Gardening for Pollinators

Pat Sutton’s Wildlife Garden in early July

Learn how to create a garden to benefit ALL pollinators and beneficial insects.

For Pat Sutton’s frequently updated

“Gardening for Pollinators” HANDOUT   (7-6-20 update)

CLICK HERE

I was in the midst of working on an update, but 3 days of physical therapy / week (for a bad back) and Grand Jury duty 1 day / week have kept me from wrapping it up.  So, check back for my 2021 update.

Hair Cuts Needed For Some Native Perennials

Hi Gang,

It is time to give some of our favorite fall-blooming perennials HAIR CUTS if you want them bushy (and not top heavy and floppy) by fall.

Years ago Flora for Fauna owner Karen Williams shared some sage advice about maintaining one of my favorite native perennials, New England Aster, and I’m about to share it with you.  Though this post is for folks with plants that are several years old and flourishing, not for brand, spanking new plants that have just been put into the ground this year.

NEW ENGLAND ASTER
2 HAIR CUTS: Memorial Day & 4th of July

Blooming New England Aster is a magnet for Monarchs and other pollinators, here on October 2nd in my garden

New England Aster can get very tall and top heavy by the time it blooms in the fall. And the last thing any of us want is for its lovely spread of glowing purple flowers, nectar, and joy to be laying on the ground come fall.

To help it grow into a many-branched, bushy plant instead of a tall, gangly, top-heavy plant, all you need to do is to give it 2 hair cuts on or around the 1st two holidays of the growing season: Memorial Day and 4th of July. Of course these dates are not single-day events, but roughly when you want to give New England Aster its hair cuts.

As a wildlife gardener I don’t clean up and toss the cuttings, but instead leave them on the ground at the base of the plant.  That way any caterpillars that went for a tumble with the cuttings can climb back onto the plant and continue to munch.  Doug Tallamy (author of Bringing Nature Home, Nature’s Best Hope, and The Nature of Oaks) shares that 112 species of butterflies and moths lay their eggs on our native asters, making asters one of the TOP 20 perennials used by butterflies and moths for egg laying.  Don’t be surprised if some of your cuttings take root and become additional asters!

New England Aster in need of its first haircut, otherwise this plant will certainly flop come the fall blooming period
New England Aster after its first haircut.  A good foot or two of growth was cut off the top.
13 days later, the New England Aster is already branching heavily where each stem was cut.

Around Memorial Day, I cut each stem 1/2 (or 2/3) off (or about a foot or two off the top, depending on how tall it is, if that is easier for you to remember). I use big shears and just chop  away. What happens next is that each cut plant stem sends out 2 or more new shoots where it has been cut, in other words it branches and becomes more bushy!

E. Cottontail caught in the act of giving Common Blue Wood Asters a hair cut on May 28, 2021

Some of my asters get regular haircuts  from plentiful E. Cottontails (they must think our yard is one large salad bowl crafted just for them).  I’ve planted the lovely fall-blooming, shade loving Common Blue Wood Aster, Symphyotrichum cordifolium, under our Tulip Tree and in our woods.  Despite hungry rabbits it has flourished and spread into other beds, our meadow, the perennial garden, and elsewhere and that pleases me.  It is so plentiful that it keeps the rabbits busy and away from most other asters.   We’ve fenced our yard, so deer are not an issue for us.  But other gardeners share that deer routinely give their asters hair cuts.

Around 4th of July, I give my plants their 2nd hair cut (not back to the 1st cut, but cutting back some of the new growth since Memorial Day). You may want to be more creative for this hair cut and cut the many stems in your plant different lengths. For instance, give the stems in the foreground more of a hair cut, the stems in the middle less of a hair cut, and the stems in the back just a little hair cut. This way your plant stems will bloom at different heights.

You may find that some plants haven’t grown as tall as others, so you may choose to pass on the 2nd hair cut for some plants. If so, you’ll find that these plants will bloom earlier. This staggers the blooming period so that you have New England Aster nectar, color, and joy far longer in your wildlife garden.

Sutton fall gdn-w-sig
My garden on September 27th full of mounds of blooming asters, thanks to hair cuts earlier in the year.

A bit more advice: once given hair cuts, New England Aster has “ugly legs.” The stems below the 1st haircut look “not so nice” . . . the leaves darken and fall off and the stems are quite bare. So you’ll want to have other perennials in the foreground blocking that view, so you’re not looking at ugly bare legs.

You can give 1-2 haircuts to some other fall-blooming perennials that grow tall and flop, so they’ll instead branch and become more bushy:
Goldenrod
Sedum
Sunflower

I love Tall (or Giant) Sunflowers and so do the Monarchs when they are migrating through in the fall
But if I’ve forgotten to give Tall (or Giant) Sunflower the 2 haircuts, it can be a beast to prop up or tie up, and keep from falling over, as you can see
Seaside Goldenrod chopped back after its 1st haircut. As it continues to grow I often spot stems I missed, grab the clippers and take care of business

For some summer-blooming plants that grow too tall for your garden, you can give them one haircut around Memorial Day, forcing them to branch, become bushier, and bloom lower. I sometimes do this with some of my favorite summer nectar plants so that I have an easier time seeing and photographing pollinators on them:
Culver’s Root
Ironweed
Joe-pye-weed
Sneezeweed
Blue Vervain
Boneset

Culver’s Root responding to its haircut, branching nicely!
I gave the Culver’s Root stems in the foreground a haircut, but left the back stems untouched.  This way the untouched stems will bloom on time and the  branching stems (due to a haircut) will bloom a bit later, and so the plant will offer nectar for a longer period

You can always experiment on other fall-blooming perennials that have flopped in your garden. If you’re not sure how hair cuts will turn out on plants other than those I’ve mentioned, try giving a hair cut to one stem ONLY (or if you have several plants of Cut-leafed Coneflower, for example, in your garden, give one of them hair cuts so you can compare results with your uncut plants). Then see how your plant reacts and whether you like the results.

