Category Archives: Information

Patience in the Garden

By Chris Freeburn, Master Gardener

When spring finally arrives, gardeners are outside daily looking for signs of life in our flower beds. Snowdrops, crocus, tulips and daffodils along with many other spring bulbs give us that pop of colour we have missed. Hellebores, primula, magnolia, Iris reticulata, lungwort are all beginning to bloom. Spring perennials like ground phlox, poppies, pasque flowers, daylilies are showing their green shoots and will soon be flowering. Bleeding Hearts, trilliums, lupins and salvia are all growing in leaps and bounds. 

Bleeding heart is well on its way

This past April, we experienced a week of abnormally hot weather that encouraged plants like peonies to jump up. Note to self – get peony rings up. The return to “normal” temperatures is better for all the plants. And it reminds us that spring is an unpredictable season and we can’t rush it.

As gardeners, we need to practice a bit of patience. We need to leave our gardens to thaw, give the soil time to warm up and give the overwintering insects time to awaken from the garden litter we are so excited to “clear up”. We also need to be aware that not all perennials show life at the same time.

Hostas show their poking dark shoots just as we are getting into the flower beds, so we need to watch when stepping around or moving mulch in those gardens. Perennial Hibiscus are probably one of the the later showing perennials that will look dead until mid June. Be patient! When Hibiscus decide to begin growing, they grow quickly, inches in a day. Lilacs are making buds and maples are leafing out, but hydrangeas are still looking asleep. Although early flowering clematis like Blue Bird and other group 1 types will be popping up, later bloomers with still be sleeping. Don’t despair. Be patient!

Hibiscus is very late to show growth

Grasses can also be deceptive. Cool season grasses begin to grow in early spring and have reached their best by mid summer. Karl Foerster, which is a Calamagrostis or feather reed grass is a well known cool season, zone 5 grass that grows 5′- 6′ tall. It likes sun, will take it wet or dry and tolerates poor soil. Overdam and Avalanche are two other feather reed grasses that will be showing green now.

Cool season grass

Warm season grasses do not come up until June and are at their best in fall. They will look dead until the weather warms up. Patience! Because they will not show green until later in the spring, you can plant warm season grasses behind other earlier growing perennials to hide their brown bottoms.

Warm season grass

Miscanthus grasses are warm season types and are available in different heights from 3′ to 8′ tall. Miscanthus sinensis & M. Sacchariflorus are classed as invasives, spreading by rhizomes and seeds. Other warm season grasses include Japanese Forest Grass or Hakonechloa, Japanese Blood Grass and Sedges. Panicum or switch grass is a warm season grass with many varieties native to North America. ‘Northwind’ is the most commonly know variety and it is drought resistant, will grow in any type soil and likes full sun.

Native grasses like Little Bluestem  (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii)  and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) are warm season grasses. These are beautiful additions to your garden, but will not green up until the weather warms.

May is the most active month in the garden. Sometimes we forget to enjoy the moments, slow down, breath deeply and have patience. New wonders will be happening for many days ahead. Enjoy them!

Divide to Multiply

by Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

Despite the lingering snow, the longer days and stronger sun tell us that spring is indeed here! With that we begin to think about all of the chores we wish to accomplish. Division of perennials is a common task. So why do we divide?

Division is a common means of vegetative propagation. It is an easy way to increase the number of plants you have available. Division is also required maintenance for some perennials in order to achieve maximum bloom year after year. Although a fairly simple process, there are a couple of considerations you must make.

Time of Year

Because successful division depends on the growth of new roots, the best times of the year to divide are spring and fall when the soil is warm, water is available and stressors are at a minimum.

Many perennials can also be divided during the summer months but high temperatures mean an increase in water loss. This leads to a stressed plant so extra care must be provided to ensure the plant remain well hydrated. Also, there are some ornamental grasses that only grow new roots in the spring. These plants should not be divided in the fall as they will not grow new roots that can take up water.

