Thursday, April 19, 2018

Myths, Misconceptions and Insect Lore

by Jean Godawa

In the early years of my career, when I visited nature and gardening groups or was invited to a classroom of eager six-year-olds, I was curious to hear the stories and background knowledge that people had about insects. Sometimes the stories were stated with such conviction that I had to go home and check through my textbooks to make sure I wasn't missing some obscure fact.

I did not enjoy telling a sweet child that the number of spots on a ladybug doesn't indicate its age or that earwigs don't crawl into your ear and nibble on your brain. When it comes to insects, I feel that knowing the straight-up facts makes people less afraid of them.

Myths and misconceptions about insects abound. Insect lore has a long historical tradition that is usually based on the predictive abilities, dangerous potential or valuable qualities of these fascinating creatures.

A common legend says that if a woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) with wide black bands crosses your path in the fall, it will be a long, harsh winter, especially if it is crawling in a southerly direction, trying to escape the northern cold. Narrower black bands, apparently, predict a mild winter.

As tempting as it would be to believe a simple caterpillar over complicated meteorological tools, sadly, the black bands on a woolly bear caterpillar have nothing to do with the upcoming winter. This caterpillar moults several times before it pupates and becomes the adult Isabella tiger moth. With each of the caterpillar's moults, the black bands get shorter.

There is, however, an insect that truly does have a bit of weather expertise. It may not be able to predict upcoming weather but it can tell you the temperature. If you count the number of chirps of the snowy tree cricket (Oecanthus fultoni) in a 13 second period, then add 40, you will get the approximate temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

Long before we were measuring the outside temperature with cricket chirps, people looked to insects for other inspirations.

The ancient Egyptians had a particular affinity for a creature whose behaviour many of us would find repulsive. The scarab beetle rolls up balls of dung to bury and lay its eggs inside. Rather than seeing this as something disgusting, the Egyptians saw it as a symbol of the sun rolling across the sky. Since the young hatched from the dung ball, they interpreted it as a young sun god being reborn every morning. This god, Khepri, was often depicted as a man with a scarab beetle for a head.

Cricket cage of coconut shell and ivory from the Qing dynasty (Smithsonian Institution)

They may not be soft and cuddly like puppies or kittens but some insects are treasured pets. Valued by some Asian cultures for their melodious and calming chirp, crickets have been collected in cages for hundreds of years. Elaborately carved bone or wood cages have been found dating back as early as 960 A.D.

Another insect, cicadas, were also revered in Chinese culture as a symbol of rebirth and immortality. While too loud to keep indoors, they were sometimes kept in cages that hung from the eaves of the house or in tree branches nearby.

This attraction to insects is very much alive today. Bug markets in Shanghai and Beijing have become popular tourist stops where thousands of crickets along with some very decorative cages are sold. Many of these insects are used for sport rather than their soothing sounds, as cricket fighting has continued to be a popular pastime.

Thanks to a lazy grasshopper, I learned early that it was important to prepare for tomorrow. Many of us remember Aesop's story of the grasshopper who spent the summer singing and dancing while he watched the ants collecting food for the winter. When winter came, the grasshopper, near death, begged the ants for help, which they refused to give. Aesop was harsh!

Whether founded in observation or superstition, stories and beliefs about insects are just as common today as they were in antiquity.

I have been told many times that having a ladybug land on you is considered to be good luck. While not one for superstitions, I have to agree. Ladybugs eat plant pests which is definitely good luck for gardeners.

Post written by Jean Godawa

Jean is a science teacher and writer. She has been writing science-related articles for print and online publications for more than ten years. Jean holds a degree in biology and environmental science with a focus on entomology from the University of Toronto. She has also conducted field research in the tropical rainforests of Asia and South America.

Many thanks to Ken Sproule and Joseph Berger for allowing us to use their photographs in this post.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Mining a Garden for Inspiration: 10 Ideas to Borrow

Instead of focusing on specific plants, for this post I thought that I'd point out some of the many bits of inspiration a garden can offer.

The house is a typical bungalow–long and low. The yard is wide, but shallow. At the back of the house there are two distinct elevations. As you will see, the homeowner has played up this shift in elevation with a set of stone steps that lead from the upper level of the garden to a lower terrace with a large area for entertaining.