Happy Wildlife Gardening,
Pat

Some Sources of Native Plants in 2021

Pat Sutton’s Wildlife Garden: Swamp Milkweed in seed (on left), Smooth Blue Aster (in center), Cut-leaf Coneflower (on right)

Once hooked on wildlife gardening with native plants, it can be a real challenge to find native plants.  Yes a few have been mainstreamed, and the nursery down the street may carry them.  But beware of cultivars of native plants.  Cultivars are plants created or selected for specific characteristics such as early blooming or color, often at the expense of nectar, berries (the plants may be sterile), and sometimes even the leaf chemistry is changed so the plant can no longer be used as a caterpillar plant.  We (wildlife gardeners) want the nectar, the berries, and we want the leaf chemistry intact so our butterflies can create the next generation!

Be careful too that your plants are Neonicotinoid free.  Neonicotinoids are systemic (get into every part of the plant, including pollen, nectar, even dew) pesticides that are applied to many commercially-available nursery plants and are harmful to bees, caterpillars, moths, and butterflies.

Around the world steps are being taken to protect pollinators from neonics. In 2018, the European Union voted to completely ban all outdoor uses of three types of neonics (citing their impacts to honey bees). Canada followed suit, planning to phase out all outdoor use of three specific neonics in 3-5 years (2021-2023) because of impacts to aquatic ecosystems. In 2016 Connecticut became the first state in the nation to restrict the use of neonicotinoids when the legislature unanimously passed An Act Concerning Pollinator Health (banning sales of neonics for use by general consumers in backyard garden settings). Soon after, Maryland passed a similar bill that restricts the sale of neonics and bans their use by consumers.

Educate yourself about Neonics by reading the following:

  1. Xerces Society’s  Protecting Bees From Neonicotinoids in Your Garden (includes list of products that have neonics in them)
  2. Xerces Society’s How Neonicotinoids Can Kill Bees, the Science Behind the Role These Insecticides Play in Harming Bees (in-depth study, 2nd Edition)
  3. Xerces Society’s “Neonicotinoid Movement in the Environment” POSTER (how neonics move through the landscape and are being found even where they were not used)
  4. American Bird Conservancy’s  Neonicotinoid Insecticides Harm The Little Creatures, including how 90 percent of food samples taken from Congressional cafeterias contain neonicotinoid insecticides (highly toxic to birds and other wildlife) .
  5. NJ Audubon’s “Neonicotinoid Fact Sheet – Neonicotinoids, Pesticides Placing New Jersey’s Wildlife, Farms, and Families at Risk
  6. NJ Audubon’s “Impacts of Neonicotinoids on Non-Target Species and Ecosystems

HUGE IINSECT DIE-OFF / INSECT APOCALYPSE

  1. A car “splatometer” study finds huge insect die-off
    Nov. 13, 2019, by Damian Carrington, Environmental Editor, The Guardian
    Measuring how many bugs fly into car windshields might sound silly. But to scientists predicting an “insect apocalypse,” the numbers are deadly serious.
  2. Insect apocalypse’ poses risk to all life on Earth, conservationists warn        Feb. 12, 2020, by Damian Carrington, Environmental Editor, The Guardian

BIRDS ARE VANISHING

  1. “Birds are Vanishing from North America”
    The number of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by 2.9 billion, or 29 percent, over the past 50 years (1970-2019), scientists find (Science, 2019).
  2. “A Neonicotinoid Insecticide Reduces Fueling and Delays Migration in Songbirds,” by Margaret Eng, Bridget Stutchbury, Christy Morrissey.  Science, 13 September 2019, Vol. 365, Issue 6458, pp. 1177-1180.

WHAT WE CAN DO

Here are just a few of the things that each and every one of us can do:

  1. Plant NATIVES, especially Keystone Species (read Doug Tallamy’s books to understand what Keystone Species are).
  2. Ask nurseries you frequent if their native plants have been treated with Neonicotinoids. If they don’t know, ask them to find out. If the answer is yes, don’t purchase and explain why, that Neonics are hazardous to the wildlife you are trying to attract and benefit.
  3. Leave fallen leaves on the ground: they are full of insect life, they protect tree and shrub and perennial roots, they break down and naturally nourish your soil, and they prevent erosion.
  4. DO NOT USE Pesticides (including Organic – they KILL too) or Herbicides or synthetic Fertilizers.
  5. Turn outdoor lights OFF at night (use motion sensor lights instead).
  6. Remove as many invasive plants as possible on your property
  7. Share some of your native “Chocolate Cake” perennial divisions (that are also Keystone Species: Asters and Goldenrods, for example) with others to help get them hooked
  8. Read and give Doug Tallamy’s books (Bringing Nature Home, Nature’s Best Hope, and The Nature of Oaks ) to family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors.
  9. If you ever have a chance to hear Doug Tallamy speak, BE THERE and bring your neighbor, friend, family member, landscaper, lawn care service worker so they can learn to speak the same language. In the meantime Google “YouTube videos (or podcasts) Doug Tallamy” and you’ll have dozens to choose from, many of which are keynote talks he’s given about the importance of insects, native plants, and much more. Watch them and they may change your life and/or the way you view life. Share them with neighbors, friends, family members, co-workers.
  10. Read and give Heather Holm’s books (Pollinators of Native Plants; Bees, An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide; and Wasps, Their Biology, Diversity, and Role as Beneficial Insects and Pollinators of Native Plants) to family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors to help you (and others) understand beneficial pollinators and provide for their nesting needs by leaving stem stubble during spring garden clean up, standing dead trees, utilizing fallen branches and tree trunks to line garden or woodland paths, and avoiding too much hardscaping, mulching, and turf so that ground-nesting pollinators have places to nest.
  11. Share all this with your neighbors, friends, co-workers, family

Some Sources of NATIVE PLANTS: 2021
by Patricia Sutton
click here for the 5-page printable pdf

2nd Edition (4-25-21)

To help people find the top ranked plants in their county Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, is working with National Wildlife Federation on their Native Plant Finder website.  In browsing this site, there are many, many plants for my own area (Cape May County, NJ) that I have been promoting for years and know to be TOP ranked plants that are not yet included . . . so keep checking back and realize that this is a work in progress.