Method of Division

This will depend on the type of root and crown system the plant has. No matter the type of plant, keep in mind that each plant division must contain at least one bud or growing point and a few healthy roots. If you are unsure of the what you are dealing with, there is a link to a list from the University of Minnesota at the end of this blog.

Clumpers – These plants often have fibrous root systems sometimes with rhizomes but grow many smaller crowns at the base of the original each having its own root system. This often makes for easy separation with little tissue damage. Examples include ajuga, daylily and hosta.

Runners – These are plants that spread by covering the ground by shallow horizontal stems. They root along their nodes and send up new shoots making them easily dividable by separating the root ball. Examples include bee balm and goldenrod.

Tight, woody crowns – These plants are a little more challenging to divide as the buds are often tightly packed on a hardened crown. For best results the plant must be older when split to ensure that divisions with have growing points. Examples include baptisia and peony.

Thick rhizomes or tubers – Rhizomes are technically stems that grow underground. Divided sections must contain at least one growing eye. Examples in this group would be bearded iris and dahlia. These varieties should only be divided when dormant.

Tap rooted plants –These cannot rarely be divided unless multiple tap roots have developed and are better propagated by using root cuttings. Plants in this group includes oriental poppies.

Basic Steps for Division

  1. Dig out the plant. If not replanting immediately, protect from desiccation. Removing the plant from the ground can destroy tiny root hairs (responsible for water uptake). Protecting the plant means a faster recovery on the division is replanted. I often place the root ball in a plastic bag and place in a shaded area.
  2. Separate your plant into pieces using the most appropriate method. Make sure to take generous divisions of sufficient size to ensure growing points and healthy roots.
  3. Replant, digging hole wide enough. Roots like to grow out and down so give them enough space to spread out. Be sure that the soil has good contact with the root system by firming the soil then water the division in, slowly allowing the soil to further settle against the roots.


The Science Behind Plant Division

Divide and Conquer: How to Divide and Multiply Perennials

How and When to Divide Perennials

Table for Dividing Perennials

It’s Spring… It’s Spring!

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Yes, it is finally spring!  We can feel the sun getting warmer and see the light lasting longer and so can your orchids.

Before the outdoor gardening season starts, have a look at your Phalaenopsis orchids … actually check all of your houseplants but I am going to stick with just Phalaenopsis orchids for now.  Your orchids may have already started to bloom.  I have 5 Phalaenopsis orchids and one of them has been in bloom for a couple of weeks.  The others are not in bloom but, after inspection, I realized that they all needed to be repotted.  How do I know that??

Orchids are epiphytes which means that they grow on other plants but are not parasitic so do not hurt the other plants.  Epiphytes have aerial roots to anchor themselves to a tree, for example, or in a pot. The aerial roots pull minerals, moisture and nutrients from the air.  They are not growing in soil.  When I checked the medium in the pots of my Phalaenopsis, by gently lifting the plant from its pot, the medium had broken down and looked more like soil than the appropriate mixture of bark, perlite and sphagnum moss (or renewable coconut chips).

Phalaenopsis orchids often need to be repotted after purchase because they may have been in the pot for quite some time and the potting medium has decomposed or they may be in an incorrect potting medium.  Incorrect potting mediums include anything that holds too much moisture and/or is compacted around the plant’s roots e.g. regular potting soil or a ball of sphagnum moss.  They also need to be repotted every 2 to 3 years because again, the medium in their pots will have decomposed, begun to become compacted around the roots and hold too much water. Too much water will lead to root rot followed by a decline in plant health and subsequent plant death.

The other indicator that repotting may be needed with Phalaenopsis orchids occurs because the plant is monopodial which means that it grows taller with new leaf growth at the tip of the stem.  The plant can end up top heavy and if not well anchored in its pot, it can fall over as flowers, stem and leaves are pushed up out of the pot by the roots.  With repotting, you can settle the plants roots back down into the pot.  If the potting medium is still in good shape, then it does not need to be replaced but if you are repotting the plant anyway then it may be a good time to replace the medium.