Idea 1: Soften the straight lines of your house and driveway with curved flowerbeds.

A simple way to tackle the front yard is to add a flowerbed that sweeps along the face of the house. Link it to a second flowerbed that curves away from the straight line of the driveway. 

I like how this homeowner has added a few taller shrubs at the far corner of the house. The shrubs add privacy and helps create a little separation between this property and the one next door.

The homeowner was also smart to avoid evergreens that will grow to monster proportions. Instead, she's opted for shrubs that can be pruned to keep their growth in check or shrubs that have a low mounded shape.  

Idea 2: Lavender-blue & White What a fresh color combination this is! These are Spanish Bluebells (a bulb planted in fall) with Candytuft in the background.

Evergreen Candytuft, Iberis sempervirens: Candytuft has glossy, evergreen foliage and white flowers that bloom for several weeks in spring. Prune lightly after flowering to keep it from getting leggy. Good drainage is essential and somewhat dry conditions are preferred. Candytuft is not easily divided.  Full sun. Height: 20-25 cm (8-10 inches), Spread: 30-90 cm (12-35 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Idea 3: Save money by growing plants from seed. Start easy to grow and short-lived perennials (like these columbine at the front of the house) from seed. 

15 Perennials easy to grow from seed: 
• Columbine
• Balloon Flower (Platycodon)
• Coreopsis
• Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
• Blanket flower (Gaillardia)
• Lupins
• Yarrow (Achillea) 
• Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria)
• Salvia
• Coneflower (Echinacea)
• Mallow (Malva sylvestris)
• Delphinium
• Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica)
• Butterfly Weed (both Asclepias incarnata and Asclepias tuberosa)

Idea 4: Create a destination by placing a bench opposite a gateway or at the end of a path.  

Idea 5: Install a low-maintenance water feature.

Ponds can be a lot of work, but there are other options that give you the same relaxing sound of splashing water without the labour of installing and maintaining a pond. Most big box stores and nurseries now offer kits that come with everything you need to install a water feature.

In this garden, a covering of grey pebbles disguise a pump and an underground reservoir. If you want to go with a water feature like this, be sure to chose a kit with a large reservoir so you don't have to refill it every day.

Hydrangea, Japanese Ferns and Lady's Mantle are a few of the part-shade plants you see here.

Idea 6: Make your yard seem bigger by making the fence disappear. 

Climbers, shrubs and trees can all help disguise the boundaries of your yard and make it seem bigger than it is. Here, mirrors have been used to reflect the green of the garden and make the fence less of a stopping point for the eye.

Idea 7: In shade, take advantage any sunlit pockets 

Even the shadiest garden will often have a break in the canopy that creates a small area of part-shade or even full sun. Use these pockets to grow containers of colorful flowers that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

Solomon's Seal, Polygonatum at the side of house

A Euonymus hides the chimney. 

Idea 8: Make the entrance enticing and the exit memorable.

This was probably my favourite area of the garden. The wrought iron gate is pretty and even though there isn't a ton of color, the plantings are lush and green...which brings me to the next takeaway idea.

Idea 9: Use a single type of plant to make a statement. 

Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris has not only been planted in a large clump, it has been repeated on either side of the garden gate. The same hosta is also repeated- this time on either side of the path.

Pathway leading back to the front of the house.

Idea 10: Use a container of annuals to add color to an area that is mostly green.

Perennials are great, but annuals bloom for months once established. In a shady area that is mostly green, a container planting of annuals is well worth the investment.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Hen Therapy

Kids and hens helping each other heal. Photograph by Signe Langford

by Signe Langford

If you’ve spent any amount of time online, no doubt you’ve seen the adorable videos of fluffy hens visiting seniors’ homes in the UK and Australia. If you haven’t; do, you’ll be glad you did!

Then there’s Little Miss Sunshine. No, not the movie, but rather, the genius chicken from down under; and Jokgu the musical hen from America’s Got Talent; she’ll make you reconsider your menu choices tonight.

Miss Vicky was my most eager gardening assistant and a real snuggler too. 
Photograph by Donna Griffith.

