Sunday, November 8, 2009


Last Sunday coming home from the park, we ran into our electricians, cleaning up leaves from an income property one of them owns around the corner. They had just finished loading an entire trailer with leaves from the sugar maples and soft maples around the property, and were preparing to take it some 15 kms away to the city compost yard.

Of course when I asked where they were going to go, the owner of the property (and the leaves) asked if he could instead deliver them here. And so unlike the last two Falls, I have been spared the effort of dragging home bags of fallen leaves from the curb... One entire wagon load of leaves, here, delivered to the base of the giant hackberry. And plenty of laughter at my delight and glee as they added them to the pile we had started on Halloween.

And while you can't see it in the photo, the pile is furrowed and compressed, because Gracie too can not contain her glee, and has spent the week playing in them. As soon as I can get to it, they will be ground up to become a thick winter blanket for the gardens. We're rich here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Growth, Wealth, Accumulation

The Ontario Bee House allowed me to guiltlessly indulge my love of looking at and evaluating every bit of stray lumber, fallen stick and broken piece of furniture we stumble upon on our walks. There was an immediate use, a project, and so all the little bits I carried home went directly to the workbench.

And so the oak chair seen here was sought out to be part of the next Bee House I am making as a gift. This chair spent at least three nights in the rain (and a rainy three nights they were) until I could get back to the train tracks where I first found it. Dumped in the weeds and grass, only a leg and part of the arm visible, I imagined it was, at best, smashed up, at worst, had been part of bonfire. (I thought I might salvage the wheels, too). But it was intact. Completely and perfectly intact. The varnish had a wet bloom, but one swipe of a towel and an afternoon in the sunshiny sewing room and it was gone.

I can hardly imagine that something as precious as oak could be waste- thinking back to a talk by a speaker from the Nature Conservancy during a walk in the Clear Creek Forest, I thought to calculate the age of this chair in real time. It could have been manufactured any time between the 1920s and the 1950s; the H. Krug company has been creating these gorgeous chairs since even earlier than that, but the lable on this one dates it to after WWI. But- how old was the tree that was cut down to make the chair? Was it a century old? Maybe two? There is a century maple about twenty feet away from me, just outside the front windows here, and it seems just big enough now to produce lumber. Oaks, however, grow slowly, much more slowly than my beloved sugar maple.

How could something as precious as oak be waste? Having the garden has sharpened my concerns about 'waste', or rather about what constitutes wealth. Is it the accumulation of strengths, durability and permanence? You know, deeper roots, richer soil, more diverse biota? These are the things that are accumulating in our gardens here; like the oak in the chair, this is a process that occurs over time in excess of what humans have.

Next time to leaves. Or 'there is now a gold mine in my back yard'.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ontario Bee Roost

Creating protected habitat for a diversity of species of living creatures has become our key goal as gardeners. This goal was created for us, actually, because as we began to diversify the plantings in the gardens (and omitted all artificial inputs), the gardens began to attract new wildlife. A cascade of new wildlife in fact.

Among the buzzing, humming, spinning, creeping and eating creatures in the garden, the most obvious at any moment are the bees and wasps. They are most evident, I guess, because they are so busily pollinating what must be every single flower here.

Infrequently we see an official European honey bee or two, representatives of the pollinators at risk from Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD. These are the bees that, because they are community dwellers, can be used to pollinate food crops: their hives can simply be moved to where they can be put to work.

The majority of our bees are their 'wild' and solitary cousins, which are not necessarily so reliable, though they are similarly important to the process of plant reproduction. These native pollinators do not depend on the presence of a single hive in which they can sleep, eat and reproduce. Instead they find suitable habitat- old stumps with worm and woodpecker holes, hollow stems, rotting logs- on the fly.

And so the collapse of honey bee populations means that protecting and encouraging these native pollinators is all the more urgent (see for example Pollination Canada's website The Ontario Meadow flower garden (and the new meadow we are working on) have plenty of suitable food for pollinators, flowering from early Spring right through to the late Fall. But not much in the way of roosting, resting and reproducing spaces.

