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Weeding a Garden for Mother – Mother Earth, That is

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For the birdsBy Brian Kluepfel  

Hallie Flanagan Wolfe lets me know this would be no walk in the park.

“You may be a writer, but today I’m gonna put you to work,” she said.

And that she does. Along with a handful of other Mother’s Day volunteers, we’re weeding the native plant garden at Saw Mill River Audubon’s Pruyn Sanctuary.  

After a winter of neglect, it’s hard to find the native plants and grasses under the weeds. It’s also not always easy to identify them. However, following Wolfe’s lead, we manage to have a decent-looking native garden after just one pass and a little more than one hour.

Most of the weeds have been piled up behind a massive pile of wood chips in what appears to be a dress rehearsal for a ceremonial burning of a witch, and I decide with my somewhat mixed Pagan belief system, coupled with a blistered thumb, that I’d best skedaddle. The Constant Gardener of Ossining, who’s been designing local landscapes for decades, decides to let me off easy this time.  

I found out many things today during my brief hour of manual labor. Wild garlic is a weed; its pungent bulbs (cloves) are what allow it to perpetuate its stinky presence in a hurry.

Conversely, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is a sweet-smelling native that we chose to purposely plant in our native garden at Pruyn, but it’s so aggressive that it’s not favored by all gardeners. (I overheard one call it a “killer,” but I can’t recall who.)

On a more positive note, the mint can make a nice tea and attracts bees and butterflies.  

What other natives did we undercover? Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), which is a grass also known as Blackhawks. This prairie grass turns a nice rusty red later in the year, and because of its seed shape is also known as Turkey Foot. Both orange and yellow coneflowers are under this sod somewhere. They look a bit like sunflowers and attract butterflies and insects, which in turn attract birds. A native garden is really simply restoring something that once existed. It’s that simple.  

The subtle Bluestar (Amsonia tabermaemontana), perhaps favoring periwinkle or violet, attracts long-tongued insects like carpenter bees and hummingbird moths. It seems like every plant has a natural mix-and-match pollinator. There’s even a False Aster (Boltonia asteroides) whose light, white finger-like petals and egg-yolk-yellow center are irresistible to the pollinator crowd.  

Of course, I haven’t even touched on the hummingbird garden which is next to the one we’ve started to clear today. I’ll get some gloves and delve into that one next time. Yes, Constant Gardener, I promise I’m coming back.

Anyone is welcome to join us in our gardening activities, anytime, and learn about the great native choices that can make your landscapes more beautiful while attracting beautiful butterflies and birds. Just bring a sturdy pair of gloves and a sun hat.  

(Note: Thanks to PrairieNursery.com for its well-thought-out web page and descriptions of many of our native plants.)  

Brian Kluepfel is a former Saw Mill River Audubon board member and an enthusiastic supporter of all their activities. He writes for Westchester Magazine and the Lonely Planet series of travel guides, as well as BirdWatching Magazine. He lives in Ossining and is starting a GoFundMe page for new gardening gloves.  

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