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Casting pods to Podcasts

By Anica James, Master Gardener in Training

One of my favourite things to do when I am gardening, especially at other peoples’ properties, is to listen to podcasts while I am working. Normally I would prefer to listen to the sound of nature, but that’s not always possible when you are weeding in congested neighbourhoods or planting next to the street, or heaven forbid, have to drown out the irritating noise of someone else’s noisy lawnmower (yuck). So in urban settings, I like to set up a playlist on my phone of a few different episodes from different presenters and allow their voices to guide me through whatever gardening task is at hand that day.

Collecting seeds in the author’s garden

I don’t know about you, but I take every waking moment I can to learn something new. I am constantly on the search for more local-based podcasts that are focused on gardening but I have yet to come across many (if any) Ontario-based independent podcasts associated with gardening (wink-wink nudge-nudge to those reading who have a knack for radio: get on this please!) Sure there is CBC and the ever-familiar voice of Ed Lawrence during his half-hour call-in Q&A segments, or Mark Cullen’s informative, albeit short, bits of advice (last updated in 2017), but that’s not the same as listening to an hour long interview solely dedicated to one topic.

Just for fun, I am going to list and associate some of my favourite podcasts with some of my favourite symbolic plants that produce interesting seed pods, especially those in which you can collect and cast around your garden, scattering and planting seeds like tidbits of knowledge one has learned from the voices heard through the headphones. Being a seed saver and sower is just as important as educating oneself about the future we have at stake, so grab your phone and earbuds and check out one (or all) of the following podcasts next time you are puttering about in the garden.  

Sea Holly, Eryngium spp.

Eryngium spp. (Sea holly): In Defense of Plants

Matt Candeias is hands down one of my favourite podcast hosts. The guy is a natural-born interviewer and just knows how to ask the right questions to his guests, whether they are scientists, activists, or the average plant obsessed person like you and I. Similar to the loyal and well-structured Sea Holly plant that symbolizes admiration, each episode of Candeias’ show can be something to admire because he makes sure to cover a new topic every week, discussing everything from carnivorous plants to paleobotany to ecological restoration.

https://www.indefenseofplants.com/podcast

Alcea rosea (Hollyhock): Cultivating Place

Jennifer Jewell’s weekly show focuses on the “conversations on natural history and the human impulse to gardening”. She takes the listener around the globe as she interviews various academics and gardeners about the impacts plants have had on humanity, and how they shape our collective global identity. Just like the hollyhock plant, every Cultivating Place episode is ambitious and to the point, acting as little capsules into different topics and periods of time.

https://www.cultivatingplace.com/

Papaver spp. (Poppy): Gardens, Weeds and Words

Let’s face it: the Brits not only know how to garden, but they know how to make the best gardening-related podcasts. Maybe it’s his calming accent, or maybe it’s his fantastic interviewing skills, but host Andrew Timothy O’Brien really does have a knack for creating a fantastic episode to listen to, even if they only come out once a month. Like the well-structured seedpods of the whimsical poppy plants, every episode brings me a feeling of peace, remembrance and pleasure, while also introducing me to a new guest that I can relate to in some way.

http://www.gardensweedsandwords.com/podcast

Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed): The Native Plant Podcast

An informative American-based podcast that has that traditional talk radio sound and feel to it with a Virginian twang. Like the dignified milkweed plant, the majority of the episodes interview people about native plants found in North America, as well as insects (friend and foe), green infrastructure, dendrology, and wild edibles. As much as I have enjoyed the information I have learned from various episodes, I have to admit that the format is kind of dry. 

https://www.nativeplantpodcast.com/

Antirrhinum spp. (Snapdragon): The Organic Gardening Podcast

Another great UK-based podcast, hosts Chris Collins and Sarah Brown educate listeners every week about the most organic and sustainable gardening practices there are, from weed management, to mulches, to seed collecting, to rewilding. Just like the skull-looking seedpods of the beloved annual snapdragons, this podcast really hits the head on topics