And so on the Civic Holiday weekend (which should now be called Bee Holiday Weekend) we salvaged some lumber from an empty lot, and created our first Ontario Bee Roost. It is constructed of untreated and well-weathered sections of 2x4s, parts of a log from a maple tree around the corner that was cut down two weeks ago, and some nails. The roosts themselves are 8" sections of this lumber and log which have 5/16th holes drilled 4"-6" deep into them. The entire structure is capped off with a piece of found plywood, quite luckily exactly the right size for a roof. It is at the back of the meadow, facing southeast, and about 6' from a drinking spot set up for insects-it is a low footed birdbath filled with pebbles and rocks.

This is an experiment, and it will be some time before we know whether or not any creature will take shelter here. In the spring we will provide some clay in case mason bees show up, who will use it to build cells for pollen and larvae. In the mean time, we'll wait.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Inspiring": An E-mail from Jonquiere, PQ

This week a student sent photos from her summer travels. This one, of the closed Walmart in Jonquiere, Quebec, inspires her to remember what people working together can do. In this case, the reports go that the workers unionized, and Walmart promptly shuttered the store, a story well worth remembering. The photo shows that apparently even Walmart couldn't resist memorializing these events.

The photo she took reveals much about the bigger social and economic context that makes a Walmart possible- this mode of resource use (thinking of the environment, the earth, the water, the people) takes root and thrives in societies driven by consumption, when few other choices are available for the majority, and when lowering the price of consumption takes priority. This is of course a kind of false economy- meaning that the bills come due eventually, excepting that the 'bills' in this case are the long-term outcomes of letting a single retailer shape the global economy by driving down the price of production.

Her photo also reveals exactly the kind of consciousness we need to subvert the process that Walmart is the emblem for, because her photo and its story are ironic. This ghastly barren landscape is a monument for this photographer, a monument to how clearly we can see another road ahead and how close that change is. It is, in fact, all around already, when parking lots at shopping malls are transformed into Farmer's Markets (, when Guerilla Gardening is a craft for children (, to use just two small examples from my hometown.

So her picture makes me take heart- and makes me want to take pictures, and make monuments out of the spaces around us all that we can transform.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Get Rid of The Laneway, There's a Garden Under There!

At Gracie Gardens we were once blessed with a cement laneway running the entire length of our house, through the yard, all the way to the building we commonly call 'the shop' (though it bears similarities to a 'car hole'). It was a serious laneway, too: over 60 feet from the street and thus more than half the length of the property! It also runs on the west side of our property, which left the side of the house exposed to baking afternoon sun. That is, the laneway did nothing but signal to all who walked or drove by that this property had the ever respectable and property-value-raising 'garage'.

We had a third of the offending laneway removed (with a back hoe- the cement went to be recycled), leaving a part as a cement walk to the back, put a picket fence around the newly liberated earth, added two yards of compost, and planted sun-loving trees and wildflowers in masses. The plan was to plant something that appears 'gardeny' from the street, shades the house and is wildlife friendly. And gives Gracie herself somewhere nice to stand to bark when a dog walks by.

The reason this project merits a report is how little work this was once the cement was gone. I estimate that it all took about 25 hours to plant (which includes un-compacting the soil by hand, adding the compost, planting the seeds and setting the plants, etc). The trees (four Native Salix discolor rooted from my Mom's cutting from a tree I planted at my Gramma's when I was four years old) were planted in August 2007 at about 1' tall, and are now 12' tall. The Eupatorium maculatum and Monarda fistulosa I grew from seeds I collected at the river nearby. The Echinacea purpura, while not Native to Ontario, is an American Native, good to the bugs and is drought tolerant. And it looks pretty 'cultivated' from the street. (Most of it came from my guerilla garden where it has self-seeded freely). There are also a variety of asters (from the CN tracks and from a Native plant nursery), a Campsis radicans from the back yard, and of course Solidago, from the empty lot next door.

So: the point? Well, there are lots of practical things to value here. The house is cooler in the late afternoon; this bed eats up lots of the grey water from our house (siphoned from an upstairs tub); it absorbs rain water that would otherwise end up in the storm sewer. And this bed is gorgeous: it gives anyone who walks by and cares to look the sense that people who wish them a good day live here! We managed to find about 100 square feet of garden space with which to share these good wishes under only one third of this horrible, hated and useless laneway. So the point is that even small spaces, with a little planning, can be exceptional additions to our homes and communities. This summer it is full of butterflies, and last Fall- it's first real Fall- it was always busy with Goldfinches eating flower seeds.

