Category Archives: Climate Change

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!!

Are You in the Zone?

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Gardeners are used to seeing the “zone” as part of the information provided on the label of most perennial plants, trees and shrubs purchased from a nursery.  Some labels will list a zone with the corresponding temperature in brackets afterwards.  This seems like an easy way to determine if your chosen plant will successfully grow in your garden–you will need to know the average lowest winter temperature, in your region, then figure out your zone.  You then just buy the plant labelled with your zone for success!  Easy, right?  Yes and no!

In Canada, the original 1960’s plant hardiness zones were based on information gathered at 640 weather stations across the country along with the survival results of selected trees and shrubs.  In 2012, revised maps were released using elevation, more locations and more environmental details resulting in a hardiness index which corresponds to a zone .   At present, there are 13 zones ranging from 1-13.  You may also see an “a” or “b” beside the number.  This indicates a slight variation within that region. See Plant Hardiness Zone by Municipality to find your zone.

Zone 5, author’s garden.

In the USA, the system is different.  Again, there are 13 zones ranging from 1-13 and  “a” or “b” indicates variation within the region. See US Plant Hardiness Zones.   However, the US system is only based on minimum temperature and no other factors.  You may read about a plant grown in the US and designated US zone 5.  A US zone 5 labelled plant may require warmer winter conditions than it’s corresponding zone 5 labelled Canadian plant.  Bottom line, US zones may not be the same as Canada’s.

Canadian data is based on previously collected information but we know that the weather does not always follow past patterns — it can, and will, fluctuate (e.g. freeze/thaw cycles).  There may be microclimates (see Microclimate in Wikipedia) in your own gardening space.  Good gardening practices (e.g. soil preparation)  will contribute to the successful growth of your plant.  Plant survival and growth depends on your gardening expertise and knowledge.  The zone is just one indicator of whether, or not, the plant that you are contemplating will grow well in your garden.  Oh, and Peterborough is a Canadian plant hardiness zone 5 b.

Tips: 

#1 The plant hardiness zone site now can be used to explore where the specific plant that you are thinking about purchasing will grow through the “Species-Specific Models and Maps”.  It does this by creating a “climate profile” of the plant and then mapping where it will grow in Canada.  These are preliminary maps but click here to try it out.

#2 Grow native plants!  Native plants are specifically well suited to an area especially if you can purchase locally grown plants or find locally sourced seeds. 

#3 Consult local nursery staff and your knowledgeable fellow gardeners.  They will know what will successfully grow in your area.

#4 Experiment!  If there is a plant that you really must have, but the zone is off a little…..try it.  You will need to choose a protected location for planting and probably baby it along but sometimes it may be worth it. Talking to other knowledgeable local gardeners may be especially helpful….someone may have successfully grown that special plant in their garden and may share their growing tips with you!

Zone 5, author’s garden.

The Plastic Dilemma

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

The recent severe weather experienced by the west coast drives home the reality of our changing climate. Gardeners pride themselves on being good stewards of the land and are always trying new techniques to improve. However, there is a fly in the sustainability ointment.

The horticultural industry uses a lot of plastic. Pots, weed barrier, netting, propagation equipment; it’s overwhelming.  On a global basis, about 4 percent of world oil production is used as a feedstock for all plastic and another 4 percent is consumed as energy in the manufacturing process. Emissions are just the beginning of the problem.  The Earthways Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden estimates that about 350,000 lbs. of horticultural plastic enters the waste stream each year in America. Plastic is ubiquitous, does not degrade rather it disintegrates and some types (PVC and polystyrene) leech toxins into the soil and groundwater.  As it disintegrates, it becomes microplastic fragments that can be found both in marine settings and in the soil.  We are all aware of the impact on marine life but it has now been discovered that these fragments are in the soil and have a significant negative impact on arthropods and roundworms (all important in the breakdown of organic matter). 

Freedom from plastic is the goal but will take time. There are things gardeners can do right now to reduce their plastic consumption.