Some other gardening-related podcasts that I recommend include:

-Talking Heads https://www.talkingheadspodcast.co.uk/ (UK)
-Down The Garden Path https://downthegardenpath.libsyn.com/ (Can)
-The Maritime Gardening Podcast https://maritimegardening.com/ (Can)
-The Daily Gardener https://thedailygardener.org/ (USA)
-The Grow Guide https://thegrowguide.libsyn.com/ (Can)
-Roots and All https://rootsandall.co.uk/thepodcast/ (UK)
-Urban Forestry Radio https://orchardpeople.com/podcasts/ (Can)

Which podcasts are your favourite? Or which seedpods are your favourite to collect (great list of images)? Are there any others you can suggest to fellow readers? Please leave a comment if you have something to share.

Casting Pods to Podcasts, Anica James.

Growing Vegetables

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

I am not a vegetable gardener but I love eating fresh vegetables so … I am a vegetable gardener.  I learned how not to grow vegetables from my wonderful Dad.  He liked to grow veggies in rows and hand weed those rows.  This meant that my sister and I were tasked with hand weeding  those never ending rows.  Despite Dad’s best efforts, this was not “fun”.

I first learned about growing vegetables in raised beds from a fellow Master Gardener.  Gardens that have few weeds, are up off the ground to help save my back and look neat and orderly and even kind of pretty … what more can you ask for?  And the best part, the plants are edible!  Since then we have installed several raised beds close  to our house for easy access to watering and harvesting.  They are made of 2” X 8’  untreated spruce lumber.  Some of my beds are 5 years old and the lumber is still going strong.  We staple chicken wire around the beds to keep out the rabbits.  The beds were filled with a combination of perlite, to minimize soil compaction, peat moss, to help retain water, and soil.  Note that peat moss is a non-renewable resource so I would rethink it’s use for the next time.  My composters are in the middle of the garden to make it easy to annually add the finished compost to the beds.  Soil needs to have organic matter replenished regularly in order to feed your plants.

We use straw in between the beds to keep the weeds down and to create clean walkways.  Hay tends to be full of weed seeds.  Shredded bark mulch is used to mulch the vegetables although straw would work for this as well. 

Grow what you eat but try something new each year too!

Beans – using an old ladder as a trellis. Author’s garden.

Some Basics

Most vegetables prefer full sun – 6-8 hours/day, regular water – 1” of moisture per week and heat.  The necessary nutrients are pulled in through water absorbed by the plant’s roots from the soil. 

Most years, we  grow cucumbers, squash, kale, beets, spinach, lettuce, garlic, parsnips, brussels sprouts and onions.  We are usually successful but not always.  New to us, this year, is turnips.  Sometimes nature throws out a challenge like an unexpected late frost or an insect pest which can quickly destroy or damage your crop.  Try to visit your garden each day to stay on top of problems and to harvest those ripe veggies. 

For more info on growing veggies in Ontario check here.  Also check the Peterborough & Area Master Gardeners resources page here for fact sheets on growing lots of different kinds of vegetables.

I am not a vegetable gardener but I have learned how to grow vegetables because I love to eat them.  Have fun and enjoy your vegetables!

Tomatoes – cages in raised bed with shredded bark mulch. Straw used in walkways.
Author’s garden.

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.

The Importance of Edging

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

When it comes to maintaining a healthy garden, one of the most important elements that you need to consider is landscape edging. Options for edging range from a simple trench to high-end paving stones, and everything in between.

Edging creates clean, crisp lines between beds and other areas. It helps to keep grass from creeping into surrounding garden areas. At the same time, it prevents soil or mulch in garden beds from spilling onto the lawn whenever you water or it rains. It protects your expensive plants from the lawnmower, and your tree trunks from the string trimmer. Landscape edging also controls gravel or mulch pathways; it maintains clearly defined walking areas while keeping the path materials in place.

