All posts by peterboroughmastergardeners

Overwintering Dahlias

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  Winston Churchill’s famous quotation is the way that I as a novice dahlia grower feel about this subject.  So many variations exist. Can they all be correct??  The answer to this mystery seems to be fine tuning a storage method to suit your own situation, which means some trial and error. So, expect some losses at first.

Pumpkin centrepiece with year end flowers

When to dig? Conventional advice says to wait for the frost but this year’s fine weather made other alternatives a consideration. Dahlias originate from the mountains of Mexico where the fall is semi-arid.  It is the lack of water that causes the plant to go dormant.  Here that happens either with a killing frost or by cutting the plant down. Both cause the onset of dormancy and once begun, the tubers underground start to set “eyes”.  Leave the tubers in ground for 1-2 weeks before digging (this also helps the thin skinned tubers to toughen up, which helps them store better).

Divide now or in the spring?  This is entirely personal preference.  Dahlia are easier to split in the fall as the stalk hardens over winter.  However, the eyes are easier to see in the spring.  If you choose to split in the fall, tubers will need washing and drying before splitting.  For plants being overwintered as a clump, knock off excess soil and let dry before storing.  Some sources conjecture that the fine covering of soil helps to protect the tubers from shriveling over the winter. 

Successful dahlia storage is a balance between the right temperature range and the relative humidity.  Ideally, dahlias should be stored around 45 to 50 F and at a RH of 75-85%.  The method you use should try to ameliorate the conditions you are storing in.  For example, the dryness of the air in winter in Ontario means that shriveling of tubers is more of a problem than rot.  Use of a packing material such as vermiculite or wood shavings can provide a more stable environment, absorbing excess moisture when necessary and giving back when needed. 

Last of dahlias on a sunny October day

Specifics of various techniques are referenced for your information.  I have decided to try 3 methods. I am going to split some this fall and store using the saran wrap method as well as in vermiculite in plastic tubs. I will also leave some in clumps with a slight covering of earth, pack in vermiculite in a large plastic tote.  I lean towards the plastic tubs as my basement in quite dry in the winter so am concerned with moisture retention.  Don’t forget to check your tubers over the winter and remove any ones with rot or spritz with water if they appear to be shriveling. 

Good luck!!

Resources

https://summerdreamsfarm.com/dahlia-care

A Favourite Plant

by Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

Agastache foeniculum, also known as Anise hyssop, is an herb belonging to the mint family. It was originally purchased by me as a garden thriller. It has since become a workhorse for my garden. The mother plant of the ones I now have was planted in my garden in Havelock – the “Blue Fortune” cultivar.

The seeds of the ones I have now arrived in my new garden in Norwood in the compost I brought from my old place. This delightful aromatic native plant is tolerant of a wide range of soils, drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and will do well in sun to part shade.

Although it self seeds very readily, it is easily pulled when small. The plant will grow 2-3” tall with a branching habit. The flowers are produced on the tips of the branches starting in early July. Some are still flowering in mid September. As far as it’s attraction to pollinators is concerned; it is a bee magnet. It also doesn’t seem to attract insect pests or diseases.

Anise hyssop in my garden (photo taken September 13th 2021)

Since I had so many seedlings coming up all over my garden, I decided to let them develop and act as filler plants until I had something else coming along or decided to use them elsewhere. I have since used them as a border for some of my flower beds next to my neighbour’s property.

Others I use as specimen plant for some of my beds and some others next to my vegetables to attract pollinators. For me, this is one of the most enjoyable and versatile plants in my garden.

More information

Some Cures for Plant Blindness

By Laura Gardener, Master Gardener in Training

I was recently reading about a condition called “plant blindness.” The phrase was coined back in 1998 by botanists Elizabeth Schussler and James Wandersee.[i] It is defined as the “inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.” Plants are not as obvious as animals because they often “lack visual attention cues.” They can seem ubiquitous–have the same colour, form, and lack a “face.” They don’t move and they usually aren’t threatening. For example, if you look at a photo of a pond containing birds, surrounded by plants, which of these would you most likely know by name or recall later? This bias results in lower levels of plant knowledge, awareness of plant names, of plant functions, and their roles resulting in less interest in plant protection, conservation, and reduced funding. Plants are vital to our survival and we need to see their importance, appreciate them, and put them on the same level as animals.[ii] It is possible to overcome ”plant blindness.” We need to introduce and share plant knowledge with children at an early age in the same way we encourage learning about animals.  

