Mid-Atlantic: For the Birds

Hayes, Virginia, USDA Zone 7

When my husband and I bought our farmhouse in tidewater Virginia, we got hold of some property with rhythm. On one side is the tide: the beat is like that of a huge heart. On the other side, in a one-acre field out by the road, the rhythm went like this: soybeans, corn, soybeans, corn, one after the other each year, in a pattern so well established—and monotonous—that after the harvest every fall, it was hard to recall which one that summer’s crop had been.

Then our neighbor suggested that we participate together in the Virginia Agricultural Best Management Practice program designed to take cropland close to the environmentally compromised Chesapeake Bay out of agriculture. Programs like this encourage the use of winter cover crops, create buffers of vegetation to limit agricultural runoff, discourage excessive tilling, and try to reduce the use of fertilizer so less nitrogen washes into waterways. We jumped at the chance to take part. In the spring of 2002, our two fields were planted with warm-season grasses, legumes, and wildflowers in an effort to create a wildlife habitat.

We planted a nurse crop of oats that first year to shade the seedlings of switch grass (Panicum virgatum), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), partridge pea (Cassia fasciculata), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). The oats turned the big field a luminous blue, then faded to pale gold straw as the summer wore on. Our native grasses and flowers shot up through them.

The second summer, the black-eyed Susans were so riotously prolific that they attracted visitors from across the county. The butterfly milkweed, which tends to have a very poor germination rate, popped up here and there in the margins of the sundrenched field. Our plot is still thick with black-eyed Susans, but the grasses have now outrun them. In late summer, when the field is the color of a golden retriever, the grasses are up to my ears.

We’ve witnessed the program’s success. Bluebirds and kingbirds keep watch over the field from the power line along our lane all summer long. A colony of purple martins glide and soar over the grasses, and big swirling clouds of goldfinches erupt from the field when we walk by. We saw a turkey hen with 10 chicks the second summer, and, late in the season, our neighbor said he heard a meadowlark.

I’ve been looking hard for that meadowlark. Cory Guilliams, the soil conservationist in our county, tells me I’ll be lucky if I see one. “They are very, very shy birds,” Guilliams says, “but you should hear their call. It is almost flutelike—it is a very happy song.” We often hear the distinctive call of quail (Northern bobwhites) somewhere in the neighborhood, and Guilliams tells me they too can be an elusive species. “You can spend thousands to make a suitable habitat, and they might not come,” he says. “It’s ultimately the quail’s decision.rsquo;

When I hear the quail, I always call back. My whistle sounds like their “bob white,” but what I’m actually saying is “right this way.” I hope I’m pronouncing it properly. 

WORTH GROWING: Sinningia tubiflora

Last summer, on a tour of local gardens with the Tidewater Daylily Society, I was distracted by the snow-white tubular flowers and lovely felty foliage of hardy white gloxinia (Sinningia tubiflora). The gardener was kind enough to share a piece of her plant. I grew my cuttings in compost for six weeks, then transplanted them to a flower bed. Sinningia tubiflora thrives in well-drained soil in sun or light shade. It is hardy to USDA Zone 7. In colder areas, it adapts gracefully to pots.

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