A thriving support system for birds, bugs and butterflies

For Bev Wagar, it’s a cross between a cottage garden, a collector’s garden, and a native plant garden, writes Cathy Renwald.
(This article appeared in the July 2 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Copyright: Hamilton Spectator)

We are on a lazy meander in Bev Wagar’s garden. A place where an angelica plant is tall enough to block the sun, and clover “on steroids” leans into the pathway.

Her garden in the Crown Point neighbourhood is crammed with natives, near natives and botanical oddities, but not so crammed that it prevents hospitality to ground nesting bees.

“I leave bare spots for them,” she says as we gently step among the treasures.

Here you will find goldfish in the rain barrels. They control mosquitoes and survive the winter. And exotic lilies planted to trap lily beetles and keep them off her species lilies.

Wagar, through experience and observation, is shaping an organic ecosystem that nurtures birds, bugs, and butterflies.

Here, the garden is ever changing. While a yellow baptisia (Baptisia tinctoria) finishes blooming in the front yard, a lovely yellow verbascum (Verbascum blattaria) sends up its sunny spires in the backyard. It is paired in a classic way with a purple milky bellflower (Campanula lactiflora).

While her focus continues to narrow in on native plants, Wagar welcomes the pure pleasure of exotic plants like the Eremurus “Cleopatra” showboating against a vine covered fence.

This garden started in 2012, when Wagar moved in and the grass moved out. She brought plants from her previous country garden, and added many more grown from seed sourced from the Native Plant Society and Rock Garden Society.

Her approach to the garden seems both leisurely and mindful. There are spreadsheets, and name tags, and trays of seedlings waiting for transplant. She doesn’t prune a lot, but rather arranges plants in supportive ways. Mulch is used sparingly.

“I use shade cast from other plants as mulch, and I use plants themselves as mulch, using the chop and drop method,” she says.

Chopping up plants as you thin, or cutback foliage allows you to drop them, or tuck them in the beds as a sort of living mulch.

While some might think a mostly native garden might lack colour and dynamic design, that’s not the case in the Wagar garden. There are many spiky plants like phlomis and penstemons that add drama when paired with big blousy leaved specimens like the angelica.

Wagar credits volunteering in the native plant garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens with educating her deeply on the behaviour of natives. She is also the founder of the Hamilton Monarch Awards, and co-founder of the Crown Point Garden Club. A diploma in organic land care and landscape design added another layer in understanding the ecology of the garden.

While using organic methods in her garden, she doesn’t subscribe to the tough love theory.

“I irrigate, if we have drought, I don’t like the plants to suffer, and I don’t want my soil to suffer because there is so much life in the soil. They all need water.”

Weeds move in. Some are allowed to stay, others are shooed out. The delicate fleabane graces the garden, but as Wagar says it’s useful as a bee magnet. She also watches carefully that plants don’t become prolific spreaders, that means deadheading some after flowering. In the case of the non-native Tiger Eye sumac, it was dug out after spreading too much and put it a pot.

“But I missed it, and put it back in the garden,” she says.

Living in the middle of the city means making peace with a small garden. She has become very picky with what gets real estate, choosing plants with multiple season interest, and the ability to survive without coddling.

“My garden is kind of a cross between a cottage garden, a collector’s garden and a native plant garden,” Wagar says.

And it is a place where showboats and shy natives coexist in peace.

Killing stuff in the garden

Ah Facebook. You’re a sputtering font of knowledge. A murky, shallow pool of occasional wisdom. Especially this time of year, in mid-June, when gardens really start to look like gardens and life busts out all over the place.

I’m an admin for the Master Gardeners of Ontario Facebook group and also a fairly regular visitor to the Hamilton Plant Sharing group. The barrage of questions and panic about “bugs” is coming on strong now, as the leaf-chewing insects are becoming apparent. The constant advice to spray with dish soap or neem or vinegar, or to douse a plant with salt or baking soda or any number of DIY concoctions makes me shake my head. I would love it if others would jump in and help with education on these fronts.

The topic of garden DIY remedies deserves a nuanced and researched article. Right now, though, I need to get this off my chest. Why do so many gardeners want to “get rid” of stuff? To kill things.

And old shot from my “country” garden: a tomato hornworm parasitized by braconid wasp larvae.
These wasps are beneficial insects in the garden. The caterpillar has stopped feeding by this point.
What would be the point of killing this caterpillar?