Recently I was out walking and was trying out the Seek identification app by iNaturalist on my phone. I was attempting to identify a specific type of Elm (Ulmus) and a couple that I know walked by and we started a conversation about the app. They mentioned that their son and grandchildren use it on their nature walks. It can be used to identify other lifeforms other than plants and while the app isn’t 100%, it is fairly reliable. If it is uncertain, it will restrict its identification to a family or a genus and won’t offer a guess. An Oxford University study[iii] found that it was in the top five of plant identification apps (the others included Plant.ID, Google Lens, Flora Incognita, PlantNet). It has some fun nature challenges built into it as well as the ability to earn badges for the number of species observed. Photos of plants may also be uploaded to the iNaturalist citizen science web site where they can be confirmed through crowd-sourcing. In terms of correcting “plant blindness,” this app has great potential. 

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

It is only the beginning of October but the holiday season is just around the corner. It is not too early to be thinking of presents. Why not give the gift of a book about gardening, botany, or nature to a child in your life? The following are a selection of some of the best books for a range of age levels. Most of the books listed have been well-received by reviewers in publications such as Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. Titles marked with an asterisk have received at least one starred review. If purchasing is not an option, you can check to see if your local library carries them (or recommend that they do). 

*A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston; illus. Sylvia Long (Chronicle Books, 2007). Level: Grade 1 to 4.

*Begin with a Bee by Liza Ketchum et al.; illus. Claudia McGehee (University of Minnesota Press, May 2021). Level: Preschool to Grade 4.

*Botanicum: Welcome to the Museum by K.J. Willis; illus. Katie Scott (Penguin Random House, March 2017). Level: Grade 3 to 7.

Gardening with Emma: Grow and Have Fun: A Kid-to-Kid Guide by Emma Biggs and Stephen Biggs (Storey Publishing, January 2019). Level: Grade 3 to 7.

*Oscar’s Tower of Flowers by Lauren Tobia (Candlewick Press, May 2021). Level: Preschool to Kindergarten.

*Plant, Cook, Eat: a Children’s Cookbook by Joe Archer and Caroline Craig (Penguin Random House, March 2018). Level: Grade 2 to 5.

What’s Inside a Flower?: And Other Questions About Science & Nature by Rachel Ignotofsky (January 2021). Level: Preschool to Grade 2.

*The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom by Lita Judge (Roaring Book Press, March 2021). Level: Grade 3-5.

[i] Plant Blindness. Native Plant Society of the United States. Online: https://plantsocieties.cnps.org/index.php/about-main/plant-blindness. Accessed: October 2, 2021.

[ii] Seventeen Years of Plant Blindness: Is Our Vision Improving? Elizabeth Schussler. Online: https://appliedeco.org/wp-content/uploads/NativeSeed2017-Schussler-SeventeenYearsPlantBlindness.pdf Accessed: October 2, 2021.

[iii] Jones, Hamlyn G. What plant is that? Tests of automated image recognition apps for plant identification on plants from the British flora. AoB PLANTS, Volume 12, Issue 6, December 2020. Online: https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plaa052 Accessed: October 2, 2021.

A Slimy Subject

by Lois Scott, Master Gardener

I recently read the book “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. The author recounts her observations of a common woodland snail while she was bedridden. Although the very title of this book could strike fear and loathing in a gardener’s heart as we imagine our plants being shredded, it was an enjoyable, informative read and made me curious about the slimy creatures that lurk in my garden.

What I have learned about snails and slugs (gastropods) can hardly be described as scratching the surface but here are a few details.

