And Now It’s Winter


One morning, just two weeks ago, there were snow-flowers all over my yard, clinging to the trees and shrubs and scattering over the ground. These were soft, fluffy clusters of snowflakes that sparkled in the sun, their glitter the only hint that they were snow and not some gift of cotton from the sky.

Now these fluffy bits have all disappeared, gobbled up by the real snow that will stay for the winter. It is not as playful. There is a hard edge to it that says, “I mean business!” Its relationship with the sun is stronger, more of a partnership. The snow rejects the sun with vigour, not succumbing to the bright rays, but tossing them back to the sky with an arrogance born of the knowledge that it is now the stronger of the two.

But, oh . . .both are beautiful.  And I am so glad to see the snow, to feel that hard edge of winter bite into the daylight, to see the brilliance of the weakened sun as it reflects off the snow. Now the trees loom larger against the sky as they sleep the deep sleep of dormancy, their idle limbs rimed with snow.

Under the snow, near the ground, small caverns are opening up. Crystals form and gather as they slightly melt from the heat of the earth, leaving little tunnels behind where small animals scurry about in the half twilight looking for food. Overwintering insects lie curled up in leaves and under debris here; juicy stems and half frozen leaves provide winter forage.

It is quite warm under the snow, hovering around or just above 0 degrees Centigrade as long as there is a decent covering of insulating snow —  a foot or more keeps the temperature constant. Voles and mice and shrews find it quite liveable. They create air holes to let in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide. You can find the holes – they are about finger size – and foxes, owls and coyotes can too. They use the holes to hunt for winter food. Ermine and weasels will dive right in and chase the voles in their own tunnels. Larger mammals will wait to detect sound or movement, and then quickly make their strike.

The Inuit call this snow layer the pukak. It can extend up about 10 cm or four inches above the ground. It won’t form in well-mown, debris-deprived lawns. Nor does pukak do well in moist climates such as that of Newfoundland, but here in Manitoba, in a perfect winter, in years where snow falls thick and fast and stays until spring, the pukak teems with life.

The skies come alive now, too, the clouds showing pink and rose in the morning and evening light. When the daytime sun shines, it takes on a curious, pale lemon glow that paints the air with well being. The quality of sound is affected and a crystal silence falls on a winter’s day. At night the silence seems deeper, as if we could hear beyond the shelter of earth’s atmosphere into the universe itself.



Nov. 27, 2011



Thinking About Snow

“Now the snow can blow,” said Glenn as he came in from doing the last of the chores. He tucked away all the breakable containers and puts plastic bags over some because he uses them to weigh down his pool cover.

Glenn has the breakable pots tucked into black garbage bags to keep them from getting wet and going through the damaging freeze-thaw cycle.

It’s a grey November day, the only colour a blaze of orange from the pretty summertime lime Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea Nana’ in my front yard. This is the beauty that never gets more than a couple of feet tall and can be trimmed, if you are of a mind, into a well-behaved ball that stands out incandescently in the garden. I have three of these barberries. The largest is about seven years old. The other two are at least three years old and still very small, under 12 inches – they seem to take a long time to establish here in Manitoba. I can’t wait until they are all big enough to be showstoppers in the garden in summer and in fall.

The brilliant little barberry that blazes in the grey November day.

It always makes me happy to see them, although I have never seen them bloom or produce berries. But their smiling foliage is enough.

Snow Days

The other morning, as I left the house to go to my office, I noticed a scattering of white marbles all over the lawn. It looked as though we had been visited by a herd of albino bunnies over night, but it was just hard little lumps of hail. It keeps trying to snow, to do its natural thing here, but not just yet.

I read the other day that, before a cloud can produce rain or snow it must produce ice. The ice droplet forms around a nucleator (a particle that becomes the nucleus of a group of water molecules, in this case). Sometimes the nucleator is a speck of dust or a mineral, such as salt, but now it is believed that, more often, the nucleator is biological in origin, often a bacterium called Pseudomonas syringae, a plant pathogen the causes bacterial speck, a nasty disease, on tomato plants.  It can also attack canola and other plants.

