Cool Plants for Hot Spaces, Patios and Parking Lots

Our Champlain Valley clay soil can swing from wet as a swamp to dry as a brick, so we’ve become well versed in plants that can handle both extremes, as well as the occasional black thumb.  Many of the species adapted to these conditions have the ability to close off their pores – very helpful when spring floods cause temporary inundation.  In addition to being both wet and dry in a single season our clay soils are also alkaline (up to 8.0 pH) due to the limestone that lies beneath.  Here are some plants I use in difficult spots, such as parking lots and hot dry courtyards, that also tolerate alkaline clay in our typical Champlain Valley gardens.  Many of them come from North Creek Nurseries and American Beauties Native Plants:

Trees –

  • Cotinus ‘Grace’ (Cotinus obovatus x C. coggygria)
  • Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar),
  • Ostrya virginiana (Ironwood),
  • Quercus macrocarpa (Bur Oak),
  • Thuja occidentalis (Northern white cedar)

 

Shrubs -
  • Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ (Red Chokeberry)
  • Diervilla lonicera ‘Copper’ (low-bush honeysuckle),
  • Hypericum kalmianum (St. Johnswort)
  • Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ (Sweetspire)
  • Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac),
  • Juniperus communis ‘Blueberry Delight’,
  • Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Center Glow’ (eastern ninebark)

Grasses –

  • Sporobolis heterolepsis (Prairie Dropseed),
  • Panicum virgatum ‘Ruby Ribbons’ (Switch Grass),
  • Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’ (little bluestem)

Perennials/Groundcovers  –

  • Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’,
  • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed),
  • Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’,
  • Baptisia australis (blue false indigo),
  • Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Summer Nights’ (false sunflower),
  • Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae (New England Blazing Star),
  • Rudbeckia triloba (Three-lobed coneflower)

7 Great Echinaceas for VT

echinacea 225x300 7 Great Echinaceas for VT

Echinacea at CMBG

Echinacea is one of our favorite plants for attracting bees and butterflies to the garden in July and August.  Twenty years ago most gardeners in the Northeast had never even heard of Echinacea. Then in 1998 Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ with its extra-large, rosy-purple flowers, and long bloom time, was named Perennial Plant of the Year by the perennial Plant Association.  For the next 10 years we saw the occasional new variety, selections of Echinacea purpurea in shades of pink to white, a pretty but limited palette.

Then a half-dozen savvy plant breeders started to produce colorful hybrids – crosses among three of the nine native species in the genus: Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa), and Blacksamson coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) – and voila, gardener hysteria ensued.  Plain purple turned into every color of the rainbow; red, orange, yellow, green, white, and even crazy double deckers.  Within five short years we went from having a handful of varieties to over 60 to choose from!!

Species vs. hybrids

Echinacea pallida 300x225 7 Great Echinaceas for VT

Echinacea pallida

Given the right growing conditions (dry, rocky, fire-prone grasslands) some of the straight species including Echinacea pallida (pale pink drooping petals) and Echinacea tennesseensis (upturned petals) perform better than the hybrids in tough hot spots and naturalize well.  However, here in the Champlain Valley we have rich, wet clay so we are better off sticking with Echinacea purpurea which prefers damp or even wet prairies and has a fibrous root system versus the taproot of the drier soil adapted species.  When we are designing pollinator meadows there are arguments for sticking with the straight species (see the blog post ‘Nativars’), but there are also scenarios when a design benefits greatly from bold color, even if it comes from a native hybrid, so the trick is choosing which of the 60 varieties is best for our gardens.

Top 7 Hybrids for VT

I’ve waded through the results of the Mt. Cuba Center Echinacea research trial and will list here the best coneflowers that are hybrids of Echinacea purpurea for you to try – one for each color, along with some tips for growing them successfully.  These varieties were selected based on their longevity, habit, and disease resistance.  Some of them can be difficult to find locally so I’ve listed a runner-up as well.  Here we go:

Purple – short 20″ – ‘Pixie Meadowbright’ – compact clump, fragrant, repeat bloomer June-Sept, can be grown in a container or at the front of the border.

