Backyard Baby Critters

By: Stacey Wildberger

We are fortunate to live in a community with such diversity of flora and fauna and to have so many caring people who provide habitat in their landscapes and who want to help sick or injured wildlife.  While there are times human intervention is the right thing to do, often times we can do more harm than good.  It is fine to let nature take its course as I firmly believe in survival of the fittest:  they are all parts of a larger food web. The natural order of the wildlife community should be honored and respected.  Here is a look at a few animals, their caring for their young, their place in the cycle of life, and how you can help.

Let’s start with rabbits, specifically Eastern Cottontails that have made their home in my side yard.  They typically mate from March to September and have litters of 3-8 babies at a time and up to 5 litters per year! They typically build shallow nests of grass and fur in grassy areas right in the middle of your yard.  Most predators won’t venture into the open so it is a safe option.  If you stumble upon a nest in your yard, it is best not to move it to an area you deem safer.  Mama rabbit knew what she was doing.  She comes back twice a day to feed and groom the little ones, avoiding being spotted and drawing attention to the nest.  If you notice babies visibly injured, bleeding or missing limbs, you could intervene at that point by contacting a rehabber or let nature take care of it. One step you can take to prevent injuries is to check your lawn for nests prior to mowing and mark the area with a flag or small marker so you know where they are.  After predators, lawn mowers and weed whackers are the biggest threat to the babies.

I also often see people “rescue” baby squirrels.  Gray squirrels are the most common in the Cape.  They have 2 litters per year between December and February then again between May to June with anywhere between 2-6 young at a time.  Their nest is typically in the forks of trees, consisting mainly of dry leaves and twigs. If you come across a baby out of the nest the best course is to determine if it is injured.  If not, do not handle the baby, leave it on the ground where you found it, the mother will retrieve it.  If it is injured avoid over handling it, place it gently in a box with ventilation and contact a rehab center.

One of the most misunderstood and most abused animals is the opossum.  I personally think they are adorable. Some people are scared of opossums, feel threatened by them, or think they are rabid.  In reality they are one of the most docile, harmless critters you will come across.  Their defenses include freezing and playing sick by drooling and swaying, which is why people think they are rabid.  They have extremely efficient immune systems and low body temperatures so they are resistant to rabies.  A benefit to having them around is they can eat up to 4,000 ticks a day, reducing the spread of Lyme disease. Opossums breed between January and July and babies are typically the size of a honeybee at birth.  They are the only marsupial found in North America, meaning the babies live and nurse in their mama’s pouch. If you come across a baby opossum please understand their importance and accept their place in the ecosystem.  If the animal is less than 7” he is still in need of care by the mother.  Stand very quietly and listen for “sneezing” sounds the baby uses to call to its mother.  If the animal is over 7” then he is just a juvenile and not needing intervention or care.  He is best left alone.  It is illegal to care for opossums unless you are licensed rehabber.  If the animal is injured or you truly believe it to be orphaned or abandoned then contact a local rehab center.

Raccoons, on the other hand are considered a vector species, meaning they can transmit rabies to humans and other animals:  you should never handle them bare handed if at all, and they should never be trapped and relocated.  Raccoons typically breed from January through mid-March with an average brood of 2-5 kits.   The female raises them into the fall.  Baby raccoons do not become nocturnal until adulthood so they can often be found wandering away from their mother during the day while she sleeps.  If you spot a baby alone it does not mean it is orphaned.  If you have determined it truly needs help, contact a vector-licensed rehabber (not all rehabbers can take vector species).

Deer are often seen in abundance in the Broadneck peninsula.  Unfortunately due to development their habitat is shrinking rapidly and they are visiting our yards more often.  Fawns are often found alone and mistakenly thought to have been lost.  If the fawn is lying down calmly and quietly their mother is nearby. She will only visit their babies a few times per days to nurse them so they can avoid attracting predators.  Leave the fawn as you found her.  The mother, though wary of human smell will return, but only after you left.  If the baby is wandering and crying incessantly for a long period she may need help, in this case contact a licensed wildlife rehabber.

Another common Cape mammals is the fox, also a vector species of rabies. They are not nocturnal and can be seen throughout the day, especially when raising their young.  Foxes breed from January through March with an average litter size of 4-5 kits.  Babies are often left alone for long periods of time while their parents are hunting for food.  They stay around the den playing until they are old enough to join hunting trips.  If they appear energetic and healthy leave them alone.  If you have reason to believe that both parents are dead then contact a vector-licensed rehabber.