Years ago I thought that pesticides were bad simply because they were toxic to humans. One person, an Organic Master Gardener, tried to lead me to higher ground. He failed because he did not explain the way things are connected–the big picture.

With the benefit of fifteen additional years of experience and a diploma in Organic Land Care I now have a better, more ecologically sound, understanding of the problem with trying to kill the creatures we don’t like. It’s a human-centric mindset that is pernicious and often invisible. It makes people want to spray the creatures in their gardens.

Let’s start with neem. Neem is extracted from a plant native to India and South China. The neem plant has been used for centuries for all kinds of products and cures, from toothpaste, to acne salve, to food flavourings.

Benign to humans, neem is a systemic insecticide– not registered as such so there’s not a lot of knowledge about it when it’s used this way. “Systemic” means that it enters the tissue and cells of the plant, turning the whole thing into a toxic meal for chewing insects. If you’re an ecologically conscious gardener, this is bad news. You are killing everything–good, bad, indifferent. It remains in the plant for a long time. When used on trees to fight Emerald Ash Borer, it’s active for two years.

Another often-recommended spray involves dish soap, often blue Dawn. There’s actually a reason why the blue kind is specified but I won’t go into that here. It is a contact pesticide. This means that it actually must TOUCH the bug for the bug to die. Spraying the leaves has no residual or prophylactic effect and will likely damage your plant.

Insecticidal soap is also a contact pesticide. With a different molecular composition than dish detergent, it is especially made to do minimal damage to plant leaves. There is so much information from trusted internet sources (dot edu sites) that explain how to use it. These sources explain why a commercial soap such as ‘Safers’ is far better than a DIY concoction of any colour.

Now, here’s the big picture and big message about killing stuff in the garden.

All creatures must eat. If we try to kill off the ones we don’t like, we are depriving predators of a meal and we are allowing the predated to grow unchecked. It’s a complex food web and all the parts are interdependent. Gardens are much healthier if we encourage diversity, keep the soil fauna happy, stop killing stuff, and accept some damage as the cost of having a healthy garden.

Encourage diversity: grow lots of plants, different species, a lot of native ones. Remove invasives. Have something blooming all the time, from spring to fall. Have a variety of flower shapes and colours.

Keep the soil fauna happy: Irrigate your soil, not just your plants. Relieve and minimize soil compaction. Add organic matter (but don’t bury it) and leave the trimmings/duff.

Otherwise, lay off the spray.

Accept some damage. Most insect activity is not going to kill your plant. Caterpillars are bird food–allow them to feed and enjoy the birds they attract. Holes in your plant leaves are not signs of imperfection. They’re signs of an ecosystem working.


by Bev Wagar

Ditch Lily’s racket lands him in court–again. Will a backroom deal and two pretty gals save him this time?

“Racketeer” is sixth in my “Hort Court” series. These stories were originally printed in The Point (the community newspaper of the Crown Point neighbourhood in East Hamilton, Ontario) in my regular gardening column “Lovin’ Your Garden”.

Hemerocalis fulva lived in a lot of places, always by himself, always on the move. Right now he was headquartered on a creek bank near what the humans call a farmhouse, but he also hung out in ditches and in the ravine where Dogwood and Viburnum used to live. His street name was Boss Ditch or Ditch Lily but when he bloomed, and those huge bright orange blossoms didn’t last for long, he liked being called Hemy. Among the local gangs, he’d fought hard and expanded his turf, edging out the small-time thugs. Now it was just Hemy the Ditch Lily, running the racket, no competition, no troublesome upstarts trying to set down roots.

Hemy was often mistaken for his mild-mannered cousin Daylily, who wasn’t on the payroll and usually hung out in gardens, not ditches. Hemy hated it when the meadow-dwellers mistook him for his hybrid relative. Neither of them was a true lily—Hemy often boasted about knocking out lily bulbs in a single punch. Hemy had nothing but scorn for the uppity Daylily, who didn’t have an ounce of muscle and never revealed the fact that she had descended from his family, back in east Asia.

One day, in early June, Hemy received a visit from Bullfrog who was on town crier duty.

“Rrrrribit! Mama Nature requests your presence at the courtyard, Ditch.”

“That’s ‘Hemy’ to you, wartface. What does the old broad want now?” he snarled under his sword-like leaves.

“There’s another charge against you. Racketballing or something like that.”