The Jersey-Friendly Yards Website has many helpful resources. Use their searchable plant database to help you select plants for your site. The database has many filters including a “native plants only” filter showcasing @ 300 natives, as well as filters for wildlife value, region, ecoregion (including barrier island/coastal, Pinelands), deer resistant, light requirement, soil type, soil moisture, drought tolerance, salt tolerance, bloom color, bloom time, plant type, and more.   The site also includes a list of nurseries that sell natives county-by-county.

The Meadow Project (“Urban and Suburban Meadows” and “Hometown Habitat” by Catherine Zimmerman) shares an excellent state-by-state “Find Native Plants” link, with many additional sources of native plants.

Be sure to also check with your state’s Native Plant Society to see if they have a list of nurseries that carry native plants.  The Native Plant Society of NJ’s Native Plant Nurseries list includes the percentage of natives that each nursery carries, so you can readily see which nurseries you can let your guard down in and which you need to pay sharp attention.

 

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds: How to Attract Them

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Coral Honeysuckle, a GREAT native spring nectar source that often reblooms all summer long

Hi Gang,

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are on their way! As of today, April 6, 2021, the bulk of the sightings have occurred as far north as Berlin, MD, with a few outliers north of that (Little Egg Harbor Twp, NJ; Brooklyn, NY; Danielson, CT; and Hyannis, MA).

You can monitor Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration north (AND enter your own sightings) on Journey North  and on Hummingbird Central.

They are surging north from their wintering grounds (northern Panama and Costa Rica, north to southern Mexico). They will steadily move north with each good migration weather day, the opening of important nectar plants, and warm enough days with insect life.

The first sightings are often scouts, well ahead of the rest.  With the 1st NJ sighting on April 4, 2021, I’m going to get my feeders hung today!

Why Feeders?

You might wonder why I recommend putting out a hummingbird feeder, which is obviously an artificial nectar source. When hummingbirds arrive, my garden is still dirt! Without well-maintained feeders, “on-the-move” Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will keep going.  Nothing much is in bloom.

Why More Than 1 Feeder?

I hang 8 feeders scattered around our yard, so that returning males (they migrate first) can’t take control of our whole yard. I want females to settle in too and consider nesting in our yard. I’ll space the feeders out. I put one feeder on each end of my front porch (and enjoy them from the front porch rockers). I hang one from a shepherd’s hook on our back porch, easily viewed from the kitchen and sunroom. I hang one from the arbor into our perennial garden. I hang one from a tree limb at the back of our garden. I hang one outside my office window. And I hang the last one in the back of our woods. This way females will have options, places to set up their own territory and nest in our yard, away from bossy, territorial males (who DO NOT share, even with females they’ve mated with).

The Proper Solution for a Hummingbird Feeder

The solution I use (that is most like nectar) is 1 part sugar and 4 parts water. I make a quart at a time and refrigerate what’s left. I’ll only put two ounces into each feeder in the spring (and in late fall) because use is light and the last thing any of us want to do is waste sugar water (sugar cane fields are gobbling up important habitat). I mark my calendar so that each week, like clockwork, I empty and clean the feeders with hot soapy water, then rinse them with boiling water, and then put in 2 ounces of fresh solution. NO red dye is necessary; the feeders have enough bright red parts to attract hummers and red dye is cancer causing (and outlawed in many countries).  Hummingbirds have long tongues and can easily reach the 2 ounces of solution.  I don’t fill the feeders with more solution until activity gets crazy once young are on the wing and during migration when so many birds are tanking up and moving through our habitat.

Keep an eye on Journey North’s Ruby-throated Hummingbird MAP  and on Hummingbird Central’s MAP to see their movement north so you are ready for them.

The site I recommended for 23 years, Hummingbirds.Net, is still available.  On this site you can view 23 years of spring migration maps (1996-2018) for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, but there have been no LIVE maps since 2018. The creator of this great website is no longer able to maintain it because of technical (and expensive) changes (his explanation can be read at the top of the page HERE).

If you are a new wildlife gardener, be sure to also provide:

  1. a pesticide-free property (since hummingbirds also feast on soft-bodied insects and spiders)
  2. a habitat filled with native perennials, trees, shrubs, and vines that provide nectar attractive to hummingbirds from spring thru fall!

Some Sources of Native Plants in 2021

A number of native plant sales and reputable nurseries are gearing up for 2021.   Go to my list for last year to get websites and contact info (because I’ve not yet had a chance to update this page for 2021): Some Sources of Native Plants in 2020. With COVID-19 and so many unknowns still on the horizon, before visiting a nursery or attending a sale CALL FIRST and/or check their WEBSITE FIRST to learn of special arrangements for social distancing (prepayment, curbside pickup, MAIL-ORDER options). 

All About Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds

To read more about Ruby-throated Hummingbirds check out my additional post below.  You may also want to print my Ruby-throated Hummingbird Fact Sheet (the reverse side covers Hummingbird Feeder maintenance and gardening for hummingbird info).

