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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Moisture, warmth, and voilĂ !

Wow! When I slipped seeds into plastic bags with damp paper towels this week, it was to check their viability. They’re not just viable, some of them are bursting with vitality. 

Cosmos sprouts pushing their way toward the light

    I took the opportunity of Tuesday’s nor’easter to start my first seeds of the year. Some of my seed packets were a year old or more, saved in the basement in a plastic box. I didn’t want to waste time and space by planting them in six-packs of potting mix like the newer seeds and then find out they’d lost their ability to germinate. Instead, I’d see whether they’d sprout on the paper towels. 

Were these calendula seeds as dead as they looked?

I expected that if they were going to germinate, it would take a week or two. I placed the sealed sandwich bags in a tray on the floor to be warmed by sub-floor heating.

    I glanced over on Thursday morning and was surprised to see one of the bags pushed upward by sprouting cosmos seeds. By the next day, another cosmos variety was showing green sprouts too, and tiny celosia seeds were pushing out pink roots. 

These celosias will fill a niche in the pollinator garden

It seemed as if every time I checked, more seeds had sprouted. Two days later, all the bags were showing some signs of life: zinnias, black-eyed Susans, bachelor’s buttons, even calendula, an edible flower I had poor luck with last year.

    The next step seemed a bit trickier than I’d expected. I’d read that I should pull the sprouts away from the paper towel with tweezers and plant them in potting mix. I set up my six-packs filled with Organic Mechanics Seed Starting Blend. Then I tried to separate a cosmos seedling from its towel. 

     I was afraid I was breaking off the growing tip of the root. That seemed like a bad idea, so in stubborn cases, I cut out a small section of paper towel around the little root and stuck the whole thing into the planting medium. I put the six-packs with their newly planted sprouts under the grow light with the seeds I’d planted on Tuesday and replaced the lid to keep the humidity in.

A humid environment for the young seedlings

    So far the sprouts seem to have survived the transition without trouble. I can see I’ll need to keep planting this week as more seeds germinate. I’m rapidly running out of space under the grow light in the kitchen, which is the brightest I have. March sunlight from the west-facing window  isn’t strong enough to give the seedlings a good start. 

Even sunlight on snow doesn't reflect enough lumens to grow stocky seedlings indoors
The fluorescent tubes set up in the basement aren’t bright enough either. Maybe I can find some inexpensive LED fixtures to expand my options.

    Meanwhile, several of the seed varieties I planted in six-packs of homemade potting mix have popped up too. Basil and alyssum were the first. 

Newborn basil

I’m using a heat mat under the seed flats, which probably helps. It warms the medium by 11 °F. Once the first leaves peek out, it’s time to turn off the heat and start opening the lid. Welcome to reality!

So far so good

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Choosing the right plants for the right pollinators

As I think about planting this spring, flowers for pollinators are a high priority. But beyond choosing pollinator plants from lists for Northeast gardeners, how can I know which flowers will deliver the best value for these insects? By turning to Jessica Walliser, one of my garden heroines. Jessica recently posted a great article about types of pollinators and what they need.

Bumblebees like a spacious landing pad

    Come to think of it, all pollinators aren’t the same, so it’s not surprising that they need different things from flowers. I was eager to see how I was doing with the types of insects Jessica described.

    Bumblebees are big and heavy enough to pop open flowers to get at enclosed nectaries. That means they benefit from lupines, snapdragons, and many pea-type flowers, including my white redbud (Cercis canadensis f. alba). 

Redbuds' flower shape show they're in the pea family, Fabaceae

I do have some native lupines, and I enjoy snapdragons. The challenge will be to find some this year that aren’t treated with neonicotinoids. Jessica points out that spraying pesticides will harm pollinators, making your whole planting effort moot. Bumblebees also have long tongues that enable them to extract nectar from flowers with deep throats, such as my phlox, bee balm, and salvias.