I have collected my supplies to repot my plants.  Note that I am not going to disturb the one that is blooming.  I will leave it until it is done blooming then repot because I do not want it to drop its flowers with the shock of being repotted.  The flowers are way too pretty!

Now you know why my Phalaenopsis orchids need to be repotted, so check your plants before you get too busy with the start of outdoor gardening season … it’s spring!

For more information:

How to Repot an Orchid: Phalaenopsis, Chicago Botanical Garden

Seedy Saturdays and Sundays – What are They?

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

Prior to 1990, the word ‘seedy’ tended to be associated with shabby or run down areas or clothes, or a somewhat disreputable reputation.

Synonyms for Seedy. (2016). Retrieved 2023, February 24, from

Ironically enough, some speculate that the term probably came from the appearance of flowers after they’ve shed their seeds, when they start to lose colour and eventually die.

However, that all changed in 1990, when the first Seedy Saturday was held at the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, BC. At the time, the idea of conserving heritage seeds from garden plants or agricultural crops wasn’t really a thing, and it was hard to find heritage varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and grains.

In  1988 Sharon Rempel wanted to find period-appropriate heritage vegetables, flowers and wheat for the 1880s heritage gardens she was creating at the Keremeos Grist Mill museum. As a pioneer in Canada’s organic and heritage seed movements, she organized the first Seedy Saturday event, and has kept the titles “Seedy Saturday” and “Seedy Sunday” dedicated to the public domain.

In Canada, these events have continued to be locally or regionally organized events, although the amazing organization Seeds of Diversity maintains a national presence. Almost all of these events occur in the late winter, with a few in the autumn.

Screen capture from Seeds of Diversity website

We totally get it. Canadian winters are long and cold and by February, gardeners are already looking forward to the springtime and planting. Seedy Saturdays/Sundays are non-profit, public events organized by individuals and community groups to bring together gardeners, seed companies, nurseries, gardening organizations, historic sites, and community groups so they can learn from one another, exchange ideas and seeds, and purchase seeds and plants in a social setting. Seeds of Diversity promotes these events on their website.

Many Master Gardener and Ontario Horticultural Association organizations are critical partners in these events – I love this poster from the London Middlesex Master Gardeners for this year’s event.

Every year more communities join the movement – according to Seeds of Diversity more than 170 events were held in 2019 across Canada. These events can be small or large, depending on the community. I love that they all have the same themes of encouraging use of open-pollinated and heritage seeds, enabling local seed exchanges, and educating the public about seed saving and environmentally-responsible gardening practices.

They’re a great opportunity to swap and exchange your seeds with others, get new varieties from other seed savers, meet seed companies in person, attend workshops/talks, and of course buy seeds!

In the Peterborough area, we are finally getting back to an in-person event. 2023’s Seedy Sunday will be held on Sunday March 12th from 11am to 3pm in a new location at the Peterborough Square Mall in downtown Peterborough (where the winter Farmers’ Market is being held). It’s a great venue, with lots of space (the pre-pandemic Seedy Sunday was held at the Emmanuel United Church and George St United Church).

Long time organizer Jillian Bishop (who runs her own UrbanTomato business and hosts seed saving workshops) says the event is “the perfect place to get inspired for spring. Come out to get all the knowledge, tools and resources needed to get growing this season.”

Jillian Bishop with her Urban Tomato sales stand.

This year’s Peterborough Seedy Sunday event includes:

  • An incredible diversity of vegetables, flowers, herb seeds available for sale
  • Community groups showcasing the great work they do locally
  • Informative hands-on workshops
  • A popular Seed Exchange Area where you can trade seeds with other gardeners

Get more information at:

Facebook: @SeedySundayPeterborough

Search for #PtboSeedySunday


Jillian says the last few years have been challenging because of the pandemic.

“As many of you know, in 2020, two days before we were set to host our 15th annual event, we had to cancel as the world began to shut down. As disappointed as we were, we knew it was the right thing to do! Of course, no one could have predicted what happened in the weeks, months and years to come, particularly in the world of seeds and gardening.