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds – Part One: They’re Back

  • my favorite hummingbird feeder (Amazon sells them as do nature centers that have come up with safe ways to be open during Covid)
  • spring nectar plants that have worked for me in the Mid-Atlantic Region to lure hummingbirds to settle in and nest in your yard.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds – Part Two: Summer Nectar – COMING SOON:

  • summer nectar for the Mid-Atlantic Region including many natives and a few non-natives (that are not problematic).
  • proper feeder maintenance during the heat of summer
  • the importance of insects
  • places to bathe

In this “new normal” with Coronavirus in the mix, please stay safe, get vaccinated so you are not a threat to yourself or others, practice social distancing, remain healthy, enjoy your wildlife gardens and spring unfolding. I know the natural world has been key to my sanity through this,

Pat

Ruby-throated Hummingbird – Part One – SPRING ARRIVAL

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Coral Honeysuckle

Surging north over a three-month period (from late February through early May), millions of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depart their winter homes from southern Mexico to Costa Rica and northern Panama. They head north, reach the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and brave the 500 mile-wide Gulf of Mexico water crossing.  If weather cooperates and they’re lucky and strong flyers, they reach the Gulf Coast (Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida).  Refueling, they then head “back home” to where they were born.

Most years Ruby-throated Hummingbirds reach our southern New Jersey garden around April 20th, but don’t seem to settle in until the end of April or early May. This year (2021), the very first NJ sighting was on April 4. Today the mystery of when they will appear (and when we need to get our feeders hung) has been simplified.  Each spring you can monitor Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration north (AND enter your own sightings) on Journey North  and on Hummingbird Central.  Check these two sites each spring when you begin to wonder when to expect your returning hummingbirds.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird on a HummZinger mini feeder

The Importance of Well-maintained Feeders

What many people do not realize is that, if you hope to attract nesting hummingbirds in the spring as they journey north, you need to place well-maintained feeders in your yard. The reason is simple: our gardens are mostly dirt when hummingbirds first arrive in mid-April, with little in the way of blooms and nectar.

Hummingbirds are looking for a secure source of food and will settle in when they find it. Feeders are just that. Of course you want to keep those feeders fresh like flower nectar, so be sure to clean them at least once a week and refill them with fresh solution when temperatures are pleasant in early spring and late fall.  During periods of toasty hot weather (which is most of the summer) clean and refill feeders every 2-3 days (as soon as the solution begins to look cloudy). Knowing this, you can clearly see that you don’t want to buy the biggest feeder you can find, since you would be dumping un-used sugar water solution every few days.

The proper solution that is most like nectar in the wild is 1 part granulated white sugar (just like you put in your coffee) and 4 parts water. Oh, and don’t try to make your solution healthier by using raw sugar or honey. Both of these can be deadly to hummingbirds; honey and the iron in raw sugar can lead to a fatal fungus disease.  I mix a quart at a time and refrigerate the rest. I own 16 feeders so that I can take 8 clean and freshly refilled feeders out to replace the 8 I’m bringing in to clean.

A hummingbird’s long bill and even longer tongue easily extends to the bottom of a feeder

In the early spring and late fall (or any time hummingbird activity is low), I put just 2 ounces into the feeder; a hummingbird’s long tongue can easily reach the solution at the bottom of a feeder.  Later in the season, when activity peaks, I’ll fill the feeder to capacity (8 ounces).  Sugarcane fields have gobbled up so much important habitat that the last thing I want to do is toss 6-7 ounces of sugar water solution every time I clean and refill a feeder.

 

HummZinger mini (8-ounce) feeder

 My Favorite Hummingbird Feeder

My favorite feeder is the HummZinger mini 8-ounce feeder by Aspects. This feeder is incredibly well thought out (no surprise since Aspects tapped Sheri Williamson, hummingbird expert and author of the Peterson Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America, as a consultant). This feeder is easy to clean (which is A MUST – ditch your artsy, hard-to-clean feeders), has a built in ant guard (just fill it with water and they must go for a swim to reach the solution), the proper solution is written inside the lid  so you can’t forget (emphasizing NOT to use red dye), the design is NOT bee-friendly (bees can not get to the solution because they do not have long bills and tongues), etc.

I place my eight feeders around our one-half acre habitat so that one bossy male can not defend all eight feeders (and flower beds), though he tries. Two hang from our front porch, one from the back porch, one out my office window, one outside our screened porch, one under the Coral Honeysuckle arbor, one at the back of our perennial garden, and one at the back of our woods.  With this many options a female has a better chance of setting up a territory of her own around one of the feeders and nesting somewhere near this secure source of food.

One feeder equates to one bossy male. Two feeders placed out of sight of each other may lure in two territorial males. Three feeders scattered around your yard, some in the front yard and some in the backyard, may lure in a third hummingbird, hopefully a female who will chose to nest in your yard. It is great entertainment watching a male try to defend all of your feeders and gardens, but don’t make it too easy for him or he will be your sole hummingbird.

What few realize is that male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do not share well with others, even their own “mate” and young. Once a male has mated with a female, he’s done — and off looking for the next available female. So, be sure to have plenty of food in the way of feeders and well-crafted gardens blooming from early, early spring right up until frost.

Nectar (and the solution in feeders) is what powers and maintains a hummingbird’s incredibly high metabolism. Nectar is like a candy bar to a hummingbird, but who can live on candy bars alone? Their meat or protein comes from eating tiny, soft-bodied insects and spiders. So, a pollinator garden full of insects is like a supermarket to hungry hummingbirds.

In May

Our Coral Honeysuckle arbor, May 21, 2020

By mid-May, in my South Jersey garden, many spring perennials have kicked into high gear, so feeders are not the only show in town.  My arbor of lushly blooming Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, is a hotbed of activity.  It blooms lushly in May then continues to bloom all summer and fall long, until the first frost (with fewer and fewer flowers as the year unfolds).

Wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, has wandered all over my garden and woods much to my delight and that of hummingbirds.  It is a heavy seed producer, so I collect the seeds once the flower heads dry and scatter them where I want new stands of this hummingbird favorite.

My old-fashioned Coral Bells, Heuchera spp., pull in hummingbirds too.

I’ve planted a Red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia, in my woods that the hummingbirds find irresistible.

