Category Archives: Gardening

Common Milkweed © Laura Ferraguto

Take 5: Native Plants that Pollinators Love

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the biodiversity of our entire ecosystem depends on pollinators. Animals like birds, bees, bats, butterflies, moths, and other insects feed on plants, and in doing so, help 80% of the world’s plant species reproduce.

Over the last few decades, pollinator populations have declined dramatically due to climate change, pesticide exposure, and loss of habitat and food sources. Fortunately, we can help. One major way to make a positive impact on pollinators—and beautify an outdoor space—is to plant a native pollinator garden.

Even small outdoor spaces can provide quality habitat and help us fight biodiversity loss. A pollinator garden can range from a decorative planter with native flowers to small flowerbeds or larger vegetable gardens interspersed with flowers. 

There are several ways you can learn more and start making a difference in your backyard or neighborhood:

Enjoy these five photos of pollinator-friendly native plants and let us know in the comments how you plan to support pollinators this year!

Joe Pye Weed by Martha Gach
Joe Pye Weed by Martha Gach
Buttonbush © Cristina Hartshorn
Buttonbush © Cristina Hartshorn
Cardinal Flower © Ed Anzures
Cardinal Flower © Ed Anzures
Common Milkweed © Laura Ferraguto
Common Milkweed © Laura Ferraguto
Cranberry Bush Viburnum © Laura Bryan
Cranberry Bush Viburnum © Laura Bryan

EDIT: An earlier version of this post included a photo of Echinacea purpurea (coneflower). While great for pollinators and native to the Midwest United States, it is not native to New England.

Grass at Drumlin

Switching to Electric Landscape Equipment

Imagine a summer without the growl of gasoline-powered motors, the whine of weed whackers, and the fumes of spent gasoline. Mass Audubon is taking steps to make this a reality by replacing gasoline-powered landscaping equipment with electric versions.

Grass at Drumlin

The move is part of a larger Mass Audubon strategy to green the grid by reducing fossil fuel use and adding more renewable electricity. Electric lawn equipment is one way we can make Massachusetts more pleasant while getting our yard work done and fighting climate change.

Benefits of Going Electric

1. Better Quality

In the past, electric landscape equipment was either more expensive to own or less practical than gas-powered equipment, but with improved battery technology and better designs, electric models are now coveted as top-of-the-line.

2. Fewer Moving Parts

This means fewer points of friction in the motor, require few or no fluids, no oil changes, and as such are generally more reliable than gas-powered models.

3. Safer

Electric options tend to have better safety features and don’t require storing gasoline nearby, eliminating a potential fire hazard.

4. Quieter

An electric push mower or weed whacker is about as loud as a hair dryer. Keeping the noise down is good for our neighbors and for nearby wildlife.

As electric equipment technology continues to improve, it will be able to replace more gas-powered equipment in more situations for more functions. We’re excited to make the transition to electric, and it’s something homeowners and other organizations can do as well.

Be a Garden Hero: Grow Sustainably

Gardeners are well-suited to help fight climate change, but sustainable gardening requires putting aside some traditional practices that work against nature.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to create a beautiful, natural, and functional landscapes that benefit the environment and our senses. Gardening sustainably also reduces the cost and labor required.

Purple Coneflower is a great climate-friendly addition to your garden.

Lawns are a Yawn

Over the country, our lawns add up to about 31 million acres, an area slightly larger than Mississippi. The cost of all that manicured grass is huge. According to the NRDC, Americans consume 3 trillion gallons just to water our residential lawns (about half the volume of Lake Champlain), 200 million gallons of gas to power our lawn equipment, and 70 million pounds of pesticides every year. On top of the ecological burden, lawns deprive birds and other wildlife of useful habitat and food, creating areas with little environmental value.

Instead of keeping large, open lawns, turn your yard into miniature sanctuaries for birds and pollinators.  For species feeling other stresses from climate change or loss of habitat, having a backyard stop to rest and refuel can support them when they need it most.

Plant Native Species

Choose native plants whenever possible. They help grow far more insects and provide better resources for birds and pollinators. Since native plants are adapted to a New England climate, they’ll also require less protection and effort to maintain. In Massachusetts, butterfly bushes and purple coneflowers are a couple excellent choices among many. Find some great native options.