All of a sudden seeds became a hot commodity, and seed vendors across the world saw unprecedented demand as people became more concerned about securing their food sources, and had more time at home to plan, plant and enjoy their gardens.”

Peterborough Seedy Sunday, like similar events, went virtual for a few years, but Jillian is very happy to be planning a return to in-person seed fun and spring mania for the 15th annual event, with 13 vendors selling seeds, compost supplies and more! Workshops will be focusing on hands-on skills sharing.

If you’d like to take part in the Seed Exchange, please bring your seeds divided into smaller envelopes (approx. 25 seeds) labeled with the name of the plant, year harvested, and any other information you would like to share! Once you have them all ready, you can bring them down to the Seed Exchange and swap them for other fun varieties you have yet to try in your garden!

Hope to see you in Peterborough, or join your local ‘seedy’ event!

Words of Wisdom from Jillian Bishop

Why I Save Seeds

“Saving seeds means a lot to me. It means a lot to the world. Each heirloom seed contains history and future. Past and present, the ability to adapt to unforeseen climate change and unique environments, to spread stories and knowledge through generations it contains the capacity for communities to grow their own food in sprawling fields, community gardens, abandoned lots and fire escape pots.

Those seeds are living beings. They want to grow. They needs stewards. Citizens willing to give them water, sun, soil and yes, cheesily enough, love.”

More links and information

Seed Companies in Canada -list of seed companies in Canada, as well as the vegetable and fruit seed they’ve sold in recent years.

Peterborough Seed Savers Collective – Great short film (2015) about seed saving work happening locally – follow local seeds being grown out by the emerging Seed Savers Collective, and being shared at an annual Seedy Sunday event.

Why is Biodiversity Important? – Learn why diversity of plants and animals is important.

Canadian Seed Security – The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security works with farmers, researchers, universities, and other organizations to develop resources that can help farmers and seed growers advance their knowledge on seed in Canada.

Seed Savers Exchange – Stewards America’s culturally diverse and endangered garden and food crop legacy for present and future generations. We educate and connect people through collecting, regenerating, and sharing heirloom seeds, plants, and stories.

Start a New Habitat

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

Over the past few years, it has become increasing clearer that loss of biodiversity due to loss of habitat is at a crisis level.  It is also well documented that the planting of native species provides us with an opportunity to help reverse this process by creating or enhancing ecological networks.

Renowned entomologist Douglas Tallamy has been beating this drum for some time.  It is his belief that all of us can provide part of the solution no matter our area of interest and no matter the scale of effort (no need to be a native plant purist!). He believes that small efforts by many people can make a significant contribution. Tallamy provides practical, positive advice for adapting his principles into your situation.  His philosophy is about encouraging folks to participate in regenerating biodiversity in the way they are most comfortable versus prescribing “must do’s” or formulas. He doesn’t let the perfect be the enemy of good. To this end, he is spearheading a grass roots, science-based solution called Homegrown National Park. Participants in both the US and Canada involved in this effort are encouraged to register their properties on the parks map in order to be counted towards the park’s goal of planting 20 million acres.  The website provides extensive resources to gardeners such as blogs and videos as well as a newsletter.  You can also follow the park on Instagram  @homegrownnationalpark.

Tallamy suggests 10 steps that anyone can all do to get started and make a contribution (see the link for more detail). They are as follows:

