Ellen Sousa’s Green Garden

  • Post published:02/18/2012
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Ellen Sousa now lives in Spencer on a small farm with animals, veggies, and many native plants that have earned it certification as a Wildlife Habitat and Monarch Waystation. But it was not always so.

As a child Sousa tramped the woods with her father and read Who Really Killed Cock Robin, an environmental mystery by Jean Craighead George. My daughter Betsy also read this book in sixth grade and she determined at that moment to become an environmentalist. Betsy now has a PhD and works as a scientist for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

It took Sousa a little longer to find her passion in the natural world, although the seeds had been planted. About ten years ago Sousa and her husband Robert were living in a house on a suburban corner lot on a busy road. To create some privacy she began planting shrubs and flower beds. She was lucky in her planting choices because “ . . . almost immediately had hummingbirds, butterflies and birds come in to visit. When we had a nesting chipping sparrow AND mockingbird in our shrubbery in one year, I became fascinated and started learning all I could about what was drawing them in,” she said.

She never used pesticides while improving her soil and quickly noticed how well her plants grew and that she was not only attracting birds, but beneficial insects that came to feed on plant pests. “I was hooked,” she said.

When she moved to Turkey Hill Brook Farm and began a new career as a writer, she continued doing the gardening research she had begun “as an antidote to my stressful corporate job, and finally realized that the book that I was looking for (about “beneficial” gardening in New England) did not exist,” she said. That corporate job is now just a memory. For the past few years she has been writing, working as a garden coach to new gardeners, and gardeners who want their gardens to be ‘green’ in every respect. Ellen’s book, The Green Garden: A New England Guide to Planning, Planting, and Maintaining the Eco-Friendly Habitat Garden, was published last fall by Bunker Hill Publishing. This is the book she wished she had found to help her along her path earlier on.

In The Green Garden Sousa explains the many ways we can create habitat that will support the web of life. “By creating habitat in your backyard, you can help repair the damage being done to our web of life and start to offset the damage already done. You can make a difference.”

The chapters on planning, rethinking the lawn, and adding water to your backyard show that you can make a difference even if you live on a suburban street. Sousa lists plants for shade, and sun. She reminds you of vines that can climb and give your garden an extra dimension. Native trees and shrubs can add habitat for wildlife. A browse through the final section of the book, Best Plants for New England Gardens, will show that a garden rich in native plants, one that welcomes birds, butterflies and beneficial insects can be as beautiful a garden as anyone could imagine.
Our End of the Road Farm is no longer a real farm, but we do have a mixed woodland that attracts many kinds of birds, even if I have never learned to identify many of them. Our open fields feed and protect ruffed grouse, and feed many other birds and butterflies. In the cultivated spaces I have planted bee balm, yarrow, asters, echinacea, Queen of the Prairie, garden phlox, and high bush cranberry. I planted a small group of blueberries just for the birds, while the old apple trees also provide food and shelter for wildlife. Our pond, built by former owners as a fire pond, is full of frogs and other reptiles, waterbugs and dragonflies. Of course it also attracts deer, and right now a beaver family has built a lodge on the bank. This is unusual, but not unheard of.

Last spring we planted the beginnings of a windbreak to the northwest of our house. We transplanted some white pines from our woods, and bought some small red cedar, balsam and American red pine seedlings which we knew would take time to provide the wind protection we sought. In the meantime these native trees will supply shelter for the birds.

On the leeward side of the windbreak we planted a shadblow and five each of elderberry and winterberry. We also splurged on a native pagoda dogwood from Nasami Farm. These small trees were chosen to supply us with a pretty view in the spring as well as food for the birds in the summer and fall.

Because of last summer’s rains I know some of these small trees did not even survive the season. I can tell you the dogwood quickly attracted deer who made a good snack of the young foliage, but it appeared to make a good recovery.

Sousa has done all the research, and made lists of plants appropriate to every situation from dry sun, to damp shade and bog so that everyone who wants to welcome birdsong and butterflies, those flowers of the air, to their garden, large or small, will know how to begin and how to carry on.

I’d love to hear from readers about the plants they have found most welcoming to wildlife. Email me at commonweeder@gmail.com and I’ll share your experiences in a column soon.

Between the Rows  February 11, 2012

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