Back to winter

Another 6 or 7 inches of snow, just when we were getting a break! But I must admit that right now, while the snow is still falling, the world looks remarkably pretty. The temperature is hovering right at freezing, so the snow is heavy and wet and sticky, and it piles up on every slender branch.


On the hazelnut I just pruned last week as well as the dogwood, serviceberry, and ninebark that share a shrub island with it


On the slender branches of viburnum and dogwood on the side of the garage


On the row of hemlocks that shelters so many birds all winter


And on the forest we planted almost 20 years ago


Spring food


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


Plant a forest

The forest in spring, with dogwood in bloom.

This is my backyard forest. We planted it about 18 years ago, and this picture was taken about 10 years after it was planted. Northeastern North America was once entirely covered by forests, interspersed with meadows on very wet, very dry, or recently burned sites. Any piece of ground left to itself quickly reverts to forest. So forests are the easiest type of ecosystem to create and maintain—basically, remove invasives and enjoy (as you continue to monitor and remove invasive species). From an ecological point of view, forests are also the best ecosytem you can maintain: the most friendly to wildlife, the most protective of our air and water. Once established, forests grow and change but remain for a long, long time. They are the definition of sustainability.

A forest doesn’t have to be large. Perhaps you have an unused strip of ground a couple of feet wide along the edge of your property. Stop mowing it. Within a few weeks the grass will grow long and wildflowers such as lobelia, asters, goldenrod, and milkweed will spring up. Within the first growing season woody growth will appear—native sassafras, black cherries, and oaks, but also invasives such as Norway maples and multiflora rose, depending on what’s growing around you. Pull out the invasives and allow the natives to grow. In just a few years, you will have a little strip of woodland, complete with woody plants and understory flowering plants and grasses. If you like, you can plant additional species such as ferns beneath the trees, or you can add once-common shrubs such as serviceberry, which birds adore. You will have a productive ecosystem that provides food and cover for wildlife year-round where you once had waste ground.

A forest can occupy any part of your property that is now unused. For example, leave the center of your backyard as lawn but plant trees and shrubs all around the perimeter. Or plant additional trees and shrubs around a specimen tree on the front lawn. Or join two or three widely spaced specimen trees with shrubs, vines, and groundcover. My forest stretches across the back half of our backyard. It was formerly lawn.

Start your forest with free plants—use what grows—or purchase trees and shrubs. My forest now contains a combination of plants we bought and plants that have appeared over time–volunteers. Choose fast-growing species and you’ll have a beautiful native ecosystem within five years. Whatever native species you choose, you will have improved your local environment for many years to come.

Some gardening books

The forest in spring, with dogwood in bloom.

The picture above shows part of the native forest that stretches across out modest suburban backyard. Notice the flowering dogwood and the white ash in the background that was just leafing out in mid-May. Everuthing you see was planted by me and my husband, and this lovely woodland replaces a very boring bit of lawn.

This photo encapsulates my approach to gardening, which, as my regular readers understand, is to attempt to restore the natural environment. This approach is not ornamental so much as ecological (although I think the results are very beautiful). I plant native plants and I choose plants that are well suited to my site. I try to work with nature rather than to impose my will on my tiny slice of the environment. If this approach is of interest to you or to your gardening friends, here are some books that you might consider getting for yourself or for gifts.

Noah’s Garden  and Planting Noah’s Garden, by Sarah Stein

These two beautifully written books, taken together, tell you everything you need to know about environmental gardening—what it is and how to do it here in the Northeast. Noah’s Garden tells you why, and Planting Noah’s Garden tells you how. These books are out of print but still available on

Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants (Brooklyn Botanic Garden Guides for a Greener Planet)

The book that answers the question “What should I plant instead?” Describes beautiful native alternatives to specific invasive trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and grasses.

Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: A Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers by Gary L. Hightshoe

Looking for a mid-height native shrub, with great fall color, to plant in a shady site with acid soil? Or perhaps you need a small street tree that can withstand salt and soil compaction. This book can help you find a native plant for any site. A huge, expensive, but extremely useful reference work.

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas Tallamy

The author, an entomologist, has a simple thesis: the more bugs you see, the healthier your backyard environment is. A strong argument for the use of native plants and sustainable gardening methods. The book that is turning people on to native plants today, as Stein’s books did 20 years ago.

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East by Carolyn Summers

A fascinating new book by a landscape architect. Describes how to use native plants to create traditional gardens, even English cottage gardens and Japanese gardens. Good appendices listing many native plants, nurseries, street trees, etc.

Finally, I often recommend field guides to wildflowers, butterflies, trees, and shrubs as excellent resources for sustainable gardeners. I use the Peterson series, but you may find that you prefer a different one, such as Audubon. A particularly informative book is the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests, which is an excellent reference on the ecology of forests. The Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies has extensive lists of host plants.