In their natural settings gastropods help disperse seeds and spores, break down decaying plant matter, consume empty snail shells, sap, animal scats and carcasses and provide food for other predators like birds, small mammals, salamanders, turtles and invertebrates like firefly larvae that feed exclusively on snails.

Gastropods are equipped with thousands of sharp teeth that are routinely replaced.

Non-native species of gastropods are higher risk for damaging agriculture and preying on native species of gastropods and are most likely the ones we encounter in our own gardens.

The fact that non-native gastropods are likely the predominant ones in my garden might make me more interested in spending evenings in the garden with a flashlight picking slugs off my plants but some studies have shown that doing so doesn’t make a dent in their populations. So, for the time being I will continue to do what I have in the past which is essentially nothing. In a ‘Laidback Gardener’ blog, Larry Hodgson discusses Snails (okay) and Slugs (bad!) and one in which he discusses the effectiveness of various slug control methods. Both blogs are informative reads.

There is really only one of his ‘effective’ treatments that I engage with in my garden, and that is to encourage slug predators by providing an environment for wildlife. The rest can seem like too much work! Planting slug resistant plants is also something to consider and Larry Hodgson provides a list for that too.

In my garden I find practices such as seeding lettuce in containers and planting out hardened off nasturtium seedlings slow down slug predation but I generally accept some cosmetic damage to plants and at the same time enjoy the sight of the resident chipmunk munching on a slug.

Other Resources

The Secret World of Slugs and Snails’ by David George Gordon

Slugs of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States

Harvesting Herbs for the Winter

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

Author’s potted herbs– sage, parsley, rosemary & thyme

Most would agree that fresh herbs taste better than dried.  There is no need to forego the companionship of fresh herbs once winter sets in.  You can make good use of the herbs you are growing in your garden by bringing them into your homes, potting them up and putting them in a sunny window.  If this isn’t possible, you can consider drying which concentrates and preserves the flavouring oils contained in the leaves.  Read below for some of the many options you might consider as our summer months draw to an end.

MOVING HERBS INDOORS

Many herbs can be brought indoors and with proper care, survive the winter months.  They need ample light, even moisture and moderate temperatures.  Remember to pot up the herbs in your garden early.  Do not wait until frost is imminent, because herbs are best if gradually acclimatized to the indoor environment, especially to the lower light conditions. Use a quality potting mixture and a good sized pot.  Prune back the foliage and roots if necessary.  You will get some wilting of leaves and some may die, but you should see some new growth soon.  Remove any dying leaves as they turn yellow.  It’s also a good practice to dip your plants in an insecticidal soap solution before moving them indoors to guard against aphids and spider mites.  If you have the time, gradually move your plants into shadier locations and eventually indoors to your sunniest window.

I have had good success with bringing in my rosemary plant and it remains quite happy in my kitchen window.  I do occasionally mist the leaves and I am lucky to have a south facing window.

I take cuttings from my basil and put the cut stem in water.  Be sure to do this before the cold as basil can die overnight.  Once there are some tiny roots, transfer it to a pot with some good quality soil.  It will require five or six hours of direct light.

Author’s basil cuttings

AIR DRYING

The simplest way to preserve herbs is by air drying, which usually takes two to three weeks.  Tie large leafy-stemmed herbs with rubber bands into loose bundles and hang them in a room or closet with good cross air circulation. It is best to gather the leaves in the early morning after the dew has evaporated. They should feel crisp when fully dry.

You can also spread the herbs over a screen or netting in a dark ventilated area, but you must be sure they are completely dry before storing to avoid any mould.

Photo credit: Amy Kimball, Herbal Houseplants

DEHYDRATOR

My neighbour had a very old dehydrator that hadn’t been used in years.  As has happened in this pandemic, she pulled it out of her cupboard and began to use it.  I had an abundance of basil which I gave to her.  She put it in her dehydrator and within a few hours I had wonderful dried basil that is much greener and fresher than anything I would get at the store.

You can also set your oven to 175 degrees and lay the herbs on cookie sheets in a single layer.  Depending on the herb, this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.  Be sure to check every 30 minutes since herbs all dry at different rates.  Allow to cool completely before crumbling.