  1.  Shrink your lawn – All of us could probably do with a little less lawn to cut but no need to go without.  Replace some turf with trees, shrubs or gardens.
  2. Remove invasive species – Invasive species interfere with the ecosystems ability to function and will affect any type of garden. Removing some if not all out will reduce the impact on your plants and reduce the amount of seed that is shed into the environment.
  3. Encourage Keystone Genera – Research has shown that a few genera of plants are the backbone of local ecosystems especially as a food source for insects. Without local keystone plants, food webs will fail. Common keystone plants in the east are oak, willow, birch, elm, goldenrod, aster and sunflower. In my own case, goldenrod and aster is abundant on the farm. I now let it grow along the perimeter of my fields instead of cutting it down.
  4. Be generous with your plantings. Increasing the abundance and diversity of our plantings will assist in realizing the ecological potential of our landscape.
  5. Reduce Nighttime Light Pollution. White porch lights and security lights are a major cause of insect decline. Consider switching lighting with motion sensors or replace white bulbs with yellow (less attractive to bugs).
  6. Network with neighbours and encourage them to get involved.  Be a role model by transforming your property in attractive ways.  Display a sign to show your commitment.
  7. Build a conservation hardscape by using window well covers to prevent toads and frogs from falling into the wells where they starve to death. Mowing your lawn no lower than 3 inches helps to ensure that you mow over the turtles, toads and other small critters.
  8. Create caterpillar pupations sites under trees. Most caterpillars drop from trees to pupate in duff on ground. Replace the lawn under trees with well planted beds full of ground cover to encourage pupation.
  9. Avoid use of chemical fertilizer. Create soils rich in organic matter instead.
  10. Educate, educate and educate. Spread the word.

    “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela

Clivia: Perhaps a Houseplant for your Collection?

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

I recently acquired a Clivia miniata.    This plant was new to me which, of course, was part of it’s appeal.  It also has dramatic long strappy green leaves and flowers during our cold, gray Ontario winter. 

When you bring a new plant home, be sure to carefully inspect it for hitchhikers; you do not want to bring in disease or insects which could be problematic for your current houseplants .   For example, Clivia may occasionally suffer from scale or mealy bug.  Thankfully, my new plant is lovely and healthy!

Clivia are part of the Liliaceae family.  Amaryllis is in the same family.  Clivia flowers are similar in shape to Amaryllis but smaller.  Clivia form a large ball of flowers so have lots of impact… colours range from yellow to red.  My plant has orange flowers.  Clivia may grow to be 2 to 3 feet (60-90 centimetres) tall and almost as wide.  This means that it requires a heavy pot to balance the top growth or it may tip over.  They like to be root-bound so may stay in the same pot for up to 5 years.

Clivia is native to South Africa.  The common name is flame lily, Natal lily or bush lily.  The plant was named after Lady Charlotte Florentine Clive, Duchess of Northumberland in England.  Clivia was very popular during the Victorian era.  If you would like to know more about the history of this plant, check here.

This plant is the ideal house plant.  It could be placed in a North window or in indirect light from an East or West window.  High humidity is not required so no misting is needed.  Clivia prefers rich, well drained organic soil.  A half strength dilution of 20-20-20 fertilizer may be applied monthly in the summer. This plant’s  large fleshy roots will rot if watered too much so allow the soil to become dry to the touch between waterings. 

Clivia may be placed in bright shade outdoors in the summer but does not like cool temperatures so must be wintered indoors.  In fall, when you bring your plant indoors, it needs a rest period to encourage that wonderful winter bloom.   Reduce watering but give it just enough water to keep the leaves hydrated and place the plant in a cool area for 6-8 weeks.  Then, place your plant back in its usual spot and water as described above.  Your plant should flower but this may take up to 8 weeks.  Clivia may flower 2-3 times per year but note that the plant is slow growing and needs to mature before it blooms.  This may take 3 to 5 years if you have purchased a young plant.  For more Clivia information, please see here.

I encourage you to welcome the easy to grow Clivia into your home!  Their beautiful leaves, and eye-catching blooms make them a striking plant to add to your houseplant collection.

Tree Identification with a Winter Key

By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener

Plant apps can be useful identification tools but their accuracy often depends on the quality of the photos and the features that are being examined. They tend to work best with more unique features such as fruit or flowers. I find that as a learning tool they can be limited because they do not give the user details about how or why the particular species was suggested. There are some other tools that can lead to an identification as well as help hone identification skills.

