Nature Connection: Being Prepared

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond illustration

As we turn the calendar page to September, our thoughts begin to stray a bit from summer fun. I’m always a bit resistant to this, which you know if you read last week’s column. Summer hangs on for a few more weeks and I, for one, am not in a rush to push her out the door, even if Mr. Orion has already appeared in the night sky. Pumpkins, mums, and apples can just all hold their horses, as my grandmother would have said.

This doesn’t mean I don’t start to prepare for what’s ahead, because I do, but in a casual sort of way. I keep an eye on milkweed pods that have proliferated along a beach road I walk often. I plan to nab a pod or two and spread some seeds around the perimeters of my yard, but I wait for them to burst open, so I know they’ve ripened. 

Squirrels, chipmunks, and groundhogs are all chowing down as if there’s no tomorrow, but in reality they are simply getting ready for winter by adding layers of fat and also gathering some food for their larders. Woodpeckers do this, too, and you may see some grabbing seeds from your feeder and stashing them behind your gutter or a loose shingle. In the woods they will hide acorns and seeds behind bark or in holes in trees which they will visit later. Swallows are gathering in the dunes to take their fill of insects in the marsh but also the fatty, nutritious bayberries that are everywhere in the dunes.

Many insects die off as the air cools, so they are busy laying eggs to assure the continuance of their genes. If they make it to the larval stage before the cold settles in, then they will make their cocoons or other casings to while away the winter hours. Many of these will provide food for hungry chickadees and other birds but others will hatch when the air is once again warm enough to maintain them.

Baby turtles are hatching all over. If you find one, please leave it be unless it’s in the middle of a parking lot. They are making their way to safe havens but not all turtles think the same places are their safe havens. Painted, musk, and snapping turtles will head for ponds or lakes, as they are freshwater turtles. Box turtles, which can look similar to these water-loving turtles, do not live in the water and will die if put in the pond so be sure of what you have in your hand before “helping” it. Baby box turtles make their way to moist leaf litter where they will snuggle in and eat tiny bugs and worms before beginning their first winter hibernation.

We don’t have hatching sea turtles here, though we do have young sea turtles that often strand in the late fall when the bay gets cold. Our only saltwater marsh turtle, the diamondback terrapin, lays its eggs in sand on the side of marshes, often in low dune areas. These youngsters have a long and treacherous trip to make as they scurry toward the marsh. Predators such as crows, herons, foxes, and coyotes will gobble them up in an instant. If you happen upon one or more of these little guys all you have to do is stand guard for a few minutes as they make their way. Your presence is a wonderful deterrent to those who wish to feast on them.

All baby turtles need to exercise their little legs to strengthen their muscles enough to swim and run to where they want to go. Picking them up and carrying them to the pond or marsh seems like a kind and helpful idea but really, just keeping guard is a better idea. Can you pick one up to say hello or show a kid? Sure. Just remember you are a giant and an unknown scary thing to them so be gentle and quick about it.

After a long, hot, mostly dry summer, our yards and gardens may need some loving care. Nothing like getting half a summer’s rainfall in one night, but in the end it seems to have helped. As we prepare to clean out our old vegetable plants we can begin a compost pile if we don’t have one already. Enclosed compost bins are readily available, or you can create your own using one of the many clever ideas online. As for lawns? They’re outdated. Go for an old-fashioned Cape Cod lawn full of pine needles and wildflowers and be one of the cool kids.

The end of summer is a good time to pick up perennials and shrubs at reduced prices to add to your pollinator gardens, but do a little homework and add native plants, not just decorative nursery plants. In the meantime, we can leave many dying or dead flower heads to provide wild seeds for birds. It’s the latest craze, that and leaving your leaves for cover for beneficial bugs. You can be a super cool nature hero, especially if you convince your neighbors to do the same.

If rabbits and groundhogs have been problematic, build some fences this fall. I have plenty of clover and other native flowers and grasses and rarely have a problem with little furry friends in my flower gardens which are unprotected, but I do fence in my veggies.

There are many plants and flowers that rabbits don’t like so while you’re hanging around inside this winter, maybe look up a few alternatives so your garden isn’t so inviting to them. Grow some red clover or set aside a little bunny garden with their favorite foods.

A little knowledge and preparation can help us not only get through the cold months ahead but also plan for our future gardens to make them more sustainable and wildlife friendly.