MICROWAVE

Microwave ovens preserve the colour and flavour of herbs, but can only handle small amounts at a time.  Place the herbs on a paper towel in a single layer and microwave using 30 second intervals. You may have to experiment as temperatures of microwaves tend to be different.  Let them cool completely before storing.  I’m not a huge fan of this method as I don’t find the microwave heats evenly and it is just too fiddly for me.

STORING DRIED HERBS

They can be stored in airtight containers away from heat, light and moisture. It is best to use glass or metal tins with tight fitting lids.  Plastic breathes and will allow the herbs to absorb moisture.

Herbs can also be stored in the freezer.  I have had great success with parsley and coriander.  I store the leaves in an airtight ziploc bag and find it easy to take out what I need for soups, etc.

Another method would be to chop fresh-cut herbs and evenly spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place in the freezer for several hours.  Pack the frozen herbs in small containers, label and date the containers and keep frozen for 6 to 8 months. 

Or, you could freeze finally chopped herbs in stock or water for use in stews or soups.  This can be done in ice-cube trays.  Remove the frozen cubes and store in a ziploc bag.

Richters Herbs website has lots of information about the preservation and storing of herbs.

Seed Saving and Bombing

By Anica James, Master Gardener in Training

With the autumn equinox right around the corner, this is the perfect time of year to be collecting seeds. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find seed collecting both rewarding and therapeutic. There is something about spending an intimate amount of time with different plant species, getting to know them and discover how the plant truly grew. It’s amazing that something as tall and beautiful as a Foxglove grows from the tiniest of seeds. Whether you are collecting seeds from fruits and vegetables, wildflowers, ornamental flowers, grasses or trees, you will notice that each seed has various characteristics that make it unique.

A homemade seed saving library that was installed in East City

I always carry a pen for labeling, a big stack of envelopes, usually a pair of secateurs or snips, and sometimes paper lunch bags for larger seeds. I go for a meditative walk through the woods or around my yard, carefully collecting my stash, labeling the envelopes or bags, and bringing them home for extra drying time. For some seeds I use a sieve to take off any chaff that is still clinging on, and then I weigh everything out on my scale and divide certain seeds up into packages I make out of old scraps of paper (vintage National Geographic magazines are my favourite to use). Before the pandemic started, there was an annual Seedy Sunday event held every March in Peterborough; keep your eyes and ears peeled for future dates because this is a great place to meet other seed collectors and swap findings.

Insects love to hang out amongst the pods. Always be sure to clean your seeds.

I encourage you to go for a walk around your property or nearby country road and collect your own seeds because not only is it a fun and free way to help you grow different plants on your own, but you can also share or sell any leftover seeds you have. Some of my favourite native varieties to collect are:

Aquilegia canadensis, wild columbine

Asclepsias tuberosa, butterfly weed

Aster novae-angliae, New England aster

Coreopsis lanceolata, lanceleaf coreopsis

Dalea purpurea, purple prairie clover

Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot

Rudbeckia hirta, black-eyed Susan

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, aromatic aster

Another thing that I like to do is create seed bombs that I can use for guerilla gardening projects. Seed bombs are a great activity to do with kids and it encourages them to get messy and add to the beauty of this world. I personally like to “bomb” public areas around commercial properties and newly built subdivisions with wildflower seeds, anything to bring some life back into the beige-grey landscape.

Basic envelopes that I use when I am collecting seeds. Once I have everything at home I sort and clean them and put them in new labeled envelopes.

Materials you will need:

  • Wildflower seeds or seeds collected from the garden
  • Water
  • Peat-free compost.
  • Powdered clay (found in craft shops); some people also use cat litter
  • A bowl to mix everything in
  • A tray to dry the seed bombs on

How to build your bombs:

  1. In a bowl, mix together 1 cup of seeds with 5 cups of compost and 2-3 cups of clay powder.
  2. Slowly mix in water with your hands until everything sticks together. It should have the same texture and consistency as muffin batter (kids love this because it’s like making slime)
  3. Roll the mixture into firm, even balls and then leave the balls to dry in a sunny or warm spot
  4. Once they are dry, plant your seed bombs by throwing them at bare parts of the garden or land and wait to see what pops up! (I usually like to time my guerrilla plantings with the rain).

