Sunday, August 19, 2018

"white" Agastache - a tremendous pollinator plant

Monarch on Agastache
The Agastaches of North America are native mint family members related to the Eurasian hyssops. That's why the common names usually are things like "Anise Hyssop" - a blue flowering perennial whose leaves add a liquorice scent to teas. But today's flower is misleadingly called Purple Giant Hyssop. The flowers are almost always such a pale blue that they look white. The Latin name is Agastache scrophularifolia, and it's native to much of eastern North America, zones 3-8.

This is a tremendous perennial for pollinators, in more ways than one. Flowers bloom over a long period in the second half of summer and into fall and attract a wide range of pollinators. The seeds are little nutlets which are intensely attractive to goldfinches, so in late summer I often see birds, bees and butterflies feeding at the same time. Tremendous in height, too - at 6 feet, this is a back of the border plant that needs full to half days sun, and soil that is not too dry. It's easy to grow from seed, blooming in the second year and onwards. 

The leaves don't have much flavor to me but can be used in teas. I love the candelabra shape of the branching stems. Unlike the true mints, Agastaches spread by seeds, not runners, so they won't take over your garden.

There are beautifully colored Agastaches in the U.S. southwest and Mexico, which are being selected to produced fine garden flowers. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any of these golden, orange, coral, red, or deep purple varieties that are hardy in the northeast. If you've found some that survive our winters, please let us know! 

Purple Giant Hyssop has become endangered in many U.S. states, due to loss of habitat and competition from non native species. Consider putting some in your pollinator garden!


Friday, May 18, 2018

Perennial Planting at Kathy's Grove

Planting starts at 10am tomorrow, Saturday May 19, at Kathy's Grove. Yes, it will be cloudy and may be drizzling. Just sing along:
I'm plantin' in the rain
Just plantin' in the rain
What a glorious feeling
I'm happy again

Canada Columbine
Here are just two of the native North American perennials we'll be planting.

Monday, May 7, 2018

the Serviceberries are blooming in Kathy's Grove!

"Apple" Serviceberry - Amelanchier x grandiflora
We planted on a beautiful May 5. Most of the trees we dug in were still dormant but the three Serviceberries were already in bud. Sunday it rained, which was great for the new tress and shrubs, but today, Monday, has been cool and brilliantly sunny. I went down to Stanley Park and sure enough the Serviceberries had popped into bloom.

Parks staff watering in a shrub
One of the great things about arriving at the park was to find Harry Roach and his crew from City of Toronto Parks watering the trees and shrubs. Kathy's Grove is far from any taps, so they had rigged up  giant plastic barrel in a truck and were watering in the plants. Many thanks, Harry and crew!

Harry in the garden, next to a Sweet Gum and Summersweet

Harry was great on Saturday. He and the park supervisor, the great Brian Green, had brought a sod stripper. This machine looked like a shrunken locomotive hooked up to an oversized lawnmower engine. Brian got it going and Harry guided it over the large crescent-shaped patch on the hillside where the perennial pollinator garden will be planted.

The sod stripper is an amazing device! It passes a cutter blade about 2cm (an inch) under the grass, leaving you with a strip of sod which is easy to lift up and move afterwards.

Supervisor Brian Green and the partly stripped garden

Brian and his team will be bringing in coarse sand as a mulch/surface for the perennial bed. In my experience, sand makes an excellent mulch, and in a sunny, sloped spot like we have it reduces weed seed sprouting.

Another possible benefit we'll have to wait to see is that ground-nesting native bees love a sandy, sunny slope. I've seen hundreds of their nest tunnels in the sandy hillside of High Park above Grenadier Pond. I'm sure they will eventually find their way to this idyllic nesting spot - sand surface, soft soil underneath, and lots of flowers through the seasons.

three Hort volunteers
digging up a dead tree

planted Saturday, blooming Monday

This picture from Saturday shows some of our energetic volunteer crew digging out a tree that had been planted last year, but died. After amending the soil, in went a serviceberry, and here it is:

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Kathy's Grove: a Pollinator Garden from the ground to the treetops

Through the kindness of friends of the late Kathy Andrachuk, of the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto (of which she was a past President), of Landscape Ontario's Toronto Chapter, and especially of the Parks Department of the City of Toronto (shout out to Brian Green!), we will be remembering Kathy with a Pollinator Grove.

What that means is that we are taking an area at the northwest end of Stanley Park, not far from where Kathy lived, and replanting it. Right now, the park has lots of Ash and Austrian Pine trees that are sick, and will be lost over the next few years. 

We will be planting 11 native flowering trees, many of which also provide food for pollinator caterpillars. Under them, we'll be planting 11 native flowering shrubs, some of which are also caterpillar food or provide berries for birds. Finally, under these we'll be planting a lot of native flowering perennials with soil amendments to favour nesting by native bees.