Purple – medium/tall 36-40″ – ‘Ruby Giant’ and ‘Ruby Star’ – similar to Magnus but taller and more vigorous, with a bold, brighter effect than other varieties

White – ‘Fragrant Angel’ – double rows of petals are held horizontally. The tall, vigorous plants are strongly branched and flower profusely all summer long.  Makes a great cut flower, (runner-up ‘White Swan’)

Yellow – ‘Sunrise’ – dense form, rose scented, citron yellow flowers blooms all summer, central cone changes from green to gold, tight mounded foliage.

Orange – ‘Tiki Torch’ – 24″ stocky plants, pumpkin-orange, fragrant bloom July-Sept.  (runner-up is ‘Sundown’, but not as cold-hardy, can be prone to flop and ‘aster yellow disease’)

Lime – ‘Green Envy’ – very unusual, flowers open green with green centers and with time, develop the typical coneflower rose-purple tones at the base giving an interesting ever-changing display. (‘Coconut Lime’ is also worth trying for its double decker form).

Red Double – ‘Red Papaya’ progresses from a single pale orange flower to a bright orange-red shaggy mop-head flower.

cropped echinacea persicaria 7 Great Echinaceas for VT

Echinacea ‘Sundown’ at Linden Farm

To learn more about both the native Echinaceas and the interspecific crosses you can read Bill Cullina’s very informative post on the subject.

Want fewer Mosquitoes? Add Shagbark Hickories

little brown bat 300x300 Want fewer Mosquitoes?  Add Shagbark Hickories

Little Brown Bat

When we first moved to the farm in 2000, I was amazed by how many bats also called the barnyard home.  They would swoop down from the trees 20-30 at a time, darting swiftly back and forth, never colliding.  They didn’t bother me because I knew that they were playing a vital role – gobbling over 1,000 mosquitoes, moths, and other nighttime insects per hour!

Then our bat sightings began to dwindle, and our population may have been affected by White Nose Syndrome, which was a disease discovered in Vermont in 2007.  By 2010 I didn’t see a single one.  Then just last year we saw a handful, and now we have hope that they are on the rebound.

So what can you do to help bats in your own yard?

  • Minimize disturbance to natural bat habitats around your home (e.g., minimize outdoor lighting, minimize tree clearing, protect streams and wetlands).
  • Construct homes for bats

The Indiana bat is one of two federally endangered animals found in Vermont and their summer range in Vermont is limited to the southern Champlain Valley, from West Haven to Hinesburg.  The Indiana bat roosts under the loose bark of mature trees, unlike the more common little brown bat that roosts in man-made structures like buildings and bridges. Female Indiana bats also bear and raise their young in roost trees.

Shagbark Hickory 224x300 Want fewer Mosquitoes?  Add Shagbark Hickories

Shagbark Hickory

Shagbark Hickories are favorite roost trees for Indiana bats because of its peeling bark after approximately 20-30 years of age.  Shagbark hickorys are slow growing but long lived, and a properly managed stand is an investment in bat conservation for hundreds of years.  As a bonus the nuts are edible, and provide good mast for wildlife.

Shagbark Hickories should be planted with direct southern exposure for the best solar heating. In order to make an ideal roost tree, the shagbark hickory should have the lower branches removed to a height of 20 to 30 feet or more. This reduces the threat of predation.

Planting tips – Ideally, Shagbark Hickories of various ages (seedlings to 10′ tall or more as available) should be planted so the stand is sustainable.  They have a large tap root that makes it difficult to transplant after the tree is more than 2 or 3 years old, so start with small seedlings, or plant your own overwintered nuts as soon as the snow melts in spring.  Once the taproot is established they will begin to grow faster and can reach 30′ high in ten years.  If you need help locating or planting seedlings let us know.

Banishing Ugly Rainbarrels with ARD

ARD 288x300 Banishing Ugly Rainbarrels with ARD

10th@ Hoyt Courtyard, Portland OR, Koch LA

The term “Stormwater Management” sounds so dark and menacing.  The up and coming term ARD, which stands for “Artful Rainwater Design” is much more positive and hopefully it will also mean fewer ugly rain barrels.  It’s high time we start treating water in our designs as art, and not just a problem to be solved, both in residential landscapes, municipal projects, and commercial LEED building landscapes (the Sustainable Sites Initiative v2 will award points for ARD).

