Of Humane Gardening

Another week, another nor’easter–though today’s may be a bust. In a way, I’m done with snow for the season. It is now spring after all. Yet, the slower pace and minimal effort outside (apart from shoveling snow, breaking up ice, and cutting up and carrying off fallen branches) still suit me. Viewing the world from the window near my desk is not the most productive activity, but it is a feast for the eyes: turkeys browsing, the return of migrating birds, observing why the birdseed disappears in a flash—deer.

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Mystery of the missing bird food solved

This winter was the perfect time to read The Humane Gardener by Nancy Lawson. Ms. Lawson is the author of the “Humane Backyard” column published by the Humane Society of the United States. In her recent book, she advocates a more hands-off, informed and compassionate approach to habitat. The prospect of working less outside, encouraging growth of our natural surroundings, and creating a landscape that is more compatible with wildlife is immensely appealing as I brace myself for spring clean-up.

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Turkeys were wiped out from Connecticut in the 1800s and reintroduced in the 1970s.

In addition to profiling a number of gardeners who are models for developing true natural refuges, The Humane Gardener describes the many ways some of us thoughtlessly harm plant and animal life. We spray tens of millions of pounds of chemicals to support the number one irrigated crop, turfgrass, and apply insecticides indiscriminately. We plant species known to invade habitat, thereby displacing food and shelter for wildlife. We assiduously weed what we perceive as undesirable vegetation and remove tree stumps and seed heads without considering how they may provide shade or nourishment. We over fertilize and over water. We overreact to the presence of uninvited wildlife, leaving it to the pest industry to do our dirty work—setting traps or worse, relocating animals and subjecting them to a different death sentence, competing for resources, struggling against predators, and separating adults from their offspring.

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If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning of hightailing, this is it.

There is apparently no single prescription for creating a habitat for wildlife and Ms. Lawson states that in her own garden, she still makes mistakes “usually when I listen to a so-called expert.” The book describes a number of humane strategies worth trying. She suggests we plant indigenous species, which are more likely to thrive with less effort and fewer resources. Instead of bark mulch, use native ground covers. Learn about so-called weeds and the life they support (such as migratory birds, butterflies, bees and benign insects) and think before eradicating.

Instead of soaking vegetation with insecticides, herbicides or pesticides, explore the impact and whether there are alternatives. Some wildlife provides natural insect and pest control—dragonflies consume mosquitoes, wasps are both predators and parasitoids (their larvae are parasites consuming other insects), opossum eat ticks, skunks eat grubs, hawks eat rodents. When addressing uninvited wildlife, attend to the issue that may be the real problem: a hole in the roof, accessible shed or an open vent. Add hardware cloth to vents and wire caps to chimneys, install wire mesh under sheds, and seal holes in the foundation and at roofline intersections to keep wildlife out of living space and enclosures. Use caution when shopping for repellants. According to Ms Lawson, predator urine, which some use to divert deer, is collected from coyotes raised in wire cages on fur farms. Instead, adopt a dog. (In a surprising passage, she mentions that she uses her husband for pee patrol—a practice I won’t endorse!)

Finally, encourage life in decay. Some dead and dying trees serve as secondary cavity nests for birds. Leaves left to blanket gardens add structure and nutrients as they decompose. Don’t deadhead all your plants, but leave some flowers until spring.

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Male cardinal calling from one of the highest points in an ash tree.

So what does this mean for me?

  • We have several stately ash trees bordering our property. I enjoy their shade in summer, their sculptural form in winter, and the way the red-tailed hawk perches at the highest point to keep watch and the cardinal vocalizes to alert other birds I am near. But, the Emerald Ash Borer, native to northeastern Asia, has in a short time become a scourge to our native ash (Fraxinus) trees. It has reportedly infested approximately 100 million in the United States and was first detected in Connecticut in 2012. It can kill a tree in 3-5 years and in a few years, it is expected that every ash tree in this area will be affected. Though government agencies are investigating various options to combat it, a handful of our trees are beyond saving, despite an arborist visiting every year. Regrettably, we’ve arranged to take down the affected trees in the near future. We would have preferred they remain, but that’s not an option. I hope to replace with native shade trees, but it will take decades before they will be as tall as those we must take down.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADamage from the Emerald Ash Borer
  • Hemlocks (Tsuga), beautiful evergreens native to moist woods and stream banks, are subject to infestation by wooly adelgids, aphid-like insects that were introduced accidentally from eastern Asia.  Several years ago I planted a number along the property border as a screen and for the past several years, I’ve had them sprayed with horticultural oil in spring and fall, which I was told was the appropriate preventative and treatment by our arborist. With our prolonged winter and  bird feeders, I observed that many birds seem to take refuge in them, particularly with recent heavy snow, which crushed forsythia and other deciduous shrubs that previously might have sheltered them. I called our local agricultural experiment station and asked about the safety of spraying and was told that if we sprayed, it should be only in October, not twice a year. In addition, before we spray, we should look for evidence of infestation or activity (white wooly masses on the underside of branches). We are not spraying now and will evaluate the need in fall.
  • In theory, I would like a deer fence. Though beautiful creatures, deer are ravenous and seemingly indiscriminate eaters and also carry deer ticks (though so, too, do other mammals (such as field mice) and birds. But, a deer fence can create an obstacle for other wildlife such as rabbits fleeing predators and I prefer an unobstructed view. We’ll continue to spray our perennials and shrubs with a foul-smelling, non-toxic formulation that repels deer and doesn’t harm beneficial insects, birds or animals. For now, I will tolerate deer eating my birdseed if they leave my rhododendron alone.
  • In the next few weeks (after the snow is gone for good), I’ll examine the foundation to make sure there are no gaps that would invite field mice and I’ll rake up all the sunflower seed shells. I’ll take down the birdfeeder until next winter to discourage foraging by uninvited mammals.
  • I will hope that the pokeweed we ignorantly cut down last year will regrow. Pokeweed, an herbaceous perennial that is tree-like with purple berries, is often regarded as a nuisance, but is actually a power food for birds along with Virginia creeper, blueberry, serviceberry, dogwood and viburnums.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThough pokeweed may not get its due respect in the wild, last year it had a prominent spot in a bed at the Smith College Botanic Garden.
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9 Comments Add yours

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Oh goodness. I am a garden columnist, but some of my readers prefer my brief articles about the dysfunctional wildlife in my gardens. I will not post links here because there are a few of them. I suppose they are funny. One is about a deer named Timmy. Another is about the skunk names Pepe. Oh, I can not remember others. I will eventually write about the birds that moved into my house. There were various, and in various situations. Long story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, I look forward to reading about the birds. Will have to check out the posts on Timmy and Pepe! I never thought to name our visitors!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thegsandwich says:

    Great post, though I don’t like pokeweed at all. I am leaving my feeders out. I love my birds, and the robins have just begun showing up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I didn’t think I liked it either until I read that it feeds bluebirds! Lesson learned. You didn’t tell me about the extra parenthesis. I guess you’re not my guardian angel 👼.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. thegsandwich says:

        I noticed it, but thought it was correct. I never pretended to be an angel. Reminds me of Greg Allmann’s song, “I’m No Angel.”

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Also, I’m not leaving my bird feeder out because I was told a bear can smell them from a mile away. Even the humane gardener has her limits.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. thegsandwich says:

        By the way, I’m all about Humane Gardening. That will be the excuse I use for my unkempt yard.

        Liked by 1 person

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