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Flower Power in the Medicine Cabinet

Artemesia annua

Artemesia annua aka Sweet Annie, a cure for malaria even in modern times

Flower Power has been a hippy anthem but it is also a reminder that we should not underestimate the power of plants as medicine. Antibiotics have been a gift to doctors and patients for decades, but that gift has been abused. Through the overuse of antibiotics for the sick, or possibly sick, and as a preventative in livestock many bacteria strains have developed resistance to these ever more powerful and available antibiotics.

In the New York Times Magazine article (September 18, 2016), Flower Power  Ferris Jabr lays out dangers that we might face. He interviewed ethnobotantist Cassandra Quave about the threat and consequences of loosing our effective antibiotics. Experts say that they (resistant bacterias) currently cause 700,000 lives a year globally and that number will only grow. “We’re standing on the precipice of a post-antibiotic era. We just haven’t fallen off yet, Quave said.

Anti-biotics have been around since the 1940s, but herbal medicines have been around as long as the human race has existed. Even animals like members of the raccoon family in panama know to rub a minty tree resin through their fur to deter fleas and ticks. Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating back to 3000 B.C. list prescriptions, and in c. 50 A.D. the Roman surgeon Dioscordes was putting together his De Materia Medica which gave the medical benefits of 600 plants. This information was used for 1500 years until the Renaissance began to supplant it with revised herbals.

Quave says we need to turn to plants again to create new medicines. Some are skeptical and smell “a whiff of mumbo-jumbo folklore,” and some see the difficulties and expense that will be necessary to understand and use the complicated plant chemistry to make these new medicines.

Fortunately the work has begun and Jabr’s article describes some of them. For instance, Quave found that in southern Italy healers used blackberry roots to treat boils. She collected and worked with those roots in her lab and found that while the resulting product did not kill MRSA bacteria it did prevent them from adhering to living tissue and medical equipment in hospitals. This keeps the level of bacteria down to such a low level that they are no longer dangerous.

Quave said this is a new way of looking at the problem. “We’ve been in the mindset that we need to kill microbes. What we need is to find a balance.”

This is such a fascinating article because it shows us that we should not dismiss the power of plants, and that we might need to take a different approach to managing bacteria.

School Gardens – Innovation and Discovery School


Discovery School Garden

Discovery School Garden

When I arrived last Thursday afternoon the scene at the school gardens of the  Discovery School at Four Corners were enjoying controlled chaos. Several teachers were staying after school to divide and pot up perennials from the butterfly garden.

“Is this Echinacea or a rudbeckia?” one teacher asked and her spade bit into the center of the clump.

“Don’t pot the dill! It an annual,” another shouted.

“Are you sure these are all bee balm?” another asked looking at a huge clump of wilted and frost-blackened stems.

All of the newly potted plants, as well as kale and potatoes from the garden, were to be sold at the Harvest Sampler the following day. Funds raised would go to the school gardens.

I have visited many school gardens, but never have I visited a school where the garden was a driving force in the curriculum. The DiscoverySchool at Four Corners (K-3) was one of the first Innovation Schools created by a program instituted by Governor Deval  Patrick in 2010. Innovation schools have a theme; the teachers and parents who came together to design this new program chose gardening, with a broad environmental focus.

Kathy LaBreck, one of the teachers who was a moving force in getting the Innovation designation said that the nine acre site of the school was a big inspiration. “We thought the kids would be very interested in plants and that would be a great benefit. We see the children are so proud of their very concrete achievements, and their pride is a validation of the program.”

On the day I visited several of the raised garden beds were nearly finished and ready for the final harvest. Others already showed a sturdy growth of winter rye, a cover crop that will be tilled under in the spring to fertilize the soil and add organic matter.

My neighbor, and teacher at Four Corners, Kate Bailey told me the kids love the gardens, and the harvest. She has her own reasons for loving the gardens. “It is very easy to integrate the gardens, and cooking the produce, into the curriculum. When we planted the rye we talked about grains. When we cook, and we’ve made a lot of muffins with our harvest, we need many skills. To cook you need to read, follow directions, and of course handle lots of fractions,” she said.

For the Harvest Sampler Bailey said each grade made dishes with their own vegetable. She had to explain that the kindergarteners had been studying apples in particular so they made apple recipes. The school also has a dehydrator and making dried apple rings has been very popular

The first graders have been studying tomatoes. Lots of salsa has been made.

