Leave Your Leaves!

By guest contributor Barbara Driscoll, President, New Hope Audubon Society

It’s that time of year again when the leaves are turning red, orange and gold, and starting to drop to the ground.

These leaves provide nutrients for the trees they came from and also shelter for many insects. It may surprise you to know that most of our butterflies and moths overwinter in the leaves in the form of eggs, caterpillars or chrysalis, and even some adult butterflies such as the Questionmark, Comma or Mourning Cloak spend the winter sheltered in the leaves or bushes. Luna moths and swallowtail butterflies disguise their cocoons and chrysalis as dried leaves which wait in the litter until spring to emerge.

Luna moth. Photo by Barbara Driscoll.

Lots of insects use the leaf litter as a place to live or over winter, and our birds know this is a good place to look for food. Hermit thrush, white-throated sparrows and other birds can be seen kicking and picking through the leaves for bugs to eat. So many insects live in the leaves: spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes and more – and they support chipmunks, turtles and amphibians which rely on insects for food.

So, sit back, relax, enjoy the leaves and don’t work so hard at tidying up the yard because those leaves are providing a lot of good to wildlife. Research has shown that a thin layer of leaves does not harm your lawn, but if you are concerned about it then blow or rake the leaves to another part of your yard. After all it is free mulch and provides much needed nutrients to your trees and plants. It’s best not to shred the leaves as that will destroy many of the insects, and bagging or blowing the leaves curbside is like giving away free mulch. An even better approach is to reduce the amount of green lawn and replace it with native plants. Take back that time you spent removing the leaves and start enjoying them and the benefit it provides to wildlife and your yard!

If you would like additional information, much of the information for this blog came from a blog by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, or please refer to a previous post, “Littering with Leaves” by Jim George in October 2017. For more information on making your yard friendlier to birds and other wildlife visit the sections of our webpage about creating a “Bird Friendly Habitat.”

Click Here to take the pledge to Leave Your Leaves and get your very own yard sign!

This article was originally published on the New Hope Audubon Society website.

November: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Well, what do you know?!  It’s November…already.  Transition month in the piedmont of NC—Fall to Winter although winter of late has been more like an extended November.  Way better than an extended January.  There’s not a lot left to do gardening wise.  Mostly just putting things to bed (pun intended).  The Accidental Cottage Garden looks like what one would expect a perennial garden to look like in November…not good.  The hardy ageratum (Eupitorium coelstinum) is pleased with the recent rains having been not so much pleased with the preceding long dry period.  The chrysanthemum (C. noclueuia) is about 50/50 yellow and brown.  Other than the uberprolific Knock Out rose, there are a few gallardia (Gallardia pulchella) still in bloom and a clump of Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum) which the bees just love.  The bed beside the driveway has been tilled in preparation for a complete makeover.  Next year should be interesting.  Stay tuned.

Now let’s go outside and play in the dirt before it gets too cold.


Keep all lawns mostly leaf free, taking advantage of the leaves by moving them to garden beds.  Cool season grasses (fescue, bluegrass, perennial rye) are still growing.  Keep them mowed between 3” and 4”.  Continue the war on fire ants (Solenopsis invicta Buren—red, S. richteri Forle—black).  They can be treated with boric acid powder or diatomaceous earth if you have an aversion to lethal chemicals.


November is a slow time for you frequent fertilizers.  However, you can check the results of your as yet (through November) FREE soil test and add lime to your soil per the recommendation.  A good way to incorporate the lime is to core aerate the soil prior to applying the lime.  This will get the lime down into the root zone where it will be of the most benefit.

If you have a wood burning fireplace you can dispose of the cool ashes around trees and shrubs.  Be sure to avoid ericaceous (acid loving) plants (azaleas, camellias, gardenias).


For those of you who might have missed it earlier, FALL IS FOR PLANTING!  Especially now that there is moisture in the soil it is time to run out and transplant the things that need a different living arrangement and/or add new things to the garden.  Be adventurous and plant a native species or six.  They are low maintenance, relatively pest free and usually deer and bunny resistant.  Ain’t nothin’ deer proof if the deer are hungry enough.

