Category Archives: Wildlife habitat

Creating a Rain Garden

Do you want a garden that’s easy to install, looks good year-round, requires little maintenance, and helps prevent water pollution? Rain gardens are shallow depressions designed to soak up water and support trees, shrubs, and flowers that tolerate both wet and dry conditions. Often located near gutter downspouts or places where water puddles, rain gardens can also be landscaped into gentle slopes or run curbside along streets.

Giant hyssops, switchgrass, and goldenrod are some of the species growing in this rain garden at Cornell Plantations in Ithaca, planted next to its parking lot to absorb and clean polluted storm-water run off. Photo

Giant hyssops, switchgrass, and goldenrod grow in this rain garden at Cornell Plantations in Ithaca, planted next to a parking lot to absorb and clean storm-water runoff. Photo © Robin Simmen.

By absorbing the rain falling on your land, a rain garden can help reduce the storm-water runoff that pollutes our beaches, harbors, and estuaries. People sometimes confuse rain and water gardens. A rain garden is not a pond and won’t breed mosquitoes, which require 10 to 14 days in standing water to develop from eggs into adults.

The next time it rains, observe the direction of water runoff and where it collects on your property. Your roof may be directing most of the rain falling on it into gutters and downspouts feeding into a storm drain; if so, consider diverting this lost rainwater to irrigate a rain garden via underground piping, or construct a surface swale to channel this water to the garden. If your land slopes gently, you can create shallow terraces (one foot deep or less) for your rain garden or dig out a scallop-shaped bed for it in the hill.

The best plants for rain gardens are happy with a “drought and drench” lifestyle. Native plants are highly recommended because they are uniquely adapted to local weather fluctuations. Also, they require little or no fertilizer, are excellent food sources for pollinators, and provide habitat for birds, insects, and butterflies. Once established, their deep roots increase the water-holding capacity of the soil, hold it together, and prevent erosion. Water a rain garden as needed for the first year or so after planting. By the third year, you’ll never need to water it again!

For information on how to evaluate and amend your soil for a rain garden, do a percolation test to see how quickly water is absorbed, decide the dimensions of a rain garden, and prepare and plant the site, read the CCE Suffolk fact sheet on Creating a Rain Garden, and its companion  Native Plants for Long Island Rain Gardens.

Robin Simmen is a former Community Horticulture Specialist for CCE Suffolk. She can be reached at rlsimmen@gmail.com.

“Plants for Pollinators,” the LI Gardening Calendar for 2017

Now’s the time to buy the Long Island Gardening Calendar 2017, a perfect gift or stocking stuffer for the passionate gardeners in your life. Plants for Pollinators is filled with tips for creating pollinator-friendly gardens on Long Island. With beautiful photographs every month, this calendar features information on how to support bees, flies, wasps, butterflies, moths and birds by planting native habitat for them. Blueberries, strawberries, apples, carrots, broccoli, and pumpkins are among many plants that require pollinator services to produce fruits and vegetables — which means we need pollinators, too!

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A flower fly visits a Rosa virginiana, a native rose. Photo © Mina Vescera.

This high-quality calendar discusses how to analyze your landscape to plan a pollinator garden and how to include nesting habitat for insects, and gives you a resource list of organizations and websites where you can learn more about sustainable horticulture and pollinators. There’s even a list of where to buy native plants on Long Island! Purchase calendars at the front desk at CCE Suffolk, 423 Griffing Avenue in Riverhead for $5 each; or use this order form to have them mailed to you for $7 each to cover their cost with postage.

Whether you’re a beginner or advanced gardener, there’s something here to inspire everyone who wants protect and support pollinators. It’s time to start planning for next year’s garden, and calendars are limited, so pick up or order Plants for Pollinators today!

Robin Simmen is Community Horticulture Specialist for CCE Suffolk. She can be reached at rls63@cornell.edu or at 631-727-7850 x215.

Growing Vines in the Landscape

When gardeners think of flowering plants, what usually comes to mind are annuals, perennials, and a few trees and shrubs. Although often overlooked, vines also have great potential in home gardens as they can create shade on pergolas, add vertical interest to arbors, adorn fences, or even serve as decorative ground covers.

