Chilly And Drizzly

Erythronium sibiricum

It has continued to be rather chilly and drizzly here in the northeast. Customers are coming to the nursery and commenting on how squishy their gardens are and for some this means a slight halt to any spring planting. There is certainly some wet areas in our own gardens, but we are still enjoying the blooms of early varieties. The coolness is helping to preserve their blooms and we are delighted by the extended show they are offering.
I’ll post some photos and move along to the outdoor activities that are calling, it’s 5:30 a.m and there’s a full day ahead, best get started! We are still potting up plants for the sales area, continuing to label any new varieties of plants (some real beauties!), sowing seeds in the garden and tending the seedlings in the greenhouse.

Trillium cuneatum

Peony ‘Little Red Gem’


What’s happening in your garden at the moment? Do you feel stalled by the weather? Is it squishy underfoot? What’s blooming?
In a strange way, I actually appreciate that the weather and conditions are present to ‘rein’ me in. I am reminded to work along and beside the natural world I am so privileged to bear witness to. I can engage with it but on her terms and at her pace. When I am impatient, the earth gently waggles her finger at me and says ” I’ll get there when I get there, stop hurrying me”. Thank you dear buds and blooms and shoots and seeds, thank you for reminding me to be still, to wait, to work with and not against. A good blessing for the day!

Allium tricoccum

Sanguinaria canadensis

Primula

Stellaria media

The greenhouse is full of seedlings and pots of plants from our propagation efforts. Rows of sprouted green growth filling the benches and all inching their way upward. Trays of just sown seeds laying slightly beneath the surface of our homemade potting soil. Heat mats and watering systems and seed packets litter the back bench along with a lifetime collection of terra cotta pots and vessels. All of this growth and promise and good intention we’ve sown is accompanied by a little plant that’s trailing along the ground, all by itself, making its way and quenching its thirst from the drippings above. It’s Stellaria media (chickweed)…the wonder plant! I always have to be on the lookout for this little lovely plant. It self sows all along the floor of the greenhouse and if I am not watchful, often Rick will pile pots or row covering on top of it and will hinder it’s delightful and intentional march forward. He is not quite as attentive to the more ‘seedy weedy’ friends that pop up and that I find useful. I’m still training this master horticulturist on the benefits of my weed collection and its encouragement.
I have just harvested a bit of Stellaria and made an infusion to sip throughout the day. Stellaria is an amazing little plant chock full of nutrition. It’s high in chlorophyll and omega 6, as well as calcium, manganese, zinc, iron, potassium, and magnesium. It’s also very high in vitamin C, A (from carotene) and B. It is well known for its ability to cool, draw, and dissolve. It contains a soapy substance called saponins. Saponins are emulsifiers and help to increase the permeability of cellular membranes. Saponins also work at dissolving and breaking down unwanted matter. Because of this, Stellaria has been known to have an ability to combat bacteria, dissolve cysts and benign tumors, and to break down thickened mucus in the respiratory and digestive system. An infusion or tea of chickweed when you have a respiratory infection with a lot of congestion can be just the thing.
Chickweed has often been used to treat eye infections due to its antibacterial constituents and is also soothing because of its cooling properties. I have used a poultice on skin irritations like bug bites or itchy rashes (poison ivy) with great results. Remember, Stellaria cools, draws, and dissolves. All properties that can coax out a stinger or draw out an infection while soothing the spot of irritation.
I’ll keep harvesting this little plant, leaving small clumps to flower and reseed. As the greenhouse temperature increases, chickweed will start to wither away. It prefers the coolness of spring. No worries, I’ll find little patches in the gardens as the ground continues to thaw and warm and my second round of harvesting will happen outdoors. I always feed handfuls of chickweed to the laying hens (what a treat!!) and to the Angora rabbit. Everyone deserves the super powerful spring tonic of Stellaria media! Look for it in your own gardens, make a tea or add it to a salve, eat the little petals in your next salad and know that this little plant is full of good and nutritious energy!

