My book and web site

Check out my book, The Sustainable-Enough Garden, available on Amazon, and the book's web site at www.thesustainable-enoughgarden.com. See more plant photos on Instagram.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Goodbye to bird feeders?

 It may be time to take down my bird feeders for good. I’ve been feeding birds in the garden for at least 30 years. I love watching our local downy woodpecker feeding upside down on the suet feeder. When a goldfinch happens by in spring and perches on the nyjer seed feeder, it makes my day.  

 

Goldfinches like small seeds of coneflowers and (thistle-like) nyjer-photo Rob Amend

    So why change this longstanding habit? First I learned that I could be poisoning hummingbirds by offering them infected or moldy sugar solution unless I emptied, cleaned and refilled the feeder every couple of days. That was more than I could promise, so I took that feeder down. 

Hummingbirds are safer on native cardinal flower than at my feeder

Then I stopped filling the seed feeders in the warm months. I read that I could feed birds more sustainably by choosing plants that produce seeds they can eat. That gave me a reason to add more native plants to the yard, always a welcome opportunity. And more diverse native plantings did seem to attract more birds.

 

Native coralberry will attract lots of birds-photo Servernjc

    This winter, though, I told myself that birds could use some extra seed to sustain them through the cold months. I filled my favorite feeders: a big oblong hopper with a weighted bar to close off the seed supply when a squirrel lands on it and a house-shaped suet feeder with a mesh-covered floor for clingers who feed upside down, like nuthatches and woodpeckers.

 

This battered bird feeder does keep squirrels out

Once the food was on offer, birds soon arrived, alighting on tree branches and inside twiggy shrubs, checking for predators and competitors before darting over to the feeders to grab a quick meal. 


    Unfortunately, my bird feeders could be superspreader locations, where birds come in contact with deadly infectious agents. Wildlife observers are reporting increased deaths of migratory finches caused by salmonella infection, possibly an unintended consequence of homebound bird lovers filling more feeders during the pandemic. Disease-causing microbes shared at bird feeders include bacteria, protozoa, fungi and viruses.

 

Pine siskin, one of the affected species-photo Cephas
 
    To avoid spreading infection, experts advise cleaning your feeder every one to two weeks, scrubbing it with soap and water and then soaking it in diluted bleach. Seed and seed hulls that fall to the ground, they declare, should be swept up in case they carry disease. Ideally, I shouldn’t put out more than two days’ worth of seed at a time, so that it’ll stay clean until it’s eaten. Even that stone birdbath I’ve been keeping filled is supposed to be scrubbed out and sterilized regularly.

 

The bird bath in May

    When I found a dead junco on the ground, I got the message: this is serious. I like feeding the birds, but I don’t want them to die for my amusement. 

 

Dark-eyed juncos visit frequently in winter

 I know myself well enough to realize I’m not going to bring those feeders indoors to clean them every two weeks through the winter. And I’m uncomfortable about the environmental impact of manufacturing chlorine bleach. It’s time to let our birds forage for themselves. In future, I’ll leave the bird feeders to those more committed to cleanliness. Instead, I’ll be planting more shrubs and perennials with berries and edible seeds.

 

American black elderberry offers lots of fruit for birds

 


Monday, February 15, 2021

Force of habit

An ad for Sunsweet prunes I saw years ago has stuck in my mind ever since. It showed a snooty-looking young man saying, “I breakfast on prunes because Dad breakfasted on prunes.” That pretty well describes the rationale for a lot of our gardening practices. 


Trees usually don't need staking, but it's a tradition


    I recently told a garden club why I’ve switched to no-till methods for my vegetables and annuals. Organic no-till agriculture is a well-established technique that avoids disrupting the rhizosphere, the top few inches of soil where most of the biological activity happens.


