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.
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 ! ! !
The Unfolding of a Wildlife Garden, One Year in the Sutton Garden
(This will be presented by Pat Sutton for CU Maurice River at their CU Social)
Thursday, February 17, 2022 6:30 – 9:00 p.m.
(The presentation will begin at 6:45 pm)
WHERE ZOOM: From the comfort of your home
All CU Socials are FREE for CU Maurice River members ($25 for non-members). Become a CU Maurice River member TODAY, by clicking HERE ($20 individual / $30 family). Call (856) 300-5331 for more information.
Registration is required! Please let CU Maurice River know you plan on attending by signing up HERE. If you have any trouble signing up, call the CU Maurice River office at 856-300-5331 and they’ll straighten that out and get you signed up.
Be prepared! Please have your favorite device handy with a solid internet connection in order to participate. Registration is required so that CU Maurice River can get you the Zoom meeting link, which will be sent out the day before the presentation.
About the presentation: Join Pat Sutton for this virtual presentation (on Zoom) for CU Maurice River at their CU Social. Ben Werner and I worked on this project all of 2021 (getting video footage and stills) and since then have put in 100s of hours pulling together some of the stories that unfolded in the garden. One very big story had to be told, that of Monarchs and milkweed. 2021 was a very good year for Monarchs in my garden and hopefully yours too. I had Monarchs in the garden daily from mid-June on. I found lots of eggs, lots of caterpillars, watched and filmed a Monarch caterpillar going into it’s chrysalis in the garden (what a happenstance gift that I was at the right spot with my camera when that five minute transformation occurred). I discovered five different chrysalises in the garden, and watched and filmed the Monarch emerging from two of them. So of course, the Monarch’s story had to be told so I could share this priceless footage with all of you.
There were so many other wildlife garden stories to be told that our presentation is 1 hour and 28 minutes. Hopefully it will be as riveting to you as it was to Ben and I as we put it together. We had such fun with it, that I’m sure it will be the first of many episodes sharing a wildlife garden unfolding!
Filming covers all of 2021, capturing the unfolding of four seasons in Pat Sutton’s 44-year-old wildlife garden. It showcases her favorite visitors while also demonstrating how (and why) she maintains her wildlife habitat in many, many maybe-new-to-you wildlife-friendly ways. Learn firsthand the many reasons why Pat is a “hands off” gardener after the hard work of spring clean up and readying the garden. This approach leaves a great deal more time for study and learning, rather than fussing, fussing, fussing with deadheading, removing spent stems, moving plants, etc. Pat hopes her presentation will convert attendees to her wildlife-friendly garden methods as she showcases discoveries she made that would not have survived in more heavily tended gardens.
Through 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.
Busy water features draw in 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.
A din of calling Green Frogs on many summer nights led to their egg masses being discovered the next day. 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. Pat will also include how she is addressing “Privacy LOST” after a neighbor took down lots of vegetation.
Life cycles occur on a daily basis. Each year Monarchs can be found in this garden daily from mid-June on, mating and laying eggs, helping to swell the summer population so that by fall the migratory population is robust and substantial. This year Pat witnessed and filmed a Monarch caterpillar in its “J” position metamorphosing into its chrysalis, and several Monarchs emerging from their chrysalises in her garden. Will these magical moments be shared in the presentation? You bet! These mesmerizing moments will help to tell the story that wildlife gardens like Pat’s (and hopefully like yours) contributed directly to a heartening and hopeful migration of Monarchs through the Cape May Peninsula in Fall 2021. A wonderful 25,000-30,000 Monarchs were counted on October 1, 2021, lifting off from overnight roosts in the Cape May Point dunes to continue their migration. On October 21, 2021, another push of migrating Monarchs gathered at lands end. They lingered at nectar and safe roost sites until October 22 when winds calmed and they could continue their migration. I couldn’t be there to witness it, but ‘m told that the numbers were comparable to the October 1st exodus, so roughly another 25,000-30,000 Monarchs.
I hope you can join me for this Zoom presentation which will definitely convey the joy of wildlife gardening and lots and lots of “how to” information!
You may also 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 prove very helpful during the Virtual Tour and afterwards!
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)
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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 will be sharing 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. Those attending will benefit greatly by having my handouts below available during the program. Registration is required ; please let the SE Chapter know you plan on attending by signing up HERE.
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.
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
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!
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!
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.
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
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
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.
It is the peak of fall migration! Any time the winds are from the Northwest, you can bet your bippy there will be birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and bats galore migrating through Cape May Point. The Monarchs will continue to migrate through all of October and, if conditions are right, even the first few days or first week of November.
