Elderberry bush by a Heath roadside
Elderberries and chokeberries are not as beautiful or familiar as spring’s strawberry, but these small dark berries that ripen in late summer pack a nutritional wallop. I’ve know the elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) since childhood, but the chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is fairly new to me.
Whether you call the elderberry a tree or a bush, it is having a very good year. I seem to see elderberry bushes everywhere I go. I can easily identify the bushes with large flat clusters of creamy flowers that can be as much as eight inches across as I drive along Route 2, or down the wooded roads of Heath. An elderberry that usually grew by the road at the bottom of our hill seemed to disappear but this year it has returned in full bloom.
When we first moved here in 1979 our 83 year old neighbor, Mabel Vreeland gave us a Heath welcome by sending up a bushel basket filled with carrots and parsnips from her own garden, and a bottle of elderberry juice made from the elder by the side of the road. It was definitely not elderberry wine! Mabel was tee total, and she drank this bitter juice for its nutritional and healing benefits. Elderberries are more nutritious than blueberries which are much touted these days for their health giving benefits. In fact, in addition to the nutritional benefit of the berry, every part of the elder bush was used for medicinal purposes in ancient times when our pharmacopeia was more dependent on plants.
I have never been particularly interested in making elderberry juice or wine. Elderberry jelly, made with a substantial addition of sugar, is of more interest to me. Mostly I have just been happy to know that the birds love elderberries, and probably appreciate the nutrition as much as we do.
Elder has a history of being useful in many ways when we used to concoct our own tinctures and remedies. Crushed leaves rubbed on our skin or hat was thought to repel flies, and an infusion of fresh leaves rubbed on skin was considered a mosquito repellent. With all the moles and voles I have had recently I am tempted to try making an infusion that I could pour down their holes to send them on their way.
Natural dyes for wool fleece and yarn are enjoying a new popularity. Elder bark and roots make a black dye, but the leaves combined with alum will make a green dye. Elderberries and alum will make a violet dye, while combining the berries with salt and alum will create a paler lavender shade. I suspect that it takes a real recipe to make beautiful dyes.
I went looking for local elderberry bushes last fall when I was making a ‘bee box’ that would attract native pollinators. I also used slim bamboo sticks from my daughter’s garden. Native bees will lay their brood in hollow stems, or in stems of plants like elderberry that have a soft pith that the bees can remove.
Harry Potter got his magic wand in a shop, as I recall, but anyone can make their own. Elder wood is the traditional wood for magic wands, and is known to grant wishes. As long as the wish is not a selfish wish.
I confess that I don’t make much practical, or magical, use of elder, but I like having it in the neighborhood because it is a native plant, has lovely flowers and feeds the birds.
Nature Hills Nursery and Raintree Nursery offer a selection of elderberries, Sambucus Canadensis, and Sambucus nigra which is used for more ornamental purposes. Both need another bush for cross pollination to bear fruit. They also sell aronia bushes.
Elderberries have been familiar to me for most of my life, but another new native berry, the aronia berry, sometimes called a chokeberry, is becoming popular for many of the same reasons. It is highly nutritious, and the Washington State University Extension explains that the current interest in aronia berries is because of the “very high levels of anthocyanins and flavonoids, five to ten times higher than cranberry juice, with beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, minerals and vitamins.” However, like elderberries, it is also bitter and best used in jams or mixed with other fruit juices, or it can be made into wine. Europe is way ahead of the US in finding palatable ways to use aronia berries.
I want to stress that chokeberry is a totally different plant from chokecherry!
Aronias resemble elderberries in other ways as well. The hardy bushes grow up to eight feet tall, produce white blossoms in spring and attract birds to the berries in fall. They also make a good landscape plant because of the spring flowers and brilliant red autumn color. Neither bush has insect or disease problems making them low maintenance. Aronias can tolerate a damp site, and are suitable for rain gardens.
Are elderberries or chokeberries a possibility for your edible, ornamental or native garden?
