Garden Activism—Are You at Risk?

This tongue-in-cheek article was originally published in the April 2022 issue of Cross Pollination, the newsletter of the Halton Region Master Gardeners.

Does your love of gardening come with strong opinions, ideas that sometimes bolt from the brain and barge headlong into the world? When thoughts and convictions grow mouths and legs, do be wary—it could be a case of gardening activism! There is no cure but, with care, activism is a manageable condition. In fact, most activists lead healthy, productive, and meaningful lives.

graphic of female guerilla gardener with a potted plant

Even if you’re not showing symptoms, take this handy quiz to see where you’re at on the activist spectrum. Don’t be surprised if you need to sit down with a cup of tea or a knitting basket. Or you may need to make a call, send a few emails, rattle some chains…

  • You’ve guerrilla gardened an abandoned planter, a back alley, a boulevard, a hellstrip, a crack in the sidewalk.
  • You’ve participated in a garden rescue.
  • You get cranky when gardeners express love for their ditch lilies, vinca, goutweed, and lily of the valley. Rose of Sharon too, sometimes.
  • You grow plants because everyone needs more great plants and everyone loves to find plants on their doorstep.
  • You’ve quit a Facebook group because members keep gushing over “certain” plants.
  • You argue with city gardening staff about how they should “get out of the 1800s”.
  • You’re constantly doing imaginary makeovers on other people’s gardens, replacing all the exotics and invasives with “better” plants.
  • Your front yard is turfgrass free. Give yourself a bonus point if you have a sign explaining why it looks that way.
  • You handle a lot of seeds. You save, trade, give away, and mail them to strangers.
  • You talk a lot about why we should not be doing the things we used to do.
  • You’re always telling people where they can get native plants.
  • You can’t go for a walk with friends without providing fascinating educational commentary on wayside plants.
  • You explain Ecozones when someone asks about climate zones.
  • You tell wildly hilarious jokes about “blue dawn.”
  • You read and recommend gardening books with “revolution”, “manifesto” or “defiant” in the title.

What’s Your Score?

photo of pansies growing in a crack between wall and sidewalk

What’s your score? Are you an activist?

11 to 15: Hey Che, you’re a garden activist!
7 to 10: You’ve tried it and liked it…
6 to 9: You’re in the activist ecoregion but not the activist zone
0 to 5: You’re not an activist. But watch out—no one is fully immune!

Using an Instant Pot to sterilize triple mix

Today (Aprl 10, 2022) I did a kitchen experiment to see if I could use our Instant Pot to sterilize triple mix.The reason for the desire to heat-treat the mix is the risk of Jumping Worms (Amynthas ssp.) an invasive species that has recently been reported in my city of Hamilton (Ontario Canada). Although the worms do not survive our winters (most die with the first freeze in autumn) the egg cases / cocoons survive very cold winters (to -35C). Any bagged “soil” product that contains compost or “black earth” is a potential source of jumping worm eggs. Research at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum showed that eggs are killed after three days at only 40C (104F). But, given that we won’t have temperatures hot enough to solarize anything until June or July, I decided to try heating my favourite triple mix indoors with an Instant Pot.

I expected the process would be safe, since Instant Pots are designed to be left on for hours at a time. In fact, the “slow cook” function allows a maximum of 20 hours continuous operation. The electricity used would be low (compared to the cost of running a gas stove or barbecue.) As well, the Instant Pot has a tight-fitting lid which would mitigate any odour.

I used a 7-litre DUO Instant Pot and filled it nearly to the top with CIL/Premier Triple Mix. This is my regular brand and I have alway appreciated it’s consistency and quality. I did try contacting the company’s customer service about how, or if, they mitigated the risk of jumping worm cocoons in the compost portion of their bagged products. I received a cut-and-paste replay (“our products are not know vectors etc etc”) which was not reassuring.

