The colours of Whitehorse

The beautiful tapestry behind the chair of the Speaker in the Yukon Legislature reflects the stunning colours of the territory.

The beautiful tapestry behind the chair of the Speaker in the Yukon Legislature reflects the stunning colours of the territory.

How lovely the colours are this fall. My Amur maple is a blazing red and the Virginia creeper has turned maroon. A drive to Portage La Prairie yesterday  was visual music to the mind — the yellows are stunning this  year.

Speaking of colour, I was away in the Yukon a week ago and all the birches and poplars are a brilliant gold, glowing against the dark green of the conifers under a bright blue sky. The hills in the distance turn to purple and pink at sunset. The colours sear themselves onto your mind’s eye.

The townspeople of Whitehorse seem to appreciate this. They have taken advantage of the green and gold colour scheme by painting many of their buildings a gold colour to match the fall trees. Some of the buildings are trimmed with green. Touches of red show  up here and there on the odd white or gray building. The aesthetic of the land seems burned into the essence of the people who live here.

The town of Whitehorse has grown since I was  last thereabout 20 years ago. Its population is only about 30,000, but the citizens have everything they could want, including a local college that is doing some brilliant research into phytoremediation, the science of cleaning up heavy metals from ground water using plants and even bacteria. At the college, they are also testing and creating cold weather building products and, of course, testing methods to grow root vegetables in a short season. They spend a lot of time studying discontinuous permafrost and have to take this into consideration when they garden (the flower beds I saw were raised beds) and when they build.

I was very impressed with the way they are planning their city — no ugliness that I could see and the roads are as smooth as glass — very interesting considering their winters and the permafrost. The streets people took the time to add the little extra touches, such as stamping flowers and other motifs in odd places in the cement of their sidewalks and planters. Art is part of the city. In the middle of town, a monument to poet Robert Service stands in the midst of a raised flower bed. It is  a quirky metal sculpture of a table with an inkwell and a chair. There are many murals featuring the history and wildlife on the Yukon. Flowers overflowed planters; big displays of rugosa roses were still blooming in the superb, sunny weather . The daytime temperatures hovered round 22 degrees.

Downtown Whitehorse is snuggled between the  Yukon River and a ridge, so it is about eight blocks wide at its widest, making it seem very  intimate, although there are suburbs that now sprawl across the river.

G Libray in Whitehorse d Frank's dog vamp c Stunnig shades of gold and  green

The old railway and station have been turned into a charming feature paralleling a walkway along the river. It’s a lovely place for a morning stroll and along the way you can borrow a book from the tiny public library  set atop a riverside post. At rest on the river by the bridge at the end of town is an excursion paddlewheel,  looking not at all out of place here.

The town is quite cosmopolitan; walking down the main streets I heard a lot of German and French being spoken. Young people come to the Yukon, fall in love with the place and stay. Audrey McLaughlin, who many will remember as a former leader of the federal NDP and who has family here in Winnipeg, says the town just keeps growing and she can’t figure out where they all work because there is so little industry outside of mining and government.

But tourism has become big business with over 300,000 visitors a year. That means that retail is a big employer; the shops are locally owned and authentic. My favourite store, though, was the Riverside Grocery  which is filled with all sorts of exotic and unusual edibles and other goods, including a large assortment of imported candies.

Travellers come from everywhere. There is even a direct flight from Frankfurt to Whitehorse! Florida is another of their key sources for visitors. Visitors are treated well; I had the  best meal  at Antoinette’s Restaurant. It was a maple syrup sweet potato topped with grilled salmon and a thin layer of guacamole garnished with cilantro, all on a bed of sweet corn and other fresh vegetables. Exquisite!

The citizens are also an attraction, being fiercely independent and loving the land. My taxi driver grumbled that he resented all the people moving into the Territory, but there is still room for lots of individuality. Take Frank Turner, who runs Muktuk Adventures, a dog ranch for want of a better term. Frank, heavily bearded as one would expect from a dog musher, has run 14 Yukon Quest dogsled races from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska. He even won back in 1995. His kennel holds about 150 dogs which are treated like honoured guests at a dog hotel and his staff is an army of young people from all over to keep the dogs fed, exercised and interested.

In Whitehorse, out-of-doors is impossible to forget; it calls you. You want to be outside soaking up the colours and the fresh air that is so clear and clean it’s like champagne in the lungs.  Nature is omnipresent. Ravens rule the air and we saw a red fox walking across the college campus.

As for gardening, the growing season is short but intense with long hours of bright sunshine to move things along.

