Category Archives: Birds

Native Plant Gardening for Birds, Bees & Butterflies

by MJ Parker, Master Gardener

I recently downloaded “Native Plant Gardening for Birds, Bees & Butterflies” from my local library. This book was a fabulous find for me because I am currently planning a buffer area by the water in our new place. Going through this book reminded me of when I was a kid with a new Sears or Eaton’s catalogue – always an exciting event – something only people of a certain age will remember.

Book cover

The book was written by an entomologist, Jaret C. Daniels, currently living in Florida but the area covered by the book is the upper Midwest which is roughly parallel to us here. I have ordered plants from Minnesota before with no problems and some of the plants I currently grow are in the book.About 1/4 of the book is devoted to why we should plant gardens for birds, bees and butterflies. He does a brief summary on a number of topics about the actual mechanics.

False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

Most of the book, however, was a precis of individual plants roughly divided into sun, shade, and bog. Each plant started with a picture, then a summary of what it would attract and ended with specific location and cultivar tips. And this plant section was the part that I found extremely interesting and helpful.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

So what I did was I sat down with a pen and paper over a number of days and compiled a list of what would work for me and plants I wanted to get. I ended up with a comprehensive list of plants, some I had forgotten to bring from the old place and some completely new to me.

And to date I have already placed 2 seed orders for some of the things on my list.

Google Lens (free!) for all of your identification needs

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

If you’re outside enjoying the fresh air, and happen across a flower or bird or insect and you’re not sure what you’re looking at, a new feature from Google can help you out.

Google Lens lets you search what you see. Using a photo, your camera or almost any image, Lens helps you discover visually similar images and related content, gathering results from all over the internet.

All you need to do is: On your phone, open the Google app and in the search bar, tap Google Lens. Point your camera at the flower to identify the plant. Swipe up to learn about the discovery.

On Android, Google Lens is likely already built right in — open the Google App or Google Photos app. Tap Discover or tap the Google Lens icon.

On Apple, Google Lens is part of the Google app — a separate app from using Google on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Go to the App Store and download/install Google as a unique app if you haven’t already done so.

When you open the Google App, you’ll see a screen like this with the Lens icon. It’s your window to discovery!

Last week, I went for a long walk and checked out a lot of the volunteer trees and plants along the rural roadway. Sometimes I wanted to verify an item I thought I already knew, but more often I wanted to determine the name of a common but name-unknown item. Google Lens scored on both fronts. Now if only I could remember all of those names!

If you have a bug infestation, use Google Lens to identify the bug if you can get it to sit still long enough!

There’s plenty more you can do with Google Lens, too, including pulling the contact information from business cards, identifying unusual foods and almost anything else. It can also translate words on the screen into other languages, and read them back to you.

The ability of the app to actually CORRECTLY identify plants and bugs is pretty decent, and will get better over time. It helps to allow Google to use location services, so that it’s not searching through the entire rain forest to determine the name of the plant in your neighbourhood. You can also allow Lens access to your photos, so that you can identify items you’ve already taken pictures of.

Best of all, it’s free and will always be free. Try it!

The Joy of Sharing our Gardens

Reflections after a Garden Tour

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

It’s been a tough few years for all of us because of COVID-19, but I had time to reflect this weekend on why it’s been hard for me as a gardener. While it’s been wonderful to have our gardens as an oasis and source of comfort during the pandemic, I realized that other than a few close friends, no one had seen all the work (and the results) that my husband Grant and I had achieved over that time.

So it was with great anticipation that we looked forward to our Lakefield garden being featured on a garden tour organized as a fundraiser to celebrate 60 years of the Lakefield Horticultural Society.

While we spent a few very crazy days trying to put the final touches on our garden (my husband decided he would build a beautiful pergola [awesome] a week before the event [not so awesome] so plants had to be moved into pots and then back into the beds just a few days before) — sorry I digress — everything was perfect on the day — the weather was spectacular, we placed the last bits of mulch to cover a few empty patches and we looked forward to welcoming our guests.

The new pergola.

As the first people arrived (I think our first visitor was a man on a bicycle!) I began to realize how much I had missed the joy of sharing our gardens with others. And as the day progressed, it was wonderful to hear other people’s perceptions — for some it was inspiring, for some a bit overwhelming (we have a 3/4 acre property in a small village), for some they loved that we had plants they had never seen before (not your typical garden). Everyone seemed to leave with a smile on their face, which made our day.

Grant created numerous raised beds over the past few years — at my request — and we’ve had great success with them. We also purchased a “COVID present” for ourselves — a long wished-for greenhouse to extend our gardening season, and it’s been put to good use.

