Summer is here!

Well, it has been here for some time now, but it took some time to heat up this year. The tropical plants on the porch have survived the cool June nights and are now adding new leaves. As for the garden, the sunnier spots are in full bloom with milkweed, butterflyweed and beebalm feeding monarchs, wasps, bees and hummingbirds. It’s a matter of days before the perennial sunflowers turn the whole area bright yellow.

I shrunk the lawn by another 40% this year and the perennial beds are now several yards in width. I have populated the newly gained land with marsh milkweed, cardinalflower, blue lobelia, and obedient plant as anchoring vegetation, with plenty of room left to fill in next spring.

One of my new favorites is campanula americana (american bellflower). I grew it from seed last year but only a few plants survived the slugs. I had totally forgotten about them but they are now 4 feet tall and full of blue flowers. The bumblebees just love these! I hope to get some seed so I can start them up again next year. They are biennal in this area.

Campanula americana

bumble bees on Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed). Despite the name, this plant does quite well in dry areas. Since it is so popular with insects, I have plans to add several hundred to my garden. While the flower is somewhat showier than common milkweed, the latter has a much fruitier and amazing smell.

One of the flowers of Opuntia humifusa (prickly pear cactus). The plant was given to me by a friend a few years ago, and now I have a little cactus patch with at least 20 flowers. Maybe there will be fruit this year. In the past I have seen chunks taken out by animals, but the cactus seems to weather this treatment well. The fruit, however, may be more attractive as a rodent snack.

Filipendula rubra, or queen of the prairie – it tends to spread from it’s original location, but I noticed the plant can get outcompeted by taller perennial sunflowers. I have been aiding the queen by weeding somewhat, making sure the leaves get plenty of sun.

This Monarda dydima is quite happy to take over whatever space it can find, easily shading out other plants. Make sure to combine it with early bloomers that tend to go dormant anyway, or plants that can stand a crowd. The roots of beebalm are shallow and can easily be dug up and transplanted elsewhere.

I planted one 8 gallon pot of this purple beebalm about 3 years ago, and it has taken nicely to its home. It is not as popular with the hummingbirds (they definitely prefer the cardinal red blooms), but bees and butterflies are quite happy to partake in the nectar.

Asclepias tuberosa – butterfly weed

Echinacea purpurea – purple coneflower

Need additional ideas?

Every year I make the promise to keep up with the blog, but every time I find myself spending any available time in the garden, sometimes from dawn to dusk. Many plants have not yet found their story and image on this blog, I am afraid. Hopefully this site is not your only source of ideas, because you only get a snapshot of the plant’s lifecycle at best. Of course you can always come by for a visit to take a look, or to see whether I can put some plant material aside in the fall (that is when I usually start envisioning the next growing season and try to find suitable homes for extras)

I would also take a look at what the county or your town has in terms of native plants. I have had great luck with the Master Gardner Association of Cape Cod (gardeners@barnstablecounty.org) – I obtained many young trees and bushes (i.e. hazelnut, sweet pepperbush, etc.) at very reasonable prices. They are not able to provide plant material at all times of the year, but with some advanced planning you can secure native plants for your garden.

There is also CL Fornari, who most of you may know from her Saturday morning plant show on one of the local radio stations. While CL does not focus on native plants (it is a call in show and most callers worry about their vegetables and flowering shrubs), I greatly appreciate the fact that she is chemical averse in her advice, and will do what’s right for pollinators. She also has great advice on trimming and cutting, and she has lived here long enough to know the impact of weather and salt on our plants, including the native perennials we have. When it comes to growing your arsenal of general gardening skills and knowledge, I would definitely give her a listen.

A few years ago I also met Rachel Goclawski – she is an avid forager and has given me great insight into the medicinal and culinary aspects of many of the native plants, as well as the invasives. She enourages wild plant conservation and foraging techniques that don’t deplete the wild populations. But more importantly, she has found great ways to deal with the invasives. For example, rather than trying to fight Japanese knotweed with chemical warfare or manual labor, why not eat them? She is on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cookingwithmrsg/

I know I am leaving out many other sources, groups and individuals, but I will add links or contact info as I think of it. Now it is time to go into the garden!

