Spring chores.

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I think I’ve actually caught up with my gardening tasks for the time being. It feels…weird.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do; I’ve already begun the hardening off/acclimatisation process for seedlings and indoor plants, and there’s always weeding. But all the specific jobs are done. The pond is cased in and refilled, the trellis wires for the hops and grape vines are redone, the patio fountain is cleaned out (properly, I mean), and the compost is turned.

Then again, it might be speaking too soon. Last Friday (May 4th) there was a severe windstorm throughout the region; many trees got blown over and shingles got torn off a lot of roofs. The week before that there was another windstorm, and that one blew down a lot of fences. (If for some reason you’ve been following my ramblings for a while, you’ve seen me complaining about the wind getting stronger over the past six-ish years.)

Fortunately, neither windstorm affected me, the house, or the garden. However, two friends lost parts of their fences, and one of them then lost a lovely blue spruce (Picea pungens) that she and her late husband planted fifty years ago. One person’s misfortune is another’s gain, and now I’ve got a stack of old fence boards and several large chunks of spruce trunk.

The fence boards are treated lumber, so I don’t want too much contact with them, or to let them leach into the soil. I think I’ll make staging out of those (basically, plant benches). The tree trunk will be used for pedestals and flowerpot stands (in fact, a couple pieces are already in use as such), and maybe I’ll slice up one or two to make stepping “stones”. I’d considered hollowing one out to make a trough or planter, but now I think that’s more work than it’s worth.

Other than that, spring is late, but progressing. The roses are finally budding out; I think all of them are alive, but they all need major pruning (next task for when they’ve sprouted a bit more). The bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has come and gone, the tulips are about to open, and the moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is getting ready to bloom.

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Is it spring yet?

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Been a month since the last post, so this one will probably ramble on a bit.

Not that there’s all that much to say, but I do ramble…a bit.

Anyway, the most immediate major project is done. My pond is basically just a big rectangular tub, and for various reasons I have it as a raised pond rather than in the ground. Last year I noticed the weight of the water was causing the sides of the tub to bulge, so I decided to make a case (essentially a huge bottomless crate) for it. This would support the sides, provide some insulation from temperature fluctuations in summer and cold in winter, and hopefully extend the lifespan of it in general. I guess the wooden box looks a little nicer than black plastic, but that sort of thing doesn’t bother me much. However, I was really pleased with how it went last year, so it’s worth putting the effort into making it better.

This meant reworking the stone and pebble base (don’t want a wooden box sitting directly on the soil), levelling, and fiddling about a bit lot, but it’s done now. As an added experiment, I used bricks to line and partition one side of the tub (about halfway high), which I filled with mud. The sides of the partition will serve as a shelf for smaller plants, and into the mud I will plant sweetflag (Acorus americanus). The stuff grows like a weed, and I am interested to see if it will survive once the pond is drained and covered for winter. Theoretically it should; containerised plants need to be rated at least two zones hardier to survive winter, and sweetflag meets that criterion. I think I’ll try it with northern blue flag (Iris versicolor) as well.

The next big construction project will be a cage to cover the strawberry patch. I’m being more ambitious with this one, because making it as a single construct would make it rather difficult to lift and manoeuvre about. The plan is to make it in two sections with hinges across the middle, so I can lift one section and let it rest over the other. I’ll make it out of 2×4’s so it’s really sturdy, and use half-inch hardware cloth to screen it – I don’t know for sure if chipmunks eat strawberries, but I do know they can pass through chickenwire. Hopefully I can get at least a decade of use out of it without the hassle of bird netting (which the squirrels chew right through).

Other than that, the usual tasks of this time of year are underway. The tomato and cauliflower seedlings are mostly pricked out, and it will be time to sow peas, radishes, lettuce and arugula soon, and fork over the vegetable plots. Most of the plants that were overwintering in the garage have been moved outside by now. The dahlias and calla lilies in the basement are showing their noses, and it will be time to start the re-acclimatisation process for other tender plants soon.

I also got most of the spring garden cleanup done today. I left a few things untouched, because I will dig them up over the next few days, pot them up, and donate them. Having the old growth still on them will let me know what they are (and where to find them).

Only other thing that comes to mind right now, is the little ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) plant I got a few weeks ago on a visit to a herbal nursery. A few friends and I make a trip of it each year, but by this point I don’t need a lot. Anyway, they had ginkgo plants that were still only a few inches tall, so I got one to try turning it into a bonsai.

…I foresee yet another construction project to house my growing collection of home-grown bonsai…

Finally!

When most people think about temperature forecasts around here at this time of year, they tend to be more interested in the highs. Me, I’m more interested in the lows. Warm (relatively) temperatures are nice, but it’s the cold that’s more likely to kill plants.

