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Understory Trees for your Home Landscape

By: Stacey Wildberger

There are many plant layers to successful ecosystems-from the groundcover, 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 garden filled with flowering plants, a few ground covers plants, some shrubs and of course we all know Cape has plenty of canopy trees shading us!

Eastern serviceberry

Amelanchier Canadensis Eastern serviceberry –this wonderful tree will provide 3 seasons of interest starting in early spring with beautiful berries that feed robins, catbirds, chickadees and cardinals.  Serviceberries fall color is spectacular.  It is also of high value to many of our native bees.  This moisture loving trade can be planted in sun to shade conditions.

Eastern Redbud

Cercis Canadensis Eastern Redbud –nothing says spring like the glorious purple blooms of the Redbud, they can be seen 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 from songbirds, pollinators and mammals.  It can tolerate part shade to shade so it makes an ideal specimen for many Cape yards. 

White Fringe tree

Chionanthus virginicus White Fringe tree –this 15-30’ tree is known for its drooping 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 appear.  The flowers are pure white, wispy and cloudlike. The blue plum-like berries are attractive to birds and mammals and the flowers are attractive to many pollinators.

Pawpaw

Asimina triloba Pawpaw –this multi-stemmed shrub grows 10-40’ high.  It has 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 zebra swallowtail butterfly.

Eastern Red Cedar

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

My Pretty Pollinators

By: Stacey Wildberger

Pollinators come in all shapes, sizes and species.  They range from the iconic Monarch butterfly to little wasps and bees that you don’t even notice.  Many are in decline due to a variety of reasons, pesticide use, loss of habitat and disease to name a few.  They need our help.  But first we need to understand who they are and why they are important.  Why are they worth saving?  Insects are by far the largest category of pollinators but there are also birds (hummingbirds are best known), mammals (bats, and even rodents), and even lizards (maybe not locally).

Bumblebee

Let’s meet some of the most common insect pollinators you may encounter in your backyard. Bees.  Not honey bees, native bees.  We have almost 4,000 native bees and none of them are the honey bee. Most of them are solitary bees (90%); they are ground nesters (70%) and the rest are cavity nesters.  They won’t sting you:  they have no hive or nest to defend.  They just want to go about their business of collecting pollen and snacking on nectar and most importantly they are pollinating your vegetable gardens and flowers. Plant a variety of plants at different bloom times, with different bloom shapes and colors because different bees will visit specific flower species based on those criteria. Examples of native flowers being pollinated by bees are Asclepias spp. (milkweed), Baptisia spp. (Wild indigo), Monarda (bee balms and bergamot), Soldiago spp. (goldenrods), Penstemon (beardtongue) and Helianthus spp. (sunflowers).

The insect pollinator that gets the most attention and love is of course the butterfly. Many people are easily convinced to plant for the butterflies!  They are typically generalists meaning they more freely nectar on many different flowers as opposed to the bees that tend to be specialist. Their proboscis allows them easy access to a large variety of blooms. Not surprising, the plants pollinated by bees are also by butterflies, so use the list above and add Echinacea (coneflower), Prunus (cherry trees), Ceanothus spp. (New Jersey Tea), Vernonia spp. (ironweeds) and Liatris spp. (blazing star).   I don’t think I have to convince many to plant for butterflies.

Moths are up next, in the same order (Lepidoptera) as butterflies but often not as well appreciated even though there are many more species of moths around the world.  They most likely will be found eating in the evening.  They will also nectar on the same flowers as butterflies they can also be found on Oenothera spp. (evening primrose), Phlox spp. (phloxes), and Yucca spp. (yuccas). Color isn’t a primary factor but having a strong evening scent will attract them.

Question Mark butterfly

One of the oldest and largest group of pollinators are beetles.  Over 350,000 species worldwide and 150-200 million years of pollinating to be exact.  They also rely on sense of smell to find their boom, color not being much of a factor.  Although most plants do not rely solely on beetles for pollination they are helpful.  Some flowers you find them on are Lindera spp. (spicebushes), Asimina spp. (paw-paws), and Symphyotrichum spp. (asters).

