Creating Wildlife Habitats

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Regardless the size of your garden, you can create a series of habitats suitable for local wildlife.  To create such habitats, simply focus on the basics — food, shelter and water.  While no one habitat will be suitable for every type of animals, it may suit the needs of several.

For instance, the selection of certain bee-attracting plants will also attract butterflies, and often hummingbirds.  Creating a small pond will not only provide a breeding ground for frogs, toads, newts and dragonflies, but will also provide a source of drinking water for birds and small mammals.

Here, we have no shortage of wildlife.  We have a mix of yard, flowers, shrubs and trees surrounding the house, a growing orchard and potager, several acres of pasture grasses for the sheep, all abutting 130 acres of woods and wetlands.  Over the course of a year we are visited by deer, fox, coyotes, rabbits, woodchucks, porcupines, opossums, skunks, wild turkeys (usually 20 or more at a time) and an assortment of other birds, as well as snakes, frogs, toads, and newts.  While the flowers and herbs attract various types of bees and butterflies.

I’ve found that the addition of  varied flowering plants, the placement of bird and bat houses  in appropriate locations, the addition of hedges and shrubs, and even something as simple as allowing the wildflowers that populate the woodland edge to spread with crazy abandon have all encouraged and attracted a greater diversity of wildlife.  More importantly, rather than using our property as a space through which to pass on their way to “greener pastures”, the wildlife remains with us throughout the season or year.

TIP: Climbing Plants — the more climbing plants you grow, the more varied and plentiful the habitats created for pollinators, other beneficial insects, and birds.  From an aesthetic viewpoint, climbers also add color and interest to shrubs, and otherwise drab fences and walls.   Some suggested favorites:

Clematis.  There are too many varieties of clematis to name here.  It is a versatile, generally easy to grow plant that will wind its way up any trellis, fence, wall or shrub given the chance.  The flowers provide food for pollinators, and the seedheads of certain clematis provide food for finches and nesting material for many other types of birds. (Jackmani below)

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Honeysuckle.  This is a hardy, wonderfully scented addition to the garden and the flowers are a favorite food supplier for hummingbirds and long-tongued bees and moths.

Climbing Roses.  Again there are many varieties of climbing roses.  However, in Zone 4, many lack the hardiness to survive our winters.  I’ve found the old-fashioned shrub roses or ramblers, which if grown and trained as climbers can still reach 8 feet or more in height, to be much more resilient. When selecting a variety that will provide food for pollinators, you should stick with the single-flowered roses which leave the center of the flower, where the pollen and nectar reside, easily assessable  to the bees.  The hybrids and varieties that have been bred for looks and frequency of bloom with their tightly packed layers of petals, although gorgeous, are not beneficial as a food source for bees.  Although I can attest to the fact that Japanese beetles love them!

My Favorite American Gardener – Tasha Tudor

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I read alot about gardening; usually, the British masters — Rosemary Verey (Barnsley House), Gertrude Jekyll (Munstead Wood), and Christopher Lloyd (Great Dixter) to name a few.  I learned much from each of them.  But when it comes to gardening style, I return every time to an American gardener, Tasha Tudor.

Children’s book author and illustrator by trade – and a wonderfully eccentric person – she was also an avid, cold-climate gardener who worked her magic in the challenging mountains of Vermont.

I first learned of Tasha while reading English Cottage Gardening: For American Gardeners, by Margaret Hensel, a book that featured Tasha’s gardens at Corgi Cottage, her home in Vermont. The brief bits in this book about Tasha and her gardening intrigued me, and after reading more about her online, I became even more interested.

Although raised in the 20th century, she chose – quite deliberately – to live her life as though she were living in the 1830s. She raised 4 children in a rambling, old farmhouse in New Hampshire without power and running water until her youngest was 5 years old. She spent the last quarter of her life living in a hand-hewn house, an exact replica of an 18th century farmhouse she loved in New Hampshire, on a mountaintop in Vermont. She owned 250 acres, at least 10-acres of which were flower and vegetable gardens. She grew her own food, raised her own goats and chickens, made her own dairy products and was reputedly an excellent cook (all of the recipes that I have tried from her cookbook have, indeed, been wonderful). She loved afternoon teas and dressed in homespun linen dresses. She walked and gardened barefoot when weather permitted. She was passionate about flowers and corgis, of which she usually had 3 or 4. She also spun her own yarn, wove her own cloth, made her own quilts and clothing, designed and constructed fabulous doll houses, and made marionettes. Her friends say her hands were never idle.

As you may imagine from the description above, she was quite stubborn, intelligent and opinionated, as many eccentrics tend to be. She knew how she wanted to live her life, and she made it happen. I admire that. But mostly I remain obsessed with her gardens.

