Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Wild Nightlife in Huttonville

As we passed the tiny United Church on Friday night, we could here them yipping and howling in the near distance. I turned worriedly to my husband beside me and said, "I've never heard them that close." 

Every evening we take the dogs for a walk just before bedtime. Usually, we take the same route up the hill through the village. Despite increased levels of commuter traffic and farm fields that are slowly giving way to house-lined streets, Huttonville in these quite hours of the late evening retains the atmosphere of a small rural community in the middle of the countryside.

Often on these late night walks, we have encountered small nocturnal creatures; most often rabbits and the occasional skunk, possum or fox. One evening, a raccoon hissed at us from his perch in a tree top. Another time, my son and I came across a beaver- at least we think it was a beaver for he slapped his wide tail on the ground to warn off the dogs. 

Most of these small animals are harmless. It the coyotes who frighten me. Coyotes have been known to attack domestic animals, particularly dogs. Our neighbors can also tell you sad tales of cats lost to these nocturnal scavengers. Recently, in Nova Scotia there have even been several attacks on humans, resulting in at least one death.

Usually, we hear the coyotes calling from the surrounding hills or down by the Credit River, but on last Friday night, they were very close by. The coyotes had in fact worked themselves into frenzy of excitement, singing out to one another. Were they celebrating a prize already brought down or were they on the hunt?

"You head back with the dogs and I'll stand here for a minute to watch and make sure they don't come up from behind us.", Harold replied in urgent hushed tones. 

I didn't like his plan of remaining behind. I opened my mouth to protest, when a dark shadow darted out of the brush just ahead of us. 

I held my breath and watched the shadow cross to our side of the road. Was it a coyote? I squinted harder. No, it was too small and had a long bushy tail. It only a fox running to escape the coyotes, thank goodness! 

Relieved, we turned quickly in the direction of home. As we walked back through the village, we passed the quaint United Church. Built in 1886 and is one of the community's oldest surviving structures. 

Do you see the small belfry in this photograph? It is home to many small sized bats, the other nighttime creature that I want to tell you about in this Halloween post.

If you pass the church at dusk, you can hear the bird-like chirps of the bats in the church belfry as they wake and stretch their wings. And if you are brave enough to stand and watch, you can see them emerge one by one from the darkness of the belfry and take flight. 

These dark little phantoms swoop low and then flutter their wings wildly to rise back up into the day's fading light. They fly so quickly that, as they whoosh past, they seem to be no more than a light breeze on a hot summer night.

Now, in the cold of late fall and later in freezing temperatures of winter they sleep quietly in the comfort of the belfry. Come summer however, the mosquitoes and bugs a plenty in our small riverside village bring them awake to feed each evening.

One night, a couple of summers ago, we headed up to the third floor attic, as we do every evening, to watch some television. It had been a blistering, hot afternoon and we had opened all the windows to cool the house.

When we switched on the light at the top of the attic staircase, much to our surprise, a frightened bat flew from its perch on the attic's barn-like beams and swooped low just over our heads. Startled, we both just barely ducked out of the way, as the terrified bat flew from one end of the room to the other.

"How the heck did a bat get in? " I asked turning my husband. Before he could answer, we again had to dive for cover as the frightened bat took flight again.

"Maybe there is a hole in one of the window screens.", Harold offered.

"Great", I replied "Now what do we do?"

Together, we hatched a plan to remove the screens and open the windows as wide as possible- that way the bat could hopefully find his own way out. 

Bad plan! An hour or so later, the bat was still diving at us from his roost on the beams. 

We had nor idea what to do next, so we knocked on a few of our a neighbors doors desperately looking for fresh ideas. "If you knock it to the ground, they can't take flight again", one neighbor suggested. 

We headed back to the house and Harold mounted the attic stairs, corn broom in hand.

Even more frightened by the appearance of this unknown assailant, the bat took frantic runs back and forth across the length of the room. Fortunately for us, the broom caught one of his wings in mid-flight and he fell to the floor. The neighbor was right- the bat lay stunned on the ground unable to fly! Harold placed a wire wastebasket over him and then scooped him inside. 

