Tuesday, April 26, 2011

...while the spring rain falls

Last post still had that wintry feel, this Easter weekend it was much milder. There was even a bit of sun, but now its raining again - and supposed to continue for 5 days!

Catalpa from Mohlenbrock 1995
However I'm thrilled about the rain, because I got some time-critical planting done just before the rain started. First I put a Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa). This is a tree that occurs in Ohio and New York states but was introduced to Ontario many years ago. It's all over the York Univ. campus and is on the City of Toronto's list of recommended "native" trees for street planting. Ours didn't go by the street - it went at the back of our yard to replace a Manitoba Maple (Box elder, Acer negundo) which was dying. Curiously some Ontario sources list the Manitoba Maple as "invasive introduced species" although its native range includes SW Ontario.

But back to the Catalpa. This tree has wonderful flowers in late May or June which are attractive to bumblebees and hummingbirds, and is a host plant for caterpillars of the Catalpa Sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae) . It also is relatively fast growing as casts  a lot of shade, which we hope will compensate soon for the loss of the huge old maple. I had bought this tree to be the specimen tree in the Canada Blooms feature garden, but it was too large to move into a greenhouse and out again in March.

the pit and the liner
I warmed up my digging skills making the hole for the Catalpa, as I found one of those city lost rubble layers a foot down and spent hours with a pickaxe taking out old broken bricks and concrete chunks. That was Friday. It was good practice for Saturday, when I dug out 100 square feet of lawn and garden to a foot deep to make a bog garden. I took the pond liner used in the Canada Blooms feature garden, reshaped it with scissors and contact cement, and put it at the bottom of the gaping pit. Then I put three bales of peat moss, a container of garden sulphur, and most of the soil back in the pit, watered it, and...instant bog!

the dog helps choose plants for the bog
The planting happened on Sunday, a fine mild day punctuated by a pleasant garden visit from pollinator artists Sarah Peebles and Robert Cruickshank. Quite a few plants from the Canada Blooms pond found final homes in the bog, after being kept alive in the on-deck temporary green house for the intervening frosty month. The bog-bean and the greenhouse are shown in the previous post.

planted bog
I had no sooner finished  when I realized the plant list was the perfect answer to an inquiry from Pollinator Festival organizer Sabrina Malach, who has received awards for her work on pollinators.

Sabrina sent this question:

"I am planting a large pollinator garden with the PACT urban peace program. Our site is quite saturated with poor drainage. What native plants, other than monarda, would grow well in soggy soil?"

My answer was:
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sabrina, I've just planted a 100 sq foot bog in my backyard. I used everything except monarda! Some of the ones I planted:

Bogbean (Menyanthes)
swamp milkweed
Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)
Louisiana Iris (Iris garden hybrid **)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
Lizard's Tail (Saururus cernuus)
Lupine (Lupinus ** - western NA hybrids)
Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus)
Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

(** marks native North American plants not native to Ontario)

These give a long period of bloom from the April flowers of bogbean and Marsh Marigold to late summer/fall flowers of cardinal flower and turtlehead. Winterberry is a native holly shrub with bright red berries for winter interest and birds. If there's enough room I'd also suggest putting pussy willow and red-osier dogwood shrubs in at the back (they get bigger).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Note that all of these plants had either medicinal or food uses among Native North Americans. I won't list them all here but one of the interests of gardening with native plants is the deep well of prior experience that resides in Native traditions.

Most bogs contain an acid soil, due to the accumulation of acids such as tannins from partly decomposed leaves. Toronto water is hard (full of calcium) and basic, so I added peat and sulphur to the bog soil to increase the acidity.I'll return to the bog in a month when the plants are up and growing.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

...while the spring snow falls

A few weeks have passed since I last posted, so there is a leftover set of updates from Canada Blooms to be covered - but in haste because spring is here (in a very Canadian way, with snow showers and bloodroot blooms) so I'll also show you a few of the pollinator-related activities that are starting up along with the season.

Wednesday morning lineup for the garden
Our garden at Canada Blooms was a great success. We gave up counting the visitors after the first morning, when we had close to 1,700. Afternoons and evenings were slightly less busy but it's a safe bet we had more than 10,000 visitors, perhaps as many as 15,000. The video at this link (shot by Arthur Levitin of Flash Video Production) gives you a sense of it.

Marsh Marigold
 As I mentioned in some previous posts getting native plants to bloom in mid-March was an experiment for me. Some cooperated, like the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) in the pond.

