Maine Home Garden News — November 2021

In This Issue:

November Is the Month to . . .

By Kate Garland, Horticultural Professional, UMaine Extension Penobscot County

  • pitcher plantVisit a bog to enjoy the vibrant fall colors of the pitcher plants, mosses, larch, and other water-loving plants growing in our native wetlands. The fall foliage show isn’t over. Don’t forget your favorite field guide!
  • Empty and rinse clay garden pots, storing them upside down in a dry location. Leaving pots filled with soil and debris over the winter can result in cracking and breakage. If you wish to reuse potting soil from year to year, move the entire pot to a dry location or cover hard-to-move pots to keep moisture out.
  • Collect natural items to add to holiday decorations. Scavenge wisely by only collecting from your own property or areas where you have permission. Also, be sure to not take more than you need or any items that appear to be rare or limited in the landscape. Pick up some great tips during our webinar Tips and Tipping for Long-Lasting Holiday Decorations on November 1, at 6 p.m.
  • Take pictures of areas you aim to redesign over the winter months. Be sure to capture images from all perspectives (from inside the house, the driveway, by the road, etc.) to account for the variety of ways you’ll be viewing and engaging in your landscape.
  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs such as crocus, hyacinth, and snowdrops. It’s not too late to plant these outdoors and it’s also a great time to pot up some bulbs indoors for some late winter botanical cheer. Unlike amaryllis, most other potted bulbs will need to be chilled in a refrigerator for approximately 12 weeks to stimulate flower development.
  • Protect the base of young fruit trees from voles or meadow mice by placing hardware cloth around the bottom 12-18” of the tree. Avoid keeping the barrier tight against the trunk and remove it in the spring. An 8’ fence and scented bar soap hanging from the limbs are two helpful strategies for managing taller mammals also interested in nibbling on prized fruit trees. More on protecting fruit trees from wildlife.

Why Do Insects Have to Be Either ‘Beneficial’ or ‘Pests’?

By Chris Helzer, Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. Photos by Chris Helzer.

I spend a lot of my time introducing people to insect species — showing them a bug or caterpillar they’ve never seen before and/or revealing fascinating tidbits about that animal’s life. Many times, after I share my story, I’m met with the question, “So, is it a beneficial insect then?”

Camouflaged looper
I don’t want to have to defend my favorite insect (camouflaged looper) from people who question whether it’s ‘beneficial’ or not.

The term ‘beneficial insect’ has always bothered me. The implication, of course, is that an insect either plays a role that directly helps us or it is a pest. If it helps us, great! If not, we squish it. (Even if it helps us, we still might squish it, but we’ll feel a little bad about it.)

The truth, of course, is that every insect species (along with other invertebrates, plants, microorganisms, and even vertebrates like birds, reptiles, and mammals) is part of a complex web of interacting communities and ecosystems. Every (native) species plays an integral role that would be missed if it were gone.

Pollinators are getting a lot of deserved respect and attention these days, but that’s just one of many important roles played by insects. For example, herbivores eat the leaves and stems of plants, granivores feed on seeds, and predators, parasites, and parasitoids feed on those herbivores and granivores. Each helps keep populations of other species in check, and many rely upon each other for food or have otherwise developed complementary relationships that are mutually beneficial. In years when some insect populations are down, other species can fill in for them, keeping important roles filled. The whole system relies upon a broad diversity of species and a redundancy of contributions that ensures all necessary jobs are always filled.

Sunflowers with insects
These sunflowers aren’t being ‘attacked’ by insect pests, they are providing critical resources to insects that play vital roles in ecosystems. This is what’s supposed to happen. Plants that aren’t ‘damaged’ by insects are not providing any value to their surroundings.

Because a diversity of insects is so integral to the resilience and function of ecosystems, it seems obvious that we should do everything we can to support all those species, right? So why are we so picky about which insects we celebrate? More importantly, within our yards and gardens, why are we so insistent upon categorizing insects as either beneficial or pests?

2 caterpillars
We happily plant milkweed so monarch caterpillars can ravage their leaves (top) but tend to be bothered by other kinds of caterpillars chewing on yard/garden plants, including whatever the bottom caterpillar here is. I bet the second caterpillar is a more important food source for birds and other creatures (if nothing else, because it doesn’t taste like milkweed’s toxic latex).

