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Top Overlooked Understory Trees to Consider

 By: Stacey Wildberger

There are many plant layers to successful ecosystems-from the ground cover, herbaceous plants, shrubs, understory up to the tall canopy layer.  Each level plays a vital role in the health of the ecosystem and biodiversity in the landscape, but the understory is an often overlooked layer in our home landscapes.  We often plant lush gardens filled with flowering plants, a few ground cover plants, some shrubs and of course we all know Cape has plenty of canopy trees shading us!

The understory level is typically trees ranging in height form 15-49’.  These understory trees play a vital role in creating a balanced ecosystem by providing food and shelter for much of our wildlife, including birds and small mammals.  There are many native understory trees that have high wildlife value as well as providing beauty to your landscape throughout the seasons.  There are the beautiful purple flowers in early spring from the Eastern Red Bud, the  vibrant yellows of the Spicebush and Paw-paw trees and the eye-catching fall display of yellows, reds, copper and deep purples.

Fall is the best to time to plant, particularly these understory trees as they will have all winter to set strong roots without worrying about the heat and drought they face in the summer.

Here is a list 10 understory trees that will enhance your landscape and benefit wildlife.

Cercis Canadensis –Eastern Redbud  nothing says spring like the glorious purple blooms of the Redbud blooming along the roadways, parks and neighborhood streets.  These early blooming trees offer an early source of nectar for foraging insects and bees. The leaves, seeds and blooms are utilized by songbirds, pollinators and mammals.  Redbuds tolerate part-shade to shade, making an ideal specimen tree for many Cape yards.

 

 

Amelanchier CanadensisEastern serviceberry  this wonderful tree provides 3 seasons of interest starting in early spring with beautiful white flowers of high value to many of our native bees, followed by berries that feed robins, catbirds, chickadees and cardinals. In the fall leaf color is spectacular.  This moisture-loving tree can be planted in sun to shade conditions.

Chionanthus virginicus -White Fringe tree  this 15-30’ tree is known for its nodding clusters of fragrant white blooms.  One of the last trees to leaf out in the spring, it often appears dead until the leaves and flowers emerge.  The flowers are pure white, wispy and cloud-like. The blue plum-like berries are attractive to birds and mammals and the flowers are attractive to many pollinators.

 

Asimina triloba -Pawpaw  this multi-stemmed tree grows 10-40’ high with large tropical-like leaves that turn a beautiful yellow-green in the fall.  The small banana-tasting fruit makes a delicious jam if you can harvest it before the opossums, squirrels, raccoons and birds eat them!  The Pawpaw is also the only host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly.

 

 

Corylus Americana -American hazelnut  a beautiful 6-12’ tall thicket forming shrub that provides interest to your landscape across the seasons.  There are showy yellowish-brown catkins in late winter-early spring, and fall colors varying from bright yellow to deep-wine red.  This part-shade to shade-loving shrub will do well in dry to moist areas.  The nuts are enjoyed by birds and squirrels.

Prunus Americana -American Plum  a thicket-forming small tree with a spreading crown, showy white flowers and red plums.  This small tree grows to 35’ with white flowers that come out before the leaves in spring, followed by shiny bright red fruit in later summer.   The plums are not typically eaten by wildlife but the tree offers valuable nesting cover and is a host plant to many butterflies.

Prunus virginianaChokecherry  dense clusters of small white flowers followed by red to dark purple berries characterizes this small 20-30’ tree.  The chokecherry can tolerate dry and moist soil along with shade to part shade to sun.  The blooms offer a showy ornamental look in spring and early summer while the tree itself offers erosion control.  The blue-black cherries are an important food source for wildlife and it is a host plant to many species of moths and butterflies, including the hairstreak, sphinx moth and silk moth.

Sassafras albidum -Sassafras  an aromatic 35-50’ deciduous tree that features horizontal branching that  can grow from shade to sun in moist woodlands and along roadsides and tolerates infertile soil.  The sassafras’  attractive foliage and ornamental blooms along with brilliant fall color makes this an attractive addition to your landscape.  It is also an important host plant for several butterflies and moths, including the spicebush swallowtail, pale swallowtail and tiger swallowtail butterflies as well as the promethean silk moth.