Our wonderful native honeysuckle attracts hummingbirds.

Our wonderful native honeysuckle attracts hummingbirds.

To select a vine, first consider how it grows. Does it twine like a honeysuckle vine? Does it cling with aerial roots like a climbing hydrangea? Or does it produce tendrils like a clematis? Knowing how the vine grows will dictate the type of support you need to provide for it. Also think about the site: Is it sunny or shaded? Are you trying to attract wildlife? Do you prefer an evergreen plant? Here are a few vines worth considering:

Honeysuckle Vine (Lonicera sempervirens)

Our native honeysuckle vine is a great choice for a sunny site. It will happily twine its way in and out of a picket or chain-link fence, arbor, or trellis. As the botanical name suggests, this vine is evergreen in a mild winter. Honeysuckle vine is among the first plants to bloom in spring, serving as a bright beacon for Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds making their way back from southern climes where they overwinter. This vine grows 15 feet or taller and can withstand hard pruning. Some cultivars bloom continuously with red, orange, pink, or yellow flowers from spring until fall, providing all-season interest. Honeysuckle is prone to powdery mildew, but siting it in full sun with good air movement will keep the plant in good health. Aphids can sometimes be a problem. Be careful: Don’t confuse this native honeysuckle for the invasive, Asian species, Lonicera japonica!

Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla)

Dutchman’s pipe is another great choice if you’re looking for a native vine to cover a large area. This woody-stemmed, twining vine requires a strong trellis, wall, or pergola to support it. It will tolerate sun to shade in any garden setting, from a manicured garden to a tough urban site. Dutchman’s pipe was a popular choice in the 19th century, draping over large Victorian homes. The vine produces small, inconspicuous, purple-brown flowers that produce a unique odor and are often pollinated by flies that crawl into the “pipe” and get stuck within the hairs inside the flower. Once a pollinator is caught, the flower hairs wither and the insect can crawl out, covered in pollen. If you’d like to invite pipevine swallowtail butterflies to your garden, this is their host plant.

Dutchmans pipe creates a dense barrier of foliage.

Dutchmans pipe creates a dense barrier of foliage.

Passion Flower (Passiflora caerulea)

Blue passion flower, also known as hardy passion flower, is a unique option for a protected site. This passion flower is said to be hardy to USDA zones 7 and 8, but a harsh winter will probably knock this vine back to the ground. Passion flower climbs by tendrils, sometimes reaching 20 feet and higher. Unique purple-blue flowers are produced on new growth on and off throughout the growing season. If you’re looking for a native variety, Passiflora incarnata ‘Maypop’ is a hardy passionflower up to USDA zone 6. Pale-lavender flowers bloom throughout most of our growing season on Long Island. Maypop is also the host plant for the Gulf and Variegated Fritillary butterflies!

Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)

Climbing hydrangea is a great alternative to English ivy. Like ivy, this clinging vine uses aerial roots to attach itself to porous, vertical surfaces. You’ll be graced by large, lacy, white fertile flowers surrounded by a circle of larger, white sterile flowers in summer (think lacecap hydrangea). Plant a climbing hydrangea in sun to partial shade in rich, well-draining soil. Though this vine grows well on the trunk of a tree, it is not healthy for a tree to bear the weight of another plant. Instead of a tree, choose surfaces like wooden stockade fences, stucco siding, and stone walls. Climbing hydrangea is notorious for starting off slowly and establishing its root system for a few years before it takes off. Have patience, it’ll be worth the wait!

Morning Glories Ipomoea spp.

If you like to change it up every year, consider growing annual vines such as these in the morning glory family: moonflower (Ipomoea alba), cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifidi), cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), and the traditional morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor). Moonflowers open at night, providing bright-white, fragrant blossoms for evening dinner parties. Morning glories bloom in the morning and begin to fade by mid-afternoon. Gardeners often combine moonflower and morning glories together on one trellis to provide a continuous bloom day and night. Cypress vine and cardinal climber can be added for a pop of bright red to attract hummingbirds and other pollinators. Ipomoea spp. can be direct-sowed in a sunny site with good drainage. They grow rapidly, twining in and out of a trellis, arbor, or fence.

