Buckwheat: Pollinator Friend and More

buckwheat flowers with a pollinators
Buckwheat flowers.

Where I grew up, we did not have a county fair, but instead a “Buckwheat Festival” which celebrated buckwheat pancakes. I’ve often heard stories about “old timers” planting buckwheat because it could thrive in poor soils. Buckwheat is not as well known or common as it was several years ago; however, it does have the potential to be a great addition to your landscape and would be a wonderful summer cover crop, which is just one way to help improve soils for a more climate- resilient garden.

Positives about buckwheat include that it matures quickly, is easily seeded by broadcasting, is relatively inexpensive to purchase by seed, is not “fussy” about where it grows, and germinates quickly. It does not mind low-pH soils and can even out-compete weeds! It has shallow roots and is easily terminated — so planting a new crop after it is no problem — or, if it is still growing in the fall of the year, a frost will kill it. Lastly, it is a wonderful nectar and pollen source for a wide variety of insects. 

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Select Ground Covers for Your Landscape Carefully

Plants that are used as ground cover can provide great services throughout the landscape as they can fill in areas that might otherwise be left bare or covered in mulch. Ground covers can be used to help reduce maintenance chores by preserving moisture and preventing weeds. 

If you are looking for a ground cover plant, consider adding a native ground cover. Non-native ground covers and vines can be the plants of nightmares, as the characteristics that we like about them (aggressive, can take over weeds, need little care once established, etc.) are often the characteristics that make them terrible offenders when they escape into natural areas. A great field guide on this exact topic is Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas

Since it’s prime planting season in Maryland, here I highlight three herbaceous plants that are often used as ground covers that can quickly take over. For a more detailed list of some of the other ground covers that are concerning, check out this webpage, Invasive Vines and Groundcovers.

English ivy (Hedera helix) is sometimes just called “ivy” or “European ivy”, which reiterates the point that it is not a plant that is native to the United States. This evergreen, vining plant is one that you should be aware of as it can take over areas through the spread of seeds and through underground stems. It thrives in shade, is drought tolerant, and once established, it creates a thick, dense mat of foliage that can outcompete many perennials. It’s even been reported that it can damage homes/walls where it grows up and even penetrates the bark on living trees and strangles them. A study done in February of 2021 found that there are at least 5,000 trees in Takoma park could be lost because of English ivy. English ivy also serves as a reservoir for bacterial leaf scorch, a disease in maples, oaks, and elms.

For more information on English ivy, visit these webpages from the University of Maryland Extension: English Ivy and Invasives in Your Woodland.

Periwinkle (Vinca minor) close-up of purple flowers (left), and spreading along a staircase in Great Falls Park (right). Photos: M. Talabac

Periwinkle is a common plant that many people will recognize by its attractive shiny green leaves and purple-white flowers. There are actually two types, Vinca minor and Vinca major, unfortunately, both are considered invasive species and spread quickly vegetatively by root pieces (digging) and rooting at tips and nodes that contact the ground.

The third plant is bishop’s weed or goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria). Once established, this plant easily gets out of hand and is very difficult to remove. It is on the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s list of plants considered for regulation. Joyce Browning with the University of Maryland Extension in Harford County recently posted a video about bishop’s weed.

It can be overwhelming when considering adding plants in troubled areas. A great resource for ideas is the University of Maryland Extension webpage about Lawn Alternatives. 

Remember that you can help mitigate the negative effects of invasive plants on local ecosystems by not adding them to your landscape. However, if you already have some of these plants, you can also manage them correctly by keeping them contained in certain areas and eliminating their spread into natural areas. Never place yard trimmings into natural areas, and remove the seeds before they can be spread by wind, rain, and/or animals. As you are adding plants to your landscape, please check out these great resources for non-invasive plant suggestions: 

Landscaping with Native Plants- Maryland Native Plant Society 

Keystone Plants by Ecoregion- National Wildlife Federation

Resources on invasive plant identification: 

Plant Invaders of the Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas (PDF)

Do Not Sell! Ornamental Invasive Plants to Avoid with Climate Change (PDF)

Everyone can help in the fight against invasive plants! Check the University of Maryland Extension website for an Introduction to Invasive Plants in Maryland and more information on how to reduce them. The absolute best way is to just never plant or introduce them into your landscape. 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.