There is so much more to see and do than I have touched on here in this brief note, and in the summer  the fireweed will be in bloom adding fields of purple to the colour mix.  Winter will be just as fascinating, with the short dark days and long nights.  If you get a chance to go to the Yukon, take it.

Oh, perfect day

Morning glory

A morning glory growing in the shade.

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The pool reflects the turquoise sky.

Cuphea plant with  hummingbird.

If you look closely near the centre of the photo, you can see the hummingbird supping nectar from the firecracker plant.

chickadee

The chickadee adores the burbling water coming from this fountain. He will drink and then bathe even as I sit right in front of him, not two feet away.

DSC_0568 DSC_0574 DSC_0589 DSCN4956

 

The light is as clear as water from a tap this morning, the first day of September. This light has a quality of crystal; the purple leaves of the smokebush reflect it in a shimmery way and it intensifies the blues of the hyssop and the Russian sage.

There is much silently happening in the garden. The yellow pepper, now tangerine, celebrates its coming-of-age colour in the lemon sunlight. The orange Cuphea ‘Vermillionaire’, otherwise called the firecracker plant, flaunts its hummingbird-magnet flowers, announcing that it has replenished its sweet nectar in the rain yesterday.

Under the turquoise sky, the pool lies in shining reflection, the skimmer lazily attracting bits of floral flotsam to float across its glassy surface. Honey bees swarm the hyssop, ignoring the white phlox that looks tattered by yesterday’s downpour. Emerald green parsley spills over the edges of its large container, but the parsley worms have been absent this year although I planted unstintingly for their pleasure. Perhaps they will arrive later.

I saw just one monarch this summer, although the milkweed was decimated. (Reminder to self; plant a larger patch next year.) Ah! A quick check of the front garden revealed a second monarch, not large, but very real. The milkweed did its part.

Here and there around the yard, sky-blue morning glories shout from sunny corners and even from some shady ones. Ian started plenty to cheer our morning hearts. His yard, too, is filled with them he says.

The garden is a riot of activity as the squirrels chase each other across the fence and over the neighbour’s roof. A yellow finch just landed in the nyger feeder. The chickadees are braver, though, One is not afraid to come right down to the burbling fountain behind me to get a drink and have a bath. He scolds as he approaches because I am here where he wants to be. He comes anyway — the bubbly water is too tempting.

On the near side of the garden across the fence, the neighbour’s grand-dog complains intermittently, but bitterly, about my presence in the garden which he has come to regard as his own. He belongs to the mayor whose wife’s parents live here. As a 12-year-old, she and her sleep-over friends would flip their chewing gum over the fence from their pool and into ours. In spite of being a bratty pre-teen, she was lovely then and she is lovely now as a young mother.

Here and there among the flowers, rising and falling prettily in the sunlight, a little white skipper flits and now it is joined by a companion. The silence is broken by a light breeze animating a wind chime. Birds talk back and forth among themselves in the cedar and the apple tree. Every so often, a fir cone bops me on the head, a message to move! from one of the squirrels that also enjoys the bubbling fountain.

A hummingbird just popped by, buzzing between the Magenta and Victoria Blue salvias and the firecracker flower, which it likes best of all. There are a lot of hummingbirds this year, upstaging the finches as they flirt with the flowers.

All the work of gardening is worth it for these few sweet hours.

Removing shelterbelts

trees for shelterbelts

The maintenance of shelterbelts on agricultural land actually increases yield.

 

I was out at the International Peace Gardens yesterday for a meeting. It takes three hours each way, but it was a lovely drive except for blowing snow. “Blowing snow?” you say. “The wind was only 20 kilometres per hour.”

That is true, but along our route down Highway 2, farmers were clearing the last of the shelterbelts from their land. You could see the downed trees stacked up waiting for removal, leaving he land embarrassingly naked for miles and miles. The empty fields presented no barrier to stop the wind. It drifted across the highway, like wraiths invading on the air, polishing the surface and obscuring vision.

Charlie Thomsen who was with me and who has been making this trip for many years says at one time it was very beautiful with little bluffs along the drive and trees on either side of the road. You can still see vestiges of this from time to time. The trees gentle the landscape and shelter the road and the homes the brush often surrounds.

I am imagining that much of the land clearing is being done by the factory farmers who are trying to maximize profit. Perhaps they don’t remember the dust bowl of the 30s, when, with no wind breaks, topsoil went sailing in the dry winds that swept across the newly ploughed prairies, making things even worse in the Depression.

That is why the government of the day developed the PRFA or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration which was established in 1935. It tackled issues such as water preservation systems and the planting of trees as shelter belts. For years they funded the cost of doing so. That program was ended in 2013 and much of the good work it did in providing seedlings for the planting of shelter belts is being forgotten and abandoned as the land is cleared again by folks who misunderstand the danger of what they are doing.