Beetle

Flies are another important pollinator.  Not all flies are good at pollinating but the hover flies and bee flies are the two most standout pollinators.  Hover flies are often mistaken bees or wasps due to the close resemblance.  They get their name from their ability to hover.  Bee flies, with their hairy, fuzzy-looking bodes which enable them to collect a lot of pollen are important as well.  Some flower the flies will pollinate are Apocynum spp. (dogbane), Symplocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage) and Trillium erectum (red trillium).  They are attracted to putrid smells (which is why they like the skunk cabbage!)

Fly that looks like a wasp
Fly that looks like a bumblebee

And finally we come to wasps as pollinators.  Don’t judge them harshly as not only are they effective pollinators but they also are excellent predators and parasites of many garden pests.  They will lay their eggs inside the bodies of other insects and when the larvae emerge they eat the pest from the inside!  Look for these exciting creatures on Pycnanthemum spp (mountain mint), Eryngium spp. (rattlesnake master), and Parthenium integrifolium (wild quinine).

Iridescent green sweat bee

Below are 10 tips for a attracting and sustaining a thriving pollinator population (from “The Pollinator Victory Garden” by Kim Eirman).  I highly recommend getting this book to learn so much more about pollinators and their importance in your garden.

  1. Plant for succession—always having something in bloom
  2. Skip fancy double flowering plants—little to no nectar
  3. Use native plants
  4. Be sure to include woody plants like trees, shrubs and vines
  5. Plant a diverse selection of bloom shapes, sizes and color
  6. Plant in large patches of one type of flower to make it easier for pollinators to find their favorite
  7. Provide nesting sites- sandy soil, hallowed stems, stone wall crevices
  8. Eliminate pesticides-even organic can be deadly. Allow the beneficial bugs to take care of pests (see wasps)
  9. Reduce or even eliminate your lawns
  10. Add a pollinator sign to help raise awareness

Our activities in 2019-2020

By: Phil Ourisson

Services provided by CCC in 2019 and 2020 include:

  • Controlling invasive alien plants at the “Serene Ravine”.  This area is shared by Anne Arundel County, the Cape St Claire Improvement Association (homeowners association of the Cape St Claire community, Annapolis, MD), and private properties. 
    • CCC organized a Wednesday Weed Warriors campaign in 2020: every Wednesday during the spring , summer and fall, volunteers came after office hours for 1-2 hours to remove alien plants.  In the spring, the major focus was Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and later in the year, the focus moved to Bush Killer (Cayratia japonica)
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Bags of Bush Killer
  • In 2019 and again in 2020, CCC purchased (over $1,000) numerous golden ragwort (Packera aurea), a native plant which reportedly will successfully compete with Garlic Mustard.  These were planted around the areas with Garlic Mustard infestation.
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Packera aurea at Serene Ravine
  • In the fall of 2020 (over $1,100, in part with a $693 grant from Unity Gardens) CCC purchased a variety of native plants, from bushes to ferns, and planted them in areas to hopefully shade the areas with Bush Killer infestation in order to reduce that population.
    • In the spring of 2020 (over $1,100), CCC purchased and planted a variety of flowering native plants to make the ravine more attractive to residents.  In the fall, wood chip mulch was spread to refresh the path through the ravine to maintain access to the area.
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Spring flowers at Serene Ravine
  • In March 2019, CCC sponsored a speaking engagement by a USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Biologist.  The talk was open to all at no cost, with the schedule advertised in CCC website, Facebook, The Caper (Cape St Claire newsletter) and a signboard at the entrance to Cape St Claire.  The topic of this speaker was native bees, informing the public of the variety of native bees as well as their requirement of blooming native plants. 
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Andrena_aliciae foraging
  • In 2019 and 2020, CCC organized a Native Plant Fest and Sale.  Native plants were purchased from local wholesale nurseries ($9,000 in 2019, $11,300 in 2020), and sold with a minimal mark-up.  These were the third and fourth year that CCC organized this sale which has become more and more popular each year.  In 2020, buyers, while mostly local, even came from outside Anne Arundel County because of the wide selection of native plants, the low prices, and the advice provided by members of CCC.  Each year, plants sold out before the end of the scheduled sale.
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Plant Fest 2020
  • In 2020, CCC purchased six high quality cedar bat houses that were donated to the local Girl Scouts (Troop 55 of the Broadneck Peninsula.)   They, in turn, assembled them, stained them with a safe wood stain, then donated them to the Beverly Triton Beach Park.  They were installed in the Park in locations identified by the Girl Scouts together with Ranger Victor.   Ranger Victor also educated the girls of Troop 55 on the species of bats found in Maryland and their declining numbers. 
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Girl Scouts Troup 55 and bathouses
  • In 2020, CCC purchased native plants (over $300) that were donated to Goshen Farms to support the pond restoration on their property. 
  • In 2020, CCC supported an Eagle Scout project.  This Scout purchased, constructed, and installed three Leopold benches in the Serene Ravine.  The contribution of CCC was to purchase and install one plaque on each bench engraved with a quote of Mr. Leopold on the protection of the Environment. 
  • Every quarter, CCC identifies one homeowner in Cape St Claire who has made a special effort in replacing a “traditional” landscape, which is based on alien plant species, with an “environmental” landscape which is based on native plants.  These plants, in turn benefit native birds and native insects that depend on native plants.  These individuals are honored as Habitat Heroes on the CCC website and in The Caper, and are offered a $25 gift certificate for more native plants at the Native Plant Fest and Sale.
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  • One member of CCC, each month, writes a blog on an environmental topic.  This blog is published on the CCC website (CapeConservationCorps.org) as well as in The Caper. 

