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.
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.
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.
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.
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 garden is filled with birds including a couple of jays that have taken up residence.
They fly alarmingly close to where I sit under the branches of the fir tree that Glenn trimmed up this spring to give us room for an umbrella. This tree, planted between two cedars, was only four feet tall when we moved here. It seems like only yesterday but it is already 21 years ago. Now it towers above the cedars which have also grown to be mighty trees that loom over our house.
The birds have a mission: the back of the house is covered in vines as is the fence between our house and the neighbour’s pool. The vines are a magnet for sparrows that seem to find juicy snacks among the leaves. They have never nested there, but I hear that sparrows and other birds often do nest among Englemann’s ivy. What a perfect home: food and leafy shade right within beak’s reach. A female would never have to leave the nest!
But they are not the only feathered visitors to decorate the space in homey ways. Behind my chair, Glenn installed a bamboo screen for greater privacy, and here between the tree trunks we set up an urn-shaped fountain where the water bubbles up quietly then trickles down the sides to a small reservoir at the fountain’s base. A pale blue light shines on the bubbling water and plays with the shadows at night.
This fountain fascinates the chickadees that are not at all shy about landing right beside us for a drink. Glenn thinks he can train them to land on his hand and he may be able to do so. He is that kind of guy.
Now, after scolding me for half an hour from the branches high above, a small red squirrel gets up the courage to come down the trunk for a drink. When I turn my head in its direction, it hesitates and begins to run back up again. “It’s all right Squirrel. You can get a drink,” I murmur, inanely. It looks at me, head cocked, every muscle triggered to spring into action if needed, then instead of scurrying away, it proceeds to edge of the basin where it pauses and drinks deeply. I can see the movement of its gullet as it draws in the water. It drinks twice, then scrambles back up the trunk.
It makes you wonder if squirrels can read body language or perhaps our tone of voice. Why wasn’t it afraid? We were so close I could easily have touched it, and these little red squirrels are usually so timid. But maybe animals understand far more than we give them credit for.
People with the time to study these things are discovering that social animals have an extensive language. Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, a professor emeritus at North Arizona University, and a group of his students conducted a study of prairie dogs last year. Using computer technology, they were able to decode much of the prairie dog language to understand alarm calls and other “words” in the nuanced tones of their chatter. The prairie dogs had different “words” for different animals and they could distinguish between the threatening human and the harmless one – even when that person changed the colour of his clothing. They could tell the difference between circle and triangles.
Here’s a link to the CBC program where I heard this:
As Dr. Con Slobodchikoff pointed out, Why wouldn’t squirrels and birds have similar abilities? And they also seem to be able to make judgments about behaviour in humans. I earned the trust of a wren when I rescued its nest from a marauding bird. Ever after that, the wrens, usually shy little birds, allowed me to approach very closely without any fuss.
Makes your wonder . . .
(I wrote this blog three weeks ago. Forgive me for being so late in putting it up.)
The wind was like a knife whipping through the yard, dwelling in the open spaces, carrying whiffs of the Oklahoma tornadoes in its fierceness. But the sun shone intermittently, teasing enough heat out of the sky to bring a smile to the tulips.
And there was I, bending and dipping and lugging and hauling heavy containers around the yard, stooping to pop bright bedding plants into the freshly dug potting soil. It seemed so inappropriate; the cold morning was like an insult to the greenhouse pampered plants.
I can hear Gail Braun’s voice in my mind saying, “Don’t plant too early. If flowers get a chill, it will set them back for the year.” Gail plants thousand of annuals each year – her yard is a wonder of colour and bloom. Still, I have no choice. It is this weekend or two weeks from now when there will be nothing worth buying in the garden centers. I have to be in Toronto for the next ten days.
Barb comes by at 3:30 so planting is over for the day. Barb is 84 next week, a former model (mod-elle, she says, exaggerating the elle part), one of the local socialites of the 1960s and 70s. She is still beautiful, but a lifetime of smoking and two lung lobe removals have left her a bit breathless and unable to walk far. She loves to garden and the previous weekend, it was her garden that we concentrated on, except for last Saturday morning when Ian and I drove out to Portage la Prairie to visit Our Farm nursery. Here, a widowed single mom and her large family of 14 beautiful kids run a greenhouse tucked away in the middle of farming country – and here one of the boys has discovered the wonderful world of succulents. They have 275 varieties.