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I return time after time to mull over any article or book that mentions her gardens, and will Google search “Tasha Tudor garden” just to get my visual fix (especially during the dismal winter months).  I admit it; I’m a Tasha Tudor junkie. I even drove to her home outside of Marlborough, Vermont (she passed away in 2008 at the age of 92 – still gardening until the end) with a friend to tour her homestead and gardens a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, between the estate battle among her children which kept everyone off the property for 2 years, and her heirs’ less ambitious and less talented gardening skills, the gardens were a mere shadow of what they once were — but you could still see the bones and catch glimpses of Tasha’s vision.  She reportedly told her son, just months before her death, that if the gardens were left unattended for more than 6 months, they would be unrecoverable. Sadly, she was right. But I digress…below are some glimpses of Tasha’s gardens, many of these photos taken while Tasha was in her 70s and 80s by photographer, Richard Brown (Tasha Tudor’s Garden).

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For anyone interested in learning more, I recommend reading The Private World of Tasha Tudor, The Art of Tasha Tudor, and gardening folks will love Tasha Tudor’s Garden.

Sowing Seeds

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The forecasters are predicting a “warmer than average” March and April for the northeast.  Of course its the “average” part that will trip folks up.  The sunny days that rise to a balmy 60-70 degrees tempt you to believe that spring has actually arrived.  The snow thaws, the snow drops and hellebores awaken, and the peonies and hosta begin to show signs of life as well.  And then, the inevitable happens–you wake up to predictions of plummeting temperatures, a hard freeze on the way, and even snow.

The safest time to plant all but the earliest, cold loving crops in North Country is the 3rd or 4th week of May–no matter how many warm days we have in April and early May.  I was lulled into a false sense of security a couple of years ago and stupidly planted out the dahlias and tomato and pepper transplants, and paid the price.  Not a mistake I care to repeat.

So I start sowing seeds with the end of May in mind.  This weekend I will sow those plants requiring a  10-12 week head-start.  Since I’m trying to cut down on the costs of buying perennials every year as I expand my flower gardens, I’ve started growing more of my own.  I now dedicate at least two 20′ beds in the potager for the perennials.  I let them over-winter for one year and then transplant them into the mixed borders in their second season.  This season I’m growing coneflowers, Sweet William (also known as Dianthus and “pinks”), Lavender Hidcote, Lavender augustifolia, foxglove (a biennial), as well as thyme (I’m using it to edge my herb garden and rock garden) and the annual, salvia “Victoria” (the beautiful blueish purple variety).   I’ll also pot out the dahlia tubers over-wintering in the basement (the beautiful David Howard (below), and the rather garish Floodlight, which Nora loves).

Spring is around the corner!

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Winter Interest

“Winter Interest” is a term used among gardeners to describe the planting of trees, shrubs and perennials that will not only become the “bones” (i.e., structure) of the garden and provide interest in the frigid, snow-laden days of winter, but will also provide some nourishment and/or shelter for the local wildlife

My gardens are young – heading into their fourth year this spring — and have far to go before they come close to the vision in my mind’s eye.  By September of the second year, I realized that I had inadvertently created a garden that was a bit heavy on late summer/fall perennials.  Although I also had a fleeting flash of color in early to late spring when the tulips, daffodils, lilacs and fruit trees bloomed, June was woefully underwhelming. So last fall and winter, I began planning and ordering perennials, vines and shrubs that are in bloom by June. I was moderately successful.

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Miss Bateman clematis under-planted with cranesbill and catmint

But what to do for the winter months when the foliage has browned or dropped altogether with the first hard frost, and the garden gradually becomes blanketed by snow?  I think cold-climate gardeners fall into two camps: those that cut back all perennials before the first snow flies to eliminate this chore from the inevitable spring rush, and those that selectively prune and cut-back leaving certain perennials standing if they provide “winter interest.”

I fall into the latter camp.  I don’t want to look out into the winter garden and see a flat, featureless landscape.  So I leave select perennials standing, specifically those that provide seeds for birds and other wildlife.  I have selected certain crab apple varieties and planted them along the wood line because they provide fruit for the deer.  I have planted swathes of winterberry to provide berries for the birds, but also because I find the bright red berries against a sea of white snow visually stunning.  I’ve also planted yews, dwarf spruce and grasses to the garden to add a touch of green and structure, but also because I love the look of the soft mounds they create in the snow.

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Crab apple

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Winterberry
Each year has been a learning experience, and I now try to be a bit more selective when choosing plants, shrubs and trees to add to the garden.  Every decision takes into account seasonal interest, color scheme, foliage, height, spread, and soil and light requirements.  Part of what I love about gardening is that is it never stagnant; there is no “end” or “completion” for a garden.  It is forever evolving and changing, sometimes based on the gardener’s whim, but also simply as a result of nature — trees and shrubs grow taller and spread wider than anticipated and need to be removed or relocated, borders become over-crowded by pushy and aggressively-spreading perennials, and every winter brings some losses due to cold or snow/ice damage. Gardening is an on-going dance with a mercurial partner; exhilarating, never dull, and requiring bold action for the best results.019[3]

Gardening for Birds

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Attracting birds to your garden is a fairly simple task.  If you have a good mix of trees, shrubs and flowers, you’re bound to attract some.  If you’ve setup a feeding station with supplemental food and a bird bath, expect to attract numerous species over the course of a year.

Up north, some of the best bird viewing happens in winter.  We have 5 feeders right outside our kitchen window where we can relax in the comfy leather chair next to the woodstove, and watch the birds and squirrels frolicking in the snow.