Creating Your Backyard Habitat

By: Stacey Wildberger

The Habitat Hero Award is something we have been handing out for three years now to people in the neighborhood who are creating wildlife habitats in their own back yards.  Many people are unsure what means or how to get started.  Some of you are already doing it and don’t even realize it.  Where and how do you get started on creating backyard habitats? All living creatures have basic needs of shelter, food and water so we will examine how we can provide that on our property for the local fauna.

Water is a very basic need we all have It is very easy to provide water sources for wildlife.  It can range from a backyard pond to a bird bath to a water station or even as small as a dish of water with pebbles.  The pond will not only provide the needed water but will become a haven for frogs, toads, dragonflies, and pollinators.  A bird bath or water station is simple to put out and maintain. What fun to look out and see a small flock of blue birds crowded in your bird bath splashing around! Of course be sure to empty and clean it often to avoid mosquito larvae.

Bird bath with heater

Another necessity to sustain life is food.  Obviously each species has its own requirements for food but we will examine a few natural ideas.  Food sources can be as basic as leaving dead leaves or keeping a partial trunk from a dead tree (called a snag).  Birds can find all kinds of insects in the leaf litter and in the trunk of that tree.  Woodpeckers will delight in beetle larva, flickers will search through the fallen leaves for hours.  Native plants will bring in the butterflies to lay their eggs on their favorite host plants and those caterpillars will be used by 96% of the terrestrial birds to raise their babies.  Did you know it takes 7,000-9,000 caterpillars to raise a clutch of chickadees?  Consider adding in some night blooming plants to support moths, having something in bloom throughout all seasons and having a variety of types of plants, groundcovers, flowering plants, shrubs and trees.  The plants will provide nectar, seeds, nuts, berries, pollen and insects; something for everyone!

Snag, leaf litter, and branches

Shelter and nesting areas are also an important need for survival. Animals need a place to feel safe from predators to raise their young.  We can help birds by providing nesting boxes in a variety of styles for different species or nesting materials (natural is best) such as small twigs, dead leaves, dried grass, feathers, plant “fluff”, pine needles and bark strips; all make safe and excellent nest materials.  Avoid string, plastics, tinsel, cellophane, foil and dryer lint.  Planting shrubs and trees will provide natural areas for nest building, and so is leaving a “snag” on your property.  The cavity nesters will love to carve out a nest in the decaying bark.  Some birds will also use mud. So if you keep a bare spot in the landscape you could help swallows, phoebes and robins construct their nests. Other wildlife will benefit from the fallen leaves to shelter in.  Did you know there are hundreds of caterpillars that will complete their life cycles on a single species of tree – the Oak – which is considered a keystone species (Doug Tallamy)?  The butterfly or moth will lay their eggs, the caterpillars will hatch, eat the oak leaves, hang on to a branch as chrysalis or drop to the ground to pupate in the ground .  In a typical landscape that tree will be surrounded by grass or worse pavement and typically that moth or butterfly will die because it cannot penetrate the ground. If instead we flipped that on its head and planted around our trees a layered garden to include groundcovers, flowering perennials, small shrubs you will greatly increase their chance of survival and you will have a lovely landscape as well. 