Anyway, the forecasted lows are finally such that I felt tentatively comfortable with placing some of the potted plants (overwintered in the [unheated] garage) outside today. The more cold hardy things started sprouting in the darkness weeks ago. For the forbs, it’s actually the roots you need to worry about dying in the cold, because a pot does not offer insulation the way the ground does. Top growth can be replaced; dead root crown = dead plant.

Very soon it will be time to root prune the bonsai, and then it’s time to start seeds indoors.

The season begins. Kinda.

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As any experienced gardeners knows, gardening is partly about looking ahead: two weeks, or fifty years. Traditionally the planting-out time around here (for most things) starts in late May (spring frost date is middle of May). For really tender things (cucurbits and tropicals), planting out is better done in June. Starting plants/seedlings indoors is a fairly important component to gardening in short-season areas, and this is where looking ahead comes in.

To put it another way, I started this year’s ginger (Zingiber officinalis) and turmeric (Cucurma longa) a few days ago. I find that in my house, it takes about six weeks to break them out of dormancy, and then another six weeks before they start to grow enough to poke out of the pot. Bear in mind that these are tropical species, and I keep the house at 19º C in winter. Assuming the timing works out, this should be just in time to put them outside in June, with a minimum fuss of hardening off.

I also started some Dauphin violet cuttings (Streptocarpus saxorum). I haven’t been growing this for very long, but cuttings last I took year took four months to flower. Since I would like these to be in bloom by the end of May, I may have waited too long.

Other than that, there is little gardening to talk about. The light garden system I cobbled together is working out wonderfully, and so far it has more than justified the effort I put into it. Now that it’s the past the middle of February, the days are noticeably longer, and it’s time to start sorting through the seeds.

Winter gardening.

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Well, I suppose it is what much of modern society would call the new year, but it feels the same to me, i.e., cold. I never saw much point in making a big fuss about a new year. As any gardener knows, the year is a cycle – every day is a new year.

Anyway, the past December has been unusually cold and snowy, at least compared to the past twelve or so years. On the other hand, when I first moved to this area (from the tropics) twenty-three years ago, most winters were like this, so to me this is what winter is supposed to be like. Older people whom I have dragged down memory lane tend to agree. We’ve simply gotten spoiled by the relatively mild winters that global warming has recently brought us.

However, I’m now getting a little worried about the roses; I mulched them as I always do, but did not burlap any of them, so I’m a bit nervous that some of them might not make it through to spring. On the other hand, they’re all under a foot of snow, and a thick cover of snow is excellent insulation (odd as that may sound), so I might be fussing about nothing.

Other than that, there isn’t much to say because at this time of year there is very little outdoor gardening in these parts. My houseplants are doing okay, although the jasmines (Jasminum sambac) got their dose of whitefly over a month sooner than usual. This is both odd and annoying, because this year (last fall, now) I did a complete soil change as well as the usual pruning and dousing with insecticidal soap.

The biggest “news” about the indoor gardening is my new light garden a.k.a. grow-light stand. I wasn’t willing to shell out nearly a grand for a fancy-schmancy system, so I went to a certain well-known Swedish furniture store and got a shelf unit, then bought a half dozen fluorescent plant lights from the local hydroponics shop. A few more incidentals, such as a package of reflective material to make a cover (also from the hydroponic shop) and a power bar, and I have my own light garden that perfectly fits my needs, for less than one-half of the price of the fancy one (of comparable size).

It’s wonderful having it, because it can hold all the smaller things that otherwise tend to get crammed in amongst other houseplants, and sometimes get lost or overlooked. Having the cover is also very good to hold in the humidity and warmth, the lack of which the smaller plants often suffer from in our cool, dry, centrally-heated homes. There is even a shelf free, which will be a useful addition to seed-starting in April.

I guess that’s it for now.

Why birdfeeders are not good for the environment.

Many people will probably read this and disagree or criticise me harshly, but garden bird feeders are not the favour to the environment that many people have been led to believe. Many people simply enjoy feeding the birds, and I am not judging them for their kindness. However, I was a biologist; specifically a botanist and ecologist. I studied habitat workings and population dynamics. And I tell you now that nature is not kind. It cannot be, because it is not a rational, thinking, feeling entity. Nature simply is, and whatever exists in it either survives or doesn’t.

Let me explain. Any habitat, whether an untouched old-growth forest, a desert, a swamp, or a backyard (or rather, a neighbourhood of backyards), represents and provides a certain amount of resources to the things that live in it. Many times, those living things are themselves resources. For plants, the major resources are light, water, soil nutrients, space, and sometimes pollinators. For animals, the major resources are shelter/habitat, food, water, and, eventually, mates. (We can usually assume that air is not an issue as a resource.)