 I had bloom during the show in 1 out of the 3 pots of marsh marigolds. The first was so quick to show buds I waited a bit too late to put the other 2 in our warm greenhouse, so they had good leaves but no flowers.
Marsh Marigold with Winterberry

Although the "marigold" show was a bit less than I'd hoped, it still pleased visitors, most of whom recognized it as one of our iconic spring flowers. Many fewer visitors recognized the beautiful red berries of our native swamp holly Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). The leaves on this plant were just beginning to come out; it doesn't hold them through the winter the way English hollies do.

temporary greenhouse
When the show was over came the gruelling work of taking down the garden and hauling the plants home. I used some of the lumber from the show to build a temporary greenhouse on our back deck to hold the plants, since it had turned nasty and cold outside (during the show it was unseasonably warm).  For the last 3 weeks show plants have been shuttling in and out of the temporary greenhouse depending on the weather. A few days ago we looked out our kitchen window on a day when the plants were out and saw a Mockingbird eating the fruit of the Winterberry. This was a nice illustration of how these plants do double duty, providing flowers for pollinators in summer and berries to light up the winter for us and feed the birds in the spring.

Bog-bean Menyanthes trifoliata
Bog-bean (Menyanthes trifoliata) frustrated me by starting buds but not blooming until after the show. Darn! When it finally did bloom at home in the greenhouse and later in my backyard pond, it showed why I was sad not to have it in bloom at the show.

This is a holarctic species, meaning it is found in cool parts of the northern hemisphere on both  continents. It's not a bean at all, but when the leaves come out they look a bit like bean leaves. It likes a boggy spot with perhaps some acidity in the soil (people differ about this point) and normally bloom quite early, like the Marsh Marigolds. This is why I waited a bit too long to force it, guaranteeing that only you the blog visitors and I enjoy its amazing fringed flowers.

Oops! This blog has gone on too long and I'm late for a party at a pollinator researcher's house - the best kind of party - so I'll have to continue another time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

UN report on Pollinators and a Toronto perspective

On this blog I try to point out the fun and positive things we can each do to preserve pollinators in our garden and our environment. The flip side of this is that there are problems, sometimes severe problems, pollinators are facing.

A new United Nations report outlines the magnitude of the problem. The summary of the report points to a variety of causes, and focuses on honeybees. However as we heard at Canada Blooms, the problem is acute for most bee species, not just honeybees. Professor Laurence Packer told us last Saturday that is his view the biggest problems are pesticides, disease,and the worst of all words combination of these: many pesticides that don't kill bees outright weaken their immune systems. So while the immediate cause of death of a colony may be a disease, the original cause was sublethal doses of pesticides the colony was exposed to. A group of French scientists have demonstrated this for one disease-pesticide combination. There have been persistent rumors of US government scientists whose research on this issue was suppressed by higher-ups. For a farmer-oriented summary of this, look at Farmer Fred's Rant.

This is a fairly down, unhappy report, so I'm going to leave it at that for now. I'll be back soon with some interesting pollinator plants for the spring pond and wetland garden.

Gosh, no pretty pictures? Must be that I find this side of the equation too sad to sweeten it with photo icing.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The weekend at Canada Blooms

Well, this is one post that's definitely a bit late, since it's already the weekend as I type it! However, if you are a night-owl web-addict, you should know that there is going to be a great talk on Saturday morning, March 19 at Canada Blooms. Laurence Packer will be talking on "How to Conserve Canada's Pollinators"

I can personally testify that not only is Laurence a real expert on this subject, he's a great speaker who leavens his serious message with humour and interesting anecdotes. If you're around Canada Blooms on Saturday, try to catch his talk.

Our website at www.pollinatorgardens.net is still new and a bit awkward, but all babies start that way, don't they? I apologize, we did pass out some literature that said "pollinatorgardens.net", omitting the "www." - and due to the wonderful technical complexities of the Web, you must use the www. prefix.

Last post I promised to put up more images of our garden building - but I don't have pictures of two of the most important people who helped build it, Bill Cheng and Jocelyn Weatherbe. I think they took a few photos and until I get them I'll divert you with a few more images of what the Blooms site looked like before opening to the public.

Charlie Dobbins' Forest with giant bin in foreground.

Early construction on neighboring water garden

This pre-construction site looks almost like a conceptual art exhibition

Trees in bags

Charlie's forest with rhododendrons

The Forest Fringe

Worker next to vast sand pile

The large and echoing spaces behind the scenes in the early part of the construction of the Canada Blooms show were a fascinating place to be. Show plantmeister Charlie Dobbin coordinated the arrival and care of vast amounts of plant material, making a forest in a warehouse. A few sparrows which appear to live in the Direct Energy Centre enjoyed the unaccustomed greenery - their chirps were often drowned by earsplitting sounds of stone saws, back-hoes, and other motorized equipment going about the heavy work of moving tons and tons and tons of rock, sand, soil, and trees onto the show floor.

