Changes.

It was a sad day here. My marvellous next-door neighbours of twenty years moved out today. Even after so long it was sometimes hard to believe how great they were; they were like the quintessentially, stereotypically nice Canadian family. I used to joke it was like living next to the von Trapps (the ones from the sugary movie, not the real ones; apparently the real Maria von Trapp was something of a harridan). I’ll really miss them.

But I digress; none of that has anything to do with the garden. However, neither they nor I ever felt the need for a fence between our two properties. The planting there is mostly shrubs and small trees, which provide privacy, and the lack of fence made it easy for one or the other of us to nip across for a chat. In fact, when I designed and planted that end of my backyard, I did it so it would blend in with the planting they had there already.

The new neighbours want a fence. Actually, they need a fence, because both of their children have special needs and are flight risks. I can’t say I’m looking forward to having a fence, but of course I understand.

The fence will have advantages as well as drawbacks; it will break the view up and make the garden feel more closed in, but it will also help keep the rabbits out and, if it’s sturdy enough, provide opportunities for trellising or even a vertical garden. I’m not sure how much shelter it will provide; the topography of the area makes things a little weird with respect to wind. It won’t affect my light/shade a lot because it will be on the north side of my garden – their side will get more shade, but it probably won’t impact the planting that much.

Actually, there’s one more thing I’ll miss about the old neighbours: their cat. They had this fiesty little cat that used to hunt and kill rabbits and I LOVED her for that. Unfortunately she never let me play with her unless I gave her drugs (i.e., catnip, Nepeta cataria).

Oh well. Life goes on and new things await.

The butterfly sagas.

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As anyone who follows this blog knows, I raise caterpillars into butterflies every summer, namely the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and the Monarch (Danaus plexippus). I raise those two because they’re the ones that show up in my garden, I have larval host plants for them, I can find the eggs/caterpillars, they’re native species, and I like them. This is in contrast to the cabbage white (Pieris rapae), which also shows up because I have larval host plants for it, but is an exotic pest here (and I destroy the caterpillars whenever I can find the little bastards).

Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting trends. For example, the EBS first showed up on my carrot plants (Daucus carota). In fact, I started raising caterpillars because of these, as a way to manage the damage to the carrots while preserving the caterpillars. At that time, I didn’t grow dill. Now, however, I’ve noticed that the EBS females prefer to lay eggs on dill (Anethum graveolens) rather than on carrots. Despite the fact that dill leaves are so feathery and fine, the caterpillars seem to draw a lot more nourishment from dill than from the much more substantial carrot leaves – I find they eat much less of it before they pupate. It’s amazing to think that on some level, the EBS females are aware of this.

This year I’ve raised two generations of EBS so far, and this year I’ve noticed that the first batch (about a month ago) was mostly female and the second batch (just released) was mostly male. I don’t know if this is coincidence or just something I never noticed before.

Moving on to the monarchs: well, I haven’t raised monarchs in two years and it’s nice to be doing it again. Last year was very hot and dry and my milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) patch wasn’t really up to scratch, so I guess any monarch females that came visiting weren’t impressed. The year before that was the year of no monarchs, for some reason.

This year it’s been better. I even had the rare opportunity to see a monarch couple in a courtship dance. Right now I have seven monarch caterpillars in captivity and going strong.

I did have a bit of a scare with them, though. When I was gathering eggs, I found a caterpillar on one leaf. It wasn’t a monarch; if anything it looked more like a rose slug (larval form of a type of sawfly; Hymenoptera sp.). At any rate, it didn’t look like anything I knew feeds on swamp milkweed. It also didn’t react to being poked, which in most larval insects usually signifies one of three things:

  1. It’s in ecdysis, i.e. about to moult and shed its skin.
  2. It’s sick.
  3. It’s been parasitised.

…turns out it had been parasitised by a wasp. There are many species of parasitoid wasps that lay their eggs inside caterpillars (and other things, such as spiders) and the wasp larvae literally eat their hosts from the inside out. In fact, I rely on them to control tomato hornworms (Manduca sexta). However, I just put all the leaves with the monarch eggs and this mystery caterpillar inside one box because I didn’t have an extra container to isolate the mystery caterpillar and didn’t know at the time why it was non-responsive. Until a few days later when I saw the adult wasp in the box and the mystery caterpillar was just an empty shell.