Avoid Nitrogen Fertilizer

Producing and transporting fertilizers that include urea and ammonium nitrate, which are common in inexpensive home lawn care fertilizers, requires a lot of energy. Four to six pounds of carbon are emitted for every pound produced, so even modest use increases a garden’s carbon footprint. Overusing fertilizers (a common mistake) releases nitrous oxide, which has 300 hundred times the warming potential of carbon dioxide and makes a garden’s carbon footprint excessive.

With stronger, more frequent storms, we’re also seeing more nitrogen-loaded runoff in waterways. The buildup contributes to harmful algae blooms and toxic dead zones. Avoiding the use of such fertilizers helps offset the impact of stronger storms due to climate change.

Replace nitrogen fertilizers with manure or locally-produced compost sparingly and strategically.

Plant Trees

Trees or other woody plants help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so plant as much of your property with trees and rigid shrubs as possible.

Placing trees, shrubs, and vines to block winter winds and create summer shade can reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool your home. Red Oaks, Red Maples, and Dogwoods are good native choices that should remain resilient to changing climate conditions over the next few decades.

Save the Rain

Gardens filled with native plants will generally thrive with normal amounts of rainwater, saving the time, energy, and water of irrigation. When you need more than what the weather is providing, or at different times, collect and store water with rain barrels, or sculpt your land to drain to areas where you want the water to go slowly and effectively, using what you receive as efficiently as possible.

Grow Your Own Food

Growing fruits and vegetables at home reduces your carbon footprint. It’s the ideal way to “eat local.” It eliminates the fuel needed to transport, store, and process food elsewhere. Grow plants from seed and make your food garden as diverse as possible, while mixing perennials with annuals. Berries are a great perennial option, as is rhubarb. Asparagus, grown commercially actually has a high carbon footprint, so growing your own can be a big help. Kale and garlic are good to grow as annuals.

Trade in Gas-powered Equipment

Reduce usage of gas-powered equipment like mowers, weed whackers, and leaf blowers as much as possible. Your neighbors will love you for it and you’ll be keeping carbon out of the air. When you can, use manual equipment: rakes, reel mowers, and shears. When necessary, use electrical equipment.

Recommendations For Planting Have Changed

If you’re looking to avoid freeze damage in your garden, the recommendations for what you should plant have changed over the last 25 years.

Plant hardiness zones are recommendations for planting based on the risk of extreme cold in a given region. Some plants and trees are more resilient to cold snaps than others, and different plant types are categorized by different zones. Warmer zones, for plants less hardy to deep freezes, are typically found farther south, as you’d expect. Zones prone to harsh cold snaps are typically found farther north.

As USDA and Arbor Day Foundation revisited the data over time, they found the risk of extreme cold snaps had lessened across much of the country. From 1990 through 2015, as you can see in the following images, the recommended zones shifted noticeably northward. That means planting recommendations have changed. Plant types best suited for areas farther south in the past may now be viable farther north.

Plant Hardiness Zones, 1990 and 2015. Images from USDA and Arbor Day Foundation.

New England Peanuts?

At Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, our staff had some fun with this last season. They were able to grow cotton and peanuts, crops typically found much farther south. Others pointed out that they’ve been planting their own gardens earlier and earlier over the years. Many noted that they start their tomatoes 2 weeks earlier than they once did.

Climate Connection

Is the shift in plant hardiness zones evidence of climate change? Probably. It fits with other temperature trends we’re seeing. Our growing season is longer than it used to be. Our winters are shorter. Overnight low temperatures have warmed. It’s also consistent with what climate models tell us will happen. Warming temperatures tilt the scales away from extreme cold snaps and toward record heat waves, even though those cold snaps still occur.

Of course, we should temper our expectations. This is just one piece of evidence among many other pieces of evidence. The Northeast still faces the risk deep freeze in the late winter and early spring. The risk is just less than it used to be. It’s entirely possible next year could be brutally cold even as our climate warms, and local factors are still critical.