There is a little book called Winter Tree Finder by May Theilgaard Watts and Tom Watts. Originally published in 1970 and at only 58 pages, it is the perfect size to take into the garden or on nature walks. Known as a dichotomous key, it covers deciduous trees of the Eastern US and Canada and provides maps that show the various species ranges. Dichotomous keys lead you along a path towards the correct species by asking a series of questions about the tree’s various parts. This particular key relies mainly on the appearance and arrangement of terminal and lateral buds on twigs, twig width, bud scales, and vein or vascular bundle scars for identification. Other features may also be considered such as lenticels (pores), bark colour, pith (tissue inside twig), fruit, thorns, etc. It also includes a ruler on the back cover that is used to measure the width of the twigs.

There is a tree that is growing on my neighbour’s property that I know is Acer negundo (Manitoba Maple) and I decided to see if this book could identify it. I pruned a twig that was hanging over on my side of the fence. If you wish to identify other trees that are not on your property, it is appropriate to take photos, take a guidebook or key with you, or get permission to take a cutting.

Step 1: I noted whether the leaf scars are in an opposite or alternate arrangement (phyllotaxy) on the twig and if they were in pairs or were more numerous (whorled). Leaf scars are the markings on the twig where the leaf stalk was attached before it dropped off in the fall. In the case of my tree, there was an opposite arrangement and paired leaf scars.

Step 2: I looked at the width of the twig—less than 0.25” or greater than .25” In this case, the twig was no greater than 0.25.”

Step 3: I examined the texture of the terminal bud and the shape and the number of old vascular bundles or vein scars. Old vascular bundles represent the xylem and phloem (ports or channels) where water had flowed to the leaves. Since the terminal bud was not rough and dry, is conical, and the leaf scars had three bundles and were somewhat V-shaped, the twig belongs to the genus Acer (Maple).

Step 4: I considered the colour of the buds. The key asked if the buds were red, reddish brown or not. These buds might be seen as reddish brown and so could lead one down the path towards a different species but they also were “whitish and woolly” and the twigs were “purplish.” The leaf scars also met at a point on the twig. These combined features pointed towards A. negundo (Manitoba Maple). Colour variability within a species might question an identification. Also bear in mind that these types of guides may not identify exact cultivars or hybrids. But since this exercise, I now see this tree everywhere on my winter walks.

Other Similar Books

Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs by William M. Harlow

The Shrub Identification Book and The Tree Identification Book by George W. Symonds

Woody Plants in Winter by Core and Ammons (also online through as an eBook.)

Online Sources

University of Wisconsin K-12 Forestry Education Program:

An excellent web site of winter tree photos can be found at

Gardening in January

By Christine Freeburn, Master Gardener

Here we are in the dark days of winter; the holidays are over, the new year has been rung in, and the days are getting longer as we see the snow falling and the temperatures plunging.

Although we can’t go out and play in the garden, there are still lots of things we can do to satisfy our green thumbs.

Clean and sharpen garden tools
Buying good quality tools and keeping them clean and sharpened just makes good sense. Diseases can be passed through your tools, so always wipe with soap & water or even better with disinfectant wipes. Check out this site for tips on keeping tools in great condition.

Check out seed catalogues online
Growing plants from seed gives you a wider variety to choose from and also the satisfaction of growing your own. If you are a vegetable grower, try something new this coming season. If you are like me, you will want to order a paper copy catalogue from your favourite seed companies.

Start a garden journal
Set something up on your computer with charts and photos, or start a written record in a blank book or special garden journal. Record new plant purchases and who you bought them from and where they were planted in your garden. Include successes, ways to improve and dreams for next season.

Review last year’s garden successes
If you have kept a journal, you can check your notes. How can you improve for this coming season? Did you plant the right plant in the best location? Were soil, light and water conditions the best they could be? Remember that weather can determine success or failure as well. Some plants thrive with wet cooler springs while others enjoy hot and humid weather.