  • Extend the life of plastic you already own by careful handling and reuse
  • Forgo plastic when workable alternatives exist. Use biodegradable pots made of coir or fibre and try soil blocking for starting seedlings. Use wooden plant markers.
  • Buy bare root plants and or start plants from seeds to cut down on plastic pots
  • Use planters made of terra cotta, metal or ceramics.
  • Only use tools made from metal and wood
  • Skip the use of bagged products and purchase these products at a bulk outlet using preowned containers.
  • Use weed barriers that biodegrade such as cardboard or biofilm (made from corn)
Metal tools that last a lifetime

There may still be items for which no good alternative exists in your situation.  In these cases, purchase higher quality versions that are more durable and last a long time.  Companies such as Bootstrapped Farmer are now specializing in this type of product.

Many years ago (1996) I purchased 2 large plant trays from Lee Valley Tools and am still using them.  The trays are still in the catalogue and I am going to purchase more.  I have a metal watering can which I have had since I started to garden.  These things can be passed along to younger gardeners.  As the urgency of this issue becomes apparent, additional products come to market assisting in the transition to freedom from plastic.

“We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.” ~ Barbara Ward


Resources

https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/say-no-plastic-garden

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/09/735848489/plastic-has-a-big-carbon-footprint-but-that-isnt-the-whole-story

https://www.bootstrapfarmer.com/

Peat Moss

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

Peat Moss use has become a highly contentious issue, especially in Britain. The U.K. government plans to ban peat use among amateur gardeners by 2024.  With the proposed ban and a pledge to restore 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of peatland across the county by 2025, retailers can no longer delay the transition to peat-free compost.

A Peat Bog is layer upon layer of vegetation and it acts like a sponge that holds 20 times its own weight in water.  It is a life support for biodiversity.  It increases by 1mm per year.  Twelve metres of peat dates back to the last ice age.  Peatlands support all types of natural wildlife and native plants.

In the last 2 centuries, peat bogs have decreased by 94%, mainly in Scotland and England.  It is not an environmentally sustainable product. It used to be a major land cover in the United Kingdom.  Because of many, many years of the use of peat moss for our gardens and for fuel, less than 1% of the national peatlands remain in places like Scotland and England.

The peatlands are a wonderful natural ecosystem. They protect our climate, accumulate carbon and protect endangered species. Professor Dave Goulson, from the University of Sussex said: “Globally, peatlands store half a trillion tons of carbon, twice as much as the world’s forests.  Unearthing this precious store of carbon is a needless ecological disaster.”  They are absolutely critical in helping with flood and climate control and the protection of this unique ecosystem.

Even in Canada peatlands are carbon and climate champs!  We have about 25% of the world’s peatlands and they cover about 12% of the nation’s surface area.  They are very delicate, slow-growing ecosystems, composed of semi-decayed biomass that has accumulated for many thousands of years. They take in so much more carbon than our forests and grasslands. We emit the carbon back into the air when we put the peat moss into our gardens.

It is a nice light-weight substrate and hangs on to nutrients and is perfect for growing plants when mixed with perlite.  It is the mainstay of potting soils here and beyond and for years has been a big part of the gardening industry. Peat has long been a popular product in the Horticultural Industry as it is cheap, acts like a sponge to hold moisture and is a very good growing medium.  Fifty percent of peat moss is used by gardeners!

The Horticultural Industry are now hearing the concerns with the use of peat moss.  However, there are very few alternatives for them on the market.  Some are trying a switch to Coconut Coir, a material in the husk of the coconut.  It retains water well, up to 10 times its weight by volume.  It also contains no fungal contaminants, deters fungus gnats and doesn’t burn, which can be an issue with peat moss.  Compost is ideal but not everyone has the space to make their own and it is definitely heavier than peat moss.  Another product known as Charged Carbon acts like a sponge, removing contaminants that can prevent strong and healthy plant growth.  It is a material that comes from bamboo or feed stock.  It is heated and you are left with a carbon skeleton.  Both Coconut Coir and Charged Carbon are dramatically more efficient and environmentally responsible than the use of peat moss, however, their availability is limited and the cost of these products is much higher.  Compost is more widely available as well as other products such as leaf mold, perlite, vermiculite, and bagged manures.

