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).
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!
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:
‘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.
“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).
Here are just a few of the things that each and every one of us can do:
Plant NATIVES, especially Keystone Species (read Doug Tallamy’s books to understand what Keystone Species are).
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.
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
DO NOT USE Pesticides (including Organic – they KILL too) or Herbicides or synthetic Fertilizers.
Turn outdoor lights OFF at night (use motion sensor lights instead).
Remove as many invasive plants as possible on your property
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
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.
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.
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.
Share all this with your neighbors, friends, co-workers, family
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 YardsWebsite 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 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 Northand 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.
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.
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:
a pesticide-free property (since hummingbirds also feast on soft-bodied insects and spiders)
a habitat filled with native perennials, trees, shrubs, and vines that provide nectar attractive to hummingbirds from spring thru fall!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
For me shade gardening began after I retired and realized that we had lost our woods to 12′ high Multiflora Rose and Japanese Honeysuckle. We reclaimed it soon after. Simultaneously I began gardening under shade trees in our yard, White Pines and a Tulip Tree that I’d planted as tiny saplings 37 years earlier (in 1984) and a large American Holly and Georgia Hackberry that came up when we didn’t mow part of our backyard 44 years ago (in 1977) . Our last English Setter had died and we no longer needed lawn. I compiled a wish list of natives I wanted to plant in our newly reclaimed woods and other shady areas. Friends generously gifted me with many divisions from plants in their yards that they had had success with. Since then I’ve done the same for others who are embracing a more layered landscape.
I certainly don’t miss the lawn and neither does Clay who does the mowing. In 15 minutes or less he’s easily mowed the pathways and is done. Our shade gardening provides a great deal more habitat, so we find even more nature moments to savor. This layering of plants has certainly increased the joy factor in our yard. And I’ve fallen in love with many, many new-to-me shade-loving natives. As Thomas Rainer says, “more life brings more life.”
I shared a program (via Zoom) on “Shade Gardening with Natives” for the Native Plant Society of NJ’s Southeast Chapter on Monday, November 15, 2021 at 7 pm.
To learn more about shade gardening be sure to read my handouts below:
Pat Sutton’s Shade Gardening Handout – Resources (Click on the underlined text to download and print) This handout includes resources (great books that have helped me) and the many websites with “Native Plant Finder” tools to help you generate a list of plants suitable for your area and site. It also has suggestions for sites to visit to see shade-loving natives in the landscape.
Pat Sutton’s Shade Gardening Handout – Native Plants (Click on the underlined text to download and print) This handout includes a list of shade-loving natives for the Mid-Atlantic, many of which I’ve planted or have growing in my woods or other shady spots on our property.
Chris Clemenson of Clemenson Farms Native Nursery shared this exciting news:
“For years those of us who are part of the Native Plant Society of NJ have been trying to encourage retailers to recognize the need to offer native plants for the public. Please pass on the word to all your native plant friends that several of the ACE hardware stores in southern NJ will offer native plants for sale and at very reasonable pricing during a Memorial Day Weekend sale (and afterwards as long as supplies last).”
“Joe and Cindy Smith own the ACE hardware stores in Vineland, Egg Harbor Township, Northfield, Brigantine, and Galloway. Cindy is a bird enthusiast and has been offering lots of bird related products for years. Cindy attended one of Pat Sutton’s lectures and really got turned on to the idea of natives (she has been installing natives to transform her yard into a native bird habitat ever since). She’s passionate about getting the word out on the need to plant natives.”
“Please encourage folks to go and buy plants at these stores this weekend (and as long as supplies last) AND to be sure to thank the store manager for offering native plants!”
For their Ace Hardware 2015 Memorial Weekend Sale the following stores will have 3 different milkweeds (Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed, and Swamp Milkweed), Wild Blue Indigo, and Coral Honeysuckle (grown by Clemenson Farms Native Nursery, so we know these plants are safe and neonicitinoids free) for the amazing price of $4.99. One other grower is supplying natives for this sale (not sure of their plant line up). In June these stores will host a Father’s Day Sale including more of Clemenson Farms Native Nursery plants including Seaside Goldenrod, New England Aster, Joe Pye Weed, Little Bluestem, Red Bee Balm, and Spotted Horsemint.
Here are the 5 ACE Hardware Stores in southern NJ where these native plants will be for sale during their 2015 Memorial Day Weekend Sale (and afterwards as long as supplies last):
My copy arrived earlier this week and I’m enjoying the book immensely. The authors walk us through and help us understand the layered landscape, something that so many gardeners don’t address, consider, or even know to think about.
I was guilty of it for years and am trying to rectify the situation by making some changes:
incorporate layers under the Tulip Tree that shades our house with understory shrubs and shade-loving wildflowers
incorporate shrub layers in my back side yard where previously lawn had reigned
and my biggest project has been our reclaimed woodland where previously Multiflora Rose grew so thick that there was no understory except for this non-native rose. The woods have given me immense pleasure as I experiment with new understory trees, shrubs, wildflowers, ferns, and grasses. I continue to be amazed by all the native plants that come up on their own (either planted by wildlife or from seeds in the soil that couldn’t survive previously because of the Multiflora Rose). For example, friends gave me 2 baby Willow Oaks and since then I’ve found 5 more that came up on their own.
If you’re intrigued,be sure to get Tallamy & Darke’s new book and digest it. It’s a gem!
Black Cherry, Prunus serotina, is one of THE most important trees for wildlife. I’ve watched 53 different species of birds feed on the fruits, including Black-throated Blue Warblers.
Learn why Black Cherry is a far better tree to plant than Bradford Pear by reading my latest column on the Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens website (where over 20 of us contribute educational and informative columns to guide and encourage wildlife gardeners, so they don’t make the same mistakes we did).
In southern New Jersey my favorite evergreen is Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, for about a zillion reasons. I’ve watched 32 different species of birds feed on the fruits, including big flocks of Cedar Waxwings (so named because they favor Red Cedar fruits).