Check your houseplants for signs of pests or diseases
Gnats and aphids seem to come alive during the next couple of months. Have Safers soap ready to combat those nasty pests. Remove diseased leaves and isolate plants that are sick. Many houseplants are in resting stages and are not actively growing, so do not fertilize. Houseplants may not be drinking as much either so water sparingly. Have a bright indirect spot in your home? Maybe it’s time for a new specimen. Remember to isolate your new plant to ensure it is not infested or diseased before introducing to the rest of your collection.

Brighten your home with some fresh cut flowers
There is nothing like fresh cut flowers to brighten up a gloomy winter day. Check out this post on our website for caring for cut flowers.

Read a gardening book
When the weather outside is frightful, be sure to have a list of books to read, whether physically or electronically. Lorraine Johnson’s A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee is on my list.

Outside garden maintenance
When you are outside shovelling snow, throw some clean snow on and around any of your more tender perennials. Things like rhododendrons and hibiscus overwinter better if they have a nice layer of snow to cover and insulate them. If the weather has gotten mild and the snow has melted, cut and use your old Christmas tree branches to cover and protect from the coming frigid temperatures and bright burning sunlight.

Sign up for some online learning
There are many local garden organizations that have newsletters, blogs, YouTube videos and live zoom events available. Be sure you are learning from a reputable and local site if you want to add to your knowledge for your own garden. You can, of course, enjoy the foliage of some exotic locations, but know we can’t grow most of it in our zone 5 environment.

Try these sites for local learning. Some sites offer free webinars while others will charge.

Already signed up for some online learning?  You can share with us or post on our facebook page “Over the Fence with the Peterborough Master Gardeners

As of today, there are only TEN more weeks till spring.

Use this time to rest, plan and dream for the next season.

In Praise of the Lowly Common Juniper

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

I am always amazed that wildlife makes it through winter in our zone, as food doesn’t appear to be all that plentiful when everything is covered in snow and ice. However difficult it seems, native wildlife have a variety of adaptations to surviving winter; knowing where to find food is one of them.

Juniperus communis or common juniper is one of the most widely distributed trees in the world. They are members of the Cupressaceae family. They can tolerate a wide range of conditions; they are tough, they can survive with a lot of wind, and thereby can provide protection for animals in harsh weather. Junipers have a strong scent, bitter taste, and sharp needles. Deer tend to ignore plants with these attributes.

The berries, however, are a different story. They begin life a grey-green color, and ripen in 18 months to a deep purple-black hue with a blue waxy coating. While they are called juniper berries, the “berry” is actually a cone, the female seed cone. Junipers are almost always dioecious which means that in order for the female plants to set fruit, a male plant must be in the vicinity.

Juniper berries are one of the top late winter foods for many birds and mammals which covet the deep blue orbs. They aren’t particularly high energy or calorie-dense; they are soft and fleshy, and have a strong, woody, spicy, pepper-like flavor with a gritty texture. Perhaps this is why they are ignored early on, but in the depths of winter when all the other really desirable food is gone, they become more popular with wildlife. Juniper berries could be the difference between survival and starvation for the species who rely upon them.

Junipers have a long history with humans as well as wildlife. These trees are responsible for one of the only spices derived from a conifer. The ripe, blue berries were and are currently used throughout the world to flavor meats (particularly wild game) – and sauerkraut. The first record of juniper berries was in Ancient Egypt at around 1500 BC.

During the Black Death in the 14th century, plague doctors wore masks with long beaks full of juniper berries and other botanicals to mask the unpleasant smells they’d encounter tending the sick. They believed that juniper stopped the spread of the disease. This was somewhat true – the disease was spread by fleas and juniper is an effective and natural flea repellent.

Most famously, the unripe, green berries are used to flavor gin. Gin is originally from the Netherlands — in the 16th century, a schnaps was distilled with juniper berries to become so called “Genever” (in dutch: juniper berry) which was consumed for medical purposes. “Genever” developed to become the today’s “Gin”.