Take a look at what Prof. Bill Remphry, Department of Plant Science at the University of Manitoba, has to say about shelterbelts. https://www.umanitoba.ca/afs/fiw/040923.html. Bill’s piece says it all, but we should all take careful note when he comments, ” Shelterbelts can increase crop yields by up to 45% depending on the crop and the environmental conditions present”. He goes on to explain that this is due in part to positive changes in the microclimate, but also in creating homes for a population of wildlife.

This was backed up by French researcher Louise Bellet, who in speaking to the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association annual conference in January 2014, said, “The benefits to agriculture in shade, snow capture and erosion control are well understood, but their value in terms of wildlife and pollinator habitat, water purification and nutrient management, as well as overall biodiversity, appear to get short shrift.” She continued, “In Europe, we plant shelterbelts for biodiversity conservation. That’s the main thing.”

This should sound a warning to all those who are anxious to remove every blessed tree. Instead of improving yield, you may actually be decreasing your crop production in the name of “efficiency”. There is a compelling case to me made for the role of shelterbelts in moisture retention. It simply isn’t true that there is a net loss of water and nutrition to trees. They help maintain balance in the soil, taking up water, but returning it to the atmosphere along with oxygen through expiration. Nutrients are returned with the shedding of their leaves in fall. More, shelterbelts trap snow on the land, contributing moisture in springtime. Shelterbelts also reduce wind damage to growing crops.

And of course, there is the “minor” issue of people dying on the snow-blinded roads in winter — some of them the very people or family members of those who so willfully removed the trees in the first place.

Just as with the loss of milkweed due to the spraying of GMO crops, mistaken agricultural practices can have many unintended results. The depopulation of monarch butterflies may not seem like much to the busy farmers dealing with life’s everyday realities of making a living, but perhaps their loss should be viewed more as the canary in the mine; a signal that death is stalking and that we should take note.

There are newer and better methods of improving crop yield. Husband nature. Mould it and work with it — not against it. It’s a wondrful partnership if we respect the rules.

The plight of the monarch butterfly

The monarch butterfly needs saving. 

A monarch caterpillar, fat with milkweed.

A monarch caterpillar, fat with milkweed.

 

The sound of satisfied munching is clearly audible as a fat caterpillar eats its way along a milky milkweed leaf. This voracious critter seems of a single mind: eat, eat, eat! Its striped coat of chartreuse, charcoal and creamy white is starkly beautiful against the gray-green foliage.

Two weeks later, a flash of brilliant orange wings, rimmed with black, captures the sun and reflects its light as it dances among the flowers. The monarch butterfly is blessing our garden.

Just a few years ago, the light-as-air butterflies were so populous that their collective weight broke the branches of the fir trees they roosted on in their Mexican winter home. In 1996, swarms of the insects covered 44.5 acres in Mexico’s protected Oyamel Forest Park. Last year their numbers had dwindled drastically; the butterflies covered a mere 1.65 acres.

The monarch population has tended to fluctuate over time, but the trend recently has been to ever diminishing numbers. Many factors are to blame: illegal logging in Mexico destroying their winter home, cold weather and late springs, a drought in Texas reducing migrants up the west coast, but most significantly, a dwindling supply of milkweed growing along their migratory routes and at their final destination. About 60 percent of this once abundant plant has disappeared from the margins of fields and roadways thanks to herbicide spraying for genetically modified crops, which are bred to be resistant to the chemicals. Non-resistant, natural plants such as milkweed are collateral damage, disappearing from their already squeezed native habitat.

Milkweed is the only plant where the female monarch butterfly will lay her eggs because it is the only plant the emerging caterpillars will eat. This may be because toxins in the milkweed’s milky sap also provide the insects with protection against many predators. Without milkweed, there will be no monarchs.

A flutter of monarchs on their favourite flower: goldenrod.

A flutter of monarchs on their favourite flower: goldenrod. Photo by Arlene Dahl.

Milkweed is also a wonderful plant with beautiful flowers that will enhance any perennials patch. 10 Neat Things about Milkweed.

It is not only milkweed that the toxic crop sprays eradicate. Wildflowers of all types are among the other casualties. Wildflowers supply the nectar that sustains the adult butterflies. If the monarch population is to be maintained, the caterpillars and butterflies need both milkweed and wildflowers to survive.