To find a rehabilitator, contact the USDA Wildlife Service at (877) 463-6497, and here are a few links:





Native Fall Plant Sale & Festival

By: Stacey Wildberger

Cape Conservation Corps is gearing up to bring you our 2nd Annual Native Fall Plant Sale & Festival.  The event held September 22nd from 9am-12pm in the field behind the clubhouse (1223 River Bay Rd Annapolis) is all about providing an opportunity to easily add natives to our home landscapes at a low cost!  It is often times difficult to locate true natives locally.  Although there are several reasonably close locations such as Adkins Arboretum, Chesapeake Natives, and Herring Run nursery that offer wonderful native selections, CCC will be right in your own backyard.  Our native plant selection committee tried to order plants that are best suited for our Cape yards—typically dry shade.  We also tried to have a selection of fall blooming plants such as asters, goldenrod and turtle head as well as many plants offering gorgeous fall color such as cinnamon fern, pink muhly grass, switch grass, little bluestem, and shrubs that will display radiant autumn colors such as ninebark, Virginia sweet spire and bayberry.

As I discussed in the August article, fall is the best time of the year to plant and we will have so many wonderful options to choose from.  All of our plants are native plants which mean they have co-evolved with the local fauna and therefore provide the best food source, host plant and shelter for them. There are many insects that can only lay their eggs on one type of plant, one that they have evolved with and without that host plant the species would be lost.  We will have ferns, groundcovers, grasses, perennials and shrubs.  Below is a sample of what we will (subject to availability) have at the sale.

Our selection of ferns includes the marginal wood fern, cinnamon fern and Christmas fern.  Ferns are a great addition to a woodland area, shade garden or as shade border. All of these ferns will thrive in shade to part shade conditions, the cinnamon fern would prefer moist to wet conditions while the other two would be fine in the dryer areas of your yard.

Cinnamon Fern

If you are looking for grasses we will have 8 different ones to choose from.  These ornamental native grasses will add fall and winter interest to your landscapes as well as provide seeds for birds and even turtles. If you are looking for grasses for those shady, dry areas we will have white-tinge sedge, Appalachian sedge and Pennsylvania sedge. If the shaded area is moister the creek sedge would work well.  We also have several grasses for the sun such as pink muhlygrass, switchgrass ‘North Wind’, and little bluestem (these last two would work well in your rain garden!). Many of these grasses thrive in poor soil conditions.

Little Bluestem

One important layer we often neglect is the groundcover layer.  Using plants as “green mulch” helps to retain water and control weeds.  Weeds thrive in under planted areas but if you use plants in place of mulch you will have a beautiful green layer of weed suppressing plants.  Our selection will include packera aurea, green and gold and a low growing shrub known as fragrant sumac that can be pinned down to encourage ground coverage.   The green and gold will do best in part to full shade with average to moist soil, the golden ragwort and sumac can handle part shade to sun.  One of my favorites is the golden ragwort for its amazing basal leaves that maintain their green throughout the winter and provide a rapid coverage.

Green and Gold



Since fall is the best time to plant we also have a great selection of fall flowering perennials for immediate color in addition to a great selection of plants that will provide spring and summer color next year.  The combination of goldenrod (yellow) and the purple of the asters is not only beautiful and eye catching to us but it provides a welcome spot for migrating monarchs to stop and fuel up for their long journey.  We will have a show stopping variety of goldenrod known as ‘Fireworks’ and two varieties of low growing asters-‘October Skies’ and ‘Purple Dome’.  Speaking of monarchs don’t forget to stock up on milkweed (their host plant) for next year’s butterflies.  We will have swamp milkweed (pinkish-purple bloom) for sunny moister areas and butterfly weed (orange bloom) for sunny dry areas.   Another host plant we will have is turtle head for the hard to find Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (the Maryland State butterfly). There is also a large selection of sun loving pollinator magnets such as bee balm, obedient plant, black eyed Susan’s, coneflowers, Joe-Pye weed, NY ironweed, and phlox.  Of course we added some pollinator friendly shade plants as well including white wood aster, “lynnhaven’ carpet and a Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride’.

Finally, we will have a great selection of shrubs.  Many would be a great addition to a part shade to sunny raingarden such as inkberry, winterberry, witch hazel and itea would work in a shadier moist area.  These shrubs will provide food for many song birds, winter interest and will even offer shelter or nesting areas and can act as a privacy fence.  If you are looking for a native hydrangea, consider the oak leaf hydrangea with its attractive white changing to purplish/pink bloom. In addition to being a beautiful fall and winter interest shrub it will naturalize and form a beautiful hedge.  Another attractive fall and winter shrub is the bayberry.  Its fragrant leaves and showy fruit will attract birds as well.