Between the Rows July 19, 2014
In the Pink at Lyman Plant House
Banish the winter blues and get In the Pink at the Annual Bulb show at the Smith College Lyman Plant House. This annual show, always fabulous, is running from now until Sunday, March 16.
It is no surprise to me that the powers that be would choose In the Pink as the theme for this year’s show. I love pink, as anyone who strolls down the Rose Walk can attest. But there is something spring-like about all shades of pink from the most delicate aqueous shell pink to vibrant pinks, all of which find their most perfect expression in flowers.
Walking into the Lyman Plant House rooms that are perfumed with the fragrance of an early spring, it is hard to imagine all the planning and work required on the part of the greenhouse staff. I once asked Rob Nicholson, Manager of the greenhouse what it took to open the Bulb Show on the assigned date. His reply was succinct, “Patience and careful monitoring of temperature.” That almost sounds easy.
Of course, there is work to do in the greenhouse all year to keep this wide array of plants from the tropical jungle to the arid desert in good health. I asked if they had to use a lot of pesticides and things to keep the plants in good shape.
“Of course, we’d prefer never to use pesticides, but when a collection of rare and exotic plants is kept in an enclosed greenhouse it sets up a situation where the plants inevitably are infested since they are not in a complex ecosystem where there are checks and balances. When we need to use pesticides we tend to use very mild ones that break down very quickly as we have to be able to allow visitors in the next morning. Pesticides are rated with an REI (re-entry interval) that dictates how soon humans are allowed back into the space so we are limited to those with REIs of 4-12 hours. Then I try to use ‘biologicals’ which are geared to disrupt insect metabolism such as molting cycles, rather than the old style neurotoxin types. We also use insecticidal soaps . . . which suffocated the insect pest. I find the pesticide laws are pretty inconsistent as any consumer can go to any box store and buy materials more dangerous than what we use, and misuse them,” Nicholson said.
I asked if they used neonicotinoids, nicotine based chemicals that have become controversial and are in so many pesticides. He said “The neonics we used were systemic. Granular material is applied to the soil, dissolves and gets absorbed into the plants. They have a long term effect. They were very low toxicity to humans, easy to apply, and worked well to keep our mums clean of mealy bugs.”
However, he added, “There is a lot of concern about this class of pesticides contributing to collapse of beehives. The European Union banned them last year. . . .the pesticide gets into pollen, bees collect the pollen and bring it back to the hive and taint it. As our Chrysanthemum Show in November can attract a large number of bees if the weather conditions are right (and greenhouse vents are open) we felt we could no longer use these on flowering plants that could draw in outside bees.”
Nicholson expressed his concern about the importance of protecting bees which are so vital to our food system. “. . .our country needs to take a hard look at this class of pesticides, do the proper research and then act accordingly.”
Nicholson feels strongly that we all need to be informed consumers, buy as little of any pesticide as possible, and follow instructions to the letter. All pesticides should be stored under lock and key. “As a toddler I drank pesticide stored in a Planter’s Peanuts can in my neighbor’s garage. It almost killed me,” he said. Then he reiterated the necessity to educate ourselves about “a very complex subject and industry,” especially since there are so many pesticides available that are not dangerous to the bees or to our children.
Recently there has been research that suggests acetamiprid and imidacloprid, the two most dangerous chemicals in the neonicotinoids, may cause damage to young children’s brain development. Because I have young children on my lawns from time to time I would never knowingly use products that contain neonicotinoids. That means I wouldn’t dare use common pesticides like Ortho Flower Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer or Knockout Ready to Use Grub Killer which are only two of the many products that contain acetamiprid or imidacloprid. Further information about which products contain these chemicals are on the Xerces Society website,
The purpose of the Xerces Society is to protect invertebrates like bees, butterflies and many other creatures including mussels and crabs. I take Rob Nicholson’s advice to do my research seriously. Education is key, for all of us, and the Xerces Society is one place to start. Of course, I believe that using pesticides on the lawn is totally unnecessary, and agree with Nicholson that there are many safer products to use on plants.
