Winter Favourites

By Lois Scott, Master Gardener

As I begin to hunker down for winter, the garden outside my windows still gives me pleasure.  Some plants are blackened and not particularly attractive but grasses continue to look beautiful throughout the winter months. 

Two of my favourite grasses for winter are Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).  These are both native grasses that are not only beautiful but well behaved in my garden.  Little Bluestem is a great choice for a dry, sunny spot or even a rain garden that may flood and then dry out.  It can grow up to 4 feet high and 2 feet wide. Switchgrass is a taller grass that grows to 6 feet with a 3-foot spread.  It prefers soil that is medium to wet and is also a great choice for rain gardens. 

Bluestem in author’s garden

Both these grasses are host plants for many species of butterflies.  They also provide seeds and nesting materials for birds and shelter for small mammals.

Switchgrass in author’s garden

Little Bluestem and Switchgrass are “warm season” grasses which means that unlike “cool season” grasses they don’t go dormant in the heat of summer.  Warm season grasses thrive in the heat.  They start growing later in springtime and flower later in the summer. 

This brings me to why I love them in winter.  They hold up their beautiful seed heads that look stunning when frosty, they create movement in the garden, provide colour all winter long and they help make my garden a winter refuge.

Resource:

https://www.inournature.ca/native-grasses-for-ontario-gardens

The Plastic Dilemma

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Resources

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

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

https://www.bootstrapfarmer.com/

Mushrooms in the Wild

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Go for a hike in the woods in November, and you’ll see plants you’ve probably never seen before. With the wetness of fall comes an entire forest of miniature fungus elements of many different shapes, sizes and colours. Some can be eaten, others don’t taste very good, some will make you sick and a small number of them will kill you. In general, the types of trees in the forest will determine what fungus and hence what mushrooms will grow there.

Mushrooms are the fleshy, spore-bearing fruit of various fungi. They are generally short-lived. They can emerge from the ground, expand, produce spores, and die back in a matter of a few days. Some are as big as dinner plates and some as small as pinheads.

This fall, myself and two active friends have been going hiking in different parks, conservation areas and public wild spaces in our area. Whenever we see a new mushroom, we generally stop and take a closer look and we’re often amazed at what we find. In additional to the white, brown and sometimes orange mushrooms, we also find different mosses and lichens. We often taunt each other to try to eat the different mushrooms, but just in jest — recognizing the danger of improper identification.

Mushrooms play an important role in our ecosystem. They are capable of decomposing pretty much any material (plant or animal) in the woods and breaking it down into the primary components of forest soil; providing nutrients that feed the plants growing in it. Many animals rely on mushrooms for food, especially squirrels and other rodents. Slugs also dine on mushrooms, and certain types of flies spend their whole lives on, and in, mushrooms.

Mushrooms develop from a mycelium; a mass of threadlike structures that make up the main part of the fungus. It is usually embedded in soil or wood. These mycelia often form connections, called mycorrhizae, with the roots of coniferous trees and other plants. Unlike plants, mushrooms cannot synthesize their own food from the sun’s energy. They lack chlorophyll – the substance which permits plants to use sunlight to form food. Mycorrhizae assist the plants around mushrooms in absorbing water and nutrients, and in turn, the fungi receives some of the carbohydrates the plant produces through photosynthesis — it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Most interesting to me are the mushrooms that grow in rings. Recently, while hiking the “UpTown” trail in HaroldTown Conservation Area east of Peterborough, we spotted several large rings of mushrooms and wondered how and why they were growing like that. Turns out that when a mushroom spore lands in a suitable location, the underground roots grow out evenly in all directions. As the fungus grows and ages, the oldest parts in the center of the pile die, creating a circle. When the fungus roots produce its mushrooms, they appear above-ground in a ring. The ring continues to grow outwardly, eating up all of the nutrients in its path, and leaving behind nutrient-rich soil.

There are edible mushrooms in our forests like chanterelles, morels, and porcini mushrooms. Also to be found from the fungi family are edible puff balls. Foraging is prohibited in Ontario’s provincial parks without proper authorization and also in conservation reserves, unless the forager is harvesting for personal consumption. In Toronto, foraging for any purpose is illegal in city parks and natural spaces. The Ontario Poison Centre views foraging as an “extremely dangerous” hobby because the difference between safe and toxic mushrooms can be microscopic.