Baby came to me from another backyard coop; she would have spent every hour of every day
 in my arms if I'd let her! Photograph by Donna Griffith.

Most folks don’t give a second thought to the inner life of a chicken. But, if you’ve spent some one-on-one time getting to know them, they you know there is so much more going on than meets the eye. Yes, we eat them, and yes, they have personalities, intelligence, and a social life. They can do us humans good – beyond supplying us with eggs and meat.

It was at Cobble Hills Farm Sanctuary, just outside Stratford, Ontario, where I began learning about the good hens can do. Author and adoption advocate, Christen Doidge Shepherd, was in the business of rescuing ‘spent hens’ from local egg factory farms and mentoring troubled kids from two nearby group homes. Her eureka moment came when she put the two together – broken, unwanted hens and throw-away kids – to look after each other on her farm. That’s right, look after each other.

A "spent hen"; a throw away of the industrial egg business. Photograph by Signe Langford

Discarded egg layers feel a loving touch for the first time. Photograph by Signe Langford

Fast friends! Photograph by Signe Langford

Christen lets each kid pick a hen of their own to care for, starting with a much needed nail trimming for these cage-bound hens. “It’s incredible to see the gentleness these kids show to their hens; to see them so gently handling them and giving them pedicures. It’s just lovely.” Christen just beams when she tells me this. And this is huge. These are kids who have suffered every manner of neglect and abuse. Love and gentleness isn’t something they know or express with people very often, if at all. But it’s different with the hens. Christen has seen the transformation first hand; “People think these kids are lost, but they’re not, they just need the chance to show how good they really are.” Caring for a little hen that was treated much as they were is the key that unlocks their hurting hearts.

As the days pass, the hens and kids learn to trust each other. The hens get healthy in body and mind, and so do the kids, gaining self-esteem, empathy, and a real sense of accomplishment. These are kids
who have been labeled “aggressive” or “incapable of connection”, but when they lovingly hold a soft, clucking, hen they can trust and make eye contact – perhaps for the first time in their short lives.

Backyard chickens can be just as loving a pet as a dog or cat. Sadly, as a society, we continue to underestimate them. Each little lady I’ve had in my coop has had her own personality, quirks, and food preferences, but they all come running just the same, when they hear the front door.

This post was written by Signe Langford

Signe Langford is a restaurant-chef-turned-writer who tells award-winning stories and creates delicious recipes. She is a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Life, Canadian Living and Garden Making magazines. In 2105, Signe published her first book Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs; Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden- with 100 Recipes
Raised in the town of Hudson, Quebec Signe grew up surrounded by an ever changing menagerie of critters, both wild and domestic, and her special affection for all feathered creatures has never flagged. At present, she shares a downtown Toronto Victorian with a tiny flock of laying hens. For more stories and recipes please visit

Sunday, April 8, 2018

An Asian-Inspired Garden, Part 2: The Backyard

After chatting with Carina about her garden, one of the things I came away admiring the most was her resourcefulness. When she needed a bridge to span of the natural stream in the backyard, she borrowed a neighbour's power tools and made it herself.

Challenges were tackled head-on, and if her initial solution didn't work, she's wasn't discouraged. She simply moved on and adopted a fresh approach.

An overview of the garden as seen from the back of the house.

Many a homeowner would have been defeated by the uneven terrain in Carina's backyard. 

The ground slopes steeply down from the back of the house. In the centre of the yard, a stream divides property in two. On the far side of the stream, the ground sifts again, this time on a sharp incline.

The lawn just behind the back of the house was not fairing well, so Carina got rid of it! Instead she created a Japanese style rock garden using crushed limestone, pebbles and large boulders.

This view of the shows the sharp incline. 

 The bridge Carina made herself.

A closer look at some of the hosta along the stream bank.

"The back garden has a lot of shade and is boggy from underground springs. Astilbes, Foam flowers (Tiarella), Brunnera, wild gingers, lilies, Bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) thrive in the the wet environment, unfortunately so did ferns, Goutweed and Lily-of-the-valley which I completely removed in one area," says Carina.

An old stump is now a host for a variety of plants. 

