Confining cities: a giant falls

Cedars covered with snow

Snow flowers on cedars.

There is a hole in my garden this morning. When I look out the window in front of my desk, missing in the scene are the strong arms of the old cottonwood tree. It was felled this past week.

It was not an easy departure for this giant; It took two days and six people to bring it down, but at last it surrendered with a heart-felt thud as the huge trunk hit the ground. You could feel it all through the house which shook with the impact. It was only 43 years old.

Sadly, that’s the way with hybrid cottonweeds. They grow quickly, live vigorously and die early. Out in the open, without the restrictions of city life, native poplar trees can reach 100 years or even more. But in the city, the hybrids face all sorts of impediments to their growth and they become susceptible to disease, soil compaction and limitations on their root growth. In the case of our cottonwood, it had vastly outgrown its living space; it was beginning to drop twigs and branches at an alarming rate and my husband had to make one too many calls to the roto-rooter-type people to clean the sewer lines of its adventitious roots.

We don’t look forward to coping with those live roots over the next summer as they will continue to spring up throughout our lawn, but that too is the nature of this wonderful tree. With a short lifespan, you need additional survival methods and, with a root system that sends up suckers even after the main stem has been removed, chances for rejuvenation are that much greater.

I don’t want to think how the birds will mourn him this summer, though.

Poplar being felled.

The poplar coming down.

Poplar felled.

The poplar comes down with a thud.

Nobody talks to the crossing guard

It’s a beautiful winter so far this year. White flowers of snow have fallen every other day, cleaning up the  landscape and hiding the dirty sand laid down by the City. Of course, we need the sand, especially after the ploughs have polished up the streets and removed the soft snow cushions at the curb edges that helped us to stop at corners.

I shouldn’t complain. It’s probably that I have a bias against high-density cities and I have never been an acolyte to the June Jacobs school of thought. Her anti-utopian vision of bee-hive living is in complete opposition to the Cities Beautiful way to which I am passionately committed. While proponents claim that the “economics” of high density living offer advantages, I have severe doubts about this over the longer term and I worry about the stress such an environment must ultimately take on citizens. I shudder to think what those towers of glass and cement will look like 50 years from now — but anyone who has seen the wasteland of downtown Detroit will have some idea.

And now there is a new threat to the City Beautiful concept: artificial claddings made of a styrofoam-type material that has a lifespan of about 15 years — what happens when this material gives out? The mental images are not pleasant.

As for me, I hug the edge of the city and would move outside if I had the choice, but businesses and personal economics keep me where the streets are paved. If it were up to me, I would spread the city out even further, with lovely parks and treed spaces to separate neighbourhoods — sort of like Charleswood, where I and my neighbours live in harmony with trees and breathing space. In my small subdivison built in the 1970’s, there are seven parks. People walk all the time and they get to know one another. They leave their porch lights on at night, a habit I find wonderfully warming and welcoming.

June Jacobs and compact cities fans claim that high density living promotes a sense of neighbourhood. Hmm. When my youngest grandchild was born in Toronto, I stayed for some weeks with my daughter while she was recovering from the birth. Every day I would walk six-year-old Julia to school and, when we crossed the Danforth, I would always say good morning to the crossing guard. She would say good morning back and one day even spent enough time to tell me that she was originally from Winnipeg.

But one morning, Julia floored me by asking in a six-year-old voice full of censure, “Why do you talk to the crossing guard, Grammy?”

“Shouldn’t I?” I asked, mildly amused.

“No,” she replied, emphatically. “Nobody talks to the crossing guard.”

It made me think about the alienating impact of population density where people seem to need to protect whatever diminishing space they have by not speaking with strangers.

I compare that with going to our local garden centre yesterday to buy a Christmas tree. Children were running about, admiring the plants and soaking up the atmosphere. They talked to strangers and strangers talked to each other. What a lovely freedom from fear.

Note: The above was written December 1, 2013, and just never got published. The hole left by the cottonwood is now filled with perennials on a temporary basis while I decide what new tree to plant. The promised sprouts did spring up and kept Glenn and I pulling them all season long. But the grass, no longer quite so out competed, is making a comeback.

And I still feel the same way about density in cities.


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. 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 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.

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  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.


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.


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:

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 . . .

Of mating squirrels, Peace Gardens and sudden snowfalls

The view from my ktchen window in summer. Today, it is whie with sow but I see the colour in my mind's eye.

The view from my ktchen window in summer. Today, it is white with snow but I see the colour in my mind’s eye.

Sunday, March 3

I slept with the windows open last night and awoke feeling wonderfully refreshed this morning, even though it was well below zero both outside and in my bedroom. I awoke once or twice and was lulled back to sleep by the sound of the wind chimes in the apple tree. Surely this is a sign of spring. The rotting snow is another sign, and while it reveals the ugliness of well-sanded streets before spring cleanup, you can’t help but be heartened by the length of the days and the activity of eager small animals. The rabbits are very busy and, I suspect, so are the squirrels.

You know about the promiscuity of the female squirrel, don’t you? She is in estrus for only one day, but she makes the most of it. She announces her interest by leaving a scent trail that can attract many suitors and she doesn’t turn any of them down. While they play chase games, she is easily caught and she will mate with 4 to 16 different males in one day. Scientists haven’t found any identifiable survival or population increase reasons for this behaviour, but since it’s only once a year who can say its not just for fun.

Some red squirrel female don’t even mate in their first year, although others will mate twice in one year but most mate once a year and bear as few as one to as many as five offspring.

This behaviour is interesting because squirrels do not have a lengthy life span — they are prey to cats and birds  such as owls and goshawks. Most don’t make it much past year two. While they can swim, they can’t swim indefinitely as I have learned to my sadness in the skimmer of our pool. I must build another squirrel and chipmunk ladder this spring.

