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Beautiful Wildlife Garden
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Part 2: The answer lies on the soil

N.B. Correction at end

The more we learn about the natural world, the more we find out about its elegant solutions to problems we labour clumsily to address. Thus it is that unimaginable zillions of organisms in the soil decompose organic matter, sequester carbon and nitrogen, promote porosity and aggregation, prevent erosion, purify water and create fertility.  

In Part 1, I wrote about these creatures that make up our “micro-herds” of hidden helpers. In our ignorance, we gardeners and growers disrupt their processes, exhausting both ourselves and the soil. How do we do this?

-We compact. Machinery, as well as human or animal foot traffic, leads to compaction. Soils are most vulnerable when they are wet. Compaction destroys the soil’s delicate structure, decreases its ability to absorb moisture, pollutes waterways by increasing runoff, starves micro-organism populations and increases greenhouse gas emissions. For gardeners. the lesson is, work from the side of your beds, stay on the paths.

-We disturb. The soil’s flora and fauna are organized into very specialized and inter-connected communities, the majority living within a couple of inches of the surface, but a large proportion to be found in the “rhizosphere,” the area around the plants’ roots, which exude proteins, sugars and carbohydrates to attract microbes and fungi that will help the plants absorb nutrients. The micro-communities in the soil aren’t layered so much as “nested,” with multiple interconnections up and down and sideways, between decomposer and recycler, predator and prey. When we dig or till, we wrench the specialists away from their appointed tasks into environments where they can no longer serve or even survive – and it takes precious time and energy for these communities to rebuild.

-We poison. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides destroy the natural balances in the soil.

Part 1: The answer lies in the soil

Soil – it’s there, under the snow, teeming with life, waiting for spring, and it warms me just to think of what it will be like in a few months to hold some rich, humusy soil in the palm of my hand and inhale the scent of the Earth.

I started some weeks ago to do the research for this, my first blog for 2015, that I decided would be about soil. It seemed a logical progression from insects, the theme I chose for 2014.  Then I found out that the United Nations, no less, had designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils and has put together all sorts of statistics and resource materials, many of them depressing - 33 per cent of the world’s soils are degraded, two hectares are being sealed under expanding cities every MINUTE word-wide – but more later about why we also do have cause for optimism.

One stunning fact in the UN material is that one tablespoon of soil contains more living organisms – 7 billion – than there are people on the planet. This is not news. The same information can be found in Pay Dirt, by J. I. Rodale, published in 1945, a book I picked up from a remainder bin in the late ‘70s, and one that always bears re-reading. Rodale was an early proponent of sustainable agriculture and the founder of a publishing empire that would include popular magazines like Organic Gardening.

Creating winter beauty with native plants

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.

The just in time season – for ginseng, leaf mould and everything else

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.

Go easy at clean-up time

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.

This includes:

-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).

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1186 Flos Rd. 10 E. Simcoe County Ontario 705-322-2545
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