Plant one-year-old asparagus crowns this month.

Sow a cover crop in the currently unused parts of the veggie garden.  Annual rye, wheat, barley and alfalfa are good choices.  They will mitigate erosion, keep weeds to a minimum and add organic matter when tilled into the soil in the Spring.  Win, win, win!


Nope, nada, nichts, rien.  The equipment should already be cleaned and put away.


Well, there you have it.  May each of you have a wonder filled, nearly normal Thanksgiving.  Be sure to prepare enough to share with someone who otherwise might not have any.  Remember, COVID is still out there, so be safe and let us not be foolish.


Looking for a way to help your soil and local critters while cutting down work? Leave the leaves this year! As leaves break down they provide carbon and nutrients back to the soil, and leaf litter is critical habitat for any number of invertebrates and other small friends. Learn more, and take the pledge at https://keepdurhambeautiful.org/leaveyourleaves. As a bonus, by taking the pledge you can get a free yarn sign to help spread the word!

Gabion Planters at the Extension Office

By Deborah Pilkington, EMGV

If you’ve come to the Extension Office at 721 Foster St recently, you will have noticed the gabion planters on either side of the front door entry.  These new planters were installed in April of this year, and planted with grasses, vines, and annual and perennial flowers shortly thereafter.

Gabion (mid-16th century) comes from the Italian gabbione, from gabbia ‘cage’, which came from the Latin cavea. Basically, it is a cage filled with rock, concrete, or earth, historically used in fortifications, retaining walls, and in the prevention of erosion in river banks.  Gabions of this type can be seen at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, where they are used to form supports for overhead train tracks, and as edging around seating areas.

They have also been seen as beautiful erosion control walls in Durham.

I first saw gabions used as planters upon a visit to the Reford Gardens/Jardins de Métis, in Métis sur Mer, Quebec, in October, 2019. One was a ‘walk-in’ gabion with a hanging tray of succulent plants inside; part of an art installation in the Festival International des Jardins. 

The second was in a part of the garden where horticulture students are encouraged to build on the previous year’s students’ installations, and consisted of a gabion filled with old books, including the occasional textbook (to my amusement several Chemistry textbooks, and perhaps presciently, an upside-down Virology textbook) along with other books and magazines.

When it came time to think about planters for the Demonstration Garden, our first thoughts had been the silver troughs, which had become ubiquitous throughout Durham.  Remembering the gabion planters, I suggested we pursue this as an alternative.  This led to a field trip with Peter Gilmer to the aforementioned museum where Manager of Horticulture Bobbi Jo Holmes showed us their gabions.  She was also able to point us to a material supplier for the metalworks, and Peter was able to donate the rocks for the project.

Peter carefully researched our options and chose Stone Decorative www.stonedecorative.com as our vendor after much discussion on size, shape, and size of the mesh.  We chose industrial (vs landscape) gabion panels because of higher gauge, thus stronger, wire, which was Galfan-coated galvanized steel and came in 36” x 36” x 18” panels.  Also included were spiral binders and tie wires which stabilized the walls to each other.  The panels (6 in all—top, bottom, and 4 sides) were shipped in a flat box, and assembly proved very easy with the spiral binders.


We had decided the gabions would provide more visual interest if they were placed at an angle to the sidewalk and building, rather than running parallel to the sidewalk.  Peter cleared and leveled the soil, then put down several inches of pea gravel as a base.  The gabion panels were assembled using the spiral binders, put in place, and rocks installed.  By utilizing the leftover top panels, and purchasing two more panels, Peter constructed an inner box for each gabion.

Once the inner box was installed, rocks were carefully placed between the two boxes, and the inner box lined with heavy landscape fabric to prevent soil washout. In early June, soil was put in and the gabions planted by Joan Barber and Deborah Pilkington.