If you are interested in learning more about seed saving locally, Jill Bishop from Nourish has some great reference material and sometimes offers workshops, especially to those who are members of local community gardens. https://nourishproject.ca/basics-seed-saving

Seeds of Diversity is another great resource https://seeds.ca/

Coriander seeds which I save and collect every year for culinary purposes.

Bringing in Your Tropicals for Their Annual Winter Spa Treatment

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Note: The article was also published recently in the Peterborough Horticultural Society September 2021 newsletter. Apologies to PHS members who have already enjoyed it!

If your houseplants are on “vacation” on the back deck this summer, then at around this time you should think about getting them ready to move back inside for the winter.

Bring your houseplants indoors before night time temperatures dip below 7 or 8 degrees (C).  Most tropicals will suffer damage at temperatures below 5 degrees, a few even below 10 degrees.

Sudden changes in temperature, light, and humidity can be traumatic to plants, resulting in yellowed leaves, dieback, wilting, and even death. To prevent shock when you bring houseplants back indoors, expose plants gradually to reduced lighting.

Before moving day, inspect plants for insects and diseases, and treat as appropriate before bringing plants back inside.  Spray them a couple of times over a 2 week period with a mild soap and water mix so that you don’t bring bugs from outdoors in with your plants.  Alternatively, soaking the pot in a tub of lukewarm soapy water for about 15 minutes will force insects out of the soil. Allow the plant and pot to dry completely afterwards.  If snails, earthworms, or other insects burrowed in the soil, you might want to repot the plants, placing a piece of wire screening over the drainage hole to keep them out next year.

Personal anecdote:  A couple of years ago, I brought a large cactus planter inside without inspections or the soaking method. The next day, we found a curious “deposit” left behind by some unknown critter on our kitchen floor and we kinda freaked out.  We set live traps in the house and were on high alert for a chipmunk or squirrel or even something huge with big teeth that could drag us out of bed by the big toe.  It was a little bit traumatic.  A day or so later, my son found a large toad in the living room and we connected the dots.  Turns out that toads leave very large deposits for their body size (Google it!) and closer inspection of the cactus planter showed an open hibernation hole. Whew!

Moral of the story? Check your plant pots for toads too!

Toad ‘deposit’

Toad — they’re looking for prime hibernation locations at this time of year.

The Late Summer/Fall Garden

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Your once showy, spectacular plants have finished blooming and their foliage may have withered.  Do not despair, the late summer/fall garden can still be something to behold as well as feeding the pollinators and other wildlife!

Annuals

Plants that grow, bloom, go to seed then die all in one season are annuals.  Annuals may be used to add some much needed colour at the end of our summer season.  Zinnia, Petunia, annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and Cosmos are easy to source and grow.  The ornamental kales and cabbages are dramatic plants that will look good in your pots or your garden.

Zinnia various — author’s garden

Shrubs

Hydrangea – I am referring to the panicle (H. paniculata) and smooth hydrangeas (H. arborescens) that bloom on new wood and may be pruned in late winter or very early spring.  This is a plant that steals the show in late summer, fall and even into winter.  They produce large, pink, white or pink/white poufy blooms.  The blooms may be dried for inside décor or left on the plant outside for winter interest. 

Witch hazel – Hamamelis virginiana is a native that blooms with interesting, spidery petaled, yellow flowers in the fall.  This plant will attract birds to your garden.

Perennials

Plants that grow, bloom and produce seed but do not die after just one season … some are short lived but some live for many years.  There are lots of perennials that bloom in late summer and fall.  Many, like the native Aster species and golden rod (Solidago species) provide food for wildlife including the pollinators.

Echinacea purpurea — author’s garden

Some others in my garden include:

Phlox – There are lots of P. paniculata cultivars that bloom in the fall.  This plant comes in a myriad of colours.  Do not confuse this plant with the mid-summer/August blooming dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) which can be quite invasive.  Phlox flowers have five petals and dame’s rocket have four.