Invasive Shrubs With Red Berries to Avoid

Blooming flowers, emerging leaves, sprouting seedlings, and peeping frogs are just a few of the signs that encompass the magic of the spring season for me. As nature goes through the motions and awakens, I hope you have found some time to get outside and enjoy the wonderful gift of the changing seasons. Unfortunately, I’m always disheartened to see the number of invasive shrubs that are dotting the landscape this time of year. Spring is an easy time to see firsthand how invasive plants often break dormancy before native plants, which basically means that they leaf out earlier and have an automatic leg up as they are growing a few weeks before other plants. For more information, read Invasive Shrubs in Northeast Forests Grow Leaves Earlier and Keep Them Longer from Penn State

an invasion of bush honeysuckle plants covering a forest floor
Bush honeysuckle shrubs taking over a forest understory. Photo: Troy Evans, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bugwood.org

Q. What shrub has yellow-white (sometimes pink), trumpet-shaped flowers in mid-spring that smell sweet? 

A: Exotic bush honeysuckle is a large category of several different fast-growing species (Lonicera maackii, L. morrowii, L. tatarica, L. xbella, L. fragrantissima) that are perennial, deciduous shrubs that can grow up to 20 feet in height. These species share many of the same characteristics — yellow to white, sometimes even pink-colored flowers, sweet-smelling flowers, and red to yellow berries in early summer. Leaves are opposite on the stem. Wildlife such as deer and birds are known to spread these invasive shrubs by eating the berries. If you look underneath utility lines or at the forest edge, you will often see these invasive shrubs.

As of February 2018, the Maryland Department of Agriculture classified Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) as a Tier 1 invasive plant in Maryland. A person may not propagate, import, transfer, sell, purchase, transport, or introduce any living part of a Tier 1 invasive plant in the state. For more information visit the University of Maryland Extension page about Exotic Bush Honeysuckles. For control information, visit Invasives In Your Woodland: Bush Honeysuckles.

Over the last 5 years, I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of invasive shrubs in my own woodlot, which is secluded from homes due to the mountainous terrain. Nonetheless, Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) has begun taking over the understory and edges of hayfields. I believe that it was spread by wildlife. Did you know this shrub gets small yellow flowers in early spring and then red berries?

Q. I see Japanese barberry planted in many landscapes. Is it really an invasive plant?  

A: This invasive shrub has been used in landscapes in North America since the late 1800s. It is very popular because it provides resistance to deer browse and can grow in a wide variety of light and soil conditions, making it a plant that can be used dependably in home landscapes. However, these characteristics contribute to its aggressive nature when spreading into natural areas. It forms dense foliage thickets that create an ideal humid environment for black-legged ticks (deer ticks) which can carry the pathogen that causes Lyme disease.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) has named this a Tier 2 invasive plant. This classification means retail stores that offer this plant for sale must display a required sign indicating that it is an invasive plant. Landscapers may not supply Japanese barberry unless they provide the customer with a list of Tier 2 invasive plants. In our neighboring state of Pennsylvania, Japanese barberry is on the noxious weed list and will be banned for sale beginning this fall.

Visit the University of Maryland Extension website for more information about Japanese barberry and how to control it.

Japanese barberry infestation in a forest. Photo: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

Q.  I want to add a shrub to my landscape that provides berries for the wildlife and fall foliage color. Is burning bush (Euonymus alatus) a good choice?