We are gathering on several occasions to do this. 
  • On Saturday May 5, the Parks people will be helping us get the trees planted, and we'll plant the shrubs. 
  • On Saturday May 19, we volunteers will be planting the perennials.
  • on a day TBD in August, we'll have a dedication and celebration event at the garden
  • on a day TBD in September, 1st and 2nd grade students from nearby Niagara Elementary school will come to plant a few things, look at some pollinators, and learn about the garden.
Almost all of the work is being done by volunteers. We are happy to see you at the park! We'd especially like to welcome some of you to the garden:
  • First Nations people. We're planting only native plants, and we will be putting a Smudging Herbs and other medicinal plants section in the garden, but we need your wisdom and help to guide us.
  • People who live, work, or play in the park. We hope you'll help us with ideas that make it more fun for you, and especially your children and grandchildren. The trees we're planting are for the next 100-200 years! We want neighbours to love them and take care of them.
Contact me at with any questions. Hope to see you at the park!

Tulip tree, food plant for Tiger Swallowtail butterflies

Spicebush flowers

Spicebush swallowtail - by Greg Hume, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Flowers and Pollinators near the Monarch Sanctuaries

Last post I talked about some of the help Alternare is giving to enable local people to reforest their lands. The monarch butterfly overwinters in these forests, way way up in the mountains.

Today I'll show you a little bit of the afternoon of a pollinator in January in those mountains.

But first, where are we talking about?

The state of Michoacan in Mexico is shown in the map. A line drawn due west of Mexico City hits the border of Michoacan in rugged mountains. It's here that the butterfly nestles in branchs of the "Oyamel" fir tree at 3,000 meters above sea level elevations, in the "Reserva de la Biosfera Santuario Mariposa" - the Biosphere Reserve of the Butterfly Sanctuary.

The places where I saw monarchs are to the west of the state line (red in the map), where afternoon sunlight is stronger than morning.

Frost is common at these heights but mostly on the ground in places with a view of the sky.

The monarchs are up in the trees, not at the top where they would be exposed, and not at the bottom where the cold air sinks, but in the middle.

By morning, the butterflies are chilled - far too sluggish to fly, but not harmed either.

Much of the Oyamel forest is about as closed-in as a typical Canadian spurce-fir forest, with sparse undergrowth.

But in places where strong winds have blown down a patch of trees, the January wildflowers are very abundant.

The splashes of blue and red are some of the many native Mexican sages - Salvia species.

It was in these clearings that we saw some pollinators even in the cool mornings.

This bumblebee flew even in early mornings. She's been busy collecting pollen (see the gold speckles on her head?) which means even in cold January she's raising young. I think she's Bombus ephippiatus, a reasonably common bee in the highlands but one that's being over-collected for use in greenhouse tomato pollination.

We saw a few honeybees, but they were more abundant lower down where it wasn't soo cool.

I caught a glimpse of a fritillary butterfly on flowers beside the road but it disappeared before I could take a picture.

This groundsel, Senecio callosus, was in bloom everywhere and in the afternoon the monarchs loved it. I haven't found a common name for it.

Here's another clearing with many, many sages blooming.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A real Alternative for monarchs: a visit to Alternare A.C.

Monarchs roosting in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve

Almost 6 years ago I posted about work by Dra. Isabel Ramirez of the University of Mexico in Morelia (UNAM). Since then I have been supporting the non-governmental organization Alternare (web, facebook) which works in the Michoacan area where the monarchs overwinter. Founded 20 years ago by two peasant activists and two biologists, Alternare focuses on improving the lives of local people (campesinos) in ways that also help conserve water, soil, forests, and the air.

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Dra. Ramirez and pollinator biologists Drs. Silvana Marten-Rodriguez and Mauricio Quesada and their students at UNAM. Then I went to the Alternare training center which is located just at the base of the mountains where the monarchs overwinter.

Alternare is very active in several ways of conservation; I'll post about some of these in the future. Today I want to focus on just one of the ways Alternare helps preserve the forests in this area.

Campesino family-run tree nursery
In the picture you can see members of a small community in their tree nursery. Members of several families work in the nursery on Saturday mornings. Children come too and help, learning skills they can use the rest of their lives. Seeds are collected from native trees in land owned by the families, and planted in organic soil mixes they make themselves. At any one time they have about 2,500 seedlings of pines, firs, oaks, and other trees growing. At the beginning of the rainy season, they plant them on their land. Any excess seedlings are given to other campesinos - this is not a profit making enterprise.

By growing healthy, vigorous seedlings and by taking care in when and where they are planted, the survival rate of their seedlings is over 85%. By comparison, government-funded tree planting programs may have survival rates as low as 5%.

Almost all the land in and around the Monarch Biosphere Preserve is privately owned, mostly by small farmers such as these. Sustainable forestry is important for meeting their needs for timbers and fuel, and provides some income. Small family groups like this were trained by Alternare in these organic tree growing techniques, which they then took back to their own land. They take pride in their nursery and the prospects it provides for their children and grandchildren, and the ecological services the trees provide for the area.

Alternare depends on donations. I have donated through the Paypal link on their site (red button at bottom of page). If you pay US taxes, you can get a tax receipt by donating through GlobalGiving, which I did while I was earning $$ in the U.S. I'm not aware of any Canadian registered charity to which we Canucks can donate and have the funds reach Alternare - if you are, let me know and I'll post it!

Artemio in Alternare's tree nursery

Sunday, October 23, 2016

How to Make a Pollinator Garden

After being inaccessible for some time, the printed version of this simple booklet is available for C$8.00 from Seeds of Diversity: Click to open the Publications section of the page and you'll find this and other resources on pollinators and gardening. Prive includes shipping in Canada.