The second graders have been studying carrots which leads to carrot salads, muffins and cakes.

The third graders have been studying potatoes. Potato chips!

Bailey explained that volunteers from Just Roots, the GreenfieldCommunityGarden who helped set up the garden in the beginning, have been coming in every week to talk about Healthy Snacks.

In fact the desire to teach children the importance of a healthy diet was one of LaBreck’s goals. “Children who work in the garden, and grow their own vegetables are more willing to try new foods,” she said.

Teacher Anne Naughton stopped potting up plants long enough to tell me how excited she is about working with children in the garden. “The kids love the gardens, and they love the butterflies, and all the insects. They are so curious and interested. Their curiosity leads us into our lessons. We follow life cycles of plants and insects, and seasonal cycles. The first scientific skill is careful observation,” she said.

Suzanne Sullivan, the school principal, said the whole nine acres are used for instruction. The vegetable beds are producing, as is the strawberry bed, apple and pear trees have been planted, and pollinator plants help provide the insects needed for study. There is even a nature trail created by an Eagle Scout Patrick Crowningshield in 2011. “The goal is to foster an environmental awareness in the children, even beyond the gardens, she said

“The teachers have been very collaborative,” Sullivan said. “The students have been responsive and are so engaged.  We do focus on very hands-on learning.”

At Friday night’s Harvest Sampler, held in the school yard near the gardens, it was clear that there is great support for the program. A huge turnout of parents arrived bearing their own contributions to the Sampler, more apple, tomato, carrot, and potato dishes. Who imagined learning could be so delicious?

The Massachusetts School Report Card shows students the DiscoverySchool at Four Corners have high levels of proficiency or better English Language Arts and Mathematics. It’s clear the teachers at the DiscoverySchool at Four Corners all get high marls themselves.


The 2015 UMass Extension Garden Calendar is now available. This excellent, and beautiful, calendar contains excellent information about plants and garden chores throughout the year.  To order send $12 payable to UMass, to Garden Calendar, c/o Five Maples, 78 River Road South, Putney, VT 05346. Add $3.50 for the first calendar and $2.00 for each additional calendar. Think of all the gardeners in your life you could make happy.

UMass Extension Garden Calendar 2015

UMass Extension Garden Calendar 2015

Beetween the Rows   October 25, 2014

Cabbage, Cauliflower, Other Crucifers and Cutworms

Damage caused by cutworms

Damage caused by cutworms

Cabbage, caulifower and other crucifers seem to attract cutworms. There are thousands of varieties of cutworms that can overwinter in the garden for two years before metamorphizing into a moth. They are tiny, hard to see and often live just below the surface of the soil where they are invisible until you walk out in the morning to see that your cabbage seedlings are either wilting (because they are not yet thoroughly cut through) or lying  in a wilted pile with their cut stems clearly exposed.

There are a number of ways to prevent cutworm damage. The first way I ever heard of was to put a collar as a barrier around each seedling of cardboard, tinfoil or other material  that went into as well as above the soil. Wood ashes spread around each plant is another kind of barrier, as are cornmeal, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells, or diatomaceous earth. All of these, one way or another will kill the cutworms. I was fascinated to learn that cutworms love cornmeal, but can’t digest it, and kill themselves by gorging.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac  and Mother Earth News have more complete information about cutworms and the variety of ways they can be controlled including by importing tachinid flies or trichogramma wasps. Don’t forget to treasure such natural predators as toads, moles and birds.

Companion Planting – Folk Wisdom or Science?

Companion Planting Chart

When I first learned about companion planting I thought it was a bit of simple folk wisdom. Plant your peas and carrots together, but keep them away from dill. Plant marigolds near the tomatoes, and soybeans with anything. This information, which is available in lists in books and on the Internet, has been my guide every spring when I rotate the vegetables around in my garden. Of course, in my small rotating vegetable garden I am also practicing the most basic element of companion planting which is polycropping, not having so many of one type of plant close together, making it easy for pests to find them, or for disease to spread.