Call me Cylon

I know, the title is an odd reference to the cybernetic antagonists in the old Battlestar Galactica science fiction series, but the male hummingbird that arrived in the garden a week or two ago reminded me of one of those robots with the red “eye” going from side to side. Said hummer went face to face with a chickadee and in a similar manner aggressively flew left to right just inches away until the relatively bigger bird moved to a different perch. That was apparently not enough for our “Cylon” and he pursued the animal relentlessly until it flew off altogether. This was near the sunflower seed feeder, not anywhere near the nectar feeder which is on the other side of the yard. I’ve seen hummingbirds chasing and displaying this behavior within the species, but this behavior toward other birds is new to me…

Winter Hikes on Cape Cod

I am titling this post “winter hikes” not winter walks, because the place on Cape Cod we’ve most recently explored has offered a much more rigorous workout than our previous walks. This walk was yet another one we found in The Nature of Cape Cod by Beth Schwarzman; I am honestly not sure how we’ve missed it to date – since we’ve been using this book as a guide for Cape Cod walks for several years now.  But anyway, the site is called the West Barnstable Conservation Area. It doesn’t look like much from the road, but once you get on you really feel like you are in “the woods” as it goes for miles. Schwarzman mentioned you could “get lost”, and at points our first time there we sort of did. Schwarzman failed to emphasize how hilly and rocky it was; every other short path was up (and then down) a steep hill, making the hike feel like a marathon. I would not recommend this hike for anyone who has issues with their knees or walking; I also could see how it might be treacherous if it is icy. Most Cape Cod walks we’ve been on and written about really don’t have that issue. The pain was worth it though, one really felt that you had left civilization on a cold March day. The path we took, starting at Route 149, did not have a lot of signs, so we walked and walked until we decided to call it a day and turn around  – eager to check the map and plan our return. We did return, a week later, with a better idea of our surroundings and ended up walking most of the way back directly under the powerlines. The lack of hills made the walk back that much shorter. Forget crossfit, do this walk a few times and you’ll be in shape!

White pine and setting sun

Today we returned to this area for our third time. It was a very warm April day, and we entered the path from a different area than we had previously, finding it less hilly but even more remote feeling. There were lots of road signs, and I tried to remember landmarks (fallen trees, stuff like that) so we found it easier to navigate the paths and remember where we had been. The first few times we walked in this 1,100 acre site, we encountered bikers and dog walkers, but today – perhaps because of the out of the way place we entered the path – we were alone. (For the most part, the difficulty of the terrain here keeps casual walkers away, but from what I’ve heard from locals it is a popular mountain biking area so I would expect to see more as tourist season arrives on Cape Cod.) Schwarzman mentions that although it might not be the forest primeval, this “large area of unbroken woods can give you a sense of what this country looked like before Europeans arrived”. The huge very old pine trees you’ll encounter here are truly striking, add to that a few hundred holly trees and together it creates a pretty lush green atmosphere – making me forget for a while where I was – Cape Cod in April – which offers pretty much a barren winter landscape this time of year. We plan to return soon, as there are still many areas to explore and find on these paths.

Back in the swing of things

It’s been a while since I contributed to the blog. Blame it on lack of time, or not finding the muse, who knows. It was not for lack of floral display or animal behavior in the yard. Sometimes you just don’t feel like doing something, and there is no exact timeline for regaining your appetite. This year we broke up our usual winter pattern of enduring whatever weather comes our way, and we spent some time in Costa Rica. I can get used to the 80s and 90s, let me tell you – even the humidity stops bothering you after a few days. We were there at the end of dry season and some of the countryside on the Pacific side that did not receive rainfall or is not near water looks like our New England winter with leafless trees, However, even on that side of the continental divide there is still a lot of lush green and color by means of flowers and birds in the cloud forests. Of course, there was still the wet tropical forest on the Caribbean side, where the dry season means it only rained twice that day. I don’t want this to be a travel summary, but it was nice to pretend to be a snow bird and come back to relatively mild, somewhat spring like weather.

I missed the peepers this year, they were already out and about in their choirs and solo performances when we arrived back from our trip in the middle of the night on April 2. A day later than planned, as our flight was overbooked by the airline (not United). We were not happy as this was fallout from a volcano erupting nearby some 4 days earlier – flights that day were cancelled and that started the dominoes falling. We settled for another uneventful night at a hotel near the airport. If the event at United Airlines had occurred a few weeks earlier, we could have taken that example and opted for another approach.

I did not miss any first native bloomers, though, as the first flower did not appear until April 12. We did have some cold stretches late in the winter, but I was surprised it was this late. Order was restored, however, as rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) emerged first, beating american globe flower (Trollius laxus) by the better of half a day. These plants are obviously not representative for the whole of their species, as many rue anemonde are still barely emerging from the surface, and other american globe flower plants will surely beat them to the punch. Not exact science, just a little private bet I have with the native plants in my yard.