After a storm we go out into the backyard and clean up all the leaves, twigs, branches that may have been blown down and set them out on the curb, off to the landfill.  What if instead you took the “debris” and made a small pile off to the side or back of the property to provide a safe haven for wildlife, a rabbit may seek shelter, a salamander may call it as it home, snakes may hunt rodents there, butterflies and other insects may overwinter and birds can use it as a hiding spot or safe place as the go-between area of the yard.  Consider placing it in between two areas like the woods edge and a pond.  It is a great transition area as they move between the two spots.  Allowing vines to grow over the brush or log pile will help keep it looking well intentioned.  I leave my Christmas tree in the very back of property ever year as it offers the benefits of a brush pile.  Of course a pond can provide many opportunities to shelter for amphibians and aquatic life, no matter the size.

I watched the entomologist Doug Tallamy today and I am going to close with the eight things he suggests we can do to restore the ecosystem to your backyard which will create a habitat-friendly yard:

  • Cut your lawn area by at least ½ then add in native plants
  • Plant for specialized bees, the generalist will use them too
  • Remove the invasive plants from your yard that are outcompeting the natives (English ivy, Barberry, porcelain berry, privet, to name a few)
  • Plant keystone species that will offer the most bang for your buck (oak, native cherries, native willows, goldenrods, aster and native sunflowers)
  • Landscape for caterpillars – see my description above about layering plants around your trees
  • Reduce light pollution- use motion sensors, replace white bulbs with yellow or use LED lights
  • Cancel your mosquito spraying- the sprays kill anything despite what ”Joe” tells you.  Natural products are still poison!  Need to stop them at the beginning of the life cycle –larval stage.  Fill a bucket then add a mosquito dunk after they have laid their eggs.
  • Eliminate  all insecticides.  Insects are not the enemy, they are bird food

I highly recommend you read Doug Tallamy’s new book “Nature’s Best Hope” this winter in preparation for this spring.  It will help you plan your gardens and landscape to create a more friendly and inviting habitat to the “little things that run the world”- insects – (E.  O. Wilson.)  If we start by creating a safe place for insects the birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles will follow.  It is no longer enough to think nature exists somewhere out there, it begins in your own backyard and Tallamy’s book will help you create your own Homegrown National Park, and maybe you will be our next Habitat Hero.  I am happy to help you come up with some ideas of where to start.

Contact me at president@capeconservationcorps.crg

Native Alternatives for Your Landscapes

By: Stacey Wildberger

Let’s talk about some native alternatives to non-native, even invasive, common plants found in our landscapes.  First, what are the definitions of native, non-native and invasive?

  • A native plant is one that has formed symbiotic relationships with native wildlife over thousands of years, and therefore offer the most sustainable habitat. A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction. (National Wildlife Federation).
  • Non-native or exotic plants are ones that evolved in other parts of the world, or were cultivated by humans into forms that don’t exist in nature, do not support wildlife as well as native plants. Occasionally, they can even escape into the wild and become invasive exotics that destroy natural habitat. (NWF)
  • An invasive plant is a plant that is not native to the ecosystem, which can cause economic and environmental harm to the ecosystem by out competing the native plants.

Most typical landscape companies are going to use a variety of over-used, non-native plants in their installations because they are widely found and often times cheaper than a native alternatives.  Typical foundation plantings will include non-native holly species from Japan, China or Europe, nandina, barberry, liriope and some hostas.  None of these plants offer any wildlife value: they are devoid of life and disrupt native food webs. You can make a difference to the ecosystem with a few simple swaps, either removing a non-native or invasive plant you already have with a native, or choosing native alternatives when you are adding to your landscapes.

