Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tea at the Pollinator Garden - Thursday October 7

We'll be meeting at the High Park Pollinator Garden for afternoon tea and planting this Thursday, October 7, 3:30-5:30 p.m. NOTE that this is the rain date - we were going to meet Wednesday, but rain is predicted while Thursday is supposed to be very pleasant.

If you haven't been there, there's a map that can guide you. From the restaurant in the park, go south (towards Lake Ontario) on Colborne Lodge Drive. A small drive called Hillside Road leads you to the buildings where the park gardeners work, and a paved walking path goes down past the rock gardens to our garden.

There will be tea and goodies! Those of you who can come, consider bringing any of these items:
 - a thermos of hot water, or
 - a few tea cups, or
 - some tea-time snacks, or
 - garden gloves and a trowel, or
 - a pencil!
You can help us out if you bring any of the above...we'll be having tea, viewing
the garden, planting some new plants and labelling some established ones. There
will be a few plant giveaways...

Traditionally one plants spring and early summer blooming plants in the fall. That's why I'll have flowers like bloodroots, violets, and columbines to plant. There will be some bloodroot tubers to take away for volunteers who help plant!

Oenothera missouriensis, Missouri Primrose
I'll also have some plants specifically for dry, sandy spots. Evening primroses work well there and have a very specialized bee that pollinates them. There will be a few other less known flowers to see and help plant.

And, there are still plants blooming - such as the sky blue aster, the willow-leaved sunflower, and the Meadow liatris.

Willow-leaf sunflower, Helianthus salicifolius
Liatris ligulistylis

Sky blue aster, Aster ooletangiensis

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Subterranean Pollinators: of chipmunks, bumblebees, tomatoes and coal furnaces

 Why does it take a chipmunk to get a nest of bumblebees going? At our September 15 tea party in the High Park Pollinator Garden I had a chance to show Pollinator Gardens project members Joanne Jenkins and Judy Whalen why.

Actually, a mouse will do just as well as a chipmunk. Many species of bumblebees nest in old rodent tunnels. Typically the mouse or chipmunk mother has left behind nesting materials (grass, bits of fur) in a deep, protected part of the tunnel. Her babies were kept warm in these cozy nests. That's what bumblebee queens are looking for: a safe, protected spot where bumblebee babies (say that 3 times quickly!) can be kept warm - around 32 degrees Centigrade or or 88 F.

bumblebee nest in a compost pile

Some species of bumblebees will nest in tufts of grass like the one shown above. The main thing seems to be good insulation. Some will nest aboveground in holes in wood or similar spots. Bumblebees can't cool their nests down as easily as honeybees. Honeybee colonies will have large numbers of bees fanning at the nest entrance on hot days; there just aren't as many bumblebees in a colony so being underground may be good protection against overheating.

You can make an artificial bumblebee nest early next spring. Just remember to get it out early enough - queens fly about when the first flowers come out, looking for a good site. Don't put it where it may get soggy, and avoid nearby ant nests. There are also designs for above-ground nests.

Why should we make artificial bumblebee nests? Many people tidy their yards up very thoroughly, rake garden beds, and generally remove sites where bees might nest. If this describes you, consider putting out a nest or three.

The bumblebee on the right came to early blooms in Amro Zayed's pollinator garden - thanks for the great picture, Amro! Like many bees, bumblebee populations have declined in the last few decades, and some species have gone extinct.

This ought to be a particular concern to all of us who love to grow and eat tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, blueberries, and cranberries. These and about 8% of the flowering plants in the world need "buzz pollination" to set seed and grow fruit properly. These plants hold their pollen tightly and only release it when a pollinator buzzes, and bumblebees buzz much more than honeybees. That's why bumblebees are used to pollinate greenhouse tomato crops. This was a considerable improvement on the "electric buzzers" previously used to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes.

Unfortunately, as often seems to happen, good intentions have led to problems. Bumblebees are now grown commercially and distributed to greenhouse growers. Unfortunately, commercial bees are often infected with various diseases, and can easily escape from greenhouses. York University researcher Sheila Colla has shown that wild bees near greenhouses are victims of "pathogen spillover".

All of which helps explain why I was so pleased on September 15 to see bumblebees apparently appearing from nowhere in the High Park lawn just 2 meters (six feet) from our pollinator garden. I strolled over and saw many workers flying into a chipmunk burrow with the pollen baskets on their legs full of yellow grains of pollen and emerging pollen-less for another foraging trip. I might not have noticed them if I hadn't been there a bit early setting up the tea table. I sat down with my dog to enjoy the view. Just where the garden bed bends, I saw many bumblebees flying.

This is the ex-chipmunk hole I found, with a pollen-laden worker flying in. A week later I visited the same spot. There were still some workers collecting pollen, but many more very large bees - new queens and drones - coming and going.