A: Unfortunately, winged burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is not the best choice when adding a new shrub to your landscape, as the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) has named this a Tier 2 invasive plant. This classification means retail stores that offer this plant for sale must display a required sign indicating that it is an invasive plant. Landscapers may not supply winged burning bushes unless they provide the customer with a list of Tier 2 invasive plants. It is also important to note that burning bush is now a banned noxious weed in our neighboring state of Pennsylvania.

For more information, check out this previous blog post, Q & A: Is Burning Bush an Invasive Plant? For control suggestions, refer to Invasives in Your Woodland – Winged Euonymus.

Q. Does Heavenly bamboo support wildlife with its evergreen leaves and red berries? 

Heavenly bamboo, sacred bamboo, or Nandina (Nandina domestica) has berries that are actually toxic to cats and also cedar waxwing birds. This plant was introduced from Asia in the early 1800s but it outcompetes many native plants with its aggressive nature.

MDA has named Nadina a Tier 2 invasive plant. This classification means retail stores that offer this plant for sale must display a required sign indicating that it is an invasive plant. The Nandina cultivar ‘Firepower’ is the only exception.

For more specifics about this plant, read Not so Heavenly from the Maryland Invasive Species Council. The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia have a good list of native alternatives to plant instead.

Invasive heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Photo: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

All of these invasive shrubs produce berries which is one of the ways they spread so widely and easily. Please research plants before adding them to your landscape. Below are links for information on finding non-invasive plants: 

Native Shrubs – University of Maryland Extension

Landscaping with Native Plants- Maryland Native Plant Society 

Keystone Plants by Ecoregion- National Wildlife Federation

Resources on invasive plant identification: 

Plant Invaders of the Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas (PDF)

Regional Invasive Species & Climate Change Management Challenge: Do Not Sell! Ornamental invasive plants to avoid with climate change

Check the University of Maryland Extension website for an Introduction to Invasive Plants in Maryland for more information on how to reduce them.

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.

Invasive Trees in Maryland: Princess Tree, Callery Pear & Tree-of-Heaven

Last month, my blog post was an introduction to invasive plants and today I want to share information on three invasive, deciduous trees found in Maryland. 

Springtime provides a breathtaking display of contrasting flowers in a wide array of colors, shapes, and sizes, which are found in herbaceous plants, as well as woody shrubs and trees. Unfortunately, some of these spring flowering trees are invasive and you need to be aware of their negative effects on ecosystems such as competition for resources including sunlight, soil nutrients, and space.

Q: What medium-sized invasive tree has white blooms in the early spring in Maryland?

invasive callery pear trees crowded along a road
Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) in flower. Photo: Britt Slattery, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bugwood.org

Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), sometimes referred to as ‘Bradford’ Pear, has several cultivars including ‘Chanticleer,’ ‘ Cleveland Select’, and ‘Autumn Blaze’, all of which will be in bloom around this time of year. The Callery pear was imported from Asia to Maryland with the hope of being able to help edible Bartlett pears, which were being threatened by a disease called fire blight. The plan was to cross these pears to gain disease resistance in the pear industry. Unfortunately, this experiment was unsuccessful in preventing fire blight, but these crosses seemed to have potential for the ornamental industry and were planted widely. Bloom time often coincides with our native serviceberry, which produces white flowers too.

The ‘Bradford’ cultivar was thought to be sterile; however, when new cultivars of Callery pear were developed, it was able to cross-pollinate with those and produce viable seeds. Birds and other wildlife eat the fruits, which results in spreading them to different areas. The seeds sprout and grow into dense thorny thickets, which are very difficult to control and result in crowding out native vegetation. Callery pear provides a stunning show of beautiful white blossoms; unfortunately, these trees are highly invasive, which has led a few states to ban all cultivars of Callery pear (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and South Carolina). This tree has an attractive V-shaped crotch that unfortunately will often split from high wind and snow weight damage. 

For more information, history, and control options, please visit the University of Maryland Extension webpages: Invasives in Your Woodland and Bradford Pear.