For me, edging has the critical job of making sure that the grass knows what its limits are, and for the garden to know the same. Once grass makes its way into a garden, it’s “game over, garden”. The grass wins, every single time.

Trench edging around author’s blooming Eastern red bud tree (Cercis canadensis)

If you’re using permanent edging such as the items described below, it’s a one-time installation for years of service. If you’re using the temporary simple trench, it should be dug/redug several times per season in order to be effective: spring, summer and late fall. I personally use a very short, flat spade and a root knife (reverse curve blade) to do this task — cutting away minimal grass so as to ensure that the garden does not get incrementally bigger each year. Ensure that the mulch, when spread, comes up to the edge of the trench bottom but doesn’t fill it. You don’t want to have any materials at the edge that grasses can grow through because they will be persistent in trying to jump the barrier. For anyone with a Stihl string timmer, I also use a Stihl Bed Edge Redefiner each spring to loosen the soil and redefine the edge on my garden beds.

There are many attractive and more permanent edging choices, if digging is not your thing:

  • Stone materials including natural fieldstone can be used, and there are some great stone tile options on the market as well.
  • Repurposed bricks can create a classic look for your landscape.
  • Plastic is affordable and easy to install due to its flexibility. The least expensive edging does look inexpensive, so invest in the best you can afford. Use the longest spikes you can find to anchor this edging into the soil.
  • Metal: Similar to the plastic edging, you can purchase flexible aluminum edging strips. They look great but at present these are quite pricey.
  • Concrete: You can purchase preformed sections of concrete landscape edging that are ready to be set in place, or you can make a simple form and create a custom edge. The downside of using concrete is that it’s pretty permanent!
  • Wood: Usually more affordable than at present, this material is easy to work with in straight lines, and adds an informal, organic look. Count on wood edging to last about 10 years. Pressure treated wood barriers are not recommended for edging vegetable gardens, and old railway ties are not recommended at all due to the leakage of harmful creosote over time.
Trench edging around author’s front yard garden

Resources

Better Homes & Gardens: Using Landscape Edging

Stihl Bed Redefiner

Family Handyman: The Best Garden and Lawn Edging Ideas and Tips

The Intricate Nature of Trees

By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener in Training

I first became aware of Suzanne Simard and her forestry research through an online TED talk that I watched as part of an arboriculture course that I had taken. The talk was engaging, enlightening, and inspiring. In it she spoke about the interconnectedness of and the collaborative, communicative, and nurturing nature of different tree species and how networks of mycorrhizal fungi serve as connectors between them. These mycorrhizal fungi, located within a tree’s roots, enable the transfer of nutrients and help them to thrive.

When I saw a year later that she was to publish a book as a follow-up, I jumped at the chance to read it. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (Knopf, 2021) not only covers her scientific research but it is also part memoir in that the author weaves her own personal life story within the narrative. We hear how at an early age she had become in tune with and respectful of the forests, influenced by her grandfather, who had practiced logging in a sustainable manner. She would go on to work for logging companies as well as conduct research for the British Columbia Forest Service, trying to determine why certain conifer species grown for harvesting were not thriving and whether eliminating certain tree species would contribute to a more productive end result or be a hindrance.

Simard was skeptical that this long-standing “free to grow” policy was sound practice for the long-term survival of the forests. Her eventual research findings would conflict and effecting change would prove to be difficult and was met with resistance. The view that trees were in strict competition with each other and that best results would be derived though eliminating “unproductive” or “devalued” trees such as Alder and Birch from the plantations could no longer be supported. It would not be easy to convince policy writers to change course and see the more collaborative, symbiotic nature between the different species and the importance of mycorrhizae – that eliminating certain deciduous species actually made the conifers more vulnerable to Armillaria root disease or insect pests such as the Mountain Pine Beetle. Simard would also show that the sharing of resources extended not only between parent and offspring trees, but also between genetically unrelated trees.