A few minutes later, we released the bat unharmed into the summer night. The following morning we checked all the window screens. No holes! How did the bat get in the house then? This is a mystery we have yet to solve and is not the only bat story I have to tell....

Have a spook-tacular Halloween evening everyone!

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Celebration of Fall Grasses

Close-up of an Ornamental grass at Rideau Woodland Ramble Nursery near Ottawa, Ontario.

Ornamental grass at Rideau Woodland Ramble Nursery near Ottawa, Ontario.

When I was growing up, the only grass in the average garden was the common green stuff  between the flowers beds. In the last ten years however, Ornamental grasses once popular in Victorian times, have begun to re-appear in suburban gardens.

The popularity of these grasses continues to grow in leaps and bounds and no wonder- they have a great deal to contribute to the fall and winter garden. 

For gardeners like me, who were raised on a steady diet of flowering perennials, Ornamental grasses are the new kids on the block. I find myself impressed with their variety and sightly intimidated by their unknown characteristics.

That generally they need full sun, is easy. As to the rest- well...we are just getting to know one another.

All summer, I have been making mental notes on plantings that strike me as beautiful. The images that follow are examples of gardens that have incorporated Ornamental grasses in ways that are striking.  Enjoy!

Tall Ornamental grasses at the Rideau Woodland Ramble Nursery near Ottawa, Ontario.

Miscanthus sinensis in the background and Blue Oat grass in the foreground. Public Library's garden, Brampton, Ontario.

Close-up Miscanthus sinensis 

Miscanthus sinensis at the Lost Horizon Nursery, Acton, Ontario

Unidentified grass at Edwards Gardens in Toronto

Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'aureloa') in the foreground. Display garden at Lost Horizon Nursery, Acton, Ontario

Egyptian Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus 'Graceful Grasses King Tut') at Edwards Gardens, Toronto

Unidentified Ornamental grass and Obedient plant (physostegia virginiana) blooming in the same flower bed at Edwards Gardens in  Toronto

Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'aureloa') in Edwards Gardens, Toronto

Perennial Fountain Grass illuminated

Perennial Fountain Grass in my own garden.

Annual Fountain Grass at Edwards Gardens, Toronto

The texture of a Miscanthus grass seen up close and personal. The Public Library garden, Brampton, Ontario. 

Japanese Blood Grass, at Edwards Gardens, Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Fall Harvest Worth of Rose Hips, Berries & Fruit

The brilliant orange berries of a Burning Bush in the late day sun.

Flowers are perhaps my greatest passion, but I think that nuts, rose hips, fruit and berries can bring as much interest as flowers to the garden. 

I love, love tangy currant jam on warm buttered toast. 

In my Circle garden, I have patiently been waiting for both black and red currant bushes to mature. Next year I should have a bumper crop. 

Come spring, I will have dig deep to discover that well buried, inner domestic diva and make some homemade currant jam.

I have two Cotoneaster shrubs. Do you have any in your garden? Aren't the bright red berries terrific! (The oldest of my Cotoneasters suffered major damage last winter. This one shown is at a Edwards Gardens.)

I try to be vigilant and remove any spent roses, but the ones I miss form rose hips that I often use to add color to the evergreens that I arrange in containers at Christmas time.

I am not at all a plant snob. Even the blush of peach on the tiny cream colored berries of an oh-so-common euonymus has a delicate beauty I appreciate.

I have this Porcelain Vine in half shade on the fence to my Circle Garden. Turquoise, purple and maroon berries decorate this pretty variegated vine. 

This is the third year I've had it in the garden and it has behaved itself so far. 

This fall however, there is an abundance of berries for the first time. Though it is in an isolated central bed, it has occurred to me that I might have grounds to be worried about what will happen when all those bright colored berries drop to the ground! 

Last week, I looked it up online and notice that it is considered invasive. Yikes! Will the garden be overrun with Porcelain Vine?

What makes me kind of angry is that this is a vine readably available for purchase. Why, why, why do nurseries sell invasive plant varieties???