Warning: Never consume a wild mushroom unless you are certain of its identity and edibility. Do not attempt to identify a mushroom from comparing photographs alone. Check out all the characteristics and if in any doubt, do not eat them.

Foraging aside, my suggestion after my experiences this fall is to get out and hike in the forest before the snow falls because there are still thousands of mushroom creatures along the forest floor in different shapes, sizes and colors. It’s a whole new garden in the fall once most of the green has disappeared. Take a camera along with you!

Resources:

https://www.tvo.org/article/where-the-wild-things-are-foraging-in-ontario

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/wild-mushrooms-in-canada

Grow Lights

By Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

It’s getting close to that time of year when our thoughts turn to gardening and starting seeds. The seed catalogues come in the mail in the new year, the Master Gardeners have their Day for Gardeners (pre-covid, this was usually held in late February), and then there’s Seedy Sunday (usually held in mid-March, and still possible for 2022).

Starting seeds in your sunniest south-facing window is your best bet if you don’t have grow lights. When grow lights are used properly, you will have more compact, healthier seedlings to put out in your garden. And grow lights can be used year round to grow veggies indoors. They can be used for houseplants as well.

grow-lights-2683982_960_720

There are lots of different options for choosing grow lights from plant stands with fluorescent or LED lights suspended over your seed flats, to incandescent light bulbs that fit into a standard lamp. There are pros and cons to each type of light. For example, incandescent lights are cheapest, but the most expensive to operate. There is a lot to take into consideration when choosing and selecting the grow lights that will work best for you and the plants you want to grow. I’ve done a little research and found Lamps Plus and Modern Farmer have some good information to help you select and use your lights efficiently.

Resources:

Check out these sites for all you need to know to get started using these amazing lights.

Not Your Everyday Goldenrod

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

I was recently at a market where a local garden group was selling some plants including many native plants. I noticed a striking goldenrod. I remarked to one of the vendors that it still seems odd to me to see goldenrod for sale when it is so common in rural Ontario. The vendor rightly chastised me because this goldenrod was not your very common goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), it was Gray Goldenrod (S. nemoralis) . The vendor went on to describe some of the positive attributes of this plant. I have to say that the bright yellow, fluffy flowers were beautiful!

This market interaction set me thinking more about the native varieties of goldenrod, or Solidago, species. There are over 100 species of this perennial native with over 25 being found in Ontario. This plant often gets bad press as being a plant whose pollen causes allergies but the likely culprit is ragweed (Ambrosia species). Ragweed and goldenrod bloom at the same time and are often found growing in the same areas. Goldenrod’s lovely yellow flowers (note that there are a couple of Ontario species with white flowers) are attractive to bees and butterflies. They serve as a good source of nectar in the fall and their heavy pollen grains attach easily to the bodies of pollinators. Ragweed flowers are green, do not produce nectar and produce large amounts of light pollen that easily becomes airborne … hence your sneezing and your itchy eyes.

Solidago canadensis, author’s garden

Goldenrod is an easy keeper in the garden. It can grow in a variety of soils, many prefer sun but some grow well in part shade or shade and most prefer average moisture but some can grow well in very moist soil. Goldenrod spreads via seed and through rhizomes (horizontal underground stems). Some species (Tall goldenrod (S. altissima), Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis), and Giant goldenrod (S. gigantea) can quickly take over a small garden. These may be grown in a pot , in a bordered area or in that hot dry area of the garden where not many other plants will grow. This will help to keep them in check.

Goldenrod can be quite a tall plant and is very pretty in drifts in the garden, as a background plant or even as a focal point. I started a woodland garden this year and planted a zigzag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis) which grows in full shade. Goldenrod is great for adding colour to the fall garden and when grown alongside beautiful purple asters (for example, New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), the display is stunning!

Goldenrod has many positive attributes from its beautiful, bright yellow flowers and its tall upright growth habit to the many species that will grow in a variety of conditions including that hot, dry spot in your garden.