Dust and salt particles work as nucleators at very cold temperatures whereas the biological catalysts do their job about around or just below 0 degrees C. Nucleation is also what allows a frog to freeze into a “frogcicle” (see Ten Neat Things, November 4, 2011) and it’s the same thing that causes a diet cola to explode when combined with Mentos candies).

Many of the bacterial nucleators are pathogenic in nature and falling to earth can break the walls of the plant cells they feed upon. In addition to tomato speck, Pseudomonas syringae can also cause frost damage to plants. On the other hand, a little scientific manipulation can also make the bacteria useful in protecting citrus crops from frost damage.

Bacteria may be implicated in drought

Without the biological vectors, rain has to get as cold as -40 C before it falls. The bacteria, however, cause ice to form at a much higher temperature so that rain can fall in temperate and even hot regions.

A woman named Cindy Morris, an Agriculture Plant Pathologist at the French National Research Institute, has proven that bacteria are good at making water freeze. She cooled a tube of water to about -6 degrees Celsius, without freezing it. When she dropped some bacterial culture into the tube, the water froze completely in less than two seconds.

Some scientists postulate that a lack of bacteria can create drought. If land is too closely grazed, for example, there is no host for the bacteria and hence no rain.

This hypothesis about bacteria and rain has been around for about 25 years, but it has only recently that there has been a renewal of interest and study on the topic of what is now being called bioprecipitation.

It is part of the wonder of gardening and biological life that never ceases to capture my imagination.

November 6, 2011

October Skies and 200 Bulbs

The sky, these October days, is a dream of pink, morning and evening as the sun rises and sets. This blush of light stains the scudding clouds that hint of coming snow, not so far off now.

There is a sense of urgency in the air. Hurry and get the gardens to bed. Plant the bulbs, empty the containers (so hard, since many of them contain flowers still happily blooming), put the garden ornaments away. Overhead now, we can see gatherings of ducks and geese, making their way in flocks to and from the farms beyond the city to glean from the harvested fields and some to rest in the river a block away.

The backyard birds are quiet, probably visiting the forest for the fall harvest of berries and bugs. They will return soon enough.

There are still leaves on most trees, although we had 90 km winds last week. Even the trees that are almost stripped bare have little red or gold jewels hanging from the tips of branches. They look like decorations against the branches of neighbouring blue spruce.

I dug up much of the cranesbill geranium yesterday to have room for some new bulbs: tulips, daffodils and grape hyacinth. In the front yard, I have put my nephew, Eric, to work digging up a garden that is now overgrown with a spruce tree and an Amur maple. I am determined to be a better planner for next year and to replant this garden with some order in mind – of course, I always do have order in mind, the trick is to get in hand. Somehow, in spite of all my best intentions, the garden forces me to change my plans and random reigns over order in the end.

It is cool today. A brisk wind awakens the wind chimes and causes the last leaves to dance in the sunlight. Gusts lift the tarp that Glenn has placed over the pool, sending shivers of air over the water beneath the cover. It ripples and speaks in a low voice. The yard is chaos, with dug up bits of plants here and there and the remains of the two shrubs that hid the fence for 20 years.

Eric cut them down and hauled away the branches. Now I must think how to remove the roots of the old mock orange. It did not like the shade of the Manitoba maple tree which rudely took root some years ago among the canes of a snowball viburnum, now long dead. The maple (boxwood elder to some) has spread its branches so wide that shade now occupies this part of the garden except for the rays of the morning sun which reach in there for a couple of hours.

I think the spirea may grow back, so I will leave its roots alone for now and see what happens. Meanwhile, I have neither the strength nor the time to deal with the other roots right now. I will simply plant some of the 200 bulbs I bought in a frenzy of optimism yesterday (when did I think I would have time to plant them?), assuming the snow holds off for a couple of weeks.

Today, I go to Ottawa. I am back Thursday morning until Sunday, when I am off to Kelowna until the following Tuesday. Planting and pink skies will have to wait.

It won’t be the first time I have tucked bulbs into the ground under the freshly fallen snow.

October 16, 2011

Will it ever Rain?

The weatherman was predicting rain again, but an hour ago there were only a few dark clouds in the sky, with the sun peeking through as it got ready to set for the evening. Now most of the sky is clear again and it does not feel like rain.

