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.

Orchids and rosemary

Snow on plant

The first snow of 2013 lies lightly on the skeletons of summer’s plants.

It snowed last night — really snowed — for the first time this year. Today the snow lies in fluffy white pillows on the detritus of last year’s garden.   There is a new lightness in the air and in the eyes of the people  you meet.   The suspended time, that dark time between October 31 and snow time, is over. Now, when the sun shines, it will have help from the snow to dazzle our eyes and lift our spirits.  With snow on the ground, we can get on with the business of Christmas and, with that behind us at last, we can look forward to ever-lengthening days until spring.

As lovely and peaceful as winter is, we still need our plant fixes.

Last week I talked about shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, and its wonderful benefits. We can get some of those benefits simply by adding some houseplants to our homes and our offices. I am always surrounded by plants; my bedroom is filled with green, so is the kitchen where a rosemary standard is blocking the sunniest window and an orchid is about to bloom again.

Rosemary and orchids can be daunting plants to nurture indoors, but it gets easier if you know what they need. I have killed both in the past through my misunderstanding. Guilt drives me to take better care of these poor prisoners that have only my careless hand to guarantee their safety through the short days of winter.

rosemary and orchid indoors

Rosemary and orchid. The rosemary is happy, the orchid ready to bloom.

Orchids

The orchid is a very forgiving plant if you understand it, though most are drowned by over solicitous caregivers who translate their vision of “life in the jungle” into the idea that a preference for humidity means these plants need a lot of water. New orchid owners often intuit that because orchids are tropical they also need a lot of heat and sunlight. The truth lies in knowing where the particular plant originates — some do grow in the dessert, some in rain forests. We need to begin by trying to emulate natural conditions.

Most of the orchids we buy here are Dendrobiums or Phalaenopsis. Both types sold here are from forests in Asia; dendrobiums come from as far north as Japan to New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia and phalaenopsis from the tropical regions of Asia. They both send up long, slender stems and put out magnificent sprays of lovely flowers. The phalaenopsis flowers look like small moths to some people and these plants are often called “moth orchids”. The dendrobium flowers look like little butterflies perching on a wire. Both can both bloom for months under the right conditions, but generally bloom six to eight weeks.

You will usually find dendrobiums in very small pots, totally out of proportion to the length of the stems  and the large spray of flowers. Don’t fret — they like it like that, but when the roots start popping out all over, it’s time for a move to larger quarters. This can be complicated and should be the topic of another day.

Contrary to our intuition, orchids need to almost dry out between watering — the potting medium should be dry to the touch at the surface but just a little humid if you explore further.

You can help meet humidity needs, if your house is very dry in winter, by setting the plants on a tray of pebbles filled with water.

Orchids like bright light but not direct sunlight, although a couple of hours of morning sun in an east-facing window will be enjoyed. Dendrobiums like it cool. Temperatures should be kept between 12 C and 15 C at night and 18 C and 24 C during the day. Placing the plant on an east-facing windowsill should do the trick of lowering the temperature overnight as the air will be cooler by the window.

Most growers advise feeding weekly at one-quarter strength (although I never feed mine) and, if  you live in northern climes, don’t feed from late fall until the days lengthen in mid-February. Remember, without enough light plants can’t use the fertilizer anyway and deadly salts can build up in the potting medium.

Orchid roots needs a lot of air, which is why they are sold in slotted pots. Water at the sink and let tepid water run right through and see that they are thoroughly drained.

Phalaenopsis are the most common of the orchids sold here. Their flowers have a more rounded form than the dendrobiums, but otherwise they are superficially very much alike. Their care is very similar to that of dendrobiums, although phalaenopsis can take marginally warmer temperatures to 28 C in the daytime, but out of the sun. Phalaenopsis does not grow from a pseudo bulb or a rhizome as does the dendrobium.

The flower spike emerges from between the leaves and, when blooming is over, you can cut the spike back to just  about a half inch above a node to encourage a branching spike to grow. Phalaenopsis will naturally send out air roots when it’s happy. You can keep it even happier by misting thee roots to hydrate them. Or you can just water the plant in the sink being sure to let it drain well.