December Here At Fernwood

Wouldn’t you think by now, after a long and busy growing season, that we’d simply be sitting fireside whittling wooden spoons and rubbing the dog’s belly? That would be nice, for us and our pups, it surely would. However, though the activity may be different than it is during those time-sensitive days of summer, our days are full. The work here is seasonal, a constant flow from one end of the calendar to the next. A rhythm of life that can be measured and accounted for. Right now, as we slide into the colder days of the year, the days are measured in firewood and hay and jars of canned tomatoes. We are not moving the sheep fence for rotational grazing, but we are making trips out to thaw frozen water buckets and cleaning stalls. We’re not dragging hoses and setting up the commercial sprinklers, but we are (already!) dropping trees for next year’s winter supply. We are not collecting seed and dividing plants, but we are going over our plant lists, scheduling talks for the 2019 season, and making room for new cultivars that we’ll be offering.
Yesterday went like this: Up at 5:00 to make coffee and stoke the fires… we heat the house using only wood and have at least two stoves going at all times ( there are three in the house not including the studio, which we also keep heated). Next, animal chores. Hay and grain and water the sheep, the chickens, and Hunny Bunny( Sally’s angora rabbit who winters here) and clean stalls. Back indoors to bake off eight loaves of sourdough bread, roast a chicken from the freezer, cook off a shepherd’s pie using ground venison, and bake an applesauce cake. Back outdoors to cut and split wood (next years), gather greens for wreath making, and then bring a load of firewood to a neighbor’s house who is already running a bit low. Indoors by mid-afternoon for some lunch and a cup of tea and a few rows of knitting (Noah’s Christmas socks). Late afternoon, back out to haul in firewood, sort through this past springs fleeces to try and send off for washing before the end of the month, then sand all the footpaths and driveways that are becoming quite slippery. Before dark, it’s animal chores again, being sure to tuck everyone in safe and sound and well fed. Dinner (with a glass of wine, yes, please!), some reading ( right now, Farley Mowat’s book, The Siberians), and a few more rows of sock knitting. Bedtime…8:30 ish, not kidding.
There you have it, a sample day during Fernwood’s winter. Oh, there’s also the vacuuming and the odd projects that we have a list for and the dishes and the rubbing of dog’s bellies. All that too, for sure. This is a good life. A busy, day to day, cycle. It often feels like the days are too short, regardless of the season, but I think most everyone would agree to that. We do the best we can with the daylight hours we have, we save the nighttime for activity that can be done without light, we are happy when our heads hit the pillow. I think my point in writing about our days this morning is to acknowledge how surprised I am, year after year, knowing full well the busyness of each and every season, that the winter months are not as sedentary as one would think. No, they are not. Is the pace different? Yes. Life does go round and round here, we visit the same needs and chores and expectations, month after month, year after year, over and over again. We know it and we know it well. Yet still, I ‘summer-dream’ of winter days spent fireside reaching for my brewing cup of tea and casually flipping the pages of a good book…and, of course, reaching out with my foot with a relaxed bit of effort to rub the dog’s belly. There are a few days in the throes of winter that will indeed center on the indulgent gift of warmth and hot tea and the captivating words of a good story. I’ll savor these, be glad for them, and they will help make the firewood slinging days more pleasurable. Of course, once those bitter days of February arrive, thoughts of green grass and swelling buds and tender shoots will creep into my mind. I don’t consider myself fickle, I am not a person who wishes time away or one who struggles with routine. Perhaps my mind is joyfully entangled and intertwined with the flow of this life, I know what’s coming and I know what’s been done. Most days, I try and just be in it. Inserted. A cog in the wheel. Hopefully, an integral part of the pattern. And that makes me happy and helps to bring reason to this life I’ve chosen.
Enough said, happy December to you all, I must go, there are things to do and dog bellies to rub!