Simard demonstrates the disadvantages of developing monoculture environments in the forestry industry but her research should also give much food for thought for those working in urban forestry, landscaping, agriculture, or even at the individual homeowner level. The common
practice of planting the same kinds of species or the isolated planting of an individual species should be reconsidered more widely. These practices lead to less ecological diversity and may reduce the potential for a planted tree’s optimum growth. Perhaps we should consider planting certain species of trees together or in close proximity in order to foster the underground mycorrhizal networks that help strengthen and support them. Perhaps for planting consideration is an alder and a pine or a fir and a birch combination?

Reading this book will change the way you think about trees and you will want to continue to follow Simard’s research. Learn more about the Mother Tree Project.

Pruning Tips for Spring Flowering Shrubs

By Lois Scott, Master Gardener

Spring finally arrived and is now quickly passing, as are the blossoms on spring blooming shrubs such as Forsythia, Lilac and Bridlewreath Spiraea.  Once these shrubs are finished blooming, we can ensure that next year’s blossoms will be abundant by pruning them effectively.

These shrubs flower best on the wood that grew the previous summer and they benefit from some yearly pruning done right after blooming and before new growth begins. The general idea is to prune out some of the oldest wood each year so that your shrub is renewed over time and does not become overgrown and underperforming.  Along with the following tips you should always prune any material that is dead, diseased or dying when you find it.

Lee Reich, the author of “The Pruning Book” recommends the following pruning process.

  • Cut to within 1 ft (or less) of the ground some of the oldest stems.
  • To keep your clump to a desired size, selectively cut some of the oldest stems from around the edge of your clump.
  • If desired shorten some of the remaining older stems.  This will keep your shrub short enough that blossoms will be more accessible.
  • If you have just planted a new shrub this spring, the recommendation is not to do any pruning while plants are young.  Just mulch, water and weed your shrub, pruning only material that is dead, diseased or damaged.  Pruning stimulates growth and for a young shrub it is important for the energy to go towards root growth.
  • Use loppers and hand pruners rather than hedge trimmers.

I agree with Lee when he says “it’s best to use your pruning tools to coax a bush along in the direction of its natural inclinations” rather than trying to contain naturally arching shrubs into ‘balls’.  Planting shrubs in locations where they have room to grow into their natural shape is preferable to me, however pruning can be a creative pursuit so each to their own!

Resources

It is Time to Prune Lilac, Forsythia and Other Early Spring Flowering Shrubs

Penn State Extension: A Prime Time to Prune!

Keeping This Gardener Humble

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener in Training

Gardeners learn as much from their setbacks as from their successes. By now, I should have a prepared cutting garden partially planted with frost hardy annuals.  These are plants that prefer cooler growing conditions and can withstand a light frost allowing them to be planted early in the season. The group includes snapdragons, bachelor buttons, foxglove, scabiosa and sweet peas. However, instead of plants on their way to producing beautiful blooms, I have a 40 foot trench in my lawn.

The only cut flowers from this gardener so far

This garden was an end-of-year decision which meant a spring bed preparation, something I rarely do as the weather is not reliable and soil can be too wet to work. Working wet soil destroys the soil structure and porosity as well as wreaking havoc on soil microbial populations. 

Progress so far

Not to be deterred, I had the sod removed both to see what I had to deal with (this part of the yard had not been turned since 1964, if then!) and to allow the area to dry more readily when the sun returns. When the soil does become workable, I intend to use a modified version of the “no till” method popularized by Charles Dowding to create the bed. A fork (or broadfork) will be inserted into the bed at close intervals and gently pried up. This will permit some aeration, rock removal and opportunities for soil amendment (compost).  The amendments will be folded into the topsoil and the bed topped off with approximately 4 inches of compost.  The portion of the bed slated for the hardy annuals may be planted while the remainder can continue to warm until it is time to plant the warm season varieties such as zinnia and dahlia.  Lastly, a thin layer (1”) of shredded cedar mulch will protect the bed from incoming weed seed as well as help to keep the soil cool and retain moisture in the heat of the summer.

