Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Wood Ducks move right in on the Ipswich River

Wood duck pair in our backyard on the Ipswich River
In the spring of 2012 our family put up a wood duck box in our backyard along the Ipswich River, about a mile upriver from downtown Ipswich. While we had noticed one or two wood ducks the previous fall right after we moved here, putting up the box was mostly a whim to amuse our two toddlers.  And, although it fit in with our native landscape makeover we were doing to attract wildlife and slow run off to the river, we never thought ducks would actually use it. It's literally twenty feet from our tire swing, sand box, slide and (new this spring) life-sized replica of a bald eagle nest the kids built.
Our not-always-quiet backyard and its wood duck box

Last spring, while we did see a few ducks displaying in our trees, we didn't get our hopes up. And then, on Mother's Day, I saw a hen go in the box. We watched for two hours until she emerged and immediately ordered a tiny infrared camera to go in the box. DuckTV was born.

Mama Wood Duck checking for predators before going out for a snack, April 2014

My girls, then aged two and four, watched DuckTV every morning while 'Mama Duck', as they call her, spent a half hour to two hours laying an egg, then rejoin her mate on the river for the rest of the day. After laying eight eggs, one a day, she started incubating until they hatched on June 16th. Sadly we were on vacation and missed the whole thing. A neighbor, who happily checked DuckTV for us, reported six of the eight eggs hatched. The next morning the hen flew out of the box, called to her chicks, and they all jumped and followed her down to the river.  Wood duck chicks have been known to jump from heights up to 290 feet unharmed!

Wood duck drake waiting...
This year we eagerly awaited the return of the ducks as hens will use the same box or tree cavity until they die. Sure enough, on March 11th of this year we heard the first wood duck fly past our house. And this year, instead of just a few ducks, our back yard seems to be overrun with them! One morning there were five pairs in one tree! It wasn't long until a hen plopped into our box on the morning of March 22nd.  She checked it out for about an hour with her mate waiting nearby.

Mama Duck's 13 eggs in a nest of down pulled from her own body

 One week later she laid her first egg, and by April 11th she was done, having laid a whopping thirteen! Wood duck hens will cover their eggs with down pulled from their own bodies and then go out to feed two or three times a day, allowing us to climb up there to count the eggs and therefore estimate hatch date.

Wood duck hens incubate between 28 to 32 days, so hatch date could be as early as May 8th. And we will most definitely be home this year. There's no way we'll miss Jump Day again! While we don't have our camera linked to the web (working on it) we can capture video. Click here to see a video of the hen burying her eggs before she went out to feed.

Wood ducks are not endangered, although due to habitat loss suitable nest cavities are becoming more scare. We still haven't figured out why they love our backyard so much when they could nest in the five acres of woodland across the river, but we've put up two more boxes just in case.

Wood ducks will nest up to a mile away from water and clearly are not spooked by human activity once they establish a nest.  For information about putting up your own wood duck box, including plans to build one, visit the MA State wood duck web page.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

And finally on to the BIG rain garden!

The rain garden retaining wall almost finished.
After my marathon re-landscaping project last year, I had planned to relax a bit this summer, do some minor fiddling with the native gardens I planted last year as part of the Slow the Flow grant, and enjoy the compliments of my neighbors. (I would not be surprised if cardinal flower and Joe Pye weed popped up in many of their yards next year, they all love mine and want it now too!) But, yeah, who was I kidding? Relax!? The reality is I've been working on this area of the backyard (left) for the last two months.

The rain garden area in November 2011, before any work was done

After staring at this last, ugly,
barren, plastic landscape cloth-lined section (right) of our backyard all spring I couldn't take it anymore and I picked up a shovel. This section of the backyard was an old cesspool until about 15 years ago when the previous owners had the new septic built in the front yard. The area was filled in with gravel, lined with plastic landscape cloth, and covered in mulch.

Our Conservation Commission approved plan was to dig out the three beech trees that were getting slowly buried by the eroding slope behind the house, terrace the whole area with rocks, add steps down the side, and make it a rain garden. I was going to do it next summer but between the ugliness and the fact that we added two more new gutters to the back of the house, concentrating runoff that could make the erosion worse, it needed to be done. My only problem was I needed rocks, a pallet can go for about $400! And then I met a nice family in town who needed to get rid of A LOT of rocks from a building project and I was all set to go!

Digging the beech trees out was the hardest. They were buried by almost three feet (left) on the high side. Luckily no strangler roots had formed yet, I was just in time. And now they have a nice wall to hold back the slope. 

My kids will no longer have to scramble down the old steep slope (left) to get to the wild part of the backyard. They love these new steps (right) and it's now a nice place to sit and look at the river. 


This was most of the area (left) just when I started the work. You can see where the water from the main house gutter will drain into the rain garden through the 6" black hose. A second black hose was added for the new gutter on the family room roof, and both were buried under a new pathway (below).