In this area an Euonymus adds a splash of yellow. There is also iris, a Bleeding Heart, and if you have eagle eyes, you might even notice a Cobra Lily (edge of the photo middle right).

Carina's hosta's look amazing, so I made a point of asking her how she deals with slugs and snails. "Racoons drank the beer traps I put out," she laughs. 

Her method is quite basic, but very effective; she hand picks the slugs from her hosta with a set of tweezers or chopsticks and drops them into a soapy bucket of water. Carina found it to be a quiet task that's therapeutic after a hectic day of nursing.  

A line of Carex and a rocky drainage ditch that flows into the natural stream.

The line of "grass" you see is actually Carex a perennial that has fine, grass-like foliage. I am not sure of the exact cultivar, but will give you a reference to one that looks quite similar.

Sedge,  Carex oshimensis Evercolor 'Everillo' forms a mound of cascading lime-green leaves. This grass-like perennial likes moist, rich soil, but it will tolerate dry shade with occasional watering. Part to full shade. Evergreen. Height:45-50 cm (18-20 inches), Spread: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches). USDA zones: 5-9.

Red Trillium, Trillium erectum is native to North American woodlands and has many common names including Beth root, Stinking Benjamin, Wake-Robin and Indian Balm. This is a long-lived perennial that can live for up to 30 years. In the spring it has chocolate-red blooms that have a somewhat unpleasant scent up close. Trillium erectum likes moist, rich, well-drained soil. Part to full shade. Height: 20-50 cm (8-19 inches), Spread: 22-30 cm (9-12 inches). USDA zones: 4-9. 

False Solomon's Seal, Maianthemum racemosum, syn. Smilacina racemosa

False Solomon's Seal, Maianthemum racemosum, syn. Smilacina racemosa has a number of common names including False Spikenard and False Lili-of-the-Valley. It is native to North American woodlands and has lance-shaped, green leaves. Tiny white flowers are followed by green berries that become red in late summer.  It spreads by creeping rhizomes, but is slow to get established and produce a good display. Part-shade to Full Shade. Height: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches), Spread: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Redbud blossoms that have fallen into a birdbath at the back of the property.

I always like to ask gardeners about the wisdom they've gained after years of experience.

"Depending on lot size, grading, the condition of your soil, the amount of sunlight/shade and your budget, planning is important. I did not plan well, so I am speaking from experience after lots of trials and errors made over the years," Carina advises.

"Learn as much  as possible about the type of plants you like. This will save you some headaches, time and money. Find out how they grow and spread, how much sun or shade they like, how tall and wide they get and whether they are high or low maintenance. Prepare the soil, water them well and regularly in the early days."

Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' (left) and Canadian Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense (right)

Two great shade-loving perennials from the far side of the stream:

Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' has dark green leaves accented with red. Soft yellow and cream flowers appear in mid to late spring. To make the tiny flowers more visible prune the previous season's foliage to the ground in late winter/early spring. New foliage will follow the flowers. Drought tolerant once established. Divide in the fall. Height: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Canadian Wild Ginger, Asarum canadense is native to the woodlands of Eastern north America. It bright green, heart-shaped leaves and insignificant brownish flowers that are largely hidden by the foliage. It will colonize an area and tends to be more vigorous than European Wild Ginger (Asarum europaeum), but is not considered to be invasive. Part to full shade. Sandy or clay soil are fine. Average to moist soil suit this plant best. Height: 10-15 cm ( 4-6 inches), Spread: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Last year Carina sold her home and garden. She's retired now and wants to be free to do some  traveling and hopes to visit family in Malaysia more often. I asked her what she will miss the most about her garden.

"The large lot size afforded a lot of privacy," she laments. "I shall miss being outside with a good book, puttering in the garden, enjoying the birds and the occasional wildlife that visits; as well as the water feature out front."

It must be hard to leave behind a garden that you laboured almost thirty years to create, but Carina isn't looking back, she's moving forward into the next phase of her life.

"Gardening is hard work, but it doesn't feel like work once your garden gets established and it rewards you back," she muses. Based on the lovely garden Carina's managed to create, the rewards have been many.  

Missed part 1? Go back and see Carina's front garden here.