“What? I paid the fine last time! Those meddling native species oughta leave me alone to run my, er, business.”

Seeing that Hemi was in no mood to comply with the summons, Kingfisher, who happened to be flying overhead on creek patrol, dropped out of the sky, grabbed the big-headed flower, set Bullfrog on his back, and flew to the courtyard where he unceremoniously dropped the plant but allowed Bullfrog to gently dismount.

The courtyard was filling up fast. Vinca fidgeted in the back row, wistfully remembering his creekside years before Ditch Lily broke up his secret pyramid scheme. Beside him sat a glowering Garlic Mustard, so angry that he ripened a few seeds and aimed them squarely at his former boss. Today’s verdict might provide an opportunity for revenge.

The good-time garden gals Morning Glory and Larkspur gossiped loudly in the front row, anxious for the drama ahead. They’d heard the rumours of Ditch’s strongarm tactics and land grabs but they’d never actually met him. Secretly they thought he was a handsome rogue and hoped he’d pay them a visit one day.

“Order! Order!” cried Bullfrog. “Mr. Prosecutor, what are the charges against Hemerocalis fulva a.k.a. Ditch Lily?”

“Racketeering is what is says here,” he replied, “Same as last time. Perhaps we’ll see some true justice today, not just another warning.” M. (Mama) Nature hovered over the courtyard but didn’t seem to hear this little dig—she was busy scheduling rain to help out some parched Elderberries, Red Lobelia, and Swamp Milkweed.

“I only go where I’m invited,” whined Hemy. “It’s not my fault that the humans chop down all the trees on slopes and banks and suddenly they need me to stop the erosion. I’m useful that way.”

“But so are buttonbush and virginia creeper and jewelweed and dogwood,” said the prosecutor. “Not to mention sumac and the viburnum clan. You should let them have some space too.”

“They don’t call me Boss Ditch for nothing. I’m big and fast. A real turnkey operation. Those wimps just get in my way!”

To prove this point he loaded up his root system and shot a round of rhizomes into the courtyard. The kickback knocked several big blooms off his huge head—the audience gaped in speechless horror at the pile of garish orange petals on the ground.

“You didn’t know this about me, I see,” he growled. “Yes, each bloom only lasts one day. But there’s more where that came from.” He shook a few fat buds at the disbelievers.

While court janitors Daisy and Petunia were busy removing new plants that had sprung from Ditch’s scattered roots, Garlic Mustard had sidled up to the gals. In a suave tone he told Morning Glory and Larkspur that, if they’d go along with his plan, he’d mention their virtues to his former comrade. Thrilled at the prospect, the girls nodded their support.

With the Prosecutor pleading and the audience cowering, Mustard sauntered over to his rival, who was reloading for another volley. Mustard swallowed his pride and proposed a deal.

“You don’t do so well in the shade. Not like me,” said Garlic Mustard. “So listen up. How about you get the ditches, the creeksides, and all the gardens the Humans plunk you in. In return I get the forests, woodlots, alleys, and dark corners. Whadya say?”

Hemy knew this was a good deal—these were territories he wouldn’t have to defend. So the two shook leaves in agreement and Hemy went back to firing on the now-empty courtyard. When he finally ran out of rhizomes, Mustard called Glory over. She whispered something in Hemy’s ear. He rose to his full 5 feet and smiled with anticipation.

“Mind you, it’s just for one week,” said Glory. “And you need to stay in the pot when you visit our part of the garden.” Larkspur swayed demurely, her blue tresses alluringly close to Hemy. The girls led him out a back gate and no one, not even Mama Nature, witnessed the escape.

By August, Hemy had outstayed his welcome in the garden and the girls wanted him gone. But he’d already pushed roots through the bottom of the pot and had set up another base of operations. Larkspur called out for Mourning Dove, asking her to bring a message to Mama Nature. She would beg Mama for relief from the thug who’d defiled their nice garden.

“It’s terrible!” she exclaimed. “My seeds can’t find a single bit of bare soil. It’s all covered by that horrible brute.”

“And Bee doesn’t come by any more—none of the insects visit his flowers. Even Deer doesn’t like him,” added Morning Glory.

Mourning Dove delivered the desperate message the very same day. But Mama was too busy dealing with an outbreak of wooly adelgid in the hemlock grove. It would be up to the humans to deal with Ditch Lily this time.

The Amnesia Defense

by Bev Wagar

Vinca cannot remember how he ended up in the forest. Or can he?