By using annuals, grasses and vines, the plantings can be changed out to reflect the changes in the seasons, demonstrating how home gardeners can also keep their containers in use year-round. Even though the summer annuals are still going strong, we can’t wait to trade them out for some winter interest!

Photo credits:  Deborah Pilkington, Joan Barber, Peter Gilmer, Lisa Nadler.

Native Mid-level Trees for a Bird-Friendly Garden

All the bird action is in the middle.

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

When we added two new bird feeders to our back yard last year during the COVID-19 lockdown, we enjoyed watching these frequent winged visitors and noticed that some birds waited their turn in a few nearby small trees and shrubs and these few plants were getting as much wildlife action as the bird feeders! 

Photographs by Wendy Diaz Birds Clockwise: Northern Flicker, Starlings, Mourning Doves, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Mourning Dove and Northern Cardinal, Brown-headed Nuthatch

We also noticed that the resident squirrel and some birds were taking a toll on the narrow branches of the closest mid-level Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). I realized that after considering my backyard plants from a bird’s perspective, I had plenty of canopy trees and many near ground-level native perennials but lacked small trees and shrubs. This post will focus on native small trees that can potentially thrive in my backyard.  Native shrubs, along with the vertical element of vines, is a subject for a future blog post.

Squirrel bending branch of Fringe Tree and eating the drupes. Photo taken on May 25, 2021 by Wendy Diaz

Birds perched on Fringe Tree’s branches located near our bird feeder: Bluebird (May 30, 2021), American Goldfinch (April 27, 2019) and a Brown-headed Nuthatch (June 21, 2021). Photos taken by Wendy Diaz

Why Plant Mid-level Trees?

I have made a commitment to help native wildlife and especially birds by creating a good diverse habitat for them. After all, it is the least I can do considering there are nearly 3 billion less birds in North America than there was in 1970[1] due to threats such as habitat loss and degradation as well as cats and window collisions. Just like a garden landscape design benefits aesthetically from plants of varied height, so do birds. It is important for birds and for a diverse wildlife garden to layer tree heights and plants from the ground to the tree canopy and in between. Understory or small trees are used in the middle layer of the landscape and my backyard could do more for the birds and the environment if I planted more of these trees, both deciduous and coniferous (evergreen). 

Birds prefer trees of different heights both deciduous and evergreen for roosting and cover especially in winter. Above: Brown Thrasher on a low Magnolia branch above a small Redbud. Below: Red-winged Blackbird on Red Maple branch above the bird feeder. Photos taken by Wendy Diaz on June 4, 2021 and December 28, 2020, respectively.

Trees also need to range in size and density of leaf cover and I had limited cover for birds in my backyard landscape ever since I removed some small invasive trees, bushes and vines in addition to a Forsythia hedge.  The mid-level plain of my backyard vista, between 5 and 20 feet, is pretty bare and the recently planted replacement Fothergilla bushes are still small and slow growing.

My backyard has little small tree cover for birds especially in winter. Left photo: Bird’s-eye view of east-facing backyard in winter. Right photo: Horizontal view from the back deck. Photos taken by Wendy Diaz on February 20, 2021 and March 30, 2021, respectively.

A bird habitat should include food, water, cover and a place to raise their young. Plants are the foundation of the food web and a high value native wildlife habitat has a diversity of plants that flower and produce food throughout the seasons and cover in the winter too (evergreens) and native plants that are hosts for butterfly larvae that birds need to feed their young[2]. Tree cover is necessary to give birds a place to roost, interact socially, retreat from foul weather and escape from predators[3]

Along with providing a supplemental food like bird feeders it is also important to provide a water source (bird bath) and nesting sites (bird houses and snags) for cavity dwellers like nuthatches, woodpeckers and bluebirds. It is recommended that all bird feeders always be located within 10 feet of shrubby vegetation and especially evergreen plants[4] because this provides escape cover for small birds. In other areas of the backyard I have a brush pile and low-level perennials to provide quick escapes but not near the bird feeders. I needed more smaller trees and dense shrubs to provide nesting and escape cover along the edge our forested buffer. Native small trees can also provide additional ecological value besides protective cover by producing seeds, nuts, fruits for birds and other mammals, nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies and moths and providing hosts for caterpillars. To augment the native Fringe tree, I also wanted to plant more native small trees that would be well-adapted to our soil and climate.