Hardening off in the morning sun

Ever hopeful, I have started to harden off plants. This is a gradual process over about a week that exposes tender plants to the outdoors and results in a thickening of the cuticle on the leaves. A thicker cuticle allows plants to retain moisture when exposed to the elements and helps to prevent transplant shock.  As my seedlings are grown “cold and slow” indoors (at 55 degrees), they seem to hardened off more readily.

T posts will be placed every 8 feet along both sides of the garden and will be used to suspend the flower netting horizontally. The netting is a 6 inch square grid in plastic that will be positioned tautly about 18 inches above the ground keeping long stemmed flowers erect and preventing them from being blown over by wind and rain.  Heavy, tall, floriferous plants will require a second layer of netting about 12 inches above the first.

The ranunculus will be planted using 6 inch spacings and Chantilly snapdragons will have 9 inch spacings.  The delay in planting will mean limited or no bloom as these plants go dormant with the summer heat.  However, the ranunculus corms can be dried and saved for next year and there are 2 other varieties of snapdragons started that tolerate the heat of summer.

The supplies are waiting

Once in the ground, plants will be hooped with temporary PVC hoops so that frost cloth can be used at night in case of frost or wind and to protect the young plants from deer and rabbits.

A wise gardener remembers that Mother Nature always bats last.

“it’s never too late to start anything, except maybe being a ballerina” Wendy Liebman

References

Cool Flowers, Lisa Mason Ziegler, St. Lyons Press, 2014

https://charlesdowding.co.uk

https://antoniovalenteflowers.com/blogs/gardening/growing-ranunculus-anemones

https://extension.unh.edu/blog/using-row-covers-garden

Ode to the Clematophile!

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

I can not claim to be a clematophile (Clematis expert) but I do like Clematis!   Clematis are wonderful perennial flowering plants … many grow as vines, some are more like small shrubs, some are evergreen and some are herbaceous so die back to the ground each winter.  Their flowers come as bell-like or more star-like shapes with sepals that are single or double; some are scented.  And the colours!  They range from white or yellow to pink or red to purple or blue … pale to deep and some are even striped.  Some flowers grow as large as 25 cm (10in) across!  The beautiful clematis blooms are followed by eye-catching fuzzy seed heads.  There are lots of choices in the genus Clematis.

Clematis seed head

Clematis grow in zones ranging from 3-11.  If you are not sure which zone you are in, check here.   Choose a plant from a reputable dealer.  Look for those that have strong stems and are at least 2 years old so that their root structure is well developed.  Most Clematis prefer sun or part shade but like their roots kept cool so mulch or plant another perennial close by to shade the roots.  Plant your Clematis in moist but well drained soil with lots of well-rotted, organic matter (eg. finished compost) added.  Plant the ripened stem (brown, no longer green) about 16 cm (6 in) below the final soil level.  Clematis prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soil.  All new plants need to be watered regularly until they are established and during dry conditions.  Fertilize with an all purpose organic fertilizer monthly but stop when flower buds are ready to bloom in order to prolong bloom time.  You may start fertilizing again after flowering has ended but stop feeding in late summer early autumn.

Clematis on trellis

Pruning your Clematis for the best blooms may seem complicated.  The confusing part for me was that some references refer to groups 1,2,3 and others use group A, B, C  while others will use the species names.  What is important is knowing what you have and then you can determine how to prune.  Read your plant label for pruning directions or if you do not know which Clematis you have:

When does your Clematis flower?