Some of the industries are making simple changes, but this could take several years.  It involves understanding how the plants react to the different products, how they maintain water and watching for different growth habits.

Paul Short, President of the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association says that “they have invested a lot in restoring peat lands after harvesting”, however, research has shown that peat lands take hundreds of years to be restored back to their original condition.

We could be on the same trajectory as the U.K. if we do not look after our peatlands. They are harvested not just for horticulture.  We also have oil and gas infrastructure and fire management infrastructure running through our Canadian peatlands.

Think twice about buying that low-cost bag of planting material that contains peat.  Help by encouraging our government to support the larger companies in their efforts to phase out its use.  Look at your labels, consider the use of alternatives, if possible create your own compost and be aware of what we can do to help to preserve these amazing lands.

To learn more, read this interesting article put out by Plantlife.

From a Canadian perspective, check this article from The Canadian Wildlife Federation.

Is it time to rethink our lawns?

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

Full disclosure – I have never been a fan of lawns. I’ve had a 20 year plan to convert my large property to perennial gardens and paths, and I’m getting there, slowly but surely. 

However, I am fascinated with how (and why) people are so attached to their square green spaces of grass. 

A little history first..

Lawns became popular with the aristocracy in northern Europe from the Middle Ages onward, evolving as a sign of wealth.  Originally they were mostly used as pasture – lawns like we have today first appeared in France and England in the 1700s when André Le Nôtre designed the gardens of Versailles that included a small area of grass called the tapis vert, or “green carpet”.

versailles-4074418_1920

Immigrants to North America brought these traditions with them as they settled the land. Particularly after the Second World War, the creation of the middle class and suburbia and the advent of chemical fertilizers led to a North American culture of ‘the lawn is king’, with the requirement that it was every homeowner’s responsibility to keep it watered, mowed, repaired, and cultivated, just like their neighbours. One article I read even went so far as to blame the rise of lawns on the Scots, who brought their love of lawn bowling and golf to this continent (and therefore the need for flat green areas).

lawn-mower-2127637_1920

Lawn is a cognate of llan which is derived from the Common Brittonic word landa (Old French: launde) that originally means heath, barren land, or clearing.

Lawns are expensive to create and maintain, so why do we still have them? Simply put, the belief is that lawns are indicative of success – if you have a well maintained lawn you have the time and money to create and maintain it, and you care about belonging to your neighbourhood.

Fast forward to current times, where we now see articles in the Globe and Mail asking whether “it’s time to decolonize your lawn” and efforts are underway in many areas to convert lawn areas into more ecologically responsible landscapes to support our pollinators, birds, and wildlife. Whether you simply overseed with some white clover, and reduce or eliminate fertilizers, or convert your entire lawn into a wildflower meadow, there is a full range of options to consider.

Such changes have not been without their challenges. A recent newspaper article shows the conflict between those who want a new attitude towards our properties. Nina-Marie Lister, a Ryerson University urban planner and ecologist removed all her lawn, replacing it with “a lush and layered landscape” filled with “milkweed, boneset and black-eyed Susans, among other plants largely native to the region.” Her neighbours complained and she was visited by a Toronto city bylaw officer – under Toronto’s municipal code, residents need to “cut the grass and weeds on their land” whenever they grow past 20 centimetres.

The comments community lit up, and well known gardener Lorraine Johnson even penned an editorial in the Toronto Star about it.

houseonriver 044 (2)

Naturalized gardens are becoming a widespread phenomenon, and municipal bylaws will continue to be challenged by those that advocate for increasing biodiversity by creating landscapes that support an abundance of species of flora and fauna. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see someone complain to bylaw about a green lawn destroying biodiversity, filling the landscape with chemicals, wasting water by watering, and creating air and noise pollution through mowing? You see, it’s all a matter of perspective.