One more day to the show - next post will have pictures of our garden in it's final state.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Our garden at Canada Blooms!

The last 6 days have been a whirl, and I'm a bit dazed due to lack of sleep. But I'm happy to report that our pollinator garden at Canada Blooms has been a great success. Many thanks to the donors and volunteers who have made this possible!

I've been too busy fetching, hauling, sawing, fastening, shoveling, planting, watering, and tidying to take good pictures of the final result, but I will share a few interim shots now and more tomorrow after I've had some sleep...

Jonathan Wong in the garden at the start of construction

my brother Gene came all the way from Timmins to help!

filling the pond in the wetland area

planting at last! Heather Matthews, Kelly Mullan, Rachel Weston, and Mary-Louise Craven

Katie Kurtin arranges pussy willow and red osier dogwood stems

one view of the almost finished garden

A final quick note - a very early, very rough draft of our website is now taking form at www.pollinatorgardens.net. This blog is part of it, and there will be a lot more added over the next few weeks.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

pollinatorgardens.net is the new home of this blog - more plant pics

I'm slowly catching up with my to-do list, which included getting a real website for the Pollinator Gardens Project. Not quite there yet, but the domain pollinatorgardens.net now exists, and www.blog.pollinatorgardens.net should take you right to this blog. In the coming weeks we'll add real web pages.

Back to the increasingly fraught saga of forcing plants for our garden at the Canada Blooms show in less than two weeks time. Last post I showed you pictures of bloodroot or "Canada Puccoon", a name I still love. Today I'll show you a few more of the plants that are doing well, and talk about some of the ones that aren't and why they aren't.

York University greenhouses
But first, let me introduce you to our sponsors...or some of them. The folks at the York University Dept. of Biology (where I work) have been very kind in allowing us to put a few plants in their greenhouses to wake them up.

The greenhouses are warm, and have high-intensity lights to help deal with the weak sun at this season. This has been ideal for the Scarlet Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.

Asclepias curassavica buds
Although the Scarlet Milkweed is not native to Ontario, it is gorgeous, easy to grow, and monarchs do encounter it at the south of their migration range. And, since there was no guarantee that I was going to be able to get the mid-summer blooming native milkweeds into flower, I thought it would be prudent to go Scarlet. I grew some plants last spring from seed that were kept in pots far too small for them, and then allowed to languish miserably in a cool window in my house from November through January. They looked terrible when I took them into the greenhouse, but began to perk up in just a few days.

Asclepias curassavica in bloom
A few weeks later, here they are in full, wonderful bloom. They tend to get scraggly, but in a warm greenhouse (thank you, York!) they can be cut back and will grow new blooming shoots in less than a month. Currently I am playing a dangerous game of cutting back lots of the plants, hoping they will recover in time for the show.

Viola canadensis bud
Meanwhile, a number of potted plants have been languishing in durance vile in our very cold, dark, unheated garage. They have been frozen solid since December. Many of our natives won't grow though unless they get a cold dormancy. So, a month ago I started taking them out and trying to get them to grow. This Canada Violet looks ready to rock so is back in my cold greenhouse, saving itself for the show.

Solomon's Seal in bud
As a rule once I get plants to show flower buds in the warm greenhouse I bring them back home and keep them cool. They will have a few days in the show garden before the public arrives to warm up and get going. This Solomon's Seal is about there, but may need a few days more of warmth before the show starts. I'm feeling a bit like a soccer or hockey mom, shuttling my "kids" back and forth between greenhouses.

At the suggestion of some kindly folk in the North American Native Plant Society (NANPS) I cut stalks of pussy willow (Salix discolor) and red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) from a wild area in February and put them in a bucket - out of doors! We've had several warm spells, so the "pussies" are beginning to show already. They won't need any help from me before the show, but the red dogwoods will get some days in a warmer spot to liven them up.
Pussy Willow bud close up

 So, those are some of the successes. What about the others? Some native plants judge when spring has come simply by the warmth - those are my success stories. Others, to avoid being tricked into growth only to be caught in late frosts, wait until the days reach a certain length before starting. These "photoperiod-sensitive" plants are my failures, because I didn't have a warm greenhouse where I could keep the lights on for 14 hours a day. So, my jack-in-the-pulpit, columbines, and other wonderful treasures are sitting cynically below the earth in their pots, muttering "you can't fool me! I know there are going to be 5 more snowstorms still!". Sigh...I've put a few of them in a light box where the fluorescent lights do give them the magic 14 hour days, but I did it too late and will probably have to do without these plants.