To feel In the Pink, (March 1-16) the Lyman Plant House is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The suggested donation is $2. You still have a week to get there. Talcott Greenhouse at Mount Holyoke College is also hosting a spring bulb show for the next week, through March 16. Hours 10am – 4 pm.
Between the Rows March 1, 2014
Birds on snow – snacking
Here are the birds that sing in the spring. Robins are joining the blue jays – and other birds that I can only identify as Big Birds and Little Birds. Sunday the temperature reached a high of 46 degrees, and gentle breezes are wafting across the hill.
Birds and Staghorn sumac
Birds have been flying in and out of the staghorn sumac grove across the lawn. The snow is still deep in spite of warmer temperatures these last few days. Birds are finding meals pretty hard to find. In fact, Tom over at the Mon@rchs Nature Blog says that robins and other birds will only eat the sumac fruits if there is really nothing else to eat. I knew that crushed dried sumac fruit was edible because I once bought some at a very complete spice shop in Cambridge, Mass. I never did do anything with that packet of sumac; unfortunately I hadn’t yet acquired middle eastern cookbooks like those written by the fabulous chef Yotam Ottolenghi
My husband said he was listening to birdsong the other day and thought it sounded, and felt, like spring. I watch these birds and and hear a snatch of song. Spring is coming, so these must be the birds that sing in the spring. With a small apology to Gilbert and Sullivan.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life
Beatrix Potter is known to almost every parent, but not as well known as her most famous creation, Peter Rabbit. In Marta McDowell’s new book Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: the plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales (Timber Press $24.95) we meet Peter’s progenitor. In 1890, the 24 year old Beatrix bought Benjamin Bouncer at a pet shop and used him as the model for Peter for some paintings that she sold. That was the beginning of a career that she never imagined, and that her parents never wanted for her. This charming book, illustrated with historic photographs, Beatrix’s paintings, and photos of her world as they are now, lets us follow her from the enclosed gardens of London parks, to the holiday estates of her youth and finally to the farms where she spent the last 30 years of her life.
The simple, delicately illustrated stories that Potter wrote do not suggest to readers today that they were conceived by an independent woman who became a passionate naturalist, a successful business woman and a conservationist who left thousands of acres of land in the Lake District to the newly founded National Trust.
Beatrix Potter was the quintessential shy Victorian daughter whose life was ruled by her parents. She was educated at home and her social circle was limited to relatives and family friends. Still she enjoyed her life and the gardens of London the were near her home, and country visits to the Lake County and to Scotland. She loved plants and flowers; with her younger brother Bertram she often had a menagerie of animals going.
Her love of nature led her to a serious study of mycology – mushrooms. Her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe who was knighted for his contributions to chemistry, took her to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to work, but although she was finally allowed to visit and study in the gardens, her insights and theories were ignored. She was a spinster, and an amateur. She could not possibly have anything to offer the scientific world. Her mycological and scientific work now resides at the Ambleside Museum in the Lake District. Her mentor, Charlie McIntosh, gave his collection of her work to the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. Her paintings and drawings are so accurate and well identified they are useful today to those studying fungi.
McDowell carries us along on brief tale of the events of her life, but her focus is on descriptions of the landscapes and gardens that were a part of her early life, and her later life as a farmer. Part Two: The Year in Beatrix Potter’s Gardens takes us on a charming tour of the gardens she created at Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage listing plants in their season, as well as garden schemes and designs. What makes this book especially enjoyable is the use of Beatrix’s own words, from her letters and other sources.
Part Three: Visiting Beatrix Potter’s Gardens is a guide book that will give tourists the information they need to visit the gardens and landscapes of Beatrix Potter’s youth, as well the gardens she made in her maturity with her husband William Heelis. Again, this section is illustrated with wonderful and useful contemporary photos, and Potter’s illustrations of those scenes as she captured them so long ago.
Primroses were often planted in Beatrix Potter’s gardens
This is a beautiful book that gives a strong sense of the strong and practical woman that Beatrix Potter was. Nearly every page has a photograph or delicate painting from one of her books.