“The Amnesia Defense” is fifth in my Hort Court series. These stories were originally printed in The Point (the community newspaper of the Crown Point neighbourhood in East Hamilton, Ontario) in my regular gardening column “Lovin’ Your Garden.”

Periwinkle had let his stolons go full throttle–he was literally running to the courtyard, leaving a trail of glossy green leaves in his wake. Phlox noticed the swath of carnage. His previous run-ins with Vinca (Periwinkle’s street name) had not ended well. Still, he managed to grab the evergreen perennial and swing him around. Their remarkably similar blue, five-petalled flowers stared each other up and down.

“You little creep! Don’t you see what you’re doing? You’ve spread yourself all over the woods. Slow down and show some respect”!

“Get out of my way! My trial is this afternoon and I gotta show up this time or else.” He pushed past Phlox, who quickly shook off the brittle remnants of stem before they could put roots down.

“At least let me get you a lift.” Phlox hailed a passing deer and rather roughly plunked Periwinkle on her antlers. “Take this one to Hort Court” he instructed. “And no dallying in the meadow!”

Deer quietly obliged, and soon Periwinkle was sitting comfortably in a specially re-inforced box at the front of the court room. He later learned it had been built for Goutweed, who had managed to elude capture for so long that the box had started to rot. But that’s another story.

The gallery was filled with dozens of native species, all looking forward to a stiff sentence for Vinca. The back row was occupied by several Periwinkle supporters who periodically waved blue flag irises and chanted “Not illegal! Not illegal! Later it was revealed these were actors, paid by a shady organization known only as “The Industry.” They were showing up more often these days, armed with a diverse array of four-syllable words gleaned from brochures.

The prosecutor didn’t even bother reading the charges. They’d been read at Vinca’s last hearing, when the slippery groundcover had escaped the courtroom and set up another secret camp in the nearby ravine.

“How do you plead” asked the prosecutor.

“Not guilty! How can I be guilty of a crime I don’t remember committing? I have severe amnesia!”

A chorus of guffaws and boos rose from the gallery, drowning out the fan club. Vinca’s charm and good looks were no match for this crowd.

“On the day in question, what’s the last thing you remember?” the prosecutor continued.

“It was early October. I’d been spaded up and jammed into a big plastic pot. Then came a bumpy journey but I didn’t see anything ‘cause I was upside down. My captor took me to the edge of the escarpment and dumped me over the cliff. When I woke up it was April and there I was, still alive.”

“You expect us to believe you don’t remember doubling in size and spreading to four other spots along the trail?” the prosecutor was clearly irritated with Vinca’s absurd story.

A noisy commotion erupted in the gallery. Wild Strawberry scrambled to the witness stand with Wild Ginger trying hard to keep up.

“We know how it happened!” cried Strawberry. “We used to live in those spots until that jerk Periwinkle showed up. One time it was a dog with a tail full of burrs that picked up some bits of stem and dropped them near my place.”

Wild Ginger bent its fuzzy green leaves and spoke softly, “Once I saw a skunk with some periwinkle stuck in its claws. Another time I saw a human dig some and deliberately plant it further up the trail.”

Several more witnesses came forward that afternoon, all testifying against Periwinkle. One, a big maple tree, claimed to have seen the actual dumping event.

“So many of my old friends are gone from the forest now because of this Vinca character,” Maple told the court. “His leaves may be small but they’re so dense they make a mat that blocks out all the light for new seedlings. His roots may be shallow but they’re indestructible. When I saw that pot hit the ground I put two inches of leaves on top of it, but that Vinca grew right through them.”

On cross examination Periwinkle stuck to his story. He didn’t remember being dumped. His weak little stolons didn’t move very fast. It was others who spread him around. He couldn’t help being handsome. How could he be invasive when the humans kept promoting him as a ground cover for difficult spots in the garden? Humans loved him in his Mediterranean homeland and they loved him here, too.

Periwinkle nattered on for so long that his brittle stems began to trail from the wooden box. A few broke off in the breeze and took root on the courtroom floor. At sundown his paid supporters packed up their placards and left the courtroom, and soon only the old Maple, the Prosecutor, the defendant, and Judge Mama Nature remained.

Mama Nature, who had been knitting up an intricate spider web during the proceedings, gave her verdict.

