A Step Beyond Plant Blindness

With an eye on the birds in our gardens and landscapes, being able to identify many types of native plants is useful. Knowing the plants’ names is essential whether you are a NH Certified Landscape Professional or an accomplished landscaper who hasn’t gone for that designation. Knowing the next step in conversing about the native plants we revere is important to share more knowledge and offer more suggestions about healthy lawns, gardens, and ecospheres in public gardens too.

The Audubon Society suggests, in an October 2021 Audubon magazine article by Carlyn Kranking, Editorial Fellow, ways to discuss and understand the importance of twenty common types of native plants. The most important part of this article, aside from the list of the twenty plants, is ,“With a little work and planning, you could be rewarded with an iridescent Ruby-throated Hummingbird drinking from tubular columbine, or a group of Cedar Waxwings nibbling on serviceberries.”

In summary, here are the plants suggested by the Audubon Society, and a quick overview of what each offers.

Oaks (Quercus spp.)
Recently the topic of Doug Tallamy’s newest book, we learn that Oak trees are at the center of biodiversity in our lawns and gardens. With nearly 600 types of caterpillars of butterflies and moths making their homes in oaks, these are the backbones of healthy ecospheres.

Pines (Pinus spp.)
Evergreens, offering year ’round canopy shelter for birds and animals avoiding prey, also offer bird food in the pinecone seeds.

Dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
Of botanical interest, because of the way the dogwoods take calcium from the ground, absorb through their leaves, and return the calcium as soil amendments when the tree drops the leaves, these trees offer the drupes as nourishing food for 35 species of birds.

Willows (Salix spp.)
With native varieties such as black willow (S. nigra) and pussy willows (S. discolor) you’ll see several types of birds feeding on the insects that these blossoms attract. Small nesting birds also use the catkins for nesting material.

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)
We’re familiar with the importance of this native variety for the Monarch population but consider what the milkweed can offer our bird population. Birds which eat insects will be attracted to these plants for the caterpillars living in them as well as, again, the milkweed silky material in the persistent pods being safe and healthy nesting material.

Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.)
With year ’round interest, coneflowers offer hummingbirds nectar and more than ten other species of birds, including goldfinches and cardinals, nourishing seeds in late fall and through the winter.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.)
Black-eyed Susans attract a multitude of butterflies and moths. You’ll find chickadees, nuthatches, and sparrows in feeding frenzies with these thickly seeded flower centers.

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Perhaps one of the most familiar flower faces in our New Hampshire gardens, the sunflowers’ famous seeds are food for dozens of species of birds both large and small. Sunflowers left to feed birds offer interest and benefits to the migrating birds as well as those overwintering here.

Sages (Salvia spp.)
Audubon notes on the sage include a particularly fascinating aspect of pollination. Hummingbirds feeding on sage nectar stab the stamen releasing the sage’s pollen. Sticking to the bird’s head, hummingbirds help pollinate the next sage plant where they choose to feed.

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.)
The seeds in “gayfeather” are bird magnets, for the way they attract goldfinch, buntings, and chickadees as well as birds who prefer insects; liatris flowers with their long bloom times, host many insects and butterflies for the insectivors in the bird world.

Columbines (Aquilegia spp.)
A particular favorite of our hummingbirds, the shape of the columbine is ideal for a hummingbird’s long beak.

Goldenrods (Solidago spp.)
Insect larvae living on goldenrods offer a smorgasbord for several types of birds in our area and the seeds are beneficial to small songbirds.

Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.)
Since our native asters bloom in September and through autumn, they are extremely beneficial to fall migrating birds.

Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.)
Ground feeding songbirds are attracted to the native penstemon seeds.

Serviceberries (Amalanchier spp.)
One of the favorite nesting habitats for cardinals, tanagers, vireos, robins, and other birds, the Serviceberries are also excellent berries for birds because of their nutritional value. As a native, they are not as sweet and that means there’s more nutritional value for the birds feeding on them.

Elderberries (Sambucus spp.)
Gray Catbirds are among the many birds who will feed on the berries and make nests in this plant when it’s at a mature height. It’s interesting that raw elderberries are poisonous to us but favored by birds!

Blueberries and Sparkleberries (Vaccinium spp.)
Sparkleberries don’t grow in our area but are included in this family of plants as interesting for the many, many birds who feed on the berries. In our area, there are small songbirds who would nest in blueberry bushes, adding to the interest in an edible landscape.

Honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.)
There are many types sold in garden centers, so we need to watch for natives; trumpet honeysuckle (L. sempervirens) or yellow honeysuckle (L. flava). There are birds relishing the berries in fall and through winter and other birds feeding on nectar and seeds when they migrate early in fall.

Switchgrass (Panicum spp.)
For its seeds and vegetation, which provides shelter for small birds, switchgrass is a premier choice in our landscape plantings with the birds in mind.

Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia spp.)
Leave it standing for the delicate seed heads which are gorgeous with light frost on them and for the dead stems to be nesting material for small birds; those seed heads are beneficial food for sparrows and finches.

With these twenty types of plants you have additional information to share when you are considering the importance of helping our bird populations and understanding the ways birds are important for healthy landscapes. It’s important to keep considering the native plants in your designs and in the work you do with all types of clients, whether they are customers for mowing and snow blowing, or customers with gorgeous containers on decks and patios. The additional information about why the natives are important for bird habitat and healthy avian populations is important for us all to share as we work toward landscapes that keep “two thirds for the birds.” The 234birds Instagram site and website are further sources of information about the importance of birds in our ecosystems. Check those sources for more information to use and share.