But it was very hot today, the kind of hot that takes the breath away, the kind of hot that used to predict rain in the evening. This lack of precipitation is so strange when you think about the floods this spring and how we, here in Winnipeg, were surrounded by water. You would think that heavy, wet clouds would have been generated as the water evaporated in the heat this summer, but if that happened, the clouds must have quickly moved on.

The trees are under stress. You can tell by the heavy seed load of the cedars and the maples. They seem to know when to make that extra effort to ensure they have offspring in case they don’t survive.

The lawn is sad

Although we watered faithfully, we weren’t faithful enough to beat the kind of heat our lawn and our perennial gardens needed to thrive this summer. Now the lawn is looking tawdry, with bits of green mixed with the dried-out straw colour of grass in dormancy.

The good news is that the lawn will recover, maybe even later in the fall when the temperatures drop and especially if we finally get some rain. Still, it will be a good idea this fall, just before the snow is expected, to throw down some lawn seed. Water it in well. That will help the lawn regenerate next spring and the seed will replace any grass that simply died over this droughty year.

We also need to water our perennial beds before winter to help the plants survive. And we cannot forget to water our trees, especially the evergreens which need moisture to keep their needles alive all winter. It’s a good idea to leave a hose on trickle at the drip line of the tree over night or for several hours to prevent all the moisture from simply slipping between the particles of earth in the dry, dry ground.

But listen to me. You’d think it was already all over, yet we are told the temperatures will remain in the high twenties and even thirties for the month of September. You can still go swimming every day.

As for me, I love the fact that I can write out here in my garden, surrounded by my flowers and the birds and the big blue sky. What a summer.


Blog August 30, 2011

Wildlife In The Garden

The yard is alive with birds: sparrows, finches, even a big black crow. They are eating voraciously at all the feeders. The finches are feeding on nyger, on sunflower seeds, on regular birdseed. The sparrows are not that picky; they’ll eat just about anything they can get their beaks on.

There were hummingbirds in the garden earlier, too, even though the honeysuckle is sulking by refusing to put out blooms. I can’t decide whether this is happening because of the dry hot summer or if it’s due to competition from the oak tree sapling that the squirrel planted right beside it. (I really should take that out.) Regardless, the honeysuckle has not bloomed since spring time.

The birds must be starving. I am sure wild fruit and seed must be very scarce in the woods. I am glad that I didn’t have much time to deadhead the perennial beds this summer. The birds will have something to raid all winter.

The second batch of swallowtails is ready to emerge from their parsley worm cocoons, too. There were 30 parsley worms on one plant two weeks ago. They literally ate themselves out of house and home and many of them starved when they had finally stripped the plants clean of all their greenery. I have only seen one swallowtail, however.

Last night, we watched a whole army of ants moving from one nest to another. They were marching across the pavement from one part of our garden to another, eggs in tow, clearly looking for another home. I wonder why?

The garden still looks lovely. The white phlox are all in bloom and this is where the hummingbird is feeding – not their favourite colour, but any honeypot in a drought, I guess. The purple fountain grass is in full bloom, too, rising above the blue wave petunias and the lime green sweet potato vine. My cherished purple smokebush is seven feet tall this year – it dies back every winter in this tough climate.  Lime, yellow and burgundy are keynotes in the garden this year. It just sort of happened as it always does, when a greater consciousness than mine takes a hand in putting together my garden colours. But I get all the credit.

It’s a noisy yard: the squirrel is quite perturbed and is scolding something with great emphasis. The birds are proclaiming their territories. CBC is droning away in the background. I can hear the sizzle of the neighbour’s dinner on their barbecue. The sun is low on the horizon, it’s evening glow kissing everything it reaches with gold. We can feel the cool breath of autumn on our cheeks even as the radio predicts temperatures in the 30’s C next week.

Claire goes home to Toronto on Tuesday. I will go to Wales the following week. The WSO opens its season just after I return. We went to the lovely Barge Concert (no barge this year – the river is too high) and lost ourselves, Clair and I, in the lovely music and the magic of the late summer air.

It feels to me as though fall is already well underway.

We caught another Raccoon!