These new water management techniques can use rainwater to create amenities that enhance a site’s attractiveness or value. This concept–“artful rainwater design”–both addresses stormwater management in environmentally responsible ways and creates expressive landscapes that celebrate stormwater.  A wonderful resource for brainstorming how to incorporate ARD into landscape design is www.artfulrainwaterdesign.net, a project initated by Stuart Echols, an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Penn State.  The site is organized into four categories of features: bioretention, walking trail, conveyance and sculpture.

There are lots of examples of ARD in Europe for us to learn from as well, both ancient (think Greek and Italian) and new.  This sidewalk in Malmo, Sweden uses stormwater captured on the neighboring rooftop in an artful way that enhances the pedestrian experience during a rain event.  The creativity goes on and on, let’s hope it takes hold here in the Northeast as well.

Malmo 300x245 Banishing Ugly Rainbarrels with ARD

Swedish Rain Runnels

 

Raising Hardy Pastured Pigs in VT

George and Walter 300x225 Raising Hardy Pastured Pigs in VT

George and Walter, two of our pastured piglets

In the beginning of June we buy 2-3 weaned piglets that are about eight weeks old from a few local breeders in Addison County, including Alethea Bahnck who owns a farm in Bridport.  She started a bit of an heirloom pastured-pig revolution here (her talks at the NOFA-VT conferences are always well attended), and we’re all fortunate to have access to the offspring of her efforts.  Her pigs are a Tamworth-Bershire cross, both of which are an old British breed.  She also tries to match her method of raising them as close to their social habits in the wild as possible, such as letting the sows farrow singly in the woods, and grouping the teenager piglets into wandering herds.  It’s a world away from the intensive pig farms where 5,000 animals never leave a concrete floor, and we are grateful.

Tamworths are red-haired, and adapted to cold climates and are very good at foraging on pasture and in woods.  Tamworths have very distinct personalities; they are intelligent and playful and enjoy the company of their human counterparts. They also have a reputation for producing the best bacon, but their lean meat makes the entire pig ideal for taste and health reasons as well.  If you’re considering raising them be aware that they also love to wander.  Despite solid fencing, I have spend more than one evening tromping up the hedgerow with a flash light to find the waywards, and even once had to stop traffic to herd 200-pounders back home that were on a neighborhood acorn tasting tour.

jelly bean and licorice 1 300x225 Raising Hardy Pastured Pigs in VT

Our piglets last year showing more Bershire

Berkshires are black-haired, and are prized for the high quality of their meat.  Berkshire pork has recently earned the reputation as the next Kobe beef, enjoyed in the best restaurants for the same reasons the House of Windsor adopted it as their swine of choice over 300 years ago.  Berkshire pork is fatter and darker than the pork you buy in the store, and it remains rich and juicy when cooked.

The cross of the Tamworth and Berkshire breeds creates a perfect pasture-pig for Vermont – piglets are hardy, resourceful and size up by late November.  Sometimes the piglets look more like Tamworths (like George and Walter) and sometimes they look more like Bershires (like Jelly Bean and Licorice in the photo above).

The real challenge with pastured pigs is that they like to root up pasture, like all of it, which can be an advantage if you’re trying to till an area, but a disadvantage if your sheep want to keep grazing the clover.  So we don’t put them on the permanent pasture with the sheep.  Instead they get their own pasture, and once they tear up a whole section we rake it out and re-seed it with a hog pasture mix and some Mammoth Red Mangels from Johnny’s Seeds.  They also get a local natural grain, and they get windfall apples from the orchard.  Their favorite thing of course is the left-over croissant dough and veggie scraps from The Vergennes Laundry bakery – we supply them with eggs and get all their amazing compost.  Lucky piggies indeed.