Phlox 'David'

    Thousands of species of native bees (North America has 4,000 in all) are tiny insects that need plants with lots of small flowers. They like daisy flowers such as black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species). 

Black-eyed Susans work for smaller bees

I’ve got lots of these popping up all over, thanks to their generous self-seeding. A daisy’s central disc is actually packed with many small flowers, each offering pollen for these little bees. Sunflowers and coreopsis provide the same architecture. 

A sunflower's central disc contains many tiny flowers

Small bees also like the tiny clusters of flowers sported by plants such as my goldenrods (Solidago species).

Goldenrod goes for quantity over size

    Native bees don’t build hives. They’re mostly solitary, often raising their young in holes in the ground or in hollow stems, which they may also shelter in during the winter. Last fall I followed Jessica’s advice and left flower stems standing. 

Don't just take it from me. New York's High Line leaves coneflowers standing too.

They’re looking kind of messy now, but I hope to see more pollinators this spring. I learned from this post that I could cut them to 15 inches high if I don’t want them flopping over. Some of the plants I grow that have hollow stems are purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), raspberries, and ornamental grasses. 

    Pollinators need flowers blooming throughout the growing season. Witch hazel is offering some pollen now. Other early bloomers that will help in my yard include bugleweed (Ajuga species), catmint (Nepeta species), and shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis). At the end of the season, asters, goldenrods and sedums help keep the buffet open.

A monarch found this New England aster

    Jessica confirms something I learned recently. Double flowers don’t do anything for pollinators. That’s because in breeding for doubleness, the pollen-carrying stamens are converted into extra petals. Even if the insects could fight their way through to the flower’s center, there’s no nectar there for them to get. So when you’re confronted with dozens of coneflower cultivars, skip the double ones if you’re shopping to please pollinators.

These double coneflowers don't offer nectar or pollen

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Best of 2017

I thought I’d take this still wintry week to review some of my favorite plants of 2017. These are plants I love for their flowers, their pretty foliage, or their shape or texture. They’re easy to grow. Some but not all are native plants with the added advantage of providing food and shelter for native animals, especially insects.

     Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is an early bloomer, a native plant classified as a spring ephemeral. It first sends up elegant curled gray-green irregularly indented leaves. 

Bloodroot unfurling in April

The glowing white flowers last for two weeks if the weather stays cool. Bloodroot confirms that spring is really coming.

     White bleeding heart (Dicentra [now Lamprocapnos] spectabilis ‘Alba’, flowering soon after bloodroot, is one of my long-time favorites. I bought some from White Flower Farm years ago as a concession to gardening in shade. I find the flowers unfailingly beautiful. 

White bleeding heart in May

It’s a self-seeder that pops up in shady spots and forms new colonies. If there are more seedlings than I want to keep, I pot them and give them away. There are native bleeding hearts, but this isn’t one of them.

     For summer, there’s borage (Borago officinalis). This persistent self-seeder, originally from Europe, has furry leaves and azure blue flowers. 

Borage volunteering in the vegetable garden

I first planted it in my vegetable bed because it was listed as a beneficial plant. It’s come up every year since. Its specific epithet officinalis indicates that it was once used by apothecaries as a medicine. Borage is popular with pollinators, easy and vigorous but not pushy.

     Recently I’ve been very pleased with parsley, dill and fennel I’ve planted for pollinators. The only one we eat much of is the parsley, but all three grow tall fronds and panicles of flowers that bees and other insects like. I think they look romantic in a corner of the vegetable bed.

Fennel flowers for pollinators

     Among shrubs, one of my all-time favorites is doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’). It’s not a native, but May wouldn’t be the same without it. The graceful white flowers open along the tops of horizontal branches.

Doublefile viburnum in May

     I think our native highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are underused as ornamental plants. They could easily take the place of privet, a nonnative that turns out to be invasive. I’ve got several blueberry shrubs mixed into shady beds. The spring flowers are pretty, the berries are popular with birds, and the red fall foliage is very handsome. 