However, over the years I have come to understand that companion plants help each other in a number of ways, starting with providing nitrogen or other chemicals to the soil that one way or another benefit another plant. For example, the carrot growing underground exudes nutrients into the soil, as do other roots, but the carrot’s exudations particularly benefit the growth of peas. This was something I generally understood to be the basis of companion planting.

I knew the ancient three sisters planting of corn, beans and squash was another example of companion planting, but I didn’t take in that the three sister system expresses three kinds of companionate activity. We all know that the beans help supply nitrogen to the corn and squash. In addition, the corn is providing support for the beans in a companionable way, and the squash is keeping down weed growth while helping conserve water.

Clearly there are a variety of ways that plants help each other. Some companions help by making it difficult for pests to locate the target, like your cabbage. Pests locate their target by chemical/fragrance cues, or visually. Polycropping makes it difficult to locate a target visually. Planting flowers like marigolds and nasturtiums, and herbs or aromatic plants like those in the onion family repel pests by filling the air with odors unpleasant to the pest. This aspect of companion planting makes a good case for keeping a number of herbs like borage, basil, and hyssop in the vegetable garden, in addition to in a pretty herb garden close to the house where they are handy to the kitchen.

Trap or catch cropping is another aspect of companion planting. Flea beetles can be a problem for tomatoes and eggplant, as well as for the cabbage family. As much as flea beetles like these crops they like mustard even more. Once you get the flea beetles munching away on the mustard which is planted a distance away from the targets, the trick is to then destroy the mustard and the beetles together. The books haven’t explained to me exactly how to do this without sending the flea beetles fleeing, but I am continuing my researches.

You can also plant flowers in the vegetable garden that will attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and beneficial wasps. Some of the best annuals are bachelor buttons, sweet alyssum, lobelia, scabiosa, and dahlias.

Yet another way of using companion plants is by using accumulator plants like comfrey, coltsfoot, yarrow (achillea), and even dandelions as part of your fertilization scheme. Accumulator plants are those whose roots collect various nutrients in the soil and carry those nutrients into the plant’s foliage. Achillea or yarrow is a common, easy care flower in the perennial garden. It also accumulates notable amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) in its foliage. Yarrow is a little living sack of NPK fertilizer, with the three major nutrients required for plant growth. It is not as strong as 5-10-5 fertilizer, but still. Make sure you put these plants in your compost pile at the end of the season, or dry them, crush the foliage and then mix that material into the soil.

Dandelions also have that NPK accumulation as well as amounts of trace elements like calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and silicon. Comfrey accumulates nitrogen and potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium and boron. Although fertile soil contains minute amounts of trace elements they are all vital to healthy plant development.

While I have been concentrating on those plants that benefit each other, one way or another, the companion planting system also notes that certain plants have enemies. Onions are good companions for beets, strawberries, tomatoes, members of the cabbage family and lettuce, but should be kept away from peas and beans.

According to Louise Riotte, author of the classic Carrots Love Tomatoes, fennel should not be planted near almost anything. On the other hand, if it is planted near cilantro, the fennel will not set seed.

There are many mysteries in the garden. Some of those mysteries are becoming understood as research continues. Experiments are difficult in the field because there are so many variables including what effect the wind is having on the garden on any given day.

I do rotate my crops and I do pay attention to plant companions and enemies, but I also know that one of the surest ways to have healthy strong plants is to have healthy soil rich in organic matter. Feeding the soil with compost and organic fertilizers like greensand, and rock phosphate if it is needed is the most dependable way of insuring a healthy garden.###

Between the Rows   March 22, 2014

Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert courtesy Jennifer Schatten

When I began reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, the famous author of the autobiographical Eat, Pray, Love, I expected a story that would involve  herbal medicine. Instead I got an nineteenth century story that included a highly profitable pharmaceutical business, a passionate botanizing heroine, desire, travels around the world, a charismatic man named Tomorrow Morning and a struggle between science and religion.

Like many gardeners I enjoy novels that include a garden, whether in a mystery, or in some less violent context. The Signature of All Things (Viking) contains many gardens, from Kew Gardens in Britain, the Euclidian garden of Beatrix Whittaker, mother of our heroine Alma, gardens of plants kept alive in the holds of sailing ships, a magical cave in Tahiti and the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. However, these all merely form the backdrop for the struggles, life and loves of the big-boned, red haired brilliant woman and scientist-before-there-was-such-a-thing, Alma Whittaker.

