Severe Drought in the Wildlife Garden, Summer 2022

It is early September and our 45-year old wildlife garden should be beckoning me out the door to enjoy drifts of blooms, butterflies dashing about, and countless other pollinators.

Instead the garden and yard are mostly brown with very little blooming. Buds are forming on fall blooming goldenrods and asters, thankfully, so there will be some color and nectar and pollinators to come. But for right now our wildlife garden and yard is sadly depressing. Blooms are scarce and butterflies and other pollinators are too. Tree and shrub leaves are curled up and / or falling like late fall leaves. As one who has keenly studied pollinators, I fear that many butterfly and moth caterpillars have succumbed or fallen from food sources (while attached to dead and dying leaves). Next year’s butterfly populations (and probably populations for years to come) will certainly be affected.

Just last summer (and most summers) this is what our garden looks like.

Goshen, in Cape May County, NJ, has experienced a severe drought this summer. Joe Martucci, the Meteorologist for the Press of Atlantic City, recently put it into perspective with the following key points: (1) 2022 began with a deficit of rainfall since last winter, (2) it was the 3rd driest July in 100 years, (3) it was the driest summer since 1966, (4) it was the 3rd hottest summer on record (since 1895), and (5) it was the hottest August on record.  Couple all of that with our yard’s lack of rainfall and it is a wonder anything is alive.

Since October 2013 I have been a volunteer weather observer with CoCoRaHS (the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network), a nationwide legion of volunteer data collectors. So I have accurate rainfall data for our yard. Too, CoCoRaHS provides comparative 30 Year Average by PRISM rainfall for our area. The numbers this summer are scary. We saw 7.1” less rainfall this summer (June, July, and August) than the 30 year average. That is mega!

RAINFALL            30 Yr Avg              2022
                                   By PRISM        Sutton Yard
June                              3.26”                    0.84”
July                                3.86”                    2.45”
Aug                               4.34”                     1.07”
TOTAL                        11.46”                    4.36”

How to Cope with Drought:

  1. Plant NATIVES. If this concept is new to you, read Doug Tallamy’s books. My “Gardening for Pollinators” handout (click HERE) directs you to many resources to help you select the most important (to wildlife) and suitable (to your site, soils, and conditions) natives for your area.
  2. When establishing a pollinator garden, set up a watering system to keep your wildlife garden alive during severe drought so you and pollinators do not lose nectar sources (and host plants for future generations). During droughts when natural areas are crisped, our tended gardens may provide the only nectar! This same watering system will make it easy to water new plantings (until they get established). Realize that even natives need some assist when first planted and during severe drought. 

3.  Incorporate rain barrels into your landscape. I’ve set up two rain barrels (one at each end of our back roof) and have two hoses from each running out into the garden where I’ve planted native perennials that like “wet feet”: Cardinal Flower, Swamp Milkweed, White Turtlehead, Turk’s-Cap Lily, Red Beebalm, Common Boneset, etc. I am very grateful for the rain barrels and what they accomplish; much of the year they stand empty.

4.  Plant native trees and shrubs in fall (rather than spring) when rains and snows are more likely. This way new plantings will get the rainfall they need to get established and be less stressed. Summer plantings can be done, but only with lots and lots of watering during dry stretches. Spring plantings should be fine unless our “new normal” includes regular summer droughts.

5.  If you plan to travel (or be away for lengthy periods like we were) in summer, make arrangements with a friend to water if there is no natural rainfall. Summer travel is much of the reason our garden is so baked (all told we were away for 31 days).

6.  If plants look dead, don’t give up on them too soon. Cut off dead growth so the plants instead can focus on supporting live and/or new growth. Hopefully the roots have some life left. Wait until next spring to see. You might be pleasantly surprised by the resiliency of native plants.

CoCoRaHS, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network

Years ago I began keeping my own rainfall records because I quickly learned that available rainfall data shared in the local newspaper from nearby towns was inches different from the rainfall in my own yard. A gardening friend alerted me to CoCoRaHS (click HERE). I joined CoCoRaHS, bought their official rain gauge, put it up, and became part of the team. 