Right after I buried them, and dug out a temporary small bowl for runoff to collect in, we had a big rain storm. The bowl filled up nicely and not a drop ran down straight to the river. I can't wait to see what happens when it's all landscaped with cardinal flower, ferns and sweet pepper bush, but THAT will definitely have to wait until next spring. With winter coming Mother Nature is preventing me from planting, which is probably a good thing, I really should take a break!

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Mystery of the Missing Monarchs

By this week last year not only did our drought tolerant  Monarch Waystation have monarch eggs, we had already hatched caterpillars. I took this photo to the right of a male monarch on our swamp milkweed last July 4th. So far this year we have absolutely nothing: no eggs, no adults.

This past winter scientists recorded the lowest number ever of overwintering monarchs in Mexico.  The World Wildlife Fund reports a 59% decline in just the past year. This is due to a number of factors including winter habitat loss, fewer milkweed plants, pesticide and herbicide use. Unfortunately there's no one quick fix (of course planting milkweed in your garden is a big help). What I am afraid of is that we're seeing the impact of these record low numbers here in the Northeast. I'm hoping the butterflies are just late due to the colder than usual spring, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. If anyone has seen monarchs please leave me a comment on when and where. 

While I am awaiting the return of the monarchs I have been busy maintaining the riverside native gardens I installed last year with the help of the Slow the Flow Grant from US Fish and Wildlife.  Our certified Monarch Waystation has exploded with returning swamp milkweed, butterflyweed, joe-pye weed, echinacea, ox-eye sunflowers, New Jersey tea, yarrow and white snakeroot. I even pruned back some of the larger perennials to expose the swamp milkweed hoping the monarchs could see it better.

Plants around the other areas of the garden are doing well. My one giant sunflower from last year even self-seeded and its offspring are towering over the beesbalm by kitchen window. The good news is the hummingbirds are back, they must have remembered the buffet I planted for them in the front yard. They've been devouring nectar from the beesbalm and liatris and often hover impatiently over the cardinalflower which is just starting to open.

Despite the record heat wave of the past week I've been slowly tearing out a patch of ancient non-native vinca that doesn't even flower. In its place I'm planting a blueberry hedge, and if I'm lucky my kids will even let my husband and me eat some.

Once the heat breaks I'll start dealing with some of the run-off issues that have been bothering me. The mini rain garden has been doing an amazing job of trapping all the water from the rear roof. But the heavy rains of June and early July have been washing right down the side and back yards and into the river. With some leveling, terracing and ditches in the side yard I plan to force as much rain water as I can back into the ground before it washes straight out to the Atlantic. The whole point of the Slow the Flow grant is to encourage property owners to direct storm water into the ground and not straight out to sea thereby preventing large floods and later droughts. My 0.3 acres might be small, but every little drop helps.

Lizzie releasing one of our raised monarchs last August.
And in the meantime, while awaiting the temps to drop, I'm keeping a close eye on my milkweed. And this is one of two little girls who are getting a little impatient to raise their caterpillars.

UPDATE July 20th: This morning I found our first monarch egg, and had another three by the end of the day. In the late afternoon I finally spotted an actual monarch flying through the yard! So they're here!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An organic and drought tolerant fix to a convential and non-drought tolerant lawn

The dead-looking conventional lawn last August
Last spring, as part of the Slow the Flow Grant I received to relandscape my property in natives, I also shrunk my lawn by about 300 square feet removing most of the dead-looking areas of lawn and adding native plants instead. The sod had been put in the previous summer by the sellers of our house just before we bought it. It clearly wasn't drought tolerant because I pretty much killed most of the grass since I never watered it, as you can see in the photo to the left.

If I didn't have two young kids who love to run around barefoot on the lawn I would have shrunk it even more. But, since I am now committed to the lawn, we still have about 1400 square feet of it and it needs help.

This spring, just before a forecasted four days of rain, I spread pure compost from the Ipswich Curbside Compost program on the deadest-looking areas. The compost will hold on to water longer than plain top soil both slowing the flow of rain runoff as well as feeding the grass in a phosphate-free way.  Then I added a drought tolerant (mostly fescue) grass seed and let Mother Nature do her watering job:

The day I added compost and seed:

 Four days later after a few days of rain, the new seed hadn't sprouted yet but the grass that was still alive took off:


Two weeks later (I did do a light hand watering twice just to hold it over until the next heavy rains). The drought tolerant seed sprouted and is now dominating over the old non-drought tolerant grass:

And looking at it from the other side, the day of adding compost and seed:

 Four days later after rains:

Two weeks later:

Now this area of the lawn is pretty lush, I've even added some more compost in a few spots that were still thin. And these results were achieved with NO chemicals or a sprinkler. It's 100% organic and should be mostly drought tolerant now. I think next spring I'll get a few yards of compost delivered and do the whole thing.