As a girl Alma leads the secluded, but rigorously intellectual, life as the daughter of her very wealthy British father Henry and a practical Dutch mother in their imposing estate near Philadelphia. Hanneke de Groot is the equally practical Dutch housekeeper/nurse. The household changes when Alma is 10 and Prudence suddenly joins the family as her adopted sister. Prudence is beautiful, and Alma is not.

When they are adult Prudence marries their former tutor, a devoted abolitionist, and Retta Snow, the sisters’ best friend, marries George Hawkes, the publisher Alma worked with and secretly and ardently loved.

What is her response? Of course she weeps and grieves. But, over the years she becomes a taxonomist, naming every plant on her father’s estate. One day while cleaning out the estate library she comes across a paper she wrote about the Monotropa hypopitys moss. She realized how little she knew about this moss – or any moss. Her excitement grows as she realizes she has found her life work. “Alma realized she would never learn everything  about mosses – for she could tell already that there was simply too much of the stuff in the world; they were everywhere, and they were profoundly varied. . . . She need not be idle. She need not be unhappy. Perhaps she need not even be lonely.”

And there we have the real subject of the book. Alma’s search for happiness which she finds in challenging and gratifying work. Although she begins publishing  the results of her researches using only a first initial to  identify herself, she is not particularly concerned by the limits women face in the world of work.  On the other hand, she also feels maidenly limits so little, that she is intrepid and barely hesitates before setting out on a dangerous journey to Tahiti.

She even finds a new love, Ambrose Pike. Ambrose is a brilliant, unworldly artist who has painted the exotic orchids of the Amazon and brought them to the publisher George Hawkes. They meet and quickly Ambrose and Alma realize they are soulmates.

“You are interested in creation” said Ambrose “and all its wonderful arrangements”

As for Alma “She felt herself set loose as she spilled forth ideas from her long overbrimming vaults of private thoughts . There is only so long that a person can keep her enthusiasms locked away within her heart before she longs to share it with a fellow soul, and Alma had many decades of thoughts much overdue for sharing.”

There is no happily ever after, at least not of the kind where the not very young couple walk off into the sunset.

Elizabeth Gilbert gives us the heart, questioning mind, and bold spirit of a fascinating woman. Her life is a roller coaster of events and thoughts. The plot twists one way, and turns another as Alma goes from adventure to insight. For me, that is the joy of fiction, the thrill of getting to know the ins and outs of a complex character’s thoughts and emotions.

I have written about many books about gardens and gardeners over the years, but I have never brought a novel to Between the Rows. However, I cannot help myself because I found this book so beautifully and poetically written, and this character so thrilling. Alma’s life many be very different from ours in every respect, but we gardeners can identify with her passion for plants. We understand her excitement as she sees her favorites ever more clearly, her appreciation of their beauty and her passion for learning their secrets. We can even consider the unexpected places our passion has led us to, just as Alma’s studies lead her forward into a new world of radical thought.

I turned every page of this book with almost the same anticipation that I feel when  my garden is coming to life. On spring mornings I want to race out and examine every new leaf and  bud, knowing the garden will supply me with promise and endless surprise. In my reading chair I wanted to see what new surprise awaited Alma – and me. ###

Between the Rows    October 5, 2013


Walking in Our Woods with the Mass Audubon Society


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.

Wolf Tree

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.

Oak seedling

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 or Matt Kamm at

Between the Rows   June 15, 2013

Don’t forget, you still have time to win a free copy of my book, The Roses at the End of the Road. Leave a comment here by midnight Sunday, June 23 and I’ll announce the winner on Monday. You can also  buy copies on sale, or a Kindle edition. All info is here.


W is for Water – and Dr. Betsy

Betsy on her 50th birthday

W 1s for Water, and for Dr. Betsy our fourth child, second daughter, and Queen of Water. That actually isn’t her title, which I don’t remember, but she has been working for the Mass Water Resources  Authority for a number of years, as the scientist on the staff, although she also has administrative duties.  Why is it we parents never understand our children’s jobs anymore?

Anyway just in time for her 50th birthday celebration, she has been given a promotion and will now not only be responsible for clean water quality in Boston and environs, she will be responsible for waste water. In and out, you might say. Congratulations, Betsy.

