Clark Road, Essex County, MA
Featured Site Created By Richard Barry
Richard Barry’s property in Essex, Massachusetts is a model for the potential our suburban properties have to provide native habitat for wildlife. On less than a half acre plot, this family has pulled up their turf grass and replaced it with native perennials, native shrubs, and a vegetable garden to feed their family. All practices were done using zero fertilizers and pesticides. Now that the project is several years old, many of the plants are self-seeding, leaving yard maintenance to a minimum. Their list of wildlife, including birds and pollinators, is long–a Great Blue heron visited their pond. If this amazing transformation can happen on this suburban plot of land, it can happen everywhere! Read on to learn more about this impressive work.
What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?
One of the first changes I made to our property, in 2009 after we moved in, was to get started on removing invasive species, including a large, approximately 18″ diameter, Norway maple (Acer platanoides) and a 30′ tall Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana). Also, we had a number of invasive shrubs in the garden such as barberry, wintercreeper, and euonymus, which I also removed.
Another change I made was to remove enough turf grass to plant our first small organic vegetable garden plot, which has since been expanded to its present size of approximately 750 square feet, in addition to numerous fruit trees and shrubs.
I’ve removed almost all of the previously existing turf lawn in our front and side yards, as well as in much of the backyard. The entire area where the lawn has been removed has been replaced with native and/or edible plants. Everything I grow is pesticide and chemical-fertilizer free. I have planted a wide variety of native trees and shrubs beginning with a focus on the periphery of the property and the front foundation shrubs. Many of these are berry-producing plants such as gray, alternate-leaf (pagoda) and silky dogwoods (Cornus amomum), several species of native viburnums, eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana), bayberry, serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), native Virginia rose, chokeberry (Aronia sp.), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and elderberry.
I planted a large “prairie” garden in our front yard using native grasses and wildflowers including little bluestem, asters, goldenrods, milkweeds, and many other native herbaceous species. I let everything go to seed in the fall when we have an amazing explosion of seedheads to feed wildlife (no “deadheading”). In addition, the plants now self-seed on their own and tend to keep out weeds as well as fill in any spots where plants have been killed by voles or other animals.
I no longer rake any of the planted areas and do so only minimally in the remaining lawn areas–to protect overwintering bees, butterflies, etc. I don’t cut down any dead plant stems except where they’re in the way of paths – at least until the following spring or often not at all. I’ve put up several bird houses and a Screech Owl house, a bat house, four, 50 gallon rain barrels, which provide almost all of our garden water needs, and several compost bins which produce lots of compost for us! I put in rain gardens planted with native wetland plants at the other two downspouts that don’t have the rain barrels. These rain gardens absorb the runoff that goes out through those downspouts.
In the spring of 2014, I created an approximately 100 sq ft pond with a connected 45 ft stream/waterfall flowing into it via a recirculating pump. I deliberately did not add any fish to the pond, since I created it mostly for native aquatic insects such as dragonflies and diving beetles, and for amphibians to find and use. The pond and stream areas are planted mostly with native wetland species.
We moved into this house and I began working on transforming the property in May of 2009, and most of the transformation took place over the first five years, but it is an ongoing process!
What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")
The number and diversity of butterfly species on our property is impressive, especially considering there were essentially zero when we moved in. I see a lot of skippers, hairstreaks, blues, and fritillaries. We’ve had some Monarchs reproduce on our milkweeds – I am very hopeful for the 2016 season regarding Monarchs as we now have four species of milkweed, including a lot of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) established, which is the preferred host of Monarchs in our area. Our beneficial insect life in general has exploded – especially pollinators which we now have an enormous number and variety of.
The other big success has been the bird life visiting us. The biggest benefit has been the wildlife attracted to our pond and stream – often there is a big crowd of birds using the stream as a birdbath–mostly chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches, titmice, nuthatches, juncos, woodpeckers, and Blue Jays.
There are usually green frogs and there have been wood frogs in our pond throughout the year. We seem to have a lot more owls – both Barred and Great-horned – and Red-tailed Hawks than we did before.
Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?
The tougher decisions have been:
a) Removing the large non-native trees, including the first one to go – our invasive Norway maple. This was difficult as my wife and I love trees and don’t enjoy seeing them cut down. But the holes the larger trees left behind in the landscape were quickly filled by native plants.
b) Balancing how much of our property to dedicate to edible plants vs. wildlife/native plant species.
c) How many trees to plant and where. We had to consider the amount of shade trees produce as the shade will prevent sun-loving species from thriving.
d) How much lawn to leave. We have two young kids so outdoor-play-space has been a consideration. I found that our kids tend to prefer playing in the more natural areas, particularly when there are winding paths to explore.
4) My family and I were amazed to watch the huge Great Blue Heron that landed in our backyard, probably thinking that our pond must have koi or goldfish in it like most people’s! It stuck around and watched the pond for some time but didn’t get any of our frogs!