How We Made a Meadow

It was a weed-infested patch of land just steps away from the busiest commercial corridor in Greenburgh. A little less than 2 acres, it had been neglected for decades. But it was flat, sunny, dry, and open. Perfect for a meadow!

 Overwhelmed with invasive weeds
Meadow site cleared

After an initial clearing, we got a better look. There were some nice native birch trees, an ancient stand of bayberry, and several old apple trees remaining from what had once been an apple orchard. 

We were very lucky to meet a talented landscape architect who offered to donate his design services to the Nature Center. Bill Boyce of Biosphere Landscape Architects brought his expertise in natural landscape restoration to the project. He designed a space that would retain the best features of the site, while adding places for education and contemplation. Our guiding principle was to create and preserve a diverse habitat of native plants for insects, birds, and other animals.

Bill Boyce of BiosphereLA
Bill’s design plan

We knew that the most natural look for the meadow would require planting from seed, carefully selected for site conditions, using a large variety of native wildflowers and grasses. For that, we turned to Larry Weaner of Larry Weaner Design, the foremost authority in the Northeastern US on designing and planting native meadows. Larry formulates custom seed mixes using a complex formula based on seed germination rates, aggressiveness of various species, length of time each species takes to germinate and establish roots, and many other factors. Like Bill, Larry was kind enough to contribute his time and expertise for the Nature Center’s meadow project. 

Larry Weaner, expert on meadow design and planting

In December of 2014, we cleared the site again, much more thoroughly, removing as many roots of the weedy invasive species as possible, but leaving a few valuable native plants. Bill marked off the areas to be seeded, and we carefully hand-cast Larry’s specially-formulated seed mix.

Final thorough clearing and marked off planting areas
Hand casting seed in the new meadow before rolling to press seed into bare soil
Bill Boyce, Cathy Ludden, Larry Weaner, and Travis Brady did the final clearing and hand-seeding in December 2014

Bill’s design included an Oak Circle, which we hoped would become a calm space for meditation, as well as contribute the immense ecological value of native oak trees. Bill also designed a Stone Classroom, where our staff naturalists could work with students on-site in the meadow.

Newly-planted Oak Circle
The Stone Classroom

It takes at least 3 years for a seeded meadow to establish. Soon after plants emerge in the first spring, the meadow is mowed to about 6 inches in height. The idea is to cut back returning invasive species, which grow faster, giving the native seeds time to germinate without being overwhelmed. Two additional mowings the first summer, at increasing heights, keep invasive weeds under control as the new native plants develop roots.

First season meadow is kept short to allow new seeds to germinate, Spring 2015

In the second season, the meadow is mown once in the spring, and once more in mid-summer. The third year, the meadow is mown only once in the spring, as it will be annually thereafter.

Baby native plants appear in the meadow

In the winter of 2016, Bill Boyce constructed our Butterfly Arbor, taking his design inspiration from the wings of a Monarch Butterfly. He allowed native sumac shrubs to remain near the Arbor to soften the edges of the design.

The new Butterfly Arbor in April 2016
Design inspiration

The Arbor has removable doors and is specially designed to allow netting to be suspended inside for our annual butterfly exhibit

Preparing for the butterfly exhibit, Spring 2016

The native plant meadow at the Nature Center is now 8 years old. It has matured, but it still changes each year and in every season. It has become the very special place we hoped it would be. It is filled with life and beauty.

Monarch visits Swamp Milkweed
A diverse array of wildflowers

The meadow is a wonderful place for education and contemplation.

The Stone Classroom in use
The Oak Circle is a peaceful spot

The meadow is a joyful place to explore for people of all ages.

Next week in Around the Grounds we will discuss meadow maintenance and how changing seasons affect the meadow.


Good Weed, Dude!

No, not that kind! 

The “good weeds” we feature here are special native plants that pop up spontaneously in our gardens, lawns, and roadsides. They may be “weeds,” but they are also beautiful and important to local birds and pollinators. So, before deciding to get rid of them, you might pause, consider them a gift from nature, and allow them a place in your garden. After all, what is the difference between a “weed” and a “wildflower”? If a native wildflower appears in your garden, is it a nuisance or a happy accident? 

Native plants (the plants that evolved in a particular ecosystem without human intervention) may — and should — propagate themselves in their natural habitat along with the other plants, insects, and animals that evolved there. When these native plants “volunteer” in our yards, especially in the right spot, simply allowing them to stay may be a good choice. And because they are better adapted to their native area, they may out-perform the plants we buy that need special handling, fertilizer, and extra water.


Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a good example. Native to most of North America, Jewelweed is an annual, but it can return each year because it freely self-sows, dropping seeds that will sprout the next season. It prefers rich, moist soil and part shade, but can appear in sun or shade, in soggy areas, and even in heavy clay. The Latin name Impatiens and “Touch-me-not,” another common name for the plant, both refer to the explosive way its seed capsules burst, throwing seed all around the mature plants. 