Another hummingbird favorite in the early spring is the shade-loving Lyre-leaved Sage, Salvia lyrata.  It can be quite a thug, so be careful to plant it where you’d like it to carpet the understory.
Highbush Blueberries and Azaleas are also good spring nectar plants for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

In June

Trumpet Creeper, a native vine that hummingbirds find Irresistible
Our sturdy Trumpet Creeper arbor

In mid-June through July, Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata), and Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) all kick in as top hummingbird nectar plants in my garden. Trumpet Creeper, a native vine, can be trained up a dead tree or over a sturdy arbor. There’s nothing more fun than sitting under that arbor and blazing away with a camera as hummingbirds feed and perch, feed and perch, over my head.

Bee Balm is the plant that led me to wildlife gardening forty plus years ago now. It pulls in EVERYTHING, from hungry hummingbirds to hummingbird moths, butterflies, a multitude of bees and wasps, the works! Bee Balm or Monarda is in the mint family and will spread. If you have a patch, share some with a new wildlife gardener and help get them hooked.

With hummingbirds, there is so much to share about these little bundles of energy that I’ll return with additional information in a segment covering mid-summer to late fall.

We hate to see them go, but let’s not think about that right now.  After all it is spring and we have a solid 5 months of hummingbird madness to enjoy.  

Happy gardening and happy hummers,
Pat

Spring Cleanup in the Wildlife Garden

WHEN and HOW to clean up the winter wildlife garden is a question I am often asked.  My advice: (1) wait until you have a stretch of warm days (not a warm day here and there), (2) don’t go at it with a rake, but instead break off stems and set them loosely single-layer along the border of your property or in your woods (which is what I do) so overwintering insects can still complete their life cycle (because, believe me, there is hidden life you will not “spot,” (3) leave your old mulch down, especially if it is salt hay since salt hay will break down into soil (it does not need to be removed), (4) wait to put new salt hay down for a while until more and more of your perennials come up and you can see where they are.

Spring cleaning, if done with wildlife in mind, is a slow process. On hands and knees each section is tackled slowly enough to spot garden treasures (overwintering chrysalises on stems, partially grown caterpillars in curled up leaves, microscopic eggs on plant material). Each spring many treasures are found along the way: spider egg sacks (some intact, others that had been discovered by hungry birds and emptied sometime over the winter), Carolina Mantid egg cases, and plant stems that have been nibbled to the core (proof that the garden’s dormant insects aided wintering birds).

Learn more about how and when to clean up your wildlife garden by reading two columns I wrote:

Spring Cleanup in the Perennial Garden,
Don’t Overdo It, PART ONE
by Pat Sutton
Originally published on the website Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens (sadly a website that no longer exists, but many of the articles contributors wrote have been stored at one of the original team member’s sites).

Spring Cleanup in the Perennial Garden,
Part TWO
by Pat Sutton
Originally published on the website Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens (sadly a website that no longer exists, but many of the articles contributors wrote have been stored at one of the original team member’s sites).

What’s Bugging Your Jersey-Friendly Yard? (2021 Webinar Series)

Hi Gang,

There is so much to learn about beneficial insects. Many individuals get excited to plant native milkweeds to benefit Monarchs, then panic when Milkweed Bugs and Milkweed Beetles appear that also need Milkweed. Here is a great opportunity to add to your understanding and education — learn about beneficial insects drawn to our wildlife gardens and in need of our help.

Jersey-Friendly Yards has a terrific Line up of speakers and topics as part of their 2021 Webinar Series: “What’s Bugging Your Jersey-Friendly Yard?” Bug experts will teach how to recognize beneficials versus pests, show how to manage pests safely using non-toxic methods, introduce attendees to the buggy relationship between plants and insects, and teach how to build a buggy web of life in your yard using native plants. I am honored to be one of the speakers along with Heather Holm, Kelly Gill, Dr. Dan Duran, and others.

The 2021 Webinars will be free and provided via WebEx Events. They will be held on the second Tuesday of the month from January to June at 7:00 pm.   The first one is coming up on January 12, 2020.  The live sessions will be an hour long with time for questions. To join the webinars, you will need either a computer, tablet, or smartphone with speakers. You must register to attend these webinars. After each webinar and with presenter permission, Jersey-Friendly Yards will add a link to a video recording of the webinar on their “What’s Bugging Your Jersey-Friendly Yard?” website.

For full details and to register go to the Jersey-Friendly Yards 2021 Webinar Series: “What’s Bugging Your Jersey-Friendly Yard?” Website HERE

(While you are on the Jersey-Friendly Yards Website, be sure to explore all the wonderful resources to help you create a healthy, native, wildlife-friendly landscape)

Here are the 2021 Webinar dates, topics, and presenters:

January 12, 2021 — Getting to Know the Good Guys: Beneficial Insects in the Landscape — Not all bugs are bad, so let’s meet the beneficial insects in your backyard. Predators, parasites, and pollinators—learn about how to recognize these good guys, their biology, and how to keep them happy in your yard. Presenter: Sabrina Tirpak, Principal Laboratory Technician, Rutgers University Plant Diagnostic Laboratory.

February 9, 2021 — Myth Busters: The Truth About What’s Bugging You — Insects are the most diverse group of animals on Earth. With over 1 million described species, insects account for about 75% of all animal species. Insect diversity is essential in maintaining functional ecosystems, productive natural areas and working lands, and overall biodiversity. However, human perceptions of insects are often negative resulting in insects being misunderstood, underappreciated, and in some cases, unnecessarily feared. This session will cover a variety of “insect myths vs. truths” with the goal of reversing common misconceptions. Presenter: Kelly Gill, Senior Pollinator Conservation Specialist, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation; Partner Biologist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Mid-Atlantic / Northeast Region.

March 9, 2021 — Cultivating Respect for Insects: An Overview of the Ecosystem Services That Insects Provide — Simply put: all life on earth depends on insects, for more reasons than most people realize. This talk will explore some of the immeasurably important ways that insects keep ecosystems functioning, including nutrient recycling, pollination services, and trophic interactions. It will also cover ways in which we can conserve much-needed insect diversity in our own yards. Presenter: Dr. Dan Duran, Assistant Professor, Rowan University Department of Environmental Science.

