PlantWatch

by Cauleen Viscoff

(previously published in the Peterborough Examiner)

Now that the weather is softening, and we are convinced that spring really is around the corner, there are reasons to herald its arrival other than with Easter eggs, birdsongs and flowers to pick.

There is a little-known group of folks around the world who are quietly making a difference. They are monitoring birds, insects, frogs and plants. Recording the blossom times of some plants are good indicators of climate change. We all know that our climate is making some subtle as well as some not-so-subtle changes – some better and some not so much. So what does watching plants have to do with climate change?

Plant-watching has a long tradition and a rich history throughout the world. In 1750, the Swedish scientist and artist Linnaeus, turned plant-watching into a systematic science. He made calendars of flowering times for 18 places in Sweden, noting the exact climatic conditions at the time of blooming.

This became the foundation of modern plant phenology (the science dealing with the influence of climate on the recurrence of such annual phenomena of animal and plant life as budding and bird migrations- Dictionary.com). Phenology then spread to many European countries and revealed, over the centuries, that some spring wildflowers are super-sensitive weather instruments.

More than 100 years ago in Canada, Nova Scotia’s superintendent of education, Dr. Alexander H. MacKay, had students collect plant, animal, agricultural and weather phenology from 1897 to 1923. And then, in 1987, the Alberta Wildflower Survey started up and blossomed (pun intended) into a program that initiated the Alberta PlantWatch. This program then spread back to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and now today, PlantWatch is part of our national Nature Watch series of volunteer monitoring programs designed to help identify ecological changes that may be affecting our environment.

There are PlantWatch programs in each province and territory.

PlantWatch enables “citizen scientists” (volunteers gathering research for scientists) to get involved by recording the flowering times for certain selected plant species and reporting these dates to researchers on the PlantWatch website. When the data is submitted electronically, it is instantly added to web maps showing bloom dates all across Canada … So those observations make a difference right away!

The collection of that much data across the vast expanse of our country would be impossible for the small existing group of scientists presently working in this field.

As Canadians, we are fortunate to live in a country with such a wide variety of plant species. By participating in PlantWatch, we can learn about our country’s great botanical diversity and at the same time, help scientists track the effects of global warming and climate change in Canada.

The plants chosen for this program bloom every spring, largely in response to rising temperatures. However, some species are flowering almost a month earlier than they were a century ago!. Some of these plants you are familiar with and grow in your own yards and gardens. Poplar, Common Purple Lilac, Dandelion (bet you have lots of those..), Red Maple and Trillium are just a few.

Scientists believe that climate change is affecting bloom times – a trend that is continuing. They predict that the greatest increases in temperature will be in Western and Northern Canada, while some parts of Eastern Canada may actually be cooling (although last summer was hotter than ever).

By reporting on the PlantWatch species found in our local communities, we can help researchers discover how common plants are responding to climate change, and track where those changes are taking place in Canada and at what rate.

And now, for the first time in Canada, the PlantWatch program has partnered with the Master Gardeners of Ontario. We are excited about our potential contributions to science because we believe that observing local plants can be fun, but more importantly, the data we collect can serve a greater purpose by assisting scientists, land managers and those responsible for our natural resources to help in the environmental decisions they will need to make both now and in the future.

We urge you to join us in making a difference. You don’t have to be a professional, or even a gardener.

Take a look at the website; the plants are described in detail with glorious photos. Gather up your your children, grandchildren, friends and neighbours – sign up, get outside and watch spring happen – make your observations and”¦.make a difference.

Peterborough gardener Cauleen Viscoff, PlantWatch co-ordinator, Master Gardeners of Ontario Inc., can be reached at plantwatchontario@gmail.com. For more information, visit www.naturewatch.ca

Making a New Flower Bed – the Easier Way

 

by Dianne Westlake, Master Gardener


Perhaps the easiest way to make a new flowerbed involves no digging or turf removal. In addition to using less physical effort, this method provides a healthy environment for growing beautiful plants. The soil is fertile with the added bonus of improved drainage.