Monarda didyma, Beebalm, being forced
One interesting intermediate case was the wild bergamot or bee-balm (Monarda). I had many pots of this from my own garden, and high hopes for it even though it's a summer bloomer. It started growing promptly in the greenhouse, so it doesn't require long days to get started. However, it then stalled at a few inches height, apparently waiting for long days to get  going. Alas!

It's important to talk about your failures as well as your successes, so others can learn from them. My advice to anyone planning to force native plants is to go to a greenhouse that keeps potted stock indoors at this time of year. The warmth-lovers will be up and showing green but the long-day plants will still be hidden. You can make a list and plan next winter's activities accordingly. I started this project too late last year to benefit from this, but am making notes for next time.

See you at Canada Blooms!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Getting ready for the Show - bringing the "Canada Puccoon" into bloom.

In just three weeks we'll be setting up our native plants pollinator garden at Canada Blooms. I found that there were several challenges getting ready for this.

First, where to get plants? If you want to decorate your garden with tulips or daffodils, lilacs or magnolias, the people at the show have a good variety of stock for sale which is forced into bloom at just the right time by professionals. My problem was that the list of plants wasn't available until December, and I feared it wouldn't have many natives.

Sanguinaria canadensis bud
first signs - leaf wrapped around bud
So, in early October  I potted up about 40 Solomon's Seal, Monarda, Milkweed, and Bloodroot from my own garden and let them sit outside until we had a hard frost, so they would be fully dormant. I then moved them to a wire-mesh enclosure (to keep out hungry mice) in our unheated detached garage.

I also began looking for potted plants for sale. I ended up buying several flats of natives from Humber Nurseries, a very reliable grower not too far from where I work. Humber was willing to store the plants in one of their cold greenhouses until February, as I didn't have room in the garage for everything. I drove out and picked them up in several trips over the last 3 weeks.

Sanguinaria canadensis bud
bud emerging from leaf
Next challenge: how to bring them into bloom for March 15? - there are no instructions out there for doing this, the way there are for crocuses and tulips. I've been experimenting and will record some of the results over the next few weeks as we get ready for the show.

Sanguinaria canadensis growing
Sanguinaria canadensis bud white showing
Valentine's Day
On January 21,  I moved some blood- root pots from the garage to my cold greenhouse, which is usually 1-5°C at that time. This allowed the roots to thaw gradually and is my way of imitating late March in Toronto. On February 6th, there was NO sign of life in the pots but ever optimistic I moved one pot to a cool window in the kitchen, where temperatures may reach 18°C by day and 10-15°C by night. One week later the first shoots began to show, by Valentine's day there were white buds, and over the next few days they all opened. Now, on February 20 only one flower is still blooming but the beautiful leaves are just getting going.

Sanguinaria canadensis flower
sepals (green) open to reveal petals
So, what did I learn? It took about 3 weeks from thaw to bloom, but the flowers I got were a little thin. I suspect they were just a bit too warm the last 2-3 days before blooming, so for the next batch I'll move them to a cooler place once buds begin to show. Since I know a pot that looks good on March 15 will have dropped its petals by March 20, I will divide the two dozen pots I have into 6 groups, each one day behind the next so I'll have a continuous supply of flowers throughout the show. Then once the show is over, I'll try to keep the plants quite cool with a goal to putting them outside in mid-April. They should be nicely hardened off by the time of our benefit Plant Fair and ready to move into new homes.

Sanguinaria canadensis flowers finishing
full bloom - click to enlarge
Bloodroot is known by many common names - my favorite is "Canada Puccoon" - so the best way to find it on the web is to use its scientific name, Sanguinaria canadensis. It's a beautiful and undemanding early spring wildflower, while the leaves make an excellent 6-12" groundcover in shady places most of the rest of the season. The name refers to the orange-red sap, which contains the toxic compound Sanguinarine. Although the web contains reports of native herbal uses of bloodroot, I urge extreme caution: the toxin is very strong and there are cases of people suffering permanent skin damage (Journal of Alternative and Contemporary Medicine) from using salves and other formulations. The Wikipedia article gives more examples of uses and misuses. If you get sap on your skin when transplanting, use soap to clean it off promptly.

beautiful but short bloom in a warm house
Bloodroot flowers are pollinated by early native bees and some flies, but it isn't done with insect help then. The shiny black seeds have tasty fleshy bits called elaiosomes attached. Ants take the seeds into their nest, eat the elaiosomes, and leave the hard seeds alone, where they will sprout next spring enriched by the compost inside the nest and having been carried some distance away from Mom.

Bloodroot is a member of the huge Poppy family (Papaveraceae), and has a second-cousin relative in China called the snow poppy or dawn poppy.