It is so pretty it will break my heart to rip it all out! What do you think? Should I ripe it out now before it gets a stronger foothold? 

Canada Yew

Another great red "berry". Actually the berry is considered a "false-fruit". This is on an old Yew in the vacant lot behind our home. The fruit kind of reminds me of olives. Can see the dark seed inside the translucent envelope of the fruit?

I have much yet to learn when it comes to evergreens and so I looked this one up online too. The Ministry of Ontario identifies it as a Canada Yew that is "prized by the Pharmaceutical industry" as the resource for important cancer fighting drugs. Ironically, it is highly toxic to humans if consumed. Interesting. You learn something new everyday!

Purple Beautyberry at Edwards Garden (Callicarpa dichotoma 'Early Amethyst' )

I am always on the lookout for new shrubs with berries to add to my garden. I saw this Beautyberry bush at Edwards Gardens and thought that the berries were such an outrageous color that they almost looked fake. It is so unusual, that I think I might want to invite a Beautybush to come home with me on my next nursery visit.

I looked and looked for a plant tag to identify these nuts/berries(?) on a tree that I also saw at Edwards Gardens. I have no idea what they are, but I loved their golden color. By chance, do you know the name of this tree?

Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Ironically, I have tried unsuccessfully for several years to get a "Snowberry" bush to overwinter without any luck. I think I might try the bush above instead, which has similar white berries. I spotted it in the local library's garden. I believe it is a Red Osier Dogwood.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fall Clean Up

 Frost melts into tiny water droplets on my Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire'

I hope you have been enjoying the same wonderful weather we have been blessed with here this fall. There has been only a few really cold nights, with a light morning frost that quickly melts in the sunshine. 

Yesterday was glorious. I was out in the yard, without so much as a sweater, beginning the fall clean up of the garden. 

We have several mature trees in the yard, the oldest of which is a Black Walnut, that towers some three stories over the garden. It produces a prodigious number of walnuts, many as big as medium sized apples. These lime green, rock hard orbs can rain down with from the sky with such force, it can damage the garden fence or snap the rungs of my wooden arbor in two. 

The yard, littered with the hundreds of these round walnuts, becomes a roller rink that can send you sailing.

Burgundy Mum from the front garden

Black walnuts are supposedly a delicacy, however I have yet to figure out how to crack them open. Their impenetrable outer shell defies me!  

Picking up the walnuts is a backbreaking enterprise. First, I have to rake them into piles and then I scoop them up into an old metal dustpan. If I neglect to get the job done, the walnuts soften and turn in to papery black balls, that ooze a liquid as dark and thick as crude oil.

The water fountain in the back garden

What are your thoughts on fall clean up in the garden? Do you rake your beds clear?

In the past, I always put fall leaves into my compost pile. Then I started wondering, why I was doing this? When leaves fall in a forest, no one is there to "clean up". 

So, for the last few years I have been experimenting. 

It all started with the woodland bed, under our large maple. I stopped raking away the yellow maple leaves when they fell. 

During our harsh Canadian winters, I think that fall leaves make a great blanket that protects the plants that rest warm and cozy underneath them.

Pokeweed with frost crystals

I did not rake the maple leaves away in the spring either. 

Initially, I was worried that the new growth might rot under the leaves or be consumed by insects, who would not distinguish between the decomposing leaves and the new growth. 

But no, the new spring growth emerged from the leaf covered beds just fine. 

Then last year, when I cut down the the peonies in my front garden, I laid the spent plant's leaves right back on the bed. In June, the peonies thanked me with a profusion of blooms.


I don't know if these fall clean up experiments will backfire on me at some point, but so far so good!

Many of my roses still carry on and a few even have blooms, including this white ground cover rose that I purchased on sale at the local grocery store.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Learning Garden at Lancaster School, Mississauga, Ontario

The sunflowers planted by the kindergarden students at Lancaster Public School in Mississauga.

What was your schoolyard like when you were a child? So often in the past, most urban schoolyards were little more than a windswept, treeless expanse of rock hard concrete and asphalt, with maybe a little turf grass surrounded by a chain link fence.