Oak Leaf Hydrangea

In addition to these wonderful native plants we will have experts from Master Gardeners, Master Naturalist, and Watershed Stewards Academy on hand to answer your question and provide information about their programs. Cape St Claire landscape designer Chris Pax will be on hand to give a “tour” of the plants and will tell you which plants will work best together and in which conditions.  Nancy Lawson, author (The Humane Gardener) wildlife blogger, and speaker (she was CCC’s guest speaker in February) will be on hand as well to talk about gardening for wildlife and recommending host plants!

The complete list of plants is here:Plant List 2018

The Lazy Gardener

By: Stacey Wildberger

There are so many things on our to-do lists everyday wouldn’t it be nice to remove a few unnecessary gardening chores permanently?  While there is no such thing as a no maintenance landscape we can certainly have a low maintenance one by eliminating steps that are not only not needed but in some cases can cause more harm than good to our landsca pes.

  • Stop Tilling-when it is time to start a new garden or prepare an existing area for planting many people reach for the heavy equipment and till the soil but what you may not realize is that you are killing the microorganisms that keep the soil alive! Plants need these organisms to thrive—their nutrition, water and even defense against chemicals, diseases, and insects are in the soil. By turning it up you destroy the billions of microorganisms that have been working the soil for millions of years
  • Stop Weeding-pulling weeds causes soil disturbance which leads to seed disturbance and promotes more weeds. While we certainly don’t want our gardens taken over by weeds, consider trimming the weeds off at the soil level rather than ripping out the whole plant.  I have found a tool that works well for this—a Garden Hoe.  It has along handle with a sharp edge at the bottom of a triangular piece that, when you swipe it across the weed cuts it off at the soil level and provides for minimal soil disturbance.  It may sound like a chore but in the long run you will reduce the amount of weeds that are coming up by not digging into the seed bank.
  • Use a Green Mulch layer-this is another great way to reduce the amount of weeds that show up thereby reducing the amount of weeding that needs to be done. By using plants as “mulch” you will have a nice layer of green to keep the weeds at bay.  Some of my favorites are Packera Aura Golden Ragwort,  Chrysogonum virginianum Green and Gold, Antennaria Pussytoes, and Salvia lyrata Lyreleaf Sage.  There are always many native grasses that would work in this layer. Plant them closer together than any plant tag will tell you to do-about 10-12” so they grow together quicker a form a protective green mulch in your gardens to crowd out weeds.
  • Plant in layers-we talked about our green mulch layer but by having multiple layers at differing heights you will not only shade out the weeds but also cool the soil which will conserve water (less watering=less work). A good rule of thumb is the ground cover (green mulch) layer be less than a foot tall (50-60%), the next layer should be about 2-4’ in height (30-40%), followed by a smaller group of taller plants in the 5-8’ range (10-20%).  Not only will layering save time on watering, weeding and fertilizer it is also more beneficial to wildlife—including our beneficial pollinators.  (Benjamin Vogt)
  • Skip the Spring Clean-up-it is perfectly fine to leave the garden a “little messy” and begin to re-think pretty (did you read the March article “Re-Think Pretty”).  The later in spring you can wait to cut last year’s stalks (because remember we leave the stalks standing for overwintering pollinators) the more beneficial those stems are.  When you do begin to cut them back leave 12-18” standing: the plants will grow and hide the stalks but the beneficial bugs will still benefit from this messiness.  Try to leave the cuttings in place, let them lie in the garden as a natural “fertilizer’ and provide the plants with much needed  nutrients; many song birds will also forage in the messiness.
  • Plant Natives-you didn’t think I’d get through the whole article and not mention natives did you?  If we match the right plant to the right place we have just made gardening that much easier on ourselves.  Natives require less water, less prep and less maintenance and thrive in areas where they have co-evolved with native beneficial bugs over hundreds of thousands of years.   Understand what soil conditions the plant requires, as well as how big will it grow in its ideal conditions.  Be sure to consult reliable online sites for more detailed information than a plant tag tells you. Instead of wasting time and money getting your soil amended to the conditions required for a plant, buy plants that fit the conditions you already have.  Many native plants actually thrive in “poor” soil conditions and will get leggy and flop if they are in “rich’ soil.  Asclepsis sp. Milkweed is the perfect example of this. Your rocky, sandy, clay soil does not have to be amended with tons of topsoil and compost to make the soil more plantable.  Plants can have deep roots that grow beyond the soil you have amended and they eventually reach the native soil and don’t know what to do.  Use a soil test to see what type of soil you have so you can match the right plant to that place , but don’t spend money or time on fertilizers to keep an unhappy plant in that place, remove it and find one that likes the spot as is! Finding the native plants that thrive in the soil you have and you will save time and money.