“Clearly you are a threat to the forest, Periwinkle. Your amnesia seems to be selective. You don’t remember being dumped but you do remember your European homeland from 300 years ago. The fact that other creatures so easily and unwittingly spread you around is a sign of your inherent danger.”

Nature’s condemnation left Periwinkle visibly shaken. There was an aura of shame and guilt in the air.

“I declare you officially unwanted. Even if the forest flora cannot fight you, the humans can. I have turned their minds against you, Periwinkle. From this day forward your allies will dwindle and your foes will grow in number and power.”

Moved by this powerful message, Maple vowed to spread it throughout the land. He had many friends, in gardens and woodlands alike.

Mama Nature wafted away, leaving behind an exquisite spider web glistening in the moonlight.

A Public Nuisance

by Bev Wagar

Goldenrod beats his chest but will he beat the charge?

“A Public Nuisance” is fourth in my Hort Court series. These stories were originally printed in The Point (the community newspaper of the Crown Point neighbourhood in East Hamilton, Ontario) in my regular gardening column “Lovin’ Your Garden.”

Goldenrod blusters his way through Hort Court.
Illustration by Elizabeth Seidl

It had to happen eventually–Goldenrod had finally landed in hort court. His big yellow swagger and over-the-top practical jokes hinted at darker crimes whispered about by the little flowers. Some considered the charge to be spurious, based on a feud or gambling debt with Aster, who never liked Goldenrod’s brash attitude but, until now, had tolerated it for the sake of the gorgeous purple and gold display the pair made every fall.

In the courtyard Goldenrod was an imposing figure, tall and wide and loud. The prosecutor had managed to get him to stay put on the stand long enough to hear the charge.

“You are accused of being a public nuisance. How do you plead?”

“Not flippin’ guilty you snivelly newt!”

“That’s ‘Newton’, you swell-headed lout!”

Before the two could duke it out, Mama Nature’s crashed down her gavel to restore order in the court.

“Continue reading the charge, Prosecutor,” she cooed. Today she had taken the form of a white dove, hoping to inspire peace. Clearly it wasn’t working.

While Prosecutor droned, Goldenrod strutted around the stand, scattered seeds, flopped over, got in the way, and snorted loudly at his own off-colour jokes. All the plants in the gallery were riveted by his audacious, dominating presence.

“Yeah, I’m a character all right. Maybe I get in your face. Maybe I’m a few shades too bright. Maybe I talk too loud. But I’m a Carolinian native wildflower and I support hundreds of pollinator species as well as birds and deer. When the humans churn up the soil and cut the trees, I jump right in there, protecting the soil and getting things ready for the next crew to take over. Those prissy little pansies and penstemons can’t do that!”

“But in the garden, Goldenrod, you’re simply too much. You’re huge and you seed around everywhere. I have a statement made under oath that you routinely put seedlings in sidewalk cracks.”

“I’m Solidago canadensis. Me and my brothers gigantea and altissima, yeah, we’re big boys and we’re pretty much everywhere. But I have lots of little sisters, like caesia and flexicaulis, who are smaller and prefer the shade and a couple of them went to finishing school in Europe. You should see them now! Like frikkin’ delphiniums. They even got their own variety names. We should call them up and invite them back home now that they’re all lah-de-dah.”

The prosecutor seemed genuinely curious about Goldenrod’s family, but he continued with the charges.

“And the humans say that you cause allergies.”

A cascade of expletives echoed through the courtyard. The pansies in the front row covered their petals. Three tulips stomped out in disgust.

“Another false accusation! The culprit is ragweed, not me! We bloom at the same time but my pollen grains are nothing like his!”

Helianthus, slouching in the second row, stood up and shouted “Goldy is a jerk but he’s not a criminal. Leave him be!” Goldenrod was certainly making an impression! A couple of buxom asters in the front of the gallery began swaying and batting their purple eyelashes. Phlox paniculata, a known cohort of Goldenrod, had a worried look on his panicles.

Then a surprise witness stepped forward: sugar maple, Acer saccharum. A hush descended, for Acer was one of the venerable old species; his innumerable good deeds were legendary. Speaking in a solemn voice Acer addressed hort court.

“Out in the fields and the ravines Solidago is one of the good guys. But don’t be fooled. He’s a bruiser and given a chance he’ll take over any perennial bed. He’s allelopathic to many vegetable plants, and to my species too. But he can be kept under control with pruning, staking, and deadheading. I’ve seen it with my own leaves. Please don’t hurt him. His good qualities outnumber the bad.”