The rhizosphere
 

It enables farmers to benefit from the work of soil organisms that, if undisturbed, convert organic material into nutrients that crop plants can use. In home gardens, not tilling saves a lot of work; you can skip the sore back that used to result from turning the soil in spring with a spade or Rototiller. It also allows sequestered carbon to stay in the soil, helping to combat climate change (For a practical guide to the many benefits of no-till methods, see Lee Reich’s Weedless Gardening).


    On this occasion, one of the garden club members “attending” my talk on Zoom firmly rejected the idea of not tilling. “We don’t do that,” she said. She was certain that rain and snow pack down soil, and it needs fluffing up before planting can be undertaken.

 

Managing to thrive in a no-till bed
 
    Her reaction mostly shows that I’d failed to explain no-till gardening convincingly in this attenuated online format. But I thought I also detected a whiff of “Dad breakfasted on prunes.” A lot of the things we do automatically in our gardens were passed down from our parents or gardening mentors. 

People think trees need winter jackets. They don't.

Other techniques became part of the ambient conventional wisdom when garden writers recommended them over decades without scientific confirmation. These practices are so familiar to us that we don’t even notice we’re doing them, let alone examine the reasons behind them.


    I have no trouble resisting the impulse to turn over the vegetable bed with my spade before planting. I’m all too happy to have a reason to forego that annual ritual. But what about pulling up weeds? That’s where I have to fight long-established reflexes.

 
    A true no-till gardener doesn’t uproot weeds, because doing so disrupts the networks that underground organisms have worked to create. And decomposing roots nourish soil and make channels for water, air and nutrients to flow through. What I should be doing is cutting the weeds off at ground level, leaving the roots in the soil. If they resprout, like dandelions, I should lever them out with minimal soil disturbance. It’s hard, though. It takes work to build new habits.


It's best to pry dandelions up without digging-photo Sunasce007

    That encounter with the garden club skeptic made me realize that I’m advocating evidence-based gardening. I believe that science should be our guide. Sometimes science confirms the wisdom of traditional methods, showing that they were better for the environment than newer approaches premised on overuse of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. In the case of tilling the garden, though, Dad had it wrong.

 

My insectary bed is a no-till area


 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Contentment

     Tough week, right? While we puzzle out what happened at the Capitol on January 6 and what needs to be done to protect our democracy, it’s good to know that spring will come and we’ll be back out in the garden. 

They'll be back


    When I was a medical intern in 1979 working 12-hour shifts in the Emergency Department, I stole a few minutes whenever I could to visit my 10- by 10-foot plot at a community garden that lay between my apartment and the hospital. One summer evening, I remember trying to identify the feeling I was experiencing as I watered and weeded my rows of vegetables. Could it be contentment? There was so little of it in my life then that I found it hard to recognize.


    Now I get the same feeling in my backyard, wandering around in the summer dusk deadheading, harvesting vegetables, and checking on how my plants are doing. The cares of the day fade away, and I come indoors feeling relaxed and refreshed.

 

Soothing to the spirit


    Since the 1980s, researchers have confirmed that gardening benefits our health, both physically and emotionally. The first study found that surgical patients who could see trees from the windows near their hospital beds recovered faster than those who could not. That’s hardly surprising to us gardeners. Since then, gardening has been linked to improved blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

 

Even a view of nature is healing-photo Chalmers Butterfield



    In 2007, scientists identified a soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, that induces a happy, relaxed mood by increasing the serotonin level in gardeners’ brains. No wonder we feel better after a day of digging. This study fits with the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that modern life has impoverished our microbiome by keeping us away from beneficial microorganisms. You and I have a solution.

 

Gardening is good for you-photo from GreenMatters

    All this confirms my eagerness to get out into the garden as soon as possible this spring. Whether or not we’ve been vaccinated by April, we can still enjoy the new growth. This year’s project is to plant a strip at the front of a now-shady perennial bed. Last summer I made note of struggling shrubs and perennials with pink or red blooms that needed more sun. They should do better in this area, where I’ve used sheet composting to improve what used to be a piece of scraggly lawn. 