April 13, 2021 — What Lurks Above and Below: Spotted Lanternfly and Crazy Worms — The invasion has begun! Two non-native species: spotted lanternfly and Asian crazy-worms have already made it into New Jersey’s agriculture, yards, gardens, and forests. Learn the tools to how you can fight back, including their identification, biology, impacts, research, and control measures. The talk will also include how non-native pests have a serious negative impact on ecosystems and their health. Presenter: Paul Kurtz, Entomologist, NJ Department of Agriculture

May 11, 2021 — Attracting Bees and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants — Most insects have a positive impact in our landscapes. Native plants can be selected to attract specific bees and beneficial insects including predatory and parasitic wasps, beetles, flies, true bugs, and lacewings. Learn about the predator-prey relationships of these flower-visiting beneficial insects and how they help keep problem insect populations in balance. The life cycles, diversity, and nesting habitat of native bees will also be discussed along with examples of native plants for different site conditions. Presenter: Heather Holms, Author of the books Native Plants for Pollinators and Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide.

June 8, 2021 — Ferocious Dragons and Dainty Damsels — This primer to the winged jewels known as dragonflies and damselflies will cover the most common species, their natural history (life cycle, seasonality, what they prey on, and who preys on them), and how to identify one from another. Sutton, a long-time successful wildlife gardener, will share how to lure these ferocious mosquito predators into your own yard by creating a no-fuss wildlife pond. Presenter: Pat Sutton, Educator, Naturalist, Author

I know I’ll be virtually attending every single Webinar. “See” you there?

Happy Wildlife Gardening,

Pat

Water in the Winter Wildlife Garden

Mourning Dove and Brown Thrasher at our heated bird bath

Wildlife needs are pretty basic: food, cover, and water.

FOOD needs can be met by planting (or preserving) native nectar plants and native berry-producing and seed-producing plants.

COVER is crucial so that birds and other wildlife can avoid becoming a predator’s next meal.  Cover also provides safe places to nest, roost through the night, or get out of bad weather.  Native evergreens like Red Cedar, American Holly, and Waxmyrtle offer excellent cover for wildlife.  If your yard is wide open and without adequate cover, gather fallen branches and make a winter brush pile.  You’ll be amazed by all the action it attracts as birds dash for the safety it offers when a hungry hawk flies through the yard.  Or collect discarded Christmas trees and place them near bird feeding stations and bird baths, so that birds are not too vulnerable when they come to feed or drink or bathe.  And next spring seriously consider planting a Red Cedar (or American Holly or Waxmyrtle) or two or three!

Providing WATER is just as important as providing food and cover

Songbirds lose water through respiration and in their droppings. To replace lost water, most songbirds need to drink at least twice a day. In order to stay fit and healthy birds also need to bathe to keep their feathers in good condition. Bathing loosens dirt and makes their feathers easier to preen. Preening is a daily ritual where birds carefully clean, rearrange, and oil their feathers (one-by-one) with their bill — spreading oil along each feather from the preen gland. This daily preening successfully waterproofs their feathers and traps an insulating layer of air underneath to keep them warm. Keeping their feathers in perfect condition through daily preening is a matter of life and death. Well maintained feathers enable birds to fly at a moment’s notice and regulate their body temperature.

E. Bluebirds were drawn to our heated bird bath on January 5, 2016, when the temperature was 11 degrees F.

Birds face difficult times when water is scarce or nonexistent during deep freezes like we experience some  winters or during drought periods.

Heated Bird Bath

Providing water in the wildlife garden is something many accomplish easily spring through fall, yet fail to do once freezing winter temperatures settle in. There are solutions even in the dead of winter.  A heated bird bath coupled with an outdoor socket is the key. We use an outdoor power cable to connect the two.

We’ve had our Pole Mounted ERVA Heated Birdbath (photo above) for over 20 years.  The pole with its additional leg for support, when driven into the ground, makes this birdbath very sturdy so it remains standing no matter what!  In the summer months I use the same stand to hold a large plastic dish/tray (like you’d put under a large flower pot) full of gooey fruit for butterflies.  So even though expensive, this heated birdbath has served me (and wildlife) very, very well.  Beware that most of today’s standing heated bird bath designs are tipsy by comparison (bird baths balanced on inadequate tripod legs), looking like they’d topple over every time a frisky squirrel leaps up.

Presently the Pole Mounted ERVA Heated Birdbath is available at Wild Bird Habitat Store and Freeport Wild Bird Supply.  A few other sites carry it but were either temporarily out of stock or sold out (so keep checking back with them:  Nature House, Best Nest, Walmart).

Some heated bird baths rest on the ground and come with additional hardware so they can be attached to a railing like this one (photo above).  If far from cover, place some cut evergreen branches nearby, as we have.

Wildlife gardening friend Jean Riling uses a Bird Bath De-icer unit to keep her bird bath water from freezing (photo below).  Ecosystem Gardener Carole Brown uses a heated dog bowl.

Shy away from “artistic” bird baths that may look pretty but are not as serviceable to birds: too deep, too fragile and likely to break if they topple over, or (most important of all) are too hard to keep clean. The heated bird baths we’ve used are made of a hard black plastic material that is very easy to clean with a  good scrub brush and a little muscle.

If You Have a Wildlife Pond

If you have a wildlife pond and are thinking of putting a de-icer into it to make that your winter water source for birds, this could lead to some serious problems.  If indeed large flocks of birds descend on your pond to drink, their droppings will accumulate in your pond and you could face an algae problem during the warm month fueled by all these bird droppings.

Remember, birds need cover to avoid hungry predators. Place your heated bird bath near a safe retreat like an evergreen tree or shrub or near a brush pile or, as we have, place some cut evergreen branches around it.

Stay away from chemicals!

Some folks, who don’t know better, add chemicals to keep their bird bath water from freezing (like glycerine, anti-freeze, or salt). This is a death sentence for the birds. These chemicals can destroy the waterproofing capability of birds’ feathers, or poison the birds.