Blueberries' fall color

I’m going to prune them this spring in hopes they can grow more densely in areas where I’ve let in more light.

     One of my favorite trees is white pine (Pinus strobus), a New England native that makes a feathery background for several of my garden prospects. 

White pine in the background

White pines lose limbs to heavy winds and heavy snow. Fortunately they just keep growing; the gaps are soon filled in.

     Most of these favorites aren’t new in my garden. They’ve stood the test of time. It’ll be interesting to see whether new additions will prove to be even better garden citizens.

A March favorite, witch hazel


Sunday, February 25, 2018

Seed-starting time

It’s time to gear up again for starting seeds indoors.

Early life under lights

This year I’m returning to the purveyors of organically-produced seeds that I had the best luck with last year. Two of my favorites are Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine and The Natural Gardening Company in California. 

    There are several areas where I aspire to improve my seed-starting performance. First, it makes a difference when I plant the seeds. If it’s too early, they spend too long in the relatively weak indoor light, become spindly and flop over before it’s time to move them outdoors. 

Cosmos getting floppy

If I start them too late, they may not be ready before hot weather sets in. This year the web site of The Farmer’s Almanac is going to send me email reminders of when to plant each vegetable, determined by my zip code.

    Second, I’ve been reading about a way to germinate seeds that takes less space. You can sprout them on damp paper towels sealed in reclosable plastic bags set in a warm place in the house, such as on top of the refrigerator. 

Germinating seeds

When the seeds sprout, you grasp each tiny seedling with tweezers and plant it in growing medium. In my case, that will be Organic Mechanics peat-free seed-starting mix or homemade potting mix made from coconut fiber and compost. With this method, I won’t waste pots on seeds that fail to germinate. Germination is such a cool process. I’d love to watch it unfolding day by day.

    I suspect that one reason my seedlings don’t turn out as sturdy-looking as the ones at the garden center is that I handle them too gingerly. I usually plant three seeds in each cell of a recycled six-pack. I hang back from editing that down to one seedling per cell. 

These basil seedlings need room to grow

Cutting out two with scissors would give the biggest and strongest seedling more space for its roots and more light for its leaves. Then once it’s produced a few sets of leaves, I should pinch it to encourage it to branch, instead of elongating its one stem. I’ve read that a gentle breeze from a fan makes seedlings more robust.

    To get my young plants used to outdoor conditions, I move them to the back porch each morning and back indoors at night for a few days. That way they’re ready for full sunlight when it’s time to plant them out.

Hardening off on the porch

    The next stage is where I often have most attrition. This year I’ll try to protect the seedlings better when I move them to the garden. One problem is wildlife. I suspect squirrels of dining on the young plants. I’ve got some plastic cloches—clear covers--I can put over seedlings for the first week, and I should be able to rig up some protection for others with translucent fabric row cover.

Row cover

    I can’t wait to see sprouts emerging from the soil again. It’s a happy, hopeful time of the gardening year.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

What's native enough?

Because of the persuasive writing of entomologist Doug Tallamy, among others, I’ve changed my plant choices to prioritize native plants. What’s the evidence for the argument they’re needed to foster native insects? Why can’t insects just live off whatever flowers and plants they encounter?

Won't any leaf do? photo Toby Hudson

     Key to Tallamy’s call to plant natives is the assertion that most native insects are specialists that can only live off a small number of native plants. They’ve evolved over thousands of generations to be able to overcome the physiologic defenses of those plants, such as toxins that make leaves less appealing and digestible. They’ve synchronized their life cycles with those plants' and adapted to be able to sense them in their surroundings. 

     Is this true? The evolving evidence is that it’s more complicated. Some native insects really need particular native plants. We all know how monarch butterflies are suffering from decreased populations of native milkweeds, which their caterpillars need for food. 