Resources are, or can be, limited, and so the living things in a habitat are to some degree in competition for available resources. This in turn creates more limits on what can survive or thrive. Given time to sort itself out, the local ecosystem will eventually settle into a dynamic pattern that is more or less stable over the long run.

What does this have to do with bird feeders? Well, by providing this source of food, you are creating an artificial, and artificially high, spike in the local resources. The birds that eat from feeders become better fed and consequently stronger and healthier, and can outcompete other types of birds for territory, nesting space, and food for their chicks. Over a long time, this eventually creates a shift in the local species that favours birds that will eat from feeders vs. those that don’t. Local biodiversity therefore falls. And since a block of backyards is not exactly a natural environment to begin with, things that would normally control such a population rise, such as predators, may not be present.

However, this is exactly what is expected to happen under the circumstances. As I said earlier, in time the local ecology shifts to reflect the resources present.

Perhaps in very large gardens it wouldn’t make much of a difference overall, but most of us don’t have very large gardens.

So what happens if and when you stop feeding the birds? Perhaps you move out, or even just go on a vacation. Suddenly the food source that the unnaturally high population of birds relied upon, is gone. Some will outright starve. Some will leave for greener pastures. Some will survive, but be weakened and more susceptible to diseases and parasites. This time the populations of those bird species fall, and in the long run you have not done them a favour. This is exactly what happens when any population outstrips its resources.

Unfortunately, the potential consequences can affect far more than the birds themselves.

Most of the seeds sold for bird feeders are not native to the area in which they are used. The feeders therefore train the birds to prefer a foreign food source. With access to free, easy meals, the birds spend less time hunting for local seeds. You might therefore notice an increase in weeds.

Squirrels are notorious thieves and scavengers from bird feeders. You might be feeding them too. And frankly, as a gardener I love birds and hate squirrels. Remember also that squirrels often carry their loot elsewhere. They thus spread the seeds around your garden or other parts of the neighbourhood, and then these foreign seed species can germinate and become invasive weeds.

Even something as innocent as a piece of bread can become a health hazard if a bird or squirrel hauls it to someone else’s backyard. There it can become mushy and mouldy, just in time for a pet or small child to find it – and possibly eat it.

Now let’s look at the feed itself. Remember that bird feeder seeds and feed mixes are crops – commercially created and commercially raised crops.

How was that crop produced? Did some virgin habitat get razed for farmland? Was the crop raised in a sustainable manner, or was it doused with fertilisers and pesticides? If so, remember that you are feeding those pesticides to the birds as well. Where was this crop raised, and what are the gas miles and carbon footprint involved in getting the bird feed from the farm to your backyard? Are the farm workers fairly treated and fairly paid?

(These are all questions you could be asking about your own food, by the way.)

So despite the fact that I genuinely like birds and love seeing and hearing them in my garden, I do not use birdfeeders. If you want to do the birds a favour, another way is to create habitat for them.

Some birds like dense cover while others prefer open areas. Some feed on plants, some feed on invertebrates, and some feed on both, but even the seed-eaters hunt for insects to feed their chicks (they need the high protein to grow quickly). Therefore a garden with few insects attracts few birds. And all birds need safe nesting spaces and clean water. What habitat you can provide will be a gauge of which birds you attract; no ecosystem will sustain all the birds in the guidebooks.

Plant native species of wildflowers, trees, and shrubs, especially ones that produce seeds and berries that the birds can feed on. These are self-renewing resources of a sort that could have been locally present before we plunked houses in the area. Plants that produce seeds and berries in late summer and autumn are especially important to birds that overwinter locally. This may seem obvious, but to allow such plants to create seeds and berries, you must not deadhead the flowers.

Research is important, and so is observation. Make a note of which birds you see in your area, and decide which ones you would like to encourage. Believe it or not, there may be some you don’t want to encourage – the European starling, for example, is a pest here in North America, both ecologically and commercially. Find out what sort of habitat, food, and nesting situations those birds like. Then you can go about working your choice into your garden.

If you have no particular goal in mind, or simply not a lot of space, then just make a garden that is not highly primped and fussed over, and especially one with no insecticides in use. The birds will come.

Clean water is especially vital to attract and keep birds. Providing a birdbath goes a long way toward this goal, and does so in a way that doesn’t significantly alter the environment. After all, most gardens must have water from time to time, and I’ve seen birds drinking out of the saucers that catch water draining from flowerpots. Remember that birds need water – liquid water – in winter as well, although this can be a challenge to provide consistently.