It has value.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The 1950s, Modernity and Dangerous Worms

Among our new gardening books this week at Gracie Gardens is the vintage (1958) The New American Garden Book (edited by Dorothy Sara, author of, not surprisingly, 101 Ways to Increase the Value of Your Home). In the section on Insect Enemies, subsection Earthworms, the authors point out that "their habit of tunneling through the fine root systems is often damaging and destructive to the plants". So, of course, being the 1950s and all, the authors offer this advice: "Bichloride of mercury (!!!!) is a good remedy...applied by saturating the infested soil". (And, ah, obviously 'emphasis added', eh?)

What is 'bichloride of mercury' you ask? Well, the authors share with us that "the chemical is a deadly poison and may seriously burn the corrodes metals..." and apparently kills birds (see page 625 if you happen to have this book around your house, too.)

I wish now that I had found this book earlier- not because we have an 'infestation' of earthworms, but because this week my last living gardening mentor passed away. Of the many legacies John has left in the hearts and minds of his friends and students, the one I have meditated on this week is how much positive change he saw in his (too short) lifetime. While it doesn't rank with a rebirth in skepticism about 'patriotism', or the birth of the notion of Civil Rights, one of the changes he saw (and alerted me to with plenty of humour) was the turn away from landscapes dominated by lawns, pesticides and various other efforts at homogenizing our natural landscapes.

The first time John saw my house, he saw my landlord's frontlawn and said "Wow, that's like a life's work", both admiring and, well, critically analytical. And he was right. That lawn was like a life's work. Of course when my landlord passed away, the lawn began to take on a certain unlawnlyness. As the present owner of said lawn, by the way, I am letting it make a somewhat gentle transition to something-else-as-yet-to-be-determined. The transition will be gentle, I promise, in honour of someone who once used this patch of green cement to signal to the world his good moral character. He was, still, one of my garden mentors because by the time he was in his late eighties, he and I began to talk a lot about native plants. Even worse, he encouraged me in my efforts at guerilla gardening, even though he saw it as 'cleaning up an ugly patch of weeds' nearby.

Together, these two garden mentors of mine (now possibly chatting in an afterworld) knew all about the changes that were happening around the way we compose landscapes around our homes and in our communities, though one was still signaling his conformity to socio-economic norms with his lawn while the other noticed that the passage to post-modernity made this work ironic.

So it is in homage to both of them today, these garden mentors of mine that I have lost, that I share the above, something that we would have talked about if this book had been in my hands in time.

I guess now that Gracie the Dog Who Won't Sleep on a Mowed Lawn will be the garden mentor around here. And the chipmunks and snakes. And post-modern literary critics.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Noxious Weeds: Regulations and Naturalization

A story on the CBC this morning about a woman in Barrie whose naturalized boulevard has drawn complaints from her neighbours reminded me that our home landscapes are subject to regulation. In a way, they exist at the mercy of our neighbours and authorities. In the Barrie case, the Municipality determined that her project was legitimate, and has allowed it to stay.

As a novice to this work of naturalization, I have been particularly concerned about the status of two of our favorites: Asclepias and Solidago. Milkweed and Goldenrod.

The Milkweeds are officially noxious weeds in Ontario, but their status has been revised to permit uses by home gardeners and naturalization. I quote here from the Ministry of Agriculture's helpful website: "As long as the population of milkweed planted doesn't negatively affect agricultural or horticultural land by spreading seed and new vegetative plant material (i.e. root stock) into fields, nurseries or greenhouses then it is acceptable to plant milkweed in your garden." Great news, and good to know that regulation never precludes a reasoned exception- for example permission to advance a naturalization project.

But official regulation by botanists and bylaw officers is different than the kind of regulation set down by neighbours. Last year we rescued two different Solidago varieties from the meadow next door (it is an abandoned lot that grows up until the Municipality notices it is quite in violation of by-laws), after they had been hacked down to the ground by a weed eater. Despite this injury, they thrived in big containers on the patio, looking quite respectable. They escaped detection until one gloriously sunny Fall day, when I was asked to remove them immediately because the neighbour is allergic.

