Seasons in the Meadow

Meadows change. All landscapes change, of course, even the most formal manicured gardens. But native plant meadows are wilder, less predictable. Nature has a freer hand where plants are allowed and expected to reproduce naturally, and where humans impose less control over conditions. In each season since the initial planting of our native Meadow (see last week’s blog post here), we have been surprised, sometimes frustrated, and always fascinated by the changes we see. Our challenge is to accept as many of nature’s changes as we can, while preserving the value of the Meadow for nature itself.

In the Northeastern US, which was once almost entirely forest, naturally-occurring meadows are typically “successional.” They occur when a storm or fire opens a spot in the forest and more sunlight allows grasses and wildflowers to emerge. Eventually, woody shrubs and tree seedlings settle in, grow taller, cast shade, and the forest returns. Unfortunately, in modern times, any newly opened ground is immediately colonized by invasive species, plants from other parts of the world that out-compete native plants because they have no natural insect or animal controls here.

So, maintaining a designed meadow in the Northeastern US requires effort to prevent invasive plants or forest from claiming the space. The incredible value of a native meadow as habitat for insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals makes that effort totally worthwhile. 

Guy Pardee of Suburban Natives, LLC mowing the Meadow in early April

We begin each year in the Meadow by mowing to prevent tree seedlings from developing, and to allow sun and water to reach new growth. The timing of mowing is important. We need to wait for over-wintering insects, including native bees and caterpillars, to emerge from their hiding places in leaves and hollow stems, usually in late March or early April. The Meadow is cut to the ground, leaving plant debris in place to add nutrition to the soil and to protect emerging growth from late frosts.

Seedlings of White Pine, sumac, and birch appear every spring, trying to re-forest our Meadow
Plant debris is left on the ground after mowing

Spring mowing also allows us to check the Butterfly Arbor and the trees in the Oak Circle for any winter damage. And it’s a good time to look for and remove invasive species before they can hide among the native plants.

Ivy trying to invade the Meadow

A few weeks after mowing, when the first spring flowers emerge, we see that the Meadow has changed again. Each year there are surprises, and occasional disappointments, as plants appear and disappear. We are delighted when native plants volunteer in places they were never planted – a true indication of a healthy landscape! And, sometimes, we notice that flowers we love have disappeared as they reach the end of their life expectancies, or lose ground to stronger plants.

Whorled loosestrife, Wild Sarsaparilla, and Appalachian Sedge are native plants that volunteered at the Meadow edge
Prairie Smoke, a spring bloomer, sadly disappeared from the Meadow after a few years
Photo: Travis Brady

By June, the Meadow is in full bloom. Coreopsis, Penstemon, Baptisia, and many other flowers greet visitors — including butterflies, bees, and countless other pollinators! 

Baptisia blooms in early June
Penstemon and Coreopsis in mid-June

Throughout the summer, the Meadow continues to change – not just seasonal changes, but changes in plant populations. Years after the original seeding, plants have appeared and bloomed for the first time as slow-growing seeds finally matured. And the number and location of plants in the Meadow changes every year.

An uncommon plant, Castilleja coccinea, was included in the original seed mix planted in 2014, but only appeared and bloomed for the first time in June 2021
Joe Pye Weed was not a big presence in the early years of the Meadow, but after one rainy summer, it became prolific

Throughout the growing season, some weeding is necessary to keep invasive plants out of the Meadow. Even some native plants are too aggressive to leave uncontrolled, or they would soon dominate. We make careful edits, avoiding use of herbicide, and quickly fill in weeded areas with container-grown native plants. 

Canada goldenrod is a beautiful native plant, but can out-compete everything else, so we cut it back before it goes to seed

Autumn is the most dramatic season in the Meadow. Late-blooming flowers and grasses change the scene daily with a profusion of color. Seed pods from faded flowers attract songbirds in large numbers, and bees scramble to stock up for winter.

Early September on the Arbor path
Late September flowers
Bumblebee on Echinacea
Switch grass in October
Milkweed seed pod
Photo: Travis Brady
Late October view of the Butterfly Arbor

Meadow plants are left standing all winter to provide seeds for birds, cover for animals, and winter hiding places for insects. There is a lesson here for all of us as home gardeners: a little mess, a little bit of wild in the landscape, can be as beautiful as it is beneficial for living things.

As the light changes with the seasons, the Meadow changes, too. It really is a different place each time we visit!

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN

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.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

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.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

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, @the-natural-web.org

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
THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

Late Bloomers

In the last weeks of summer, it is a treat to welcome new flowers to the garden that not only bring fresh color, but also nourish our native pollinators before winter arrives. Two species of the perennial plant, Chelone (pronounced “key-LONE-ee”), start blooming in late August and continue well into fall. Both make great additions to gardens in the Eastern US, and both are known by the rather strange common name, “Turtlehead.”

Chelone glabra starts to bloom just before Labor Day

White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) has a wide native range, extending from Minnesota to Newfoundland and south to Alabama and Georgia (Zones 3 to 9). It is found in marshes, at the edge of wet woodlands, and along the shores of streams and ponds. That native habitat makes White Turtlehead an obvious choice for sunny rain gardens and soggy areas, but it will happily endure hot weather with occasional irrigation. White Turtlehead stands 3 to 4 feet tall and mixes well with Joe Pye Weed and Cardinal Flower.

White Turtlehead in a rain garden

Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) has a much more limited native range. It evolved in the Appalachian region from Georgia to Virginia, but has become naturalized in New York and parts of New England. Our observations suggest that insects in these northern areas have welcomed Pink Turtlehead, making good use of its nectar, pollen, and leaves. Pink Turtlehead is more tolerant of shade than White Turtlehead, and can be found in moist forest areas in dappled sun.

Chelone lyonii in a protected forest in New York

Pink Turtlehead also grows 3 to 4 feet tall and has an open, somewhat rangy form. There is a widely-available cultivar of Chelone lyonii called ‘Hot Lips’ that is more compact, only 1 to 2 feet tall, with dark green leaves. ‘Hot Lips’ looks great massed under trees or as a front-of-the-border plant in a light-shade garden.

Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’ in late August

Both types of Turtlehead bloom for two months or more, with flowers opening sequentially from the bottom to the top of each stalk.

‘Hot Lips’ in a shade garden in mid-September
‘Hot Lips’ in October

Both the scientific name and the common name relate to the appearance of the flowers as they open. “Chelone” comes from the Greek word for “turtle.” The name makes sense if you see the flower from the side angle – it does look a bit turtle-ish.

 White Turtlehead
Turtlehead?
Turtle head! (Actually, this is the Nature Center’s Sulcatas tortoise. And as for those turtle “hot lips”? Just recall beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)
Photo: Travis Brady

Chelones are beautiful late bloomers, but the best reason to have these plants in your garden? Entertainment! All day long, wiggling bumblebees work their way into the flowers to find nectar. Bumblebees and carpenter bees are just heavy enough and strong enough to force the flowers open, collect the pollen, and fly off to the next flower. Watch them at work in this video clip:

 Entertainment!

The nectar pay-off is deep inside the flower, so the bumblebee picks up pollen on the way in and on the way out. The pollen will be transferred to the next flower when the bee brushes against the protruding curved stigma.

What the bee sees…

Turtlehead is a frequent addition to children’s gardens because watching the bumblebees climb into these beautiful blossoms never gets old.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.