Protecting chickens from hawks and downplaying the lawn

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Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum' groundcover beneath doublefile viburnum. Photo by Susan Safford

Put Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston on your mainland horticultural destination maps. It was a pleasure to take in the excellent primrose show there recently; also enjoyable to meet and chat with prizewinning exhibitors Amy Olmsted (Primrose Hill Woodlanders), Matt Mattus (“Growing With Plants” blog) and Susan Schnare, and to find choice plants in the plant-sale area.

Gloomy skies, chilly temperatures, incessant showers and rain: None of this has prevented the divinely scented Viburnum carlesii from blooming and perfuming the air of gardens endowed with it. The species is well-adapted to Island soils and conditions, even being salt-tolerant; it grows to an eventual size of about 8 by 10 feet. (This is large, but when the entire shrub is also covered in deep-toned, wine-red foliage in autumn, you will exult.)

Luckily for smaller gardens, the superb variety V. carlesii ‘Compactum’ possesses all the features of the larger plant in a 4-foot by 4-foot package. Look for it, and site in sun to part-sun where you can smell the scent; mulch with organic matter.

The dreary weather conditions have also failed to halt the emergence of the red lily beetle. Scout for them on bulb lilies, especially Orientals, and squash them before the foliage is reduced to messy tatters.

Poultry protection

A cri de coeur concerning high losses of poultry due to redtail hawk depredations is, unhappily, becoming a familiar Island complaint. Obviously, one of the basic reasons for home poultry flocks is to have them free-range, scavenging for insects (especially ticks), which give the yolks their desirable deep color and enhanced nutrition. If the flock must be kept perpetually penned, it almost cancels out the reasons for keeping hens.

We have had losses here, although nowhere near as bad as friends’ and neighbors.’ It seems that our enormous central shrub island, comprised of rhododendron, American box, shad-tree, chionanthus, and hawthorn, helps with survival. Chickens are not as cluck-brained as one might think; they are aware of aerial predators. Having a rooster is part of the program: When the warning call goes out, the comical dash for the shrub island is dramatic.

If raptor predators have your hens on their route, I would suggest making plans to provide as much cover in the yard or landscape as possible; the poultry need a place to hide. Much in the same way that bird feeders, placed visibly for better viewing, are an invitation for predation by hawks, so placing the feeders within sheltering cover may lessen the problem.

Evergreen trees and shrubs provide best cover — something the flock can scoot into and under, such as rhododendrons, hollies, spruces, or pieris. Next best would be intensely twiggy, spreading bushes — blueberries, azaleas, viburnums, or flowering quince — or to leave some of the original native vegetation. Greatest vulnerability is an open expanse of lawn with no shelter. Good luck, and here’s hoping good cover does help protect our poultry.

Attractive lawn reduction

Well-laid-out and maintained irrigation systems save water by putting it where it is needed and by monitoring its use. For difficult sites and sustainability, however, lawn and water use enters a different arena, and consequently many well-intentioned gardeners have become interested in reducing it.

One obvious solution is to increase the borders, the non-grass areas of yard or garden that contain plants such as perennials, groundcovers, or shrubs, and to shrink the area covered with lawn grass.

Many fabulously designed gardens have in fact very little lawn: Think of abundant ornamental plantings with a postage stamp of lawn in the center — or an oval, or a circle, or any flowing, attractive shape you like. When attention is paid to the shape of the piece of lawn, the periphery gains an added, harmonious dimension as well. Yin-yang.

Shrub borders in particular are often tied together with an underplanting of groundcover. The groundcover showcases the individual shrub’s attributes while providing a coherent, unifying setting, and — it is hoped — reducing the ability of weeds to gain a foothold.

In shaded areas, ivy and vinca have become the expected look, practically cliché, but as books on groundcovers demonstrate, many, many other plants densely cover the ground. Lily of the valley, sweet woodruff, hardy plumbago, carex, ferns, white woodland aster, and various epimediums come to mind. Once established, increase the plants by division.

For sunny places there are salvia and lavender, lamb’s ears, dianthus, various lamiums and lysimachias, cerastium, succulents, even strawberries and lowbush blueberry! The plant chosen is not required to be short, either.

The Timber Press reference volume “Perennial Groundcovers,” by David S. MacKenzie, supplies numerous ideas, as does Allen Lacy’s “Gardening with Groundcovers and Vines” (HarperCollins); for instance, plants such as Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum,’ Spirea ‘Gold Mound,’ “groundcover” roses, and stephanandra, that do not immediately come to mind.

One of my personal favorite groundcovers is epimedium. As they become better known as a fine groundcover — endlessly good-looking, interesting plants with three-season interest — more fascinating species and cultivars are becoming available. Plant Delights and Garden Vision Epimediums are two good sources.

The photo shows a planting of Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum,’ densely planted beneath a large, multi-stemmed doublefile viburnum. The sulfur-yellow flowers peek above the interesting, asymmetrical leaves. Small spring-flowering bulbs share the border’s soil.

Pollen stress

Trees, shrubs, and grasses that depend on wind pollination have already started to release it: more throat clearing, more coughing and runny noses, and soon, that gritty feeling as the eyes undergo assault. The problem is less if these cool and wet conditions continue, but warm and dry days should return soon. I am trying nettle tea to help me with pollen, which seems to work, at least temporarily.