Lay out the perimeter of the new bed using a garden hose. Water the area well or wait until Mother Nature provides the necessary moisture. The next step provides a biodegradable barrier for weeds and grass using a layer of newspaper (6 to 10 sheets thick.) Do not use the shiny coloured advertising flyers for this purpose. (This is a good way to use some of those newspapers that you are setting out in the recycling bin each week.) To keep the paper from blowing around while you work, sprayed with water or anchored with soil. Uncoated corrugated cardboard can be used instead. This material works as well and does not blow around as easily.

Next add a layer of topsoil or triple mix to a depth of four to six inches followed by a layer of compost (three to four inches). The compost layer suppresses the weed seeds that can be present in the soil layer. While compost does a good job, other organic mulches should work as well. What is needed is a weed-free source of organic material. Cost and availability are important concerns. Compost in the quantity required for this type of project, is available through the City of Peterborough, Waste Management Department. Delivery can be arranged within the city or the county. Smaller quantities are available at the Ecology Park.

Water well and allow the layers to settle for a few weeks if possible. However, if need be, the beds can be planted immediately. Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root ball, back fill, firm the soil, water and replace the compost layer. Monitor the amount of settling regularly to ensure that the root ball does not become exposed. Add a top dressing of compost if necessary. Water the new plantings regularly until the planting is established. The layer of newspaper or cardboard and the grass or weeds will rot within a few months, adding to the friability and fertility of the soil.

If you have the luxury of time, leaves (or manure) can be layered with soil on the newspaper or cardboard in the fall and allowed to decompose over the winter. Keep in mind that excess amounts of decomposing fresh organic material may deplete the nitrogen in the garden. In the spring, plant the bed and spread mulch over the surface.

Following this method will result is a raised bed that will warm earlier in spring and provide excellent drainage. An annual top dressing with compost feeds the soil and prevents germination of seeds of both self-seeding flowers and weeds. Earthworms will take the organic plant material down in the bed where the roots can make use of the nutrients.

Previously published in the Peterborough Examiner.

Managing Garden Soils — The Dirt on Dirt


By Gary Westlake, Master Gardener


Most of us don’t think much about our garden soil, perhaps because it’s beneath us. The truth is that it is the most important aspect of gardening to manage. The soil allows water, air, and nutrients to get to the roots, and provides space for your plants to grow. Without good soil your garden just won’t amount to much.

Anyone can have decent garden soil with a little work and even the beautiful loam soil that most gardeners wish for can deteriorate if neglected. Gardeners with challenging soil types may have to work a bit more but they too can have productive soils.

Sandy soils feel gritty when you rub them in your hands. They are difficult because they do not hold moisture or nutrients well. If your soil feels smooth, it probably has a lot of silt and if your soil feels sticky when wet, it probably has a high percentage of clay. Clay does not allow moisture to pass easily and has very small air spaces. When gardeners try to amend clay soils by adding sand, it often results in disaster. It would take tons of sand to make a difference even in a small lot and if only a small amount of sand is added to clay, it can form concrete making the situation worse.

Fortunately, all soils can be improved by the addition of organic matter but you need to understand what organic matter does for the soil in order to do it well. Good garden soil is not just made up of small particles of sand, silt and clay. It is alive with bacteria, fungi, and a host of other creatures. These inhabitants are busy breaking down dead plant material and this process causes the soil particles to clump together in small aggregates. Sandy soil with this granular structure, full of organic matter, will hold moisture better and a clay soil with this living structure will drain better. With the addition of organic matter, all soils will resist compaction and erosion better, they are easier to work and warm up sooner in the spring. So the first thing to remember is that the soil improvement is caused by the biological process rather than the organic matter itself.