After reading Who Really Killed Cock Robin by Jean Craighead George when she was in 6th grade she decided she would be an environmentalist. Certainly there is nothing more basic to our environmental health than clean water.  I don’t know when she really became interested in water, but when she was in the Peace Corps in Kenya (1987-1989) she was given the job of helping a mountain village get water into the village. Up to that time women had to collect and carry water from a mile away. At her birthday party her sister asked how she knew how to do things like lay a gravity feed water line and build a huge water tank. She said, “I read a book.”  Music to a librarian mother’s ears.

When she returned to the United States, she went back to Clark University where she earned her PhD in Microbiology. Her dissertation was titled  Microbiological Pretreatment of Industrial Wastewater. One of the other mothers at the graduation ceremony said Betsy’s dissertation was the only one with a title that she could understand. I understood generally, not specifically. I kept asking what she had the microbes do? She said she trained the microbes to eat the hazardous waste in the water. Do I understand how you train a microbe? No. Surely there are no whips and chairs that small.

She then served as a Congressional Fellow for Representative Edward Markey (now trying for Senator) but eventually found her way to the MWRA and I think even Sheryl Sandberg would agree she is leaning in.

All the other women in the family

Of course, Betsy is not the only skilled, talented, energetic, forward thinking woman in the family. We all gathered to help celebrate Betsy’s birthday. We drank a lot of water. Other stuff, too.

To see what else begins w ith W click here.

M is for Marcescence on A to Z Blogger Challenge

Beech Leaves November 3, 2010

M is for Marcescence. Marcescence refers to  the retention  of dead plant parts that are usually shed.  We all know that trees lose their leaves in the fall. Some of us may have noticed that oak trees, and beeches carry their dead leaves will into the fall. And maybe until the new leaf buds give the old leaf a final shove in the spring. Over the past few years I have noticed that there seem to be a lot more beeches in our woodland than there used to be. They are easy to notice in the winter because they still carry so many of their dry brown leaves. They have not been abscissed or torn from their branches. I wrote about beeches and marcescence here.

Diorama of forest progression at Fisher Museum

I was also fortunate enough to meet Dr. John O’Keefe who retired recently from the Harvard Forest (maintained by Harvard University, not located in the town of Harvard) and he told me that it is possible that the reason there are so many new beeches, is because there has been a resurgence in the wild turkey population. Beech nuts are a very nutritious nut and appealing to turkeys. We all know that birds help spread seeds of all kinds of plant. I wrote about my fascinating talk with John O’Keefe here. The Fisher Museum at the Harvard Forest has a magnificent set of dioramas explaining the history of forest progressions here in New England.

Old beech leaf wtih new bud

If you look at a beech branch in the fall you will clearly see the tightly furled leaf bud that will  push the old leaf off in the spring. It is very firm and will feel like a thorn. But it is a leaf bud.

I like knowing the word marcescence. Will you find a way to fit marcescence into your conversation?

To see what else begins with M today click here.


G is for Gardening Projects for Kids on A to Z Challenge

Gardening Projects for Kids by Cohen and Fisher

G is for Garden Projects for Kids: 101 ways to get kids outside, dirty, and having fun by Whitney Cohen and John Fisher of LIfe Lab in Santa Cruz, California.

Surely, my regular readers would not expect me to get through a whole month of posts without including a book or two. And this book from Timber Press is a doozy.  Garden Project for Kids is not only about growing veggies, but about other designing the garden so that there is room for a fairy garden, a swing, birdhouses, a bed where they can just dig. The beautiful photos in this book suggest that it is for the parents of very young children, but it seems to me, that once you get children out into the garden, it will be hard to get them out of the garden as they gr ow. There is always something new to see in the garden, some thing to taste, something to wonder at, and something to turn into a science project at school. Young gardeners will never want for a science project. Have you discovered your Soil Horizons? Geology! Mathematics!

What with people talking about a ‘nature deficit’ among our children, and the prescence of so many screens in our life, parents and friends sometimes wonder who we are going to get kids back into the outdoors. Garden Projects for Kids will inspire and support the parents of young children about all the ways the garden leads to healthy playtimes. Of course, there is just plain playing in the dirt, which can lead to planting in the dirt, which can lead to harvesting and eating good treats, but it can also lead to looking at bugs, looking at all the life to be found in a square foot of ground, how to make birdhouses out of plants you have grown, and how to pound flowers into art. Lots more too.