Goldenrod may be purchased at most native plant nurseries or grown from seed. For more information on the different species of goldenrod, please check here. For more information on growing golden rod, please check here.

Verbena bonariensis

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

Verbena bonariensis Courtesy of pixabay.com

I was very intrigued by the plant known as Verbena bonariensis.  This particular Verbena is often shown growing in gardens on the British show Gardener’s World.

I managed to find seeds this spring from William Dam Seeds Ltd.  The package instructed me to start seeds 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost, however, due to a huge demand for seeds the past few years, my package arrived quite late and I was unable to start the seeds until well into April.  At the best of times, Verbena can be an erratic germinator and I was only successful getting one seed to germinate.  However, this one plant was a huge success and I will definitely be trying again next year, although I may be lucky to find some seedlings in my garden.

This plant is one of about 250 species in the genus Verbena. Most are not in cultivation.  It is native to Brazil and Argentina.  Bonariensis means ‘from Buenos Aires, Argentina’.  ‘Buenos’ means ‘good’ and ‘aires’ means ‘air’. It is a perennial in zones 7 to 11, therefore, is grown as an annual in the Peterborough region.  In some milder climates such as California, it can be considered a weed. Verbena bonariensis, also known as Tall Verbena or Brazilian Verbena has stiff upright branching stems.  It reaches a height of 3 to 6 feet and spreads 1 to 3 feet and is unlikely to fall over.  The stiff square and rough stems hold clusters of lilac-purple flowers from early summer right through to late fall.  The deep green, lance-shaped serrated leaves form a mounded rosette at the base of the plant.  The flowers are borne in rounded clusters 2 to 3 inches across.  The cut flowers last a long time in flower arrangements.  England’s Royal Horticultural Society Floral Committee awarded V. bonariensis an Award of Garden Merit (the Society’s symbol of excellence given to plants of outstanding garden value) “because of its attractive flowers and uncluttered habit.” They can make an unforgettable display and although they are tall plants, they have an open and airy appearance which lends them to being tucked in between other plants or even creating a dramatic appearance at the front of a border.  They sway in the breeze and are very attractive to butterflies, bees and other insects.  They prefer full sun to part shade in well-drained soil.

Our very hot summer did not affect its performance and knowing that they are drought tolerant once established is another plus for this plant. There are little known pests or diseases, although powdery mildew can sometimes be a problem.  White spots on the leaves do not seem to have much impact on blooming.

If you leave the flowers to develop seed heads for the birds, the plant may self-seed the following year.  As this was my first season with this plant, I will have to wait until the spring to see if my conditions are good for self-seeding.  I understand that they may not appear until late spring.

It is also possible to cultivate through cuttings and you can find out how to do this in this short video by the very well-known British gardener Monty Don.

Overwintering Dahlias

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  Winston Churchill’s famous quotation is the way that I as a novice dahlia grower feel about this subject.  So many variations exist. Can they all be correct??  The answer to this mystery seems to be fine tuning a storage method to suit your own situation, which means some trial and error. So, expect some losses at first.

Pumpkin centrepiece with year end flowers

When to dig? Conventional advice says to wait for the frost but this year’s fine weather made other alternatives a consideration. Dahlias originate from the mountains of Mexico where the fall is semi-arid.  It is the lack of water that causes the plant to go dormant.  Here that happens either with a killing frost or by cutting the plant down. Both cause the onset of dormancy and once begun, the tubers underground start to set “eyes”.  Leave the tubers in ground for 1-2 weeks before digging (this also helps the thin skinned tubers to toughen up, which helps them store better).

Divide now or in the spring?  This is entirely personal preference.  Dahlia are easier to split in the fall as the stalk hardens over winter.  However, the eyes are easier to see in the spring.  If you choose to split in the fall, tubers will need washing and drying before splitting.  For plants being overwintered as a clump, knock off excess soil and let dry before storing.  Some sources conjecture that the fine covering of soil helps to protect the tubers from shriveling over the winter. 