Sheet composting strip starting to decompose, summer 2019


    In March 2019, I put down layers of wood chips, blood meal, fall leaves, and composted cow manure on newspaper I’d spread on the turf grass. 

 

Making the sheet composting mound, March 2019

I added a sprinkling of my compost to introduce the organisms that would speed decomposition and topped the pile with mulch made from grass clippings to keep it neat. Those wood chips needed two years to break down.  If the weeds that sprouted there last summer are any indication, the soil should be quite fertile this spring.

A pink flowering almond needs sun-photo Nature Hills Nursery


    While I wait for the weather to warm up, I can complete my list of native plants to add to the new bed and search websites for good candidates. It beats “doom scrolling” for more depressing news.

 

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum)-photo Prairie Nursery



Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Being part of the solution

 To meet my environmental goals, I’ve been avoiding peat-based potting mixes and trying to cut down on buying plastic pots. As I plan next year’s garden, I’m thinking about how I can move this campaign up a notch.


Starting to envision spring lettuce


    Now that I know that peat is a non-sustainable resource, I’ve turned to coconut fiber, or coir, as the key ingredient in my seed-starting mix. I can live dangerously and use my homemade potting mix, which is half coir and half sifted compost from my compost bins. That mix isn’t weed-free or sterile. 

Coir and compost mix ready for summer containers

Or I can buy coir-based products such as Organic Mechanics Seed Starting Blend, made of coconut coir, pine bark, rice hulls, and worm castings, with no peat. This mix is pretty easy to find, and it works well for me.


    The next problem is the containers. I’ve got a collection of plastic six-packs for seedlings. Some I bought new—regrettably, I now feel. Others came with seedlings I bought at garden centers. 

 

A lifetime supply of seedling six-packs

I’ve washed and reused these, often through more than one seed-starting cycle. Eventually they tear and have to be discarded. 


    Last year I reached a turning point in my thinking about plastic pots. For years, the “green industry”—the businesses that produce and sell garden plants—have chosen plastic containers for their low cost, durability, and light weight. Now the industry can’t easily pivot to other materials, because they’ve designed their machines around the plastic pots’ sizes, shapes, and other physical properties. If they’d make a start, though, I bet lots of consumers like me would be willing to pay a few extra cents for non-plastic containers.

Even my local native plant shop uses plastic pots


    I was heartened by a recent Fine Gardening article about biocontainers. The writer, University of Georgia professor Bodie Pennisi, describes two types of biodegradable pots: plantable pots made of recycled paper plus or minus dehydrated cow manure, and compostable pots made from pressed coir. 

 

Coir pots

These are relatively durable and neat-looking. A more ephemeral product is a paper sleeve made from wood fibers that lasts long enough to contain flower and vegetable starts.


    Like me, you may have tried starting seeds in flats and pots made of pressed peat. I found these didn’t decompose as advertised. I plan to try starting seedlings in CowPots this year. These are the brainchild of a Connecticut farmer who’s been producing them from homegrown cow manure for 20 years. They’re said to keep their integrity for 12 weeks above ground. After planting, they should break down in one growing season, allowing roots to penetrate easily. The nitrogen in the decomposing cow manure reportedly gives the young plants a boost.


CowPots at Gardener's Supply
 
    For perennial divisions, I’d prefer longer lasting containers. I’m going to try pressed coir pots. I see that I can buy some from Greenhouse Megastore or Gardener's Supply, if not at my local garden center. I’ll report back on how these products work out.

 
    Now, how to do we get the garden industry to make the switch too?

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Food for thought

 This week my garden club got together on Zoom to watch a video of a talk by Doug Tallamy. I’ve been a Tallamy follower since 2011, when his book Bringing Nature Home changed my gardening philosophy. Since then I’ve been working on growing more native plants.