Five years ago I read the excellent biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature written by Linda Lear (St. Martin’s Press. It was there I first learned about her scholarship, the difficulties of her life with her parents, and the tragedy of the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne. It gave me such a different view of the kind of woman who would have told those stories of mischievous animals, illustrated them with such charming paintings, and insisted on the small size of the books for small hands.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is a visual feast and McDowell skillfully takes us through her life, only lingering with detail in the garden and the way they were transformed in her books. It also led me to the Beatrix Potter Society in England. It turns out 2013 is the 100th Anniversary of The Tale of Pigling Bland, a tale of adventure and romance, as well as the 100th Anniversary of Potter’s marriage to William Heelis. The Society has turned this occasion into a special event and an exhibit that includes parallels between these two events. I am happy to think that her own life, like her little books, had 30 years of happily ever aftering with Mr. Heelis. ###
Between the Rows November 30, 2013
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A sunny spot in the woods – overstory and understory, no midstory
I’ve always known we have many different types of bird habitat here at the End of the Road. We have fields that surround our house and the garden. We have a wetland and a pond. Mostly we have woods, about 35 or so acres, surrounding the house, fields, and wetlands.
I have walked in our woods. I have taken grandchildren up the lane, part of the old road to Rowe that was discontinued decades ago. The tree-lined lane runs between two fields and then into the woods. The grandchildren and I would clear what’s left of the road of sticks, and tree seedlings. We’d look at bugs under rotting felled trees and under stones. We talk and enjoy the shade, or complain about the mosquitoes and decide it was time to go home
Sometimes we’d cross the field and go into the western woods and down to the stream that marks the border of our land. I never spent much time thinking about the different character of the woods. They were just ‘the woods.’
My view of our woods changed last Monday when I went through the woods with Stu Watson from the Mass Audubon Society and three neighbors who are very knowledgeable about birds. Watson was there to walk through our fields and woods and tell us how we could make these different habitats more bird friendly. He showed me how to look at my woods with new eyes.
First we walked across the field and learned that in order to protect birds like woodcock and ruffed grouse who nest there, we should not give those fields their annual mowing until the very end of July or beginning of August. Other birds like whippoorwills and tree sparrows like this habitat.
My husband Henry pointed out that some of our white pines had started to encroach on the field. Watson explained that was a good thing. Transitions are important for birds. A field should not stop suddenly at the edge of a woodland. There should be some shrubby transition. There will come a time when that transition will turn into woods, so it needs to be monitored and managed. I never knew that Mass Audubon Society knew so much about trees, in addition to birds.
Watson also suggested that areas around old apple trees in the field be cleared to make the soft mast (fallen fruit) more available to the birds and other wildlife.
From the field we stepped into a stand of white pine. The ground was covered with pine needles and there was very little undergrowth. This is not ideal. Taking down a few trees would allow more sun to enter, and then allow pine regeneration. Birds would welcome the new growth.
Over-, mid-, and understory in the woods
The ideal is to have tall overstory trees, then have a midstory of trees and shrubs between 5-30 feet, and then an understory of ferns, and other low growing plants and groundcovers. This is exactly the structure we gardeners copy when we plant a mixed border of small trees, shrubs and underplanted with flowers or groundcovers.
We moved through the pine woods which rather abruptly changed into a hardwood stand. In the transition area there was pine regeneration because there was more sun, and there were ferns and maple seedlings. I even learned a new maple variety, striped maple, which has large three lobed leaves. This was a much better area for birds because it provided more protective cover and more forage. It also provided several wolf trees, enormous old dead trees that provide a bug smorgasbord for bug eaters, and cavities for birds and other small wildlife to live in. I was happy to see tiny oak seedlings. I don’t know how acorns got into our woods, but oaks support over 500 wildlife species. I want oak trees.
Walking was more difficult in this area, but Watson repeated several times. “Bad walking means good habitat.”
The third stand was mixed white pine and hardwoods like white ash, black cherry, red maple, and white birch. This section had been logged but there was a well developed midstory. There was very little understory growth, but there was lots of debris on the ground caused by storm damage. Again, thinning needs to be done to allow more sun and thus encourage regeneration.