Beginnings

Years ago a dear friend suggested we write a blog for the nursery. It took some convincing. Actually, it took some needling and eventually she had to trap me in the backseat of their pick-up truck on the long drive home from a mountain hike and force me to come up with some words. That was the very first post. It was 2012. We had just spent a beautiful day hiking up at Gulf Hagas, our other dear friend, Moe, was with us as well. I love thinking of that day. I love my dear friend who had strategically tucked her i-pad-y thingamajig into her knapsack in order to hold me hostage in the backseat on the way home. She is a very clever friend. I remember feeling tired and a little hungry and being squished in the middle between Moe and Rick. Then without hardly a notice, I remember my friend turning around in her seat so that her face was close to mine and saying “start talking, this is your first blog post”.I was trapped, and besides, deep down I was pretty sure my friend was trying to do me a great favor. She was and she did, I see that now. (Also, let me just mention that I am fairly sure both Rick and Moe had dozed off at this point…a lot of help they were, those boys! ha!) That was seven years ago.
Initially, the blog was meant to feature the nursery and the plants we grow and if you scan back over the years you’ll find that, yes, there are many entries that talk about specific cultivars or about propagation or the running of the nursery. It’s true that much of our life centers around the nursery, propagating and tending to the plants we grow, raising vegetables and critters. However, I think the blog would have been a very different space if I had stuck to being a purist and only wrote about plants and gardening. There’s so much more that goes on in this life I live, certainly so much more that goes on in my head. Through the years, I’ve shared some stories and thoughts, some recipes and poems, and, hopefully, an insight into our life here at Fernwood. My friend was spot on when she suggested we write a blog. It does help our business. It does give us a ‘presence’ in the world of social media. A place people can go to find us, to check our hours, to get a sense of what we’re doing here. That’s all really good and helpful. The thing it has also become ( My friend knew this would happen…I know she did, remember I told you she is really clever) is a place for sharing and connecting. It has opened up a world of other blogs that I so look forward to reading, it has opened up a network of friends I feel I could pick out of a crowd even though I have never actually met them, it has created a place to share and connect and express. Sitting at the computer is never a seat I easily gravitate to, digging holes and tending plants wins the stronger tug. But, this blog means a lot to me. So, thank you…first and foremost, Kari, for your nudging. I really do believe it had to happen just the way it did… between two snoring men in the backseat of a pick-up truck after a long day of woods, and waterfalls, and friends. You’re so smart! And, thank you to anyone who has wandered over to this here blog of ours, I hope it has been at least a little interesting and entertaining. I’ve enjoyed each and every visit and connection and will try and keep the words rolling (very hard sometimes, I must admit).
Well, now, let’s add a poem to this rambling post. Sent to me by another friend, a new friend, who, like my friend, Kari, also possesses a dear and generous heart. Lucky gal, I am.
P.S. Do you see how I placed a link in the word Gulf Hagus? It goes back to that very first post. Yep, my friend taught me to do that too. To add links. She’s so clever. Enjoy!

The Things That Count
Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Now, dear, it isn’t the bold things,
Great deeds of valour and might,
That count the most in the summing up of life at the end of the day.
But it is the doing of old things,
Small acts that are just and right;
And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;
In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work when you want to play—
Dear, those are the things that count.

And, dear, it isn’t the new ways
Where the wonder-seekers crowd
That lead us into the land of content, or help us to find our own.
But it is keeping to true ways,
Though the music is not so loud,
And there may be many a shadowed spot where we journey along alone;
In flinging a prayer at the face of fear, and in changing into a song a groan—
Dear, these are the things that count.

My dear, it isn’t the loud part
Of creeds that are pleasing to God,
Not the chant of a prayer, or the hum of a hymn, or a jubilant shout or song.
But it is the beautiful proud part
Of walking with feet faith-shod;
And in loving, loving, loving through all, no matter how things go wrong;
In trusting ever, though dark the day, and in keeping your hope when the way seems long—
Dear, these are the things that count.

Collecting

Paeonia japonica

Arisaema consanguineum

Always amazed by the structure of seeds and seed pods while we are out collecting. Blooms may be less frequent now but we are blessed with all the seed diversity in the gardens. Nature’s well thought out arrangement with regard to seeds, pods, and dispersal. Pretty cool, heh?