Mama Nature, now in the form of a willow sapling, listened intently, then bent over her law books. At last she spoke.

“Solidago, we find you not guilty of the charges. But we acknowledge your aggressive ways and, although you mean no harm, I am banishing you from mixed borders and perennial beds where you may encounter delicate plants. You are free to grow in naturalized areas and gardens that understand your nature.”

With a whoop of joy Solidago leapt from the stand, grabbed both the Asters and, with Phlox and Helianthus close on his roots, bounded out of the courtyard and ran to the meadow.

Soon after the trial, a goldenrod named “Fireworks” was invited into a perennial bed, and a few woodland gardens began harboring Solidago’s little sisters Zig-zag and Bluestem, who sincerely promised to be good. Mama Nature, busy running flood awareness programs on the coast, saw it all and let it be.


by Bev Wagar

Rose of Sharon turns on the charm–but who is she fooling?

“Fraud!” is third in the Hort Court series. These little stories were originally printed in The Point (the community newspaper of the Crown Point neighbourhood in East Hamilton, Ontario) in my regular gardening column “Lovin’ Your Garden.”

Not since the famous “snowball viburnum” scandal of 1962 had Horticultural Court heard a case of fraud. No one expected the defendant, Hibiscus syriacus, to sashay into the courtyard and blow kisses at the crowd. The court clerk eventually got her attention and read the charge. “How do you plead, Ms. Hibiscus?”

The stand was far too small for the buxom shrub yet she quickly stood up with a theatrical flounce of her pink-flowered frock. Smiling demurely she cooed to the judge: “Oh sweetie, just call me Rose. Most people call me Rose of Sharon but I don’t go for formality.”

Judge M. (Mama) Nature, accustomed to such tactics, merely sighed and gave the clerk a weary look. He asked again. How did Rose of Sharon plead?

She fluttered her petals at the judge. “I am innocent your honour. I would never stoop so low as to impersonate another flowering shrub.”

The prosecutor pounced. “Didn’t you say that people call you Rose? Rose of Sharon?”

“Yes, but that’s just a name they gave me ’cause they’d been reading the bible a lot. Song of Solomon mentions a Rose of Sharon, which was probably a lily or a crocus. But they knew their old testament better than they knew their botany so Rose is what they called me. And, as you can see, I’m no rose. ” Flouncing again she sat down with her big stamen waving at the plants in the courtroom gallery.

“But you allow the error to persist, don’t you? You like being mistaken for a rose! You don’t want gardeners to know how late you bloom, how big you get, how utterly common you are!”

The hibiscus bristled with anger. “I am a well-bred southern lady,” she cried. “Many a mint julep has been enjoyed under my branches. Don’t you dare call me common!”

The prosecutor dusted pollen off his suit and sidled up to the so-called rose. “Your botanical name—Hibiscus syriacus—even that is fraudulent. Your family comes from China and India, not Syria.” Gasps were heard from the gallery. Common names were easy to get wrong. But latin binomials? This was a rare and damning error, not to mention the potential for invasiveness in native ecosystems.

Pausing to aim a long glare at the frowsy shrub, he launched the final offensive. “And how do you explain the babies?”

The courtroom exploded with shouts and catcalls. M. Nature swung her gavel and spread a cool citrus-scented breeze through the courtyard until calm returned. “Continue,” she told the prosecutor. “But watch your language.”

He continued in a derisive tone. “Your blooms. There are so very many of them. And each one becomes a seed, launched indiscriminately to germinate in the garden, the grass, the neighbour’s garden. Every year you make hundreds of seedlings that must be pulled or cut. We’re all tired of your babies popping up in fields, ditches, ravines, parks—everywhere. Not only are you a fraud, you’re a tramp!”

Rose of Sharon, sobbing and shaking, wailed at the gallery. “If I am a fraud, then so is Physostegia. That plant is anything but obedient—it spreads everywhere! And what about those daylilies all over the place—they aren’t lilies at all. They’re Hemerocalis! And that Prunus glandulosa, that so-called ‘flowering almond’—it has no connection with almond nuts! And don’t get me started on Lily of the Valley!”

Everyone looked to Mama Nature to end the debacle and make a pronouncement. Was Rose of Sharon guilty or not guilty?