The More You Know

According to Drumlin Farm’s Crops Manager, Matt Celona, knowing your micro-climate is important. “Lincoln is in a frost pocket and is more like Southern New Hampshire than surrounding towns,” he said. “We still expect frost in the last week of September or first week of October, and we don’t consider ourselves out of frost danger until the first week of June. So while temperatures are warmer in general, the killing frosts do still occur as they did in the old hardiness zone windows. Erratic swings in temperature are, for now, making it harder, not easier, to farm in Lincoln.”

As always, consider plant hardiness zones a guide, another small piece of advice when making decisions about the unique circumstances of your own growing. Over time, changing zones can help us think about what we might grow instead of what we’ve been growing. They may also help us adjust the timing of our planting to suit a changing growing season. You can learn more about plant hardiness zones here and here.

Six Native Plants to Grow for Pollinators

One major way to help pollinators thrive—and beautify an outdoor space—is to plant a native pollinator garden. Here are six native plants to grow for pollinators.

Beware of Backyard Invaders

On quick glance, it may seem that your garden beds are thriving: the plants are lush, green, and plentiful. But take a closer look and you may discover that your yard has been overtaken with non-native invasive species.

Invasive plants are one of the greatest threats to the nature of Massachusetts because they out-compete, displace, or kill native species. These non-native species thrive and proliferate here.

While many were introduced innocently years ago, it’s our job to help eradicate them. The first step: knowing what to look for. Here are four common backyard invasives..

Common Backyard Invasive Plants

Black Swallow-wort Cynanchum louiseae


A perennial twining vine, black swallow-wort has opposite, deep-green, glossy leaves and small deep mahogany flowers. It’s an aggressive grower, spreading by seed.

Not only is it a threat to native plants, black swallow-wort also causes trouble for the monarch butterfly. Monarchs can only safely lay eggs on milkweed. Black swallow-wort is in the same family, but is toxic to monarchs. If a monarch lays her egg on a black swallow-wort leaf, the forthcoming caterpillar will die.

Garlic Mustard Alliaria petiolata

Brought over by the settlers in the 1800s, this aggressive biennial is taking over yards and forest floors. Its most distinct features are its green heart-shaped leaves with deep veins and tiny four-petaled white flowers. Note that the flowers don’t appear during the plant’s first year. You can also employ the smell test: when crushed it gives off a garlicky smell.

The dainty white flower can produce thousands of seeds that cover large areas in just one season. Even after you remove the plant from your yard, its seeds can hang out in the soil for five years or more. Also aiding the spread of this aggressive and sticky species: cars, stormwater runoff, and even people’s sneakers!

And, like black swallow-wort, it can be toxic to some insects. Some types of butterfly eggs laid on its leaves will fail to hatch.

Japanese Barberry Berberis thunbergii


This small thorny shrub is most identifiable by downward-facing clusters of yellow flowers that turn into red oval-shaped berries by late July. Birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds throughout the woodlands. An aggressive grower, Japanese barberry outperforms native plants, taking over areas. There are both purple leaf (as shown) and green leaf cultivars.

Bishop’s Weed Aegopodium podagraria

Goutweed leaves

Bishop’s weed, also known as Goutweed, is a creeping perennial in the carrot family. It was once used as a ground cover. The leaves are sometimes variegated, green and white, sometimes solid green, and they have many lobes or parts. The flowers are white and lacy like Queen Ann’s Lace, parsley, or carrots when they go to seed.

Getting Rid of Invasives

The first line of action is to stop them from going to seed. If they have already flowered, cut the flowers off. If you can, pull them up or dig them up.

Never put the flowers or plants in the compost. Instead, bag up the offending invasive plants and place them in the trash.

Learn more about these invasives and more in our Online Invasive Plant Guide.

The Leaf-Eating, Tree-Damaging, Little Green Caterpillar

Milan Zubrik, Forest Research Institute - Slovakia,

Winter Moth, Milan Zubrik, Forest Research Institute – Slovakia,

Remember the little pale green caterpillar that ate through your trees and roses last year? Well, it’s back!

The caterpillar stage of the invasive winter moth (Operophtera brumato) eats young, tender leaves, sometimes before the leaves even get a chance to emerge from the bud.

The winter moth caterpillar is just one of hundreds of species of tiny green caterpillars, or inchworms, found in North America. Most are native and ecologically helpful, even though some, like the winter moth, can be a nuisance.