To see what else begins with G today, click here.


Bringing Nature Home at the Master Gardener’s Spring Symposium

Dr. Douglas Tallamy

Dr. Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, was the keynote speaker at the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Spring Symposium last week. His talk focused on the need for more insects to make our gardens – and the world – healthier and more ecologically balanced. “A mere 1 % [of all insects] interact with humans in negative ways. The other 99 % pollinate plants, return the nutrients tied up in dead plants and animals to the soil, keep populations of insect herbivores in check, aerate and enrich the soil, and as I keep stressing, provide food either directly or indirectly for most other animals,” Tallamy writes in his book and illustrated in his talk.

Bringing Nature Home


His enlightening talk covered a lot of ground, but two ideas made a particular impression on me. The first was the idea of the environmental carrying capacity of our local landscape, and ultimately of the whole earth. The term carrying capacity refers to the amount of resources needed to sustain a certain population. It is easy to understand that a given population of insects, or birds or whatever, will decline when the food they require decreases.

So, what happens when, for example, the emerald ash borer, which is a threat inMassachusettsright now, were to kill all the ash trees? Forty-four insect species rely on the ash tree to survive. No ash trees; no more 44 insect species. And that means reduced food for the creatures who depend on those insects so their populations will decline as well. Insects are the very bottom of the food chain and we usually do not consider how important they are to the wildlife that we enjoy. At least, that is true for me.

Tallamy said many people ask him why insects can’t eat some other tree or plant? He explains that over thousands of years plants and insects have evolved together. The insects’ digestive systems have adapted/evolved to digest the particular chemicals in a plant’s foliage. They cannot immediately adapt to a new plant. That is one of the reasons that invasive plants can take over. The food web of insects, birds and wildlife cannot keep the invading plants in check.

The second idea Tallamy put forth is that not all native plants are equal. Some plants support many more species of wildlife than others. This was an eye opener for me. I have been talking about the benefits of native plants for a long time, but this idea never occurred to me. As you might expect, trees are the most productive in having what it takes to support many insects and birds. Trees are big. But even here, some trees are more productive than others. In his book, and on his website,, Tallamy lists the 22 of the best woody plants beginning with oaks that support 534 species, down to the chestnut which supports 125 species. Black cherries, maples and willows are also highly productive.

If we don’t have the room to plant an oak or two, we might be able to fit in a crabapple or some blueberries. We can plant asters, morning glories and lupines in our ornamental gardens. We can not only marvel at and admire the lupine meadows that some people in our area have cultivated, we can thank them for supporting 33 species of wildlife.

Those lupine meadows also remind up that birds and other pollinators need clumps of productive native plants. Their eyesight is not always good so they need big clumps of a useful plant to catch their attention. Tallamy pointed out that 80% of our food crops are pollinated by animals. It is clear that supporting that wildlife is very important in our area where there is a growing number of farms.

Lately I have been talking about the benefits of reducing the size of our lawns. Tallamy said that 92% of landscape-able land is lawn, lawn which is a monoculture that does not support wildlife. He suggested that if we reduced the amount of lawn in theUnited Statesby half we would have 20 million acres that could be put to native trees and other native plants. This would certainly increase the carrying capacity of our neighborhoods and our nation.

Suburban yards can play an enormous part in restoring the health of our ecosystem. A whole neighborhood that includes a substantial number of native trees, shrubs and other plants can make a significant impact.

I am so grateful to the Western Massachusetts Gardeners for bringing us this excellent program that included Ellen Sousa of Spencer and the author of The Green Garden, as well as workshops on making compost, hypertufa containers and bentwood trellises that not only make our gardens healthful and productive, but beautiful as well.

Their Spring Symposium is their big educational effort of the year, and there are two more Symposia coming up on April 6 in Holyokeand April 13 in Lenox. Check their website for complete details. However, they hold soil testing events, phone and email hotlines where you can get your questions answered, and lots of question answers right on the website. They even have a speakers bureau that can send a speaker to your club, or class, or other organization. If this is of interest to you send an email to for more information.

Now I am wondering how many of us will find a place to plant an oak. Or a crabapple.

Between  the Rows –  March 23, 2013