The lush organic and drought tolerant lawn
This is really easy to do, and if you don't want to do it yourself there are organic lawn care services out there (J.Gil Organic Landscaping is a great local Mass. one) who only use compost and compost tea as fertilizer. You'll have to put up with a few weeds, but a dandelion or two never hurt anyone, and in fact are very good for the bees and butterflies.

And the best part: an organic and drought tolerant lawn is a lot less work and cheaper over time than a conventional one.  You don't have to be constantly spraying with harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals like Round-up, feeding it with high phosphate fertilizers which end up in lakes and rivers, and wasting money watering it with your sprinkler. It's a win/win for you, your children (who run barefoot on it and probably eat it), your pets (who probably eat the grass too) and the environment!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Spring comes to the native riverside garden

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
One year ago on May 11th I went on my first plant shopping trip with the Slow the Flow Grant money I received to completely relandscape about 4,000 square feet of bare mulch over plastic tarps we inherited when we bought our new home. One year later the plastic is gone, most of the invasive plants are gone, and the 62 varieties of native plants I planted are coming back bigger and heartier than when I bought them.

I was worried, since it was such a harsh winter, that so many things would die. And with almost two weeks now with no rain I was worried the shade plants wouldn't come back. But they are. There's nothing quite like the candy striping of the jack-in-the-pulpit (right). I never get tired of peaking under their green leaves to see this sight.

Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum)

Two weeks ago a friend called and said, "remember all that solomon's seal I have in my backyard? Well, it's taking over, do you want some?" WANT SOME? Of course! My girls and I went over and dug up a whole tub of it. It's already flowering, just in time for the returning hummingbirds. Haven't seen one yet but their buffet is waiting for them.

When we moved here eighteen months ago there was one clump of violets near the driveway. Violets are a great flower to attract frittilary butterflies, and are a nectar source for early bees.  I knew if I could keep my kids from picking the flowers last spring we'd have a lot more violets. And we do! There's a nice carpet of them forming in the shade along the front fence and the front door.

The subtle globeflower (Trollius laxus) is blooming
I need more foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). This could cover my whole yard and I'd still want more!

Trillium cuneatum
Since my plants are coming back so well I couldn't resist a little splurge last weekend at Garden in the Woods. This is my new baby, a Trillium cuneatum, not exactly native to the north shore of Massachusetts (more like NY down through the Appalachians). But it was so pretty I had to have it.

I've also purchased a few more treats this spring that I couldn't find last year. I added an American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) to the mini rain garden. And I bought a few low bush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) for the future terracing in the back where I will one day add a bigger rain garden.

Miterwort or 'Fairy cup' (Mitella diphyla)
And my three and almost five-year-old garden gnomes wanted a Fairy cup plant for their fairy garden, so I gave in. I have to admit, it's a really cute plant, they have good taste. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Homemade moss!

While waiting for spring to literally unfurl at our house, one fern fiddlehead at a time, I decided I wanted to finally try out a recipe for homemade moss. That's right: homemade moss. My dream is to someday have moss covering every brick and rock I used in my landscaping for last year's Slow the Flow Grant garden makeover at our riverfront property.

I tried to make moss grow years ago in indoor frog exhibits for my former job at the New England Aquarium. It was far too warm and moist and all I got was fungus. I'm willing to try again outside while the temps are still cool and we should be getting spring showers to help the moss along. It's actually a pretty simple method:
12 ounces beer
8 ounces plain yogurt
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup fresh moss
Blend all ingredients in a blender until looks like, well, a moss smoothie. Then paint it on any porous surface you want moss to grow on. Keep cool and moist and in three months you should see moss growing. Since I've never tried this outside I'm not sure how long it will actually take, but I will post an update in early summer to say if it worked or not. 

The best part about making moss: I doubled the recipe and it kept my three and four year old girls occupied "painting" moss for over an hour.
They painted the bricks edging the woodland garden....

They painted the pots by the front walk...
They painted their stump chairs around the fire pit...
They even painted the trees in the fairy garden.
The only bad part about making homemade moss: because of the beer ingredient my yard smelled a little like a frat house for a few hours afterwards.

As more and more plants emerge every day I will soon know what survived the winter. Already the shoots poking out are bigger and beefier than what I planted last year! I even have a bloodroot about to flower! And I couldn't resist a trip to my favorite garden center today, I went in to buy drought-tolerant grass seed and came out with six low bush blueberries and a cranberry, two plants they didn't carry last year. Mentioning you prefer native plants at your local nursery definitely encourages them to carry more and more.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Slow the Flow lecture Thursday Oct. 18th 9:30 AM

Come and see the entire Slow the Flow relandscaping journey, with more before and after photos and tips than I could ever fit in this blog! You can even come over to my garden after and walk around (although it's quickly being buried under the leaves of 27 beech trees, 3 oaks and a few maples).

Thursday October 18th at 9:30 AM at the Ipswich River Watershed Association's Riverbed headquarters, 143 County Road (1A) in Ipswich. RSVP and more info below.