03 December 2014
Bark. Berries. Birds. These are the elements that catch the eye and spark the imagination as you gaze out of the window on a wintry day, or push your way through the snow to check that all is well in the far-flung corners of your backyard empire.
Habitat. Food. Life. That’s how a bird views your space. The backyard is so much more than an outdoor room, it’s a world where complex dynamics play out. The blue blur of a jay swooping in for a peanut, a couple of goldfinches executing an aerial pas de deux, a Cooper’s Hawk smashing into the snow to grab a mourning dove, a Downy Woodpecker hammering the life out of a dying tree (no, it’s not the woodpecker killing the tree, it’s the insect life within that has done that)… Such are the moments that truly add winter interest to the scene framed by the beauty of bark and berries.
By virtue of the ease with which they can soar away, birds offer us our most intimate connection to the natural world. For birds, you need trees, and of all the trees you can choose, those that are native to our area offer the optimum in terms of the shelter and sustenance our birds need. Better yet, native trees flourish in our harsh conditions. They need cold temperatures and deep snow to remain in good health; and native trees, planted in the right spot, require no protection to get through the winter. That’s good news, because burlap does not enhance a landscape.
07 November 2014
Every day with the soil still workable is a gift. I thought I was done for when I stepped out Sunday to a hard frost and the ground frozen stiff. The sun was strong, though, and the frost only an inch or so down. Within a couple of hours, everything had softened up nicely, including the pot of soil mix where I had stashed the American ginseng seed that arrived from Richters two weeks earlier. Panax quinquefolius has a seed with a very specific germination schedule. It won't keep for long, although it can be stored for a short time so it does not dry out. It can be planted any time before freeze-up.
Ginseng is a plant native to Ontario’s deciduous forests. It’s prized for its medicinal properties and has been poached practically to extinction. The exploitation started soon after the first European colonists arrived. A specimen was taken back to France from Quebec in 1704, and within a decade, Jesuit missionaries had made the connection between a root they knew was highly prized in China and the related North American plant. An informative article on the Agriculture Canada website describes how the Jesuits started shipping dried roots, collected by the Iroquois, to China in 1716 with such success that American ginseng became second only to fur as a trading commodity in New France.
21 September 2014
It seems there’s nothing gardeners want to do more at this time of year than get outside and rake and clip and tidy their yards. Yet a lot of what is being removed in fall and spring clean-up is actually really needed out there, by plants or wildlife.
-Seedheads. Leave the seed for the birds – chickadees like to break into the Milkweed pods, migrant sparrows will be all over the fluffy heads of Joe Pye Weed, goldfinches go at the Sunflowers and Coneflowers…. Nearly everything is a resource for something. But the seeds of weeds you want to stop from spreading are best put in the fire or otherwise disposed of (although weed seeds are a resource for birds if you don’t get round to it).
31 August 2014
The colour is great at this time of year – the strong reds and mauves of phlox contrasting with the varying yellows of Tall Coreopsis, Black-eyed Susan, Helen’s Flower and Lance-leaved Goldenrod. And the New England Asters haven’t even come out yet.
But it’s not just the colour that delights an ecological gardener – it’s the life!
I sit and watch, and there’s so much activity – the goldfinches swooping down to the birdbath, hummingbirds hovering at the Giant Blue Lobelia (no, wait, that’s a hummingbird moth!), a Monarch butterfly dancing through the chokecherries, winged creatures buzzing between the blue spires of Anise Hyssop and the fluffly pink heads of Joe Pye Weed, catching the sunlight as they dart from bloom to bloom.
30 June 2014
I don’t often stop when I’m driving to take pictures of people’s gardens – but something caught my eye in a small front yard on a busy Toronto street that had me braking in to the next driveway and dashing back with a camera.
It was a narrow strip of a bed, defined by a paved path up to the front door on one side, a driveway on the other, and completely filled with Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca), its dusky pink flowers just now coming into bloom.
This, I thought, is gardening with heart. Milkweed once grew across North America, hosting the astonishing annual migration of the Monarch butterfly from Mexico to Canada. It takes six generations to get from south to north in a summer, and while the Monarch (like all butterflies), can get nectar from a wide variety of plants, the Monarch (like all butterflies) lays its eggs on one specific plant, or family of plants, which its larvae (caterpillars) have evolved to be able to consume.