This is not intended as an attack on birdfeeders or people who use them. I’m saying there are alternatives, ones that could be better in the long term – for everyone. As a case in point, I’ve counted no fewer than fifteen species of birds in my little garden. Not just flying through, but actually here and going about their business. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more that I haven’t noticed or recognised.

Fall gardening.

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Well, I’ve neglected this blog for long enough, haven’t I? There’s nothing too extraordinary going on in the garden at the moment, just routine fall chores of cleaning up and clearing out.

What is a little different this year is that we had a slightly late Indian summer and then another stretch of relatively warm weather a couple weeks ago, so a lot of the things that would be going dormant now are only just getting the idea. It’s nice to have it stretched out a bit, actually, because it makes the fall chores a little more relaxed.

All of the truly tender things are inside and have been for at least a week now. I turned the heat on a few days ago. Bringing plants in well before the central heating goes on helps them to cope with the shock in stages rather than all at once. Some things (turmeric and ginger) will be allowed to dry out and go dormant, while the things that don’t have a dormant cycle will be kept going as best I can.

I think I have to face reality and invest in a light garden. I have too many houseplants/tropical plants to fit comfortably in the sunny places now, and overcrowding them is, in the long term, a recipe for horticultural disaster. I already have a few grow lights, but I will need those for starting seedlings early next year.

Updates.

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Well, the last of the monarchs (Danaus plexippus) I raised got released a few days ago. There were eight in total and I think there was a more or less even mix of males and females this time.

Also flown are the goldfish. I have no idea what happened to them; one day they were there and the next day they weren’t. The immediate suspect would be raccoons, but if it were raccoons, they would have taken the fish ages ago. Furthermore, there would have been a big mess in the pond, but the plants are all fine and the water is crystal clear. The only thing I can think of is that it was some bird passing through.

I suppose the silver lining is that it will soon be time to empty the pond and overwinter the plants, and now I won’t have to worry about overwintering the fish indoors in an aquarium. It’s not much of a silver lining, though – I really had wanted to keep the fish.

The new neighbours have put their fence in. There was a huge shock – for various reasons, for years we assumed the property boundary was in a certain spot, but when they surveyed for the fence, it turns out the boundary was four feet away. I could hardly believe it and had to get out our deed and plan of the property and have a look to confirm for myself. In a nutshell, the change is in my favour, and I now have a bigger back yard, about 144 square feet in total. It’s enough that I have to think about what I’m going to do with that strip of space; it’s too much to leave to it wild because it would soon fill up with invasive periwinkles and ivy. More land, but more work. At this point, that will be next year’s project; I’ll have winter to think about it.

Finally, the vegetable patches are empty now and I’m making my first foray into cover crops. I’ve seeded winter rye (Secale cereale), flax (Linum usitatissimum) and crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) over the veg beds. They’ve already sprouted, but the clover probably wanted warmer conditions and hasn’t germinated so well. In spring I’ll turn the growth over into the soil as green manure.

Hops.

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So this year I finally got hops (Humulus lupulus) from my bines*.

I wanted a plain hop, not one of those highly bred fancy varieties they use for making beer, so I ordered seeds a few years ago. Of ten seeds, only three germinated; abysmal as that sounds, it’s actually not too bad for hops.

Hops plants are either male or female, but only the female plants are generally considered desirable. The female flowers develop into the structures that humans use. Unfortunately, a hop plant grown from seed takes three full years (that’s four growing seasons) to flower. So it’s taken this long just to find out if I had any female (useful) plants.

Thankfully, I got my ideal mix from the three plants: two females and one male. Although one can use only the female structures, the male plant at least ensures that if I want/need any, I can get seeds from the female plants as well. Two female plants should produce enough strobiles for my needs. I expect/hope that as time goes by and the plants get more mature, they will produce more flowers.

As for why I planted them: I have mild seasonal insomnia. It’s not as bad as it could be, but irritating enough. Hops are a gentle, natural, but quite effective sedative. Hops pickers were notorious for being vague and sleepy all the time. And no, I did not plant them for making beer. I’m not particularly fond of beer.

As an aside, hops can also be decorative; there are ornamental varieties available too.

*Yes, bines. Vines climb by clinging to other things with tendrils; bines climb by using stiff bristles that catch and stick. Hops stems are so bristly that just dragging one across your skin can cause really painful abrasions; it’s almost like sandpaper.

Monarch.

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I released my first Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of this season today. The first in a couple years, actually, because I didn’t find any to raise last year or 2015. There are seven to go, but one of them worries me because the chrysalis looks damaged. The last one only started pupating today as well. It feels good to be raising them again.

Also, a friend came by to drop off a large piece of rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) from her garden. I did ask for it, but I’m not sure where to plant it now. I’ll probably keep it in a container.