We Made Our Farm a Wildlife Garden

Buying the property that became their horse farm was only half the dream. This Massachusetts couple also wanted it to be a wildlife garden.


| June/July 2009



Ellen Sousa

The first time she saw the property, Ellen Sousa knew it was a gardener’s dream come true.


ELEN SOUSA

We fell in love with this farm the moment we saw it. My husband, Robert, and I had been looking for a property where we could fulfill my lifelong dream of keeping my horses at home (rather than boarding them). And, as a passionate gardener, I immediately recognized the potential of this four-acre parcel of hemlock- and beech-wooded river valley in central Massachusetts — complete with a farm pond, stream, and large pasture — to become a wildlife garden. It was our dream.

Previous owners had established wonderful garden “bones” with fieldstone retaining walls, damming a stream to create a pond, and using electric fencing to keep horses from eating the plants and shrubs.

Plant and They Will Come

Beautiful as the property was, it was ready for a gardening intervention. I was eager to eradicate invasive and non-native plants in order to encourage a diverse and robust habitat of native plants, insects, and wildlife. So, in addition to the horse farm and food garden, I dove headfirst into resurrecting and nurturing the native plant and wildlife populations. We bought bare-root native “wildlife-friendly” shrubs (gray and silky dogwood, serviceberry, bayberry, blueberry, viburnum, and chokeberry) from our local conservation district (you can find your conservation district at www.nacdnet.org), and planted groups of them to create thickets providing habitat for many birds, snakes, insects, and small mammals. The flowers of these shrubs, after being pollinated by various tiny insects, turn into berries that provide important sustenance to migrating birds who return (exhausted and hungry) here in spring. I chose native plants already adapted to our localized New England climate. When planted in their natural growing conditions, these plants require no fertilizer or supplemental irrigation (other than rainfall) once established.

By buying and planting just a few native plants, I was able to collect their seeds and propagate them in large numbers. I took classes at the New England Wild Flower Society’s native plant center, and grew beautiful native flowering plants such as butterfly weed, liatris, coneflower, boltonia, rose mallow, virginia rose, rudbeckia, New England aster, perennial sunflowers (helianthus), and native grasses, such as switch grass. We also encouraged the wild goldenrod to seed itself to provide late-season nectar for butterflies, as well as seeds for birds.

Genetic diversity helps plant species survive environmental threats such as global warming and competition from invasive species, and growing native plants is a valuable way to help protect biodiversity as a whole. By doing so, I was able to help establish new and genetically diverse populations of many native plants, which are disappearing from our region as New England becomes increasingly urbanized.

Birds, Bats & Butterflies

During our first summer here, we watched ruby-throated hummingbirds visit the flowers of the bee balm, trumpet honeysuckle, verbena, and scarlet runner beans I had planted to attract these feisty, flying characters. We added a bat house to the side of our barn, and our horses were grateful to the bats, which gorged on horse-flies and mosquitoes. Butterflies visited the salvia, aster, sunflower, zinnia, and cosmos, and caterpillars of the monarch butterfly hatched on the scarlet milkweed I grew in a pot on the patio.

mt mi mi
6/10/2009 10:10:18 AM

Reading this article was like reading about "farm/garden/wildlife heaven". You guys live in Eutopia, of your own making. Too bad each of us, who long to live in the country, don't have this opportunity. But, thanks to the land developers and real estate agents (I can say that; my daughter's a broker), so many areas' land prices have risen SKY HIGH, and out of reach for the locals. For instance, in the '80s, we bought property here in western Montana for $2700. and acre (formerly a pasture, so good fertile soil). Now that same area is selling for closer to $100,000. an acre!! Just ridiculous, thanks to developers and people who buy ranchettes!!! I know everybody has to make a living and have somewhere to live, but thinking twice about the long term effect on the local economy would be a wise thing for all to consider.






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