The Unfolding of Pat Sutton’s 44-year-old Wildlife Garden

The Unfolding of a Wildlife Garden, One Year in the Sutton Garden

I will be presenting (in person) the “Unfolding Wildlife Garden” Episode for the first time on February 20, 2023 for the Southeast Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey at Stockton University, Room 246, Unified Science Building, 7:00-9:00 p.m.

I presented the 1st draft 1 1/2 hour program (virtually) on February 17, 2022 for CU Maurice River.  Unbeknownst to Ben Werner and I, the Zoom platform had issues with video and apparently viewers watched a jumpy picture during portions of the presentation.  We have still not learned of a solution on the Zoom platform.

About the presentation:   Ben Werner and I worked on this project all of 2021 (getting video footage and stills) and since then have put in 100s and 100s of hours pulling together some of the stories that unfolded in the garden.  So far we have completed two episodes.  There are many more stories (Episodes) to be told.

“UNFOLDING WILDLIFE GARDEN” EPISODE

The 55-minute “UNFOLDING WILDLIFE GARDEN” episode includes all four seasons in Pat Sutton’s 44-year-old wildlife garden (as of 2021).  This episode showcases Chocolate Cake native nectar plants month-by-month, nearly all of which are also host plants.  Spring nectar offerings begin in Pat’s woods, a third of their property that they recovered from invasives in 2009.  Summer nectar offerings occur throughout the property, but largely in their sunny perennial garden, which sits entirely on their septic field.

Pat’s study of native pollinators (bees, ornately-patterned flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds) is woven throughout this episode.  Pat has studied life cycles and life histories of butterflies and moths for the past 40+ years (and more recently those of bees, flies, wasps, and beetles).  Life cycles occur on a daily basis in this wildlife garden.  The knowledge Pat has gained from life cycles she’s witnessed has greatly influenced how she maintains her wildlife garden.  The fragility of insects in all stages of their life cycle is at the heart of Pat’s “hands off” approach.  She sees her garden as a safe supermarket and nursery for pollinators.  In fussed over gardens (think dead heading, cutting spent stems and seed heads, etc.) the very pollinators drawn in are likely to find themselves in a dead end death trap, where their eggs laid, or feeding caterpillars, or fragile chrysalids are tossed into the  trash or brush pile with clipped plant stems and seed heads  . . . and none of us want that!  A hands off approach leaves more time for study, learning, and joy.

The transition of “Cover” provided in this wildlife garden will be showcased, from brush piles in late fall through winter, to robust stands of perennials, trees, shrubs, and vines, including a number of native evergreens.  The film will showcase busy water features which draw wintering birds to heated bird baths, and migrants and nesting birds to a whole array of warm-season water features (from misters to fountains to bird baths).  The Sutton’s bird feeder array is showcased in conjunction with the fact that they’ve documented over 213 bird species in their yard in the past 40+ years.  Viewers will also see how Pat addressed “Privacy LOST” after a neighbor took down a hedgerow of invasives.

Monarch Episode

The 45-minute MONARCH EPISODE  came about because 2021 was a very good year for Monarchs in Pat Sutton’s native plant wildlife garden (and hopefully your garden too).  She had Monarchs in the garden daily from mid-June on. She found lots and lots of eggs and caterpillars from June through late fall.  She watched and filmed a Monarch caterpillar going into it’s chrysalis in the garden (a happenstance gift that she was at the right spot with her camera when that five-minute transformation occurred). She discovered five different chrysalids in her garden, and watched and filmed the adult Monarch emerging from two of them. So of course, the Monarch’s story had to be told so she could share this priceless footage.  This episode covers the many native Chocolate Cake nectar plants month-by-month that draw in and benefit Monarchs, in addition to the native Milkweeds they need for egg laying.  It showcases the many predators that target Monarchs (at all stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult) and other butterflies and moths.  And finally this episode conveys that each Monarch that survives to adulthood and begins its journey to their winter roost sites in the mountains of Mexico,  is not only a survivor, but a miracle!

Consider booking one or both of these episodes for your group!

Hopefully each episode will be as riveting to viewers as it was to Ben and me as we put it together. We had such fun with these episodes that many more episodes will follow focusing on different aspects of wildlife gardening!

Pat hopes these presentations will convert attendees to her wildlife-friendly garden methods as she showcases discoveries she made that would not have survived in more heavily tended, fussed-over gardens.