Note the royal “we” in the title? It was really Glenn, although I had a hand in going to the big hunter’s store with him, Claire in tow.

The store has a big fancy name now and, I guess, some fancy new American owners, but I remember it as Sidney I. Robinson, a landmark Winnipeg business that has been around for 85 years or more. But I digress.

Foiled again, Glenn dug in his heels and vowed to capture the mangy critters that were making a mockery of his efforts to keep them out of our garden. His anxiety was well placed. Raccoons are often rabid, but worse, they carry a breed of roundworm in their feces that can be fatal to humans. The eggs of this nasty creature are microscopic and can be breathed in. Ugh!

So we went, hundred-dollar bill in hand, to get a bigger trap. Glenn had been trapping with a rabbit trap, way too small for anything but the juveniles, which he had caught twice.

“Do you want a killing trap or a humane trap,” asked a helpful clerk, who went on to explain that the killing trap would chop the heads off the unlucky intruder. “It may also chop off your hand, dear,” I suggested just as helpfully.

“I won’t allow a killing trap,” announced nine-year-old Claire with great emphasis.

We walked out 15 minutes later with a big metal contraption that would allow the raccoon to see through both ends. “Use cat food,” the clerk advised. “Or black bananas.” Glenn went shopping last night for cat food.

He put this trap right out in the open, under the birdbath, and he secured it with tent pegs and tied it down with elastic luggage rope. This time, he was determined to keep both the raccoon and the trap in place.

Sure enough, when I awoke at 6:30 this morning, I ran outside to see the result, and there it was, round eyed and exhausted from trying to get out. I never thought to take a picture until tonight when it was gone, picked up by animal services for a long ride to parts unknown. But you can see the holes it dug in the lawn through the openings in the cage.

“Oh! He’s so cute,” said Claire, but I notice she didn’t go too close. The raccoon was quiet, totally worn out from trying to escape. I hate to confess that I felt barely a twinge of sympathy.

There’ll be no trapping tonight since Animal Services still have our cage, but we know there are several brothers and sisters still at large – and maybe the mom. It’s hard to tell which one was caught this time. Their calling cards, though obvious, are indecipherable.


Brazen Bunny

End of the week and we are both exhausted. The garden is the only place to recalibrate and it’s not yet the 32 degrees promised by the weatherman. Glenn and I bathe ourselves in the evening scents of petunias mixed with the mint that was crushed by his careless feet as he turned on the fountain. It’s warm, hot even, but still pleasant.

We talk over the events of the week: the floor repairman was here today to measure the floors. Glenn created a waterfall of hot water last week after forgetting that he had left a tap running and the sink plugged in as he went downstairs on another errand. Half an hour later, I discovered Niagara flowing from my kitchen sink and voila!  We have an insurance claim that will finally use up the new tiles we bought two years ago. I just shot a group of three gardens this morning in a hidden place in St. James. The lots were 200 feet deep and 50 feet wide – who knew what was behind those little houses on the south side of Portage!) We exchange stories.

Then we see movement at the edge of the back steps. A furry little something has come into our view. It is only six inches long and about four inches tall; a baby bush bunny has come out of the border by the house where he was hiding under the celandine poppies. They are fading badly now, but their foliage still creates quite a shrubbery.


He is quite brazen; undaunted by these humans sitting just a few feet away. Didn’t they just plant all of this for his pleasure? And of course, he is right. His pleasure is our pleasure as we watch him decimate some rambling daisies in a pot clearly positioned within his reach. I sneak up with my camera, but no reason to sneak – he is quite unconcerned. He reaches up and snags a sweet branch, then decides to eat the best part first, starting this time with the blossom, but continuing along the step and consuming all the leaves as well.

We watch and film for over an hour until we both tire of the sport. The plant is happier for its pruning and the bunny is clearly gorged.

This morning, bunny behind me, I did some tidying in the garden. The fading celandine poppies had to go to make way for some bright rudbeckia that were “dieing” to be planted. When I was through clearing out the poppy debris, I noticed bunny making a run for it from the garden to under the plants by the pool, then along the fence until he was lost to my eye in the overgrown back garden.

He hasn’t been seen since.