Privacy Without “O-fence”

Suburban yards are places for families and friends to relax, perhaps enjoy a barbecue, and watch children and pets play safely. Privacy is important.

No wonder, then, that suburban homeowners often decide to plant a “privacy screen.” Hedges of trees or shrubs, planted as living “green fences,” are as common in suburbia as the lawns they typically surround.

But too often, these hedges are made with invasive plants that spread themselves into natural areas causing ecological harm. Top offenders include privet, Japanese barberry, forsythia, bamboo, and burning bush. All of these plants are recognized as invasive species and should be avoided.

Forsythia is not a good choice for a privacy screen
It spreads by underground runners into neighboring areas and is very difficult to remove
Bamboo is even worse
It really cannot be controlled!
Burning Bush
Burning bush may look good for a minute
Burning Bush
But it spreads by seed to wooded areas and replaces native plants
Japanese barberry
Japanese barberry, now banned in several states, spreads by seed into vacant lots, woods, and roadsides and actually increases the population of ticks carrying Lyme disease!

The good news is that the need for privacy does not require bringing any of these offensive plants onto your property. There are so many better choices!

In the Eastern US, the most popular privacy screen by far is Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), also known as Northern White-cedar. Favored by builders and landscape maintenance companies, a row of inexpensive and readily available Arborvitae is often planted along the property line as soon as a new house is built.

Straight rows of Arborvitae are a common sight in suburbia

Though Arborvitae is a much better choice than any of the invasive plants mentioned above, it is not the only — or best — option. In areas populated by deer, Arborvitae is extremely vulnerable.

Deer “prune” Arborvitae into weird shapes
There is no privacy when the deer are done

Here are some alternatives – beautiful evergreen trees and shrubs, native to the Northeast, that make ideal privacy screens. And because they are native, they also offer value to native birds and pollinators!

American Holly (Ilex opaca) makes a dense, evergreen privacy screen and has the bonus of tiny flowers for pollinators in the spring and beautiful berries that add winter interest to the landscape.

American Holly
American Holly may be pruned into a hedge
American Holly
Berries on American Holly feed winter birds

Rhododendron is another good choice for privacy. When European settlers first explored the Eastern US, they struggled through massive stands of Rhododendron maximum that formed impenetrable evergreen thickets. Why not use that same feature now as an effective screen? Our native songbirds love to hide in a thicket!

Rhododendron in the wild
Rhododendron screening a fence

Inkberry (Ilex glauca), another native evergreen, grows quickly and has shiny, dark green leaves that form a dense screen. More winter-hardy than boxwood and growing taller, Inkberry is a great hedge plant.

Red Twig Dogwood and Switch Grass
Inkberry in a mixed border with Red Twig Dogwood and Switch

The very best privacy screen, though, is not a row of one species of plant, but a forest! The Northeastern US was once predominantly forest, and many of the plants in those forests are still the best plants to grow here. In suburban yards, we can mimic the beauty, seclusion, and peaceful quiet of a diverse forest simply by planting more stuff! And a bigger variety of
that stuff is inspired by our native forests!

Maybe it’s time to reconsider our approach to the “privacy screen.”

Hedges can be great, but they can also be visually boring and ecologically sterile. There is no law requiring homeowners to mark their property boundaries with a row of identical plants. Just because your property line forms a rectangle doesn’t mean your landscape has to be one. A diverse mix of plants – native trees, shrubs, grasses, and perennials – planted in masses makes a landscape interesting, lush, ecologically valuable, and very private.

evergreen trees
Contrasting approaches – the mixed border of deciduous and evergreen trees on the right offers more interest, and more privacy, than the hedge on the left
white pine, arborvitae, spruce, juniper, and Rhododendron
A mix of White Pine, Arborvitae, Spruce, Juniper, and
Rhododendron completely screens a house from the road

If you already have a hedge or a fence along the property line, consider planting inside it using a mix of native trees and shrubs that change with the seasons. Start with the corners.

Trained landscape designers tend to avoid square corners and straight lines in their designed plantings. You can do the same thing. Map out curved beds that soften the corners and bring more plants further into your yard. Plant taller shrubs at the back, and choose flowering shrubs and perennials to plant in the foreground where you can enjoy them.

Fences along two neighboring properties meet to form a hard corner that is softened, and completely screened, by a curved planting of mixed trees, shrubs, and perennials

So, consider creating a privacy screen that looks more like a forest than a fence. By planting more plants, and a bigger variety of plants in more of your yard, you will have more privacy, more seasonal interest, less lawn to tend, and more habitat for birds, butterflies, and fireflies.

How’s that for a win-win-win-win?!

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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.


What’s the Buzz?

This week on around the grounds, we learn about the ecological advantages of pollinator pathways. Additionally, get some useful home gardening tips that help our pollinator pals! 

Have you heard all the “buzz” about pollinator gardens? It seems that community groups everywhere are planning, planting, or maintaining pollinator gardens. Schools, parks, churches, and homeowners are adding pollinator-friendly native plants to landscapes all around us. Are you involved?

Pollinator Pathway garden sign

The original “Pollinator Pathway” idea was to create linked gardens through urban and suburban areas so that pollinators could travel, finding what they need to survive along the way.

The concept has grown wildly and Pollinator Pathway organizations are popping up everywhere, including locally in Irvington, Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Bedford, Elmsford, and many others.