Q:  What invasive tree has purple blooms in early spring?

lavender flowers of princess tree

Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa). Photo: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

Paulownia (Paulownia tomentosa), also called princess tree or empress tree, has purple, pleasant-scented blooms that appear before the foliage in early spring. I saw this tree for the first time when I traveled to Howard County for training in 2012, as this is not a tree we have in Garrett County. Its striking, large, heart-shaped leaves automatically caught my attention and reminded me of the Northern catalpa tree, a great native tree that should not be mistaken for Paulownia. According to Plant Invaders of the Mid-Atlantic Areas, one empress tree is capable of producing 20 million seeds that mature to flowering in only 10 years! These trees prefer full sun but can grow on disturbed soils, creek banks, and even forested areas which gives them a big advantage over native species that often require more special environments to grow and thrive. Paulownia’s ability to sprout from adventitious buds on stems and roots allows it to survive fire, cutting, and bulldozing. It is, therefore, a very difficult and costly invasive plant to control, according to the Maryland Invasive Species Council Plant Invader of the Month listing. 

A great alternative to Paulownia is the native Eastern redbud, which produces early, purple/reddish-purple blooms. 

For additional information, history, and control options for Paulownia, visit the University of Maryland Extension web pages Invasives in your Woodland and Princess Tree. 

Q: What invasive tree looks similar to black walnut?

tree of heaven foliage looks very similar to that of black walnut and sumac
Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Photo: Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) was introduced in the late 1700’s and thrives in many soil conditions. It has an amazing ability to grow very quickly and can disturb building foundations and even pavement! It was widely planted as a street tree and thus is found far and wide in the Eastern United States. This tree is called by other names including China-sumac, stinking sumac, or varnish tree due to its strong unpleasant odor. Tree-of-Heaven is sometimes mistaken for sumac, hickory, or black walnut because of similarities in leaf shape; however, look for the glands on the bottom of each leaflet to confirm its identity. 

Just in case you needed one more reason to remove Tree-of-Heaven, it is a preferred food source for the new, exotic, invasive insect pest, spotted lanternfly.  

For more specific information, history, and control options, visit these web pages:

Keep an eye out this spring for non-native, invasive trees as there are many others that I did not address in this article. Take any opportunity to help educate friends or family about the negative impact of invasive plants on biodiversity.   

Resources for invasive plant identification: 

Resources for non-invasive plant suggestions: 

Check out the University of Maryland Extension website on Introduction to Invasive Plants for more information on how to reduce invasive plants.

Remember, the absolute best way to avoid invasive plants is to never plant or introduce them into your landscape! 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.

Plant shopping soon? Avoid buying invasive plants

It’s a sunny day in late February and that means I’m looking at seed catalogs and dreaming of new plants! Have you been plant shopping yet this year? Adding new plants and seeds to your garden creates new scents, textures, colors, and shapes and is the easiest way to increase biodiversity in your landscape!  

As you begin revitalizing your garden space this spring, I want to bring some attention to invasive plants, a category of plants that should strike fear and dread in your heart! Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but truly this is a topic that everyone needs to learn more about. 

Q. What is an invasive plant?

A. An invasive plant is a non-native, “alien” species that was introduced intentionally or by accident into the landscape and causes ecological and/or economic harm. These plants tend to be free from predators, parasites, and diseases that could help keep them in check. These plants reproduce rapidly with multiple methods (i.e. seeds, stolons, root cuttings, runners, etc.) and spread aggressively. They tend to be deer resistant or deer tolerant, a big reason why they are purchased and planted in landscapes. Below is a photo of purple loosestrife. Notice how it is creating a monoculture, a visual key that might mean the plant is “invasive.”

purple loosestrife flowers crowding a field
Invasive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).
Photo: Richard Gardner, Bugwood.org

Did you know that some invasives are still for sale at nurseries, greenhouses, and in mail-order catalogs?   