Normally this wouldn’t bother me, because just one of anything can’t reproduce, so my monarch babies were safe, right?

No. Some of these parasitoid wasps are parthenogenetic, i.e. the females can reproduce without the males (usually via a form of cloning; aphids are notoriously good at this). I’m certainly no expert on these wasps, so I had no idea what species it might have been. On the other hand, I actually was freaking out about nothing, because the monarch caterpillars then were so small that the wasp simply couldn’t have laid eggs in them (at least, I hope so).

In case you’re wondering about the famed monarch resistance to predation because of the toxins in milkweed, well, it actually doesn’t stop predation by other insects or spiders. I’ve never looked it up, but it’s certainly possible for milkweed caterpillars to have a wasp that parasitises them.

Anyway, it’s been a few days now and all the caterpillars seem to be fine, so thus endeth the saga.

Summer continues.

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…I think I’ve used that post title before.

It’s so easy to fall out of the habit of blogging. Really though, there isn’t too much going on in the garden at the moment, at least out of the ordinary. The big project right now is one of the pebble paths. Over the years it’s gotten really silted up, so it’s a long tedious process raking (scraping) it up and washing all the compacted mud out of the pebbles. And putting the pebbles back.

It’s been a pleasant summer – rainfall has been decent for summer, certainly much more than the drought we had last year…and the year before that. Temperatures have been nice as well. Pests have been low, overall. All in all, this has been probably the best season I’ve had in five or more years.

I’m slowly expanding my collection of home-grown bonsai. It takes two years before most seedling-raised trees can be started on bonsai training in earnest, although minor training can begin in its first season, especially the root training. The laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides) seeds I started last year have begun training, and I’ll start on some honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) saplings as well.

I also have a few willow cuttings (willows being extremely easy to propagate from cuttings) – a few dappled willow (Salix integra) and “weeping” willow, most likely the white willow (Salix alba) (true weeping willow is Salix babylonica and doesn’t grow around here). It also seems some cuttings from a cutleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var. dissectum; forgot the cultivar name and lost the tag) I took back in spring are doing okay, and I got some beech (Fagus sylvatica) cuttings from a colleague last week. The beech might be a waste of time – beeches are apparently pretty difficult the start from cuttings, but that won’t stop me from giving it a try.

I’ll have to harvest the garlic soon. The rain meant that they’re not drying up as fast as they ought, but it’s time they were dug up anyway. Other than that, it’s just standard summer garden maintenance.

Oh, wait. The peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea) that some squirrel planted in one of the containers last year and sprouted in winter (brought the pot inside), is blooming. Interesting little yellow flowers. It should be interesting to see if anything comes of it.

My first snapdragon ever.

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I’m not big on most annuals, especially bright, garish bedding plants, so I never tried growing snapdragons (Antirrhinum cv.) before. Actually, it might be a tender perennial, but I’d need to check up on that. In either case, it’s functionally an annual here. However, earlier this year when I was doing a seed order, there was a snapdragon called ‘Black Prince’ with dark red flowers and very dark foliage, so I thought what the heck.

I didn’t get good germination with the first sowing and there’s only one plant survived from it. I had better luck with a second sowing, but the plant from the first batch flowered several days ago. It’s not dark enough to warrant going on the Black Flowers page, and it never had any pretensions of being a black flower, but it’s still beautiful. Despite also being rather tiny, it still needed to be staked up because of the f**king winds we’ve had this year…and the past four years, it seems.

This one, and eventually the ones from the second sowing, is in a planter box. I usually grow heliotropes in there, but never got around to getting any this year. Some nicotiana ‘Chocolate Smoke’ is popping up in the planter, though, so it will be interesting to see what sort of combination they make. I have a feeling the nicotiana will probably swamp the snapdragons, though.