The new queens will mate with drones from other colonies and then find themselves a safe place to spend the winter - not in their parental colony but often buried in soft earth or gravel.

Our previous house was semidetached. One late fall day I was planting some daffodil bulbs next to our house. I had some left over so decided to give our neighbors a surprise spring gift. I started digging next to their house wall and to my amazement began to uncover one huge bumblebee after another! I found over a dozen before I stopped. The reason was simple: they used to have a coal furnace, and over perhaps 50 years had thrown the clinkers out their basement window (they were fine folks but definitely not neat-freaks!). Under the window the soil was almost all loose clinker, very free-draining and soft, and here it seems many of the next year's queen bumblebees had decided to spend the winter.

You too can create an overwintering spot for queens. Just find a spot, ideally under the eaves of your house or garage, dig a small pit, and fill it with the lightest, loosest gravel you can come by. No need to clean out a coal furnace for half a century - if you can find "lava rock" of the kind sold for barbecues, that will do very well.

Since queens choose their new nest site in early spring, before we had planted the pollinator garden, this year's colony simply got lucky. There are lots of chipmunks in the park though so I hope next spring the new queens will house-hunt based on location - good holes in the grounds and a good supply of flowers nearby.

We had a fine time in the park on September 15, and a fine late flower display. The tea wasn't bad either, and the cookies were good (thanks, Joanne & Judy!). We'll repeat the tea party on October 6 - please drop in. There will be tea (bring your own cups) and flowers to plant for next spring. See you there!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tea in High Park - meet the pollinators!

Please drop in and see the garden, meet some gardeners and pollinators....

- Wednesday Sept. 15, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
- Wednesday Oct. 6, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
  in case of deluge: Thurs Sept 16 or Thurs Oct 7

- High Park Pollinator Garden (Google map)
 Just down the hill from the park headquarters and just above Grenadier Pond. South of the restaurant and north of Colborne Lodge.
- Ask any butterfly, bird or bee if you get lost.

- see the garden and which plants did best
- meet other Pollinator Gardeners
- tea and goodies (volunteer help needed!)
- [maybe] meet some of the park staff
- Oct. 6:
  - plant shade-tolerant & spring blooming natives
  - free bloodroots to the 1st 3 volunteer planters
- if you have a camera, bring it and take pictures for the contest (contest? what contest? See the September Hort. Soc. Newsletter and a followup post to this blog for details)
- suggest changes/additions to the blog
  - free bloodroots to the 1st 3 people posting comments

Friday, August 27, 2010

A weird pollinator on an unusual plant

I was visiting our Pollinator Garden in High Park recently when Tanya, one of the Parks gardeners, commented on a large wasp she saw visiting one of our more unusual native plants. The wasp is Sphex pensylvanicus, the Great Black Wasp. Although it's big, it's not aggressive the way some hornets and yellowjackets are. So don't be scared of it! The female captures katydids to feed to her young, but for herself she drinks nectar.

The ones I saw really loved the flowers of Spotted horsemint, Monarda punctata. This is a lovely and rather odd monarda which tolerates dry sandy spots like our High Park garden better than the more common red bee-balm. It's blooming abundantly now in the garden, and the Great Black Wasps prefer it above any other flower there.

This lovely 1815 picture of horsemint comes from the Botanical Register vol. 1 tabl. 87 from www.botanicus.org. The artist was the Welsh botanical illustrator Sydenham Teak Edwards (1768-1819). Click his name to find out more details of his immense contributions to botany, and the use of his designs in things like Spode china.

To see many more images of horsemint, try "monarda punctata" in Google Images. You'll see there is a wide variety of color forms.

As far as I know horsemint does not runner about the way bee balm does.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

PG at DG

That's Pollinator Gardens at Dufferin Grove to the uninitiated. We had a pleasant afternoon meeting people at the organic market at the park, thanks to help from Anne Freeman - thanks Anne! Ten people joined our mailing list - and it's especially nice to note that several of them are teachers, since we are looking forward to doing in-school pollinator gardens.

Since I last posted to the blog, about 60% of a large garden bed at High Park has been planted with pollinator-friendly plants. This was done with the assistance of several PG project members and a great squad of High Park staff - many thanks to Cheryl, Tanya, and several others whose names I forgot to write down! I'll be getting our final spring order of plants this weekend and finishing High Park planting soon. Meanwhile, here are shots of the beginning of the High Park PG:

 Brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia triloba (donated by Valerie Knapp - thanks!) waiting to go to the park...

Laying out the garden - note how long it is! It runs down from the redbud trees at the top towards Grenadier Pond at the bottom. The soil is sandy and light, so all the plants were chosen to survive dry conditions.

