All posts tagged ecology

By Lori Athey, Habitat Outreach Coordinator

It is high summer now and my early summer flowers are looking a bit tired while the late summer/fall show has yet to begin. Nonetheless, there is a lot of wildlife activity in my garden right now. The pollinators are all over the Echinacea/Purple Coneflower, Coreopsis, Butterflyweed and Beebalm, tired-looking though they may be. However, the big story right now in the habitat garden is happening in the leaves: that giant munching sound you hear is the caterpillars feeding.

Bees nectaring on Echinacea, purple coneflower.

Bees nectaring on Echinacea, purple coneflower.

If you have read University of Delaware Professor Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home”, you already know that most (about 96%) of our songbird species need insects as part of their diet. Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillars are a large diet component of insectivorous birds. Summer is prime Lepidoptera season both for caterpillars and mature adults. Some of the best plants for supporting caterpillars, and thereby birds, also provide nectar and pollen for other pollinators, fruits or nuts for the birds, insects and other critters, shelter, nesting material and good places to raise babies.

This big juicy caterpillar could be food for a hungry bird in your garden.

This big juicy caterpillar could be food for a hungry bird in your garden.

So here are a few plant superstars to try in your wildlife garden:

Do you have room for a tree? Oak (Quercus species) trees are champion providers for native caterpillars at 518 species, but they also provide pollen in the spring for the bees, acorns in the fall and winter for squirrels and other critters, as well as shelter and places to raise babies for all sorts of birds, insects and mammals. Especially lovely specimens for your garden are the Willow Oak (Q. phellos), Scarlet Oak (Q. coccinea) and Swamp White Oak (Q. bicolor).

This northern pin oak will provide great wildlife value to your landscape, as well as fall color.

This northern pin oak will provide great wildlife value to your landscape, as well as fall color.

Do you have a native Cherry Tree? Our native cherries and plums (Prunus species) support 429 native caterpillar species. They also provide pollen and nectar in the spring and fruit in the summer enjoyed by both insects and birds. In addition to the Wild Black Cherry (P. serotina), others to try include the American Plum (P. americana), and for your beach home, the Beach Plum (P. maritima).

This American plum is a fine plant to add to your backyard habitat for native pollinators, fruit-eating birds, as well as insects that will eat the leaves, providing more food for birds.

This American plum is a fine plant to add to your backyard habitat for native pollinators, fruit-eating birds, as well as insects that will eat the leaves, providing more food for birds.

Don’t have room for a large tree? Try one of our native Dogwood (Cornus species) trees or shrubs. Not only do these plants offer pollen/nectar, fruits and foliage for the critters, they also are very attractive as landscape plants with lovely flowers, pretty fruit and attractive fall foliage color. Try our common Flowering Dogwood (C. florida), or one of the large shrubs such as Redosier Dogwood (C. serecia) or Silky Dogwood (C. amomum).  Another superstar shrub is the Blueberry (Vaccinium species), which supports 286 species of caterpillars. Just like the others, it also provides nectar and pollen for the bees, and fruits relished by the birds but in a much smaller size, including dwarf selections. It too has pretty spring flowers, attractive fruit and lovely fall color. Plant several named varieties for the best fruit set.

Here, a Unicorn Caterpillar feeds on a blueberry bush.

Here, a Unicorn Caterpillar feeds on a blueberry bush.

We also have some superstar herbaceous flowering plants. Members of the Aster Family (Asteraceae) are standouts for supporting Lepidoptera caterpillars with their foliage, especially Goldenrods (Solidago), Asters (Eurybia, Symphyotrichum), perennial Sunflowers (Helianthus) and the butterfly favorite, Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium). Some are just beginning to bloom now while others will bloom in early and late fall, providing an important source of late-season pollen for the pollinators, as well as seeds for the birds.

A Meadow Fritillary feeds on nectar from a blooming goldenrod, which will begin blooming in early August.

A Meadow Fritillary feeds on nectar from a blooming goldenrod, which will begin blooming in early August.

So plant some of these superstars in your garden and then put out the all-you-can-eat buffet sign for your birds and critters!

By Michele Wales, Farm Program Coordinator

Spring has just arrived…HOORAY! However, at Coverdale Farm, we have been working as if this verdant season has been here for weeks! Our 352-acre preserve is a dream-come-true for the green thumbs on staff that grow food for our CSA members; grow gardens to teach children about food plant life cycles; grow feed for our livestock; and manage the natural areas for biodiversity.