Trying to keep insects away is backward thinking. We should be designing our private spaces in ways that provide food and habitat for the species that keep the earth humming along. The recent focus on pollinators has led to an increase in the use of native wildflowers and an attempt to make sure there are always a few flower species blooming across the seasons. That’s terrific, and people are right to revel in the sight of bees, butterflies, and other insects harvesting pollen and nectar from those plants. Many people have also planted milkweed in their yards to give monarchs a place to lay eggs so their caterpillars can have something to eat. Again, excellent.

So, why are we okay with insects eating pollen from flowers, but not chewing on leaves? Or why do we celebrate monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed plants but reach for soapy water sprays (or worse) when other insects dare to make holes in the leaves, stems, or petals of plants? What are those plants for anyway? Are they really just for decoration? If so, there are much less time-intensive ways to decorate around your house. Garden gnomes, for example. There’s very little maintenance involved in statuary.

Those of us who are lucky enough to influence plant and animal communities on small parcels of land should feel an obligation to use those parcels for good. Plantings for pollinators is a good first step, but why can’t we apply that intent more broadly? The presence and diversity of insects should be a measure of success, not a cause for concern.

Now, because you’re already thinking it, I agree that food production is a special case. If you’re trying to grow your own food, I understand the frustration of losing a crop to insects. However, there’s a big difference between ‘cosmetic damage’ and total destruction. Kale leaves with holes in them are still perfectly edible, and losing a few zucchini plants to vine borers — let’s be honest — often turns out to be a blessing later in the summer when we’re buried by the mountains of zucchini produced by the surviving plants.

Damaged produce
‘Damaged’ produce from our garden, including collards, kale, basil, and tomatoes. All have evidence of feeding by insects, but we are still getting plenty of food from each of these crops.

As Kim, the gardener in our household, says, “If you think you’re going to have complete control of everything in a garden, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.” A big part of gardening is watching and learning from what happens in a dynamic environment. That process can be just as important and enjoyable as harvesting and eating tomatoes or green beans.

Every gardener has to make their own decisions about when/if to control insects on their crops, but some degree of tolerance should be part of that process. Few of us rely on the food from our gardens for our survival, after all. Viewing gardens as part of an ecosystem, rather than as a machine for creating perfect food, makes gardening a much more pleasant experience.

Now, having said that, there are some truly invasive insects that we should be treating as such. Japanese beetles have recently entered our area of the country, and they’re no joke. Other non-native insects like gypsy moth, spotted lanternfly, and emerald ash borer cause lots of damage too. These insects are largely problematic because they haven’t been part of the ecosystem very long and aren’t part of the checks and balances. Most native insects have predators, parasites, and parasitoids, as well as disease organisms, that target them and suppress their populations. Invaders work outside that system of control.

Japanese Beetles
Japanese beetles are spreading quickly across the U.S. and don’t seem to have an array of other species that act to suppress their populations.

Some of those invasive species came to the U.S. accidentally, but we’ve been our own worst enemy in other cases. Asian ladybugs and Chinese praying mantises, for example, were both introduced as ‘beneficial insects’ before becoming established as invasive species. Not only do we insist upon categorizing our insects as either ‘beneficial’ or ‘pests’, we go looking abroad for new species to tip the scales against those pesky insects that dare eat our plants.

The vast majority of insects in our yards, though, are native species with important contributions to the world around us. If you’re fortunate enough to have a house with a yard and/or garden, please consider your options carefully. Why do you enjoy having that yard? If the answer is that you just want it to look good for the neighbors, you’re missing out on a tremendous source of potential joy.

Watching and admiring the intricate relationships between insects, plants, and other animals is endlessly fascinating. In addition, you can make significant contributions to conservation in your yard, simply by aiming your efforts toward providing resources for nature. Seeing birds at feeders or bees on flowers are only two examples of ways in which you can feel good about your yard’s impact. In addition, while your plot of land might be small, collections of yards quickly add up to areas of habitat that matter in a very real sense.

If you lean into the idea that you’re creating habitat for as many species as you can, success comes easily.

False milkweed bugs
I loved learning this spring that false milkweed bugs feed on false sunflower seeds (shown here). I learned that because it was happening in my backyard prairie garden.