Birds using man-made birdbath and birdhouses. Clockwise: Finch and Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren and Finch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, House Finch and Tufted Titmouse. Photos taken by Wendy Diaz in 2021.

The Search for My Mid-level Tree Wish List

This spring I decided to research a list of potential native mid-level trees for my plant wish list this fall. Planting new trees is best done in the fall after the summer heat and when the soil is still warm and the new roots can grow. It makes them more resilient to survive the next hot summer. These young trees should be watered regularly during their first season until they are established.

Matt Jones, Chatham County Extension Agent recommended some bird-friendly native trees, especially for migrating birds, for the suburban yard during a virtual New Hope Audubon Society talk[5] in March. He suggested Eastern Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), a common conifer in the Peidmont. It is dioceous and needs both male (for pollination) and female plants which produce fruits that songbirds like to eat. Full grown it is not exactly a small tree (40 feet) and prefers full sun. The cones and seeds attract cedar waxwings and robins and provides a nice place to hide due to its dense foliage. Another evergreen small tree which will provide cover in winter is the small but very fragrant flowers of Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginianaand provides nesting sites. It grows to 15 to 20 feet tall and attracts kingbirds, robins and thrushes. He recommended Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous holly with gold fall leaf color that only grows to about 20 feet in height and would do best in the wet area of my yard. Also dioceous (need a male and female plants), it will provide winter interest in the landscape for its bright red drupes (fruit) which attract birds in the fall and persist into the winter. The Wax Myrtle or Bayberry (Myrica cerifera) is also a dioceous small evergreen tree or shrub and its fruit attracts chickadees, meadowlarks, titmouse, thrushes and Carolina wrens and can grow to heights of 20 feet. The birds eat small grey fruit in fall and are a large part of the tree swallow’s diet. He also recommended Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) and of course the Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) which has drupes (fruit) that attract robins, bluebirds, thrush, mockingbirds, catbirds and even the Scarlet Tanager and not to mention squirrels.

A quick search using the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox[6] with my site conditions criteria: Sunlight = partial shade (2-6 hours of direct sunlight per day), Soil texture = clay soil, Soil pH = Acid < 6, Soil Drainage = good but occasionally dry, Available Space to Plant = 6-12 feet (wanted only small trees),Attracts = Songbirds and Plant type = Native Plant, listed four small trees which I could plant that would meet my landscape design criteria. These small trees were Hawthorn (Crataegus Uniflora)Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). This was an ideal list because on a recent scouting of my untouched natural area revealed seedlings of Yaupon Holly, Blackhaw Viburnum and Arrowwood Viburnum. The small trees produce berries in the fall for songbirds and will add to the mid-level plain in my backyard landscape especially the arching shape of the Arrowwood and the pretty white spring blossoms of the Blackhaw Viburnum and the bright red berries of the Yaupon Holly in the winter. Arrowwood will be ideal to augment my new Fothergilla hedge behind one of the bird feeders because it is tolerant of both shade and full sun and good for grouping in masses along woodland edges and produces a deep burgundy[7]to copper brown fall color. If I see Hawthorn in a nursery I will be sure to purchase it so I can add to the environmental resilience of my landscape because it is heat tolerant and in Florida grows to a larger tree size. In other parts of the garden I already have a few yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria) and one weeping type (Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’) which is a very good small tree for a native landscape due to its architecturally pleasing form and dense branches (dense branches makes it more difficult for predators to access nests) and bright winter berries for the birds. 

Photos: Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)in bloom and closeup of bloom. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on April 7, 2021 Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 7, 2021.