We’ve spent time over the past few years planting more native plants as I learn more about the benefits of creating habitat as well as having an aesthetically pleasing garden. Hey, it’s not all about me!! Doug Tallamy’s book is a great start to understanding the benefits we can provide in our humble gardens to the greater ecosystem.

There is definitely a balance — we’re aiming for a 50/50 balance of native/non-native — because I love my daylilies and peonies and don’t want to give them up (they give me pleasure), but I also love the hundreds of pollinators (bees, butterflies, wasps etc.) that flock to my Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), and Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) because I am choosing to plant native plants.

Boneset (white) and Cardinal Flower (red)

Last winter I grew some native (and non-native) plants using the Winter Sowing technique (because most native plant seed requires winter/cold stratification) and it was a great success (with some lessons learned – but that’s another blog).

Grant set up a Plant Sale area for the garden tour and people were able to buy plants that they saw in the garden (although alas, I did not take any cuttings on my amazing orange Butterfly Weed – a type of milkweed – which really caught everyone’s attention).

The Plant Sale area

Over the day I saw many gardening friends I hadn’t seen in several years, and made all sorts of new friends. It felt like my community was coming together — like we were reconnecting after a long time apart in a beautiful place. And I realized that gardening is both a solitary and a very social activity. We even got featured in the local newspaper.

We raised funds to support our local horticultural society, we got back to feeling ‘a bit normal’, and most importantly we got to reconnect with people over a common passion — the love of gardening.

I hope that all of you will find opportunities to reconnect with people this summer and share your gardens and plants and trade stories about attracting pollinators etc. with others. It’s a feeling like no other. #happygardening

Our lovely rudbeckia and greenhouse in the background.

A Few of My Favourite Native Plants

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

I’ve been gardening for more than 25 years and, like many of you, thrill at the opportunity to discover new plants for my gardens. Over the past few years these have been mostly native plants, as I learn about all the benefits that they bring – here’s just a few examples of why native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees do so much more than just add beauty to the landscape:

  • They support birds, pollinators and wildlife – native gardens attract birds and butterflies and provide habitat and food for native pollinators
  • They increase biodiversity – native plants increase garden health and resilience, and help contribute to a broader effect to nurture and sustain living landscapes
  • They’re tough and low maintenance – because they’re adapted to grow in their native range, locally native plants tend to thrive with little to no care and conserve one of our most precious resources – water
  • They help you save money AND create a healthier environment for people – native plants don’t require expensive fertilizers and chemicals, or toxic pesticides and herbicides
  • They help with climate change – no lawn mower costs or exhaust! and long lived native trees help store carbon dioxide
  • They make gardening easier – if you select the right native plants for your garden, you don’t have to modify or amend your soil

I’m just going to share three favourite native plants in my garden, with hopes that you may consider them for yours.

Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum Virginicum)

Culver’s Root offers a strong upright, architectural accent to any perennial garden that attracts attention from both people and pollinators!! It can reach heights of 5 feet if it’s happy (although mine hasn’t achieved that yet) and the spikes of white flowers open from the bottom up in mid-summer. It has finely toothed leaves that are lanceolate and occur in a whorl of 3 to 8 leaflets. The inflorescence has several wand-like flowering spikes that resemble an elegant candelabra.

Culver’s Root grows in zones 3-8, in full sun to part shade but it does like moist, well-drained soil. The seeds are so tiny that they should be directly sown on the soil surface in fall or in the spring – I’ve tried winter sowing some this year so we’ll see how that goes.

The plant really has no other synonyms; apparently the name was derived from a Dr. Coulvert, a late 17th to early 18th century pioneer physician who found laxative properties in the plant. More information here.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Who doesn’t love bright red flowers in the garden? For those who say native plants can’t be showy I give you this amazing example to disprove that theory. Named for its scarlet red flowers, its tubular flowers are a magnet and important nectar source for hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies.

Like Culver’s Root the flowering spikes open from the bottom to top and bloom for several weeks. They grow best in moist, rich soils in full sun to partial shade.

I’ve only had my plants for two seasons but I understand that the parent plants will not persist after a few years, so it’s important to either let it go to seed (so it reseeds naturally) or collect seed – this is another plant where I am trying out winter sowing (native plants are a great choice for this propagation method). While many sites will tell you it needs a really moist site mine have done fine, although I do keep the plants well watered in drier times. More information here.

Green Headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

Also commonly called Cut Leaved (or Cut Leaf) Coneflower, this is the straight species, not to be confused with the double cultivar many of us have in our rural gardens (often called the Outhouse Plant – or Rudbeckia laciniata “Golden Glow”).