Monarch caterpillar chewing a milkweed leaf-photo Judy Gallagher

But it turns out that some insects can cope with a broader selection of food plants, and some are already evolving to be able to live off nonnative plants. With short lifetimes, insects are able to evolve more quickly than longer-lived species such as humans.

     It’s relevant to distinguish between leaf-eating insects and pollinators. An insect that chews leaves for food may truly need its chosen plant species to survive. An insect that collects pollen and nectar may choose from a variety of plants, including some nonnatives. 

Eastern tiger swallowtail nectaring on nonnative butterfly bush

Pollinators can deal with cultivars selected from native populations for new characteristics such as different flower colors or variegated foliage.

A bee doesn't object to this black-eyed Susan's ornamental petal colors

     Tallamy and his team are refining their theory with ongoing research on which plants are attractive to insects. At the Mt. Cuba Center, a Delaware botanic garden, they’re counting insects on a list of native trees and comparing them to counts on “nativars,” selected varieties of the same species that differ from the straight natives in characteristics such as growth habit, disease resistance, foliage color, and berry size. So far they’ve found that blueberry bushes with larger berries actually attracted more insects, disease-resistant American elms drew as many insects as the unimproved species that succumbed to Dutch elm disease, and trees with ornamental purple leaves were less popular with insects than trees with green leaves.

Disease-resistant elm selections are OK for native insects-photo Msact

     This kind of painstaking species-by-species research is what will provide gardeners with meaningful planting guidelines. There are other choices to make. Do we need plants from our local ecoregion, or will other North American natives do just as well? Will we choose organic or conventionally grown plants? Locally sourced or not? Will we use clones, plants that are produced asexually through cuttings or tissue culture?

     So far I’m not feeling cramped by prioritizing native plants. There are plenty of appealing native shrubs and perennials I haven’t grown yet. I do prefer insecticide-free plants because of my concern about harm done by neonicotinoids. I’m looking forward to more information on “nativars” to guide future shopping trips.

Native purple coneflowers enliven a curb strip

Sunday, February 11, 2018

What's the best way to feed hummingbirds?

A 3-gram bird that can hover, fly backward, beat its wings 50 times per second, migrate 3000 miles between Canada and Mexico twice every year, and cope with more G force than a fighter pilot. 

Hovering to harvest nectar from a zinnia-photo A Reago & C McClarren

Hummingbirds are beautiful and impressive birds that are thrilling to see in your yard. No wonder lots of people try out hummingbird feeders. My friend Jennifer asked about these feeders last week in response to my post about feeding birdseed to backyard birds. Are hummingbird feeders sparrow-proof and safe?

     Hummingbirds are nectar feeders, which is why you can supplement their food with sugar water. They like pink, orange and red trumpet-shaped blossoms that accommodate their long beaks. 

Ruby-throated hummingbirds like this one inhabit the eastern US

A hummingbird visits up to 2000 flowers per day. As it harvests nectar, it acts as an important pollinator. It can also pluck flying insects from the air, and nestlings are fed exclusively on insects.

Hummingbirds feeding insects to their chick

     Ornithologists say it's OK to put out hummingbird feeders, but they also suggest planting flowers that feed hummingbirds. You can create artificial nectar by combining tap water and white table sugar at one cup of water to 1/4 cup of sugar and boiling the solution for a couple of minutes. Using honey, brown sugar, or molasses is potentially dangerous, and red food coloring is unnecessary. Typical feeder ports are ringed in red and yellow glass or plastic flower-like decorations to attract hummingbirds. 

The feeders are definitely sparrow-proof but could attract other nectar feeders, such as orioles. I read that placing several small feeders at a distance from each other is better than hanging one with many ports, because the hummingbirds are territorial and will fight each other for access.