Hermit Thrush at our heated bird bath

During lengthy periods of frozen conditions water is in such demand that heated bird baths become heavily soiled. To avoid the spread of disease, maintain your heated bird bath with care by scrubbing it out with a soft bristle brush, rinse it with fresh water to wash out any residual bird droppings, and refill it with fresh water at least once (and often twice) a day. With heavy use heated bird baths may be emptied by flocks of birds twice a day or more. We keep a jug of water handy by the backdoor to easily facilitate this task.

Gray Catbird at our heated bird bath

Beyond helping birds survive brutal winter weather, our heated bird baths give us great pleasure. We’ve had excellent looks (and photo opportunities) at some real skulkers like Hermit Thrush, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, and other secretive birds not normally seen in our yard in winter.

Winter can be a stressful time for birds. Lengthy stretches of sub-zero weather can freeze solid every last bit of available water. Natural foods can be buried by snow. Heavy snow or freezing rain can creep into the deepest cover where birds are roosting.

Let’s do what we can to help birds survive a tough winter. Add a heated bird bath or two to your wildlife habitat in winter.

Canna – fall care & winter storage

Ruby-throated Hummingbird nectaring on Canna in Pat Sutton’s garden

In late June 2020, I gave away 60 or so Canna tubers.  Garden Gang members were greedy for them, so I kept thinning my patch (day after day) so I had more to give away.  For those of you who benefitted from my free plants , I’d like to share a late fall garden task (where winters can be harsh) that you might not be aware of.

Those of you with Cannas will want to dig their tubers up, if you haven’t already, before it gets too cold to perform this task.  I normally dig mine up  sometime in November for the winter.  This year I was very late and did not get to it until Christmas Eve.  If you haven’t done so yet, use one of the warm winter days we’re still experiencing, to get this task done.

You could leave your Canna tubers in the ground, but they may ROT over the winter, so it is a lottery (you may lose them all).  Some of the ones I’ve left in the ground make it through the winter (especially if growing in a south-facing garden), but most rot.   If you dig them up and store them properly over the winter, you’ll have viable tubers to plant next spring plus many extras to give away to family, friends, co-workers, neighbors.

Canna tubers multiply!   If you planted 3 Canna tubers, don’t be surprised if they’ve multiplied into 30 or more Canna tubers.  For about 5 years I dug up all my Canna tubers each fall.  This was very labor intensive, but it enabled me to give 100s  away each spring (the extras after I’d planted what I wanted).

Tubers dug up from only 10 plants (December 5)

If the task of digging them all up is just too much for you , dig up the tubers from just a few of your plants so you’re sure to have enough to plant next spring if your original tubers rotted over the winter.  That’s what I’ve been doing in recent years, only digging up enough for my own garden needs.   My back is much happier with this decision.

HOW TO WINTER OVER YOUR CANNA TUBERS

I dig my Canna tubers up in late November or some years later (before the ground freezes).  My step-by-step process follows:

This is what Cannas look like after the first frost, browned and limp, no longer green
  • I cut the stems off at the ground to make the task of digging the tubers up more manageable

  • I scrape away any mulch to expose all the tubers
By fall, one small tuber planted in spring has multiplied into a sprawling array of tubers
  • With a shovel or pitch fork I dig down under the tubers (placing my shovel well outside the exposed tubers and cut off stalks).  I  loosen the tubers and pry the enormous mass  out of the ground

  • You can break big ones apart into smaller and more manageable tubers
  • Tap the dirt off the Canna tubers
  • Place a large plastic bag in a shallow tray or a crate
  • Put a layer of dry leaves, shredded newspaper, or dry pine needles in the bottom of the bag (to act as insulation against freezing)
  • Lay the Canna tubers  on top of the dry leaves, shredded newspaper, or pine needles . . . layer by layer
  • Cover the top layer of Canna tubers with more dry leaves, shredded newspaper, or pine needles (to protect them from a brutal cold winter).  Tuck more of the insulating material (leaves, pine needles) down around the edges.
  • Pull the bag shut
  • We put our Canna tubers in the crawl space under our house because we don’t have a garage or basement.  A  friend with a basement, puts hers into trash cans with leaves or shredded newspaper and keeps them in her basement.  You could probably store the crate or trash can full of Canna tubers in a garage as well.
We’ve recycled a friend’s grape tray (that he gave us after wine making) and use it to contain our bag of tubers nestled in pine needles. It is shallow so we can easily slide it into our crawl space under the house

PLANTING CANNAS IN SPRING

  • Once the ground is warm, plant single canna tubers here and there around the garden in spots that get full sun.  They are a lovely accent in the garden.  Or you might enjoy planting  a border or a circular bed of them (they make a great “hide and seek” spot for kids to play in).
  • Don’t plant your canna tubers too deep, otherwise they’ll take forever to peek through the soil & bloom.  Simply scrape away a shallow area (not a deep hole), lay down the Canna tuber, and cover it with soil.
  • One tuber will grow into several tubers (sometimes numerous tubers) and send up a number of stalks that will bloom all summer and right through late fall until the first frost, drawing in constant nectaring hummingbirds. 

Happy Gardening,

Pat

2020 VIRTUAL Tours of Pat Sutton’s Private Wildlife Garden

2020 VIRTUAL Tours of Pat Sutton’s Private Wildlife Garden (43 Years in the Making)

Our wildlife garden has evolved over the last 43 years from a lawn and very few plantings (a Lilac bush and Day Lilies) to probably 100+ native plants and many different components (perennial garden, pocket meadow, shade trees and gardens, wildlife ponds, native woodland, living fences, etc.)  that all lure in and benefit wildlife.  Read this brief history to learn more.

This was the 4th year I led tours of my wildlife garden for CU Maurice River, a non-profit organization doing great work in South Jersey.  With Covid-19, the 2020 Tour was filmed on July 2nd and folks could join the tour VIRTUALLY on Tues., July 14, 2020.