I am thrilled. I want one of everything, but I restrain myself to a several dozen. As I shop, we – or perhaps I should say, Ian — stop to chat with the many members of the family who are working around the greenhouse, watering and pruning and tallying up orders. Their young mother comes out to talk – she is beautiful, too. They are all so excited and enthusiastic. I am completely charmed; Ian falls half in love with the oldest girl. Near the front door to the nursery, where a large tank is filled with goldfish and koi and a giant coffee urn dispenses Tim Horton’s finest, the loveliest surprise resides behind the till: a large picture frame showcases an abstract “painting” of subtly coloured succulents. It’s not for sale, although they have had some amazing offers.
Now here we are, the following Saturday, Barb and I, and a lot of these fantastic plants. I have a large clay trough that once belonged to Barb – perfect for a planting of succulents. We choose them together and tuck them in looking for contrast in height and colour and texture. Barb is also an artist.
Then I haul over an old cracked birdbath that we fill with earth and plant a few more succulents to provide greenery for the fairies, in our fairy garden. A piece of broken mirror makes a pond. Bits of river stone and some coral we brought back form Mexico cover the bare earth while the sedums take hold. The chickadee that has taken up residence in the ceramic birdhouse by the kitchen window flits to and fro, not the least intimidated by our presence.
Thus we while away a couple of hours, absorbed in our make-believe world, oblivious to the wind, which is now only cool. The light begins to wane and trays and trays of annuals still await their final homes, but Barb and I are filled with contentment as we move into the warmth of the house and a meal of salmon and salad with Glenn.
Sunday dawned bright and clear with a promise of warmth in the air. After my radio show of CJOB and numerous errands, it was back to the garden. Ian and his kids came over and, in four hours, we accomplished what would have taken me four days. Now the dog work is done and I can play with the yard, moving this here and that there . . .
Meanwhile the hummingbirds have emptied the feeder. The Red squirrel has chased away its rival Gray. Under the budding apple tree, the hostas have poked their furled leaves through the soil and forget-me-nots are waiting to paint the garden blue. Native ferns stand fresh and green, the youngest still shyly holding their heads down. The bergenia have not yet sent out their stiff pink spikes. But the ornamental plum is fully dressed and the lilac may yet wait for me to come home before releasing all her heady scents.
Even though there was frost twice last week, spring is fully engaged now and I am immersed in the joy of the new season.
April 21, 2013. It’s snowing in Winnipeg. Again.
I just thought I’d add that for the record. I cannot remember such a slow spring, where the snow never seems to melt and keeps being supplemented by additional flakes of frozen rain.
Spring is struggling to emerge.
Yesterday, I watched a pair of chickadees cleaning out the wren’s house outside my kitchen window. I wonder if they are planning to take up residence there, although like wrens, they try out a number of locations before finally settling on one. We would prefer the wrens who are very energetic nesters and keep us delighted by their antics all spring long.
In my back yard, near the house, the snow has retreated thanks to heat from the house and a southern exposure. Here some little plants are trying to find the light but many are still cowering under last year’s debris. I will leave this in place to protect the plantlings and ladybugs for as long as I can. The green that is showing through is proof, though, that there is life under all that snow — in fact, I am told that the ground is frozen to only a six-inch depth this year, so when the snow retreats, we will see an explosion of life. It will be one of those springs where the plants simply leap from the ground, dragging their blossoms into view almost immediately.
And there is so much to look forward to this year in the plant world.
As usual, petunias have some new cousins and so do the calibrachoas. The breeders have been hard at work coming up with ever more fantastic combinations of colours and blossom shapes and sizes. There are new petunias which I will share with you over the next couple of weeks. Last year’s were wonderful, too, as you can see here. I loved the picotee petunias in magenta and white and purple and white. The striped reds and yellow calibrachoas were lovely and excellent performers. ‘Lemon slice’ the yellow one glowed in the garden.
I love petunias because they bloom so valiantly all summer long, keeping their brilliant colours and always looking fresh and eager, even as summer wanes and other plants fade. I always have many pots full of them and they often steal the show away from the more expensive additions.
The other great winners were the succulents and I plan to have a lot more this year. My little collection was much admired, but as I go along I am thinking of more creative ways to grow them.
The silver dollar tree (Eucalyptus cineria) with its blue gray coin-shaped leaves was very good last year, probably thanks to the hot conditions. I still have great stalks of it dried in vases as a side benefit.