Black eyed susan – Bright, happy native plants and cultivars (Rudbeckia species) that may be annual, biennial (germinate in spring of first growing season but do not flower and go to seed until the next growing season) or perennial.  The wild ones that we see on the Ontario road side are most often biennials. 

Bugbane – Another pretty native (Actaea species formerly Cimicifuga) that blooms in the fall.  I spent lots of time trying to get a good photo of a bumblebee on this plant’s bloom but it was too fast for me!

Anise hyssop – The bees love Agastache foeniculum.  I have mine planted along a path.  It is tall and quite dramatic when in bloom.

Antennaria — author’s garden

Plume poppy – This is the plant that everyone will ask “what is that”.  Macleaya cordata growsvery tall and has an interesting seed head and large leaves.  Beware though because it can spread through rhizomes (underground roots) and it exudes an orangey sap when pulled.  It is easy to control just by pulling the plants when small but wear gloves to avoid touching the sap…it is poisonous.

Coneflower –  Echinacea purpurea is a native plant but there are lots of colourful cultivars.   Birds eat the seeds held in the spent blooms in winter.

Hydrangea — author’s garden

Pussy toes –  The bees love this native (Atennaria species) too.  Just like it’s common name, this plant has cute little flowers that resemble the toes of a soft, white kitten.

Sedum/stonecrops – These plants are some of the toughest, hardworking plants in your garden.  They can take lots of heat and dry conditions. There are many, many to choose from … some bloom in spring and some bloom into the fall. The sometimes colorful foliage can add interest and the blooms will attract pollinators.

Sedum — author’s garden

So observe your garden, does it need some help this time of year?  Try shopping the fall sales at your local nursery.  If you can fit in some of these plants, you will have a beautiful garden full of late season blooms. 

Reaping the Flower Harvest

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

Despite a delayed start followed by early heat and drought,  seedlings did grow and flowers eventually bloomed. The biggest challenge proved to be the prolonged early drought.  Being on a dug well, I was only really prepared to water the dahlias from the well.  Luckily, I have a free running spring behind my farm.  After assembling a sufficient number of containers, I found that fetching water from the spring provided enough moisture to get plants established and supported until it rained.  I divided the bed into 4 sections and watered each on a rotating basis.    

Fetching water

The lack of water and heat made for some small blooms initially but attractive non the less.  By mid-August, I was cutting snapdragons (who proved to be the workhorses of the garden), loads of zinnias and scabiosa as well as various fillers such as dara and celosia.  Then the gladioli, sunflowers and dahlias decided to show up. Suddenly, I seemed to be doing as much deadheading as harvesting cut flowers. 

Harvesting flowers correctly and caring for them ensures a longer vase life and more enjoyment from your flowers. To keep flowers alive, you must preserve the stems’ ability to take up water after cutting.  The tubules that water moves through can become blocked either by air bubbles or by bacterial growth.  Recutting stems exposes fresh tubules to water and the use of a few drops of bleach in vase water reduces bacterial growth.

Conditioning Flowers

Key things to remember:

  • Cut the flower at the correct stage.  This varies between flower types.  Some like peonies are best cut when the bud is unopened but coloured and soft.  Conversely, zinnias must be fully open.
  • Harvest during the coolest parts of the day (early morning or dusk) when plants are well hydrated
  • Use clean, sharp clippers to prevent crushing the stems (which damages the tubules in the stem)
  • Take a clean bucket of warm water into the garden and place newly cut flowers in bucket after stripping lower leaves off
  • Allow flowers to rest (condition) in a dark, cool place prior to allow them to rehydrate
  • Use clean vases and recut stems prior to arranging
  • Change water daily and recut stems every other day
  • Homemade flower food can be helpful.  Use one teaspoon sugar and one teaspoon to bleach per litre of water
  • Keep flowers out of direct sunlight and away from ripening fruit (ethylene gas).  Both shorten bloom life

In addition to those flowers grown specifically in the cutting garden, I was able to utilize some of the plants in the landscape beds as accents for arrangements without taking away from the landscape value.  Perennials such as liatris, grass seed heads and foliage are interesting additions.  