Timing is everything to make these gardens and fields thrive. Working early in the cold winter months we comb through seed catalogs; make field maps and garden plans; and devise management strategies to generate abroad range of desired products: organic vegetables, plant based “classrooms,” nutritious hay, and wildlife habitat.

Here’s a brief peek into what it takes to make the farm a booming center for food and ecology.

Community Supported Agriculture Program

By the time we have rung in the New Year, CSA Farmer Dan O’Brien has already ordered his seeds, planned his field rotations, and created his planting timeline. Several weeks ago Dan sowed several hundred vegetable seeds indoors in starter trays sandwiched between heat mats and lights. He worked with a local grower in Pennsylvania to raise thousands of plants that will eventually find their way into our 7-acre CSA site. Within the last month, as soon as the soil could be worked, Dan was out preparing the field for planting. He has already sown hearty cool- loving crops like peas, potatoes, carrots, and beets.

In February Dan and DNS Land Management staff members Steve and Josh, built a 2,000 square foot hoop house. This unheated, protective structure will allow Dan to extend the season of certain crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. The hoop house enables these “high summer” crops to be transplanted out earlier in the spring and remain in the field longer in the fall. In addition to this new house, Dan has 2 other hoop houses that he will use for season extension and seed germination. We still have shares available for the 2013 CSA season. Please visit our website under “conservation corner” for registration details.

CSA Farmer Dan O’Brien with his shiny, new hoop house. Photo by Steve Johnas.

Education Gardens

Grey winter months set Farm Program Coordinator Michele Wales to dreaming of purple carrots, orange eggplant, and hundreds of heirloom tomatoes in all colors but red. Striving to show the genetic diversity of common and not-so-common foods that can be grown in our region, Michele focuses primarily on growing heirloom varieties. The goal of the 1 ¼ -acre education garden is to show all stages of the plants’ life from seed to flower, to fruit, and back to seed. This area of the farm grows an endless list of earthly delights like strawberries, rhubarb, and grapes to tomatoes, basil, potatoes, saffron, and lots of flowers. Seeding begins in the dark days of winter in an 80-degree greenhouse space generously provided by Gateway Garden Center. Michele sowed close to 900 seeds in mid-March, will transplant the thriving seedlings in April, and bring them to the farm in May. The garden will come alive through the work of children and farm education staff sowing seeds and heeling in transplants after the danger of frost has passed.

Thanks to Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin ( for the greenhouse space and seeds to help our gardens grow!

Farm Program Coordinator Michele Wales seeding heirloom tomatoes. Photo by Jim Wolfer.

Feed Hay Fields

In late January and early February, Farm Steward, Jim Wolfer keeps his eyes on the ground and ears tuned to weather forecasts. Jim is looking for snow-free acreage and temperatures that reach above the freezing point. During periods of freezing and thawing, Jim will sow the seeds of red clover in our 9-acres of feed hay fields. This is known as frost seeding and is a method that this plant needs for successful germination. By March, on dry ground days, he is mowing down crop “residue” like corn and sunflower stalks from last year as well as spreading our farm-generated compost. By late May he will be mowing the hay, bailing it, and storing over 15 TONS of it in the stone barn to feed our cows and sheep next winter.

Farm Steward Jim Wolfer surveying the winter hayfield. Photo by Dan O’Brien.

Native Warm Season Grass Meadows

In the late fall of 2012, Land Manager Dave Pro was drilling the seeds of over 15 species of native grasses and wildflowers into 25 rolling acres of former agricultural fields. For the last 15 years Dave has been working to transition farm fields into native meadows that provide rich habitat for ground nesting-birds, mammals, and a wide diversity of insects including native pollinators. Gearing up for the growing season, Dave spent hours in March mowing down last year’s growth to open the landscape to the sun’s rays and to control woody shrub invasion. In addition to mowing, these native meadows thrive and excel against competitors through the implementation of fire. Dave schedules the early spring prescribed burn by paying attention to several key factors: wind speed, wind direction, humidity, precipitation, and the emergence of new plant growth. Once these factors have aligned, a regional team of highly trained wildfire fighters descend upon the preserve to artfully and safely employ this management technique. If all of the necessary criteria are met Dave and his skilled crew will be setting fire to 6-acres of well established meadow as early as this Thursday, March 28 or a date to be determined the week of April 1. We invite you to witness this exciting event. Please call 302.239.2334 to register. Space is limited. This very spontaneous offer is FREE with details to be communicated as soon as we have them to share.

Land Manager Dave Pro keeping a few steps ahead of a meadow fire. Photo by Derek Stoner.