As a good neighbour, when I planted them in the Fall into their new permanent homes, I located them where they won't be obvious to the offended neighbour. Last year, I also noted that everyone else agrees that Goldenrod is not an allergen. The Ministry of Agriculture states it thus: "Goldenrod is commonly accused of being the cause of hay fever allergies for many people. But it is innocent. Goldenrod is insect-pollinated and its heavy and slightly sticky pollen does not blow on the wind. Ragweed is the usual culprit, but it has inconspicuous flowers whereas Goldenrod, which flowers at the same time, has highly conspicuous flowers and gets the blame."

So what now. August is around the corner and the sprays of the Solidago canadensis are set to be even better than last year. I already have the Ministry's web page printed out, ready for a bright Fall day when even the hidden Goldenrods are noticed. But in the mean time, I think the larger question is about how we account for our neighbour's concerns in our gardens. One of us here at Gracie Gardens is allergic to cut grass (of all things), and while I wouldn't mind a moratorium on cutting (and planting) lawns...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Snake Habitat in Gracie Gardens

Twice now we've seen tiny garter snakes in our gardens. Once in the old rock gardens, once when we moved the spring compost. The 'spring compost' is the sum of the stems and seed heads of the perennials that stood all winter to feed the birds. And so clearly, garter snakes like two things: rocks and brush with bugs in it.

A neighbour up the street (the street's first naturalized and native garden proponent) suggested we more intentionally build a habitat. And so it begins.

First, for the months when snakes are active, we have various flat rocks in sunny locales, and the compost crib, where all of the material trimmed from the garden gets thrown. The compost crib is a tall and narrow (and mobile) cage for material too big for our conventional composters. It is about four feet tall, and six feet long by eighteen inches wide, built out of sticks and old materials from our century house (lathe, old trim, quarter round), and is a very attractive background for a bed of tall plants. The snakes should love it!

Second, we are starting to build a hibernaculum- a location where snakes can safely overwinter. We have a perfect location, on the south side of the new meadow, out of the wind and always in the sun. It also has to be two meters deep, full of rubble, and covered with brush. We are thus collecting rocks every day (mainly along the train tracks), bits of broken cement (from empty lots where it is illegally dumped), and twigs (saved from trimming shrubs and trees in the yard.)

So: this is where we are beginning this project, and expecting it to take two years to complete.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Scrophularia marilandica

We started making the shift to native plants for the usual reasons: they are easier to grow if chosen properly, and thus require fewer resources. Less water, no special treatments (read sprays and fertilizers). They will happily use up all the compost you can produce, and they produce food for birds and bees.

What we did not really expect, or think much about, was how quickly even small, properly sited and fairly diverse gardens could, well, become part of something larger. And I don't just mean that the Eupatoriums are all huge and sturdy, or that the Hierochloe odorata fills in all of the spaces where weedy invasive species might attempt to set root.

No, I mean that our small gardens have pulled in diversity of their own. First it was the insects: a katydid, caterpillars, butterflies, flys, bees, leafhoppers, beetles, fireflys. Then the birds: finches, sparrows, hummingbirds, grosbeaks, cardinals, grackles, even an oriole late last summer.

But even the plants, themselves, seem to be multiplying in their diversity. Are the gardens attracting other plants that fit in their place? Today, in the Ontario meadow flower garden, I discovered a plant apparently called Carpenter's Square. A five-foot tall, perfectly formed and now in flower Scrophularia marilandica, also called Maryland Figwort. (It is the tall spires at the center of the photo behind the Asclepias.)

How did it get here? We'll never know, but by chance I stumbled upon another Carpenter's Square this evening along the river bank, about six asphalt, cement, and turf-covered blocks away. Is the one here one of its descendants? The one that appeared here found the right place, among the Asclepias syriaca, Monarda fistulosa, Veronicastrum virginicum and Eupatorium maculatum. (That is, Milkweed, Wild Bergamot, Culver's Root and Joe Pye Weed).

Next time, I'll introduce the progress on Gracie's Ontario Snake (and Chipmunk) Preserve.