Clematis viorna

Echinacea purpurea

As The Weather Turns…

The heat seems to have subsided. I think we are all thankful. I know the gardens are thankful. I am not convinced that New Englanders, particularly northern New Englanders, are built for hot and humid weather. After a winter of 20 below and a snow that lasts until mid-April, we are often heard making reference to the ‘hot and hazy days of summer’. We make these comments as if we can’t wait for the near 100 degree days, as if we’ll all lie bare and prostrate into the beating sun and love it. This isn’t quite the reality or our response to the baking sun. Once those brutally hot days appear, once the thermometer readings travel into the nineties, we start moaning. We whine and then comment on places like Texas and Arizona, “how do they stand it”, we say. It scares us. It is way out of our comfort. We complain. Most people in Maine don’t have air conditioning. Most will still roll their windows down while driving to capture a breeze before they would ever consider turning on the AC. I’m not sure if our Subaru even has air conditioning. I know the old 1-ton dump truck we drive doesn’t, it has windows you actually have to roll up or down. Very old fashion.
Since the humidity has passed, Maine people are smiling more now. We have resumed the spring in our step. We’re back to our old selves.
So, yes, the days are shortening and the temperatures are cooling. The weather is tolerable. We still may get some Indian summer days when the temps rise, but they probably won’t be so oppressive. We’ll welcome the continuation of sunshine and gentle warmth. The worst of the heat is probably over so we’ll stop being babies and get back to facing our days without complaint. Afterall, we still have tomatoes to ripen and the eggplants wait for the deep heat to grow plump and turn that amazing hue of purple. The winter squash is relying on a long growing season to mature before harvest. The second cut of hay still needs cutting and days of good drying. And, we don’t have all of our firewood split and stacked into the woodshed yet. Yesterday, after collecting seed and working on propagation in the greenhouse, we did manage to haul some firewood as well. Cooler days will soon turn to colder days!
Certainly, everyone is familiar with the quote from Mark Twain, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”
Luckily, this ‘wait a few minutes’ for the scorching heat to pass us by has come and we are feeling relief here in the northeast. Thank goodness!!

Mid August (almost)

Thalictrum rochebrunianum

Here it is mid-August! Jeepers! It is at this time of year my insides begin to feel’ revved’ up. Lists and lists of things to do and accomplish before the snow flies. So much still to do in the nursery!

Helianthus divaricatus

Tons of propagation for next year; cuttings, gathering and sowing seed, divisions. A walk around the display beds every day to check for seed that’s ripe. Investigating the woody material for the timing of cuttings. We are beginning to see the natural decline of a few plants in the woodland garden, the herbaceous growth fading away, most of their energy going into just root growth now.

Anemone vitifolia


Don’t get me wrong, the landscape is lush with growth. A jungle of vines and stems and blooms that we manage to maintain.

Clematis heracleifolia

The vegetable gardens overflowing with food, all to be brought in and transformed into lunch or supper, the excess canned or frozen or dried. Right now (surprise, surprise!) we are hauling in that every season’s bounty of zucchini. Zucchini parmesan, zucchini bread, chocolate zucchini cake, zucchini fritters, a cheesy ham and tomato and zucchini torte. No, I’m not at my wits end with zucchini. I pass on the excess to neighbors before I get to the point of despair and luckily Zoe’s fiance is Italian and has a hearty appetite. One of the reasons we are happy she’s marrying him is because he eats a lot and he’s not at all picky. Such a good and helpul quailty to bring to our table! The tomatoes are ripening, the onions and leeks are looking great, cucumbers are producing in great numbers ( time to make pickles!), swiss chard, broccoli, and kale filling baskets ( soon we’ll be planting a late season crop of these). Sweet and hot peppers, beets, cabbages, and beans, all rolling in.
As I sweep through the gardens picking, gathering, collecting seed, I can’t help but notice the 8 cord of wood that needs splitting and stacking. It won’t be long, you know! We will make time, it will all get done, the cycle of this life now relies on a lifetime of familiar doing. I’ll quiet my inner ‘whirl’ and enjoy one task at a time, one step at a time. A good practice in mindfulness, in staying with the present. Truth be told, I honor this ‘one day at a time, one moment at a time’ philosophy but also know that as a farmer one has to anticipate the days and season ahead. Perhaps balance is a better practice for now. I’ll hone in on mindfulness in February when the snow is 3ft deep and the woodstove is cranking and when there is not much more to do than sit and read a good book!
Enjoy this last season of summer, friends…what is occupying your time in the gardens right now?

