Q&A: How Can I Remove Lawn and Create a Native Habitat for Birds and Butterflies?

lawn removal
Turfgrass removal using newspaper and mulch. Photo: Beth Blum Spiker, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener

Q: Our place is almost entirely lawn and we want to convert the yard into a biodiverse, native habitat for birds and butterflies. Since it is almost fall, do we cover the grass areas with newspaper and then mulch on top or leave it until spring? How do we prepare the ground for planting in spring? Can we plant things now?

Answer: If you already have decided on the beds or habitat areas, then killing the grass now is an excellent idea. Mow as low as you can. Newspaper and mulch (especially leaf mulch available in fall) should work well. Use several layers of newspaper under the mulch. Do a soil test now.  Fall is a great time to plant woody plants and herbaceous perennials. However, unless you must plant now (gift plants, donated plants), you may want to wait until you have a planting plan designed for each bed. Winter is an excellent time to plan.

The Woods in Your Backyard is a comprehensive program that helps homeowners figure out how to do just what you have in mind. When selecting native plants, a great reference is Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping. This online publication features photos and growing requirements for each plant in an easy-to-use chart format. Also, refer to the Home & Garden Information Center’s website for more information about native plants.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask an Expert.

Dealing with standing water in your yard

standing water in the yard
Deal with standing water by adding topsoil or planting vegetation that prefers boggy areas. Photo: UME / Ask an Expert

Q: Our backyard has very low spots where the water ends up after heavy rains. How do I deal with this? I would like to plant a garden of shrubs and perennials but don’t think many can take that much water. Red maples and birch seem happy, but the hydrangeas I planted last year all died. It gets quite a bit of sun.

Answer:
Most plants will not tolerate sitting in standing water or saturated, soggy soil for long periods. You may be able to add one to two inches of soil to fill in low spots or raise the grade enough so that water will run off better or at least not accumulate there. A steep grade is not necessary or desirable because in dry years you do want the water to sink into the soil and down to plant roots.

This past year we had abnormal rainfall — about twice the average. Many people lost plants in areas where they had grown for years but were now under water too much for the plants to survive. The maple you have may be red maple, which is happy even in a bog; the birch is probably a river birch. Hydrangeas love moist soil, but cannot tolerate standing water. In saturated soils, the water pushes out the oxygen roots need. Eventually, the plant drowns, unless it is a plant adapted to saturated soil, i.e. a bog.

You may have a good location for a rain garden. Many plants love this environment — some stunning natives in particular, such as button bush and clethra. (Both are also butterfly magnets!) Take a look at the University of Maryland Extension webpage on stormwater practices.

Don’t get bogged down (no pun intended!) with details. Just plant what likes “wet feet.” Native plants are the best. For more plant choices, look at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s excellent publication, “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.” In the lists, ‘Plants for Freshwater Wetlands and Other Wet Sites’ should be helpful. (There is also the equivalent online database, http://www.nativeplantcenter.net/.).

You may not have standing water continuously in the future. However, it is predicted that we can expect a lot more wet years and extreme weather ahead because of climate change. A rain garden is a smart way to handle this, as long as this spot does not hold water all summer (and breed mosquitoes). When you install a rain garden, the plant roots will be pulling in the water and drying up the low area, too.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

Q&A: How Can I Make a Naturalistic Garden Look Intentional?

blue sedge
Blue sedge. Photo: Ellen Nibali

Q: I would like to plant a more natural garden but am worried about irritating the neighbors who might think it is sloppy or not a garden at all! Any advice?

A: Make a natural garden look intentional. Here are three major design tips to make a garden’s intent obvious:

1) Give it obvious edges. Edges can be botanical, such as a row of blue sedges (pictured) or can be hardscapes such as pavers, bricks, a path, low wall, or low fencing.

2) Give it an obvious shape. This can be geometrical lines and angles (circle, triangle, parallelogram, etc.) but also can be flowing lines made obvious with big or repeated curves.

3) Within the beds, make plant choices obvious. Use blocks or ribbons of plants, repetition of key species, or a predominant plant family (e.g. grasses) with a few other species mixed in. Of course, banish all invasive plants. Use at least 70 percent native plants.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Do you have a gardening question? University of Maryland Extension experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask an Expert.

Ambrosia Beetles Are Behind Those Tubes

ambrosia beetle frass tubes
Sawdust tubes pushed out by ambrosia beetles as they bore into a tree. Photo: E. Nibali

Q: These things like spaghetti pasta were sticking out of our tree that suddenly died. They crumbled when I touched them. Did they attack the tree and kill it?

A: These are sawdust tubes pushed out by ambrosia beetles as they bore into your tree. The tubes are rarely seen this time of year. However, because of abnormal rainfall, some trees are producing ethyl alcohol, a reaction to stress. Alcohol production signals ambrosia beetles to attack. The beetles introduce a fungus into the tree, which clogs up its xylem (the water and nutrient transport system). Since your tree is already dead, it’s hard to say exactly what killed it. Its roots may have rotted or drowned from standing water or saturated, poorly draining soil. The ambrosia beetles may have merely pushed it over the edge. The beetles are not necessarily a death sentence. When numbers are low and a tree is fairly healthy, a tree can recover.

Learn more about ambrosia beetles on the Home & Garden Information Center website.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or pest question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask an Expert.

Q&A: Try these groundcovers that will keep deer away

Alleghany pachysadra
Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens). Photo by E. Nibali

Q: What groundcovers can you recommend for shade? I’ve removed all the English ivy and need something before erosion starts. I like evergreen ones, and I also have deer problems.

A: Many of the following are deer resistant, if not completely deer proof. Allegheny pachysandra, for example, is a four-season actor in the garden with quirky spring flowers and attractive mottled leaves that deer don’t touch. Other evergreen choices include Christmas ferns, wood ferns (semi-evergreen), moss, and golden groundsel (yellow spring flowers about 1-inch tall).

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