These orchids grow on trees in nature and the way we grow them is actually upside down, so they will need staking.

Rosemary

Moving on to the  subject of rosemary, lack of sunlight is the biggest issue for the northern gardener in overwintering these plants. They need five to six hours of very bright light a day. A southern or south east window is best unless you have grow lights.

A rosemary that appears to be drying out and losing its needles towards the end of winter is probably slowly suffocating from lack of sunlight and a subsequent inability to photosynthesize. No amount of watering will cure it.

As for water, less is more, but don’t let rosemary dry out completely. Rosemary is a Mediterranean plant, and it needs good drainage, but it does need water — it rains in winter where they come from. A terra cotta planter is a better choice for them than plastic or ceramic, because terra cotta breathes, and Rosemary are accustomed to light, airy soil. If using terra cotta you do have to be more vigilant when it comes to water. Rosemary also expects it to cool down in winter. It can withstand temperatures as low as 10 C if the plant gets enough light, but a cool location next to a window works well, too.

You can fertilize as the days get longer using a liquid fertilizer according to package directions.

I once kept a rosemary for four seasons and wanted to weep when it died. I had thoughtlessly moved it from its sunny window.

Overwintering people

Much as I love winter, the sunless days can be hard to take. Thankfully, those dreary days are few once you get past December. A way to combat symptoms of SAD, though, is through interaction with plants. The tender care you give those such as orchids and rosemary throughout winter is therapeutic for the person as well as the plant.

Still, I long for the outdoors. There is an aspen wood near my house that calls to me and shinrin-yoku works in all seasons. Being frozen doesn’t stop the trees from sending out health giving chemicals — not that we even know what all the chemicals are. Researchers in Sierra Nevada found 120 chemical compounds in the mountain forest they examined but could only identify 70 of them.

It is only 4:30 in the afternoon as I look out the already darkening window to see the patient blue spruces holding light drifts of snow in their branches which are still turned skyward in a kind of welcome to winter. The scene in the pre-twilight is serene and peaceful. The odd snowflake flutters to the ground.

It beckons. It beckons.

snow on smokebush

The smokebush kept its leaves that offer a platform for the softly falling snow.

Animal talk

squirrel drinking.

Across the garden, a rival red squirrel has taken over the big bird bath.

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.

fountain

The bubbling fountain. The little red squirrel loves to drink from the basin.

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:

http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2013/06/21/learning-animal-language-from-prairie-dogs/index.html

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 . . .

Gardening dreams and August harvest

The view through my kitchen window

Dreams of gardens go drifting through my head at night; I am filled with flowers; enlightened by landscapes; swooning from scent. It is the overload of a day spent photographing lovely gardens for my magazines. My frustration is boundless – how can I teach that callous camera to see with my eyes, to capture the gardener’s meaning and give it back to her – or him – as a reward for the exquisite pleasure they have given me? Their gardens make my own efforts seem so puny, but I am glad that they have this power. The beauty they coax from the earth proves so much that is fine about the human race at a time when there are so many pressures for evil.

In my little garden, the annuals around the pool are laughing in the sunlight. Some are past their prime, but they had such a glorious youth that it is hard to blame them for feeling their job is done. The lobelia are very easily tired, the more so if they don’t get enough water, and addicted as they are to garden center fertilizing habits I have a hard time keeping up with their needs. The petunias are hardier, not minding the odd drought and the geraniums seem happy as long as there is plenty of room for their greedy roots and no competition from any other than their own kind.

Today is a lovely day, warm but not blazing and with gentle breezes that keep the mosquitoes at bay. I wish you could hear the music of the garden. When the wind blows, the wind chimes answer with tiny notes that suit the flowers around them. They have many voices, some low and cool, some higher and more delicately warm. They add variety to the whispers of the leaves and the rustlings of the smaller plants. Every now and then, there is a deeper creaking of a tree trunk, forced to speak by the pressure of the moving air. But the apples hang round and silent on their tree, concentrating on getting ripe.