A friend who lives three miles away joined CoCoRaHS the same day and we began logging in our data simultaneously. Immediately it was evident how different the rainfall was just three miles apart. For example, on October 13, 2013, my gauge held 0.75 inches of rain and three miles away my friend’s gauge held 1.29 inches of rain. Who would have thunk?

Consider joining CoCoRaHS, a great citizen science project. Let your friends, co-workers, and family know about it so more and more sites can be added to the data. Imagine what we all can learn together.

On CoCoRaHS’s website you can look at the entire country, your region, state, or county and see the rainfall recorded by the network of observers on any given day, month, or year-to-date. It’s fascinating if you’re a keen gardener and/or a weather geek.

If you have any comments or questions, please use the “Comment” option at the end of this post, so others can benefit from everyone’s comments, questions, tips, and answers.

Tours of CU Maurice River Gardens on Sat., September 17, 2022

Hi Gang,

In recent years CU Maurice River has been hard at work (along with terrific gardening volunteers and growing volunteers) designing and creating rain gardens and pollinator gardens with native plants.

WheatonArts Pollinator Garden

I can’t wait to lead a tour showcasing and sharing three of these native plant wildlife gardens that CU Maurice River has created (and maintains) at public sites in Millville, NJ: (1) First United Methodist Church Serenity Garden, (2) Downtown Millville’s Neighborhood Wildlife Garden, and (3) Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center’s Circle Oasis.  In addition, the September 17th tour will include two private home gardens set in a suburban community.

Saturday, September 17, 2022
Pat Sutton Tour of CU Maurice River Garden Network
in Millville, NJ (Cumberland County)
( Rain date Sunday, September 18)
9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. (Morning Tour)
1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. (Afternoon Tour)

Millville Neighborhood Wildlife Garden

Join CU Maurice River and Pat Sutton to experience the benefits provided by these revitalized areas that together function as a network of urban green spaces supporting ecological and community health. Every garden is unique and has a story to be told.  Karla Rossini, CU Maurice River’s Executive Director, will share each garden’s story with the group.

At the end of each tour, stay on to socialize and enjoy light refreshments in the last garden.

In the past, Pat Sutton’s Garden Tours with CU Maurice River have filled up quickly.  Please RSVP as soon as possible to be guaranteed a spot.

Registration required:
Cost: $30 for CU Maurice River members / $40 for non-members.
Morning Tour (sign up HERE)*
Afternoon Tour (sign up HERE)*
*the same gardens will be visited on each tour
Call CU Maurice River at (856) 300-5331 for more information

Pat Sutton lives near Cape May, New Jersey. She has been a working naturalist since 1977, first for the Cape May Point State Park and then for 21 years with New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory, where she was the Naturalist and Program Director (1986 to 2007). Pat has a Masters Degree from Rowan University in Environmental Education and an undergraduate degree in Literature from the State University of New York at Oneonta.

Today, Pat is a free-lance writer, photographer, naturalist, educator, lecturer, tour leader, and wildlife habitat/conservation gardening educator.

Pat is a passionate wildlife habitat gardener and advocate for butterflies, moths, bees (all pollinators), birds, dragonflies, frogs, toads, and other critters. Pat has taught about wildlife-friendly and native plant gardening for over 40 years. Her own wildlife area is a “teaching garden” featured in many programs, workshops,  garden tours, and some books.

Mosquito Control Spraying: I am on the NO SPRAY List to Keep my Wildlife Garden a Safe Haven

Hi Gang,

If any of you maintain a wildlife garden, keep bees, or garden organically here in Cape May County, New Jersey, where spraying for mosquitoes occurs, you might want to call and tell the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control that you do not want your property sprayed.

In 2009 I called and told them that I did not want my property sprayed (a half-acre wildlife garden & habitat full of native plants, birds, pollinators, and other wildlife). Since then I have been on their “NOTIFICATION LIST” (“NO SPRAY LIST”) and they notify me when my neighborhood in Goshen, NJ, is going to be sprayed.

Being a long-time wildlife gardener with a yard free of herbicides, pesticides, and other hazards, I wish to keep my property that way . . . free of any killing agents, and safe for pollinators, all wildlife, and me!

