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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.

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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.

Black pansies.

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I love growing plants from seed. When I see my seedlings growing, I get such a charge out it that’s hard to explain. I love growing things from cuttings too. The charge I get out of that is slightly different; I can’t really articulate it. Really, both are little miracles of life.

The garden industy depends on taking cuttings of various types to propagate identical cultivars for commercial sale. Seeds, on the other hand, are variable.

I’m rambling about this because I got a case in point example of seed variability within the commercial garden industry this year. I got seeds of an heirloom variety of pansy called ‘Black King’. As the name implies, the flowers are supposed to be very dark purple, almost black. I didn’t need a whole lot of plants, so I only sowed a few seeds; I now have five plants in bloom.

Interestingly, the bloom on the plants are slightly different. Most looks exactly as described: an incredibly deep, rich, velvety purple with a yellow eye. But there’s one that’s a lighter purple, which a white picotee (a white edge on the petals) and a paler underside, and it’s beautiful in its own right. And there’s one that really is almost black; in all my time hunting down black flowers, I’ve never found one that’s such a deep matte black.

Now this is something I really want to preserve by cuttings.

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.