Successful dahlia storage is a balance between the right temperature range and the relative humidity.  Ideally, dahlias should be stored around 45 to 50 F and at a RH of 75-85%.  The method you use should try to ameliorate the conditions you are storing in.  For example, the dryness of the air in winter in Ontario means that shriveling of tubers is more of a problem than rot.  Use of a packing material such as vermiculite or wood shavings can provide a more stable environment, absorbing excess moisture when necessary and giving back when needed. 

Last of dahlias on a sunny October day

Specifics of various techniques are referenced for your information.  I have decided to try 3 methods. I am going to split some this fall and store using the saran wrap method as well as in vermiculite in plastic tubs. I will also leave some in clumps with a slight covering of earth, pack in vermiculite in a large plastic tote.  I lean towards the plastic tubs as my basement in quite dry in the winter so am concerned with moisture retention.  Don’t forget to check your tubers over the winter and remove any ones with rot or spritz with water if they appear to be shriveling. 

Good luck!!

Resources

https://summerdreamsfarm.com/dahlia-care

A Favourite Plant

by Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

Agastache foeniculum, also known as Anise hyssop, is an herb belonging to the mint family. It was originally purchased by me as a garden thriller. It has since become a workhorse for my garden. The mother plant of the ones I now have was planted in my garden in Havelock – the “Blue Fortune” cultivar.

The seeds of the ones I have now arrived in my new garden in Norwood in the compost I brought from my old place. This delightful aromatic native plant is tolerant of a wide range of soils, drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and will do well in sun to part shade.

Although it self seeds very readily, it is easily pulled when small. The plant will grow 2-3” tall with a branching habit. The flowers are produced on the tips of the branches starting in early July. Some are still flowering in mid September. As far as it’s attraction to pollinators is concerned; it is a bee magnet. It also doesn’t seem to attract insect pests or diseases.

Anise hyssop in my garden (photo taken September 13th 2021)

Since I had so many seedlings coming up all over my garden, I decided to let them develop and act as filler plants until I had something else coming along or decided to use them elsewhere. I have since used them as a border for some of my flower beds next to my neighbour’s property.

Others I use as specimen plant for some of my beds and some others next to my vegetables to attract pollinators. For me, this is one of the most enjoyable and versatile plants in my garden.

More information

Some Cures for Plant Blindness

By Laura Gardener, Master Gardener in Training

I was recently reading about a condition called “plant blindness.” The phrase was coined back in 1998 by botanists Elizabeth Schussler and James Wandersee.[i] It is defined as the “inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.” Plants are not as obvious as animals because they often “lack visual attention cues.” They can seem ubiquitous–have the same colour, form, and lack a “face.” They don’t move and they usually aren’t threatening. For example, if you look at a photo of a pond containing birds, surrounded by plants, which of these would you most likely know by name or recall later? This bias results in lower levels of plant knowledge, awareness of plant names, of plant functions, and their roles resulting in less interest in plant protection, conservation, and reduced funding. Plants are vital to our survival and we need to see their importance, appreciate them, and put them on the same level as animals.[ii] It is possible to overcome ”plant blindness.” We need to introduce and share plant knowledge with children at an early age in the same way we encourage learning about animals.  

Recently I was out walking and was trying out the Seek identification app by iNaturalist on my phone. I was attempting to identify a specific type of Elm (Ulmus) and a couple that I know walked by and we started a conversation about the app. They mentioned that their son and grandchildren use it on their nature walks. It can be used to identify other lifeforms other than plants and while the app isn’t 100%, it is fairly reliable. If it is uncertain, it will restrict its identification to a family or a genus and won’t offer a guess. An Oxford University study[iii] found that it was in the top five of plant identification apps (the others included Plant.ID, Google Lens, Flora Incognita, PlantNet). It has some fun nature challenges built into it as well as the ability to earn badges for the number of species observed. Photos of plants may also be uploaded to the iNaturalist citizen science web site where they can be confirmed through crowd-sourcing. In terms of correcting “plant blindness,” this app has great potential. 