Our local Audubon Society chapters in NH offer many online resources for landscape and bird connections as well as webinars and in-person birdwatching events. Make 2022 your year to add the birds to your library of professional development and gardening mindsets.

—by Cris Blackstone, NHCLP. — Cris is a member of Newmarket Conservation Commission; a Supervisor on Rockingham Conservation District; Board Member for NH Association of Conservation Commissions; and member of the Garden Communicators International Sustainability Committee. 

Many Winter Professional Development Opportunities Available

New Hampshire’s premier winter event of interest to landscape professional might be the Farm, Forest and Garden Expo, Feb. 4 & 5, at the Center of NH, Manchester. This event joined countless other events during the nearly two full years of pandemic hiatus. With more understanding and science available about the Coronavirus transmission, and vaccine/masking and social distancing now common practices, it’s back as an in-person event midwinter. The organizers are building on the addition of “gardening” to the theme of the Expo and have offered NHLA a prime location in the central display and demonstration area on the Expo floor. We’d like to thank Kelly Bryer, as the Executive Director of the Garden State Ambassadors, for her role in creating the exhibition’s floor plan lay out, and for ensuring NHLA, along with other organizations directly related to the green industry, plants, and hobby enthusiasts, have a safe and secure showcase area for sharing their information during the two-day event.

Along with the central demonstrations, visitors to the Expo will have an outstanding array of exhibitions to visit. The number of visitors will be limited this year, along with added space in the walkways which lead through the floor plan. The two-day schedule includes many presentations as it has in the past, so look at the schedule and see which may pertain to you, or your crew, or serve as a relaxing informative hour where you may be introduced to something new. Recertification credits are available, for volunteering your time at the NHLA display or for attending workshop sessions – contact the Education Committee for information on earning your credit in those ways.

If you are interested in on-line learning opportunities, the Great Grow Along Virtual Garden Festival, March 11-20 (greatgrowalong.com) can offer you a bargain of education and exposure to new research, new techniques and presentations by nationally recognized authors and experts for the $29.95 registration fee. From Doug Tallamy on his work with trees, importance of tree health and pollinators, to trending influencers on indoor plant care and experts on soil health and amendments, or gardening with vegetables in containers, you will find over forty hours of informative sessions during the ten-day festival. This is a great opportunity for you to learn things your customers may be learning about from their online experiences also. In the past decade, we’ve learned a lot about what NHLA’s professional approach means for customer retention. Being aware of the solid research, trending decorative fads, and updated landscape techniques and sharing that information with clients, goes a long way toward the word-of-mouth referrals which are so important.

A third place to look for professional development is the Cornell Ornithology Lab, for information about landscaping habits to enhance habitat for birds. Habitats for pollinators are not distracting from the surging interest in our bird populations, rather they are gaining tandem visibility and importance. Learning about some bird identification techniques may at first sound a bit further from your landscape profession than you think is needed, but if you consider what you may be asked to plant or different directions in your care and maintenance of your customers’ properties, you will appreciate learning about the importance of birds in our environment. Knowing which birds may be nesting in short, thick shrubbery may mean you suggest certain plants (think Bridal Veil Spirea, or Mockorange) to offer nesting habitats. Knowing when to mow large expanses of fields or open areas will mean you won’t disturb ground nesters such as Kildeer. With some knowledge of birds and their requirements for nesting, food and foraging and protection from predators, you will help your clients understand some of the ways we are changing best practices for mowing, fertilizing, applying herbicides or choosing new plants to establish or rejuvenate an aging garden. With a full library of topics about everything you can imagine related to birds, the home page, www.birds.cornell.edu can be a go-to where you’ll start your professional development to include birds in the mix of things you consider helping your clients develop gardens for four-season interest.

These are just three suggestions for your winter review and use. Keep in touch with UNH Cooperative Extension and UMaine Cooperative Extension – being on their email lists will give you more info on their webinars and events. Here’s wishing everyone lots of success reviewing your past year in the landscape business and include continued education and meaningful growth in the field you can share with your crews and clients.

— by Chris Blackstone, NHCLP

Emerald Ash Borer Affects More Than our Landscapes

As Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) becomes more of a reality, we have to think of not only the loss of ornamental value absence of ash trees will create, but also the effects the lack of the harvested wood will cause. Ash is used for many purposes included flooring, snowshoes, oars, baseball bats, tool handles, and hockey sticks, just to name a few. The wood is strong, yet lightweight, and resists shock. These products are usually made from white ash, Fraxinus americana.

A far less common ash is brown ash, sometimes called black ash, Fraxinus nigra. Often found growing in swamps,or other wet areas, brown ash is native to the Northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada. This ash is threatened with near total extinction due to EAB.

Brown ash is unique to all trees in North America in that it does not have fibres connecting to the growth rings of each other. This is a useful property for basket makers. By pounding on the wood with a mallet, the newer spring wood layer is crushed, allowing the tougher and darker summer wood layer to be peeled off into strips. The strips are trimmed, cleaned, and used in basket weaving.
Maine’s Wabanaki people, indigenous to the region, have used the ash baskets as part of their culture. An arrow was shot into a tree and “out of the tree came the people.” I think this is certainly an indication of significant cultural importance! The fact that EAB creates not only great horticultural risks, but also a major threat to a native culture, the State and the USDA are putting a bit more attention into EAB now that they realize the issue is a reality. Many of the baskets, made by various Wabanaki people, are really considered a valuable art form and as a result some have been priced similar to many museum pieces. It will be a shame when this priceless art is no longer able to be made.

The damage EAB is doing to our landscapes goes far beyond that of ornamental trees in our yards.

— by Phil Caldwell, a past president of NHLA (1989) who now lives and works in Maine.