I used the Instant Pot’s “slow cook” function, on the “more” (high) setting. The lid was latched and set to “venting.” I checked the temperature (with a digital meat thermometer) at the bottom and top after 90 minutes and again after 5.5 hours. Here are the results:

90 minutes, temperature near bottom: 190F
90 minutes, temperature near top: 104F
1.5 hours, temperature near bottom: 194F
1.5 hours, temperature near top: 170F

Did it scorch or smell bad? No. In fact, the odour was earthy, and not unpleasant. Perhaps this is because I stored the bag outside all winter, but I really don’t know. Others have reported on the stink associated with sterilizing garden soil in a home oven, so I was surprised.

So, let’s look at the temperature results. Sterilization happens at 180F (enough to kill bacteria and other micro-organisms) and I expect it would kill jumping worm eggs as well. The research at U of Wisconsin showed that eggs were killed after three days at only 104F. I will try to find out if a short time at at 180F is enough to kill them.

The thermometer readings at 5.5 hours showed that the mix at the top (an inch or so down) reached only 170F. I continued heating the mix and, even after an additional hour, the top portion stayed at 170F. So, to be sure that the entire contents got to at least 180, some stirring would be necessary. If the Instant Pot had a cook function hotter than “slow-cook” but not as hot as “saute”, I could possibly increase the temperature to acheive sterilization at the top. Pressure cook is not an option since it requires liquid and the soil particles would clog the vent.

I expect that the mix reached the maximum temperatures (~190F on bottom / 170 on top) before I checked the temperature at 5.5 hours. In subsequent batches I’ll test at 30-minute intervals to see if I can reduce the time required per batch.

For now, though, I’m posting this to give my experiment an online home. This post will be updated as I learn more.

A Gardener’s Guide to Weather Prediction

It’s about time, placeand data.

by Beverley Wagar, Halton Master Gardener

(This article was originally published on April 8, 2022, on the blog of the Halton Region Master Gardeners)

The end of March taught us, yet again, that climate change has turned the words “normal weather” into a quaint reminder of the good-ol-daysbefore CO2 levels began their steep rise, before we started wanting a second opinion on how soon to put the tomato seedlings outside. But now, with the weather weirdness getting weirder, do the “normal” temperature patterns of the past have any relevance to the present?

Yes—sort of. With weather extremes growing more extreme and occurring more often, the act of averaging the highs and lows does not convey a true picture of the chaos. But averages are still the best tool we’ve got for understanding how fast our planet is warming. How long they remain helpful for gardeners is another question.

Garden under snow ( CCO )

“Climate normals provide a baseline to compare yesterday’s weather and tomorrow’s forecast to a standard for each location and time of year,” says Mike Palecki, project manager for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Weather averages (“normals”) are available on various time scales: yearly, monthly, daily and even hourly. They are useful to energy companies, transportation schedulers, vacationers, and anyone who plans their activities in coming weeks or months based on what the weather is likely to do. Of course that includes farmers and gardeners.

We gardeners need to have a good understanding of the concept of temperature averages because that’s the way our springtime planning and planting protocols continue to be done. Understanding the meaning of “average last frost” allows us to interpret and understand the increasingly conflicting advice available to gardeners throughout the internet-connected world.

“Last frost” calculations start at the weather station. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) collects data from 1,735 weather reporting stations throughout the country. Some of these stations have been recording weather data for more than a century. Hamilton began reporting daily weather information in 1866; Toronto started in 1895. The Hamilton / Halton area has ten stations for which normals are calculated:

  • Brantford
  • Georgetown
  • Burlington TS (near QEW and 403)
  • Hagersville
  • Hamilton Airport (Mount Hope)
  • Hamilton RBG (Southwest Burlington)
  • Middleport (near Caledonia)
  • Millgrove
  • Oakville (Joshua’s Creek Trail)
  • Vineland (near Grimsby)

Using Hamilton RBG data for our example, the average last-frost date (calculated by ECCC) is April 21.

graphic of April calendar with 21st highlighted

Average last frost

But what exactly does “last-frost date” mean? (The phrase is more accurately “last 0-degree day” but more on that later.) To really understand the concepts of average and probability, we must tiptoe into the field of Mathematics.

Imagine a big spreadsheet that lists the lowest temperatue on every day between March and June, for the period between 1959 (when the RBG began recording weather data) and 2010. Now, highlight all the days it went below zero. Now, within these below-zero dates, for each year, find the one that occurs latest in the spring. Some will be in April and some in May. Now find the arithmetic mean (the “average”) of these last-frost dates. Et voila! April 21!