We can help by planting the right things. Adult monarch butterflies love to sup nectar from flowers such as phlox, goldenrod, penta, lantana, liatris, gaillardia, bee-balm, sedum, daylilies, yarrow, mint, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, red clover, verbena, asters, zinnias, Joe Pye weed, ox eye daisies, columbine, cardinal flower, honeysuckle and the pretty little grey-headed coneflower with its golden rays to name just a few (the glamorous hot hothouse bedding plants don’t offer much nectar). You can also put out overripe, mushy bananas, oranges and bits of watermelon to provide a dining table for the butterflies. Plant flowers such as sedum and zinnias bloom that late in the year. This is important for the last generation of butterflies, providing a rich source of nectar so they can build up a good storage of fat to begin their migratory journey back to Mexico.

A monarch visits the garden with a flash of brilliant orange wings.

A monarch visits the garden with a flash of brilliant orange wings.

Hot topic at Summit

Not long ago, a group of concerned Canadians brought forward the issue of the declining monarchs to the international stage and the President of Mexico responded by declaring that his country would deal with the illegal logging in Oyamel Park, but that it was up to America and Canada to deal with the crop spraying and the Monsantos-type companies that are responsible for the GMO crops and the chemical sprays that keep the crops insect-free.

The issue was raised again at the recent Canada, Mexico, United States summit and the three leaders pledged to strike a task force to devise a plan. “We have agreed to conserve the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,” Mexico’s Peña Nieto said.

Good news, but while they deliberate, what else can be done?

Order a subscription. Get FREE Milkweed seeds.

At Pegasus Publications and through our Local Gardener magazines, we have decided to pitch in and do what can be done to make sure the butterflies have a place to land and set up housekeeping when they arrive back here this spring. We are urging everyone we know to plant milkweed in their gardens as a start.

We have created a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheMonarchButterfly where people can compare notes and share where they have seen butterflies or caterpillars this spring and summer.

We have also created a blog about the butterflies and we invite guest writers to join us in telling stories about their experiences with these wonderful creatures. You can get involved here. http://savethemonarchbutterfly.wordpress.com/

I am talking about the butterflies on my radio show on CJOB Sunday mornings at 8:00 and we are carrying material in our other magazines and publications. We are also looking for partners to help us get the word out. This spring, we will have displays and seeds at the many garden shows we attend. We are also waiting for Save the Monarch bracelets that many of our garden centre friends and associates are planning to sell on behalf of the butterflies as a fundraiser so we can buy more seeds to give away.

For every subscription purchased to one of our magazines and we will donate a package of milkweed seeds FREE. Just go to my website at www.localgardener.net  to order a subscription to the magazine of your choice. If you already have a subscription, order a copy of The Book of10 Neat Things and we will send you the FREE milkweed seeds when we send the book.

Our hope is that we can convince many, many Canadians to plant milkweeds and make a difference to these amazing animals. You can learn more about them here. 10 Neat things about Monarch Butterflies.

The plants themselves are beautiful and the flowers are very impressive both as cut flowers and as dried. Children are enthralled by the life cycle of the butterfly – who wouldn’t be thrilled to watch the magic of this butterfly emerging from its transparent chrysalis, then slowly unfolding and spreading it wings to dry? And it is hard not to be inspired by the tale of their brave journey south to their winter home — sometimes they have to fly 3,000 miles to reach their ultimate destination. About 10 per cent, we are told, even survive long enough to make the return journey, though most of the spring visitors are the third generation of the butterfly that left your home garden last fall.

One of my staff recently asked me, “Why is it so important to save these butterflies?” The answer is simple: all things are connected and what happens to one thing happens to all the rest.

Or as someone else said so eloquently:

“This we know – the Earth does not belong to man — man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

“Whatever befalls the Earth — befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life — he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

– Ted Perry, Screenwriter, 1971, interpreting and expanding upon the words of Chief Seattle from speech that was made in 1854.

The female monarch butterfly is lighter in colour than the male.

The female monarch butterfly is lighter in colour than the male.

 

A man of stone

koi fish in stone

Todd Braun’s koi have been immortalized in stone. Behind the fish is the arbour which used to house Penelope, who was spirited away by an admirer. Photo by Todd Braun.

Twenty-five years ago, Todd Braun felt compelled to turn from farming to working with granite.

His heart has always been captivated by stone which to him is pulsing with life and history. As a boy, he warmed himself near the floor-to-ceiling fieldstone fireplace in his parent’s home. As a young man, he enjoyed working on a stone restoration project at historic Lower Fort Garry. His romance with stone deepened as he helped a friend build a stone castle in southern Manitoba.