But Mama Nature’s spot was empty. She’d quietly left the courtyard for the pumpkin patch where she was helping some squirrels carve jack-o-lanterns. She’d left a note, in her wide, loopy script, on a piece of birch bark.

“Rose is a rose is a rose” was all it said.


by Bev Wagar

Ailanthus faces the most serious of charges.

“Murder!” is second of my Hort Court stories. These little pieces were originally printed in The Point (the community newspaper of the Crown Point neighbourhood in East Hamilton, Ontario) in my regular gardening column “Lovin’ Your Garden.”

Ailanthus takes the stand.
Drawing by Elizabeth Seidl

With a murder charge on the docket, security was tight at Horticultural Court. The usual shrubs on guard duty were joined by a contingent of red cedar trees who parted briefly to allow the accused, Ailanthus altissima, alias “Tree of Heaven” to pass. The stench was awful. Ailanthus moved quickly—too quickly—and put roots down on the stand before the courtyard crowd could respond. The extreme allelopathy of this tree caused much shuddering and wilting, but despite their distress the onlookers were out for sap, hoping to see Ailanthus, notorious asian thug and gang leader, sent straight to the chipper.

The court clerk read the charge and Ailanthus, with a sneer, replied “Yes, I’m guilty. Foolish humans brought me to this land 200 years ago and it’s been a candy store, let me tell you. My toxic roots have killed thousands of you. Not one of you can compete with my rhizomes and clonal colonies. I’ve ruined countless gardens, ravines, and parks. And me and my gang are out to get your forests, too. Just try to stop me!”

Ailanthus had visibly grown several feet taller already, and was casting shade over the wildflowers in the front row. The tree’s roots were already affecting the jury, a mix of sugar maple, beech, trillium, and native viburnum.

Then ailanthus did something unthinkable–it cast seeds, thousands of them, all around the courtyard. It was a female tree! Most of the onlookers ran for cover. Only a few ornamentals, the cedars, and the judge, M. (Mama) Nature remained. Judge Nature looked uncommonly worried.

“Is there anyone here to provide a defense for Ailanthus?” she asked. A hybrid tea rose looked up from her book of poetry and stepped forward.

“The accused was the subject of a famous novel and movie called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It survived drought, neglect, and decades of isolation in a bed of concrete. It became a source of joy and inspiration for a downtrodden inner-city neighbourhood.”

“The amusement of a few humans is irrelevant” Nature stated flatly. “Humans have carelessly unleashed too many alien plants into unsuspecting ecosystems. I am far more concerned about the survival of my forests. Humans keep cutting them and this Ailanthus keeps moving in.”

By this time Ailanthus had sent up a few clonal shoots and most of its seeds had sprouted. The cedars, wary and beginning to feel the toxins from the accused’s fast spreading roots, had begun to desert their posts. The rose, the jury, and all the onlookers had already left. The courtyard was bare, the stink overpowering, and the gloating smirk on Ailanthus face exuded pure evil.

Nature alone would decide this case.

“Surely you know about the Circle of Life. In China you evolved with insects who ate your leaves and roots. You were part of an interconnected web of food and feeders. Now, in North America, there are no creatures to curtail your invasive behaviour. Something needs to feed on you.”

Ailanthus roared with rage as its huge pinnate leaves shook and snapped like whips. Then it attacked, releasing a squadron of high-speed clonal shoots. Reaching into her dress pocket, Mama Nature quickly tossed a handful of spores of Verticillium nonalfalfae, a native fungus, near the trunk.

“You will die in 10 to 16 weeks and the soil will be innoculated against your return. This fungus has no effect on most of my native flora. I have presented it, as a scientific discovery, to human conservationists. Your decades of murderous thuggery may soon be over.”

With Ailanthus already beginning to squirm and wilt, Mama Nature turned and floated out of the courtyard. It had been a trying day and her creatures needed some dormancy. Yuletide celebrations had begun in certain lands. So, looking forward to a winter recess, she headed north.

Hosta on Trial

by Bev Wagar

Does Hosta get the justice she deserves? You be the judge.

“Hosta on Trial” is the first Hort Court story I wrote. These little pieces were originally printed in The Point (the community newspaper of the Crown Point neighbourhood in East Hamilton, Ontario) in my regular gardening column “Lovin’ Your Garden.”

“Order! Order! Next up is case # 114 in the Horticultural Court of Shade Plants.” The judge rattled her drumstick allium, and the garden quieted. “The defendant, Plantain Lily, also known as Hosta, is accused of multiple garden crimes including: ubiquity, monotony, and ecological idleness. Hosta, how do you plead?”