Neighbors and fellow wildlife gardeners are often completely unaware that spraying is occurring. As you read on you’ll understand why (the spraying is done at night). If you live in Cape May County, reach out today to get your property on the “NOTIFICATION LIST” (“NO SPRAY LIST”) so it remains a safe haven and not an ecological trap:

Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control

609-465-9038

(Monday through Friday, 7:00 am to 3:00 pm)

Ask to be put on their “Notification List” (“No Spray List”)

Or you can contact Kyle Rossner, their Entomologist, and he would be happy to add you to the list and answer any questions or concerns.  Kyle Rossner can be reached at 609-465-9038, x-3909; kyle.rossner@co.cape-may.nj.us

Be ready to provide:

  1. your name
  2. snail mail address (street address)
  3. e-mail address (so they can notify you when spraying needs to be done in your town)

If you have called previously to be put on the “Notification List” (“No Spray List”), you will remain on this list indefinitely, unless you choose to be removed from the list by calling the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control.

(Those of you who live in other counties, where mosquito spraying also occurs, can call your county mosquito department too.)

This year, 2022, we had substantial rains in June. But July through early August most areas have received very little rain.

As of this writing, August 3rd, the next scheduled spraying will occur Thursday, August 4, and/or Friday, August 5, 2022, between the hours of Midnight and 7:00 am, when mosquitoes are flying and when diurnal pollinators like bees and butterflies are not flying. Portions of the following municipalities may be sprayed: Wildwood, West Wildwood & Wildwood Crest, Diamond Beach & Cold Spring in Lower Township, US Coast Guard Base in Cape May, and West Cape May.

The Department will use Aqua Reslin, trade name for permethrin, and/or Aqua Anvil / Anvil 10+10, trade names for sumithrin, and/or Duet / Aqua Duet, trade names for prallethrin and sumithrin, and/or Zenivex / Aqua Zenivex, trade names for etofenprox, applied as ultra-low volume aerosols.

To keep abreast of spray notifications, click HERE. Notifications are taken down shortly after the spray date(s), so check regularly (at least weekly).

Each time I receive a spray notification I go through the formal channels to learn where the spraying will occur and if it will be on my street. I learn that it will be (or was) on “such and such a street” (because complaints were called in from there). So if one of your neighbors has just moved to Cape May County and is unaware of our biting insects (Hey: we live in an area where mosquitoes and other biting insects are part of the landscape . . . salt marshes, freshwater marshes, and wet woods), and this neighbor calls in to complain, your neighbor’s property and the street it is on may get put on the map of places to be sprayed. Spraying is often in response to complaints (plus subsequent site visits, sampling, and testing by the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control).

Imagine if the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control heard from all of us who DO NOT want our properties sprayed!

Kyle Rossner explained that heavy rain will never prompt an adult mosquito treatment, but rather lead to a sharp increase in mosquito populations, which (depending on the month and more importantly the mosquito species) could lead to an increase in mosquito-borne pathogens cycling in the local mosquito populations. The proven presence or increased risk factors for these pathogens is what triggers spraying for adult mosquitoes.

An increase in mosquitoes in our own yard is made up almost entirely by Asian Tiger Mosquitoes, the tiny black and white striped (body and legs) mosquitoes. They are hard to ignore since they are most active during the day (a day biter) and unusually aggressive. And this mosquito’s abundance is the result of you and I, not the environment. When unknowing residents leave shallow dishes under pots, buckets that are not overturned, and other items that can collect rain water (water barrels, discarded tires, rain gutters, even discarded cups with water in them are used as breeding sites) then Asian Tiger Mosquitoes multiply and thrive. Their eggs are tolerant of and survive periods of drought.

Kyle Rossner does site visits when complaints are called in to the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control. In my yard he spotted some saucers under flower pots and educated me, sharing that the sneaky female Asian Tiger Mosquito lays her eggs in likely sites (even sites that are bone dry), and when it rains and these containers fill, her eggs are already there, hatch, and in an as little as 7 days during hot summer stretches these eggs can produce countless flying, biting, persistent, and annoying adult Asian Tiger Mosquitoes. I should know. My neighbor is a collector of “stuff.” His yard is brim full of sites where they can breed and there are times we have a hard time enjoying our wildlife garden because of the swarms of Asian Tiger Mosquitoes produced next door. Despite this, I still do not want my property sprayed. I do want my neighbor to be educated, though.