 

Insectary bed: flowers and foliage for pollinators and other insects

    In 2019 Tallamy published a new, more prescriptive book, Nature’s Best Hope. He’s marshaling us to rescue biodiversity by creating Homegrown National Park, a combined nationwide habitat for native insects in our backyards. 


    Tallamy demonstrates how we can get the most environmental bang from our native plantings by prioritizing caterpillar host plants. Caterpillars provide the lion’s share of the biomass birds need to feed their young. 

Hummingbirds feeding insects to their chick

Tallamy has identified more than 800 caterpillar species on his 10-acre property in Pennsylvania as he and his wife have replaced nonnative invasive plants with natives (check out his stunning photos of some of them in the new book).


    A light bulb went on for me when Tallamy mentioned that people occasionally write him to point out that an imported species—the Asian ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), for example--used to be native to North America in a previous geological era and claim it’s therefore entitled to native plant status. That doesn’t matter, he said. What’s important is whether a plant supports any native insects. Ginkgoes don’t.

 

Ginkgo is a beautiful tree from Asia-photo Sunroofguy
 
    We’ve come a long way since concern about supporting insects first surfaced. I remember reading in the 1980s about designing a butterfly garden. That was when we planted butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.), which is now out of favor because it’s nonnative and potentially invasive. Butterfly bush and many other flowering imports do serve a purpose, though, providing nectar for bees, butterflies and moths in their adult forms.

Eastern Tiger swallowtail nectaring on a butterfly bush


    As I became more aware of my garden as an ecosystem, I started planting native flowers that provide the right pollen for native pollinators, especially bees. Now we can take the next step and choose to plant for native caterpillars. These aren’t looking for flowers. While adult pollinators can afford to sip nectar unselectively, caterpillars need to eat the right leaves to be able to grow and pupate.

      Because of decades of research in this area, we now know that about 90 percent of insects specialize: they’ve evolved to live off a limited group of plants. Most caterpillars aren’t equipped to deal with the chemical defenses mounted by plant species outside their small group of native host plants.

 

Monarch caterpillars need to eat milkweed
 
    So with data accumulating about which plants host which native insects, we can stop fighting about whether gardeners should plant only native plants. Instead, we can ask which plants host the most insects. Tallamy proposes that we prioritize keystone plants, such as native oaks, willows, cherries, and goldenrods, that provide food for hundreds of species of native caterpillars. How to find these? You can go to the websites of the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society and get lists for your zip code. Somehow this prescription seems much more doable.

 

Native red oak supports more insects than any other local tree-photo Jason Hollinger


 


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Oh dear

Wildfires in the West, powerful hurricanes and flooding in the South, and derecho in the Midwest. Meanwhile, the Northeast has been feeling relatively safe. We’ve had a severe drought, but so far climate change hasn’t turned us into refugees. 


    Well, we might not be immune to strange weather events. This Friday saw an unusually early snowstorm that weighed down tree branches still in full leaf. 

Ornamental plum bent low by heavy snow

This happened once before in my memory, in 2011, when a Halloween nor’easter shut down much of the New England. But it’s still far what we expect for the end of October. We’re supposed to be raking leaves and decorating our front steps with pumpkins, not shoveling snow.


    My garden got caught way off guard. All the tender perennials were still in their beds and containers. Now they’re a soggy mess, as is the basil I’d hoped to harvest. 

A pot of herbs. Rosemary made it, basil didn't
 

I wanted to provide blooms for pollinators through November. I don’t know whether the aster flowers will survive after two days coated with heavy snow. 

 

Will these aster blooms last after they thaw?
 
    All I can do is start the process of closing down the garden for winter, though these tasks are coming a lot earlier than I’d expected. When the potting mix thaws, I’ll bag up the elephant ears and cannas and store them in the basement to repot next year. 

 

The canna season has definitely ended

I’d hoped to pick a few more dahlias, but their tubers too will need to be packed away if I hope to replant them in spring. Today the water barrel holds a block of ice. If the weather warms up later in the week as predicted, I’ll empty the barrel and store it in the garage.