 Getting ready to dig the plants in...

A goatsbeard, Aruncus dioicus, under the redbuds. This shade tolerant native came from my garden, and will be the first of our plants to bloom with long white spires in June.

So, now that we've got our first PPG (Park Pollinator Garden) planted, we're delighted that this Sunday (May 30, 2010) we'll be helping staff at Dufferin Grove Park refresh a native planting at the southwest end of the park.

That's all for now - next post will have a native plant list.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Pollinator Gardens are being planted!

This Pollinator Garden (PG) is one of our first to be planted. It occupies most of the sunny front yard of two PG project members, both experts in native bees. The large green clumps in the foreground are Rudbeckia laciniata, one of our large native golden coneflowers. During mid- to late-summer, swarms of bees and butterflies come to the abundant flowers of this plant - see the picture below for an example.

I emphasized sunny because a recent study in Bronx community gardens showed that large amounts of flowers and sunlight were the main factors affecting butterfly diversity, while bees needed these plus a large garden area (not just flowers), probably for nesting.

Success: sun, flowers (lots!), space.

This weekend our first shipment of PG native plants is being made available to project members. Some of these we bought, but many have been donated from members' gardens (thanks to VK for Rudbeckia triloba and to CK for 15 different species!). If you're the lucky recipient of some of these, plant them as soon as possible, leaving 1.5 to 2 feet around the taller plants and about a foot between the smaller ones. The cool, damp weather we're getting will help them establish, but water during the first month if they start to dry out.

The PG at the top of this post has 15 species now and will end up with about 20-25 this year. Why so many? Mostly, to achieve as long a season of bloom as possible! Also, even a simple but largish garden such as this one has areas with more shade and dryness and more open spots. We're choosing plants not just for flowers but also to attract butterflies to lay their eggs. For instance, our native Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) provides nectar in spring and leaf food for caterpillars of a number of butterflies including the fritillaries. Native Canadians use various parts of this violet medicinally, and like many violas the flowers are edible and ornamental in salads or omelettes. We planted a lovely selected form called "Freckles" I grew from seed many years ago. I photographed it in our garden yesterday.

Last but not least, ambitious Pollinator Gardeners with some space should think about native trees, which provide much-needed spring flowers. The Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a striking small tree which tolerates partial shade and grows from Southern Ontario to the US south. Here it is blooming in our front yard yesterday. This 18-year old specimen started under a maple tree and reached one story. When the city took the old maple down, the extra sun allowed it to reach the second story, quite unusual for this species. And yes, there were native pollinators on it! I took my pictures in early morning before it warmed up so only saw bumblebees and a few small bees, probably Andrena. The picture could be clearer, but it's from 20 feet away at maximum zoom on a moving target. Nonetheless you can see what can be found in a Toronto garden on May 6.

Next post I'll feature some of our other larger gardens and the plants going into them.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Pollinator Gardens - getting started

Pollinator Gardens -
supporting native pollinators

Hi! You've come to the PG blog...we're a group of people who want to help native pollinators like birds, butterflies, and bees (BBB for short).

We're doing that by planting gardens of native plants. Our flowers will give nectar and pollen to BBB's. Leaves and stems of these plants will provide food and nesting sites.

Most of all, a Pollinator Garden helps make people aware - aware of the many kinds of native pollinators we have, of how we can help them (many are in trouble!), and of how they help us. Each PG is a small step towards rebuilding native ecosystems for some of our most colorful, most interesting, most essential, and most misunderstood wild creatures.

My name is Clement Kent. I'm a gardener, a biologist, and a big fan of birds, butterflies, and bees.

As a gardener, I know how much many of us enjoy helping others grow beautiful gardens and learning from each other how to be better gardeners. I've enlisted the help of a great group, the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto (what a mouthful - the Hort from here on - check them out!). They are helping fund this project and many of them are some of the first to have Pollinator Gardens. But the PG project isn't limited to Hort members - anyone can join.

As a biologist, I work with specialists in birds, butterflies, and bees. I know from these good folk that many of our native species are having a hard time coping with all the changes we've thrown at them - loss of habitat, poisoning by pesticides - and some are endangered. A few have even gone extinct. Don't take my word for it - follow these links to find out more about risks to birds, butterflies, and bees.

As a big fan of these beautiful, interesting, and useful creatures I know that they will benefit immensely if more of us know about them and how they live. Each of us can make a difference! That's why we're planning and planting Pollinator Gardens. Plus, it's win-win. They benefit, but so do we. We benefit from the essential ecosystem services they provide (pollination, being part of many food chains) but we also benefit from just having more of them in our yards and public places. They're fun to watch, great for kids and teachers.

Next time I post I'll describe how to join our project and give some details on plants and pollinators. Meanwhile, looking forward to your comments!