Once they reach 200 pounds around six months of age, and our root cellar is cold enough to be used for chilling, we humanely slaughter the pigs here on-farm, and then we butcher and process the meat here as well.  See a related blog post “The Art of Pork” about how we process sausage, bacon and hams.  We’re always happy to share our experiences with others, so let us know if you have questions or you’d like to visit the farm.

Find a Shrubbery, then maybe a Golden-winged Warbler

golden winged warbler 300x200 Find a Shrubbery, then maybe a Golden winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

I can’t help it, every time I hear the term “Shrubland Birds”, I think of the quote from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail – “First you must find… another shrubbery!”  Jokes aside, shrubland really is important.  It’s essential habitat for hundreds of species in Vermont including a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), the Golden-winged Warbler.

shrubland habitat 300x224 Find a Shrubbery, then maybe a Golden winged Warbler

Shrubland Habitat in the Champlain Valley

Shrubland is early successional forest, which consists of thickets of shrubs and woody cover, interspersed with grassy and herbaceous openings.   A mixture of short and tall shrubs, with scattered trees and herbaceous openings is ideal.  This habitat can often be found on old fields or lightly grazed pastures on farms in the Champlain Valley.  Right down the road from our new Shelburne property is Geprags Park, which is currently being managed to promote early successional shrubland habitat.  The town of Hinesburg, in partnership with Audubon VT and UVM, have put together a great birding trail which I look forward to walking this spring.

American Woodcock 300x225 Find a Shrubbery, then maybe a Golden winged Warbler

American Woodcock

Shrubland birds other than the Golden-winged warbler are also in danger – specifically the American Woodcock, the black-billed cuckoo, whip-poor-will, the chestnut-sided warbler, mourning warbler, common yellowthroat, Canada warbler, Eastern towhee, and indigo bunting (Hunter et al. 2001).  Populations of American Woodcock have declined about 2% a year for the past thirty-eight years (Kelley and Rau 2006).  In Vermont, the American woodcock was placed in the highest priority conservation status.  Hopefully conservation of shrublands will help rebuild the population of American Woodcocks so more of us can witness their air dance, or mating ritual in April – I’ve heard it’s quite a show.

But it’s not just birds that need shrubland – there are over 200 vertebrate species that rely on it including the Eastern cottontail, and the bobcat (in search of rabbits as prey), and bear in search of plants and berries.  There are also rare snake species that use shrublands for cover such as the Eastern racer, rat snake, and green snake.  Pollinators use shrublands for food, breeding and resting stops along their migration routes.

So why are all these species in trouble?  Shrubland isn’t very popular.  It often gets labelled as “wild overgrowth” and is symbolic of farms in decline, (as in, “oh they’ve really let that one go”.)  But where one person might see neglect, another person might see a home, and with the knowing comes caring.

The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) is a voluntary program for conservation-minded landowners who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat on their private agricultural and forest land.  The federal program is funded through the Farm Bill by NRCS, which is part of the USDA.  The VT NRCS wrote a WHIP Plan in 2007 which outlines conservation goals and strategies for enhancing Aquatic and Riparian habitats, Wetland habitats, Grassland and Old Fields, and Forest Habitats.

Specifically WHIP has incentives for protecting shrubland birds, and Agencies are joined in these efforts by many other Regional and State groups including the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, VT Audubon (Champlain Valley Bird Initiative), and the VT Land Trust.

If you want to learn more about how to manage your shrublands as habitat, funding is available for southwestern Chittenden County, western Addison County and northwestern Rutland County.  The annual deadline is at the end of January, so you have plenty of time to do a bit of research to see if the program is right for you, and then apply.  Contact Heather at the Colchester, VT USDA Service Center for more information.

Heather Wetzstein
Phone: 802-951-6796 ext. 223
Email: heather.wetzstein@vt.usda.gov

Can you really have a Native Lawn?

white house lawn Can you really have a Native Lawn?

