The Gardener's Exchange is a community garden club that meets on weekends once a month between February and October to share knowledge and experiences on various gardening topics. Gardener's Exchange members are from Shirley, Lunenburg, Leominster, Fitchburg, Lancaster, Ayer, Groton and several other towns in the area.

At their opening meeting at the Hazen Memorial Library in Shirley, the garden club's guest speaker was Ellen Sousa, a garden coach and co-owner of Turkey Hill Brook Farm in Spencer, a horse farm registered by the National Wildlife Federation as a certified wildlife habitat. The title of her talk and slide presentation was "Habitat Landscaping." Her book, The Complete Guide to Natural Habitat Gardening in New England, will be published by Bunker Hill Publishing in early 2011.

Sousa's farm is part of a national movement of backyard landscaping to provide food and shelter to birds, pollinators and other animals that play an essential role in the health and stability of the environment.

Sousa shared that on her nearly four-acre farm, she is trying to increase the number of species of birds, frogs, and other amphibians. "The more we plant, the more diversity we get, including insects," she said.

Scientists believe as wildlife habitats are being taken away, wildlife will begin to experience major extinctions, according to Sousa. Invasive species are also a big problem, as they crowd out many of our native plants.


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"As a garden coach, I landscape gardens using my computer," she said, as she first showed a slide of a house with a massive lawn and some small foundation shrubs planted at its base. "Creatures won't feel comfortable being in this kind of landscape, especially if the lawn is full of chemicals."

She then showed a computer-generated photograph of what the same house could look like with a diversity of plants in the yard. The difference in appearance was staggering.

"Why care that our wildlife are declining?" asked Sousa. "Diversity provides balance. Even down to the tiniest bacteria and fungi, wildlife maintain the integrity of our ecosystem.

"Plant pollinators equal food," she went on. "Having all the different creatures that play their own roles, promotes natural processes that maintain our environment.

"We need bugs. Bugs are vital to the natural balance of our ecosystem."

Sousa showed some examples of beneficial insects such as hoverflies, also known as syrphid Flies, whose larvae eat plant-sucking insects such as aphids and thrips; ladybugs, which feed on aphids and scale insects; and, braconid wasps that parasitize or lay larvae inside aphids, bark beetles, and foliage-feeding caterpillars including gypsy moths.

"Bugs are also food for most terrestrial birds, and for their young, especially. Promoting insects invites birds. The more predators you attract, the fewer pest problems you have.

"When you use a spray, you're killing the good and bad bugs. There are many more good bugs than bad bugs. Attracting them is the first step to becoming a natural habitat gardener," stated Sousa.

She suggested that even hornworm caterpillars, the fat green ones sometimes seen crawling on tomato plants, provide a lot of protein for birds. "The birds usually keep them under control," she said, "Although they can decimate a tomato pretty quickly."

Sousa explained that natural pollinators are critical to, or the "keystone," of any ecosystem. They enable the plants to reproduce. As non-native honeybee hives continue to decline, gardeners and farmers are now looking to native pollinators as back up, she explained. These include native bumblebees, mason orchard bees, and sweat bees.

Some of the essentials for the success of a natural habitat garden are food through the seasons, water, cover, and safe travel routes for wildlife. Wildflowers such as goldenrod and Joe-pye weed provide lots of pollen, plus seeds in the fall for birds, suggested Sousa. Liatris, also known as blazing star or gayfeather, has seeds that attract goldfinches. Nut trees and ornamental grasses also provide important food sources for birds in winter, with grasses adding particular winter interest to the garden. 

"Instead of scalping everything to the ground, leave the seed supplies," recommended Sousa. "Plants like ornamental grasses left standing aboveground in winter are attractive, and birds find them to be fine dining. It is fun to watch juncos swaying on the ends of grass stems," she said, as she displayed a slide of a bird balancing atop a plume of grass.

Another food source for birds are berries, which attract cedar waxwings and other native birds. "Dogwood fruit is high in fat and great fuel for bird migration," said Sousa. "Dogwoods also provide protein from nectar and pollen for early season pollinators." Red twig, silky, creeping, red osier, gray and flowering dogwoods are native varieties.

Sousa showed examples of water features, plants for both wet and dry conditions, how to provide shelter against predators for beneficial animals and ideas for ways to attract mosquito-eating bats and slug-eating toads. She even suggested arranging some broken terra cotta pots around a shallow dish by a dripping downspout to create "toad abodes."

Some big ideas for sustainable landscaping that Sousa shared:

* Detox your yard. Feed your soil, not your plants.

* Put the right plant in the right place.

* Use natives when possible.

* Avoid invasive plants.

* Reduce your lawn and chemicals.

* Plant plants that naturally grow in your conditions.

The Gardener's Exchange will be visiting Sousa's habitat garden at Turkey Hill Brook Farm in Spencer on Saturday, Aug. 14, when her phlox, New England aster, and other late summer bloomers will be in full glory.

The gardening club's next meeting is scheduled for Saturday, March 27, from noon to 2 p.m. at the Hazen Library. The presentation will be "Simple Water Features for the Backyard Gardener: No Shovel Required," and will feature member Andrienne Clark, who will describe a simple water garden she created and the "lessons learned" along the way. Members and other attendees are encouraged to share their own experiences during the discussion that follows.

The meeting will conclude with a houseplant swap, "a great way to tidy up and enhance your collection," according to GE President Janet Tice. "Simply bring any extras, divisions, etc. you'd like to swap with members and go home with a couple of new plants."

Annual membership dues for the Gardener's Exchange are only $15 for individual members, and $25 for couples. Besides garden tours, educational meetings, plant swaps, and spring "dividends" of plants, members receive discounts at several area plant nurseries. Checks are preferred (payable to "Gardener's Exchange") and should include a mailing address, e-mail address and telephone number(s). Dues may be brought to a meeting or sent to Gardener's Exchange, P.O. Box 328, Shirley, MA 01464.

For a GE calendar of events, visit http://gardeners-exchange.org.