October 3rd the winds were gentle from the northwest, perfect for migration, so Clay & I decided to “take our walk” at Cape May Point. We got down there and never left.
The floodgates opened and a river of Monarchs and dragonflies was flowing down the dune line, right over the dune crossovers in the town of Cape May Point. That was the place to be. A steady movement of Monarchs floated by while others nectared on the Seaside Goldenrod in the dunes. Some pulses were huge! A steady movement of dragonflies zoomed by including mostly Black Saddlebags and Common Green Darners with some Carolina Saddlebags mixed in (about 1 in every 10 saddlebags). The numbers were uncountable. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Monarchs and dragonflies. I’ve included some photos with this post to share with you the spectacle we witnessed on October 3rd, truly a day we’ll remember forever more.
Many Monarchs reach the tip of the Cape May Peninsula on winds like those that blew on October 3rd from the northwest. These winds blow migrating Monarchs out to the coast. Rather than get blown out to sea, they turn and follow the coastline south, and reach lands end, Cape May Point. On days with the right conditions (gentle winds from the northwest), numbers build and build. Sometimes we’re treated to a late afternoon and evening roost where Monarchs gather by the thousands. The next morning can be quite a spectacle, when they are warmed up by the rising sun and lift off to continue their migration.
Talking with Mark Garland, who heads up the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project, he did not expect that there would be a huge roost or roosts of Monarchs the evening of October 3rd in the town of Cape May Point because it was so warm (80 degrees). He shared that those huge roosts usually form in the late afternoon on the colder days when temperatures are 50 degrees or cooler. He thought there would be lots and lots of little Monarch roosts around Cape May Point instead, with 10 Monarchs here and 10 Monarchs there. From what we hear, that was the case. We couldn’t stay that evening to see for ourselves.
We headed back down the next day, October 4th to see what was left over from the flight the day before. The winds switched in the night from northwest to south, so we weren’t expecting too much. Indeed the south winds were not bringing new Monarchs to us, but it was a beautiful day for a walk.
This fall, respond to weather predictions. If the winds are to come from the north or northwest, get to Cape May Point! Just do it!!!
If you should encounter roosts of Monarchs, please do not approach so close that you flush them. Remember that they’re holding on for their lives. The next stop is a big stretch of water and that can be treacherous for Monarchs.
There are many dune crossovers in the town of Cape May Point that take you right next to blooming nectar full of Monarchs. And there are nectar-rich stretches along the dune trails (between the dune and the Plover Ponds) in both the Cape May Point State Park and the South Cape May Meadows. All these sites offer terrific photo opportunities. Please do not leave dune crossovers and trails to venture into dunes for photos; it’s illegal for one thing and disruptive and just poor etiquette.
Please bookmark our NEW website, “Pat Sutton’s Wildlife Garden.” A technical wizard and wildlife habitat savvy friend helped me set up my new website. Thank you Bob. For those of you who do all your work on a smartphone, this site is smartphone friendly.
Be sure to read about “Our Wildlife Garden.” It will help put my passion and this website into perspective. For 4 years (2011-2015) I was a proud Team Member of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens, a website that is no longer available. I will be updating and posting anew here a number of the posts I wrote for that site. I look forward to posting more regularly now that I have complete control over my website.
This new site is a work in progress with much I still want to do with it, so stop back often to see it unfolding.
Our OLD website, “Pat and Clay Sutton,” disappeared on February 5, 2017 (on that date I could no longer access it). I did not own my old domain name or site where it was housed (a friend originally set it up for me), so as a forum it was unstable and I had to start over. Today, April 12, 2017, I just followed a link to our old website and strangers have shanghaied it and filled it with JUNK posts. YIKES!
Please share your comments and questions in the comment section following the posts (rather than write to me directly), that way everyone can benefit from your comments and questions, my answers, and all the additional sage advice that others share.
We left in winter conditions and returned to summer conditions. Tackling the next part of garden cleanup has been quite a task in the heat and gnats. I wondered how you all were faring with your own gardens especially since some of you are quite new to wildlife gardening.
I thought it might be timely to step-by-step explain how I wrap up the garden cleanup in spring.
I hope my post helps guide you. Please share your comments and questions in the comment section following the post (rather than write to me directly), that way everyone can benefit from your questions, my answers, and all the additional sage advice that others share.
Is my garden cleanup done yet? Not nearly. Heading back out as soon as I send this off. Good luck with yours and please wish me some luck and stamina with mine. It will all be worth it when it’s done.