Hedera helix English ivy has long been used to create the look of a classic English garden but we now know it climbs our trees, killing them.  If you are looking for a groundcover that will be beautiful and provide wildlife benefits there are several groundcovers that you should consider.  Chrysogonum virginianum green and gold is semi-evergreen that will delight in the early spring with its cheerful daisy like yellow bloom. Asarum canadense wild ginger’s heart shaped foliage has a velvety texture that will add interest as groundcover, with a small, dark red to brownish flower that develops in between the two leaves.

Geranium maculatum

Hostas are quite popular for many local gardeners because they are low maintence but they offer no value to the natural world around them. This is another one that Asarum canadense wild ginger could be used instead.  You could also use Geranium maculatum wild geranium for a pop of color.  This will spread quickly and form a beautiful groundcover. Also check out Polygonatum biflorum Solomon’s seal in place of hostas.

Day lilies or ditch lilies will take over and choke out native plants that are supporting our ecosystem.  There is a very interesting alternative that is very under used but will offer great structure and interest to your- Eryngium yuccifolium rattlesnake master.  They mid-summer blossom is highly attractive to adult insects. If you are looking for an orange alternative use Asclepias tuberosa butterfly milkweed.  Not only do you get the orange color but you are providing larval host plant for Monarch butterflies.

Rattlesnake master

There is another underused plant, a shrub that is an ideal alternative to Spiraea japonica spiraea – Ceanothus americanus New Jersey tea with its similar shape you won’t notice the difference but the wildlife that benefits from you choosing a native will! Itea virginica sweetspire would also work well in place if spirea.

To replace the overdone liriope there are many beautiful species of Carex.  I recommend Carex blanda woodland sedge or bright green ornamental Carex plantaginea seersucker edge for a beautiful alternative with wildlife value.

Carex plantaginea

Instead of using chrysanthemums in your fall garden, plant any number of our native Asters, they provide fall color in an array of pinks to deep purple and offer a nectar source for migrating butterflies.  Paired with the dazzling yellow Solidago sp. You will have a fall combination that is beautiful to behold and beneficial to insects.

People will argue with me that butterfly bush is not invasive and it attracts so many butterflies but this a highly invasive plant that offers nothing but a high sugar nectar—the equivalent to us eating a candy bar.  And not one species of Lepidoptera will use it as a host plant.  There are several beautiful natives that will attract your butterflies just as well.  The one that comes to mind first is Eutrochium sp. Joe Pye Weed.  The E. maculatum species will reach heights of 6-8’ and be covered in swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes and many more!  Use Asclepias syriaca common milkweed as another alternative, not only is it an important nectar source but it is a larval host plant for monarchs. If you want a shrub to replace it with go with Clethra alnifolia summersweet, this sun to shade lover will bring in many different pollinators.

Viburnum dentatum

I have saved the “best” for last. Please, please consider getting rid of Nandina domestica nandina and Berberis  barberry.  These two are highly invasive, even if you don’t see it spreading in your yard trust me the birds are carrying those seeds in their bellies and spreading them far and wide into the natural areas where they will wreak havoc on the natural landscapes.  They form dense stands that will outcompete all natives.  The barberry stands become a haven for ticks! The nandina berries are toxic to birds and have been known to kill cedar waxwings. These two shrubs are revered for their gorgeous fall colors so let’s look at some shrubs that will offer you the colors you want and add value to the surrounding wildlife and enhance the ecosystem.  The list for alternatives is lengthy and I’ll share just a few.  I advise looking up the conditions these native alternatives prefer and match them to your site.  If you are looking to capture that amazing fall color of burning bush use Physocarpus opulifolius ninebark, Vaccinium corymbosum northern blueberry, Itea virginica sweetspire, Hydrangea quercifolia oakleaf hydrangea and Viburnum dentatum for a beautiful autumn red display.  If it is the red berries of the nandina that captivate you consider using Ilex verticillata winterberry, Aronia arbutifolia red chokeberry and I would highly recommend using Ilex glabra inkberry for its deep ink colored berries, and it is evergreen!

Inkberry

We need to reach deeper into our imaginations to find alternatives to the use in our landscapes that should be more about providing for wildlife, giving back our landscapes for the greater good of Mother Nature.  Re-think what pretty means and stop making our gardens “an expression of personal style” that imparts human supremacy over wildlife. (Benjamin Vogt)

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