The White House Lawn

Lawns, hmmmm. There isn’t an issue in the landscaping world that’s more charged with dogma  and drama than lawns.  It may be due to our inability to separate the lawn from its historical symbolism of wealth and status.  Having a lawn meant that you didn’t need that space to grow crops to feed your family, and that you had the leisure time to use a lawn for strolling and lawn games.  In the post-war era the creation of suburbia included a small lawn for every family as a status equalizer.  Today most families can afford such small luxuries as lawns, and their existence in the landscape is assumed mandatory.  What’s changing (slowly but surely) is our definition of the lawn, its size, shape and role in the landscape.  Let’s look at these four trends:

Lawns are going Organic – The “natural lawn” movement is rooted in an increased appreciation of the environmental costs of traditional lawn care practices (phosphorous, pesticide and herbicide runoff, carbon emissions, lack of biodiversity, etc.).  Thanks to the work of many organizations including SafeLawns.org, and the like-minded NOFA Organic Land Care practitioners that followed, many lawns have been transitioned to an organic maintenance system.  In Vermont we also have some great programs helping to keep Phosphorous out of Lake Champlain, including the collaborative Lawn-to-Lake program.

Personally, we’ve never had irrigation or applied anything to our lawn here in Addison and after 13 years I think it’s still beautiful.  It’s green all season long partly because there’s nice wet clay underneath and partly because we let the clover grow (a wonderful nitrogen fixer and drought tolerant), and the dandelions do their thing (amazing deep rooted aerators).  I’m sure a Victorian gardener would roll over in her grave, but it works for us.

native lawns 150x150 Can you really have a Native Lawn?Lawns are going Native – at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center ecologist Mark Simmons has been leading research on a mixture of drought-adapted native grasses that cut down on mowing, watering, weeding and feeding. These fine-leafed species grown together form a dense lush lawn that takes less effort to maintain a lawn of mixed native turf grasses than a non-native lawn.  It’s called HABITURF®, and the seed mix outperforms Bermudagrass in terms of rates of establishment, thickness of the turf, mowing rates and weed resistance.  Of course it was designed to combat the drought conditions of Texas, and we usually have the opposite problem (fungus) when it comes to turf, but climate change makes it hard to predict.  There’s also the slow growing grass blends such as Pearl’s Premium, which are a mix of native and exotic grass species.  The State of Maine is growing ten different mixes, including one that is 2/3 native, in a research project called the Great Grass Experiment.  Out of curiosity we will trial some of these seed mixes up here in Vermont and see if we get good results compared to the typical VT Conservation mix we normally use.

Lawns are getting smaller – One of the first questions I ask my clients when I sit down with them is how much lawn do you really need and how do you think you’ll use it?  The answer affects the size and location (if any) of lawn on the design.  Families with children definitely need open spaces for running around and a certain amount of turf is necessary, my own family is testimony.  The area we mow still gets smaller every year, and now we have a 30’x50′ badminton/croquet area, joined to other garden areas with paths.
Carex pensylvanica 150x150 Can you really have a Native Lawn?

Carex pensylvanica

Lawns are being replaced with low native groundcovers or transitioned to meadows.  Many large public institutions, including our own local Middlebury College, are transitioning large areas of previously manicured lawn into meadows that are brush-hogged twice annually, which is all that is necessary to maintain the open space (prevent reforestation) and reduce the tick population.  In rural areas I usually advise clients to let 90% of their burdensome multiple acres of mowed turf go – just mow paths for walking, brush hog the rest a few times a year if open views need to be maintained, and enjoy how the grasses transition over the season.  When lawns transition to meadow you see movement and song come back into the landscape – breezes sway the seedheads and birds arrive in droves.  For smaller suburban front yards I take lawns out of the design altogether – if the goal is curb appeal there are so many better choices for that space that require so much less maintenance and have a lot more “Wow” power.  In shady areas sedges are the winner – the photo above is of Carex pensylvanica, which is a clump-forming Northeast native that only grows 6-9″ high and can handle dry shade.  We plant it spaced fairly tight and it grows into a lawn-like planting that you don’t have to mow more than once a year or fertilize, and it looks soft and inviting. Now that’s drama I can live with.