“Innocent, your honour” Hosta snarled. “I’ve been framed! Those darned environmentalists are out to get me!”

The garden buzzed with anticipation. Not since the great goutweed massacre of 2011 had a high-profile ornamental faced such scrutiny. These were serious allegations, and Hosta was visibly nervous. His shaking leaves had flung a few slugs into the courtyard and Robin Redbosom, court stenographer, hopped over to gobble them up.

Presiding judge, M. (Mama) Nature, smiled. “Continue, prosecutor” she said.

“Hosta, you are accused of deliberately foisting yourself on busy and inexperienced gardeners, using their naivety to dominate shade gardens and suppress other plants, especially natives. You and your gang of back-room plant breeders have not only created thousands of Hosta varieties but your marketing machine has stoked the fires of gluttony with an endless stream of patented, expensive, and look-alike introductions.”

“It’s not my fault if people are greedy and gullible,” Hosta replied. “I only go where I’m planted. My stolons don’t creep around like some of the thugs around here.” He glared at Vinca and Mint who were holding hands and giggling in the front row, oblivious to the insult.

“But you deliberately mislead people. You are not low maintenance. You need trimming, dividing. You harbour those fugitive slugs. You’re fussy about water and soil, complaining when it’s too hot, too sunny, too dry. You’re all hype.”

Hosta bristled. “I resent that! I am a law-abiding herbaceous perennial. If people see me as the patron saint of shady backyards, able to overcome neglect, drought, dog pee, tree roots and SUV tracks, well, I’ve done nothing to encourage that.”

The prosecutor changed tactics. “Tell me, Hosta, which species of pollinator did you evolve with? I mean, you are from Japan, China and east Asia, aren’t you? Are you a larval host for any of the insects around here?. Do you even know what “biodiversity” means? What good are you? You don’t belong in this ecosystem.”

“It’s true that I’m new to these parts, been around since 1800 or so. And it’s true that I don’t support any local insects. But the deer and the slugs love me! So far as pollination goes, I am self-fertile, same as a tomato,” Hosta replied. “I don’t need insects to pollinate my flowers. And most of my cultivars are sterile, anyways”.

“You seem proud of this abherration.”

“I don’t tell the breeders what to do,” Hosta snapped. “And so what? The bees love my flowers.”

The prosecutor moved in close, hovering over Hosta’s waxy leaves, making no effort to hide the disdain.

“Nobody grows you for your flowers. You hardly bloom any more and when you do the scent is gone. You’re a one-trick pony. Face it, Hosta. You’re boring. All you’ve got is leaves. You’re nothing but foliage. Always smooth, always boring. A whole lot of you, plunked in there surrounded by that horrible red mulch, well you’re as interesting as a dot on a polka-dotted picnic blanket!”

The force of this outburst roused the audience. The bees landed, the butterflies pulled up their wings. Even the worms came to the surface to see the drama unfolding.

“Enough!” cried Hosta. His leaves drooped, the dew long gone. In an anguished voice he whispered “Don’t you think I know this? I hate the tyrant I’ve become. I’d love to play with other plants. I’d happily make room for other shade lovers, especially the natives who used to grow here. I’d change if I could, but the humans keep planting me. Passing me around like a dirty secret. I used to be a Japanese woodland lily but now I’m nothing but a space filler. A convenience. The microwave of the plant world. They put me next to sidewalks! House foundations!” Something like a sob escaped his central rosette.

The prosecutor sat down, rested her case.

Everyone looked to Mama Nature to make a pronouncement. Was Hosta guilty or not guilty?

But Mama Nature’s spot was empty. She’d quietly left the courtyard for the aster patch to officiate the wedding of two Fritillary butterflies. She’d left a note, in her wide, loopy script, on a piece of birch bark.

“Garden On!” was all it said.

More than a pretty blog…

I’m starting out on a positive note with a new web site, mainly to showcase my recent work for potential clients. WordPress’ new “block” system is a challenge, and so are the design limitations! As I learn more there may be some changes, possibly to a full WordPress installation.

This blog area will be used for some of my writing (including the “Hort Court” series) and educational articles old and new.

All for now!

Here’s a little eye-candy. My own back yard in July 2017. I hadn’t yet started replacing the larger shrubs with natives.