Reducing Your Lawn

By: Stacey Wildberger

Your Lawn by the Numbers

  • 50K square miles of lawns in the U.S. alone.
  • $30 billion is spent annually to maintain them.
  • 60% of the average yard is lawn.
  • Pollution emitted by1 hour of mowing equals 100 hours driving a vehicle.
  • 10,000 gallons of supplemental water is used on a typical lawn in a year.
  • 90 million pounds of pesticides are applied to our lawns annually.
  • 10x more pesticides are applied per acre to lawns than per acre to farm crops.

Americans have long been obsessed with having a lush, green, chemically treated lawn, which is mowed to within an inch of its life, as a status symbol, or the culmination of a successful American Dream. How has our quest for these “perfect” yet lifeless patches of green affected the ecosystem and environment?  We are so concerned with fitting in to the typical ideal and standards set by an HOA or lawn obsessed neighbors that we just go along with what the “standard” is without ever considering the consequences.

While there are certainly pros to having grass as lawn it is not necessary for it to be the only life form. Take a moment to assess how much lawn you need in your yard.  Instead of grass being the default, decide where you need grass as walking paths, play areas and places to gather for outdoor activities then begin to remove the excess lawn.  What areas can you begin to give back to nature, places where biodiversity can thrive?  Where can you add more gardens with native plants, shrubs and even trees, or a water feature such as pond? Where can you replace grass with ground covers, mosses or ferns—do you have a shady trouble spot that these would work well in?

Steps you can take to minimize the harm caused by lawns

  • Mow higher—typically 3-4”.
  • Use a push mower to reduce the amount of pollution caused by a gas-powered mower.
  • Reduce or eliminate the synthetic chemicals used in your lawn
  • Use environmentally friendly options such as compost, limestone, sl.ow release rock fertilizers, grass clippings and fallen leaves as fertilizer.
  • Use native grass mixes in place of traditional grass-They require less maintenance (including watering and added nutrients) than “exotics”.

The chemicals typically used in lawn upkeep include many harmful chemicals but because they are so commonly used we wrongly assume they must be safe.  Just as Rachel Carson wrote that the use of pesticides commonly used to kill “pests” in our yards was harmful to wildlife, the fertilizers used in lawn care are having negative effects on not only many wildlife species but humans as well.  Those chemicals are brought into our homes on the bottoms of shoes and contaminate the inside of our houses.  These chemicals that are applied so heavily to our lawns runoff into our waterway, causing harm to aquatic life as well.

The Truth behind the Chemicals

  • “Weed and Feed” products are spread over the entire lawn but there are only 2-5% “weeds” in the lawn so the remaining 95-98% serves no purpose and ends up as runoff into our streams, rivers, lakes, and Bay.
  • EPA only requires companies to list active ingredients in their products but many of the inert ingredients contain harmful levels of solvents.
  • Nutrient Waste: water soluble synthetic fertilizers are immediately absorbed into the roots but what happens to the excess? Once again it is running off into the watershed, causing algae and phytoplankton blooms which use up all the oxygen choking off sea life.

Some additional tips to being a good Steward of the Land

  • Be a positive example to your neighbors—grow a healthy organic pesticide free lawn.
  • Create a demand for organic fertilizers by asking our local stores to carry them.
  • Control weeds prior to germination.
  • Apply natural fertilizers such as corn-gluten meal (20lbs per 1,000 sq. feet) in early spring.

I would love to hear how you have eliminated some of your lawn in the past or what steps you are going to take this year to reduce the amount of lawn you have.  Even small changes can have a big impact on the ecosystem and cause an increase on biodiversity that can positively impact the environment and slow down climate change.  The result will be less pollution emitted, reduced water consumption, decrease in harmful chemical runoff, and an increase in biodiversity!  Please comment on  our lawn reducing efforts!