Cypress vine makes a great splash of color on a wooden fence.

Cypress vine makes a great splash of color on a wooden fence.

These are just a few of the many vines we can grow on Long Island. For more options and information on growing vines in home landscapes, check out our CCE Suffolk Horticulture Fact Sheet: Flowering Vines for Long Island: Indoors and Outdoors

Sandra Vultgaggio is Horticulture Consultant for CCE Suffolk. She can be reached by email at sib7@cornell.edu or by phone at 631-727-7850 x387.

Hairy Bittercress: A Mustard with Momentum!

What is that battalion of tiny white flowers appearing all over the lawn so early in the season? The one with the lacy green doily at the base, and sword-like seed pods, and the maroon cast? Gasp! It is the hairy bittercress!!! Now before you call out the weed police or haul out the weed killer, consider this: Did you know that hairy bittercress is a very important early source of pollen and nectar for bumblebees? As such it should be conserved along with (double gasp!!) dandelions.

Bittercress plant with flowers and seed pods just starting to develop. Photo by Andrew Senesac.

Bittercress plant with flowers and seed pods just starting to develop. Photo by Andrew Senesac.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s settle down to learn a bit about hairy bittercress habits and some do’s and don’ts for dealing with an outbreak of it.  This weed grows best in damp, recently disturbed soil.  Be wary of digging it up in spring because this practice opens holes for crabgrass to emerge.  A winter or summer annual, different varieties of bittercress have different heights. A key characteristic is its basal rosette, a “doily” like circular array of leaves at the bottom of the plant. The weed will germinate in fall or winter but grows best during warm weather. It quickly invades thin turf especially where there is good soil moisture. Shade encourages its growth, and it may escape mowing by low growth. Post-emergence control for it generally includes using 2, 3, or 4-way herbicide; treatment during its basal rosette stage is best before it throws up a flower stalk and begins to produce seed.

Hairy bittercress thrives in sandy, organic soil. Wash your nursery containers rather than leaving them around with soil clinging to them—dirty containers harbor its seed, with six times more seedlings emerging from dirty containers than from those that are rinsed. Also, containers lying around tend to breed Asian tiger mosquitoes! Now you have two good reasons to clean up your containers.

Hairy bittercress has exploding seed pods but little germination of fresh seed. Instead, its seed ripens with high temperatures. The higher the temperature, the greater the temperature range at which subsequent growth will take place. Hairy bittercress can germinate from April through November; however, autumn is its main period of emergence. Peak flush of germination is in November and December, but this varies from year to year. We don’t notice these plants until spring when they throw up flowers and seedheads, seeming to mock us from our winter-bound vantage points as we eyeball our winter weary lawns. Just remember: Each hairy bittercress you allow to flower helps support our vital pollinators when they really need the nectar and pollen these plants provide. So help out a bumblebee, and leave hairy bittercress alone if you can; it’s an annual so it’s gonna die anyway….

Dr. Tamson Yeh is CCE Suffolk Turf Use and Land Management Specialist. She can be reached at tsy3@cornell.edu or 631-727-7850 x240.

Vole Control: Time to Be Vigilant

Have you had trouble with voles over the past few years? Our harsh, snowy winters have created ideal environments for voles to thrive. Voles can wreak winter-time havoc on young trees, shrubs, perennials, and your lawn. Fall and early winter are the best times to implement controls for mitigating the damage these small creatures can do.

The meadow vole is common on Long Island. Photo by John Mose.

The meadow vole is common on Long Island. Photo by John Mose.

A vole is a small rodent resembling a mouse but with a stouter body, a shorter, hairy tail, a slightly rounder head, and smaller ears and eyes. Two species of voles reside in New York State: the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and the pine vole (Microtus pinetorum). You can read descriptions of each and more about their biology and habits in this Voles fact sheet on our website.