So, is this a safe date for a gardener to plant out? That depends on the amount of risk we’re willing to take. Remember that the concept of “average” means half of the last-frost days were before April 21—and half were after. Statistically speaking, it’s not quite correct to say there’s a 50-50 chance of frost on April 21, but you get the drift. And it may be a snow drift, so the wise gardener will wait for the risk to decrease.

How quickly does the risk increase or decrease before and after April 21? Analysts at the ECCC have calculated risk levels by plotting last-frost dates on a graph and determining the probability of frost on a given date. Looking again at the data from the RBG weather station, here are the probabilities that the last temperature in spring of 0°C or lower happens on or after indicated dates.

May 15: 10%
May 8: 25%
May 3: 33%
April 27: 50%
April 22: 66%
April 20: 75%
April 14: 90%

A couple of things jump out. First, why did they stop at 10%? On what date is there zero probability of freezing? We’ll look into this later.

And second: why is there a six-day discrepancy between the 50% probability date (April 27) and the average last frost date (April 21)? According to ECCC Senior Climatologist David Phillips, it’s due to how the statistics are calculated. It could also be related to the dataset used; it’s not clear whether the probability numbers were derived from normals (30 years) or all the data available from the RBG (51 years.)

When is there zero risk of zero?

So when is there absolutely no risk of freezing in the spring? On what date has the temperature never gone below zero in Hamilton? The answer is: May 31. This date was obtained not from ECCC but from WeatherSpark, a software company that makes interactive weather maps. Their calculation of “growing season” uses data from the Hamilton International Airport from 1995 through 2021. Yes it’s apples-to-oranges, but from a gardener’s perspective, it’ll do.

screenshot from WeatherSpark, graph of growing season showing May 31 as 100% frost free date in Hamilton Ontario

Microclimates

Unfortunately, math is not the ultimate crystal ball and air temperature is not the only predictor of whether your seedlings will survive outdoors overnight in mid-May. Remember that your garden is a unique microclimate. Cold air is heavier than warm air—it tends to sink into valleys. So frosts usually come first in valleys while hillsides can remain frost-free.

As well, your property’s microclimate is influenced by the amount and type of hardscape you have. Pavement, stone, and buildings collect heat during the day and slowly release it at night, warming the surrounding area. Swimming pools and ponds also create a buffering effect. For an in-depth look at microlimates, visit https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/frosts.html

Using a thermometer that measures temperature changes over time (sometimes called a temperature data logger) you can compare the actual overnight lows in your garden to the predicted lows. Of course you may not want to go full nerd on this stuff; simply observing your garden’s microclimate and general variance, either colder or warmer, from the forecast will help you know whether to schlep your seedlings indoors or to simply throw a sheet over them. (To learn more about frost damage, check out OMAFRA’s excellent page on the effects of extreme temperatures on tomato and pepper plants.)

Frost vs. freeze

Just because the thermometer stays above zero does not mean our plants are safe. Understanding the difference between “frost” and “freeze” helps us understand why the TV weatherperson gives stern frost warnings even though the temperature is not expected to dip below zero.

Frost damage on tomato plants. Image (C) Gary Pilarchik. All rights reserved

Frost is the white stuff on the ground. Freeze is the air temperature dropping below freezing. Sometimes we get frost when the temperatures are above freezing and we often have a freeze without frost. It all has to do with the dew point—the temperature at which water vapour in the air condenses on the ground and other surfaces (our plants!) as dew. If the dew point point is below zero, the water vapour condenses as ice, freezing as frost. The more moisture in the air (humidity) the higher the dew point. This explains why frost will happen on a dry, crisp night even if the temperature remains above freezing. For a more detailed explanation, here is an article by meteorologist Jeff Haby helping his peers educate the public about dew point: https://www.theweatherprediction.com/habyhints/190/

Shorter short-term forecasts

It’s evident that predicting the arrival of damaging cold can be tricky. So we might want to fall back on that old stalwart: the short term forecast. Surely we can rely on the Weather Channel, AccuWeather, TV Networks, or even the crowd-sourced Weather Underground to give us accurate predictions.