Re-Think Pretty

By: Stacey Wildberger

“Beauty isn’t what a plant is, it’s what a plant does” –Benjamin Vogt

It’s that time of year again when the seed catalogues start arriving and gardeners start lusting after the newest plants on the glossy pages. As we image our lush, show-stopping gardens that will be the envy of our neighborhood take a minute and think “Who are we planting for?” Too many times our gardens are planted for aesthetics, to reflect our vision of pretty, or to appease the local HOA or our neighbors. It is time to re-think pretty and start to think what our landscapes and gardens should be doing for local ecosystems. As Benjamin Vogt says in his new book A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion “if we can’t recognize or discuss the deeper beauty of plants, then judging them by their attractiveness is as shallow and culturally indicating as valuing a person on their appearance or the kind of the car they drive”. We need to begin to look beyond the surface and into the deeper value our landscapes can provide.

What should we ask of our landscapes to do? Doug Tallamy says they should be able to do five things: support life, sequester carbon, clean and manage water, enrich the soil and support pollinators. How can we get our landscapes to support those five goals? Start by planting native plants. Native plants and insects have grown up together and evolved over hundreds of thousands of years together and developed relationships that cause them to depend on one another. Many insects have such specialized relationships that they can only survive by laying their eggs on one particular plant. These plants do not want to be eaten so they have developed chemical defenses that can be poisonous to most insects except maybe one or two that have co-evolved with the plant and have built up immunity to those chemicals. The insect depends on that one plant for its survival.  Many of you have heard of the decline of monarchs due to the loss of the milkweed plant but there are many other examples of the same specialization—the Maryland State butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot depends on Chelone Glabra the white turtlehead to lay their eggs, the Eastern and Black Swallowtail butterflies use many of the plants of the carrot family, the beautiful Zebra Swallowtail uses Paw-Paw while a group of butterflies in the Lycaenidae family (including the hairstreaks, coppers and blues) rely on the dogwoods, native azaleas, holly, and wild lupine.  The very definition of a native, as defined by Tallamy and Rick Darke is “a plant that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community.”

We don’t lose beauty in the garden or our landscapes by using native plants. In fact we are increasing beauty in the form of nectar- and pollen-gathering insects as they forage for food and pollinate our fruits and vegetables, by insect gathering birds rearing their young. These life-sustaining native plants are creating ecosystems and contributing to the food web in a way that sustains life.

Native plants are also a major factor in cleaning and managing water. Their deep root systems soak up rainwater to reduce the amount of runoff. They also act as soil anchors and filters by collecting runoff, absorbing water and decreasing flooding. Native plants often require less water because they are more drought tolerant then non-natives.

When I first started gardening in 2012 I didn’t think about what each plant was contributing, and I especially did not know about the relationships between the plants and animals. I certainly did not know the difference between a native and a non-native plant.

As I began gardening I also began feeding the backyard birds with bags of expensive seed, so I began to research what plants I should plant to attract birds with nuts and berries. The more I read the more I came to understand the relationship between the plants I was growing and the animals I wanted to attract. I began to see that the birds needed more than seeds and berries to eat. They need fat, soft bodied caterpillars to rear their young because 97% of terrestrial birds raise their brood on insects-mostly caterpillars. If you want chickadees to raise their family in your yard you will need to have 6000-9000 caterpillars within 50 meters of their nest because that is how many the babies will consume from the time they hatch until the time they fledge! Not all plants are created equal when it comes to making caterpillars.

This is where the relationship between plants and animals comes into play. The Oak tree can support 534 species of caterpillars, Black Cherry 456 species and Willows 455. It’s not just the woody trees but there are also many herbaceous plants that can act as a nursery for the caterpillars. Some of the best plants that support butterflies are Goldenrod (115), Asters (112), and Sunflowers (native Helianthus 73) and Joe-Pye Weed (42).

Some of our most important native plants suffer from a marketing nightmare. Many were given the name “weed” by the early settlers whose farming technique was to plow everything down to plant crops and anything they didn’t plant was deemed a weed-Milkweed, Joe-Pye Weed, Sneezeweed, Jewelweed, Butterfly weed and Poke weed. These plants are not weeds but rather essential species to our local ecosystems. Often native plants are thought of as not being able to be used in a formal setting but Europeans have been importing our native plants to use in their formal gardens for centuries.

There is always a native plant for every scenario. We just have to re-think our conventional gardening methods and remember who we are gardening for. We just need to open our eyes to the beauty that is around us in the life sustaining form of native plants. We need to re-think pretty.

Recommended reading: A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion by: Benjamin Vogt and Bringing Nature Home by: DougTallamy

Scroll to top