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

It is only the beginning of October but the holiday season is just around the corner. It is not too early to be thinking of presents. Why not give the gift of a book about gardening, botany, or nature to a child in your life? The following are a selection of some of the best books for a range of age levels. Most of the books listed have been well-received by reviewers in publications such as Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. Titles marked with an asterisk have received at least one starred review. If purchasing is not an option, you can check to see if your local library carries them (or recommend that they do). 

*A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston; illus. Sylvia Long (Chronicle Books, 2007). Level: Grade 1 to 4.

*Begin with a Bee by Liza Ketchum et al.; illus. Claudia McGehee (University of Minnesota Press, May 2021). Level: Preschool to Grade 4.

*Botanicum: Welcome to the Museum by K.J. Willis; illus. Katie Scott (Penguin Random House, March 2017). Level: Grade 3 to 7.

Gardening with Emma: Grow and Have Fun: A Kid-to-Kid Guide by Emma Biggs and Stephen Biggs (Storey Publishing, January 2019). Level: Grade 3 to 7.

*Oscar’s Tower of Flowers by Lauren Tobia (Candlewick Press, May 2021). Level: Preschool to Kindergarten.

*Plant, Cook, Eat: a Children’s Cookbook by Joe Archer and Caroline Craig (Penguin Random House, March 2018). Level: Grade 2 to 5.

What’s Inside a Flower?: And Other Questions About Science & Nature by Rachel Ignotofsky (January 2021). Level: Preschool to Grade 2.

*The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom by Lita Judge (Roaring Book Press, March 2021). Level: Grade 3-5.

[i] Plant Blindness. Native Plant Society of the United States. Online: https://plantsocieties.cnps.org/index.php/about-main/plant-blindness. Accessed: October 2, 2021.

[ii] Seventeen Years of Plant Blindness: Is Our Vision Improving? Elizabeth Schussler. Online: https://appliedeco.org/wp-content/uploads/NativeSeed2017-Schussler-SeventeenYearsPlantBlindness.pdf Accessed: October 2, 2021.

[iii] Jones, Hamlyn G. What plant is that? Tests of automated image recognition apps for plant identification on plants from the British flora. AoB PLANTS, Volume 12, Issue 6, December 2020. Online: https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plaa052 Accessed: October 2, 2021.

A Slimy Subject

by Lois Scott, Master Gardener

I recently read the book “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. The author recounts her observations of a common woodland snail while she was bedridden. Although the very title of this book could strike fear and loathing in a gardener’s heart as we imagine our plants being shredded, it was an enjoyable, informative read and made me curious about the slimy creatures that lurk in my garden.

What I have learned about snails and slugs (gastropods) can hardly be described as scratching the surface but here are a few details.

In their natural settings gastropods help disperse seeds and spores, break down decaying plant matter, consume empty snail shells, sap, animal scats and carcasses and provide food for other predators like birds, small mammals, salamanders, turtles and invertebrates like firefly larvae that feed exclusively on snails.

Gastropods are equipped with thousands of sharp teeth that are routinely replaced.

Non-native species of gastropods are higher risk for damaging agriculture and preying on native species of gastropods and are most likely the ones we encounter in our own gardens.

The fact that non-native gastropods are likely the predominant ones in my garden might make me more interested in spending evenings in the garden with a flashlight picking slugs off my plants but some studies have shown that doing so doesn’t make a dent in their populations. So, for the time being I will continue to do what I have in the past which is essentially nothing. In a ‘Laidback Gardener’ blog, Larry Hodgson discusses Snails (okay) and Slugs (bad!) and one in which he discusses the effectiveness of various slug control methods. Both blogs are informative reads.

There is really only one of his ‘effective’ treatments that I engage with in my garden, and that is to encourage slug predators by providing an environment for wildlife. The rest can seem like too much work! Planting slug resistant plants is also something to consider and Larry Hodgson provides a list for that too.

In my garden I find practices such as seeding lettuce in containers and planting out hardened off nasturtium seedlings slow down slug predation but I generally accept some cosmetic damage to plants and at the same time enjoy the sight of the resident chipmunk munching on a slug.

Other Resources

The Secret World of Slugs and Snails’ by David George Gordon

Slugs of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States

Peterborough, ON, Canada