Watson was very pleased with our various habitats, and the good health of our woods. He gave us his suggestions for improving the habitat. When we re-read our forest management plan prepared by our forester Scott Sylvester with new eyes, we realized that he had anticipated all of Watson’s suggestions ten years ago.
We expected Stu from the Mass Audubon Society to be knowledgeable about birds but then we found out that Scott Sylvester, who is passionate about birds, is one of the organizers of this collaboration between the Mass Audubon Society, the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Franklin Land Trust, a collaboration that mirrors those in Vermont and New Hampshire. The goal is to keep forest bird habitat intact. By the way, it will also make forest land productive for the owner, allowing for selective cutting.
Northern New England is a ‘breeding bird factory” Watson said. Seventy to 90 species of birds nest and breed in this area, and this habitat is crucial to “keeping common birds common.”
This is a pilot program. We were glad to learn about it when it was launched on Mother’s Day with a walk for interested people through the Betty Maitland Memorial Forest in Heath. The program will help woodland owners to look at their property in a way that is not only beneficial to them, but to beautiful birds as well.
For more information about this new Mass Audubon Society program email Stu Watson at email@example.com or Matt Kamm at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Between the Rows June 15, 2013
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Over the years many kinds of wildlife have passed by the End of the Road. This white peacock visited for a couple of years, but we think he finally met his fate.
Weasel – captured
Weasels can fit through the tiniest holes in the hen house, but we caught this one.
Lots of frogs and toads this year.
This porcupine was happy to bask in the winter sun outside the hen house.
The most recent visitor was a young moose. He didn’t stay long. Other creatures who haven’t stayed long were a bear, a fox and many deer. There is never a camera at hand, but once a fawn stayed for a few minutes when I did have my camera.
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Moosewood AKA Striped Maple
Yesterday we took a (wet) walk in the woods and saw this moosewood tree. It is more properly known as a striped maple, and more properly still as Acer pensylvanicum. It is a small understory tree, very tolerant of shade, and has very large leaves.
Late in the afternoon, there was a flash of brown passing my window. I ran outside to see what it was. A moose. A young moose, who only stopped briefly to pose and let me get this photo. Though I saw them both in one day, they are otherwise unrelated.
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Cowbird June 6, 2013
Yesterday morning I watched what I later confirmed was a cowbird being fed by another bird. I just happened to look out the front window and there was this little bird (fully fledged) standing still and looking around while another bird, a different type of bird, much the same size was running around picking up insects from the lawn and bringing them over to the cowbird. Through the window I couldn’t hear the cowbird squawking, or whining piteously, but I could see its little beak opening and shutting, until its meal was brought to it. I could almost imagine it tapping its tiny claw, wondering what was taking so long.
Out came the bird guide book. I knew that cowbirds were famous for laying their eggs in another bird’s nest, and that the foster parents cared for that interloper as well as they could, as it grew bigger faster than their own brood. I never dreamed that the cowbird could stand around in its fledged adolescence and still get its foster parents to keep feeding it. It was quite a fascinating sight. This sort of behavior is called brood parasitism.
Ordinarily, I would not trust my own ability to identify a bird but my Peterson’s Guide does describe this feeding behavior between cowbirds and other birds as a common phenomenon.
Tree peony – name lost
On a more serenely beautiful note, my white tree peony, that has endured various bouts of storm damage over the past couple of years came into bloom. Tree peonies are not really trees, but they do have a shrubby form that does not die back over winter as the herbaceous peonies do. Tree peonies need to be planted more deeply that herbaceous peonies, but they are just as hardy and long lived. They bloom earlier and the blossoms are more ephemeral, but all the more treasured because of this.
Jono Neiger of Regenerative Design Group
Jono Neiger of the Regenerative Design Group which has its office in Greenfield, spoke to the Greenfield Garden Club a couple of weeks ago. His inspiring talk explained how gardeners could mimic nature, and require less work and inputs to create a garden that would give us what we desire out of our garden and what wildlife and pollinators require.