Not a small plant (it grows 4 to 5 feet tall in my garden), it clumps and spread by rhizomes so only one to consider if you have the space! Its bright yellow, daisy-like drooping flowers with green centre disks (which can be about 3 inches across) bloom later in the summer season. It prefers moist soil, but grows well in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. In nature it is often found in woods, meadows, streambanks, and roadside ditches.

The Cherokee natives call this plant Sochan and the spring basal leaves are a traditional Cherokee food. Butterflies are attracted to nectar from the blooms and songbirds, especially American Goldfinches, eat the seed in the fall. It is moderately deer resistant. More information here.

So I hope you’ll take the opportunity to seek out native plants to add to your garden, finding ones that are native to your region and appropriate to your conditions. Happy Gardening!!

Why Do We Garden?

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Audrey Hepburn

If you’re like me, you love to garden. Time in my garden provides me with joy on so many levels — emotional, physical, social, creative — and connects me with the outdoors and the environment. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down, one of the silver linings is that we’ve seen a renewed interest in gardening and its benefits, whether you’re working in a large garden or a few containers on your balcony. So I thought I would explore some of the top reasons I think we garden.

Physical and Emotional Health

Gardening is physical. As a low to medium impact exercise that requires both strength and stretching, you’ll see increased muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness over time, as well as improved sleep and diet (if you grow your own produce). On the emotional side, gardening reduces stress, anxiety, and depression and improves self esteem.

It’s good for the mind — gardening calms me down and helps me be more patient with myself and those I interact with on a daily basis. It gives me time to contemplate as I go about my tasks, up to my elbows in soil. Even weeding is cathartic, pulling out those little terrors by the root!

Just visiting gardens helps to calm the mind, bringing a sense of contentment and tranquility from looking at beautiful landscapes, flowers, or just colour and texture.

Building Relationships

While gardening can be a solo activity (some of my favourite moments are just by myself in my green oasis), it’s also a fabulous way to connect with people, whether they be family or strangers!

Teaching people how to nurture a living thing and to be responsible for a little bit of the environment is a lesson and gift we can share with others. Gardening knowledge is shared through generations — I love hearing about plants handed down from grandparents, or children working with their parents to grow seeds for the first time. It’s a great way to pass on critical life lessons — about patience as plants and vegetables grow, responsibility as they look after their care, and loss when flowers die at the end of a season.

Beyond family, gardening helps us connect with the broader community. Whether you plant too many tomatoes or zucchinis and end up giving them away to neighbours, or participate in a community garden plot, gardening can be a very social activity and a chance to learn from, and share your bounty, with others.

Learning Life Values

Gardening teaches you important life values like patience, determination, caring, and hard work. It also makes you very humble as you realize that there is always something new to learn. You need to observe the seasons and the weather, and this puts you in contact with the natural world. I love that I can get dirty and do this very physical activity, working with seeds and plants and seeing growth in all I do.

Growing Your Own Food

Gardening provides benefits for your wallet, your nutrition, and reduces your environmental footprint. By growing your own food (either from seeds or small plants), your food is automatically more sustainable simply because you are doing it onsite or in a community garden. If you control the ‘inputs’ and do it well, you can save a lot of money.

But ultimately there is nothing more rewarding than planting and maintaining your own vegetable garden and harvesting (and sharing) your results. And we all know how much better homegrown produce tastes versus conventional produce at the grocery store. If you have too much produce, then you can just share the love with others!

Connecting With Nature

I think this is one of the best reasons why people have a garden — the sunshine on your face, hands in the dirt, and feeling connected to nature. The garden is so much more than just plants and flowers — it’s the birds, the bugs, the bees, the spiders, the snakes and all the small mammals. I feel like I am establishing a little ecosystem in my own garden and that I am trying to give back for all the benefits that I receive.

Working in the garden also gives you that sense of wonder, accomplishment, and reward. To grow plants is to give life. It keeps you busy but reminds you to be one with the earth. To see the results of something growing from seed to six feet tall is just incredible.

Exploring Creativity

I find gardening to be an incredibly creative activity. Finding the right plant for the right spot, mixing colours, and making sure there is interest for every season — these are real challenges. I’ve spent much of the past few years learning about new plants to consider in my garden, especially natives.

Helping The Environment

Finally, gardening is so important for our planet. Even though we create our gardens (so they are human made) they do represent natural environments, with trees and shrubs and plants that are all taking in carbon and releasing oxygen. The plant roots stabilize the soil and filter water, and the plants themselves support our pollinators.

We live in a symbiotic relationship with our gardens. We give back by planting and maintaining them, but we receive so much more from them than we give.

