Gone Native: A Massachusetts Farm and Garden

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The Sousas have turned their farm into a sanctuary for migrating birds, insects, bats and native plants, and for Ellen's horses.
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Speck, the Sousas' border collie, cohosts habitat garden tours. Here he shows off native butterfly milkweed, a great plant for sunny spots.
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With a little toil and a lot of love, a Massachusetts family turned an ordinary plot of land into a Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat.
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The Sousas transformed this area from a badly eroded streambank into a rain garden with wild bergamot, boneset, garden phlox and little bluestem. The plant roots prevent further erosion.
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There's always work to be done on the farm, and the many kids who visit get a chance to experience farm life firsthand.

We fell in love the moment we saw this farm. My husband, Robert, and I had been looking for a property where we could fulfill my dream of keeping my horses at home rather than boarding them. A passionate gardener, I immediately recognized the potential of this 4-acre parcel of hemlock- and beech-wooded river valley in central Massachusetts, complete with a farm pond, stream and large pasture. Previous owners had established wonderful garden “bones” with fieldstone retaining walls and electric fencing to keep horses from eating the plants and shrubs.

Beautiful as the property was, it needed a little love. I was eager to eradicate invasive and non-native plants and encourage a diverse and robust habitat of native plants, insects and wildlife. We planted groups of wildlife-friendly shrubs (such as gray and silky dogwood, serviceberry, bayberry, blueberry, viburnum and chokeberry) to create thickets, which provide habitat for birds, snakes, insects and small mammals. These shrubs provide sustenance to migrating birds who return (exhausted and hungry) here in spring. Once established in their natural growing conditions, the plants don’t require fertilizer or supplemental irrigation.

I bought a few native plants, then collected their seeds and propagated them in larger numbers. I grew beautiful native flowering plants such as butterfly weed, liatris, coneflower, boltonia, rose mallow, Virginia rose, rudbeckia, New England aster, perennial sunflowers (helianthus) and switch grass. We also encouraged the wild goldenrod to seed itself, providing late-season butterfly nectar and bird seed.

Birds, bats and butterflies

During our first summer here, we watched ruby-throated hummingbirds visit the bee balm, trumpet honeysuckle, verbena and scarlet runner beans. Bats moved into the bat house and gorged on horse flies and mosquitoes–making our horses very happy. Butterflies visited the salvia, aster, sunflower, zinnia and cosmos, and monarch caterpillars hatched on the scarlet milkweed I grew in a pot on the patio.

The first winter, we put up bird feeders and nesting boxes to encourage birds to stay. That spring, a pair of tree swallows nested in the birdhouse at the edge of our pasture and our barn hosted a family of Eastern phoebes. Both birds are insect-eating machines, so we were happy to have them. Since then, they have returned every spring, like old friends.

We also left an area next to our riding ring unmowed, allowing native grasses such as little bluestem to grow, and we saw fireflies for the first time during our second summer here. We seeded white Dutch clover into bare areas of the lawn and encouraged wild violets and bluets to grow into a low-maintenance lawn that stays green without irrigation, even in hot, dry August. Our spring-flowering “lawn” is a nectar source for early-season butterflies and pollinators, in turn attracting birds hunting for insects to feed their nestlings.

Naturally clean water
Our farm has water flowing through it, and keeping manure and excess nutrients from our barn and composting areas away from it is a challenge. We moved the horse fences away from the pond’s edge and ended up with some great planting areas–full sun with constant moisture! We planted native bird- and pollinator-friendly shrubs and perennials such as bee balm, great blue lobelia, swamp milkweed, New England aster, blue flag iris, Joe Pye weed, Turk’s cap lily, summersweet, ninebark, cranberry viburnum, elderberry and winterberry holly. This area now thrives with no irrigation and little fuss, and it provides a smorgasbord of food and cover for winged visitors throughout the year. The vegetation acts as a natural buffer to the pond, filtering pollutants and absorbing runoff from the barn.

We left part of the pond’s edge as a rocky shoreline, which gives snakes, turtles and butterflies warm places to bask on sunny days. The rocks also invite kids to net a frog or sweaty gardeners to dip their bare feet in the water on hot days. Our pond is a magnet for nature-starved children, and we leave nets and buckets out for them to try catching a tadpole, a shiner or, hardest of all, a catfish.

If life gives you manure…
With horses at home, composting is a way of life for us. We produce rich compost using horse manure, kitchen scraps, pizza boxes, brown grocery bags, fall leaves and yard trimmings. I even shred white paper junk mail and add it to my compost–which I find very satisfying!

Because of our compost, we don’t need  chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers on our property. Adding the compost to the pasture and lawns encourages beneficial soil organisms and worms, and ultimately provides even more food for visiting birds. And, by composting our organic waste, we send little waste to landfills. With our town’s system of trash disposal, in which you pay only for the trash you throw away, we save money by composting.

We reclaimed large areas of lawn and created planting beds by dampening old newspaper and cardboard with a hose and spreading them in thick layers to smother the grass underneath. Robert dumped tractorloads of partially composted manure on top of the layers.

Bounty for all

Coaxing crops out of the glacial rubble of our soil is not always easy. We use raised vegetable beds enriched with semiannual tractor loads of compost and include companion plants to entice beneficial insects and repel pests, resulting in great yields and nearly eliminating pest problems other than the occasional potato beetle (easily flicked into a jar of soapy water and thrown into the compost pile). I plant lots of flowers in and around the vegetables to attract pollinators, whose services ensure a bountiful harvest.

In 2006, we registered our property with the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat. We still have work to do. We’re trying to curb the invasion of Japanese pachysandra and vinca, which have spread from former gardens into the woods, crowding out native plants. I’m on the constant lookout for the ubiquitous seedlings of Asiatic bittersweet, multiflora rose and the highly invasive woodland plant garlic mustard.

Each year, we attract new and interesting wildlife visitors, and we love the ever-changing spectacle of life here. Growing some of our own food is satisfying and healthy and the daily routine required to keep farm animals connects us to the earth’s cycles in a way that seems to shelter us from the stresses of the outside world. It’s a good life.

Making way for beneficial plants
As we took an inventory of our property, we found many non-native, invasive vines and shrubs choking out our region’s natural vegetation. We spent a year or two removing thickets of multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle and pulling out miles of the Asiatic bittersweet vine muscling out hemlock and birch saplings. We also removed the burgundy-leaved Japanese barberry and burning bush planted by previous owners. These popular horticultural shrubs are now listed as invasive plants in Massachusetts and banned from sale.

After removing the invasives, we immediately started planting nectar plants (for butterflies and hummingbirds); seed-producing plants (for birds and small mammals); and native shrubs and understory trees to provide shelter, nesting sites and safe travel routes for birds, insects, frogs, snakes and bats. 

We allowed fall leaves to build up at the edge of the woods and were gradually rewarded with New England native woodland beauties such as lady’s slipper, trillium and Solomon’s seal. Ferns filled in any bare spots. The results were well worth the effort.

Ellen Sousa is a garden coach, writer and teacher living in central Massachusetts.
Reprinted with permission fromMother Earth News.

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