Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pine Ridge Winter Games

Maybe not as exciting as the Olympics, but hey, we can't all go to Sochi! In between watching Canada collect medals, give the things below a read - they'll make February go away that much faster.

Know and Grow

First, you may notice I've done a little housekeeping on the blog's appearance. Now there will regularly be an entry to the right called 'Know and Grow' which will link to a page (or so) about one of my favourite native plants. Older entries will stay available by clicking on the plant's name under the pages tab on the left.

I'd love for the 'Know and Grow' to become a dialogue so we can all learn more about how to grow these plants. If you disagree with something I say, or have something to add, please leave a comment and we will all be able to see it, and learn from it. Over time, we should end up with a good archive of practical information.

Ottawa Botanical Garden Society

Secondly, the Ottawa Botanical Garden Society, now called simply 'Canadensis', is planning some very exciting activities this summer. They have a Facebook page (click the name above) and you can click on 'like' or 'follow' to get notified whenever they post an update.

The most exciting event is a brand-new outdoor environmental art exhibition called 'Beyond the Edge'. Six artists have been invited to create gardens at the Botanic Garden site on Prince of Wales Drive. The exhibition will run from June 27 to Sept. 27. A grand opening, and artists' talks are planned as well. I may not be first in line when it opens, but I'll be near the front!

Then they are hosting a series of garden talks, the most interesting of which is Alexander Reford giving a lecture about Reford Gardens/Jardins des Metis on Thursday, May 1st. This will be held in the Cereal Barn on the Experimental Farm from 7:00 to 8:30pm.

There's more, but those are the highlights for me.

Garden Design Thinking

I've been doing quite a bit of reading this winter, including some on blogs such as Thomas Rainer's Grounded Design. There seems to be a lot of talk about ideas such as 'intermingling', 'contemporary naturalistic design', and 'the new perennial garden'. Buzz words..... which make your head buzz.... but interesting ideas. I can summarize pretty quick by saying, 'using native plants, grasses and various previously under-valued perennials to make structurally interesting gardens' but really you need to read this stuff yourself to get the full flavour. One comment I will make, though, is that all these ideas are better suited to public gardens, especially large ones, than home gardens. Intermingling, for example, only looks great if you have a large enough area. Intermingling 6 grass plants, 3 perennial plants and a weed or two doesn't cut it! And the biggest 'new' idea I notice in the new perennial gardens is using grasses to set off the flowering plants. I think American gardeners have finally come to grips with the fact that plants that bloom for weeks in Britain do not bloom for weeks in the US....

If you go to Thomas's blog, he has lots of links which will take you on a landscape design tour of the world. Great fun, relaxing, eye-opening, thought-provoking, and you don't have to dig anything up.

A really good book, by the way, about some of this is 'Plant-Driven Design' by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden. The pictures are inspiring and the ideas are interesting. You do have to be patient as you read, though.  I think they must have been in bad moods when they were writing the text because there is rather too much criticism of other designers, but the pictures are so good it is worth making that allowance.

Tree Following

Some bloggers are having fun 'tree following'. The idea is that you adopt some particular tree and see what it does over the year. I'm adopting a stump, so we will be 'stump following'. Seems appropriate for a garden with so many trees I could never select only one!

Right now my stump is totally buried under the snow.

Perfect for the Pine Ridge Winter Games.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

If You Go Down To The Woods Today....

It's been a stressful week around here, so when I read about the Japanese idea of spending time in the woods as a sort of anti-stress therapy apparently called 'forest bathing', I knew what I wanted to do. So yesterday, off I went to the Shaw Woods intending to just snowshoe around for a while.

Got there, parked, tucked my snowshoes under my arm, and set off for the start of the Snake River Trail. The trails at the Shaw are all well marked, with large signs and distances noted. There are also maps at the trail heads. Very civilized! The Snake River Trail follows the Snake River for a while and then turns up the escarpment where it soon branches, one branch to circle back, via Johnny's Lookout, and the other carrying on as the new Connaught Trail.

I stopped on top of the Hydro dam for a while and leaned over the railing, admiring the ice patterns below the dam, and puzzling a bit over the tracks on the ice above the dam. I could see tracks going to small holes in the ice..... but I couldn't see how anything got out of the holes. Various rather unpleasant scenarios played across my imagination, but I dismissed them and moved on. I was here to 'forest bathe', not worry about thingss falling through the ice.

The trail was well packed and I went on carrying my snowshoes. I soon met a group of four women coming the other way, also carrying their snowshoes. We admired each others' snowshoeing technique, and they warned me about the trail ahead being too steep to snowshoe up. They said they'd pretty much tumbled down. Snowshoes don't ski well.

Carried on. My forest bathing was going nicely. Heard a soft tap-tap-tap. Pileated Woodpecker. I got a great photo of the back 3 inches of his tail....

The Snake River burbled along beside me. The water was open in places, rimmed with wonderful ice patterns, and the shapes of the snow piled high over the dry bulrushes and such were intriguing.

A patch of some unusual dried stalks with leaves drooping down caught my attention but I didn't go close to them. The leaves hung down the way Goldenrod leaves do, but I knew these weren't Goldenrods.

The ladies were quite right, no way could I snowshoe up the last bit of the rock face.  It was only a short bit, no more than 15 feet, but practically vertical. I tossed my snowshoes up ahead of me, made sure my camera was safely inside my backpack, and stomped my way up, kind of making stairs with my stiff-soled boots. It only occurred to me after I had done it that if I had needed to go around, I would have wanted those  snowshoes...