Traditionally, we tend to think of schoolyards as a place for play, physical activity and socialization. The all important "learning" took place in the classroom. Perhaps that is why so little thought was usually given to the design of school yards. 

Enter Evergreen, an innovative, not-for profit organization dedicated to facilitating sustainable greening projects in schoolyards, parks and communities across Canada. Evergreen believes that, "by planting trees, shrubs and wildflowers, creating meadows and butterfly gardens on school grounds, learning opportunities literally come alive." 

Working in partnership with selected elementary and secondary schools, they have devised a program which involves the building of a Learning Garden, "a place where children can play, learn and develop a genuine respect for nature."

Now at recess time, the students at Lancaster Public School in Mississauga can roam freely through the Learning Garden they themselves designed, built and planted. The overall garden consists of several themed planting areas including a bird sanctuary, a canoe forest, and a vegetable garden. 

Take a look at what these kids have created:

Top: A view of the school from the Learning Garden at Lancaster School. Bottom images: Yellow daisies in the front garden (left) and a sunflower about to open (right).

The garden attracts butterflies, bees and birds to the school yard. In fact, Ms. Lavigne, the school's office manager, told us that one morning, a little girl came into the office to report that a "bird" had bitten her at recess. Ms. Lavigne thought this odd. Native birds don't usually "bite"! 

When the next day, a young boy came into the office with the very same story, she determined that she had better head out into the garden and check things out. What she discovered, amongst the native grasses and wildflowers, was a duck who had built a nest in the garden. The duck was simply acting to protect its young family. 

Wild asters (top and right) attract bees and butterflies. Seed-heads and wild grasses draws native birds to Bird Sanctuary.

In the vegetable garden, tomatoes the students planted ripen on the vine.

The teachers also use the garden throughout the school day as part of the regular class instructional time. They teach natural science lessons, plant flowers and vegetables, tend the garden and sit with the children on the garden's circle of stones for story time. 

A pretty nasturtium from the vegetable garden.

Now that fall has come to the Learning Garden, birds and squirrels will delight to discover seeds in the nodding sunflowers planted the kindergarden classes. In the coming winter, the garden's tress, shrubs and tall grasses will provide valuable sanctuary for native wildlife from the harsh winter winds.

To learn more Evergreen and their many greening projects in communities across Canada, visit their website at

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Sharpe Schoolhouse Garden, Caledon Ontario

I hope everyone had a great weekend. This week, my garden blog posts are united by a school theme. 

I begin the week, with a historic schoolhouse home and garden on Old School Road in Caledon, Ontario. Old School Road was so named because, in days gone by when children walked to school, there was a school built ever two or three miles along the road to make the distance from home to school manageable.

The heritage building has a family connection for Mr. Sharpe, its current owner. Mr. Sharpe's father attended the school for eight years and his mother later taught there. The schoolhouse is, in fact, where his parents met. The year Mr. Sharpe started grade one, the school closed, so he himself missed attending it by just a few years.

When the school came up for auction, his father bought and renovated it, turning it into a private residence. Great care was taken in the renovation process to maintain period details and keep the edition at the back of the schoolhouse in keeping with the original structure. 

At the front of the property a Union Jack flag, which is the flag appropriate to the school's founding date of 1879, flies high above a circular bed of clipped yew and euonymus.

The school bell can still be rung using a firm pull on the rope in the front vestibule.

The charming front door knocker.
 The Sharpe's have also planted a lovely garden on the property. With out further ado, let's head down the flagstone path that encircles the house to see the beautifully designed garden.

As you turn to the right of the schoolhouse, you pass under a birch tree and follow along a path through the herb garden. 

A little further along the path is a large deck.

A decorative urn filled with coleus on the deck.

 Japanese anemone

 A bridge and pond a few steps further down the path. 

(Left) The vivid orange of Mountain Ash berries. (Right) A set of stone steps lead down to a flagstone patio.
The sheltered patio at the back of the vine covered home.