Hidden from predators, voles happily travel under snow cover, feasting on blades of grass and the bark of trees and shrubs. Voles like to gnaw around the circumference of woody plants until they are completely girdled. Once the snow melts, the damage is clear: long, 2-inch wide runways of beaten down, damaged turf grass, and woody plants that suddenly die after the first flush of spring growth.

Here are a few ways to deter voles and protect your plants by reducing their favorite winter habitats:

  • Clean up piles of leaves and branches.
  • Remove grass and weeds from around trees and shrubs (this area should be clear of grass anyway to prevent injury from mowers or line trimmers).
  • Bare soil is ideal within the first few inches of ground that surround plant bark. At most, put only a very light layer of mulch there.
  • Don’t mulch excessively in flower beds as this will favor vole activity.
  • Before it snows, install fine-gauge hardware cloth around tree trunks to prevent voles from chewing young wood.
  • Make your last lawn mow of the year slightly lower than normal to discourage voles from creating surface trails through longer grass. Lowering the mower deck to 3” works well.

If you find you need to control the population of voles on your property, try using snap-back mouse traps placed in boxes with holes on either side; this is one of the more effective control methods. Populations of voles tends to be highest in the fall and before our first snowfall, so act now!

Sandra Vultgaggio is Horticulture Consultant for CCE Suffolk. She can be reached by email at sib7@cornell.edu or by phone at 631-727-7850 x387.

Managing Landscapes Sustainably

Remember when autumn meant making a pot of soup, pulling out the leaf rake, and spending an afternoon raking leaves into backyard piles for kids and dogs to enjoy? Life in the fast lane has changed all that, degrading the quality of life on many fronts. According to Quiet Communities –a national non-profit organization dedicated to protecting our health, environment, and quality of life from the excessive use of industrial outdoor maintenance equipment—tasks once done manually are now often done with gas-powered machinery. A manicured aesthetic has become the new norm in many communities that barely tolerate even small amounts of leaves or debris. As a result suburban landscapes have lost critical “messy” habitat that insects and other vital species need to live, leading to a loss of biodiversity.

No one wants to breathe in the polluted air created by gas-powered leaf blowers. Photo c Quiet Communities.

No one wants to breathe in the polluted air created by gas-powered leaf blowers. Photo © Quiet Communities.

The deafening roar of gas-powered leaf blowers (GLBs) has replaced the “woosh, woosh” of the rake, and painful noise is just a small, if most noticeable, part of the trouble GLBs cause. Their motors send particulate matter into the air at 200 m.p.h., spewing forth dust, mold, pollen, pesticides, rodent feces, lead, arsenic, other heavy metals, fertilizers, fungicides, and herbicides right into our lungs. These particles aggravate asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and allergies; in fact, particulates have recently overtaken second-hand smoke as the second greatest cause of lung cancer after smoking.

One GLB produces as much smog as 17 cars and blows 5 pounds of particulate matter into the air per hour, affecting the air of 8-14 neighboring properties. “Every time the leaf blowers are in our neighborhood, my son starts wheezing and has to use his inhaler,” said one father in Huntington, New York. Those are just a few of the reasons a group called Huntington C.A.L.M. (Citizens Appeal for Leafblower Moderation) has formed to educate local citizens about the harm caused by unregulated two-stroke Gas Leaf Blowers. The group’s goal is to limit the use of GLBs by commercial landscapers during summertime when more people are outdoors. Suffolk County received a grade of “F” for air quality for the last 14 years, and this group hopes to improve our air by placing a summertime restriction on GLBs in Huntington.

To learn more about how you can make healthier landscape decisions, come to CCE Suffolk’s Managing Landscapes Sustainably conference in Ronkonkoma on November 12. One of the speakers includes Jamie Banks, PhD, MS, Executive Director of Quiet Communities, an environmentalist and health-care scientist dedicated to promoting clean, healthy, quiet, and sustainable landscaping and agricultural practices.

Robin Simmen is Community Horticulture Specialist for CCE Suffolk. She can be reached at rls63@cornell.edu or at 631-727-7850 x215.