 

No-Till, Covercrops and the Plan to Save Lake Champlain

hairy vetch No Till, Covercrops and the Plan to Save Lake Champlain

Hairy Vetch, Crimson Clover and rye cover crop

I have high hopes for cover crops and no-till farming methods, both to save water quality in Lake Champlain, as well as to prevent the erosion of precious soils and to increase the carbon sink capacity of farmland across the country.

As Tom Philpot explains in his September 2013 article One Weird Trick to Fix Farms Forever in Mother Jones, our soil is a limited resource, and we should be concerned with its preservation. According to University of Washington soil scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, it takes between 700 and 1,500 years to generate an inch of topsoil under natural conditions. Cornell agricultural scientist David Pimentel reckons that “90 percent of US cropland now is losing soil faster than its sustainable replacement rate.”   And then there’s climate change.  Under current farming practices, US farmland only acts as what the USDA has deemed a “modest carbon sink”—sequestering 4 million metric tons of carbon annually, a tiny fraction of total US greenhouse gas emissions.  However, if all US farms adopted the use of cover crops and no-till planting methods their fields could absorb 25x more carbon – equivalent to taking nearly 10 percent of the US car fleet off the road.

sediment plume 300x225 No Till, Covercrops and the Plan to Save Lake Champlain

Sediment Plume into Lake Champlain

Soil loss and carbon aside, our biggest motivator to use No-Till Drill cover crops is to protect water quality.  Since EPA disapproved the Vermont 2002 Lake Champlain Phosphorus TMDL on January 24, 2011 there has been quite a bit of activity on the subject of cover crops, culminating in the recent No-Till and Cover Crop Symposium hosted by UVM Extension – Champlain Valley Crops, Soil and Pasture Team, VT Agency of Agriculture and the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

There are many advantages us using no-till drills to plant both cover crops and main crops.  They allow farmers to get on a field later in the season (up to October 15th), and put in a crop of winter rye.  Winter rye grows fast, holds onto nutrients, and in the spring it can add nutrients to the field.  The roots help minimize soil loss from erosion and protect soil structure and health. The crop also conserves soil moisture, limits surface water runoff and requires fewer field operations.

no till drill 300x199 No Till, Covercrops and the Plan to Save Lake Champlain

UVM Extension No-Till Drill

In 2012, UVM Extension provided the use of no-till drills to 49 farmers who used them to plant 1,672 acres. Farmers no-till planted 560 acres of pasture on 19 farms, 802 acres of hayland on 20 farms and 310 acres of winter grain cover crops on 13 farms.  I can’t wait to hear what some of the initiatives are for the farms in our end of the watershed – I truly hope they can embrace the new practice soon and reduce the annual spring flow of sediment into the Otter Creek.  I love the fact that the Agency is getting behind the initiative and provides financial assistance to farmers for cover cropping and no-till, but there’s still work to do.  The majority of farms around us have been uncovered bare soil all winter – not a lick of winter rye cover crop in sight, and the Roundup Ready Corn planted in spring means that the soil is bare between corn rows all year long.  Our Clayplain soils are so fine that they are easily suspended and carried into surface water, where their Phosphorous content contributes to algae blooms.

cover crops 300x225 No Till, Covercrops and the Plan to Save Lake Champlain

Clover as a cover crop

I found a great introductory blog post about written by Kirsten Workman who works for UVM Extension as an Agronomy Outreach Professional for the Champlain Valley Crop, Soil & Pasture Team.  She works with farmers to implement practices to improve crop production and protect water quality.  She has a great list of things you can do on your farm to protect water quality.   I think many of her suggestions can be applied to gardens as well, especially cover cropping.  A great source for cover crop seed for vegetable gardeners, homesteads, and small farms is Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  Many clovers make great semi-permanent cover crops between rows of long-term crops like strawberries and grapes.  Check it out, and plant some green manure this spring!