It’s true. Many of the plants on “watch lists” are still readily available to purchase. Japanese barberry is an invasive plant that is a very popular landscape plant still being widely planted today; however, research shows that black legged ticks have been found in areas with invasive barberry thickets because these non-native, invasive forest shrub thickets create ideal microclimates.   

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What’s digging holes in the lawn?

With the transition into the Fall season, I often find myself feeling a mixture of emotions; relief, that another growing season is coming to an end; sadness, that it went too fast; and excitement for what the next year will bring! I am sure that our animal friends also sense the need to prepare for the changing seasons and as such, over the last few days, I’ve been seeing some damage happening in my yard from an uninvited guest! 

holes and torn up grass in a lawn- skunk damage
Holes were dug in the lawn recently. Photo: A. Bodkins

Can you guess what caused this digging of the grass? This occurred in two different areas of my lawn over the course of a week. I also noticed the exact same digging at my parents’ house in this same time period.

Well, if you guessed a skunk, you are correct! An Eastern Striped Skunk to be exact, which you can learn more about by visiting the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. These native critters are fairly small with a lot of fluff and a long tail. Their most characteristic marking is their black body with a white stripe down the middle. They are also known for their smell! 

striped skunk lookin up from a lawn
Striped Skunk Photo: © Jen Brumfield, some rights reserved
holes dug in a lawn by a skunk
Holes in the lawn from a skunk digging and searching for food. Photo: A. Bodkins

As you can probably tell from the photos, my yard is not something that I manage too closely, with a  mixture of grass types and broadleaf plants, so I am not upset that the skunk was foraging for protein sources. I am hopeful that he/she is enjoying some insects, and hopefully consuming some pest larvae like Japanese beetle grubs and slugs. 

We often discuss the benefits of creating a landscape that is rich in biodiversity and habitat for all creatures. So what do we do when we find ourselves inviting a stinky guest to dine on insects and other soil-dwelling critters? Well, for me and my family, we will use this as a teachable moment with our children and be sure that we are not leaving anything outside that would be attractive to our new friends.  Things like pumpkins for fall decorating, pet foods (or livestock feed), bird seed/feeders, trash cans, or compost scraps can be unintended foods for skunks, which are in the weasel family. At this point, we do not need to take action as my husband has only seen our guest once and it was early in the morning, which is the normal time that he should be foraging. The skunk sighting was also what helped confirm my suspicion of what was digging in the lawn.  

Remember that the skunk’s main form of defense is to “spray” a very foul-smelling liquid (butyl mercaptan) from special scent glands. Once they release their “perfume” it leaves them vulnerable with no tools for defense for a few days so that is the last thing that they want to do. They will give you a warning sign of stamping or kneading the ground. If you spy a skunk doing a handstand, you best be on the retreat though, as that is the position they use for releasing their spray!  

Mole or vole tunnels may appear to look similar to this damage, as it’s hard to tell from the photo, but this damage was not raised as you see with mole and vole tunnels. Remember, moles eat insects only, but voles will eat plants. 

Be a careful detective and look for signs of problems in the landscape, whether that is a pest, plant disease, or mammal. In our instance, we saw skunk scat and then also the actual visitor to confirm what was causing the damage to the lawn. If you need guidance on the management of a nuisance skunk, please check out the University of Maryland Extension website on skunks and never try to capture, pick up, or relocate a skunk without help from a professional. 

Happy Autumn!

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.

What is so special about legumes? 

a collage of three photos shows alfalfa plants growing in a high tunnel
Alfalfa (a legume) with nasturtium growing at the edge of a high tunnel. Photo: A. Bodkins

There is a whole group of plants in the Leguminosae (a.k.a Fabaceae) plant family and are referred to as legumes, a word that many people may have heard but may not know the special details about. Have you ever heard that legumes make their own nitrogen or that they are plants that never need nitrogen fertilizer? Well, both those statements are true! 

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