Why do you garden?

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

In Praise of Sunflowers

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

The weather outside at this time of year is a bit frightful, so as a diversion, let’s vault ourselves temporarily into mid-summer and learn about that giant of summer flowers — the sunflower. In all their colourful glory, these plants are a happy sight to behold—but there’s more to their nature than just beauty. The multipurpose plants deliver healthy snacks for us, useful oils, and seeds for our feathered friends.

Sunflowers are members of the family Asteraceae, which all form a composite head (capitulum) made of masses of simple flowers (florets) that each produce a seed if successfully pollinated. Sunflowers typically have between 1,000 to 1,400 florets, and potential seeds, per head. The capitulum is surrounded by petals, making the whole structure seem like one single flower. The latin name for the common sunflower is Helianthus.

Butterflies, beneficial insects, hummingbirds and birds flock to sunflower heads for food, pollen and nectar. Insects enjoy the flower pollen and nectar while birds feast on the seeds. Plant tall varieties along a fence to block an unsightly view, or try them in the back of the flower border or along the side of the house or garage. You can also use sunflowers instead of corn in a Native American ‘Three Sister’s Garden’: Plant pole beans to grow up the clump of 3-week old sunflower stalks, and plant winter squash and pumpkins around the base of the clump 3 weeks after the beans. The beans will climb up the flowers and the low-growing squash will shade out weeds and prevent the soil from drying out.

The flowers not only look like the sun; they need a lot of it. They grow best with about six to eight hours a day but more is even better. They can grow as tall as 16 feet, although many varieties have been developed to thrive at different heights. Flowers planted too close together will compete and not blossom to their full potential.

Sunflowers display a behavior called heliotropism when they are young–the flower buds and blossoms will face east in the morning and follow the sun as the earth moves during the day. However, as the flowers get heavier during seed production, the stems will stiffen and the mature flower heads will generally remain facing east.

Although sunflowers can be started indoors in individual peat pots, it is easiest to sow seeds directly into the soil after all danger of spring frost is past. However, where the growing season is short, sunflowers can be safely planted up to 2 weeks before the last expected spring frost.

Resources

Sunflower Facts – Things You Didn’t Know About Sunflowers

How to Plant, Grow and Care for Sunflowers: The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Helianthus: Wikipedia

Winter Bird Treats

By Lois Scott, Master Gardener

I have been fortunate this winter to have the ability and opportunity to carry on with regular, ‘socially distanced’ walks in my neighbourhood and to be able to enjoy the winter interest provided by nature. 

On several walks I was quite excited to see small flocks of Pine Grosbeaks and Cedar Waxwings feeding on ornamental crabapple trees (Malus species) in two neighbouring gardens that I pass by.  For me it was a special treat to see Pine Grosbeaks, as they are a somewhat irregular winter visitor to the Kawarthas.  Their breeding range is in the boreal forest and, according to Drew Monkman, if there is food they stay put. If not they travel south where you may see them on feeders or fruit trees, such as crabapples.  

Crabapples, typically planted for their flowers, produce colourful fruit that is not only attractive in winter but a potential source of food for birds.  In choosing a variety to plant, Landscape Ontario recommends considering resistance to disease and insects, and fruit persistence, which is important for feeding the birds as the crabapples need to stay on the tree. Another noteworthy fact is that birds can be picky eaters and in their estimation apparently not all crabapples are created equal.  For example they like ‘Prairiefire’ whereas they do not like ‘Adams’, ‘Donald Wyman’ or ‘Red Jewel’.  Who knew!  I don’t know what the varieties are of the two different trees I saw birds in but the tree in the first photograph shows the tree fairly well stripped of fruit. In the second photo there is still plenty of fruit that they have not come back to finish. 

Crabapple trees in the author’s neighbourhood

There are other excellent choices of native trees and shrubs that can provide winter food sources for birds.  The hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), a shade tree that works well in ‘difficult’ urban areas, hawthorns (Crataegus species), highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), and red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) are a few good choices. 

For a more comprehensive list of crabapple varieties and other native species to feed the birds in winter please check out the following links.

For more general information on attracting birds to your garden please check out Master Gardener Judy Bernard’s excellent posts on our Peterborough Master Gardeners website.

Planning for pollinators

by Rachel Burrows, Master Gardener

Did you know that pollinators are responsible for pollinating over 30% of the foods that we eat? Many pollinator species are at risk due to climate change, habitat loss, and pesticide exposure.

So, what are pollinators and what do they do? Bees and other insects, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and other small birds all need a constant source of food from early spring through to fall. They are looking for pollen-bearing flowers with fairly easy collection of nectar and pollen.

