Originally published in Compass, April 17, 2014
by Caroline Spear
April is National Garden Month, a time that focuses “on the essential connection between people, plants, and the environment,” according to the National Gardening Association. To me, it’s also a good month to look ahead to the gardening season, since there’s not a lot to be done yet. With our very cold winter, and very deep frost, it will feel like a long month waiting for the ground to thaw and dry out sufficiently to work the soil without destroying it.
With new borders to plant this year, much of my reading this winter has been about creating a garden that’s friendly to wildlife of all sorts—birds, butterflies, pollinators and other beneficial insects, and my favorite, toads.
For instance, in my existing garden, toads like a dense canopy of foliage overhead and can be found under the hostas and in the iris/gooseneck loosestrife bed.
Bees literally cover the pieris shrubs, the first to bloom in spring, followed by the pagoda dogwood, lavender and catmint (nepeta).
Butterflies are attracted to (what else) the butterfly bush and also to all the compositae family, which have the tiny flowers they love: daisy, black-eyed Susan, monarda, echinacea, aster, prairie coneflower and helenium, among others.
Food for birds is provided by the dogwood, and native holly (winterberry), cherry, shadbush and viburnum. Small birds harvest seeds from thistle, goldenrod, grasses and more. Trees, shrubs and vines shelter them and provide nesting sites.
What I’ve just described happened piecemeal over a period of years. I find myself going nuts trying to design an entire wildlife-friendly habitat.
In the new beds, and in this column, I’m starting with a few choice plants, ones that popped up in the winter readings. There’s an annual, a perennial, a vine and a small tree.
• Dill. I usually have a pot of dill for kitchen use, but if planted in the garden, it feeds two valuable beneficial insects—the flower fly and the lacewing—attracts ladybugs, and is food for the caterpillar of the black swallowtail butterfly. Grown in sun, dill will readily reseed next year. When the weather is dry, it goes to seed quickly. There are varieties that resist this as well as varieties ranging from 1 to 3 feet tall.
• Honeysuckle (lonicera). Nectar heaven for hummingbirds, bees and other insects, fruit for the birds, wonderful scent for you. Coral honeysuckle is recommended as it isn’t invasive (L. sempervirens). Grow it on a fence or against a wall, with a trellis for support. Don’t prune until early spring as it can shelter overwintering insects (and just might give you a blossom or two in December). I’ve grown L. heckrottii with good success.
• Outhouse Plant (Rudbeckia laciniata). This heirloom coneflower with intensely bright yellow (and fluffy) flowers, can grow to 7 feet. It attracts butterflies and is reputed to be deer- and rabbit-resistant. It might need staking, spreads vigorously, and grows best in full sun. Plant it at the back of a border.
• Crab apple. As a small tree, crab apples will fit in most gardens. With gorgeous spring bloom that draws the bees and long-lasting fruit that provides food for birds and other wildlife, a crab apple is a good choice for a sunny spot that is neither too wet nor too dry.
Caroline Spear of Stonington is an amateur gardener in Zone 5B. She has worked for Penobscot Bay Press in a variety of capacities for 25 years. She welcomes questions and comments, which should be addressed to Green Thumbs at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 36, Stonington, 04681.