This morning, my guest on my radio show on CJOB was Doug Hevenor, CEO of the International Peace Gardens. The Peace Gardens, which straddle the U.S. Canadian border between North Dakota and Manitoba, opened in 1932 in the name of everlasting brotherhood between our two countries which pledged never to take up arms against one another.

Doug spoke about the beauty of the Gardens and what he calls the symphony of an aspen grove and poplar forest in the park, where the leaves conspire to make wonderful, mysterious music. It’s a magical place, says Doug, who described how a mist rises in the park and often causes hoar frosts that glisten in the rising sun. He said that the weather there is unusual in that winds seem to swirl around the park affecting the space differently than other and nearby places. This may be due to the fact that it is in the southeast corner of Turtle Mountain Provincial Park. Here, the land rises to over 700 metres above sea level, the southern edge of the great glaciers that receded from Manitoba 10,000 years ago.

It rains and snows here more than in surrounding prairie lands and one-third of the park is covered by shallow waters, some of them small lakes that disappear in the heat of summer. The International Peace Gardens is tucked into a southern corner of this interesting land. I will revist there this  March 30 and many times after that as a privileged member of the Board of the Peace Gardens. I hope that I may be of use in serving this lovely and too often forgotten space.


It snowed . . . and snowed some more.

It snowed . . . and snowed some more.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

It snowed last night. And it snowed some more. We, in Charleswood, were blessed with 19 cm, a mark of pride for those who gallantly dug us out. The ironic Manitoba winner of the most snow last night was, however, Miami, Manitoba with 56 cm.

Already by late this afternoon many of the streets were bare and there were fresh puddles to delight children. The city says it will spend $4 million clearing the snow on residential streets starting on Thursday. Why? The sun will do it better and much less expensively. The benefit from the snowfall was eye-relief from the worst of the sand be-smattered snow banks.

Only 19 cm fell last night, but lovely snow filled the back garden and obliterated all traces of the pool.

Oly 19 cm last night, but lovely snow filled the back garden and obliterated all traces of the pool.

Now go back to the  top of the page and feast your eyes on sunshine from my kitchen window . . .


The wanton ways of flowers in springtime

The cosmos seems to say, "Ta da!" as it opens to the sun.

The cosmos seems to say, “Ta da!” as it opens to the sun.

I love the wanton ways of flowers in springtime. They like to open up and spread their petals when nobody is looking, but now and then on a shining morning I catch them flaunting their freshness.

They are so playful and replete with joy as they offer themselves to passing pollinators. Some make me laugh at the way they seem to sing “Ta da!” as they fling out their petals in a burst of sun-warmed enervation. There is a rhythmic dance to the way they emerge, all bright and flawless, some enticingly perfumed, dressed in their blazing colours. Even in the rain they can’t restrain themselves, unfolding more slowly, looking dewy and innocent.

Some, the peonies, unfold their petals one-by-one in a lazy sort of way. They can afford to take their time, there are so many of them. The daisy types, though, are more spontaneous, more willing to bare it all in one grand gesture. Petunias shyly un-crumple like poppies but their wrinkled petals soon turn satin smooth in the sun.

"Pick me! Pick me!" the lily begs of the bee.

“Pick me! Pick me!” the lily begs of the bee.

Tulips unfurl in a tentative way, gradually revealing their hearts to the sun until, throwing caution aside like an unwanted blanket, they spread their petals wide in abandon. Lilies do the same, stamens reaching for any passing bee. “Pick me, pick me!”

Zinnias unroll their petals more sedately; anthers slowly unbend into an upright position like dancers in the Rite of Spring.

The parabolic crocuses are very forthright in their seduction by the sun. Long before the snow has completely left the ground, the crocuses entice fingers of sunlight to reach inside, concentrating the warming rays into the centre of the flower to fuel early seed production. This is serious business for the crocus; a late heavy frost can put it out of production for the year.

This weekend, there was a heavy breeze on Saturday that carried traces of the coming spring. It felt like March, during those blood stirring days when you know that the sun will win in the end and that all the snow will soon wither and leave, shrinking and slipping away into gray puddles, its dazzling white now past history.

Today, there is a blizzard outside the city limits. People are stranded in truck stops on the highway just a stone’s throw away because the roads are sheer ice and visibility is zero. That’s part of the coming springtime, too. This is when we usually get our deadliest winter storms that can dump several feet of snow overnight and then, aided by a biting wind, fling back it at faces and unprotected spaces like a sand blaster.

But this rebellion is all for naught in the end. The winds will die. The sun will win. The snow will melt. For a time the earth will be laid bare, looking barren but only hiding its secrets: the teeming life already thrumming beneath its surface.

Gently, the warmth of the sun will penetrate the earth, stroking awake the billions of bacteria and protozoa, and fungi, the millions of nematodes, worms, beetles, grubs, slugs, ants and spiders and all the beauty and richness of the eco system that surrounds the roots of our plants. The world beneath the surface of the earth is so many times more diverse and rich than our own. No wonder the plants want to reside there. Why be concerned about mobility when everything they need is so ready-to-root? The symbiotic relationship plants have formed both below and above ground allows them to exploit the best of both worlds.

And they put it all to such wonderful use, providing us with food for the body and food for the soul.

The crocus knows how to entice fingers of sun into its centre to start seed production early.

The crocus knows how to entice fingers of sun into its centre to start seed production early.


Lupine buds ready to burst into the open.

They are bright and flawless when they emerge.

They are bright and flawless when they emerge.


A zinnia unfolds its anthers that look like dancers unbending in the Rite of Spring.

They all add food for the soul.

They all add food for the soul.