The Month Of April At Fernwood Nursery

It doesn’t matter that after a long day of potting in the greenhouse we sat with cups of tea and looked out at this…We are confident that any emerging plants are hearty enough to weather a little snow falling on them. The ground is warming and many plants are now able to utilize the water that’s being absorbed into the ground. This snow will melt quickly and provide some extra moisture for their new and rapid growth. No worries. It is the potential frigid temperatures we worry about, especially after new growth has started.
As you can tell, our pup Lucky finds that the greenhouse (at 88 degrees) is the perfect place for an afternoon nap. I must admit, that deep warmth does feel awfully good! Some early greens are on hold for just a bit longer before being transplanted into the hoop house. Of course, my favorite early green, tatsoi, will be the first to sink its roots into the warm hoop house soil. I wrote a post about tatsoi last year and you can read about it here if you would like. I can’t wait to be harvesting our very first bunches of this nutrient-rich green. The best!

tatsoi


The onions are coming along and the peppers and tomatoes are developing their first ‘true’ leaves which will provide them with an ability to photosynthesize. As many of you know, the first little leaves to appear are cotyledons or ‘seed leaves’. These are actually part of the seed and they provide a food source for the sprouting seedling.
During this time of year, we use the greenhouse for potting some of the plants that will go into the nursery this season, for sowing seeds that have been in winter storage, and for starting vegetable seedlings. It’s filling fast! Its a precarious time of year. The snow may fall, we are still walking planks that we’ve set down along the paths to the woodshed and the studio to keep from sinking into mud, and on some days all of the windows and doors in the greenhouse must be opened to keep it from getting too hot! April really does have a flavor of at least two seasons mixed into one month! We are so looking forward to our doors opening in the first of May… yet another nursery season! So many great plant selections, old and new. Some great classes scheduled (check here) and some in the works and waiting to be posted. A really fun and skilled based class on mending clothes is scheduled for April 22nd. A fine young textile artist will be on site to teach both traditional and sashiko mending methods. I’ll post this class in the upcoming week! Until then, enjoy this lovely (and somewhat unpredictable) April!

Choose Safe Seed

We can not stress enough the importance and value of choosing to buy seed from companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge. By doing so, you are supporting a company that cares about the integrity of seed diversity. You are also supporting the health and well being of the world’s food, its people, and its communities. There is an ample amount of information regarding the pitfalls of GMO seed and food made from GMO crops. Inform yourself, take a stand, and consider supporting those noble seed companies who are making the Safe Seed Pledge. Have fun scrolling down the list of seed companies who have taken this pledge. Check out what they have to offer, you may find just the variety of heirloom tomatoes you’ve been looking for or a new dry bean that you’ve never grown. And, if you read through the list and don’t see a seed company who you know has taken the Safe Seed Pledge, let us know…we’ll add them to the list!

THE SAFE SEED PLEDGE

“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities.”

Adaptive Seeds
All Good Things Organic (SW)
Amishland Seeds
Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
The Ark Institute
Backyard Beans and Grains Project
Baker Creek Seed Co. (MW)
Beauty Beyond Belief (BBB Seeds)
Botanical Interests
Bountiful Gardens
Crispy Farms
Diane’s Flower Seeds (she has veggies now, too)
Family Farmer’s Seed Co-op
Farm Direct Seed (Hobb’s Family Farm)
Fedco Seed Co.
Garden City Seeds
Gourmet Seed
Grow Organic
Heirlooms Evermore Seeds
Heirloom Seeds
Heirloom Solutions
High Mowing Seeds
Horizon Herbs
Hudson Valley Seed Library
Humbleseeds
Growing Crazy Acres
Ed Hume Seeds
Irish-Eyes
Johnni’s Selected Seed
J.L Hudson
Kitchen Garden Seeds
Knapp’s Fresh Vegies
Kusa Seed Society
Lake Valley Seeds
Landreth Seeds
Larner Seeds
The Living Seed Company
Livingston Seeds
Local Harvest
Moonlight Micro Farm
Mountain Rose Herbs
My Patriot Supply
Native Seeds for the Arid Southwest
Natural Gardening Company
New Hope Seed Company
Nichol’s Garden Nursery
Organica Seed
Organic Sanctuary (SE)
Peace Seeds
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Prairie Road Garden
Renee’s Garden
Restoration Seeds
Sand Hill Preservation Center
Sage Thymes
Seed for Security
Seeds Of Change
Seeds Trust
Select Seeds
Siskiyou Seeds (NW)
Southern Exposure
Sow True (SE)
Sustainable Seed Co
Territorial Seed Company
Tiny Seeds
Tomato Fest
Trees of Antiquity
Turtle Tree Seed
Underwood Garden Seeds
Uprising Seeds
Victory Seeds
Vermont Wildflower Farm
White Harvest Seed
Wild Garden Seeds
Wildseed Farms
Wood Prairie Farm (NE)