You may find Jewelweed seedlings in spring
Jewelweed flowers are loaded with nectar

Jewelweed starts blooming in late summer and continues well into fall. The flower is shaped like a cornucopia, and its nectar provides critical energy for migrating hummingbirds and monarchs, as well as late-season bumblebees. The plants require no care whatsoever, and the bright orange flowers light up the fall landscape.

 “Bumblebutt” in Jewelweed

If Jewelweed appears in your garden where you don’t want it, it is easy to pull. But it makes a great show in spots where you can leave it standing.

Volunteer Jewelweed along the street

Another wildflower that frequently volunteers in shady areas is White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata). Native to the Eastern US, it blooms earlier than most asters, beginning in late summer. Native bees love it, and birds eat the seeds all winter. It is not an aggressive spreader, so you can relax if it pops up in your yard. It looks beautiful scattered around under trees and shrubs. You can even find White Wood Aster sold in nurseries if you want to plant it, and it is a great choice for dry shady spots – even where there are deer.

 White Wood Aster (and a bumblebee!)
White Wood Aster is usually low-growing with deep green arrow-head shaped leaves

If you’re lucky, a very similar-looking wildflower may also appear in shady areas in the fall. Common Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) is native to most of Eastern and Central North America and found along forest edges and open areas, as well as in urban and suburban gardens. Its flowers are pale blue and it grows taller than White Wood Aster, typically 2 to 4 feet. We find it along woodland paths and even street-side where deer seem to ignore it, as they do White Wood Aster.

Common Blue Wood Aster volunteering in a patch of ivy
 White Wood Aster, Common Blue Aster, Goldenrod, and Sensitive Fern along a wooded path at the Nature Center

If you live in the Central or Eastern US, you’ve probably seen White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) popping up in various places. Blooming in early fall, White Snakeroot attracts a wide range of pollinators to its nectar-rich flowers. Bees, butterflies, moths, and even spiders preying on the nectar-hunters, all visit the clusters of tiny flowers produced by these native plants.

White Snakeroot in late September
Pure gold green sweat bee
Beet webworm moth
Spider awaiting a pollinator

White Snakeroot has an interesting history. At one time, it was believed – erroneously — that the roots could treat snakebite. In fact, the entire plant is toxic to mammals, so deer avoid it entirely. Early American settlers discovered that if cows consume White Snakeroot, their milk becomes poisonous. Abraham Lincoln’s mother is said to have died from “milk poisoning,” as it was called then.

In the landscape, however, White Snakeroot is dazzling. The plants grow up to 3 feet tall, and the flowers are brilliant white against dark green leaves. Snakeroot is spectacular massed in shade where it can be a very effective groundcover. It does well in part sun also, and in either dry or moist soil. It is an aggressive spreader and can be challenging to control in smaller gardens. Its seeds are produced in large numbers and wind born, but it also spreads by rhizomes. 

White Snakeroot claims territory in the shade of an oak tree at the edge of this front yard meadow

If White Snakeroot appears in an area where there is only ivy or pachysandra, or in dry shade under old trees, or on a tough embankment where other plants struggle, you may just want to leave it alone and let nature take its course!

For more information on “good weeds,” see our prior posts below.

Turning Over an Old Leaf

As fall approaches, we want to remind everyone that leaf litter is critical for many pollinators and other beneficial insects. This post about fall clean-up is worth revisiting…

As we learn more about the critical relationships between plants, insects, and birds, the best advice we are getting about fall leaf clean-up is … don’t!

In the old days, suburbanites taking care of their lawns raked (yes, raked!) fall leaves into giant piles to be burned. The familiar scent of burning leaves was everywhere – and we released tons of carbon sequestered in those leaves into the atmosphere. 

Fall routine

So anti-burning ordinances were passed, and we started using gas leaf blowers to form the leaf piles, or bagging leaves for municipal workers to collect – all at taxpayer expense. Municipalities started spending millions to ship leaves out of the county. Enterprising souls then turned our leaves into compost to sell back to us. Not a good deal for us.

Bagged leaves to be collected at taxpayer expense
Leaves at the curb clog storm drains, a municipal headache

Since that routine makes neither economic nor ecological sense, we started hearing campaigns urging us to use mulching mowers. The idea was to chop leaves into tiny pieces and leave them on the lawn to enrich the soil. That method is a big improvement, and it definitely works — it’s great for lawn health and municipal budgets. 