Actually, we can’t. By now we’re all aware that climate change is making things more unpredictable: hotter hots, colder colds, bigger storms, longer droughts, faster changes. But now, scientists have actually measured the extent of this unpredictability.

A November 2021 Stanford University study shows “rising temperatures may intensify the unpredictability of weather in Earth’s midlatitudes.” Lead author atmospheric scientist Aditi Sheshadri states: “Errors propagate through weather models faster as temperatures rise, and there don’t appear to be any temperature thresholds where the trend shifts.”

But let’s not backspace on all the algorithms. According to Alannah Campbell, a meteorologist with Instant Weather Ontario, “We can still predict weather on a short term basis, but weather and climate models can struggle with extreme events, making forecasting difficult.” She adds, “There are some models that do better with extremes than others and model developers are constantly trying to upgrade.” The NOAA has upgraded it global weather model, but Canada has not.

Time for the Ouija board?

Not yet! Science, although its power to predict weather is diminishing, is still the best tool we’ve got. Temperature predictions useful to gardeners, whether based on the data of historical norms or the skill of meteorologists, come with caveats based on our understanding of not only climate change and microclimates but also basic Math and Geography. We can make informed decisions that result in a tomato harvest. It might not be the earliest in the neighbourhood but, year over year, it will likely be the most reliable.

Canada is getting set to release new data on climate normals
Every decade Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) re-calculates normals for the previous 30 years. Current (April 2022) normals are derived from the 30-year period between 1981 and 2010. A quick bit of mental math tells us we’re due for an update. The USA completed its update (see graphic below) in May of 2021 but ours is still in progress (as of April 8, 2022.)

David Phillips, Senior Climatologist at the ECCC, reassures us that the new normals data will be released in the summer of 2022, for the period from 1991 to 2021. Phillips is “anxious to see how the updated set of data, which will include the warm decade 2011 to 2020, will change the normals.”

As gardeners we can expect the average last-frost dates and the probability charts to shift. As well, there will likely be changes to Canada’s Plant Hardiness Zone Maps. And, of course, we’ll need to adjust our expectations for the 2023 gardening season.

map of USA showing warmer average temperature zones
Annual average temperature change from the old 1981-2010 normals to the new 1991-2020 normals. With the exception of the north-central U.S., the entire country trended warmer” (from https://www.weather.govh/ict/newclimatenormals )

Team Work

by Bev Wagar

Knotweed’s ruthlessness calls for a special kind of response from Hort Court.

I wrote “Team Work” in early 2022, after a long break from the Hort Court series. No longer constrained by word counts (The Point is now digital only and I no longer contribute a gardening column), this one is much longer than the first six short pieces.

Rumours spread quickly in open meadows and Frankie the mole had heard enough of them to know when to stop chomping and take notice. Even with his tiny ears he could hear the fear in Windy’s voice when she hinted that Japanese Knotweed had been spotted by the creek. Frankie’s pal Ernie the vole, tunneling nearby, also popped up his head to listen.

“Windy’s just trying to keep everyone calm” said Ernie.

“And I thank her for that. After that close call in May, the last thing we need around here is panic.”

The two decided to head up to the courtyard and share the news with the garden folk. Hort Court had just adjourned and everyone was ready for lunch. The morning case had been difficult—Cup Plant and his seeds again—but Prosecutor listened carefully to the tiny harbingers. Ernie and Frankie were well known for their keen ability to detect the faintest of scents. If Knotweed had indeed come aground near the creek, the meadow and the garden were in serious trouble.

“It was a very faint rumour,” said Frankie. “Knotweed might still be a twig. We should act now before he puts down roots.”

So Prosecutor called all the garden plants to a meeting the next day. Meadow dwellers were also welcome, but only if they could put aside their feuds and quarrels with the garden varieties and share the courtyard peacefully.