Canadian Seed Companies:
Annapolis Valley Heritage Seed Company
Brother Nature
Cubit’s Organics
Full Circle Seeds
Greta’s Organic Garden
Heritage Harvest Seeds (ships to Canada only)
Hope Seeds
Incredible Seeds
Richters Herbs
Salt Spring Seeds
Seeds of Victoria
Seeds Of Change
Solana Seeds
Stellar Seeds
Terra Edibles
The Cottage Gardener

Europe:
Garden Organic (UK)
Seed Site (Italy)
The Real Seed CatUK)

Native Plants and Biodiversity

Not too late to order this book for Christmas!
A great book that helps us to understand the importance of bio-diversity within species. We may not always condsider the reason behind diversity and how it plays an essential role in our ecosystems.
Here’s a great article also by Doug Tallamy that makes the point:

Bringing Nature Home
Gardening for Life
Chances are, you have never thought of your garden — indeed, of all of the space on your property — as a wildlife preserve that represents the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S. But that is exactly the role our suburban landscapes are now playing and will play even more in the near future.

If this is news to you, it’s not your fault. We were taught from childhood that gardens are for beauty; they are a chance to express our artistic talents, to have fun with and relax in. And, whether we like it or not, the way we landscape our properties is taken by our neighbors as a statement of our wealth and social status. But no one has taught us that we have forced the plants and animals that evolved in North America (our nation’s biodiversity) to depend more and more on human-dominated landscapes for their continued existence. We have always thought that biodiversity was happy somewhere out there “in nature;” in our local woodlot, or perhaps our state and national parks. We have heard nothing about the rate at which species are disappearing from our neighborhoods, towns, counties, and states. Even worse, we have never been taught how vital biodiversity is for our own well-being.

We Have Taken It All
The population of the U.S., now over 300 million people, has doubled since most of us were kids and continues to grow by 8640 people per day. All of those additional souls, coupled with cheap gas, our love affair with the car, and our quest to own ever larger homes have fueled unprecedented development that continues to sprawl over 2 million additional acres per year (the size of Yellowstone National Park). The Chesapeake Bay watershed has lost 100 acres of forest each day since 1985. We have connected all of our developments with 4 million miles of roads, the paved surface is nearly five times the size of New Jersey. Somewhere along the way we decided to convert most of our living and working spaces into huge expanses of lawn. So far we have planted over 62,500 sq miles, some 40 million acres, in lawn. Each weekend we mow an area 8 times the size of New Jersey to within 1 inch and then congratulate ourselves on a job well done. And it’s not like those little woodlots and “open spaces” we have not paved over or manicured are pristine. Nearly all are second-growth forests that have been thoroughly invaded by alien plants like autumn olive, multiflora rose, Oriental bittersweet, and Japanese honeysuckle. Over 3400 species of alien plants have invaded 100 million acres of the U.S, and that area is expected to double in the next 5 years.

To nature lovers these are horrifying statistics. I stress them so that we can clearly understand the challenge before us. We have turned 54% of the lower 48 states into cities and suburbs, and 41% more into various forms of agriculture. That’s right: we humans have taken 95% of nature and made in unnatural. But does this matter? Are there consequences to turning so much land into the park-like settings humans enjoy? Absolutely, both for biodiversity and for us. Our fellow creatures need food and shelter to survive and reproduce and in too many places we have eliminated both. At least 40% of Delaware’s plant species are rare or extinct, and 41% of its forest birds no longer nest in the state. Over 800 plant and animal species are rare, threatened, or endangered in Pennsylvania and 150 have already disappeared entirely. Many of those that haven’t suffered local extinction are now too rare to perform their role in their ecosystem. These can be considered functionally extinct. The song birds that brighten spring mornings have been in decline since the 1960s, having lost 40% of their numbers so far. Birds that breed in meadows are in even more trouble. Once common species such as the northern bobwhite, eastern meadowlark, field sparrow, and grasshopper sparrow have declined 82%, 72%, 68%, and 65%, respectively, in total numbers, and are completely absent from many areas that used to support healthy populations.