Juniper berries have since been used to flush out toxins, heal infections and even aid in digestion. Caution: If you intend to forage your local woodlot for berries, be wary because while most of them are harmless, there are some species that have mildly toxic berries. Do not randomly harvest juniper berries unless you are sure of the species.

Foraging aside, if you are looking for native plants for your garden, a few juniper bushes are a great choice. They’re hardy, provide cover and food for a variety of wildlife, and will definitely help our wild neighbors survive particularly difficult winters.

Some Fascinating Off-Season Reading

By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener

Now that the gardening season has winded down, I’ve turned my attention to some interesting reading. On my nightstand there are some little books that I’ll pick up and read a few snippets just before bed. They are part of a series called “Pedia” published by Princeton University Press.[i] The word “pedia” comes from the Greek word “paideia” for “learning” or “education.” There may be a perception that University presses publish only heavy academic titles. However, many do publish titles that are suited for the general reader. In this particular series, so far it covers the subjects flora, insects, trees, fungi, geology, dinosaurs, birds, and neurology. The petite clothbound books are like miniature encyclopedias, each with around 100 entries on a wide range of topics. Some of the entries are so fascinating that I needed to find out more.

Here are three entries that show gardeners the symbiotic relationship between insect species such as bumblebees, beetles, ants and selected plants:

In “Florapedia,” there is an entry for the plant Cornus canadensis (Bunchberry), a native of the Dogwood family that can be found in some of our Peterborough County forests. Its flowers are said to be capable of the fastest movement in the plant world. As a self-incompatible plant (i.e., unable to self-pollinate), it relies on a unique process of pollen transfer. Amazingly, it has the ability to project its pollen at a rate of 4 metres per second—more than 2,000 times the acceleration of gravity (p. 20). When an insect touches on an unopened flower, it triggers the firing of the pollen through the release of stored energy. The pollen then transfers to the insect which in turn moves on to another flower to cross-pollinate. Larger pollinators such as Bombus (Bumblebees) are required to initiate the opening of the flowers; although flowers that open by themselves are able to fire the pollen at a distance of about 1 metre to adjacent plants.[ii]

In “Treepedia,” we learn that Magnolia trees were among the first flowering species on the evolutionary scale (about 100 million years ago) and that they were and still are pollinated by beetles (p. 82). Magnolias developed hardened carpels (female reproductive parts) so they are able to tolerate the beetles’ chewing mandibles.[iii] The beetles are attracted to the large, strongly scented flowers as well as the pollen and other secretions. Pollen grains are readily captured by the insects’ hairy bodies—which are transferred to other flowers.[iv] Some gardeners may only think of bees as being pollinators and don’t think of the importance of beetles. Some other species that are pollinated by beetles here in Ontario include Asimina triloba (Pawpaw), Nymphaeaceae spp. (Water Lillies), and Lindera benzoin (Northern Spicebush).

In “Insectopedia,” the topic of seed dispersal, the term myrmecochory is explored. More than 4,000 plant species rely on ants for seed dispersal. Ants are attracted to the nutritious fatty seed coats called elaiosomes and take them back to their nests. The remaining unwanted parts of the seeds are discarded near the nests and subsequently germinate into new plants (pp. 155-156). Have you ever wondered how some new plants pop-up some distance from the parent plant? Species such as Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot), Trillium spp., (Trillium), Scilla spp., (Squill), Hepatica acutiloba (Sharp Lobed Hepatica), Viola spp. (Violets), are just a few examples of plants that can spread with the help of ants.

These little books would make a nice gift for any curious gardener, amateur botanist, or nature enthusiast.

[i] Pedia series. Princeton University Press:

[ii] Edwards, J., Whitaker, D., Klionsky, S. et al. A record-breaking pollen catapult. Nature 435, 164 (2005).

[iii] Evich, Philip. The Botany of Magnolias. Smithsonian Gardens. Online:

[iv] Hooks, Cerruti R., and Anahí Espíndola. Beetles and Pollination. Maryland Agronomy News. Online: