Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
April, 2008
Regional Report

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The nectar in the center of aster flowers is easy for many pollinators to reach.

Welcoming Birds and Bees

No matter what motivates us to garden -- healthy food, beauty, relaxation, family fun -- we are not the only beneficiaries. Birds, insects, and other wildlife derive sustenance and shelter from what we grow. We may plant viburnums for their spring blossoms and colorful fruit, but birds also benefit from the tasty berries. Then again, sometimes what we leave alone can be more valuable than what we plant. That dead tree might be an eyesore to some, but it can provide nesting cavities and food for numerous birds. Welcoming birds and bees and beneficial insects is easy if we just look at our yards through a different lens and are aware of what features and types of plants help support them. Considering the decline in songbirds and the imperiled honeybees, the choices we make in our gardens might collectively make a difference.

Layered Plantings
A border or hedgerow of plants of different heights provides cover and food for birds. The combination of tall canopy trees (preferably with multiple trunks rather than a single trunk), understory trees, and shorter shrubs and flowers seems to offer more than the sum of its parts. This type of layered planting is beautiful as well as functional. In our region an example would be a canopy of birch and oak, an understory of dogwoods, chokeberry and viburnum shrubs, and nectar flowers such as penstemons and bee balm. Evergreens are also important for cover from storms in all seasons and for protection from predators. Fruiting evergreens like junipers also provide lunch.

Wild Places
If you have a brush pile you've been meaning to move or a dead tree you've been meaning to cut down, or some leaves in the shrub bed you've been meaning to rake out, save yourself the trouble and keep them for wildlife. There, wasn't that easy?

Include Natives
Native plants have an interdependent relationship with birds, bees, and other wildlife; the plants provide fruit, seeds, and nectar for the wildlife, which, in turn, pollinates the plants. But we don't have to go cold turkey and avoid all non-native plants. New plants are fun to try, and as long as we include some native plants, we can enjoy the best of both.

Favorite Flowers
Birds, bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects have their plant preferences, and no doubt you already grow some plants that help sustain each of them. But there's always room for more and these ideas can help guide your buying (or sowing) decisions.

Hummingbirds: You already know they zero in on red, tubular flowers such as fuchsia, honeysuckle (avoid the invasive Japanese type), scarlet runner bean, bee balm, penstemon, and cardinal flower. A feeder filled with sugar water can give them energy, too. A typical feeder-size quantity is 1/4 cup of sugar to 2 cups water; boil until the sugar dissolves and let it cool before filling the feeder.

Butterflies: Nectar flowers feed the adults and host plants feed the larvae, so include some of each. Nectar flowers that attract butterflies include brightly colored, sweet-smelling flowers that allow them easy access, such as daisy-type flowers. Some easy-to-grow nectar plants are New England asters, black-eyed Susans, butterfly bush, butterfly weed, cosmos, goldenrod, lantana, lavender, purple coneflowers, and zinnias. Butterflies are attracted to masses of color and fragrance, so plant groups of flowers instead of single plants.

Host plants for caterpillars might include some of your favorites and you might not welcome their chewing. But if you have a variety of plants in your yard there will be something acceptable for them to eat. Some host plants include clover, grasses, hackberry, low bush blueberry, parsley, pearly everlasting, milkweed, rudbeckia, vetch, and willow.

Bees: Numbers of honeybees and native bees are declining so they can use all the food we can provide. Bees are attracted to flowers in shades of blue, purple, yellow, or orange, especially those flowers that have two contrasting hues, such as blue and yellow forget-me-nots and pansies. Salvias, delphiniums, and lavender are also reputed to be bee favorites. Most native bees mind their own business and don't bother us.

Beneficial Insects: No, this isn't an oxymoron. Spiders, lacewings, syrphid flies, ladybugs, predatory wasps, and tachinid flies, to name a few, can help keep pest insects in check. It's not important that we know how to recognize each one. What matters is that we not assume every insect on our plants is causing harm and needs to be eliminated, and that we welcome beneficials by avoiding toxic pesticides and by growing some attractant plants. Daisy-like flowers such as asters, chamomile, coneflowers, and feverfew; and umbel-type flowers like anise, dill, fennel, parsley and yarrow are some favorites.

The good thing about planting to attract wildlife is you can tell if your attempts are successful. The sights and sounds of busy creatures will be just one of your rewards.

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