Some other small trees I have read about could also be great additions to my garden such as Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), an autumn-blooming deciduous small tree with pale yellow flowers that grows 15 to 20 feet tall and birds eat the fruit in the fall but due to its drought intolerance I would have to plant it in a wetter portion of my backyard and not near the bird feeders. Swamp Bay (Persea palustris), a broadleaf evergreen small tree produces small blue drupes in the fall for birds. Serviceberry, Amelanchier also may be a good candidate for my yard as a deciduous small tree that grows to 15 feet tall and blooms as soon as the ground thaws from winter.

This spring I noticed a small seedling in the recently rehabilitated north side yard where I removed a bed of invasive Vinca major and subsequently planted native perennials. Perhaps I have a bird to thank for this Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasusseedling which is an evergreen small tree that I can transplant for a hedge or use it for dense cover for birds in the winter near the bird feeder in my woodland garden. I recently identified a small tree of Possumhaw (Viburnum nudum) or Possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) in the natural buffer area. It is a deciduous dioceous tree that grows 15 to 20 feet and produces red fruit that ripens in September that persists through winter and is eaten by songbirds. Hopefully, I will discover its seedlings in the future to transplant. Other small or mid-level trees that already grow in my yard are Redbud (Cercis candadensis)Dogwood (Cornus florida), Winged Sumac (Rhus glabra) and of course the Fringe Tree, (Chionanthus virginicus). 

Photographs of other small mid-level (understory) trees: Red bud, Dogwood, Fringe Tree and Winged Sumac. Photos taken by Wendy Diaz

Published plant lists that include small trees which may be ideal for your bird-friendly yard are as follows:

  1.  https://www.newhopeaudubon.org/wp-content/themes/nhas/library/docs/native-plant-growing-guide-piedmont-nc.pdf
  2. Table 1 Plant species native to North Carolina (including soil moisture and light requirements, region of primary occurrence and benefit to wildlife) in Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants
  3. Table 1 Important fruit-producing and seed-producing native plants in North Carolina and the timing of fruit or seed availability in Managing Backyards and Other Urban Habitats for Birds https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/managing-backyards-and-other-urban-habitats-for-birds
  4. Table 1 Some native host plants for North Carolina Butterflies in Butterflies in Your Backyard https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/butterflies-in-your-backyard

Where will I Find the Native small tree seedlings?

There are several ways to obtain native small trees to help birds in North Carolina and here is a list of resources:

  1. As I already mentioned, transplant seedlings from your own yard if you have a ‘natural area’.
  2. Collect seeds from trees growing wild in your area (not allowed in State Parks and Botanical Gardens).
  3. Attend a local Native plant rescue organized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society:


4. Buy from native plant nurseries:

Native Plant Nurseries


  • or from the North Carolina Forest Service:


The Time to Plant Trees is Now!

With a list of 15 small native trees, I have plenty of small tree choices to plant this fall (or transplant) to fill in the voids in my garden landscape, support a more diverse wildlife habitat and to provide cover for birds around my bird feeders. In September, a hawk stayed about an hour in our backyard. Maybe watching for moles? It seemed happy with the bluebird house as a perch. Watching this high-level predator has given new urgency to my new landscape goal of planting more mid-level trees.

Cooper’s Hawk perched on bluebird house glancing at a Brown-headed nuthatch on the bird feeder.
Photographs taken moments a part on September 21, 2021 by Wendy Diaz.


[1] https://www.3billionbirds.org/findings

[2] Easy Ways to Provide Wildlife Cover Triangle Gardener January-February 2018

[3] Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants NC State Extension:


[4] Managing Backyards and Other Urban Habitats for Birds 


[5] NHAS Monthly Meeting – March 4, 2021 Matt Jones, Tree Indentification-How birds use trees (especially during migration) and what trees would be good for our yards.”

[6] Plant Toolbox  https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/find_a_plant/

[7] The American Woodland Garden, Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest. Text and photography by Rick Darke, Timber Press Copywright 2002.

October: To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Holy Hemerocallis!!  When did September happen?  I think I missed it!  I remember Labor Day and now it is October and that calendar doesn’t look any better than September’s.  I need to go back to work.  I don’t have time for retirement.