Snapdragon ‘Black Prince’

However, I did update the Black Flowers page with my new pansy, ‘Black King’. I got the seeds from the same source, and oddly enough, it flowered at around the same time as the snapdragon. I sowed them at the same time, but I guess pansies just take longer to get to that point, despite usually being spring flowers.

The longest day.

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Well, this summer solstice I spent four and a half hours in the garden and it was wonderful. I took care of several of the little tasks that keep getting put off, plus a couple major ones.

One of those major tasks was filling and stocking the new large tub pond. We actually had a bit of rain last night; wish it were more, but beggars can’t be choosers. But it was enough to fill a couple of the rainbarrels, so I had enough water to start filling the pond. This in turn meant I could take the plants out of the smaller tub ponds and containers scattered about the place and rehome them.

…I seriously never realised how many water plants I have. I must be crazy.

I got a lovely surprise from one of the tubs, however. Well, actually, it was rather an ugly surprise, but it was nice. This tub had only a miniature water lily (Nymphaea cv.) in it, plus a bit of bladderwort (Utricularia gibba) to control the mosquitoes. It’s only about fourteen inches deep. When I raked my fingers through the muck that had accumulated at the bottom, I got the shock of the day to find a dragonfly larva. I went and got a sieve and ended up finding five larvae (plus one dead). I have no idea what the critters were feeding on – dragonfly larvae are carnivorous and prey on other aquatic insects, crustaceans, tadpoles, and even small fish.

Anyway, I rehoused them in the big tub, and when the water in the smaller tubs settles, I’ll add it as well – it will contain all the pelagic fauna that makes a balanced pond ecosystem and helps control algae, the pondkeeper’s nightmare. When most of the water is out, I’ll have a hunt for more benthic fauna.

I also found NO mosquito larvae. People look skeptical when I tell them that since starting to keep these pond tubs, I actually get bitten by mosquitoes less. The fact is that yes, standing water attracts mosquitoes, but it also attracts dragonflies, especially with vegetation around. A dragonfly can eat over fifty mosquitoes in a day, plus other meals, and dragonflies have an estimated 95% success rate at hunting. This makes them one of the best predators in the world. And happily, at least one dragonfly has claimed my garden as its territory.

I think I’ll get a board or something and balance it on one corner of the big tub (it’s rectangular) and put a few of the carnivorous plants on it. It would help complete the look, as many carnivorous plants are bog species.

So you could say I spent a summer day splashing about in water. How nice.

Late spring blues.

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Today I finally installed the guide wires (not guywires) to train the grapevine (Vitis ‘Bluebell’). I’m not sure why the cultivar is called ‘Bluebell’; all the pictures I’ve seen of the fruit show grapes that are almost black. Anyway, I should have done this weeks, even months ago…in fact, arguably since last year. Anyway, it’s done now and I can start training it at last.

I say at last because it got held back a year by the local chapter of the minions of hell, a.k.a. the rabbits, who came the first winter it was planted and chewed it down to a stump. So last year it had to start over. Otherwise I could have been looking forward to a bunch of grapes this year.

I’ve never trained a grapevine before and there are many methods to choose from, but I’ve settled on double leaders on a 6-arm Kniffen system. That is, two main stems, with each stem being allowed to produce 3 side branches. All of the branches on a given stem will grow in the same direction, and in the opposite direction to the other stem. I think it’s ambitious for a newbie, but grape plants are vigorous growers and therefore forgiving of pruning mistakes.

‘Bluebell’ is apparently a self-pollinating cultivar, but even self-pollinators set fruit better with another pollinator nearby. I have two other grape plants that I haven’t quite decided what to do with yet. One is a wild grape that keeps showing up in a friend’s garden; he gave it to me last year, but I haven’t gotten around to trying to figure out the species yet. The other is also a wild grape, a native species called the summer grape (Vitis aestivalis) that is supposed to be quite tolerant of hot, dry, sunny areas. I’ve been looking for one for ages and this year I lucked out. The original intent was to put it up against a very hot, sunny brick wall, but now I’m not so sure. I might grow them in containers and train one of them into a standard, like the old Victorian gardeners liked to do.