But we have learned that chopping up leaves has an unanticipated cost. Native bees burrow into the ground under leaf litter to survive the winter. Eggs and larvae of butterflies, moths, fireflies, and many other insects hang on to leaves, or hide under them, until warm weather returns. If we chop up or remove leaves to clear the ground in our yards, we are unintentionally destroying insects that baby birds need for food in the spring, as well as insects we need and enjoy.

Many insects need fall leaf litter to survive winter 
Mourning cloak butterfly emerging in March at the Nature Center
Who is hiding in there for the winter?

The best use of fall leaves – and the best place for them – is under the trees that dropped them. Trees and all other forest plants evolved growing with a thick layer of leaves in the winter. Dead leaves nourish the soil and everything that lives in it. Leaf litter on your shrub and flower beds protects the roots of your plants and protects early buds from freezing and loss of moisture.

Leaves where they belong

Of course, you’ll want to blow (or better, rake!) leaves off of driveways and paths, and either mulch or clear leaves that fall on lawn. But the best place to put them is in your shrub and flower beds and under your trees. A loose, 6-inch deep layer of leaves will not hurt your shrubs and perennials – quite the opposite. If there are still too many leaves, create a leaf pile in an out-of-the-way area, or add leaves to a compost bin. In spring, once the weather is warm and insects have had a chance to emerge, you can mulch the remaining leaves and return them to the lawn or flower beds, or even put them out for removal with spring clean-up.

Use your leaves to protect trees, shrubs, and perennials

Pro tip: Less lawn and more garden makes leaf clean-up a cinch! If your trees are surrounded by garden beds rather than lawn, nature does the work for you!

Healthy yard maintenance is less work!

Bambi Shrugged

A sad, and unfortunately common, sight this time of year is hosta plants looking like this:

Hosta is apparently very popular with gardeners in our region, but it is equally popular with deer. By mid-summer, hosta plants are often chewed down to tattered stems. If you are frustrated that your hosta is just salad for the local deer population, perhaps it is time to consider a great alternative. 

Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ (pronounced “HEW-ker-ah vill-OH-sah”)

Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ (common name Coral Bells or Alumroot) is a native plant about the same size and shape as most hostas, and it grows well in the same conditions. Part shade is fine, and it prefers soil with lots of organic matter, so it is happy under trees and shrubs, especially if fall leaves are left in place. Heuchera is surprisingly drought tolerant once established, so it is an option for dry shade. The leaves are soft and fuzzy and semi-evergreen. They don’t die back completely in the winter, but snow and ice will leave them a bit tattered by springtime. You can clip off any damaged areas before new growth appears. The leaves are far less susceptible to slugs and scorching than hosta leaves, so Heuchera looks better for much longer in the growing season than hosta does.

As the name suggests, ‘Autumn Bride’ blooms with big, white, showy flowers from late summer into fall. The flowers open over a period of weeks, with tiny buds on a stalk rising 6 to 10 inches above the leaves, opening to fluffy flowers loaded with nectar for bees stocking up for winter.

Heuchera flowers sustain bees late in the season
Each stalk holds many tiny flowers full of nectar and pollen

But the best thing about Heuchera is that deer apparently hate it! 

Deer stepped on this Heuchera, and devoured the hosta around it, but they left Heuchera alone!

The common name, “Alumroot,” refers to the plant’s very astringent quality, similar to the effect of the mineral, alum. Finely ground roots of the plant have been used for generations as an astringent to treat external wounds, including to stop bleeding, and for various internal ailments. The leaves are also astringent, and though deer will occasionally try a bite, they soon learn to avoid it.

Deer definitely prefer hosta

Heuchera is a genus of more than 50 species, all native to North America. ‘Autumn Bride’ is a selection of Heuchera villosa, which is native to the Eastern US, though the northern extent of the native range is subject to some dispute. Authorities differ on whether H. villosa and its cousin, Heuchera americana, were originally found as far north as New York, but both species do very well from Connecticut to the Carolinas and west to Arkansas and Oklahoma and are hardy in Zones 4-9.

Horticulture professionals have been busy developing hybrids of multiple species of Heuchera, crossing H. villosa and H. americana with species native to the American West, and inventing an array of multi-colored leaves and bright flowers. They also have crossed Heuchera with Tiarella, another native plant, further expanding the range of colors, leaf sizes, and flowers available in the trade. ‘Autumn Bride,’ at least initially, was a “selection” rather than a “cultivar” because it was propagated by seed from pollinated flowers rather than asexually by cuttings. While most nursery stock now is likely from asexual propagation, ‘Autumn Bride’ does reproduce consistently from seed, which offers some ecological advantage over hybrids or cultivars.

‘Autumn Bride’ brightens a late-season shade garden

Combining the lovely white flowers of ‘Autumn Bride’ with other shade perennials is easy.  It looks lovely with Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonnii ‘Hot Lips’), Christmas fern, Canadian Wild Ginger, or White Wood Aster (all deer resistant plants). 

Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ is a great garden plant. And it is a definite improvement over all of the non-native hosta we see sadly reduced to celery stalks by voracious deer.


How Did That Get Here?

If you like reliable, predictable, disciplined plants that remain where you put them and return every year, then this plant is not for you. Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is unreliable, eccentric, and unpredictable. But it also has the truest, deepest red flowers you are likely to find. It brings hummingbirds without fail, and is absolutely captivating!

Lobelia cardinalis, common name Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower blooms for weeks in late summer. The flower stalks are 3 to 5 feet tall, and the flowers open in succession from bottom to top. The flowering portion of the stem can be 2 or 3 feet long, and the leaves are deep green, providing a perfect background for the flowers.

Individual flowers open over several weeks

Cardinal Flower is nature’s original hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds are drawn by the intense red color and plentiful nectar. The flowers are precisely shaped for pollination by hummingbirds, and the plant depends on hummingbirds for pollination. The flower’s pistil and stamens arch above the nectar supply, perfectly placed to brush the hummingbird’s head as it feeds. Pollen collects on top of the bird’s head, and when the hummingbird moves to the next flower, pollen is transferred.

The structure holding pollen just fits the top of a hummingbird’s head like a tiny cap, depositing pollen
Photo: Courtesy of Mary Anne Borge,

Bees also visit Cardinal Flowers, but most of them can’t reach the nectar deep inside the long tubular flowers, so they have become “nectar thieves.” They bite a hole into the flower tube and suck out nectar from the base of the flower, completely avoiding the pollenating structure. They are considered “thieves” because they take nectar without providing pollination service to the plant. Nectar-for-pollination is the basis of the plant/pollinator relationship, and these bees are cheating! As long as there are enough hummingbirds around, though, Cardinal Flower will survive.

Honeybee and bumblebee avoiding the pollen structure and stealing nectar from the flower tubes

Lobelia likes wet, sunny locations, and is hardy in Zones 3 to 9. It is native to American wetlands, along ponds and streams, and is found from New Brunswick to Minnesota and south from Texas to Florida. Lobelia is considered a “short-lived” perennial. The original clump dies back after producing flowers, but it may send “off-sets” or shoots from the original clump into nearby areas, and it may also drop seeds around the original plant, thereby maintaining a presence. Or, it may not. Even in optimal conditions, Lobelia sometimes simply disappears from where it was planted, which is disappointing.

Seed pods form after flowering

As Lobelia finishes blooming, seed pods remain on the tall stalks where they ripen, producing lots of very tiny seeds. Larry Weaner, horticulturist, landscape designer, and native plant expert, explains that the seeds need to sit on top of open soil, exposed to sunlight, to germinate. So, he recommends disturbing the soil around Lobelia plants in the fall, and leaving the seed pods in place all winter to open up and drop their seeds. By roughing up the soil around the plants, you provide the open soil necessary for germination, increasing the likelihood of Lobelia coming up again where it was planted.

So, what makes Lobelia unpredictable, whimsical, and even a bit mysterious? We planted Lobelia in a sunny rain garden, theoretically a “perfect” location, but it disappeared after a few seasons. Several years later, it popped up in a dry meadow on the opposite side of the property, hundreds of feet away. How did the seeds move across the property?

Lobelia planted in a rain garden disappeared after 2 seasons
Lobelia appeared 6 years later, an acre away

The seeds are much too small to be eaten or carried by birds. Although it is conceivable the seeds are carried by wind, literature on the subject is far from conclusive. Larry Weaner’s observations suggest the seeds may attach themselves to soil, which is then carried by rainfall, but inevitably downhill.

So, how did this get here? The Lobelia on this property moved across a driveway, across lawn, and uphill to the other side of the house. A few years later, it also popped up across a patio in a fern garden, and then over a hedge and under a huge cedar tree. Then it mysteriously appeared in a backyard shrub border. And it recently appeared by a downspout.

Lobelia volunteered in a fern garden
Lobelia also popped up in a shrub border
Near a downspout

At the Greenburgh Nature Center, we recently spotted Lobelia next to a path at least 100 yards away and around a corner from the only place on the property it was ever planted.

A little volunteer along a path

We are not sure why Cardinal Flower disappears from the places it’s planted, or how it moves around, or why it decides to appear where it does. We are starting to suspect that the seeds are carried on the soles of our shoes as we work in different parts of the garden, but we are open to other theories and observations!

In your own garden, if you want predictable, reliable perennials, there are lots of other great native plants to choose from. But if you enjoy a little mystery, a few surprises, a gorgeous plant, and happy hummingbirds, you will be delighted by Lobelia cardinalis.

Lobelia cardinalis catching the afternoon sun