Juniperus virginiana -Eastern Red Cedar  the most widely distributed eastern conifer across 37 states is extremely resistant to drought, heat and cold, and grows 30 to 40’ tall.  This beautiful tree offers many benefits for wildlife: the berries are a staple to many birds and mammals, including the cedar waxwing named for this tree, and provides excellent nesting material and cover.  Eastern Red Cedar performs well in dry areas from sun to shade.

 

 

 

Malus coronariaSweet crabapple  typically grows 20-30’ tall with beautiful white flowers tinged rose and an inconspicuous yellow-green fruit.  It can be found growing in part shade with moist soils on woodland edges and stream banks.  The thickets provide suitable habitat for nesting, shelter and food for large and small birds.  The crabapple is of special value to native bees, honey bees and is an important host plant for the red spotted purple butterfly.

For more information about Cape Conservation Corps:

visit www.capeconservationcorps.org   OR  join our group on Facebook: Cape Conservation Corps

Why Plant in the Fall?

By: Stacey Wildberger

If you think the time to garden is over, think again.  Fall is the best time to plant including trees, shrubs and perennials.  By planting in the fall you will get your shrubs, trees and perennials off to a faster start in the spring.  The soil will still be holding onto the summer’s warmth; which will encourage root growth up until the first freeze.   The plants are no longer working on making leaves, flowers, berries and fruits so all of their energy goes to establishing roots.  Another advantage to fall planting is the lower temperatures will mean the plants don’t have to contend with heat and drought.  Finally, there are usually lots of great deals as the nurseries are trying to clear out their inventory.  Even if the plants don’t look perfect, leaves are dropping, flowers are drooping, but the real action is in their root system.

Fall is a great time to lose some of the lawn and turn it into a new garden bed, filled with native plants that will greatly improve wildlife diversity in your yard.  The standard green, monoculture lawn not only excludes wildlife from your landscape, it consumes large amounts of water, is high maintenance and comes with a HUGE carbon footprint.  By eliminating a portion of your lawn you will be gaining back some of your leisure time, time that can be spent observing the abundance of wildlife your new garden will attract and improving the health of the environment.  Don’t just plant any plants-plant more natives!  Use this time to add native plants that have co-evolved over millions of years with our native fauna.  Native plants offer a rich and diverse source of food for birds and other wildlife.  Did you know that 93% of birds feed their babies insects?  A native Oak tree will support over 530 different species of caterpillars, while a non-native Gingko supports 0-3 species.  A Carolina Chickadee needs over 9,000 caterpillars to raise just 1 clutch of babies.  Alien, ornamental trees and shrubs offer little or no benefit to our increasingly fragile ecosystems.  They need native plants in order to survive and thrive!

Of course by now we all know some of those dreaded fall chores are not necessary so you will have plenty of extra time to plant and get a jump on spring!  What chores can you cross off the to-do list before even getting started?  For one thing leave the leaves!  By raking, blasting, bagging and sending the leaves to the landfill you are not only destroying the environment but robbing the garden of nutrients and destroying next year’s butterflies, moths and other good bugs.  Yard debris accounts for 33 million tons of solid waste per year-13% of the total generated according to the U.S. EPA.  Leaves form natural mulch that can both suppress weeds and fertilize the soil.  The leaves also provide much needed habitat for wildlife.  The leaf litter provides food, shelter and nesting materials for frogs, toads, turtles, birds, mammals and invertebrates.   There are several things you can do with the leaves rather than send them to the landfill.

Leave them where the fall, mulch over them with a mulching mower, rake them into your garden as mulch—shredding them into a finer texture so they will break down easier, combine them with grass clippings and other green material to make nutrient rich compost to spread in the garden in the spring.  You can also use the leaves along with branches, and sticks to make brush piles to shelter neighborhood wildlife, and finally if you are like most of us in the Cape you probably have more than enough so share them with a friend or neighbor that isn’t lucky enough to have an abundance of this free nutrient rich mulch!