    I’m still hoping for some mild days to move compost into newly built raised beds in the vegetable garden. This will be the place for the compost in those aluminum trash barrels I used for food waste, after noticing that fruit and vegetable scraps on the open piles were attracting rodents. 

Composted food waste for the raised beds

If I can’t lift the barrels into the wheelbarrow, at least I can roll them across the yard. That’s the good thing about their cylindrical shape. I’m hoping these contained beds will boost my vegetable harvest. With 3-foot wide beds and 2-foot paths, I won’t walk on the soil around the growing plants, something I couldn’t avoid with my old free-form design. 

Raised beds for vegetables
 
    The other activity for the next month will be relocating fallen leaves from the front of the house to the backyard. Before the snow, I’d fortunately shredded a few for the perennial bed off the deck. There I find finer mulch preferable as new young perennials emerge and gradually expand. 


     For the rest of the yard, I’ll be keeping the leaves whole. Lots is written these days about the advantages of this system. By letting the whole leaves lie undisturbed through the winter, we provide shelter for important native insects that hide there as adults, eggs, or pupae. Plus, it’s a lot less work than bagging or shredding those leaves.

 


 

 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Getting by without rain

In late July I blithely congratulated myself on watering less, assuming that rain would come and my plants would be refreshed without supplemental irrigation. My expectations were way off. In the month of September, we got less than an inch of rain. So far October is just as dry.

The garden is drooping

    During the drought, I’ve had to make difficult decisions about watering. I’m finding out the hard way which plants can tolerate sustained dryness. For container plants, it was easier to know what to expect. In hot weather, they wouldn’t last more than a day or two without watering, because the small volume of growing medium in the pot dries out so fast. Those I kept watering with the hose wand or watering can.


    Then there were newly planted perennials and shrubs. Before the drought, I optimistically planted in new areas. When we replaced a rotting stockade fence with chain link last fall, I planted a row of evergreens. In spring I added a buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis

 

The buttonbush has survived so far

and moved a chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) to a sunny spot nearby. Around the garden pond, I planted native perennials for pollinators: false aster (Boltonia asteroides), northern blazing star (Liatris novae-angliae), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). All these will need supplemental watering for their first two years. I’ve kept at it with the watering can.

 

Northern blazing star at the end of its first season
 
    For the rest, it was survival of the fittest. The lawn completely surrendered. With our dog and her friends racing around on its parched surface, the grass wore away completely. Luckily, turf grass is my least favorite garden plant. It should grow in cool, damp environments like the British Isles, where it belongs.


So much for the grass

    In the drought, it’s easy to see the advantage of protective adaptations like waxy leaves. The boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) hasn’t batted an eye. The vinca (Vinca minor) groundcover in the front yard is starting to droop after two full months with no water at all, but it’s still green—another reason I’m glad it replaced the former front lawn.

Vinca has proven very tough

But some waxy leaves of a few evergreen shrubs are turning yellow or brown, as on the Catawba rhododendrons (Rhododendron catawbiense) and mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia).

 

Rhododendron leaves yellowing
 
    Softer deciduous leaves are drooping. Even the Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense), which is usually impervious, has flopped to the ground. 

 

Wild ginger has collapsed
 

In contrast, the goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and asters (Symphiotrichum spp.) are unfazed.


Goldenrod dealing with drought

     I notice that some perennials with fleshy roots have an advantage. Smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is still holding up its leaves. In the cutting garden, the cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) has turned completely brown, but dahlias are going strong. Presumably rhizomes and other fat root forms store water for hard times.

 

Smooth Solomon's seal has fleshy roots
 
     I find myself wishing that some of the rain flooding the Gulf Coast would come our way. We’re supposed to get some remnants from Hurricane Delta next week. May it be so! At this point I’ll only believe it when I see it, because so much forecasted rain hasn’t materialized.

 

New England aster holding up well