Category Archives: Insects

Beware the caterpillar

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

Fall is my favourite time of the year to bicycle; not too hot and the scenery on trails in the Kawartha Lakes is beautiful. Asters and golden rod are in full bloom; the sumacs and Virginia creeper are just turning red, whilst the maple trees are slowly turning various shades of orange, yellow, red and brown. My only problem is trying to miss all the caterpillars, grasshoppers, and chipmunks, not to mention the odd rabbit or snake that crosses my path. I can’t count the number of times I have almost ended up in a ditch.  Everything mostly jumps or slithers out of my way, though, with the exception of the woolly bear caterpillars.

Photo taken by author whilst out riding

You would think that these caterpillars would be fairly easy to spot, but at this time of year, and probably at my age too, I tend to have problems distinguishing them from leaves, especially from a distance. The caterpillars normally emerge around this time of year, slowly inching their way across the paths.

Picture of woolly bear caterpillar (taken by author)

The woolly bear caterpillar will emerge from its larva in the fall, and overwinter in its caterpillar form. It does this by finding a safe spot to hibernate under leaves or bark or inside rocks or logs and then freezing solid. It is able to survive being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant, which is a substance that protects its tissue from freezing. The search for a safe hibernation spot is why you see so many of these caterpillars crossing roads and paths.

In the spring the caterpillar will wake up hungry, eat for a few days and then spin a cocoon emerging after a couple of weeks into an Isabella Gypsy Moth.

There are many old wives tales that specify that the size of the brown bands in the middle of the caterpillar or the number of brown bands will determine how hard a winter we will have. This was investigated in 1948 by Dr. C. H Curran who was the Curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. To read more about this, please refer to the following article: https://www.almanac.com/content/woolly-bear-caterpillars-and-weather-prediction

Whilst I eagerly await the time when all the caterpillars have finished crossing roads and paths and begun their hibernation, I will continue my daily bike rides looking down at the paths whilst attempting to ensure that I do not cycle into any more ditches.

For additional information, the following is an interesting article: https://blogs.massaudubon.org/yourgreatoutdoors/why-did-the-woolly-bear-cross-the-road/

Adding Diversity to Garden Design

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

In June this year, I was sitting with my son on the deck looking at the backyard. He asked me why I had so much grass in the garden. Now, he is definitely not a gardener, so I was a little confused until I realized he was referring to all of the daylily leaves. I felt it my duty to point out the stunning delphiniums, peonies, irises, and lupins which were all in bloom. I also tried to explain that in another month or so the garden will be a riot of colour when all the daylilies and coneflowers started flowering. Daylilies have always been my favourite plants; they are hardy, drought tolerant, low maintenance and beautiful in bloom. See our blog post from July 22 describing how daylilies are the perfect perennial. I probably have at least fifty different varieties, all of which I bought over from my last garden four years ago. But as I sat there looking at the garden I did wonder if maybe I should add more diversity.

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Author’s garden in late spring

Shortly after, I was watching my new favourite garden show on Netflix, ‘Big Dreams, Small Spaces’ with Monty Don. If you have not heard of him, Monty Don is something close to a hero to most British gardeners. In this episode, he was relaying a gardening principle to the couple that were designing their new backyard.  He mentioned that for simplicity and cohesiveness “no garden needs more than seven different plants”.  I was trying to remember where the back button was on the remote as I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly, but he did partially redeem himself when he clarified that statement by saying that you do not have to take this too literally, but that a good garden can be made with just seven different plants. My current garden design is more of an English cottage garden, informal with little space between plants and if I was going to add more diversity this summer, I would definitely have more than seven different plants.

I spent this summer with pen and paper in hand walking around the garden, asking myself if I really needed 20 different variations of pink daylily, some of which even I struggled to tell apart or did I need the same daylily variety in four different places in the garden. I also noticed the daylily blooms had very few insects compared to the spectacular activity around the native plants. I made copious notes in my notebook and labelled many plants I wanted to move or give away. Because of a rising concern for environmentalism and climate change, I also wanted this to be reflected more in my garden. To do this I decided I needed to do the following:

  • Plant more native plants. I have collected seed from most of my native plants including swamp milkweed, culver’s root and liatris and will use these to fill in over the next few years.
  • Add more edibles to the perennial garden. I tend to edge with swiss chard, beets or cardoon. I don’t actually eat the cardoon but I love the foliage on the plant.
  • Choose more plants that have multiple functions, i.e. yarrow which attracts insects, is drought tolerant, is a nutrient accumulator bringing nutrients from deep in the soil and storing them in the leaves, has attractive flowers in many colors, and can be used as a manure tea.

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Author’s garden in summer

I’m excited for next year to see the changes I’ve made. I’m hoping that I have still kept the basic structure of the garden design with the emphasis on the summer color whilst adding more variety, especially pollinator and native plants. I learned this summer that a garden design does not have to be static; it can evolve as your values and beliefs evolve.

The design of your garden can be very personal, ever changing, reflecting who you are. For me it is somewhere where I feel at peace with the world–there is nothing I like more than taking a cup of tea out to the garden in the morning and just sitting and looking around.

Attracting Birds 1

By Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

The end of February, I saw a Cardinal at the bird feeder the first time this winter. They are such a beautiful bird, and one doesn’t see them that frequently. If it weren’t for our bird feeders, I don’t think I’d ever see one.

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Birds are a very important part of our garden environment. They eat seeds, berries and most importantly for the Gardener, they eat insects. One of the most common birds to visit my feeders are chickadees. They enjoy both sunflower seeds and peanuts. In the summer they eat more insects including aphids, whitefly, scale,  caterpillars, ants and earwigs. Other insect eating birds that visit my feeders are cardinals, nuthatches and grosbeaks. Although they eat very few insects, if any, finches are are welcome visitors to our feeders just for the pleasure they give us. I do all that I can to encourage the  visits of all birds.

Although it may not seem like it at times,  bird feeders aren’t the primary food source for birds, foraging is. Birds rely more on the nutrition provided by seeds in bird feeders in the winter  as  the supply in their environment dwindles and they need to go further afield to find other sources of food. To keep the birds coming to my garden, I keep my bird feeders out all year. It is such a pleasure to have their visits.

In subsequent posts, I will talk more about bird feeders, bird food, and providing an environment to attract birds to your garden.

Links:
Attracting Bug Eating Birds
How to Attract Bug Eating Birds to your Garden