There have been some other interesting sightings since our return. A nuthatch pair have taken residence in one of the birdhouses. They picked the one nearest the bird feeder and the bird bath – prime real estate. They have been fairly aggressive at the feeder toward chickadees and other similar sized birds, so it was not unexpected to see that they got first dibs on the new dwelling. The male spent considerable time and effort hammering out a bigger entrance. I am not sure what their reno budget was, but they have already started bringing in nesting material.

Bluebirds have been coming to the feeders in amazing numbers – Until this spring, I only saw the birds once in a while in other people’s yards or in the field somewhere. 4 to 8 birds (likely pairs) have been faithful attendees, especially at the suet feeder. They will likely soon move on further north, or they will disperse and find nesting locations.

Just the other day I saw a brown squirrel in the trees next to my yard. I have seen them in the woods on Cape Cod before, but they are still a fairly rare sight, and I understand they are under some pressure from grey squirrels taking up territory and pushing them out. The brown squirrel came back today, and he obviously did not get the memo – he or she was displaying aggressive behavior toward a few grey squirrels and actually chased them off on a few occasions. I am assuming that the brown squirrel is nesting nearby and will not easily give way to the bigger grey adversaries.

By chance we drove by Chapin beach in Dennis today, and decided to walk on the beach. Much to our surprise there was a pod of 6 or 8 right whales not even 100 yards from the surf swimming by. They were close enough for us to hear the sound of them exhaling water through their blowholes. Only 525 are left in the world, and it was sad to hear about the juvenile found floating dead the other day. The cause of death is unknown at this point, but a boat strike was suspected. When I saw this pod surface around a fishing boat equally close to shore I was a bit worried, but it seemed that the crew was well aware of their submerged company and they were moving slowly. Now I can take this off my bucket list.

We recently got a new pet, and he is far more interested in animals than our previous pet was. We don’t let him run around the yard without a leash with concern that he would devastate the wildlife we are trying to cultivate (or become a victim of wildlife himself). However his keen eyesight and interest has given me chances to see many more animals in my yard than I had seen previously. For example, a couple months ago, my pet was intently staring out the window. When I looked to see what he was gazing at I saw two beautiful large deer in the heavily wooded area between my yard and my neighbors yard.

More recently my pet was acting really excited in that same part of the yard. I heard a clicking noise and could not for the life of me figure out what sort of animal would make such a noise. I looked closely at the spot where the sound was coming from for quite some time and finally noticed a bat just hanging out and washing himself in the bottom of  a tree. I hadn’t seen bats that close since a trip to Central America, so that was really cool. And just a few days ago, my pet alerted me to the presence of a beautiful box turtle, which we promptly moved to a safer part of the yard.

Box turtle

Box turtle from above

We’ve noticed lots more skunks this year – when I see the white stripe I usually get out of the skunk’s way quickly, making sure my pet comes with me. The skunks don’t seem afraid at all, in fact we caught one by mistake in the humane trap we had set for the groundhog and he was more curious than angry. We are thinking that perhaps since the groundhogs are not around this year – skunks – a key competitor – are feeling more safe and comfortable.

Earlier this summer I saw my first mink. Two of them were walking near the marsh in Yarmouthport as we were biking by. They were small animals – not much bigger than squirrels – and we had to look them up in a nature guide to figure out what they were. The thought of a mink coat seemed really weird after seeing how wild and small this animal actually is.

When I had looked out at my yard in the past generally I would see lots of grass, flowers and trees. It’s really great that I am now helped by the great eyesight of my new pet, and I am able to be aware of so much more going on in the yard – from box turtles to bats – animals I had only seen in museums, in books or on trips (or sadly sometimes as roadkill on our Cape Cod roads.) Now when I look out at the yard, I know now there’s a lot more than meets my eye out there, all contributing to the wonderful flora and fauna that makes Cape Cod one of the most wonderful places to live in the world.

Unfortunately, as time would have it, we were able to do very few winter walks on Cape Cod this year. We were able, however, to see a few new sites and revisit some of our old favorites. Our goal this year was to check out some of the areas on the Upper Cape, as we had really focused on the Lower Cape (towards Provincetown) in winter 2014/2015.

One of our first walks back in February was the Maple Swamp conservation lands in Sandwich. It was a bit hard to find – the sign for the site was facing opposite of the way we were driving, so we drove right by it. I have to say that the most interesting thing about this walk was seeing all of the homes along the service road that parallels Cape Cod’s Route 6. There is a whole community there that I never knew existed. When I would ride along route 6 by this area I always assumed it was bordered by woods – but beyond that thin veil of trees in Sandwich is a large group of homes – it really feels like a suburb. The Maple Swamp conservation area was not the prettiest or most interesting walk, in fact it seemed to be used mostly by dog walkers who had left their souvenirs, which was unfortunate. That said, it was not unpleasant, if rather devoid of noticeable wildlife perhaps due to the heavy foot traffic there.

The Scorton Creek area in Sandwich has a beautiful marsh view – you almost feel like you could walk out to Sandy Neck in minutes, the view is so clear. I highly recommend this walk, it’s clean, peaceful and pretty.  A lonely tree swing adds to the serene, dreamlike mood of the place. This is a good area to spend a couple hours exploring, as close by is the Old State Game Farm and the Nye Homestead. We decided not to walk the trails on the Old State Farm on this particular day, as a horde of dog walkers had descended on the parking lot. The Nye Homestead is owned by the Thornton Burgess Society, and has a great little museum, jam shop and gift shop which we enjoyed visiting the year before.


We have yet to finish all of the walks in Beth Schwarzman’s “The Nature of Cape Cod” book, although undoubtedly there will be a few we may miss as some sites are more geared to boaters or kayakers than walkers. Her suggestion of the Quashnet/Moonakis River site (Mashpee and Falmouth) was quite nice. We walked around part of this area located at John’s Pond, after parking at the Mashpee Town Beach and then continued on an unmarked trail which ended up being much more of a time commitment than we had thought. Perhaps we will visit there again. I got some beautiful images of the pond. They stock the pond with fish, and a few men were hoping to get a bite on this unseasonably warm March day.

Johns Pond

Gray’s Beach is our usual biking destination, we had never actually walked the wooded trails that this area offers – so we decided to check it out in late March. Although it goes through a small residential area, this path was quite beautiful, with scenic footbridges and a nice view of some of the taller buildings on 6A. The only thing I disliked about this walk was the fact that someone had dumped several pieces of furniture marring the scenery in the beginning of the trail area, which was quite shameful – I imagine our tax money will be used to clean this soon if it hasn’t been done already. (Thanks for dumping in a nature trail to save a few bucks idiots.) Note: We got a little lost where the path entered the residential area, not knowing quite how to get back on the path we ended up starting at a different point completely. So expect to do a little exploring, potentially through what seems like private property, on this trail. The name for the area is Chase Garden Creek or Callery-Darling Conservation Area. If you see one place on Cape Cod – at least on Mid Cape – the views of Gray’s Beach are gorgeous, especially at sunset. I don’t recommend the beach itself, although it definitely draws a crowd in the summer – as little black biting flies – no matter what the month in summer – descend in droves. It’s flies like that that make me relieved I don’t have a home there – although this neighborhood in Yarmouth Port is absolutely gorgeous. Also, Greenheads, even worse biters than the black flies, make an appearance for a good (pardon the pun) chunk of the summer every year. The “chunk” pun refers to the fact that Greenheads don’t sting, they bite a chunk out of you – a topic which never fails to terrify guests.

One particular weekend in early April we felt like re-visiting an old standby – we wanted a longer walk to a place where we knew we would be rewarded with gorgeous scenery – so we revisited Bridge Street conservation area in West Barnstable. No deer this time, but we had a total of 5 ticks between the two of us upon finishing this walk – it’s reputation of being very ticky there stands true. As Beth Schwarzman says of this short hike: “This isn’t the forest primeval, of course, but this large area of  unbroken woods can give you a sense of what this country looked like before Europeans arrived.” We certainly enjoyed the peace and quiet this 1,100 acre conservation  area provided to us. This is a walk I would definitely avoid in the summer – it does get overgrown especially if you hit it during a time they haven’t cut back the path – which gives the ticks lots more opportunity to snack on you.

We had just about 45 minutes on one weekend day in early April so we took the opportunity to revisit the Yarmouth Historical Society nature trails in Yarmouth Port which is  60 wooded acres along a pond about  1.5 miles behind the Yarmouth Port Post Office, on Route 6A. This short walk, not mentioned in Shwarzman’s book but something we came across from driving by, never disappoints.




In the 5 or so years I have maintained this blog I have been keen on logging the first flowering native plant. Every year rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) has been the first to emerge with flowers they usually emerge in early to mid April. I was expecting the same hum-drum consistency and reliability.

Not this year – even though rue anemone is surprisingly early – I have flowers on them right now, and they unfurled yesterday on April Fools right before the onslaught of the rain that has flooded and ponded the garden today. This year the First Bloomer cup goes to american globe flower (Trollius laxus). I was totally unprepared for this as the tiny plants wasted no time to put their flowers on display March 23 – more than a full week ahead of the competition.