Physically connecting pollinator gardens into an actual pathway is less important than having lots of them everywhere. From big meadows to front lawn patches to container gardens on balconies, every blooming native plant helps pollinators.

August Brosnahan and friends started a pollinator garden along the Old Croton Aqueduct
Friends of Dobbs Ferry Waterfront Park planted native plants for pollinators
Photo: Don Vitagliano

Driving this movement is recent documentation of a stunning decline in insect populations, especially pollinators. Since many of our food crops depend on insect pollination, this is a huge wake-up call for all of us. Insecticides, agricultural techniques, and loss of habitat all contribute to crashing insect populations. And since most birds depend upon insects to feed their young, bird populations also are declining rapidly.

The New York Times reports on the “Insect Apocalypse”

Unlike many other global problems, we can actually do something about this crisis — right in our own yards. Pollinator gardens are a powerful force for good. And the bonus? They are gorgeous! Every time we convert a patch of lawn, or bare dirt, or a weed-infested spot to a pollinator garden, we not only provide survival essentials for birds, bees, and butterflies, we brighten our neighborhoods with color and life.

The pollinator garden at Dobbs Ferry Waterfront Park
Photo: Nancy Delmerico
This pollinator garden replaced a lawn in Hastings
Photo: Myriam Beck

So, what makes a garden a pollinator garden? Short answer: native flowering plants. The two main classes of pollinators we are trying to save are butterflies and bees, especially native bees. Bees need flower nectar and pollen. Butterflies need nectar and host plants for their caterpillars to eat. Pollinator gardens should provide all 3 essentials: nectar, pollen, and host plants.

Native bumblebees need pollen from native plants
Photo: Travis Brady

The reason we keep emphasizing native plants is because most of these insects are specialists — they depend upon one or two specific species of plants for survival. For example, there are over 20 species of native bees that can only eat the pollen of Goldenrod! And just as Monarch caterpillars can only eat the leaves of Milkweed, other butterflies’ caterpillars are also completely dependent upon specific plant species – their “host”plants.

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar on its host plant, Zizia
Adult Black Swallowtail on Zizia at the Nature Center

Pollinator gardens do best in sunny spots. Butterflies and bees prefer sunshine and are more active in sunny areas. Any place that lawn grass grows is a good spot for a pollinator garden.

The best plants for pollinator gardens are native meadow or prairie plants. Adapted to harsh environments, they don’t need rich soil and never need fertilizer. Most of these plants are drought-tolerant, so they don’t need irrigation once they are established, and many are deer-resistant. And we recommend perennials rather than annuals, so the plants come back every year. It is easier, and definitely cheaper in the long run, to plant a perennial pollinator garden than it is to buy, plant, water, and fertilize annual bedding plants every year.

Pollinator Garden at the Nature Center

Spring is almost here! If you are thinking about planting or expanding a pollinator garden, there are loads of great resources to get you started. The Pollinator Pathway website linked above has how-to’s and plant lists. Watch for local native plant sales. The Native Plant Center will hold its annual plant sale this year at Westchester Community College on April 30. And the Garden Club of Irvington will have native plants for sale at the Greenburgh Nature Center on May 7, plus lots of knowledgeable help on hand.

And watch this space! Over the next several months, this blog will highlight many of our favorite pollinator plants. Come see them in action at the Greenburgh Nature Center all season long!

Come visit our Pollinator Garden!

Let’s Talk About Plants!

You probably know the Greenburgh Nature Center best for our animals – the animal museum, the barnyard, the raptors, even the wild animals in the forest — all delight visitors and help our naturalists teach about biodiversity and sustainable living.

Now let’s focus on plants! Plants are the first link in the food chain. Don’t all animals eat plants or other animals that eat plants? Without native plants, most species of insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals native to our region would be deprived of critical food sources. If we are passionate about the natural world, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to plants?

Over the past several years, the Nature Center has recognized the urgent need in our community for more native plants to support wildlife. We decided we should begin in our own backyard.

Our first project was the Native Wildflower Meadow. What was once a weed-infested field is now a glorious highlight of our landscape:

Before: a mess of invasive plants
Today: the Meadow is a place to explore and enjoy

What was once treacherous tumble of rock in front of the Manor House is now our lovely staircase and native garden:

Before: weeds and rocks
Today: A place for people, birds, and pollinators

And just this summer, a community group was inspired to plant a spectacular Pollinator Garden, full of native flowers and grasses, right at the edge of the Great Lawn:

Heaven for bees and and butterflies

The impact of these gardens was immediate. Greg Wechgelaer, our Director of Education and beekeeper, noticed that honey production in our beehives increased by over 50% the first season after the Meadow was planted. In addition, the Meadow has become a place for learning and for contemplation.

Naturalist, Travis Brady, teaching in the outdoor classroom in the Meadow
Peaceful moment in the Oak Circle at one end of the Meadow

The butterfly population on the grounds has exploded, and children are finding monarch caterpillars right next to the Manor House steps.

So, now we are talking about plants: what we should plant and where, which plants are best for home gardens, which plants should be avoided, and how everybody can add native plants to our landscapes for the benefit of nature.

Follow this blog to see what is happening on our grounds each week. We will feature specific plants, tell you where to find them on our grounds, and give you tips for how you can grow them, too. We are eager to share what we have learned, and to hear your questions and ideas.

And come take a look around! There are wonderful plants to see right now, and in every season that follows.

This blog will be authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center.