Identifying Winter Moth Caterpillars

It’s easy to tell winter moths apart from beneficial inchworms. The best way is by looking at the back end of an inchworm: If it has only two pairs of legs on its back end, it’s probably a winter moth. More than two pairs of legs on its back end means it’s probably a “good inchworm” and should be let be.  Winter moths are also stouter than other inchworms, and have a white stripe along the side.

The Moth Stage

Last November and December you might have seen hundreds of moths on cool winter evenings flying around outdoor lights. They were the male moths. They were out looking for vertical surfaces, like tree trunks, to find the virtually wingless females and mate. Once the moths had mated, the females lay their eggs in the craggy bark of the trees.

The Caterpillar Stage

Through the winter months, the tiny eggs lay waiting for the perfect time to emerge. Early spring, when the temperature and day length are just right, the buds of trees start to open. This is also when the tiny pale green inch-worm-like caterpillars of the winter moth emerge. They then eat their way through the leaves while they are still in the emerging bud. The leaves emerge skeletonized with only their veins remaining or if the leaves had a chance to develop the leaves are peppered with holes.

Assessing the Damage

Most trees can handle a year of this leaf eating if there are not other forms of stress such as drought, insect infestation, or too much sun or shade depending on the tree. Often, they can send out a second flush of leaves. Remember trees and all plants need to have leaves; it is where the process of photosynthesis occurs (ie where the plants make their food).

Providing extra water throughout the season will help trees recover from the stress of defoliation and re-foliation,

What You Can Do

Most people ask what they can do about these leaf-eating caterpillars. Sure there are sprays that can eradicate them. But, keep in mind they are not selective. The spray that kills the caterpillar stage of the winter moth also kills all of the butterflies in their caterpillar stage.

Paper or plastic strips covered with a sticky substance are commercially available to create a barrier that entraps the adult females and caterpillars. Though logical, this method has not proven to be effective for major infestations.

One option is to not plant trees that are extremely affected by the winter moth. Instead of vulnerable trees like crabapples, pears, and weeping cherries, try planting native trees. After they are established, (generally a year), they will be more resistant to forms of stress and better able to withstand the damage done by the winter moth caterpillar.

Learn more about what you can do to control winter moths on our website.

Updated July 2018

A Mosquito Repelling Garden?

If you have ever been to Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary on Martha’s Vineyard during the summer, there’s a good chance you had an encounter with a mosquito, or 1,000. Turns out, these pesky insects love the wildlife sanctuary just as much as we do.

It’s one thing to have them on the trails, but each season they take over the Nature Center, where we host programs for kids and adults of all ages. The mosquitoes lurk in the tall grass that surrounds the front of the center, just waiting for the door to open so they can make their grand entrance.

Enough was enough, and the team at Felix Neck, led by sanctuary director Suzan Bellincampi, decided to do something about it. First step: remove the unruly grass and replace it with gravel all around the building. Then Sue, a long-time volunteer and garden maven, suggested installing an anti-mosquito, or mosquito-repellent, garden. Or, as we like to call it, a “scented garden.”

The Makings of Scented aka Mosquito Garden

Scientifically, we know that mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide we breathe out. So unless we stop exhaling, mosquitoes will keep on coming. We also know that, in an effort to create a more “natural” mosquito repellent, many manufacturers have turned to nature’s bounty for scents that have been suggested to ward of these little buggers.

Taking a cue from Mother Nature herself, we decided to go right to the plant source that provides repellent properties to all those off-the-shelf products. Our volunteer built some raised beds and installed plants that are believed to have anti-mosquito properties. In our scented garden you will find:

  • Lemon Balm
  • Eucalyptus
  • Marigold
  • Garlic
  • Lemon Verbena
  • Basil
  • Sage
  • Scented Geranium
  • Nasturtium
  • Catmint nepeta
  • Sweet Annie
  • Lemongrass
  • Rosemary
  • Fennel

The season has just begun, but we have already noticed a decrease in the number of mosquitoes indoors. Is it because of the garden? Or was removing the grass enough to do the trick? There’s still much to learn and observe before we can deem the experiment a success.

Regardless of whether or not it really repels mosquitoes, we now have a lovely, scented garden that visitor can see, smell, and touch. Seems like a win-win situation to us!