The other blue concern today is the jay. Or rather the family of blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) that’s taken up residence in the area. This is a first; normally I don’t see bluejays in the yard before September, when they make their way south. They’ve certainly never settled here for the season in all the time I’ve lived here.

Normally I would be happy with this situation. Blue jays are a native species, and another species of bird in the area is a sign of increased biodiversity, which is good. But although I love birds in general, I don’t like blue jays. They’re loud but don’t sing (at least, they seldom sing nicely), and they’re greedy and aggressive, and often chase away the other birds…such as the ones that do sing nicely. I know I haven’t been hearing the chickadees as much in the past few weeks. Just today, in fact, I saw a jay chasing the local cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), who is an old friend. Not impressed.

Changes.

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Just updated the Black Flowers page to include the beautiful Iris chrysographes; I bought the plant last year and the blooms first opened today.

I also added a picture to the Rose page; all the roses are blooming at once (for the second time ever) and I actually got a picture of it this time. Speaking of roses, I  got another one a week ago, a beautiful purple miniature called ‘Diamond Eyes’. No picture yet though.

I splurged last Saturday and bought a pond tub – a purpose-made one, as opposed to an ordinary tub or undrained large container. It got delivered on Tuesday. I’ll admit it was a bit of an impulse buy, but I don’t regret it at all. It’s 51 x 31 x 18 inches, which is deeper than many prefabricated ponds available, and that’s always been one of the main things holding me back from getting one: most of them just aren’t very deep. In fact, I would have liked it to be even deeper, say 6 inches or more.

Good thing I was revamping the container garden anyway, because that’s the only spot left with enough space to hold the pond where it would get enough sun. I’m not burying it, for a few reasons. First, my soil is just too. damn. hard. and. too. damn. stony. to excavate something that size and then deal with the spoil. Second, the entire property is on a slope, so I’d have to get fancy with the levelling (this is actually a minor consideration). Third, although I would love to have an in-ground pond that might even possibly attract a frog or toad or two (I love amphibians, and not just for their wildlife value; I really think they’re ridiculously cute and yes I know I’m weird), the local raccoons would make an absolute wreck of it and everything in it.

So I piled up some stone (and I have a lot of stones in my soil), levelled it off, and sat the pond on top of it. The elevation, plus the height of the tub itself, should make things harder for the nasty little bastards to mess things up. While they could easily jump up, even raccoons would have a hard time balancing on the lip of the tub while digging around inside it, without falling in (which they might decide to do anyway…). As long as I don’t put anything around it, they won’t having anything to sit up on.

Also, having it a few inches off the ground should make it a little easier on the old back. Not getting any younger here. In winter I can drain it and turn it upside down. It will be interesting to see if water evaporates slower or faster from one large container than a bunch of smaller ones. It would be nice to run a little fountain in it, but it’s too far from a power outlet.

It does, however, mean I need to rethink my original idea for what to do with the container garden. And now we need some rain. Last good rain we had was over two weeks ago, and the rain barrels are nearly empty. And therefore, so is the pond.

Anyway. Yay! Pond!

No rest for the wicked.

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Why does it feel as if I have so much to do this spring? I didn’t buy and start that many plants, did I?

…oh wait, I did. Right.

I think I’m about two-thirds done with the planting out and potting up. Space is tight this spring. Really tight. I’m revamping part of the container garden, so things have to be done in stages…when actually everything needs to be done yesterday. After my whole life gardening, it’s still a surprise when suddenly everything seems to grow overnight.

Soon I’ll need to cage around the strawberry patch to keep the rabbits and squirrels (hate them all) and birds (like them a lot, but I’d still rather eat the strawberries myself) out. I also had dreams of planting all the brassicas in one spot and fleecing the whole thing over to keep out the accursed demonspawn cabbage white (Pieris rapae) butterflies, but it doesn’t look as if that’s going to happen.

We’ve had a nice, wet spring, and I mean it when I say I’m glad of it. But, and I should have seen this coming, it already means that the roses are starting to show black spot. Not only that, but the rose sawflies (Arge sp.) are out in force. I swear, they get worse every year.

