All this talk about early spring wildlife gardens and bluebirds nesting in Florida is so encouraging to those of us in the white north, where summer wildlife gardens exist only in our minds and dreams, so far…much of New England is still buried in snow!
But knowing that ruby-throat hummingbirds have arrived on the Gulf Coast to rest up before heading north, and hearing that male red-winged blackbirds are back in Massachusetts, carving out breeding territories, makes me so happy, knowing that soon it will be our turn here in New England. But some of us New England gardeners haven’t been idle – I know that seed catalogs are strewn across coffee tables everywhere, and small bundles of packets are arriving in mailboxes by the day. I for one, have even had seeds of native plants “stratifying” outdoors in the snow since late January:
These are the seeds of my newest native plant introductions to our small “habitat farm” in central Massachusetts. Many of our northeast native plants germinate most quickly when exposed to multiple cycles of moisture, freezing and thawing (cold stratification), and a winter spent buried in snow in the confines of a mini-greenhouse is a great way to grow sturdy, hardy seedlings with a minimum of effort. Winter sowing also happens to be GREAT therapy for gardening-starved northern plant addicts in February and March. Try it! For the cost of a bag of a few packets of seeds, a bag of potting soil plus recycled household containers with drainage and ventilation holes added, you can grow some of the more unusual plants, including rare natives, that are generally only available from seed.
Each year I choose a few more plants to add to our gardens, always selected because they provide some benefits to birds, pollinators and other small but essential forms of wildlife. Here’s what I am trying out this year:
Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea ) a native member of the carrot family, so it’s almost guaranteed to host black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, who feed only on carrot relatives such as dill, parsley and coriander:
Spotted beebalm/Horsemint (Monarda punctata) – this is a close relative of bee balm, (M. didyma) which hummingbird gardeners know is a magnet for ruby-throats and long-tongued bumble bees. I mean really, who could resist a plant that looks like this?
Nodding onion (Allium cernuum) - closely related to the non-native ornamental chives and food onions, this is a short native onion named for its nodding flower heads. I’ll be growing these in a rock garden area where I can admire their pretty buds as they unfurl in early summer:
Also on the seed sowing deck are oodles of other plants, including ornamental butterfly and hummingbird plants such as salvia and zinnia “Profusion” (my favorite zinnia, staying short and feeding loads of butterflies and pollinators in our patio containers), as well as the vegetables that won’t be started until April.
So although here in New England, nesting birds and a garden buzzing with hummers are still months away, the waves of spring are beginning to move north!! Next week is the Boston Flower and Garden show, make the trip to Boston and come home with some inspiration and maybe some plants too. Pick up some seeds while you’re there and try winter-sowing some seeds outdoors in mini-greenhouses. You might be starting a new February gardening tradition in your house! And please tell us, what new plants are you planning to introduce to your habitat garden this year? It’s time to get excited about 2011 gardens!
Ellen Sousa is a garden coach, teacher and writer living on a small Massachusetts horse farm certified as a National Wildlife Federation backyard habitat and a Monarch Waystation. Her book “The New England Natural Habitat Gardener” will be available this summer from Bunker Hill Press. Visit her website and New England blog at THBFarm.com
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