Today, Todd makes his living from sculpting lovely things from stone. Gigantic granite rocks hold secrets vibrating with life, longing to be released. They speak to Todd and he listens.  In the early days of his work, he hollowed out polished basins from hefty pieces of granite and he caused big, rugged rocks to let sun-warmed water flow forth through their core and trickle down their outsides. He was thrilled by the way, at certain times of day, the sun could shine through doughnut holes carved out of rocks. He created monuments to that fundamental fact, playing with sun angles and the size of the openings.  He uses smaller pieces of rock to make lanterns in which to burn candles that cause the rock to glow and the light to be magnified.

As Todd and his wife, Lisa, slowly built their home and business, Todd turned his yard into a studio to show off his works. Gigantic stone supports hold up the lintel of a gateway that has been erected at the entrance to their private yard. There are stone benches warmed by the sun to rest on and, at one time, a large stone table centred the yard where he and Lisa have been known to serve lovely home-baked bread, cheeses and mellow wine.

The garden surrounding their home is a curious mix of wildflowers and unexpected artworks of rock. Todd loves wood almost as much as stone and he has a special affinity for the natural plants that grow around St. Joseph, Manitoba, near Altona, where he and Lisa live on their farm. In one corner of the yard, a large female face of stone used to be suspended from an arbour above a fire pit. Her name was Penelope, but she seems to have been spirited away by an admirer. The stone population here has been known to ramble, plucked away for a price by an audience moved by its power and beauty.

stone sculpture

A still water granite bowl. Todd Braun photo.

To one side of the house, Todd created a great pond edged with stone and filled with koi. He likes to sit on the edge of this pond and think about what he sees and how he will bring the next of his projects to life. Not long ago, his koi were immortalized as an enormous stone fish, which Todd can admire from his viewpoint across the water.

Todd has caused pathways to meander through his yard where trees and plants can show off his stone carvings: his  stone fountains and the still-water basins and, in one place, a huge hump-backed rock bearing a spine of little rocks. It’s a twenty-first century dinosaur that seems completely at home here in the partial shade. Stone art is everywhere: carved faces set on pedestals and beautifully shaped rocks, some featuring peep holes or sun-catchers, depending on your point of view.

At the end of the driveway leading from the road is the former barn which is now Todd’s workshop. It is fitted with heavy-lifting pulleys and platforms upon which he can work to split and polish the stones with the various saws and grinders and other implements of his art. He sometimes entertains guests on another stone table set up under a wooden arbour outside the studio.

Todd is a big man, understandingly physically strong, but surprisingly poetic in his view of the world. He radiates a calming stoicism born of the land he works with and his roots that go deep into the prairie soil. His mother, Gail, lives not far away on the family farm, where she indulges her passion for plants and colour in a garden that blazes with bright annuals: coleus, petunias, zinnias and begonias. She seems his polar opposite, but perhaps not. Gail, too, has a yen for rocks and her garden provides a stage for one particularly lovely, castle-shaped rock that she found in a local ditch. She admires her son’s garden. He admires hers.

Lately, Todd has taken to growing potatoes and his fertile brain is absorbing all he can learn about the humble spud. From time to time, he will send out a newsletter to his friends, and one arrived yesterday:

“I looked out one frosty morning to see the fish, under the ice and…. on their sides – YiKeS! I think this particular display was the fish’s way of saying – ‘Help!!!, save us!, final notice, get us out of here ASAP!’ I thought they were done for but, amazingly, we lost only one fish out of 28! They are now happy, warm and begging for food in their pond in the basement.

 The Elemental Landscape cats are spending most of their time in their insulated winter box – very disgusted with the bitterly cold weather. Hendrik, a charismatic stray, applied for a position this spring. After an extended trial period, Hendrik has taken up official residence in the workshop… he isn’t carving stone yet, however he’s very keen to learn. Wilma, our house cat and queen is doing great. She had many adventures this year, going on road trips, exploring quarries and generally enjoying her royal status…

We didn’t make a lot of changes in the garden this year but some of you may have noticed squash and potatoes filled many of the beds. Recently I’ve become fascinated by heritage potatoes – Purple Peruvian, La Ratte and Rose Finn fingerlings. Beautiful and tasty . . .“

Todd’s sculptures are making their way into a lot of Winnipeg gardens and are the iconic feature in many Manitoba town squares, including some in the city. Commissions like this are how he manages to stay alive and indulge his love for stone.

Todd Braun is a fascinating fellow, a true Manitoban. He is charismatic, creative, unique, and fearless in pursuing his passions. I share him with you today as a mark of my regard for his courage and his work. He doesn’t have a website, but I am encouraging him to start a blog so he can share with you first hand.

Happy New Year to all! May 2014 bring everyone joy, prosperity and peace.