 

 

The Secret to a Low-Maintenance Landscape, Seriously.

tiarella cordifolia 300x225 The Secret to a Low Maintenance Landscape, Seriously.We are all guilty of it – biting off more than we can chew, carving out a sprawling garden area, planting quart-sized perennials 2′ on center and then weeding like crazy for the next three years, realizing the whole time that every time we pull a weed and disturb the soil, six more take it’s place.  It’s a grueling evolution – eventually the design matures and the plants fill in and cover the surface with their leaves, and we stop pulling weeds (but cut the occasional interloper down to the ground).  In this scenario, even when we select fast growing ground covers and plant them in large drifts under mature trees, we have fallen short of designing a sustainable low-maintenance landscape.  This is especially true in suburban settings when the trees around a house are less dense than they would be in a mature forest.  Why?  Nature abhors a vacuum and there’s one hovering right above that groundcover layer.  

Most properties around houses have at least dappled light reaching the ground.  Tree and shrub seedlings as well as many herbaceous plants are adapted to reach up above the groundcover layer to make use of that available sunshine.  Even if you don’t plan for them to grow they will keep trying because it’s nature’s way of being ultra-efficient, where nothing is wasted.  So, we’ve learned that it’s better to swim with the current instead of against it – get that ground surface covered as quickly as possible, using seeds and plugs to shorten the fill-in time, but also densely layer the planting vertically with plants at different heights.  This “tight community” of plants makes the best use of available sunlight at multiple heights while shading the ground surface to prevent weed seed germination.  The end game is for the mature plants to elbow their way into their respective niches and form a more stable (low-maintenance) landscape.  The key to success is knowing the relative competitive abilities of the chosen plants, and designing layers both in space and time.

2013 07 25 13.21.35 300x244 The Secret to a Low Maintenance Landscape, Seriously.

young meadow with complex layers

The “tight community” principle can be applied to all of your garden spaces, whether they are meadows, woodlands, or margins.  I will cover how to create balanced meadow compositions in another post, so let’s focus now on shady areas.  I often have clients tell me that they want to remove lawn where it is struggling under their mature trees (hooray), and replace it with a sea of flowering ground covers.  That’s great, and I understand the psychology of tidy level planes, but I don’t think we can stop at just the bottom layer – we need knee high plants, waist high plants, and shoulder high plants too.  To avoid the “messy” look of a wild co-mingled planting, we can group plants in chunks big enough to create legibility, but not too large that they lose the competitive advantages of being in their respective niche, and then carve clear slicing paths through the space.  I discuss these “ribbons of order” in a previous post in you want to see more examples.  

woodland layers 300x291 The Secret to a Low Maintenance Landscape, Seriously.

Dense Layers at Garden in the Woods

All landscape designs inherently need to be site specific and answer the goals of each client, but sometimes it helps to have a recipe to kickstart the process.  Let’s imagine we’re going to design a 300 SF block that can repeat or vary for a 1,000 SF woodland garden.  Now if you add up the individual textbook square-foot requirements for each of these plants they would never all fit into 300 SF, but they are very comfortable as a densely vertically layered planting, especially if some are spring ephemerals or bulbs that make room for plants that emerge in June.

So here’s a basic Layered Woodland Garden Recipe I call “3-15-36-75″ – starting from the top down (usually the order in which I place them in a design).  Remember – this is very simplified – you might want an even greater number of species, or add a short-lived quick growing species that could be seeded in as a space filler – but it’s a place to start:

  • (3) – 3 single small understory trees 10-20′ high (Cercis canadensis, Carpinus caroliniana, Hamamelis virginiana)
  • (15) – 3 groups of 5 waist high shrubs 3-5′ high (Fothergilla, Rhododendron prinophyllum, Viburnum dentatum)
  • (36) – 3 groups of 12 knee to waist high perennials 12-36″ high (Polygonatum biflorum, Polemonium reptans, Actaea racemosa)
  • (75) – 3 groups of 25 groundcovers 3-6″ high (Geranium maculatum, Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood Purple’, and Tiarella cordifolia ‘Running Tapestry’)

Specific plant selection depends upon soil type, moisture, light, and existing plants.  How they are positioned in the landscape depends upon topography, view frames, and the location of pathways that dissect the block.  Infinite variations with a similar principle – that’s what makes design so much fun!

