Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

The Garden In The Woods

A visit to the Garden in the Woods:

Behind our shop we have a small garden. Over the years we’ve filled it with whatever plants we thought looked pretty, and, of course, whatever plants happened to be on sale that week. One day a lady told me that the plants in our garden were bad. Say, what? She pointed out that all our plants are exotic and provided little or no benefit to wildlife. I acted as if I understood, but what I wanted to say was, “A plant is a plant. Why are you bothering me with something that’s not about birds?” After she left I walked out and looked at the showiest plant in the garden. It’s a huge spiky thing called a “red hot poker.” Its bright red spires are a real eye catcher…for humans, but not, as it turned out, for bugs or birds. I never saw one bee or other insect anywhere near this fancy plant. A few feet away, however, in a less maintained area, were lots of native milkweeds and they were covered in honeybees, butterflies and a few ladybugs. The woman was right. The red hot poker, like TV’s Trevor Noah, is an introduced species from South Africa, and in some parts of the world this plant is becoming invasive. Oops!

Not wanting to do any more wrong plant planting, I passed the problem on to my wife, who quickly learned about the Native Plant Trust. Founded over a century ago right here in Massachusetts, the Native Plant Trust’s main goal is to protect, preserve and promote local flora, while also reducing invasive species. Its headquarters in Framingham has both a nursery, where people can purchase proper plants for their own yard, and a sanctuary, where folks can stroll through a forest of native vegetation. The property is called the Garden in the Woods, and we decided to check it out.

To avoid the big city rush hour traffic, we left the day before and spent the night in a nearby hotel. Once we were checked in, I immediately began researching for area birding sites. The trip may have been about plants, but I still needed to sneak in some bird watching. I found just the place. Ten minutes from the Garden, in the town of Wayland, is the Heard Farm Conservation Area. It has wetlands and forests, but the bulk of the 86 acres is composed of grasslands. Big trees are great, but grasslands are both productive and in short supply. All too often fields fall victim to agriculture, housing developments and golf courses, but these particular fields have been preserved for nature, most notably for Bobolinks.

Related to blackbirds, but not much larger than a sparrow, Bobolinks are rare breeders on Cape Cod and due to dwindling habitat, they are becoming rare breeders in a lot of places. Heard Farm is one of the best sites in the state to see these oddly named birds, so at 5:00AM I headed off to the farm to try my luck. As it turned out, I really didn’t need much luck. There were Bobolinks just about everywhere I looked. The showy males typically sing from the tops of trees, but they also have the charming habit of landing on stalks of tall grass and riding them halfway to the ground…while still singing. In addition to Bobolinks, there were several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, bluebirds, swallows, vireos, kingbirds and one very inquisitive Eastern Wood-Pewee. (Yup, it’s a real bird.) I had a very pleasant morning at Heard Farm, but sadly, like too many other reserves, the town’s conservation department has allowed this important wildlife habitat to become yet another dog park. When the barking started, it was time to go.

I returned to the hotel and picked up my wife, who had finally decided it was time to get up. We arrived at the Garden in the Woods (remember that place?) a little before 10:00AM and it still hadn’t opened. Apparently their plants like to sleep late. But then a very nice woman (Debbie?) opened the gate and pointed us to the visitor center where another nice lady gave us a map, answered our questions and took our money. The main trail is about a mile long and winds through several diverse habitats. which feature over a thousand different New England plants (and not a single red hot poker). We also ran into Susan, who is both a customer and an outstanding nature photographer. On this day Susan was focused (get it?) on dragonflies. She put her camera down for a moment and kindly gave us a quick lesson on dragonflies, which were numerous, colorful and actually interesting. Plants and dragonflies are great, but I also wanted to see a few birds and that’s all I saw, a few. The birding here was disappointing, but then again it was now well after 10:00AM and long past prime birding time. I need to talk to Debbie about opening earlier.

I explored one last trail, while my wife headed to the nursery to look for plants that not only belong in our area, but will also benefit the insects that our birds depend upon. Twenty minutes later I received a text message from her telling me to “get the car.” I immediately knew what that meant. It meant she was finished shopping and she had bought way more than she could carry. I’ve gotten a lot of those messages over the years.

The Garden in the Woods is both beautiful and educational, and well worth visiting. But most importantly, it made us aware that flowers and plants are a critical part of our ecosystem and are not just for show. If you want to help birds, plant native species in your yard. If you want something showy from another continent, turn on Trevor Noah. He’s pretty good, but he won’t attract many birds.