He gave some very specific advice beginning with the suggestion that vegetable gardens, and gardens that need substantial cultivating be sited near the house where their needs will not be forgotten. I can tell you how valuable this advice is from my own experience. The Herb Bed, the Front Garden, the Daylily and Rose Banks, all of which are right in front of the house get more attention because those south gardens warm up first in the spring and because it is easy to do a small job or two as I come and go, in and out of the house.
It is easy to remember to spread compost and other organic fertilizers on our vegetable and flower beds wherever they are, but remembering to weed or watch for problems is easier when the garden is right in front of us.
Water is becoming more of a concern as we often seem to have too much or too little. This has inspired many people to invest in rain barrels which collect rain off our roofs to use later in the garden when there is a dry spell. Those who have used 50 gallon barrels quickly learn that they don’t hold much of the roof run-off and add more barrels.
Neiger himself has arranged it so that the runoff from his roof runs into a small artificial pond that he has created below the house. The pond holds about 300 gallons of water. When the pond is full, there is an overflow pipe that takes water to a small bog garden that he planted when his son was young featuring pitcher plants. When that area is full water runs down to the vegetable garden. His goal is to get as much use out of all the water he can collect and keep it usefully on the site.
Those of us who don’t have enough room to move rainwater across our property could buy a larger water tank to collect more water off our roof. We can count on that tank costing about a dollar a gallon, so a 400 gallon tank would cost about $400. We can also plant a rain garden that will keep rain on our site and out of storm drains.
He also told us that gray water is now legal in Massachusetts. If we can separate out our sink and bath water that gray water can be drained into our gardens. We would have to pay attention to the type of soaps and detergents we use. His passion is to produce no waste and to recycle any waste elements of our house and garden as much as possible. Compost!
He is a proponent of permaculture, growing perennial plants for food, as well as for ornament. He explained the Edible Forest Garden in terms that I could finally understand. The idea is to mimic nature in the way the forest grows with tall trees, then understory shrubs and then groundcovers. An edible forest in my garden simply means to include a fruit tree or two, some berry bushes and then ground covers. Rhubarb and asparagus are familiar perennial edible ‘ground covers.’ How simple.
If you are interested in perennial crops Eric Toensmeier’s excellent book Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to Zuiki Taro, a Gardeners Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles will give you full information about familiar and unfamiliar crops, many of which are hardy in our area.
Those of us who live in town will not be able to, or need to, include the food, fuel, fiber, fodder, farmeceuticals, fertilizer and fun that make up Neiger’s productive landscape, but all of us can include several of these elements. In the acre surrounding my house I have food in my vegetable gardens, some fodder for my chickens who then supply some fertilizer, compost for fertilizer, an herb garden for farmeceuticals and fun in the Lawn Beds that include small trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and even some groundcovers. I want to point out bee balm, mint, yarrow and other pollinator magnets are among the perennials in the herb and flower gardens.
How many of these elements do you have in your garden. Begin with fun.
Achillea, yarrow, attracts pollinators
While Jono Neiger gave us some new ecological ways to think about managing our domestic landscapes, Emily Monosson, PhD, teacher and environmental toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts will be leading a discussion at the Greenfield Library with those who have read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson on Saturday, February 2. This talk, The Relevance of Silent Spring after 50 Years, is scheduled from 11 am – 1 pm and is sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Association to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of this book which could be said to have started the whole environmental movement and new ways of. “No book since then has had the impact of Silent Spring. Carson saw an acute toxic change . . . and synthesized an immense amount of research. The changes in our environment today are more insidious,” Monosson said.
Between the Rows January 26, 2013
Possum in the Compost Pile
This opossum has been a regular evening visit to our compost pile. I don’t think it is heating up at this time of the year but at least s/he is loading up on nutrituous peels.
ADDENDUM – I had forgotten that oppossums are Marsupials – just like kangaroos. Only smaller, of course. Lots of fascinating information about oppossums here from the National Oppossum Society.