  1. *flowers on old (previous year) wood in early to late spring, early summer.
    *does not need regular pruning – prune to remove damaged stems or to keep your plant tidy and growing within it’s allocated space.  Prune after the flowering period has ended.
  2. *flowers  early on old (previous year) wood and again in late summer on new current year’s growth. 
    *prune to remove damaged or weak stems and the early flower shoots (encourages the second period of flowering) immediately after the early flowering period.
  3. * flowers on current year’s growth in mid to late summer. 
    * prune back all of the previous year’s stems to the lowest pair of live buds in  early spring.
Clematis growing through shrub, author’s garden

Clematis may suffer from snails, slugs, aphids or mildew.  Clematis wilt is a fungal disease that may result in the sudden collapse of a previously healthy plant.  Cut back affected part of the plant, even right to the ground if necessary, if fungus wilt occurs.  I have to say that I have only ever experienced the odd slug-chewed clematis leaf in my garden just east of Peterborough.

Clematis will grow on a trellis and in a container, through the branches of another shrub or even up into trees.  It may be used as a ground cover and the shrub types look great in the perennial border.  Clematis flowers are lovely and will attract pollinators and provide them with pollen and nectar.

Read plant labels, talk to garden nursery staff  and other gardeners in your area and/or google to ensure that you purchase the clematis that is right for you.  We may not all become clematophiles but we can still have some of these wonderful plants in our gardens!

For more information check out:

Clearview Horticultural Products – Clematis and Vine Guide

International Clematis Society

Timber Press Pocket Guide to Clematis by Mary Toomey with Everett Leeds and Charles Chesshire, ISBN-13:978-0-88192-814-3

Clematis ‘Stand by Me’, bush type, author’s garden

Joys of Nature and Spring Garden Tasks

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

April 22nd was Earth Day.  It is a time for reflection on what we can do to help develop a new approach to conservation and it can all start in our own yard. As we experience what we all hope will be our last full shutdown, we need to remain optimistic in the growing interest in gardening with natives and the number of younger people who are learning to grow their own vegetables.  Douglas Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope, writes that as homeowners, we need to “turn our yards into conservation corridors that provide wildlife habitats”.

Spring is a time of renewal.  To help us get through the stressful days of this lockdown, a walk outdoors will help you experience the joys of nature and all it has to offer! 

I have created two lists.  The first is ‘Joys of Nature’ that you will encounter this time of year.  The second is ‘Garden Tasks’ to tackle over the next few weeks.

JOYS OF NATURE

Hepatica image compliments of Joan Harding, Peterborough MG
  • My garden makes me smile this time of year with all the blooming Daffodils (Narcissus), Hyacinths, Hellebores and even Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis). 
  • Local ponds are alive with the sounds of the spring peepers and the chorus frogs.  If you take a walk and come across a wetland, you will be amazed at the sound.
  • Many of the migrating birds and waterfowl have returned.  My feeders are being well used by the yellow finches, grackles, house finches and mourning doves.  If you enjoy the hummingbirds, don’t forget to get your feeders out now.  They will soon be back!
  • A walk through the woods will reveal the beauty of the spring ephemerals.  Ephemerals are short-lived spring flowers that take advantage of the sunshine before the trees get their leaves.  I have seen bloodroot, hepatica, coltsfoot and the beginnings of the trilliums and the dog-toothed violets.
  • If you are out digging in your garden, don’t be surprised if a robin will follow you around in the hopes you might throw him a much sought-after worm.  Robins are already nesting so the female is likely to be at the nest site.
  • Watch for early butterflies such as the Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Comma and the Spring Azure.
  • In early May, you should begin to see the white blossoms of serviceberries and the beginnings of the lilacs and the cherry blossoms.

Get outdoors, take a deep breath and walk slowly through a local park or wooded area and enjoy many of the items mentioned above.  Do it now before the return of the blackflies and mosquitoes!!