Tomatoes are ripening on the vine

Tomatoes are also working toward that end. I see one or two turning red, but it has been too hot for their colours to develop. Tomatoes will refuse to ripen when the daytime temperatures are above 30 degrees C and the nighttimes, are above 20 C. The heat and, inversely, the cold below 10 C, interfere with the chemical requirements of the pigments carotene and lycopene that are responsible for the red colour in tomatoes.

Fingerling cucumbers will soon be 8 to10 inches long

 

 

 

 

Last week I picked two luscious cucumbers, about ten inches long each – they are the long, thin English type. Now I see two more showing promise at the top of the trellis. I give them a gallon of water to help them along.

My August garden would never win any prizes. The front yard is a disgrace – it is impossible to keep up with the watering so most of the perennials are simply trying to survive and don’t have the energy to bloom. This year the daylilies disappoint – even the weedy orange ones have not been spectacular. Ithas simply been too warm.

It is still some time before the faithful Clara Curtis chrysanthemum will appear in her pinkish-mauve dress, smelling somewhat unpleasantly of cat pee, but beautiful nonetheless. Still, the white David phlox is just coming into bloom and some blue allium are also showing. It is the annuals, however, that provide the colour now. This year, the vibrant oranges and reds and purples and yellows have added joy to every view.

Claire has gone home to Toronto but Ian’s mom is here from Jersey – I have promised to make them dinner, so I must fly away to the store. Glenn is still recovering (badly) from his second last bout with the chemo treatments. He wanted salmon for dinner and I am hoping he will feel well enough to eat it. Poor darling. He is so stoic about it all, but one more round then we hope it will be over and he can recover.

The long, long days of June

Now it is green – green with a depth of luxury that most people associate only with tropical places. Here in Winnipeg, at the joining of the mighty Red and Assiniboine rivers, there is an unexpected lushness in June.

The massive elms and cottonwoods that line city streets and haunt the riverbanks, the towering cedars and spruces and tidy ashes and lindens that guard our homes, all contribute to the affectionate blanket of green that wraps us in summer comfort, offering shade from the blazing sun and shelter from the temperamental winds that spring up spontaneously, gently at times, but on occasion with a frightening ferocity. Sometimes the wind is a great relief, especially when the air is heavy with humidity off the lakes. Then its cool fingers help dry drenched skin and caress fevered faces, lingering just long enough to provide a promise of the coming nighttime chill.

If June could last forever, no one would ever leave here. To be wrenched from so much beauty would leave too large a wound. The memory of our Junes keeps us happy through scorching July and golden August to the blaze that is September and October and then through the dark months until the glittering beauty of January and the final promise of spring.

It rains in June. This year it storms. Lightning and thunder and even hail have fallen, punishing us but nourishing the earth, releasing nitrogen for the plants and perhaps even rehydrating the parched soil if it rains long enough. When the sun comes out, it shines persuasively on this prairie opulence, calling on the spruces to lift their branches, the flowers to raise their heads, the small animals to come out and bask in its beneficence.

I do love June. I love the long, long days. I love the sound of the birds chorusing with the sunrise at four in the morning. I love the chattering of the squirrels and the whisper of the wind in the trees. I love the occasional rain coming down in harsh splatters, even when it tears the long awaited blossoms of my tree peony into silken, scarlet tatters only a day after blooming. There were no blossoms last year and only two this year. The rest were victimized by a fickle spring and late killing frosts. Such is the fate of the gardener.

It has been a strange year and I get strange reports from my fellow gardeners. I hear of trees that have green branches but no leaves, of apples that will not blossom and of lilacs that are weeks late into flower. The brilliant red Oriental poppies that usually bloom in May, this year have only just emerged (falling to the same fate as the tree peony) and hundreds of tulips thought it not worth the trouble to send up leaves. I have found some of them, lying inert and mushy under the soil, frozen and thawed repeatedly until there was no heart left in them for living.