Some of the largest of the inhabitants of the soil are earthworms. Earthworms can eat their own weight in dirt each day, and collectively they can move around and improve 20 tons in every acre each year. They do, however, have a dark side because they are not native to North America. In our forests, they break down the dead plants too fast, making it hard for our native plants to survive, so be careful not to dump garden soil in the forest.

One of the most common tiny creatures in soils are mites. A square foot of soil can contain 100 different species of mites, all specialized in feeding on a different aspect of the breakdown process. Fungi are even more common. We normally think of fungi as mushrooms but that is only the fruiting body. Most of the fungus is made up of long thin filaments in the soil that feed on living and dead plants. In fact, some called micorrhyza are essential because they extend the root system of plants and provide them with nutrients directly through this close partnership. Also in huge numbers are bacteria. The characteristic smell that you get when you dig into the ground in the spring is caused by a group of bacteria called Actinomycetes.

There are two kinds of gardeners – ones that water too much and ones that water too little. I confess to being the kind that waters too little. The downside to this is that our plants grow slowly and the roots tend to stay where the water is. Nutrients have trouble getting to the roots because there is no water to carry them. The gardeners that water too much tend to set their plants up for drought. Also too much watering can fill the air spaces in the soil and suffocate your plants.

Garden soil contains huge numbers of weed seeds. Most weeds are successful because they produce many seeds and these seeds are very long-lived in your garden. For example, the common Lamb’s Quarters produce 70,000 seeds for each plant. When you factor in to this the fact that each seed can survive in the soil for up to 40 years, the numbers of seeds-in-waiting can be staggering. Most weed seeds germinate in response to clues that they have been brought to the surface, such as increased light. So one of the challenges a gardener faces is how to keep these seeds from germinating. Two of the best ways are to avoid deep tillage as much as feasible and to cover the surface with weed-free compost each year. Another way, which is often used in the lawn, is to apply Corn Meal Gluten that kills the weed plant as it germinates by affecting its first tiny roots.

There are some types of organic matter that are not good to add directly to your garden. If the organic matter contains too much carbon in relation to the nitrogen, it will rob the soil of its nitrogen as it breaks down giving your plants a hard time. Sawdust, for example which can contain 700 times more carbon than nitrogen can bring growth to a standstill especially if it is dug in. It needs to be composted first. For the same reason, although bark mulch can do many things for you including improving moisture retention, it should never be mixed into the top layer of soil.

 

2017 Perennial of the Year: Asclepias tuberosa

by Anne Milne

The Perennial of the year for 2017 is the Asclepias tuberosa, or as most of us know it, Butterfly Weed.

Butterfly weed is a hardy perennial that grows from 1/3 meter up to 1 meter (12 to 36 inches). It is a relative of milkweed, and is non-invasive. Butterfly weed is native to eastern North America. Its hardiness zones are 3 to 9.

Butterfly weed grows in clumps and produces orange or yellow clusters at the top of its stems. Blooms last from early summer to early fall. Keep the plant dead-headed to encourage reblooming. This plant likes full sun, and medium, well-drained fertile soils. It is drought tolerant, thus it does not like to be overwatered or overfertilized. It is also resistant to deer!

Butterfly weed attracts butterflies, and is also very attractive to humming birds, bees, ladybugs, and other beneficial insects. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the plant and the larva feed on its leaves. Monarchs also depend on its nectar as a food source.

Asclepias tuberosa can be grown from seed. Plant seeds in spring, after frost. Plants from seeds will likely not bloom for 2 or 3 years. Butterfly weed plants are also available at most reliable nurseries. Aesclepias tuberosa will also reseed itself. The seed pods will burst and float around your garden to start new plants.

Butterfly weed has few problems, but may have aphids or mealybugs. Because this plant is so vital to our Monarchy butterfly, rather than using pesticides, use your hose to spray and dislodge the pests from the plant.

Grow this plant in bunches, along with butterfly bush, bee balm and cone flowers, and you will make an outstanding display.

Peterborough, ON, Canada