Through the early years of Covid, an unsettling and uncertain time, the Sutton’s wildlife garden soothed the soul, entertained, and educated. In this wildlife habitat so much happens right before your eyes, with layer upon layer of nature unfolding. Migrant and nesting birds find countless caterpillars and other juicy treats, as well as plentiful fruits and seed heads. Varied and beautiful pollinators benefit from native perennials, trees, shrubs, and vines that offer a cascade of blooms from early spring until blooming shuts down with late fall’s first frost.

A din of calling Green Frogs on many summer nights led to their egg masses being discovered the next day.

Life cycles occur on a daily basis. The Monarch’s life cycle is fairly easy to witness in a wildlife garden.  Because of the abundance of native plants in a true wildlife garden, many other life cycles are also occurring that are rarely discovered but just as fragile!

You may want to download and print the latest update of Pat’s “Gardening for Pollinators” Handout (CLICK HERE), which includes lots of sage advice, Chocolate Cake nectar plants month-by-month, and sources of helpful signage.  It will save you from making mistakes that all of us have made and help you create a healthy and safer wildlife garden.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAKE A VIRTUAL TOUR OF PRIVATE WILDLIFE GARDENS

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

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

Leave the Leaves

While working on and researching a program on this topic I’ve been contacted by some folks who could not attend.  So I am sharing here excellent resources that will help anyone and everyone understand the value of fallen leaves.  I will list these resources here so that you can read them, study up, digest the information, and value and cherish fallen leaves as much as I do.

First you’ll want to read Doug Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks.  This book richly covers the benefits of oaks and all their leaf litter.  If you’ve never heard Doug Tallamy speak about this topic, attend a presentation or google “Doug Tallamy Youtube Nature of Oaks” and watch one of his presentations that occurred in your region.  Be sure to listen until the Q&A session when attendees ask the very questions on your mind, like “But, what am I to do with all my Oak leaves?”  “Won’t they kill my grass?”  etc.

While you’re at it, read all 3 of his books.  They will change your life.

Since Doug Tallamy’s first book, Bringing Nature Home, he has shared the top native plants used by butterflies and moths as host plants to create the next generation. Tallamy refers to these plants as the “Keystone Native Plants.”  He is partnering with other organizations, like National Wildlife Federation, to share Keystone Native Plant information across the country.

For an annotated list of the Keystone Native Plants for your area, go to the National Wildlife Federation Garden for Wildlife website.  Here you’ll find ten different “Keystone Native Plants” Ecoregion handouts (as of February 2022), with others undoubtedly planned. This plant list should be the backbone of your plantings. If you live in southern New Jersey like me, scroll down to “Eastern Temperate Forests – Ecoregion 8″ (which covers nearly all of the East).

Oaks are the top Keystone Native Plant! Then Black Cherry and Beach Plum. Then Willows. Then Birch. And so on. These are the trees that are supporting many, many hundreds of butterfly and moth species. Value these trees and their fallen leaves. You will have made your trees “Ecological Traps” if you instead rake up the leaves, bag them, and send them away (along with all the life they hold and support).

Heather Holm’s 3 books on pollinators of our native plants are beautifully illustrated and packed with natural history information, including where and how our pollinators survive the winter . . . many do so in leaf litter!

Visit Heather Holm’s website and click on the link “Plant Lists & Posters” for beautifully presented and illustrated Native Plant Lists, pollinator fact sheets, and posters, many of which are free to download.  These materials will further help you understand life cycles of our pollinators and teach others!

Also on Heather Holm’s website, click on her latest project “Soft Landings.”  Soft Landings is all about leaving the leaves and planting diverse native plants under Keystone trees and shrubs rather than mowing so that the hundreds of species of butterflies and moths using these Keystone trees and shrubs might complete their life cycle and survive.  The downloadable free poster, “Soft Landings” tells the story beautifully. It should convert kids of all ages (yes, I’m talking about big kids too . . . adults) to leave the leaves where they fall.

One more excellent resource to better understand why you want to leave the leaves is the booklet “Life in the Leaf Litter,” by Johnson and Catley, published by the American Museum of Natural History and available on their website as a free download.

Shade Gardening in Your Leaf Litter

Once you’ve read all these terrific resources about just how important leaf litter is, begin shade gardening in leafy spaces on your property . . . in under your trees and shrubs (rather than continue to mow these areas) or along a path through your woods.