We Heart Native Plants

There are many reasons you should include native plants into your landscape plans. For one, most native plants require little maintenance because they have evolved to thrive in our local habitats and growing conditions.

That means after the first year of making sure they are well watered and have put out roots, very little watering and care is needed. Perhaps the most compelling reason is that not only do native plants look good, they also do good for wildlife.

Five Native Plants To Consider

So what native plants should you consider if you live in Massachusetts? Here are five of our spring and summer perennial favorites that will come back year after year.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Similar to its cousin, the dusty pink-flowered common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed is a host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars. A host plant is a specific plant that a species of caterpillar will eat.  Butterfly weed requires full sun and can grow as tall as one to two feet, with orange or yellow flowers that bloom in summer.

Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum)
Don’t let the “weed” in joe-pye weed fool you. The term in this case refers to the fact that it’s commonly found, not that it’s unwanted.  The dusty pink late-blooming flower attracts pollinators and clouds of butterflies in the late summer. The Gateway variety will grow to six or seven feet tall, where as Little Joe reaches only three to four feet.

Foam Flower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Attracting small bees and butterflies, this little bottle-brush of a white flower is held above a nicely toothed leaf. There are many new varieties of foam flower that have interesting red markings on the leaves. It can spread and become a beautiful spring flowering ground cover.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
The native columbine has an orange-red flower with a yellow center and is attractive to pollinators and hummingbirds. After blooming, the delicate blue-green foliage continues to look beautiful all summer long. And while there are many attractive species of columbines, the only one native to Massachusetts is the Aquilegia canadensis.

Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum penduatum)
This native is one of the most delicate-looking ferns. Its thin black stems and bright green foliage add a light frothy texture to a shady garden.

Many local nurseries sell native plants. Before you purchase one, make sure they were cultivated from seed. We like the wild plants to stay wild!

Do you have a favorite native plant? If so, share in the comments!

Growing From Seed

Simon Howden via freedigitalphotos.netSpring has sprung, which means vegetable gardening season is right around the corner. Can’t wait to get started? Instead of buying seedlings, start your plants from seed indoors. Now’s the time to dig in.

Why Start From Seed?
There are many good reasons to go the seed route, among them:

  1. Variety. With seeds you have many more choices than you do from the seedling plants at most garden centers, especially when it comes to heirloom plants. The options of just basil alone will astound you from the large leaved Genovese to Purple Ruffles to the small spicy Thai basil
  2. Cost. For a couple of dollars, you will have enough seeds to fill multiple gardens. Don’t need them all? Set up a seed exchange with friends and neighbors.
  3. Taste. Nothing beats the flavor of home grown, sun-ripened tomatoes, from Cherokee Purple to Green Zebra to Brandywine.

How to Get Started
To grow your own seedlings, you will need a few simple things.

  1. A sunny window. One that faces south or west should provide a good light source.
  2. Pots with drainage holes. These don’t need to be fancy; clean yogurt cups with holes punched in the bottom will work.
  3. Something to place under the pots to allow you to water the soil from the bottom up.
  4. Seed starter mix. This mixture is lighter and fluffier that potting soil to make it easier for new roots to develop. You can find it at any garden center.
  5. Seeds. Be sure to read the package instructions to determine how to plant the seeds, what kind of light they require, and how much water is necessary.

Within a few days, depending on the temperature, your seeds should be up and growing. Once germinated, make sure you keep the seedlings slightly moist, but not wet. Remember: Roots need water but also air.

Toughening Up
All seedlings need to be “hardened off.” Bright sunlight and cool winds can damage young tender plants. To toughen up your plants, put them outside in a shady place during the day and take them in at night. If the plants turn red or or silver they’ve gotten too much sun.

When to Plant Outside
Some plants such as peas, pansies, lettuce, and spinach can take the colder temperatures and once hardened off can be placed out in the garden while it’s still cool outside.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, basil, and many flowers need nighttime temperatures above 55 degrees. To insure your plants will flourish, wait until it’s above 55 degrees for 5 nights in a row.

Have you started seedlings yet? Tell us what you’re growing and how it’s going in the comments!

Image courtesy of Simon Howden /