Several years ago my friend and fellow wildlife gardener Keith Parker had some “Do Not Spray, Pollinator Garden” signs made. Keith, myself, and others display this sign prominently along the street in front of each of our properties, not only for the spray trucks to clearly see, but also for neighbors who may be calling to have their property sprayed and not thinking about the consequence to pollinators (and us). I believe Keith has given away all the signs he had made, but you can find some fun “Do Not Spray” signs for sale on ETSY HERE and at the Tallgrass Prairie Center’s Website HERE .

Happy Wildlife Gardening,

Pat

Native Plants Struggle During Drought

Hi Gang,

Dreaming of rain filling our CoCoRaHS Rain Gauge, here with 0.75 inches of rainfall (from better times)

I am writing this on August 3rd.  It has been a relentless hot and rain free July into early August for our South Jersey wildlife garden. We were away in late June and the first week of July. Upon our return, we feared the worst, but were heartened to find that my CoCoRaHS Rain Gauge (a citizen science rain, hail, and snow network across the US, Canada, and the Bahamas) held 2.10″ of rain. YEA, the garden was alive and lush.

But during the month since, the extreme heat has continued and all rain storms have missed us. Predicted storms move east, reach the Delaware Bay, and fizzle. Upon reaching the bay, storms move north of the Cape May Peninsula or south of us and leave us parched for rain. Severe weather needs warm waters to draw from, and in our case, the cold waters of Delaware Bay take the oomph out of storms heading our way. We call it the Cape May Bubble and it is really getting old.

Fifteen-year-old Flowering Dogwoods in our woods look near death, covered in curled up and withered leaves. Flower beds of native plants are still blooming, but running through their blooms in a flash, in fact so quickly that the garden and its pollinators are left wanting for more.

Our decision now is not whether or not to water, it is a matter of triage. We are watering plants most desperately in need of water to keep from losing them.

If you, like me, are watering to keep your wildlife gardens alive for all the pollinators and other wildlife dependent upon them (knowing that nearly all nectar in the wild is gone, cooked to a crisp), let me highly recommend a post shared on Izel Native Plants, “Diagnosing Problems in the Summer Landscape,” by Chelsea Ruiz, a Horticulturalist and Garden Writer.

Chelsea Ruis shares sage advice about how to properly water natives as you diagnose their problems.

Join me in a Rain Dance?

Pat

Lose the Lawn, Create a Meadow Instead

Americans have a love affair with the American Lawn!   This unnatural habitat is labor intensive to maintain, hard on the environment (i.e. isn’t green in the true sense of the word), and it benefits little.

Consider creating a meadow instead!  But, what is a meadow?  It may be easier to define what a meadow is NOT: it’s not sterile, it’s not a monoculture; it’s not “needy” of fertilizer, water, weekly mowings, and other pamperings, all of which contribute to greenhouse gasses.

A meadow is a mixture of grasses and wildflowers growing in a sunny, open area. A meadow is a riot of color. It’s diverse, full of many different plants, with as many as 7 different plants (or more) in a 1 foot square – in other words much more intense than your perennial garden. Meadow plants require no water (as opposed to lawns) – except, of course, when seeds, plugs, or plants are first planted.

Meadow plants prefer and can thrive in sterile soils. Meadows are nonpolluting; they do not need weekly chemicals of fertilizers and herbicides. And meadows require no weekly mowing, as opposed to lawns.

Most meadows result from neglect – a time of transition – when a farmer no longer farms, or a lawn is no longer cut, or cattle are no longer grazed there. Meadows are a transitional stage that eventually will be invaded and replaced by shrubs and trees, if not maintained or managed. To keep a meadow a meadow, it does need to be mowed once a year.  And the best time to mow your meadow, if you are also trying to support and benefit wildlife, is in late February or early March.  This annual mowing prevents tree and shrub seedings (planted by birds or windblown) from surviving and thriving and eventually turning your meadow into a forest.