If you are interested in a sample of simple nature events in the Kawarthas, Drew Monkman, a retired teacher and well known environmentalist and advocate for climate control, has written this monthly almanac: https://www.drewmonkman.com/sample-page/monthly-almanacs/

SPRING GARDEN TASKS

Author’s Spring Garden… Hyacinths, Bloodroot and Daffodils
  • Only rake your lawn if walking on it leaves NO footprint.  The time to overseed your lawn is generally when the lilacs are in bloom.
  • Now is the time to top dress a generous amount of compost and other organic material into your garden beds.  Let the earthworms do the work.  I do not suggest that you rototill your garden as this disturbs the beneficial life in the soil.  Bacteria, mycorrhiza and insects are damaged, sometimes beyond repair, with rototilling.
  • Prune overgrown vines and shrubs such as some hydrangea and some of the clematis; basically all the shrubs and vines that do not bloom in spring.  Do not prune lilacs as they bloom on last year’s growth.
  • Gradually remove protection on rose bushes and prune down to a swollen bud.  Remove dead, diseased and crossing branches.
  • If you haven’t already, now is the time to sow frost tolerant veggies such as peas, carrots, spinach, lettuce, beets, kale and radishes directly into the garden.
  • Divide and transplant perennials as growth resumes.
  • Now is a good time to think about planting shrubs and trees.  Maybe you would like to replace an old shrub with something native, such as Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), Eastern snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) or Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
  • Be sure to have your rain barrels set-up and ready to collect that wonderful spring rain.
  • Keep your bird baths filled and cleaned.
  • If you have been growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and annual flowers indoors, early May is the time to begin to harden off those young seedlings.
  • The soil is still quite soft, so now is a good time to edge your garden beds as well as start to pull all those weeds that seem to survive no matter what the weather.

    Get out in your gardens, enjoy the warmer temperatures and don’t forget to get your knees dirty!

Let Us Praise Famous Oaks

By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener in Training

Ed: This post was released in error on March 22. Apologies if you’ve already read it — perhaps you can glean something from it upon second reading as well?

Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) in Centennial Park, Peterborough, ON.

There are a pair of Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) trees in a park near my house in Peterborough and I often look at them in awe. I estimate that these trees are between 100 and 150 years old. What is amazing is that they could live another 150 years. If they receive enough sunlight and moisture and their roots are undisturbed, this lifespan is possible. Sadly, most trees planted in cities are not long-lived due to stresses like heat, drought, road salt, compacted soil and interference by sewer or other utility lines. For these reasons, backyards tend to be the better locations for trees in urban environments. If you are planning to plant a tree on your property this year, Douglas W. Tallamy’s latest book, The Nature of Oaks: the Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees, published by Timber Press, will make you seriously consider an oak tree.

Tallamy, an entomologist who researches the relationships between insects and plants, is well known for his other books that seek to change the way we garden by encouraging us to incorporate more native plants. His latest book honours the oak tree and provides a month-to-month chronicle of the life of one on his property.  While small at 200 pages, the book has many interesting and informative anecdotes about the types of insects, birds, mammals, fungi, and micro-organisms that live in, on, and around these trees. Tallamy aims to instill in us an interest in these great trees and to recognize their important role within the food web.

What makes oak trees so special? In addition to moderating the climate, reducing pollution, producing oxygen, and storing carbon from the atmosphere, they have an enormous impact on the lives of other species. Within our ecosystem, oaks support more life than any other North American tree genus (p. 12) and they are considered a “keystone species.” A “keystone species” is one that produces food that supports a broad range of life forms. Over the course of its lifetime, an oak can produce over 3,000,000 acorns. Other trees such as birch, cherry, hickory, pine, maple, and willow are also “keystone” species (p. 39) but they are not as supportive as oaks. In his research, Tallamy measured the degree of this support by counting the number of moth and butterfly species that live, feed, and reproduce on different trees. The Lepidoptera Index places oaks at the top of the list at 532 species of moths and butterflies. One of the reasons as to why they support so many species is because they grow in a wide range of ecological zones (p. 41). Most species near the bottom of the list are non-native trees and shrubs. Most of our native insects and animals have not fully adapted or evolved to non-native plants or are only adapted to a small number of plants—referred to as host plant specialization (p. 37). Certain birds, like the black-capped chickadee need between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of young. Filling bird feeders with seed can be beneficial for them, but planting trees are necessary as up to 50% of their diet consists of insects (p. 34).