Why We Need Biodiversity
For most of us, hearing such numbers triggers a passing sadness; but few people feel personally threatened by the loss of biodiversity. Here’s why you should. Biodiversity losses are a clear sign that our own life-support systems are failing. The ecosystems that support us – – that determine the carrying capacity of the earth and our local spaces – – are run by biodiversity. It is biodiversity that generates oxygen and clean water; that creates topsoil out of rock and buffers extreme weather events like droughts and floods; and that recycles the mountains of garbage we create every day. And now, with human induced climate change threatening the planet, it is biodiversity that will suck that carbon out of the air and sequester it in living plants if given half a chance. Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise. Despite the disdain with which we have treated it in the past, biodiversity is not optional.

Parks Are Not Enough
I am often asked why the habitats we have preserved within our park system are not enough to save most species from extinction. Years of research by evolutionary biologists have shown that the area required to sustain biodiversity is pretty much the same as the area required to generate it in the first place. The consequence of this simple relationship is profound. Since we have taken 95% of the U.S. from nature we can expect to lose 95% of the species that once lived here unless we learn how to share our living, working, and agricultural spaces with biodiversity. 95% of all plants and animals! Now there is a statistic that puts climate-change predictions of extinction to shame. And studies of habitat islands with known histories, such as Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal and Ashdown Forest in England, have so far shown these predictions to be accurate. Species are lost at the same proportion with which a habitat is reduced in size. The good news is that extinction takes awhile, so if we start sharing our landscapes with other living things, we should be able to save much of the biodiversity that still exists.

Redesigning Suburbia
What will it take to give our local animals what they need to survive and reproduce on our properties? NATIVE PLANTS, and lots of them. This is a scientific fact deduced from thousands of studies about how energy moves through food webs. Here is the general reasoning. All animals get their energy directly from plants, or by eating something that has already eaten a plant. The group of animals most responsible for passing energy from plants to the animals that can’t eat plants is insects. This is what makes insects such vital components of healthy ecosystems. So many animals depend on insects for food (e.g., spiders, reptiles and amphibians, rodents, 96% of all terrestrial birds) that removing insects from an ecosystem spells its doom.

But that is exactly what we have tried to do in our suburban landscapes. For over a century we have favored ornamental landscape plants from China and Europe over those that evolved right here. If all plants were created equal, that would be fine. But every plant species protects its leaves with a species-specific mixture of nasty chemicals. With few exceptions, only insect species that have shared a long evolutionary history with a particular plant lineage have developed the physiological adaptations required to digest the chemicals in their host’s leaves. They have specialized over time to eat only the plants sharing those particular chemicals. When we present insects from Pennsylvania with plants that evolved on another continent, chances are those insects will be unable to eat them. We used to think this was good. Kill all insects before they eat our plants! But an insect that cannot eat part of a leaf cannot fulfill its role in the food web. We have planted Kousa dogwood, a species from China that supports no insect herbivores, instead of our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone. In hundreds of thousands of acres we have planted goldenraintree from China instead of one of our beautiful oaks and lost the chance to grow 532 species of caterpillars, all of them nutritious bird food. My research has shown that alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals.

Your Garden Has a Function
In the past we didn’t designed gardens that play a critical ecological role in the landscape, but we must do so in the future if we hope to avoid a mass extinction from which humans are not likely to recover either. As quickly as possible we need to replace unnecessary lawn with densely planted woodlots that can serve as habitat for our local biodiversity. Homeowners can do this by planting the borders of their properties with native trees plants such as white oaks (Quercus alba), black willows (Salix nigra), red maples (Acer rubrum), green ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), river birches (Betula nigra) and shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), under-planted with woodies like serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), hazelnut (Corylus americnus), blueberries (Vaccinium spp) . Our studies have shown that even modest increases in the native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great. All we need to do is plant native plants!