The Accidental Cottage Garden is preparing to go to bed (pun intended) for the winter.  There are several things still blooming, but not prolifically.  Well, the stonecrop (Hylotelephium “Herbstsfreude” ‘Autumn Joy’) (Somebody went way out of their way on that one.) is prolific, but all the rest are winding down.  Ther are Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum) which the bees totally obsess over, the crazy unidentified spreading chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum whoknowsium),  gallardia (Gallardia pulchella), hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum), wand flower (Guarda lindheimeri) and an indominable balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) which has bloomed on and off since May.  Oh, and I almost forgot the three ghosts (Spiritus hauntimaria cv plywood) that have sprouted with the able assistance of 6- and 7-year-old boys.

Calendar?  Oh, you came here for the calendar?  Well, if you insist, I’ll just have to include one.


You can still reseed/overseed/start from scratch tall fescue and bluegrass (not associated with IBMA) this month.  Keep the new seeds well hydrated util they become established.

Keep leaves from building up on newly (and oldly) seeded lawns.


October is essentially a fertilizer-free month unless you are setting out spring flowering bulbs (tulips, daffodils, crocus, etc.).  If that be the case then by all means add a little 10-10-10 or equivalent to the planting soil.  Put away any left-over fertilizer in a moisture free container.


Spring flowering bulbs and pansies can be planted this month.  Plant pansies as soon as possible to give them the best opportunity to get well established before it gets cold.  One caveat, however, members of the Odocoileus virginianus species will seek out and devour pansies whenever they can.  (That’s white-tailed deer for all of you non-zoology majors.)  Pansies (Viola tricolor) are favored nearly as much as hostas and azaleas.

Perhaps you have heard or read the Green Industry’s slogan, “Fall is for Planting”.  It is more than just a marketing gimmick.  Fall is the best time to plant nearly all landscape plants.  Planting in the fall gives the plant time to establish a healthy root system before the increasingly hot and dry NC summer arrives.

Peonies can be planted/transplanted now.

If you are not planting a fall vegetable garden (The psychiatrist will see you now.) consider planting a nitrogen-fixing cover crop.  Red clover (Trifolium pratense) or winter rye grass (Lolium perenne) will work nicely.  Just ill them back into the soil come Spring to increase the nutritional and organic matter content of the soil.

Cold frame owners can plant their winter veggie garden in the frame for salad all season long.


Maybe.  If it frosts (Hey, anything is meteorologically possible in October in NC.) then you can finish cutting back your perennials that are done for the season. 

Leave the shrubs and trees alone until after a hard freeze.


This boat should have sailed last month unless you have a lace bug problem.  These persistent critters will be active (read—feeding) all winter long whenever the leaf temperature in sufficient as in when the sun is shining.  A horticultural oil will usually put a stop to their voraciousness as it will kill the adults and the eggs.


Be sure to keep moist any cuttings that you have started in the cold frame.


Take SOIL SAMPLES.  They are still FREE this month.  NCDOA charges for the analysis November through April.

Put all those leaves into the compost pile or till them into the garden.  They will breakdown faster if they are first shredded.

Give the bird feeders a thorough cleaning.  Then put them back out for the birds (and squirrels).

Dig and store (cool, dry) tender summer flowering bulbs (E.g.  gladioli, caladium, dahlia, etc.) before frost.

Do whatever it takes to get outside and enjoy what a great many people consider to be the best month of the year.  (Personally, I prefer July, but that’s just me.)  Play with your kids or grandkids or dog(s).  Go for a bicycle ride, hike a trail, paddle a stream or lake or just sit on the patio/deck and enjoy.  It can also be prime fire pit weather (meaning S’MORES).

Stay safe, y’all.  Get vaccinated.  Wear a mask.  It’s all a part of the “Do unto others” thing.

*Resources and Further Reading

Organic Lawn Care Guide

North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook – Propagation

How to Prune Specific Plants

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (find your perfect plant or figure out what that unknown weed is!)