     Maintaining a hummingbird feeder is a heavy responsibility. The sugar water quickly becomes moldy, contaminated with bacteria, or fermented, so you need to change it and wash the feeder thoroughly every other day, daily in hot weather. It should hang in the shade to keep the “nectar” fresh longer. You can’t run the feeder through the dishwasher, because soap is potentially harmful to hummingbirds. You’re supposed to wash it with a bottle brush and a vinegar solution. This means the best feeder is one that’s very easy to disassemble and clean.

     I’ve tried a couple of these feeders, and I have to admit that I didn’t keep up with the washing schedule. That means I put visiting hummingbirds at risk for infection. I also never saw a hummingbird using the feeders.

     Instead of trying to keep up with cleaning a feeder, I’m planning to work on offering more red and orange trumpet-shaped flowers near the house, where I’ll have a chance to see hummingbirds if they come. I did have one glorious sighting last summer, a visitor to an anise-scented sage (Salvia guaranitica) I grew in a pot on the deck. 

Even though they're blue, these long-throated flowers attracted a hummingbird

At Jennifer’s house, we spotted a hummingbird feeding on her very floriferous trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). 

Honeysuckles are popular with hummingbirds

Let's hope our flowers make us good hosts. Here’s a link to a list of flowers that hummingbirds like.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Winter rations, summer forage

Coming to you through the miracle of voice recognition software, I thought I’d reflect this week on changes I’ve made in my policy toward feeding birds. For several years I filled two bird feeders every week. Then I read Gardening for the Birds, by George Adams.

    Adams recommends growing plants that feed birds and provide them with shelter. 

Cedar waxwing eating fruit of a native serviceberry

He’s not a fan of bird feeders in the warm months. He points out that bird feeders can attract aggressive birds and invasive bird species like European sparrows that hog all the food and drive away shyer birds. Rodents attracted by birdseed may eat eggs and baby birds.

    To tell the truth, I was beginning to feel that birds were eating us out of house and home. Flocks of European sparrows showed up every time I filled the feeders and snapped up all the food within a few hours. While I regard individual sparrows as having a legitimate right to live, even if their ancestors are not from North America, I was attracting too many of them and not feeding other species I’d like to welcome to my yard.

One sparrow is endearing. Twenty take over a bird feeder.

    Following Adams’ advice, I started to emphasize trees, shrubs, and perennials whose fruit and seeds would provide food for birds. I already had some of them: balsam fir (Abies balsemea), shadblow (Amelanchier arborea), trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), and lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). I added American elder (Sambucus canadensis) and American cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) for more bird-friendly fruit.

Mockingbird finds winter berries

    While I was choosing native perennials to attract native insects, I threw in some Eastern purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), sunflowers (Helianthus species), and milkweeds (Ascelepias species), whose seeds birds could eat.

Purple coneflower seeds feed goldfinches

    One of Adams’ warnings was that birds might become dependent on food from feeders. If I suddenly stopped putting out seed, perhaps they would starve. I was interested to read an article in this month’s Atlantic that cites a Wisconsin study showing this didn’t happen in a population of black-capped chickadees. 

Black-capped chickadee--photo Alain Wolf

Researchers compared mortality among birds accustomed to getting some of their food from feeders and birds that foraged completely on their own. When feeder food stopped being available, the birds that had been fed did just as well as they had before. They were only taking 21 percent of their food from the feeders, continuing to forage widely despite this food source.  Bird feeders did help the chickadees get through the worst winter weather.

Bird feeders help birds survive the coldest days

    Scientists have also found that birdseed provided by humans is influencing birds’ evolution. Species are developing heavier beaks for opening sunflower seeds they find at feeders but not in their natural habitat.

    This year I’m putting out birdseed only in winter. I was happy to see that the native birds soon reappeared at the feeders this December, but the European sparrows aren’t back. I can’t judge yet whether more birds or bird species have been attracted by my plantings. All I can say is, there are lots of birds flitting around in spring and summer. I hope I’m heading in the right direction.

A sight I'd like to see