Shade-loving perennials will color your leafy spaces in the early, early spring when spring ephemerals bloom and in the fall when the many shade-loving, fall-blooming perennials bloom.  Through the summer months the fall bloomers will add a lovely layer of green to your leafy areas.

To help you along your way with SHADE GARDENING, go to my resources on this topic and learn what has survived and thrived in my shady spaces.  Remember to use as many Keystone Native Plants as possible!

Now with all the time you have available because you are NOT raking your leaves  (nor bagging them up and sending them away), dive in to all this reading and help convert others to LEAVE THE LEAVES!

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

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

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.

Gardening for Pollinators

Snowberry Clearwing nectaring on Wild Bergamot in Pat Sutton’s wildlife garden on July 11th

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

For Pat Sutton’s frequently updated

“Gardening for Pollinators” HANDOUT   (6-7-22 update)

CLICK HERE

I’ve studied butterflies (and moths) for 40+ years, but am relatively new to identifying all the other pollinators in my garden.  I’ve photographed these other pollinators for years and am now going back through photos and getting help with ID from Heather Holm’s three amazing books and iNaturalist!  I’m learning so much natural history from Heather Holm’s books and from iNaturalist, for instance that a wasp I’ve found nectaring in my garden, the Four-banded Sand Wasp (or the Four-banded Stink Bug Wasp) targets Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs as prey.  How cool is that ! ! ! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canna – fall care & winter storage (plus Host Plant for Brazilian Skipper)

My garden is largely made up of natives, but I love hummingbirds and they love Cannas.  I have added some non-native hummingbird favorites, as long as they are not problematic (invasive) and Cannas fit that category.  They bloom all summer and fall until the first frost.

Those of you with Cannas will want to dig up their tubers, if you haven’t already, before it gets too cold to perform this task.  I normally dig mine up  sometime in November for the winter.  This year I tackled it November 25th.  If you haven’t done so yet, use a mild day to get this task done before winter sets in.

If the task of digging them ALL up is just too much for you (as it is for me) , dig up just enough tubers (from just a few of your plants) so you’re sure to have enough to plant in all your favorite spots next spring (where tubers you left in the ground rotted over the winter).  Now that I’ve grown older and wiser, that’s what I do and my back is much happier with this decision.

You could leave your Canna tubers in the ground, but some, if not all of them, may ROT over the winter.  I’ve found that most of the Cannas growing in a sheltered, south-facing garden in my front yard survive the winter and resprout nicely each spring.  So I leave those in the ground and the bulk of them survive.  But nearly all the Canna tubers in my backyard gardens rot over the winter, so those are the ones I dig up each late fall.   If you do dig up Canna tubers and store them properly over the winter, you’ll have viable tubers to plant next spring plus many extras to give away to family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

Canna tubers multiply!   If you planted 3 Canna tubers, don’t be surprised if they’ve multiplied into 30 or more.

Tubers dug up from only 10 plants (November 25)

HOW TO WINTER OVER YOUR CANNA TUBERS

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

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

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

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

PLANTING CANNAS IN SPRING

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

BRAZILIAN SKIPPER

In recent years Brazilian Skippers have occurred in southern NJ, well north of their normal range.  They lay their eggs on Canna leaves to create the next generation.  Many of us with Cannas have had an opportunity to study the entire life cycle of this cool southern butterfly.  The eggs are creamy white and often laid here and there (as a single egg) on top of Canna leaves.  Once the caterpillar hatches it makes its way to the edge of a Canna leaf, makes two cuts (or chews), folds the bit of leaf in between over, zippers it shut with silk, and hides inside.

Look for these tell tale folded over leaf edges to find your first Brazilian Skipper caterpillars.  Monitor their growth and you’ll be sure to also find their large chrysalis.  Be careful not to be too nosy, or you may attract predators to the Brazilian Skippers’ hidey hole.

If you live in southern New Jersey, like me, report your Brazilian Skipper sightings to the South Jersey Butterfly B/Log.  It’s fun to see the history of their occurrence in southern NJ on this website.  If you live in northern New Jersey, report them to the NABA North Jersey Butterfly Club Recent Sightings page.  If you live elsewhere, report them to the North American Butterfly Association’s Recent Sightings page.

Happy Gardening,

Pat