When I go through some of last year’s photos, I can hardly believe that in just a few short weeks the world outside will be as bright with colour and as lush with green when now all is still drab and gray. This is the ugliest time of year, before the spring cleanup of all that gravel put down over winter to prevent accidents.
Yet, the miracle will happen and we will be singing:
Spring is sprung
The grass is riz.
I wonder where the birdies is.
The bird is on the wing!
Well that’s absurd.
I always thought he wing was on the bird!
And long ago, when just a tad, I penned this nonsense:
If a bug on a bud is a bee
The what is a tit on a tree?
They say it’s a bird,
But I call that absurd.
Is this bump on my chest called a knee?
– It should be anonymous!
As you can see, the prolonged winter has affected my brain.
It is the 31st day of March, 2013. The sun is shedding her hot breath on the decaying snow banks, which weep water. Corrosive and salty lake-sized puddles wash the bellies of cars and trucks. It is minus 7 Celsius, but the days are long now, more than 12 hours and 52 minutes today, and the sun is persistent, the snow no longer resistant, even though the air is still quite frigid. It will dip to minus 15 tonight, but the battle between sun and snow will continue tomorrow. Even with the air temperature hovering at just around zero, and much lower at night, the snow must soon be gone.
There is a lot of it to go. It is piled as high as second-storey windows at some rural locations I am told. Exposed to the winds, with no obstruction, the snow can drift into massive peaks. Here in the city though, it’s the snow ploughs that pile the snow up. They have buried my front garden under four feet of snow, sand and salt, scarring a dwarf evergreen in the exercise. I despair of its recovery this summer, poor thing.
In spite of all this and the reluctance of the winter air to leave us, spring is here. And I know that the stirrings under the earth are beginning. The evergreen trees have lost some of their winter blackness as the sun stirs the leaves into action, already manufacturing chlorophyll. On warm days in the heat of the sun, their sap is singing as is that of the maple and the birch and the elm and the cottonwood. I cannot get anywhere near the forsythia which is surrounded by high accumulations of snow, but I imagine the buds to be swelling and the flowers preparing to burst into colour at the slightest encouragement by warm spring winds. This year, there will be some flowers if only from those branches that have spent the winter under the snow. Because forsythia blooms on old wood, a very cold winter (below -38 C) can damage the flower buds of even the hardiest forsythia. And often damage happens once dormancy breaks and the shrub is hit with a heavy cold spell of sub zero temperatures.
But I live in hope. I am a gardener , after all.
“Words are birds
that fly in herds . . .”
So began a limerick I composed while listening to what I am sure was a weighty argument being made by an important MP at some obscure debate back in my old world and I am reminded of this now after a two-week period during which I have given seven talks, attended nine meetings, taken part in two conference calls and listened to one long-winded political announcement. My head is buzzing with conflicting messages.
But the words were driven from my mind as I drove to Transcona this week to speak with a group of ladies who have been meeting about gardens and other things for the past 44 years! Not only were they refreshingly interactive, but the day was beautiful, with the sun smiling through an archway of hoar-frosted elms that line the streets. It was a heavy frost that was falling in diamond flakes, each flake spinning in the sunlight as it fell, picking up bits of light and flinging it outward.
I feel that I can hear the frost on mornings like this, when the air is so crystal clear and there is music in each breath of wind. If it were like this every day, we could wait much longer for spring.
A week ago, I drove to Victoria Beach to do a talk. Agatha Wren made us lunch and showed us her garage greenhouse. The snow lay deep on the ground; it had been refreshed that morning and the sun was marking blue shadows on the white land. I listened to the silence and rejoiced in the birdsong that gave it substance.
These brief encounters with the real world keep me sane. Yesterday, I drove three hours through the winter landscape to the International Peace Gardens for a meeting. Then I drove home another three hours but by a different route, feasting my eyes on the rolling white landscape dressed up by the spring-urgent trees on either side of the road. The journey drove away the stress of the week. The time slipped by unnoticed with the scenery and a travel companion who spoke intelligently about a whole range of topics.
It is Easter Sunday. On Good Friday, we had a family dinner for 10 and the laughter echoes in my mind with sweetness. Today, Holly will come for dinner because she had to work on Friday. I have spoken with both my lovely daughters. Life is so full.
- Spring is Out There. Somewhere. (thegardensmallholder.wordpress.com)