American globe flower 2016

The mild winter may have pushed for an acceleration of sorts – other plants are well ahead in the production of basal leaves (common wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). I also have one trout lily that will likely flower tomorrow – it is so close to opening up… I seem to remember having more in years past, I hope they will still emerge despite seeing heavy foraging and digging by squirrels last fall.

In one sun exposed spot foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is about to bloom, while the same species in a shaded location has barely sprouted fresh growth.

The vultures have been in evidence for a good two weeks, and apparently some ospreys are back, although I have yet to see the pair on a nesting pole down the road. The feathered and beaked displays of spring have come in waves, with different species flocking across the landscape every couple of days. First it was the robins, then the red-winged blackbirds, and just yesterday the grackles were making a familiar ruckus in the trees.

The peepers have been putting on concerts pretty much every day for well over a week now. Music to my ears, but probably causing despair to some friends of ours who mentioned a while ago that these little critters were the bane of their existence, affecting their sleep and sanity… I guess it’s true when they say it’s the little things that will get you.

Of course, it may all come to a (temporary) halt tomorrow, with cold, snow, and high winds coming through on a fast moving clipper.

Either way, time to get out and about! Most of the clearing and planting is finished. I removed some non-native Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonerica morrowii) bushes that were showing their age and wear, and replaced them with an assortment of serviceberry, summersweet, winterberry, and chokeberry. In year 5 of a 10 year plan the yard is shaping up beautifully. While the honeysuckle bushes provided shelter and privacy, they are not ideal – the berries don’t offer much food value to wild life, and the bushes push out native shrubs and kill off most of the ground flora, including spring wildflowers. Morrow’s Honeysuckle develops its leaves earlier than other shrubs and the leaves stay on well into late fall, early winter. This shrub originates from Asia but has been dispersed throughout woodlands everywhere – I often see it along Cape Cod’s many walking trails.

Grassy Goodness

We talk a lot about the beauty of native plants we’re cultivating in our yard, but recently I have read evidence that our yard may be positively affecting the lack of discomfort we’re enjoying during some of the more sweltering summer days. We have enjoyed a seventh summer without the expense of air conditioning, all thanks to the shade of multiple trees and our cultivation of what I have recently heard can be called a “Freedom Lawn” (not to be confused with “freedom fries”). In Adam Rome’s “The Bulldozer and the Countryside” Rome explains how homebuilders a century ago designed human dwellings with the climate in mind; where the wind might blow (or not) and where the sun might hit – these aspects were used to their fullest advantage to design homes that were going to be cooler in summer, warmer in winter. The 50s and 60s changed all that, the trend became to build homes with the idea that they will be heated or air conditioned. Our home was built in the late 70s – the builders had great style but were not environmentalists. For example roof solar panels are not an option due to the direction it faces. Other factors about the way the home was built, however unintended, give us the pleasure of shade in summer and a breeze that goes throughout the home. The homes’ “ahead of its time” open floor plan allows the home to breathe – unlike the claustrophobic style of closed off rooms so popular from the 50s to the 80s.

The “Freedom Lawn” I mention comes from a very entertaining book by Hannah Holmes called “Suburban Safari”. Holmes mentions how, beyond the obvious environmental and health wins one gets with a chemical free lawn, a lawn that is allowed to grow “naturally” can give your yard as much as a 30 degree difference on a very hot day. Holmes describes the feeling of stepping onto a lawn, and the cooling effect it has – I had never thought of that but have definitely experienced it. And I had no idea that a lawn can do this, for example: “there’s a whiff of evidence that planting the right kind of lawn can remove even more carbon from the air, acre for acre”. What is the “right” kind of lawn you ask? Read Yale’s school of Forestry and Environmental Studies’ book called “Redesigning the American Lawn” – or Google Freedom Lawn or the New American Lawn to learn how proponents say that what we do now can affect cancer rates, pollution and water shortages. Americans spend $75 billion dollars a year on maintaining lawns; this doesn’t include other costs, such as costs to our health.

We actually don’t have a strict “Freedom Lawn” over much of the yard  – meaning we don’t just let things grow unattended; our yard would be a muddy mess without some help. We plant grass seed and clover, and we pluck other things that grow in the grass like oak trees and native flowers, which we often replant in other parts of the yard. We do that by plucking by hand or trimming with a mower, not with poison. Its not a perfect looking lawn, but it works for us.

Trapeze artist


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