In the morning, right at dawn, Prosecutor sent scouts down to the creek to see if the rumours were true. A pair of woodland sunflowers had volunteered for the job. Sisters Heelie and Anthus were tall, fast, diligent, and always smiling. Prosecutor could count on them to return with reliable reports. True to their word, the sunny sisters returned from their mission even before the dew had dried off in the courtyard. Had the terrible Knotweed come ashore? He was known for stealth on the waterways, taking advantage of storms and floods to send roots and shoots downstream where they could come ashore and start a new colony. But with high water and a fast current, Knotweed might have lost his rooting.

“Well?” said Prosecutor? “What did your big brown eyes see down there?”

Heelie, tired from the long run back from the stream, pushed aside her drooping golden petals and announced the bad news.

“It’s true. Knotweed has landed and he’s already put roots down. We had a brief conversation, if you can call it that. I’m afraid we’re all in mortal danger.”

With the big meeting about to start, details would have to wait. Most of the garden dwellers had already arranged themselves on the courtyard benches, silent and curious as the meadow folk drifted in through the back gate and stood nervously against the stone wall. They’d been taught to mistrust these exotics and cultivated varieties.

Prosecutor stood up and cleared his throat.

“We meet today at Hort Court in the shadow of a grave threat, one that affects us all. We have reliable reports of a Knotweed colony by the creek.”

Ernie and Frankie were the first to react, but their squeaks were quickly drowned out by gasps and groans from the crowd. Sunflower drooped even further. Several Nicotiana unintentionally released VOCs but, despite attracting a few braconid wasps to the courtyard, not an anther moved. Prosecutor continued.

“Knotweed has been found guilty in every courtyard this side of the lake. He’s invaded every garden he’s touched. No sheet mulch can stop him, no jail can contain his roots. His roots and stems break off and drift down our creeks and rivers. Tiny pieces, no bigger than a PawPaw seed, come ashore, take root, and grow fast. For those of you who’ve never seen Knotweed, he’s as tall as Panicum and his roots are just as deep. He’s mean, strong, and he won’t share his space with anyone.”

Switchgrass, unused to being called by his formal name, blushed from his spot in the back row. He’d only recently been invited into the garden and was still adjusting to his role as natural heir to Karl Foerster, who had stomped off in a spat about traditional values.

Prosecutor continued, his voice deliberately calm, aware of the tension that could ignite old rivalries.

“As you know, none of us is really equipped to keep Knotweed in check. Ever since he arrived in this land he’s been confounding our efforts. We need new ideas.”

Even the crickets were silent.

“Anyone?”

Beaver, who was fidgetting just outside the courtyard gate, finally spoke up.

“This Knotweed is a dangerous criminal. He’s out to wreck the pond and the stream too, unless we can stop him. I’m worried about my family. We just won’t survive once Knotweed takes over.”

Everyone nodded. Seasons ago, beyond anyone’s memory, Beaver and his kin had built the dam that created the pond. It was a huge attraction for birds and fish, not to mention the insects, amphibians, and mammals.

“I took a nibble of Knotweed this morning when he wasn’t looking” Beaver continued. “Didn’t much like the taste, and he hurt my teeth. But I think me and the missus could chomp him down to the ground, if we got to him soon. Maybe Spicebush could help us get rid of the taste.”

“Could you do it more than once? Maybe every few days?” asked Prosecutor. “Knotweed spreads faster than any scoundrel we’ve put put on trial—even Vinca. We would need to keep at him, not let him see the light of day. He’s a plant after all. Without leaves, he’s only got what’s in the root cellar and those supplies can’t last forever.”

The roots are the main problem,” said Beaver. “I can dig, but not that deep.”

“I can help!” All heads turned in the direction of the tiny voice. It was Ernie, standing tall and puffing out his chest ever so slightly. “I’m just a little vole with bad eyesight but I can eat pretty much any root in my path.”

“I’m in, too!” cried Frankie the mole. “I can dig way deeper than Ernie. I’ll dig, and Ernie can eat.”

The courtyard erupted in cheers and petal showers as the new rodent-mammal team high-fived one another. It wasn’t a solution—yet—but there was was cause for hope.

“Thank you all,” said Prosecutor. “Beaver, can you start today? And Ernie and Frankie, can you get in there as soon as Beaver is done? Our only chance is to get Knotweed while he’s small.”