Native Plants Champion Biodiversity

Ever wonder whether it really makes a difference whether or not you plant native species? Do native plants do a better job of hosting local insect communities than their non-native counterparts? Now a University of Delaware study shows that not only are natives much better at sustaining local insects, planting non-natives actually compounds the problem of declining species diversity because non-natives support fewer herbivore species across our landscapes.

A yellow swallowtail enjoying a purple coneflower. Photo by Mary Howe.

A yellow swallowtail enjoying a purple coneflower at the Children’s Garden at Suffolk County Farm, part of the National Pollinator Garden Network’s Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Photo by Mary Howe.

The research was conducted by Karin Burghardt and Doug Tallamy, who is professor of entomology at University of Delaware and author of the bestselling book, Bringing Nature Home. Together they published their findings in a recent issue of Ecology Letters: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ele.12492/abstract To conduct their study, they planted imitation yards with different common garden selections of both native and non-native tree species, and then collected data over a three-year period, measuring the herbivore communities and species found on those plants.

Tallamy said that finding young herbivores on a plant is a good indication of how that plant is supporting the local ecosystem, as opposed to finding adult insects, which could be on a plant for a number of reasons, such as resting or looking for a mate. “The relationship between the adult and food is far weaker than the relationship between immatures and food, so when you find adults on the non-natives, it doesn’t mean that much. When you find immatures, that’s what you should be measuring,” Tallamy said. “Those are the plants that are creating those immatures, and so we do get significant differences between the immatures that are using native plants versus the immatures using non-natives.”

He also stressed that that native plants always do the best job per tree of supporting herbivore communities when compared to their non-native counterparts. This study expands the understanding of that fact by looking at whether that lower per tree diversity is magnified further by non-natives hosting more similar communities across trees species and locations.

Burghardt said the goal of the research was to understand how the composition of the plants that homeowners plant in their yards affects herbivore communities. “What the gardens we constructed for the study are trying to replicate are landscaping decisions that people might make if they wanted to support native insect communities that in turn support much of the diversity around us.”

Learn more about how what you plant affects biodiversity at the Long Island Native Plant Initiative’s biennial Native Plant Conference on Saturday, October 24, at Farmingdale State College. LINPI’s Registration Flyer includes a symposium agenda and list of speakers.

Robin Simmen is Community Horticulture Specialist for CCE Suffolk. She can be reached at rls63@cornell.edu or at 631-727-7850 x215.

Buff Up Your Conservation Buffers

Because Long Island is surrounded by water, responsible residents strive to keep pesticides and fertilizers from polluting our coastal and drinking water resources. And as stewards of our land, we need to preserve as much habitat for wildlife as possible. One way to accomplish both goals is to plant garden or conservation buffers. These small pieces of land with permanent vegetation help control pollution while providing undisturbed habitat for wildlife. Examples of buffers include riparian buffers, small wetlands, shallow water areas, herbaceous and woody windbreaks, contour grass strips, living snow fences, and field borders.

Garden buffers like this one at Cornell Plantations in Ithaca can be used to filter polluted run off from parking lots.

Garden buffers like this one at Cornell Plantations in Ithaca can be used to filter polluted storm-water run off from parking lots. Photo © Robin Simmen

Although you may view them primarily as pleasant landscape features, buffers quietly prevent soil erosion, improve soil and water quality, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, reduce flooding, conserve energy, and ultimately conserve biodiversity. By capturing up to 75 percent of flowing sediment and by enhancing infiltration, buffers trap heavy metals. When properly installed and maintained, they can remove up to 50 percent of pesticides and nutrients from polluting coastal waters!

In addition to providing wildlife habitat (increasing the number and diversity of birds and butterflies) and creating corridors for their movement, buffers are attractive, low-maintenance, sustainable alternatives to traditional turf. Water moves more slowly through shrubs and other buffer plantings as compared to turf, thus reducing your irrigation needs. Conservation buffers can also improve your quality of life by reducing noise from the street and odors from garbage.