How can we help? There are many ways that we can help in our own gardens. We can provide habitat for pollinator birds and insects by installing nesting boxes both for birds and cavity nesting bees. Fallen trees and an area of bare ground will provide access for ground nesting bees and butterflies. Pollinators really prefer a little less manicured garden!

A pollinator hotel, although brush and logs on the ground are just as good. It’s important to keep in mind that these hotels require regular upkeep. Because they host pollinators at a higher density than a natural nesting site, disease and pathogens can quickly spread among visitors.

Water is another necessity and a shallow container with a couple of small rocks in it is the perfect drinking spot. Try to avoid chemical fertilizers and use compost instead which is better for both your plants and the pollinators.

What plants to choose – plant native when ever possible. Native plants have co-evolved with pollinator species and are well adapted to our local conditions. Pollinators can more easily access single bloom flowers such as echinacea and asters as their stamens and pollen are more exposed. Plant species in clumps to provide a target for pollinators, bees tend to gather pollen from one type of plant at a time. Provide host plants as butterflies such as the Monarch, lay their eggs on specific plants for their caterpillars to feed on. In the Monarchs case milkweeds are the only plant that they will feed on.

Try to have plants to provide four season interest, this can include grasses as they will provide shelter and food. Aim for at least three different species of plants blooming in each of the growing seasons. Study your site to determine the amount of sun and wind exposure and how much water will the plants receive?

Pollinators locate their food sources by sight and smell and the bees will go crazy around plants such as lavender and anise hyssop. Honey bees love white, yellow, blue and purple flowers.

The Peterborough Master Gardeners in conjunction with the City of Peterborough and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters have installed a pollinator garden with all native species at the McNamara Park. This is a City owned park on McNamara Rd. which runs off Guthrie Drive and along the Otonabee River across from the OFAH building. It is a very peaceful park with many trees and seating areas. It is well worth a visit and may give you further ideas for helping our pollinators in your own garden. You can make a difference!

For more information

Pollinator Hotels

Pollinator Conservation in Yards and Gardens

Ontario Nature Pollinator Page

Recycling Live Christmas Trees

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Don’t throw out the tree after the holidays — put it to work. Here are some ways to recycle a live Christmas tree.

  1. Mulch tender plants with recycled Christmas tree boughs.
    Gardeners know how important mulch, like straw, hay or crisp oak leaves, is for protecting plants through a harsh winter. But evergreen branches add a little extra punch to your plants’ protection. Just lay the branches in a crisscross pattern over tender perennial plants. Weave the stems together to keep them from blowing away on a windy day.

The branches will moderate the soil temperature, keeping everything nice and cold until it’s really time to warm up. Piled on top of other mulch such as leaves, they’ll prevent the bottom layer of mulch from blowing away. And branches catch and hold snow, which is a good insulator. Place evergreen branches over your garden anytime the ground is frozen, from late November to midwinter, after you’re done enjoying your Christmas tree indoors. Pick them up when it starts to warm up in spring.

  1. Repurpose your live Christmas tree in the garden by leaving it out for the birds.
    Your old Christmas tree is the perfect winter gift for your feathered friends. Anchor the tree securely in a deep bucket of sand. The branches are enough to provide cover from the winter weather, but if you want to add treats, strings of popcorn will be popular with birds. Hang the treats on the branches, but push them toward the middle of the tree so birds won’t be frightened by any swinging ornaments that move with the wind.
  2. Simmer some pine needle potpourri.
    You can keep enjoying that piney scent with a simmering potpourri. The idea is similar to mulling spices on the back burner during the holidays. Add water, lemon and orange rinds, a cinnamon stick, whole cloves and other spices. Cover them with water and simmer for hours to scent your home and drive away the January blues.
  3. Make coasters and trivets.
    This is a particularly nice project for young kids who are having a hard time saying goodbye to the tree and the Christmas season. Cut thin slabs off the trunk, sand them smooth and apply a thin coat of polyurethane to keep the sap off tables and glassware.
  4. Donate it to the zoo.
    If you live in an area with a zoo, see if they need discarded Christmas trees for the animals to play with and eat. Same goes for local nature centers, which often use the trees as shelter for birds or even fish. Note that our Peterborough Zoo has accepted leftover christmas trees from vendors in the past.
  5. Add needles to the compost.
    You can finally quit worrying about needles falling on the carpet and make use of your tree’s tendency to shed. Place the tree on a tarp until it’s done shedding and then pour the brown needles into the compost to enrich your soil for next year. As the needles are quite dry, layer them with wetter materials for faster decomposition.