All three nodded assent. As Prosecutor adjourned the meeting and everyone headed for the courtyard gates, Heelie and Anthus took the trio aside and offered some advice.

“Be careful, fellas” said Heelie. “That Knotweed is a fast talker. Really slick. When we were down there this morning, he started harping on about how much the bees loved his flowers, how delicious his shoots are in the spring, how it wasn’t his fault that he ended up in this part of the world, and how he’s not all that bad ‘cause he doesn’t spread by seed like Buckthorn and Honeysuckle. He even tried to tell us he was—how did he put it—stabilizing the stream bank.”

They snorted in unison. These were blustery exaggerations, weasel-words, and outright lies. Knotweed had mastered them all.

“What did you and Anthus say to that?” asked Beaver.

“Nothing. We just turned around and let the sun shine on our faces” the sunflower replied. “I raised my leaves and thought about this wonderful meadow and the beautiful garden up the hill, and how well this place works even if some plants misbehave and land in hort court. I thought of Mama Nature.”

“I think I woulda dove into a burrow,” said Frankie.

“Me too,” replied Ernie.

“We’ll be okay,” Beaver said kindly. “But hey guys, let’s get going—we’ve got a lot to chew on. Knotweed might wear us down and, even if we can’t evict him, we’re gonna make him stay put.”

He laid down his tail and invited his new partners to climb aboard. Beaver’s waddling gait made it hard for Frankie and Ernie to stand, but the pair still managed to wave farewell to the sunflower sisters and the hundreds of garden plants now cheering from the courtyard. The ones in bloom had arranged themselves into a bright garland that even Frankie could see. And, to everyone’s surprise, shy little Iris joined in, waving her blue flag, leading the valiant trio through the meadow grasses to the stream.

Campanulastrum americana ID

Photos below are Campanulastrum americana / Tall Bellflower, a Carolinian native listed as “common” in Hamilton (Ontario) area in Michael Oldham’s ‘List of the Vascular Plants of Ontario’s Carolinian Zone (Ecoregion 7E)’ (link opens in new tab) . Formerly known as Campanula americana and recently assigned its own genus Campanulastrum, this is an unusual bellflower, growing to 6′ tall (5′ in my garden) and preferring shade.

It’s a biennial that forms a rosette in the first season and then sends up a tall flowering stem the next summer. If you collect seeds and plant seedlings two years in a row (and also allow plants to re-seed) you’ll have these beauties every year. Take photos and make notes on the location so you don’t weed out your bellflower seedlings in the spring.

Campanulastrum americana / Tall Bellflower

In my garden (Hamilton Ontario, ecodistrict 7E-3) Campanulastrum americana blooms in mid-July. I allow plants to re-seed next to a south-facing wooden fence shaded by asters, goldenrod, and a Chionanthus virginicus / White Fringetree. I expect the blooms to become darker blue as the Fringetree matures and the area becomes more shaded.

Comparing my photos to those on the excellent plant database at Texas A&M’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre, (opens in new tab) I’m confident that this is our beautiful native Tall Bellflower. Last year some bellflowers came up in another part of my garden, in an area that’s I’d grown this one in the past. These turned out to be the dreaded C. rapunculoides. The young plants, thankfully, were easy to remove.

If you’re confronting this invasive, I feel your pain. But it IS possible to remove an infestation if you recognize your target and act quickly. Be sure to look for the “parsnip” taproot, which grows from the rhizomatous root system starting anywhere from 4 to 12″ underground, depending on the soil texture and moisture availablilty.

This graphic shows the telltale “parsnip” taproot of Campanula rapunculoides.

Be sure to remove every trace of rhizome as well as the taproot. This plant will regrow from pieces left behind.

Discard–do not compost.

The following photos will serve as a reminder to me to NOT ASSUME anything– and to keep better records. The original seed for these came from J.L. Hudson in California, more than a decade ago. I’m very glad to still have these beauties, despite last year’s shocking (terrifying?) experience.

I will definitely save seeds from these plants, but anyone who is given seeds is reminded of the responsibility to trust your source and your ID, especially when a gorgeous native plant may resemble an invasive thug.

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.

Racketeer

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.