Other plants, though, are fully pleased with themselves, looking well dressed and prosperous. The delphiniums are about to blossom and are upright and proud. Not so, the poor double pink peonies, which are prostrate on the ground – I was out of town and left them to their own devices when the sun coaxed them into opening too soon. If the rain stops, I will try to rescue what is left for my vase.

But peonies last longest when cut in the hard bud stage – you can even keep them, either wrapped or in a vase of cold water, for as long as six months so that y

The sun comes out

ou can please your daughter’s heart at her fall or winter wedding. Prevent mould by adding a few drops of household bleach to the water.

The Double Pink herbaceous peony is one of those bomb type peonies that were bred for the vase and always need staking. Peonies that can stand on their own two feet include the magenta ‘Big Ben’ and the lovely ‘Bowl of Beauty’, an anemone type peony. The Itoh intersectional hybrids are all upright without help.

This morning, the sun appeared. What heaven. It is heartbreakingly lovely.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring rain

I awoke to the sound of the rain this morning, just a few musical drops at first and then a hearty splash as it rained in earnest – for all of 15 minutes. Now it has stopped.

I worry about all the living things beneath the grass, only a little damp from the fast melted snow. The plants and the animals down there need rain; a good deluge lasting a few hours would soak the ground and clean the dusty trees.

It is very dry. Already this year, there are wildfires sweeping across the prairies and destroying homes and machinery. One man, 72, who lives near the peat bogs of eastern Manitoba, lost his 100-year- old home and outbuildings. He had no insurance because who would insure property beside a burning peat bog? And yet, the farm was fine for a century. Now he is homeless. The land that nurtured him for so long turned against him. It is that kind of year.

I gaze out the window above my desk. Raindrops cling to the window and to the leaf bud tips of the old cottonwood. And now – how lovely – the watery benediction has started again in a nice steady, gentle way, so good for the earth. The grass is flushing green in the dawn light and the earth is black with gratitude.

Teeming with life as it is, the rain must send shivers of delight deep beneath the surface, waking up the dormant bulbs and teasing into action the hair-like feeder roots of the trees and perennials. There are 600 million microorganisms in one gram of soil; what a party must be going on right now. All the tiny voles and moles, the snails and slugs and sleepy beetles, the worms and grubs coming out of their estivation will be stirring with a tingle of excitement, like a small electrical shock waking them from their long rest.

The frog-sicles, the frozen wood and tree frogs, will be thawing and the male frogs will be urgently looking for females.  In Manitoba, a whole list of frogs – the boreal chorus frog, the gray tree, the spring peeper, to name some – overwinter above ground and freeze into these frog-sicles each year.

It is quite an amazing thing: the heart slows, the blood stops flowing, there is no breathing, the eyes turn dead white, little frozen marbles in the frog’s head; 65% of the water in the body becomes ice. They start freezing, thanks to the aid of special ice nucleators – bacteria or blood proteins – before it even reaches 0 degrees C (32 F). This slow freezing gives the metabolism time to adjust. At the same time, high concentrations of sugar alcohol are forming in the cells. It works like antifreeze, creating a syrupy solution in the cells, which, surrounded by a protective layer of ice, do not completely crystallize.

Procreation is their first urge after the big thaw, coming even before food each spring. The urgency of this need has them singing now in ditches and other wet places, a sure sign that spring is here to stay – the frogs seldom get it wrong.

We are doing a television show

This spring, we will be starting a garden television show on our local community access channel. On Saturday, we filmed the first segment of the first show. We went to the garden center of our friend and client, Kevin Twomey of T & T Seeds and explored his seed catalogue operation. We also planted the first few trays of seeds that we will grow in his greenhouses and which will become part of the show.

Both the show and the planting party this weekend were spearheaded by our sales leader, Ian. The camera work this time was done by our manager, Steven. The planting was being done by members of the staff and Steven’s daughter, Kate. Several of our other staff was there for the planting and many of them will be part of working on the show – editing, filming, and setting up venues as we explore some of the city’s loveliest gardens during our 13-week season.

We’ll share some of the segments with you here. We hope we can capture the magic that makes Manitoba such a special place.