So, what do you say?  Are you ready to LOSE THE LAWN (or part of your lawn) & CREATE A WILDFLOWER MEADOW INSTEAD?  If so, you’ll learn a whole lot more by reading my handouts on this topic, found below (CLICK on underlined text to download Pat’s pdf document).

Pat Sutton’s MEADOW Handout (part 1: pages 1-4)

Pat Sutton’s MEADOW Handout (part 2: pages 5-6) 

Of course you want to select native plants for your meadow, so be sure to also read my post (and associated handout) on GARDENING FOR POLLINATORS, which includes tons more helpful information and resources!

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 2022

Ruby-throated Hummingbird nectaring on White Turtlehead in Pat Sutton’s Wildlife Garden with Cardinal Flower all around, August 5, 2021

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!

That said, some straight natives might be ill behaved and total thugs, overwhelming other plants in your garden and leading to hours and hours spent thinning them every single year.  This is the case with Cutleaf Coneflower.  In 2009, a friend shared a cultivar of this plant with me (Cutleaf Coneflower, Rudbeckia lacinata “Herbstsonne,”) that is a Chocolate Cake, always full of pollinators, and not a thug at all because it is sterile.  I’ve raved about my Cutleaf Coneflower for years, many have planted the straight native, and been frazzled by its rambunctious wanderings.

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, butterflies, and other beneficial pollinators.

Speak up when you purchase plants.  Ask if the nursery uses Neonicotinoid Insecticides. If they don’t know what you are talking about, it sounds like a nursery to avoid. If they proudly share that they do not use Neonicotinoid Insecticides (verbally and/or on their website), they are a nursery “in the know” and a nursery to support. The Xerces Society’s publication, “Protecting Pollinators from Pesticides: Buying Bee-Safe Plants,” addresses asking nurseries these important questions and is available HERE.  There is a complimentary Xerces Society publication for nurseries, “Offering Bee-Safe Plants: A Guide for Nurseries,” available HERE.  Let nurseries you frequent know about it.  If you find that any of the nurseries on my list are “in the dark” and still using Neonicotinoids, please alert me ! ! ! 

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.  And in January 2022, New Jersey became the 6th state to pass a similar bill to save pollinators by classifying bee-killing neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) as restricted use pesticides.

Educate yourself about Neonics by reading the following:

  1. Xerces Society’s “Protecting Bees From Neonicotinoids in Your Garden, 2nd version (includes list of products with 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) .

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 (see Xerces Society’s document, “Protecting Pollinators from Pesticides: Buying Bee-Safe Plants,” noted above, for tips and how to ask these important questions) . 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. Listen to Doug Tallamy’s talk about his latest book, The Nature of Oaks (search youtube Doug Tallamy Nature of Oaks), and learn that oak leaves are the BEST fallen leaves to LEAVE on the ground because it takes them so long to break down (3 years or more). All that time (3+ years) they are providing for an abundance of LIFE that needs fallen leaves to survive
  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, leaving fallen leaves, 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: 2022
by Patricia Sutton
click here for the 5-page printable pdf

2nd Edition (4-11-22)

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 and if they share information about Native Plant Sales.  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, 2022, the bulk of the sightings have occurred as far north as Virginia Beach and Richmond, VA, with 15 or so outliers north of that (Easton, MD; Pittsgrove, Galloway, and Brick, NJ; Windsor, CT; and Rockport, MA).

You can monitor Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration north (AND enter your own sightings) on Journey North  and on Hummingbird Central.  On each of these sites  be sure to set the date for these migration maps to 2022.

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 March 24, 2022 and others this week, I am hanging my feeders today!

We often don’t see the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird in our yard until around April 20th (despite early sightings like these every year), and some years they take another week or two to settle into our yard and habitat.

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 2022

A number of native plant sales and reputable nurseries are gearing up for 2022.   Be sure to support them.  Here is my post:  Some Sources of Native Plants in 2022.

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

Happy Wildlife Gardening,

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).  I very much am hoping to update and rewrite this article to share here.

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).  I very much am hoping to update and rewrite this article to share here.