And to top things off, I just got a mandevilla (Mandevilla cv.) dumped on me. It’s actually a rather nice one, but I wish my bloody relatives wouldn’t assume that just because I’m a mad, obsessed gardener, I’m happy to have any old rubbish in my garden.

I wish this whole post didn’t look so negative, because it’s actually been a really great spring in the garden. It just feels that it’s been too busy to enjoy it.

Babblings and ramblings.

That should be the title of most of my posts…

Well, the North American Native Plant Society’s plant sale at the Markham Civic Centre last Saturday was disappointing to say the least. From what I was told, the powers that be (either the Markham Civic Centre or the City of Markham, I’m not clear which) were quite obstructive this year by refusing to provide enough tables, refusing to allow ample setup times, and being unaccommodating in general. The NANPS had to drastically cut back on their offerings this year as a result. I didn’t find even half of the things I was looking for. This was my eighth year in a row going to that sale, so it’s been at that venue for at least that long, and probably more. So much for loyalty from civic officials. Typical.

Anyway, the spring frost date for my area is past now, so I’ve started planting out the hardy plants and hardening off some of the tender ones. The lettuce and arugula seedlings are well on their way now, so it’ll be time to prick them out soon; the onions and peas are well sprouted, and the carrots are just beginning to show.

My beloved next-door neighbours who are downsizing to a smaller house this year were throwing out a large stoneware jar (large as in over two feet tall and nearly as wide), so I raffed it. I almost couldn’t believe it, because I’ve rather envied it for a long time, and I also couldn’t believe that they were getting rid of it instead of taking it with them – they’ll still have a garden at their new house, and it belonged to his parents, after all. Possibly the fact that it had a crack had something to do with it, but a bit of silicone caulking and I now have a new tub pond.

I have to say, this spring has been a really good one in the garden. There’s been lots of rain and although it’s been a bit cool, it hasn’t been cold enough to set anything back. I’ve had a good display of tulips this year too – especially since the accursed rabbits haven’t bitten the flowers off this time. I think we need more hawks around here. And owls. I love owls.

All set for spring.

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April showers bring May flowers! Or something like that. The last couple years we had Aprils that were relatively dry, but this year we’re finally getting a more typically wet April. I know it sounds odd to “normal” people (i.e. non-gardeners/ non-farmers) to want rain, but spring rains really are a crucial source of groundwater for plants, even well into summer. And climate change isn’t going to improve matters, at least not in these parts where even in the past ten years, summers have become noticeably drier (and possibly hotter).

Anyway, today I planted the onion sets. The peas I planted last week are probably germinating as I type. The lettuce and arugula have already started to sprout. I really need to sow the carrots soon. The brassica (‘Melissa’ Savoy cabbage and ‘Di Sicilia Violetta’ purple cauliflower), tomato (‘San Marzano’, ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Hahms Gelbe Topftomate’) and lemon cucumber seedlings are well on their way. In fact, I ran out of room under the grow lights, so I started hardening off the brassica seedlings today – they tolerate cool temperatures better.

The bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) started blooming last week, as did the spicebush (Lindera benzoin). I’ve had the spicebush for three years now, and this is the first time it flowered…possibly because during its first winter here, the accursed demonspawn rabbits chewed it down. So this spring I’ve learned something new about it, which is that it produces masses of tiny yellow flowers first thing in spring, before it produces leaves, and that those flowers have a very pleasant, refreshing fragrance.

Everything else is going apace – the wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) are just starting to bloom, and the yellow tulips will open within a week or two. The honeysuckle (Lonicerum tataricum), which I pruned three weeks ago, is well-leafed out and now starting to produce flower buds. The roses are unwrapped, unmounded and pruned, the hardy gladiolus (Gladiolus palustris) is finally sprouting, the camassias (Camassia quamash) are up, all the irises are well on their way, and I’m nearly done with spring garden cleanup. Right now the only worry is that I don’t see any sign of my Fritillaria persica showing yet.

I know it’s a month until our spring last-chance-of frost date, but right now everything looks set to be glorious.

…I’m not generally an optimistic person, so I’ve probably just jinxed myself.