If you lean into the idea that you’re creating habitat for as many species as you can, success comes easily. Instead of worrying about what’s eating your plants, you’ll start to notice which plants attract the most caterpillars or grasshoppers. Then, you’ll notice where the crab spiders or assassin bugs like to hang out, trying to take advantage of that abundance of prey. Birds will appear too, catching those insects to feed their families or fuel their migration flights. A complex mass of dynamic interactions will be taking place literally in your backyard — and you’ll have a front row seat.

Can we please stop trying to categorize insects as either beneficial or pests? Let’s set ourselves up as providers instead of protectors. A yard can be a place to relax and enjoy your own piece of the world, so why not make that piece as interesting as possible — and help out the world at the same time? 

And yes, garden gnomes are welcome too.


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of “The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States”, published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

View all articles by Chris Helzer.


City Rat, Country Rat — Prevent Your Garden from Being a Source of Unwanted Rodent Pests

By Griffin Dill, Integrated Pest Management Professional

In recent years, cities across the country have been reporting increases in rat populations and a surge in rat-related problems. While rats are often associated with urban life, they can also be an issue in rural and suburban areas. When rats become numerous in the outdoor landscape, they can soon infest homes, garages, sheds, and other indoor settings. Residential yards and gardens can provide the necessary food, water, and shelter that rats and other rodents need to sustain their expanding colonies. Removing one or more of these necessities makes it less likely rats will stick around.

There are a number of specific features around the yard and garden that can be enticing to rats, including compost piles, garbage/recycling bins, sheds, wood piles, and bird feeders. The garden itself, with its bounty of fresh produce can attract and sustain unwanted rodent pests. The increasing popularity of backyard chickens can also lead to rat infestations, as rats are attracted to chicken feed and will even steal freshly laid eggs. They will also take up residence in unsecured chicken coops.

To help prevent rat infestations in the yard and garden:

  • Monitor for signs of rats, including droppings, burrows, and damage to plants and/or vegetables.
  • Don’t pile spent plants or produce near the garden and don’t leave them in the garden after the growing season.
  • Clean up fruit that has dropped to the ground.
  • Regularly mow grass and thin out dense vegetation that may provide shelter for rats.
  • Keep compost piles enclosed or within secured bins.
  • Bury fruit/vegetable scraps at least six inches deep within the compost pile.
  • Keep compost piles moist and regularly turned.
  • Store pet/chicken feed in secure bins and don’t leave uneaten feed outside.
  • Close any holes or gaps in chicken coops and use a small-gauge hardware cloth buried several inches below ground to secure chicken enclosures.
  • Keep garbage/recycling in a secure bin with a lid and regularly clean the bins.
  • Clean up around bird feeders or take in bird feeders if you suspect an infestation.
  • Regularly move the location of wood piles to discourage rats from nesting within them.

If rats do become a problem within the garden, traps or bait stations may be effective in controlling small infestations. For larger infestations, it may be necessary to hire a licensed pest control company.

A note on cats

While cats are notorious for their ability to catch mice, studies have indicated that they are generally ineffective at reducing rat populations. Additionally, outdoor cats are efficient predators of songbirds and other native wildlife species. For the health of both the cats themselves and our native wildlife, it is best for cats to remain indoors.

Black-capped Chickadee

By Doug Hitchcox, Maine Audubon Staff Naturalist

Chickadee. Photo by Doug Hitchcox.

Perhaps the best known bird in the state, holding the title of “Maine’s State Bird,” the Black-capped Chickadee is an amazing survivor thanks to its wits. For a bird that is just over five inches long and that weighs less than the equivalent weight of five pennies, it is remarkable that it can survive Maine’s harsh winter, while most other birds its size migrate to warmer climates. One adaptation chickadees have is a proportionately large hippocampus (the memory center of the brain) which grows even larger/more in the fall. They fill their expanding brains with information about where they have cached food and can accurately remember where they stored it, and the quality of it, for up to 28 days! Chickadees will still eat a surprising amount of insects and spiders throughout the winter (up to 50% of their diet) but having an abundance of seeds that they’ve stored is apparently an important part of their survival when food is scarce.