Our winters bring an assortment of cardinals, blue jays, fox sparrows, black cap chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, cowbirds, various types of woodpeckers, crows, and at dawn and dusk, often a bunny or two, to the feeders.  We’ve even had the occasional visit in late winter from some wild turkeys.

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Spring and Summer are even more varied with finches, bluebirds, robins, starlings, red-wing blackbirds, wrens, swallows and grosbeaks added to the mix.  Every spring we seem to end up with a family of robins nesting somewhere near the house.

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Here are 10 things you can do to entice birds to your property:

1)      Mulching your flower or mixed borders with leaf mold (leaves left to decompose for at least a year – full of nutrients for your soil and yummy bugs for the birds).

2)      Mow your lawn at differing lengths.  Blackbirds, robins and starlings, for instance, prefer shorter grass for easier access to worms and grubs.  Insect and seed eaters such as sparrows and finches, prefer longer grass (where the clover and dandelions are allowed to flourish).

3)      Plant a variety of shrubs and trees—planting a hedge is even better—to provide both shelter for birds, as well as to attract insects to the leafy vegetation.

4)      Cover any walls and fences with climbers (clematis, roses, climbing hydrangea, ivy, etc.).

5)      Make a log pile – this will attract countless insects, as well as provide shelter for small animals and reptiles.

6)      Put up bird houses of various sizes and in various locations to provide shelter (be sure to clean out the old nests in late fall in preparation for new spring inhabitants).

7)      Dig a pond and/or have bird baths scattered throughout the garden.

8)      Grow of variety of caterpillar food-plants such as apple, plum and cherry trees, clematis, foxglove, honeysuckle, hops, valerian, mullein, to name a few.  Wild plants such as nettles, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, garlic mustard and thistles also provide much needed food.

9)      Provide supplementary food year-round.

10)   Avoid using any pesticides or herbicides.

February Blahs

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Oh to live and garden in England where the daffodils are already in bloom.  Instead, I’m buried under a foot of snow (which, actually, is less than our norm at this time of year thanks to El Nino) with today anticipated to bring at least 5 inches of snow and a ½ inch of freezing rain.  Delightful.  At least we pulled out of the sub-zero temperatures we suffered through over the weekend; a high of -22 degrees on Saturday (with a wind chill of around -40) and a positively balmy high of -5 yesterday.  It’s so cold the pipes in my mudroom have frozen yet again.

I hate February.

In all honesty, this has been a mild winter for us.  We really haven’t experienced much winter-like weather or temps until this month, and we now have less than 4 weeks of winter through which to suffer.  Nevertheless, I still hate February.  I hate its extreme frigidity, snow, sleet, and freezing rain.  This is the month I seem to get the antsiest about getting outside and getting my hands in the dirt.

Although March is still far from pleasant, you can feel spring around the corner.  The days grow longer, the sun a tad warmer, the snow and extreme cold begins to subside.  More importantly, I start my seedlings inside, beginning the first week of March and ending 3 weeks before outside planting weather (late May up here in the tundra).  By the end of April, I have over 300 seedlings happily growing in the comfy confines of the makeshift nursery I’ve assembled in east-facing guest bedroom.

January is tolerable because it’s seed and plant ordering month.  Colorful catalogs arrive from all over the U.S. and England.  Despite any resolutions I may have made the previous season about curbing the number of vegetables and herbs I will plant this year, or the variety of perennials I will add to the borders, resolution gives way in the face of so many enticing photos and descriptions.  How can I resist adding a new variety of rose or two (or in the case of this year, four) when leafing through the latest David Austin catalog?  And who in their right mind could resist yet another variety of pole bean from Annie’s Heirloom Seeds when the description speaks of the variety being a tried and true favorite of the grower’s grandmother?  Not me.

So, here we are in the middle of the February blahs.  But my seed order has been placed (see below) and many more perennials than needed (although really, how does weigh “need”) have been ordered.

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Late July in the Veg Garden

 

2016 Seed Order

Herbs

Dark opal basil; Genovese basil; German chamomile; Chives; Dukat dill; Borage

Vegetables

Early Wonder beets; Touchstone Gold beets; Bull’s Blood beets; Danvers Half Long carrots; Koralik tomato; Thessaloniki tomato; Marketmore 76 cucumber; Midori Giant soybean; Sugar Baby watermelon; Yellow crooked neck squash; Casper eggplant; Cocozelle di Napoli zucchini; Contender Bush bean; Kentucky Blue pole bean; Catskill Brussel sprouts; Romaine lettuce blend; Purple of Sicily cauliflower; Super Sugar snap peas; Sweet Banana pepper; Golden Bantam sweet corn; Table Queen Acorn squash; Cotton Candy pumpkin; Connecticut Field pumpkin; and Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkin

Annuals

Sunshine Cosmo mix; Blue Victoria salvia; Calendula; Ladybird poppy; Teddy Bear sunflowers; Zinnia; Scarlet runner bean; Autumn Beauty sunflower

I have quite a few varieties of seeds remaining from last year as well—too many to list here.