If you missed this garden tour, there is a 2nd opportunity to join me for this Virtual Tour.  It will be one of many fun offerings as part of the 2020 Wheaton Arts Virtual ECO WEEK.  Details follow:

2020 Wheaton Arts Virtual ECO WEEK
includes

WHAT
VIRTUAL GARDEN TOUR
of Pat Sutton’s Private Wildlife Garden
40+ Years in the Making

WHEN
Friday, August 21, 2020
6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

WHERE
From the comfort of your home

Registration for this event is FREE!   But you need to click on the Registration Link HERE.  This Virtual Tour (a narrated video tour) will be followed by a Live Q & A session and is sponsored by CU Maurice River.

After you register, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining this selected Zoom webinar. Participants may join and rejoin the webinar at any time during the scheduled presentation.

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About the VIRTUAL Tour of Pat Sutton’s Private Wildlife Garden in Goshen, NJ (Cape May Co.), largely a NATIVE PLANT OASIS (filmed on July 2, 2020)

I’ll bet many of us have gardened more than normal this year, the year of Covid-19. Our wildlife garden and working in it has kept me sane during these uncertain times. I must give some credit for my sanity too to all the garden visitors I’ve discovered, learned about, and enjoyed this year. There have been so many fun sightings perhaps because we’ve been home a lot, out in the garden more, and savoring more. I hope this has been the case for you too.

I enjoyed sharing my garden with CU Maurice River on July 14th and am looking forward to sharing it again during the Wheaton Arts ECO WEEK.  If you should join me and see the footage, keep in mind it hasn’t always looked like it does now. Like each and every one of us, I have made some serious mistakes over the years and paid dearly for them. I love sharing my garden, not only because it is packed with Nature Happenings, but also because in doing so, I might help save others some of the angst and frustration I went through. I love sharing my garden also because I have learned so much about wildlife gardening and how wildlife responds to habitat. Truly, create it and they will come!

We see so much in our little 1/2 acre for many reasons. We barely have any grass left to mow. There are robust native perennials and understory trees and shrubs under all of our trees, not lawn. Rather than fight their thugishness, I am thrilled when shade-loving perennials I’ve planted like Common Blue Wood Aster seed further and further out into the lawn each year. More native plants and less lawn equals more habitat. One section of what had been lawn is an itty bitty meadow instead (12 feet x 12 feet). The meadow of native grasses and perennials compliments the formal perennial garden and hosts nectaring and egg-laying butterflies and other pollinators, nesting Box Turtles, and more! Our woods take up about one-third of our property and are filled with native trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, grasses, a sizable brush pile and many smaller brush piles, a butterfly house (made of overlapping branches with roofing shingles in between to keep weather out), and a seating area that is always cooler than the garden and overlooks a busy Hummingbird feeder (Meghan got footage of a hungry female during our virtual tour from this seating area). Many of the butterflies that nectar in our garden lay their eggs on native trees, shrubs, grasses, and vines in our woods. The woods were an impenetrable wall of Multiflora Rose until 2009 when we reclaimed them, so many of the native trees and shrubs are eleven years old. In ridding the woods of invasives the seed bank of natives had a chance. The transformation has been complete, but does take routine vigilance because the very birds we attract are eating invasives elsewhere and sprinkling seeds of those invasives in our woods and elsewhere on our property.

So, join me if you can for this 2nd airing of a 2020 Virtual Tour of my Private Wildlife Garden. CUMR’s Meghan Thompson did the filming.  I’ll be narrating the garden tour, which will include some of my favorite garden still shots from this spring and past magic moments. This virtual presentation will showcase many of the pollinators and sights from this season.

You may also want to download and print the latest update of my “Gardening for Pollinators” Handout (CLICK HERE), which includes lots of sage advice, Chocolate Cake nectar plants month-by-month, and sources of helpful signage.  It will prove very helpful during the Virtual Tour and afterwards!

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For twenty-three years (1991-2014), I led “Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens” in Cape May County  

Pat and Clay Sutton’s garden during the July Tour 2014

For twenty-three years (1991-2014), I led “Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens” in Cape May County.  I saw these tours as one of the best ways  to “grow” more wildlife gardeners.  You can see the excitement in the photo above as tour participants find, study, and share with each other butterflies, spiders, caterpillars, native bees, frogs, turtles, hummingbirds, and the beautiful nectar plants, host plants, wildlife ponds, water features, and habitats that have attracted them.

Initially I led these tours for NJ Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory, where I worked as the Program Director.  Between 2007-2014 I led the tours for NJ Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May.

Many of the owners of these beautiful, private, wildlife gardens had taken workshops with me and / or attended these tours.

Many garden owners shared with me that a personal goal was to have their own garden included on these tours.  The number of wildlife gardens grew and grew.  Eventually there were so many educational gems to share that I broke Cape May County into three regions and led back-to-back tours, covering different parts of the county each day.  I led these tours in July, August, and September so attendees could see first hand the different “Chocolate Cakes” in bloom month-by-month and the variety of wildlife attracted.

On the final tour, garden-owner Gail Fisher presented me with my very own Chocolate Cake made by her Mom (it was delicious).

And to further spoil us on that final September 2014 garden tour Gail Fisher served homemade Chocolate Cupcakes.

TAKE A VIRTUAL TOUR OF PRIVATE WILDLIFE GARDENS

Many of the gardens that were included on the Cape May County tours can be seen in the photo galleries below.  These photos (taken over the years) truly record the evolution of these private wildlife gardens and may give you some great ideas for your own garden.

  • South Tour (Cape Island: Cape May, Cape May Point, West Cape May, and Lower Township)
  • Mid-County Tour (North Cape May, Villas, and Erma)
  • North Tour (Cape May Court House, Goshen  . . . including my own garden, Dennisville, Eldora, South Seaville, and Ocean View)