There are a number of unique and fascinating attributes of oaks that are explored in the book. Masting is a survival adaptation that occurs periodically in oaks where they produce many acorns. Since animals cannot eat them all, this allows more trees to grow (p. 18). Masting occurs on different cycles for both white and red oaks and this ensures food is consistently available for animals (p. 120). Many oaks retain their dead leaves through the fall and winter. Marcescence is thought to be a defence mechanism that deters animals from eating the tender buds (pp. 27-28).  Concerning acorn production, as an oak tree has both male and female flowers, a few can self-pollinate and grow acorns. However, for optimum production, an oak tree must be planted with another of its own species or be in close proximity to another of its own species for pollination (by wind) to occur (from either the “red oak” or the “white oak” group).

Marcescent Quercus rubra (northern red oak) along Heritage Trail, Peterborough, ON

Tallamy also provides us with some tree planting advice and seeks to dispel some of the myths around planting oaks. His first choice would be for us to plant an acorn in the fall but the next best choice would be to plant a bareroot whip in the spring. A bareroot whip is a pruned dormant tree that is only a few feet tall. It should be planted in the spring so it can break its dormancy naturally. Overall, he recommends purchasing the youngest tree available because it will have a better chance of survival than a larger tree. Larger trees often have damaged roots at planting and have a 50% chance of dying in the first few years after transplant. (p. 47)

While some oak species grow to great heights and widths, they do grow relatively slowly, and most people will not live to see their tree at its peak. Some may be concerned about its root system, but they extend deeply into the ground and tend not to interfere with driveways or sidewalks like some other species. Tallamy recommends planting two or three trees spaced 10 feet apart—in a grove. This may seem too close, but it is true to their nature in the wild. The trees’ roots will also bind together and the resulting strength of them will be able to withstand extreme weather and lessen the chances of damaging property.

For those with smaller lots, it may not be practical to plant more than one oak, let alone a larger species like Quercus alba (white oak) or Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak). There are several smaller oak species that may suit. Of these, two are native to the Carolinian zone of Southwestern Ontario: Quercus prinoides (dwarf chinquapin oak) and Quercus ilicifolia (bear oak) and one from the US Northeast: Quercus marilandica (blackJack oak). While the soils of the Carolinian zone are drier and sandier, these trees can be adaptable to other soil conditions. Nutcracker Nursery in Maskinonge, Quebec specializes in growing these hard-to-find oaks and they ship bareroot stock. The stock is grown in cooler zone 4B and in clay-loam soils. Peterborough GreenUp advises that while it is preferable that trees be selected from within their native eco-zone, climate change is making it more possible for us to consider some species from outside. Selecting a site that is shielded from winter winds is recommended.

Since an oak is a shade tree, there may be concerns about what can be grown beneath them but there are many plants that are suitable for the understory. Tallamy makes recommendations that are more suited to US states but I will suggest some possible plants suited to our area: Asarum canadense (wild ginger), Polygonatum biflorum (smooth solomon’s seal), Aquilegia canadensis (eastern red columbine), Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey tea), and Amelanchier alnifolia (Saskatoon serviceberry), just to name a few.

This little book is not only fascinating to read, it is inspiring. When the declining non-native Acer platanoides (Norway maple) is eventually removed from my yard, I am going to see about replacing it with a native oak “keystone species.”

Other Resources

Nutcracker Nursery and Tree Farm

Peterborough GreenUp. Choosing the Right Tree in Peterborough, Ontario

Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Lepidoptera Index, June 2017

Tree Atlas of Ontario