An added benefit is that buffers help reduce flooding. They also help stabilize streams, enhance biodiversity by providing micro habitats, and decrease and then stabilize water temperature. Fluctuations in water temperatures and warming can be very deleterious to fish and other aquatic creatures important to the stream food chain.

A shallow water area or a small wetland is a place where water depth is usually less than 2 feet with no more than 10 percent of the entire area being over 4 feet deep. These wet areas may be seasonal in nature, such as vernal pools, so you might be tempted to “dry ‘em out or fill ‘em in,” but DON’T DO IT! Not only is it often illegal to do so, but such spots are of particular importance to certain plants and animal species that depend on transient moisture for parts of their life cycles, e.g. reproduction or nesting.

To learn more about how to construct a conservation buffer on your property or how to evaluate your existing landscape, please join me and Joann Gruttadaurio, Senior Extension Associate Emerita, Cornell University, on October 15, 2015, 9:00 a.m. until noon, at the Suffolk County Farm for a hands-on workshop on how to “Buff Up Your Soil and Garden Buffers.” The cost is $30, and preregistration is required. Click here to download the registration form.

Dr. Tamson Yeh is CCE Suffolk Turf Use and Land Management Specialist. She can be reached at tsy3@cornell.edu or 631-727-7850 x240.

Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

The Million Pollinator Garden Challenge (MPGC) has been launched by the National Pollinator Garden Network, an unprecedented collaboration of national, regional, conservation and gardening groups to support the President’s Executive Strategy to “Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” MPGC is a nationwide call to action to preserve and create gardens and landscapes that help revive the health of bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and other pollinators across America. The goal is to move millions of individuals, kids, and families outdoors and help them make a connection between pollinators and the healthy food people eat.

MGPC logo 2MPGC wants people like you to register your gardens through their Pollinator Partnership and thus be added to the map they’ve created in support of this campaign. Along with a handful of other gardens on Long Island, the Children’s Garden, which is maintained by Master Gardener Volunteers at Suffolk County Farm, has been registered and is on the map, which appears in the link below.

To meet the criteria for registering, your pollinator garden should:

  • Use plants that provide nectar and pollen sources
  • Provide a water source
  • Be situated in a sunny area with wind breaks
  • Create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-native plants
  • Establish continuous bloom throughout the growing season
  • Eliminate or minimize the impact of pesticides

For more information and to join MPGC, visit http://millionpollinatorgardens.org

Robin Simmen is Community Horticulture Specialist for CCE Suffolk. She can be reached at rls63@cornell.edu or at 631-727-7850 x215.

Best Plants for Attracting Ruby Throated Hummingbirds

Question: What are the best plants to grow for attracting ruby throated hummingbirds? I put up a bird feeder but was told that having the right plants is really important.

Answer: Yes, growing the right plants is critical for attracting these little jewels to your yard. These flowers provide not only the nectar the birds need but also habitat for all the little insects they like to eat. Best of all, flower nectar doesn’t require cleaning and refilling like bird feeders do!

Bee balm is a favorite flower of hummingbirds in my yard. Photo c Alice Raimondo

Bee balm is a favorite flower of hummingbirds in my yard. Photo © Alice Raimondo

Some of the best plants for landscaping for hummingbirds include the following (there are others plants that hummers can’t resist, but here are the plants they go nuts for in my yard):

  • Trumpet honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens
  • Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis
  • Bee balm, Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’
  • Anise-scented sage, Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’
  • Cuphea, Cuphea ‘David Verity’

On Wednesday, September 2, 2015, you can join me and my colleague Sandra Vultaggio for a presentation and tours about gardening for the ruby throated hummingbird. We’ll start at 3:30 p.m. with a PowerPoint presentation about this magical little bird, including how to attract them to your backyard and keep them coming back year after year. Then take a tour of two local backyard gardens to witness these natural jewels within garden habitats we designed just for them. The cost is $30. Click here to register for the hummingbird workshop and tour.

Alice Raimondo is Horticulture Consultant for CCE Suffolk. She can be reached at aw242@cornell.edu or 631-727-77850 x335.