For more on the importance of Maine native plants to support birds and other wildlife, visit Maine Audubon’s “Bringing Nature Home” webpage.

food scraps for composting

Curbside Composting Programs

By Annika Schmidt, Cumberland County Master Gardener Volunteer

Composting organic waste is an important tool for gardeners to replenish nutrients in their soil, but it is also a powerful tool against climate change, as healthy soil is capable of storing greater levels of carbon. Composting also decreases greenhouse gas emissions by keeping these items out of landfills. While many gardeners already compost at home, there are a growing number of alternative composting options for those who do not have the outdoor space, do not want to manage a home compost pile, or simply want to supplement their home composting setup. In Maine, these options include curbside composting services like Garbage to Garden, We Compost it!, and Scrap Dogs Community Compost, as well as community drop-off sites including those set up by UMaine’s Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions or municipal programs, depending on the area.

Curbside composting is a way to recycle food scraps and compostable materials through a pickup service rather than at home. Participants collect all their compostables and place them in a container on the curb to be collected weekly. As Garbage to Garden’s slogan says, it’s so easy, you won’t even get your hands dirty. Another benefit to community or commercial-scale composting is that typically they can accept a wider range of items than you should include when composting at home, further reducing what needs to go out in the garbage and saving you money if you pay-as-you-throw. These items can include meat, bones, dairy, kitchen grease or vegetable oil, and other items that might cause problems in a home composting system by attracting pests, creating odor issues, or introducing pathogens. Such pathogens are mitigated by commercial or community-scale composting processes. In the thermophilic composting process, for example, piles reach temperatures between 131 and 160 degrees, which, when sustained over multiple days, kills off most pathogens. Many curbside composting programs also offer the finished compost to their customers as a subscription benefit, so you will still have access to finished compost for amending your soil or mulching your garden.

By diverting your food scraps and compostable items from the waste stream, you reduce what ends up in the landfill and “close the loop” by returning those nutrients to the soil. As almost 50% of food waste happens in homes, your decision to compost or recycle your food waste has a big impact, no matter which method you choose to compost with. Many municipalities are realizing the importance of managing food waste and are creating or supporting composting pick-up and drop-off programs, as well as offering home composting bins at reduced rates. Inquire with your local public works department to see what options are available in your community, and if there aren’t any, let them know that you consider managing food waste to be an important issue.

hoop house

The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman (2009)

Reviewed by Clara Ross, MGV Penobscot County

Eliot Coleman, a guru of organic gardening, lives and works on Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, with his wife, Barbara Damrosch (author of The Garden Primer). Over many years of gardening, Coleman has managed to grow food throughout all seasons right here in Maine.

Coleman uses three basic components for winter harvesting: plant particular cold hardy vegetables, successive planting, and protected cultivation (planting in unheated greenhouses with an extra cover over the plants). He carries this out as a successful business with several greenhouses. The Winter Harvest Handbook provides purpose, scheduling, design, tools, methods for managing pests in an enclosed space, tips for harvesting, consideration of the environment, and more, including several appendices.

I really, really like this idea! I thought about how I could modify Coleman’s practices to fit my home garden. How to be more self-reliant on my land would be a very satisfying achievement. I do not have a greenhouse, but I did consider using my covered hoops and then covering the plants below, too. Then I puzzled about how to manage snow removal, replenishing soil between successive plantings, etc., etc., etc. I do believe this idea may be past my time, as a very old person with limited strength and endurance. However, I just know there are capable gardeners out there for whom this would be a doable challenge.

The library has the book if you are interested in some fine-tuning tips and tricks to be successful.

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University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Home Garden News is designed to equip home gardeners with practical, timely information.

For more information or questions, contact Kate Garland at or 1.800.287.1485 (in Maine).

Visit our Archives to see past issues.

Maine Home Garden News was created in response to a continued increase in requests for information on gardening and includes timely and seasonal tips, as well as research-based articles on all aspects of gardening. Articles are written by UMaine Extension specialists, educators, and horticulture professionals, as well as Master Gardener Volunteers from around Maine, with Katherine Garland, UMaine Extension Horticulturalist in Penobscot County, serving as editor. Special thanks to our 2020 Master Gardener Volunteer co-editors Naomi Jacobs and Abby Zelz.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

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