Once up there I was surprised at how cold it was. The sun was gone and the wind was downright nippy. I walked for a while, inspected mosses on tree trunks, sat on my snowshoes and ate my lunch, walked a bit more.... kind of lost interest. Then I went back. Yes, I slid down too.

On the way back along the Snake I looked at those mysterious stalks more closely. The leaves were dry, of course, but when I unrolled them a bit they were fairly oblong but rounded at the stem end. The plants were undoubtedly Dogbanes, Apocynum, but which Dogbane? Those leaves were A. androsaemifolium in shape although maybe a bit more elongated, but the size of the plants, and their location on the shore of a small river were A. cannabinum or even A. sibiricum....  with no flowers or seed pods to look at, I can't tell which. And just to make things even more confusing, there is one more Dogbane, sometimes called A. medium, which may or may not be the hybrid of A. androsaemifolium and A. cannabinum.

The Apocynums are, in other words, variable, and the species appear to intergrade. That's the scientific way of saying they are totally confusing.

Here are a few pictures of A. androsaemifolium. It tends to grow in dryish places such as old fields and woods edges. It likes sun. The plants tend to be about 2' high but can be taller. The flowers are pink, with darker pink stripes inside, and the petals curve back a bit. It has a faint but sweet fragrance and if you pull off a leaf you will see it has a sticky, milky sap. It can form large colonies, from underground stolons, and will if you let it into your garden.

And this is A. cannabinum, or Indian Hemp. Apparently people used to make strong twine from the fibres in the stems.

The flowers are smaller, white or greenish, and do not open as widely as the others. They also stand up above the leaves instead of hanging down below them.

The leaves are longer and narrower than A. androsaemifolium, and the plant is taller, more upright, and much more likely to grow in damp places.

It too forms large colonies.

Both of these Apocynums are fairly common in our area, and both are butterfly food plants. I have not seen A. sibiricum, but it may not grow this far north.

Just to get back to our original subject, forest bathing, here is a shot of Hemlock Cones. There was one large branch hanging over the trail and I took advantage of that, and last year's good cone crop, to get some pictures of Hemlock cones. Usually they are far too high up to photograph.

And the odd holes in the ice above the dam? Turns out they are otter holes. They dig holes where the ice is thin and dive in and look around for fish or crayfish to eat. They have no trouble getting out again.

Now that's bathing!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Plant. More. Milkweeds.

For the Monarch butterflies, of course.

 Danaus plexippus has been much in the news lately. Last year's migration was the smallest ever recorded - very worrying indeed for one of the world's most amazing butterflies. There are probably a number of inter-connected reasons for the drop in Monarch numbers but a major one is the conversion of habitat to corn fields. The use of corn as a fuel source has led to several unintended consequences, the rise in the cost of rice and so on, and has led to many formerly disused fields in the Mid-US to be planted to corn.

A good discussion of the problem is at  the Washington Post's site.

And I must say, last year I saw fewer Monarchs here than any other year before. I think I only saw 3 or 4 of them. Other years there were a dozen or more. The most I saw was in 2000, when there were those beautiful turquoise egg cases all over the place. Some were even attached to some plastic pails I had left outside!

A great site devoted to the Monarch is This is run by the University of Kansas, and in addition to encouraging people to learn more about the Monarch, the university also supports serious research into its natural history. They are also the group that runs the Monarch Waystation program.

The idea is that having lots of Waystations for Monarchs will add up to a network of habitat they can use during their stay here in the northern part of their life cycle. Migrating Monarchs will arrive in early June and lay the first of several generations of eggs.  These will hatch, munch away at Milkweeds, lay more eggs and so on until eventually, by late September, the last generation to hatch here will leave for Mexico.

There seem to be two Waystations in Ottawa right now. One is at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden
and the other is in Convent Glen North. The Butterfly Meadow at the Fletcher is a beautiful spot, well worth a visit in early summer. You will see many of the Monarch's food plants - milkweeds and so on - plus some innovative butterfly resting spots and water sources.

One thing that might confuse the casual butterfly watcher is that the Viceroy butterfly looks very similar. But it is smaller, has only one row of white dots around the wings, and the black lines on the hind wings are wide and make a complete band across. Here are a Viceroy and a Monarch side-by-side so you can compare.

Neither picture is very sharp, sorry! Put it down to them moving too fast! But look at the white dots and the line across the back wings of the Viceroy and you will see the difference.

So..... I signed up to be a Monarch Waystation. Ambitious, yes, but you know what they say, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp", or no, maybe I mean, "A woman's reach should exceed her husband's grasp", no, that's not right either, how about 'A woman's reach should exceed her grasp". Got it!

I'm calling it Monarch Drive at Pine Ridge and the plan is just to encourage the milkweeds that are already there. In the dry parts along the driveway near the road and closer to the house there are plenty of Common Milkweeds, Asclepias syriaca, and in the damp area between there is a growing patch of Swamp Milkweed, A. incarnata. I have a few plants of Butterfly Weed, A. tuberosa in the garden as well and maybe I can get some seeds from them this summer and start more. They aren't hard to start from seed but dividing them is tricky - they have taproots and don't like being disturbed. Also they need sandy soil, so I'll have to site them carefully.

I've ordered one of the nifty signs the Monarch Watch site offers and signed up at eButterfly. This site allows you to record your butterfly sightings - take a look there and see what you think. Could be fun!

Meanwhile, if you have a spot for them, Plant. More. Milkweeds. this summer!