The only thing left to do is to sit back and enjoy!!

Earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Resources

A Year in Flowers, Erin Benakein, Chronicle Books, 2020

https://thekokorogarden.com/flower-growing-guides

https://www.thegardenersworkshop.com/how-to/lisas-tips-tricks/cut-flower-harvest-guide/

Stripey Things in the Garden

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

A couple of weeks ago, Laura Gardner posted an article in this blog about insects in our gardens in general. I’d like to follow up on that post with one specifically addressing the variety of stripey flying insects in our gardens.

Bees, wasps and hornets are often lumped into one stinging group but is important to understand the difference between bees, wasps and hornets in order to appreciate their significance in the garden.

Bees are mostly hairy, have fat legs and short fat bodies. They eat pollen and nectar, and in the process of gathering these, they pollinate flowers. Bees die after they sting. There are over 400 discovered varieties of bees in Ontario.

Honey bees at work, Pixabay.

Wasps and hornets have hairless bodies and tend to be long and sleek with a narrow between the abdomen and thorax. They are predators and for the most part they eat other insects. A hornet is a larger type of wasp with black and white rings instead of black and yellow. The most common type of wasp in Ontario is the yellow jacket, but there are three others in this region: Bald faced hornets, paper wasps and mud dauber wasps. Wasps and hornets do not die after they sting, and can sting multiple times.

Wasp, Pixabay.

For the most part, wasps are not important pollinators but they are hunters and their prey is other insects. They play an important role in protecting your plants. Wasps spend their summers seeking out aphids, flies, caterpillars and other bugs – many of them pests – to feed to their larvae. Hundreds or even thousands of larvae can be produced each year in a paper wasp hive, so they look after a lot of bugs!

How can we coexist with these scary, menacing fliers? Wasps sting when you threaten them. If you get stung it is probably your fault – it may not be intentional – but you are still to blame. If you swing at them or make sudden movements, they will feel threatened and there is a good chance you will be stung. The best way to avoid the pain is to treat bees and wasps with respect. Move calmly and deliberately, give them space to go about their business, and they will ignore you. If you do get stung, wash the area with soap and water and apply an ice-pack. You might want to take an anti-histamine tablet or use an anti-histamine lotion. If you have an extreme reaction, get to the ER fast. Otherwise, try a fresh-cut raw onion (it has enzymes that counteract the venom), anti-perspirants that contain aluminum zirconium, After-Bite, or a simple paste made from baking soda and water to ease your suffering.

Most people don’t want to have wasps living alongside them, but if you can possibly leave the nest alone, it is advisable to do so. After all, wasps are so common that even if you can’t see a nest, it’s probable there’s one nearby. The wasp colony will die when the cold weather hits. If the nest is left in place it is unlikely that wasps will build there again the following year, so you can dispose of any visible wasp nests in winter or early spring. The only wasps to over-winter are the fertilized queens which start new colonies in the spring.

Wasp nest, Pixabay.

The best way to deal with wasps is to minimize their numbers by deterring them from the area. Do not keep any food (including your pet’s) lying around. Keep drinks covered when outdoors and always ensure that garbage cans are tightly sealed. Also, keep any fallen fruits from nearby trees, shrubs and gardens picked up as their sweet juices attract the wasps.

Fake wasp nests are available to the homeowner to hang in trees near the house. Since the wasps are territorial, they will probably set up housekeeping somewhere else.

Last year, we had wasps nesting in two places under our vinyl siding. Since they were near our back door, we tried some of the sprays available but found that they weren’t effective. One day, I bravely (and quickly) put duct-tape over the nest entrances, and the problem was solved instantly. If only I’d tried that before heading to the hardware store!

If you can find a way to coexist with the majority of these insects, your gardens will thank you.

Resources:

Why Wasps are Good for Gardeners
Understanding Wasps–They are not Evil!
Bees, Wasps and Hornets: What You Need to Know
Bee Species in Canada