How to be a Bobolink’s BFF

When I take that first walk up the field in May and hear the song of the Bobolinks, that’s when I know summer is truly on its way, in all its joyous glory.  Their bright yellow cap matches the color of the dandelions and their bubbling song brings everything alive.  They’re fun to watch too – their aerial acrobatics during mating are well-known to birders and farmers.  They are a romantic bird – they play a starring role in many childhood memories full of bucolic, pastoral landscapes, made sweeter with increased rarity.  They are a symbol of our Vermont values – we care about both the working landscape and wildlife. Their presence is an indicator of a healthy habitat, so when we hear that they are in big trouble, many of us sit up and listen.

In the last 40 years the Bobolink population in the northeast has declined by 75 percent according to the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas.  Even in ideal conditions they have their work cut out for them.  As migratory songbirds they travel 12,000 miles each year (sometimes travelling up to 1,000 miles in a single day), heading to South America for the winter and returning to the field they were born to nest in the summer.  For many Bobolinks that place is large hay fields in Vermont, which cover 360,000 acres of the State.  The Bobolink decline is due in part to the fact that hayfields are harvested 2-3 times a summer and 2-3 weeks earlier then they were 70 years ago (frequent harvesting is done to ensure that the highest amount of nutrients remains in the hay), as well as a shift from timothy and clover hay crops to alfalfa and corn, and the use of larger mowing and raking equipment.  Mowing not only destroys nesting sites but exposes fledglings to predation with mortality near 100 percent.

bobolink nest1 300x224 How to be a Bobolinks BFF

Bobolink nest in a Vermont meadow

It’s really a problem of timing.  Bobolinks arrive in VT in mid-May, build nests on the ground with a combination of course grasses, twigs and fine grasses and then lay 3-7 eggs.  Their nesting cycle is 42 days long but remain in their nesting region for approximately 9 weeks before again migrating southward.    If a Bobolink arrives on May 1st, count forward 42 days and it’s June 11th, prime time for the first cut of hay, and since the hay cycle averages 35 days in VT, there will be a repeat mowing in mid-July.  When farmers take repeated hay crops from a field, bobolinks in that field fledge zero young.  But simply delaying the mowing until after mid-July doesn’t really work either – farmers can’t afford to lose half their forage, and the second cutting of hay has less nutritional value.

So What’s the Solution?

An incentive program through NRCS (part of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) called EQIP Grassland Bird Management practice was very successful until funding ran out.  This practice paid landowners up to $135 per acre for 3 years for performing an early hay cutting (before May 31) and waiting 65 days before the next cut.  Qualifying fields had to be high quality habitat for grassland birds (rectangular or square in shape, at least 20 acres in size, and have less than 10% reed canary grass).  About 1,300 Vermont acres were enrolled in the program, until the government dropped the incentive to $86 an acre in 2012.

“Sometimes it takes a village”

Enter The Bobolink Project, an independent economic incentive program.  It’s a collaborative effort of University of Vermont (UVM) Extension, UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and the University of Connecticut (UConn).  The program offers a way for Vermonters to support farms interested in managing their lands for wildlife by raising money through voluntary contributions to provide a financial incentive for farmers to delay mowing their hayfields until after the bobolink-nesting season is over.  Last year the project raised over $31,000 to protect bird nesting habitat on 200 acres of Vermont hayfields.  Most contributions ranged from $10 to $100 with several pledges well above $100 and one household pledging $2,500.  100 percent of the money collected in Vermont went directly to Vermont farmers dispersed through a reverse auction system.

200 acres is a far cry from the 360,000 acres of fields in the State, yet Dr. Stephen Swallow, UConn agricultural and resource economics professor and project leader, is hopeful, and so am I.  The program is still relatively new and we have all seen examples of small donations coming together to make big differences – we just need to spread the word and express our love for both the working landscape and wildlife in Vermont.

For more information about the Bobolink Project, visit the web site www.bobolinkproject.com or contact Stephen Swallow at 860-486-1917 or 401-864-8579 or by e-mail at stephen.swallow@uconn.edu.

Bobolink Project Facebook Page

Across the Fence show on Bobolink Project