) eliminate one yearly feeding from your program

— plant native perennials instead of annuals next spring–one little bluestem grass, one milkweed, and one aster will take up three square feet of space AND give you gorgeous color and attract pollinators from early summer through late fall AND be absolutely care free

— plant native shrubs such as serviceberry, gray dogwood, elderberry, and ninebark to attract birds and butterflies all season long

— start a compost pile to reduce the amount of waste your family produces and create your own topsoil

— participate in a citizen science project such as Monarch Watch to learn about the environment and to teach your kids the importance of science. Find reputable projects through government websites or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: there’s an extensive list here.

— get your garden certified as a wildlife habitat through Bergen Audubon or the North America Butterfly Association. You’ll find an extensive list of resources on the Jersey-Friendly yards website.

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Something to look forward to in spring: a garden of easy-to-grow native perennials.

A beautiful native vine

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This is a beautiful native vine whose berries are highly attractive to wildlife. It’s lovely throughout the growing season; in autumn, it displays a foliar flag to let the birds know that its berries are ripe. More birds eat its berries than those of almost any other plant. You know that I’m describing poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), right?

Check out this post on the Beautiful Wildlife Garden website for more information about this very important native plant. For one thing, only humans are allergic to it. And among humans, by no means all are allergic. I have seem estimates ranging from 30 to 50 percent of people are quite immune. So, if you have a large property, perhaps containing some land where people never go, you might consider not eradicating the poison ivy there. You’d be doing the wildlife a favor.