The debate is far from over, but gardeners should enter the discussion and think about whether there is a way for their green spaces to be just a bit more ecologically friendly.

Whatever your opinion, I encourage you to read these articles and think about the issues surrounding our garden spaces. I know I will never convert the staunch, lawnmower riding king to create a wildflower meadow, but if I just get a few people to think about how they can make a small difference in their own backyards I will be happy. I don’t have all the answers – I just want to stimulate the discussion.

FUN FACT – clover was an accepted part of lawns until the early 1950s, only becoming a ‘weed’ because the earliest 2,4-D herbicides killed it off along with the dandelions.

For those interested the Canadian Society for Organic Urban Land Care is hosting an online discussion and learning series on the role of land care, horticulture and landscaping in cultivating social and land equity. One of the topics is “Cultural values and how they frame horticultural norms” where the colonization and control of our natural landscapes will be the topic.

For more information:

The American Obsession with Lawns

The History of Lawns

Decolonizing Horticulture by Sundaura Alford-Purvis

Facing Climate Change: What Gardeners Need to Know

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

I recently attended a Master Gardener’s Technical Update at the Toronto Botanical Gardens. The subject was Facing Climate Change: What Gardeners Need to Know. The speakers were Dr. Jon Warland, Dr. Steven Hill and Lorraine Johnson. As we sat listening to how our climate is changing and the impacts that this has on current gardening practices, it was not lost to us that we were about to experience an upcoming ice storm at the same time that Australia was dealing with horrific fires. And then on January 17th, Newfoundland is hit with one of the worst winter storms they have ever had!

Some interesting facts I took away with me that day were:

  • Plants that were once borderline hardy are now easily surviving our winters.
  • Severe storm conditions are damaging many of our trees.
  • The Sugar Maple could disappear in this century from the Greenbelt area.
  • Invasive plants are taking hold and pushing out some of our woodland native plants.
  • The average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 250 parts per million (ppm) in pre-industrial times. Now it exceeds 400 parts per million (ppm).
  • The peak bloom date for cherry trees in Washington, D.C. has shifted earlier by approximately five days since 1921.
  • The current climate in the Golden Horseshoe area will be in Algonquin Park by the end of the century.

Lorraine Johnson spoke at great length about our perception of what was a ‘nice’ garden. She believes that we need to understand the benefits of growing native plants that will be hardy enough to withstand the unpredictable extremes in climate. She presented several examples of people who had replaced their front lawns with native plants or vegetables and had been instructed by the cities to remove the plants or had received bills when the city moved in and cut it all down only because it was considered ‘messy’ and ‘unappealing’!

What we can do as gardeners:

  • Consider using native plants. You will be rewarded with lots of birds, butterflies and insects to help cultivate a natural ecosystem.
  • Grow as many plants as possible (I won’t have a problem with this one). Gardening is a journey and learning what plants work best in your conditions takes time and patience.
  • Learn to live with some weeds, nibbles in leaves, as well as leaf spots. Focus on cultivating plant health.
  • Stop watering your lawns as it is estimated that nearly one-third of all residential water is lost in the watering of lawns. Your lawns will go dormant in dry periods but will return with the fall rains.
  • Consider a rain garden to minimize surface runoff.
  • Include a diverse mix of plants, shrubs and trees to prepare for the possibility of losing certain plants due to climate change.
  • Leave grass clippings on your lawn to add nutrients
  • Mulch fall leaves and add to your lawn or flower beds to avoid having leaves sent to the landfill where the organic material undergoes anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition that produces the greenhouse gas methane with is worse than CO2.
  • Grow your own vegetables or buy locally from farmers markets to help reduce greenhouse gases when food travels thousands of kilometres from farm to grocery store.
  • MOST IMPORTANT … Get out in your gardens and be thankful for the beauty that surrounds you!

Resources:

The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation have put out a good report on Gardening in a Changing Climate.

In 2018, Cornell University produced Gardening in a Warmer World.