Are you wondering why you did not see as many butterflies and other beneficial bugs in your yard this summer?  It could be because your garden was too neat.  We have a tendency to want to go and “tidy” up the garden in the fall by cutting down all the stems, but those stems house many overwintering bugs.  It is best to let them stand through the winter and even late into spring to give insects time to emerge.  If you must clean up in the spring try to leave 12-18” standing –once the new stems and leaves begin to emerge you won’t see the brown stems from last year and the bugs will be able to make their way out. Leaving those stalks up also offers us an opportunity to enjoy the garden all year, winter interest is the beautiful display those spent flower and seed heads and stalks offer us.  The winter sun reflecting off of them, or glistening in the soft snow.  We can sit back and appreciate the deep red stems of a red dogwoods, dark browns of the herbaceous plants , pale yellows of switchgrass, dark, almost black inkberries, or the clean white bark of a paper birch.  If we change the way we see “pretty” you will begin to see the beauty all around you.  Our gardens should not just be what are aesthetically pleasing to us but what benefits the ecosystem as a whole.

One of the biggest questions I get asked is where can I go purchase natives plants?  The best answer to that question is RIGHT HERE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD!  Cape Conservation Corps is going to host their first ever Fall Native Plant Sale on October 7th from 9am-12pm- in the field behind the clubhouse.  Not only will we have hand selected native plants for the soil and light conditions of Cape but they will be reasonably priced so you can easily afford to start that new garden or add to your existing gardens!  We will also have on hand many local experts including Master Gardeners, Water Shed Stewarts and Master Naturalist to answer questions, offer advice and educate.  The day will also include several guest speakers on a variety of topics.

There are also several Native Plant nurseries in the area you can visit this fall.  Chesapeake Natives in Upper Marlboro, Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely (near Tuckahoe State Park), Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore.

“Our legacy won’t be how pretty our gardens looked; our legacy will be how gardens and other managed spaces woke us to a revolution of belonging in this world, and a renaissance of ethical thinking that helped us evolve into our fullest potential as stewards of life and as gardeners of our own hearts” –Benjamin Vogt www.monarch gardens.com

Gardening With Nature in Mind

By: Stacey Wildberger

When I step out into my backyard I feel a sense of pride for what I have accomplished, and then I start mentally going through the list of what I still would like to do to provide a suitable habitat.  Although my garden brings joy to me and a sense of pleasure that is not the sole purpose of my garden or my landscape choices.  The phrase “Gardening for Nature” best describes my philosophy when it comes to my decisions about what goes into my garden.  My first thoughts are: “Is this a native plant?  What benefits will it provide to the ecosystem? And will it cause harm to creatures I am trying to provide for?”

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Building Hometown Habitats

 By: Stacey Wildberger

“What will it take to give our local animals what they need to survive and reproduce on our properties? NATIVE PLANTS, and lots of them” –Douglas Tallamy

Last month we hosted a screening of award winning director, Catherine Zimmerman’s film Hometown Habitat along with the CSC Garden Club.   The film shows several different areas of the country and how each of them has used native plants to restore habitat.  We know that nature can no longer exist “somewhere out there” (Douglas Tallamy) because we have destroyed so much habitat through development.  Nature is running out of places to go.  If we can turn our own backyards into usable habitat through the planting of native plants we can help bring nature home. Native flora and fauna have co-evolved together over millions of years and depend on each other for life services.  Many insects are so specialized that they have only one host plant that they can lay their tiny eggs on.  We can provide those in our own backyards.

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Alternatives to Mosquito Control

By: Stacey Wildberger

Anyone that has spent a summer in Cape St Claire knows we have mosquitoes.  Living near the water is often blamed for the infestation each summer but most of the mosquitoes come right from your own backyard.  Mosquitoes often don’t travel far so it is important to survey your yard and see what you can do to prevent their arrival in the first place.  Mosquitoes need suitable aquatic breeding habitats to complete their life cycle.  Eliminate any sources of open water where the mosquitoes can lay and grow their eggs and stop them before they lay the eggs.  Water can accumulate in bird baths, old tires, rain barrels streams, ponds, ditches, flower pots, roof gutters and unused swimming pools or covers. There are several things you can do: change your bird baths every couple of days, empty and overturn any vessels where water can sit in, use screens on your rain barrels, pull covers and tarps taut and enlist the help of good bugs and other natural predators in your backyard ponds.  Water also accumulates in the dense patches of English Ivy so consider removing this highly invasive plant to reduce mosquito breeding grounds.

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