Thursday, May 26, 2016

Five Garden Bugs You Need to get to Know

It is my pleasure to introduce you to Jean Godawa, a science educator and writer. Insects may be a tiny creatures, but that is not to say they don't have an important role to play in the garden. In her first post, Jean introduces us to five insects whose role in the garden is highly beneficial. Most importantly, Jean helps us to avoid misidentifying the less familiar larval form of these helpful insects as pests.

One of the hardest lessons for novice gardeners to learn is to embrace the presence of insects in the garden.  Of course we know that there are plant-destroying bugs that can wipe out some of our favourite flora, but there are other creatures that we should be welcoming into our gardens.  Acting as pollinators, predators and decomposers, beneficial insects are the master gardeners and we are just their apprentices.


The aptly named, faery-like lacewing (Chrysopidae) has an appetite for plant-sucking aphids. Lacewings are common throughout North America and lay their eggs at the end of stalks, usually on the underside of foliage.

Larval form of green lacewing      

In its immature form, as well as adult, predatory lacewings protect plants from herbivorous insects.

Seven spotted ladybug larvae  

Ladybugs, also known as lady beetles or ladybird beetles (Coccinellidae) are one of the most easily recognized garden bugs. Like lacewings they help keep aphid populations in check. Their larvae however, are not so easily recognized and are sometimes mistaken for unwanted pests.

The colouring of these ladybug larvae along with the bright colours of their adult forms, acts as a warning. Ladybugs have a foul taste that protects them from birds, bats and other insectivores.

Hover fly   

The same yellow and black colour provides an advantage to several other insects. It’s difficult to tell the difference between a hover fly (Syrphidae) and a wasp. Up close, you can see that hoverflies, like all flies (Diptera), only have one pair of wings. All other winged insects have two pairs. The colouring mimics that of a wasp which helps guard against predators. Despite this warning, hover flies do not sting.

Hover fly larva on aphid infested plant

Hover fly larvae are predators of tiny plant-eating insects. Adult females hover over plants looking for a place to lay eggs. Plants with aphids, whiteflies or other pests are optimal as they provide a food source for her larvae once they hatch. As adults, hoverflies derive their energy from nectar and, in a small way, act as pollinators.

Braconid Wasp Cocoons on Sphynx Moth Caterpillar

Most of us are familiar with, and probably afraid of, the yellow and black colouring of another insect. Wasps, like hornets and yellow jackets, scare us away from outdoor fun, especially in late summer when they seem to be everywhere. But our bias towards wasps shouldn’t taint the whole group. There are thousands of species of wasps, particularly in the ichneumonid and braconid families that are immensely helpful in the garden and most of them do not sting. Braconid wasps act as control agents for particularly destructive creatures like caterpillars. The adult wasps lays eggs directly onto caterpillars and when the larvae hatch, they eat the caterpillar from the inside out.

Ichneumonid wasps   

Adult ichneumonid and braconid wasps can, in a small way, help pollinate flowers when they visit them for nectar, but it is their parasitizing larvae that are most helpful against pests.

Bumble bee  

Of course we could not discuss black and yellow insects without mentioning bees (Apidae). With their larvae safely protected in nests underground, in tree cavities or other protected spaces, adult bees forage for pollen and nectar throughout the garden. Their feeding activity pollinates the flowers of many backyard trees and garden vegetables, ensuring we have fresh foods like sweet cherries, flavourful herbs, plump tomatoes and Halloween pumpkins.

The recent decline in bee populations, particularly in honeybees, threatens even the smallest vegetable garden. Not only does bee pollination provide food for our table, it ensures that seeds form for future harvests. Create a bee-friendly garden by including their favourite plants, building a bee house and providing a small water source.

Recognizing these master gardeners and being able to distinguish them from unwanted visitors is just one of the important lessons we, as their apprentice, must learn.

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Many thanks to Ken Sproule and David Cappaert for providing images for this post.

About Jean GodawaJean 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 had conducted field research in the tropical rainforests of Asia and South America.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Little Twist on a Hanging Basket

This past weekend was the Victoria Day long weekend here in Canada, which is traditionally marks the start of the gardening season. While there is no guarantee there won't be another cold snap, the odds are it is safe to plant out tender annuals.

With numerous window boxes, several urns and hanging baskets to fill, I start slowly and plant them up as time and money permit.

On the front porch and in a large concrete urn at the back, I placed pansies in cool shades of blue and purple. Pansies are so cheery. I just love them!

Right beside the back door there is a little metal hook in the shape of hand with the palm turned upward. Often I hang my trowels on one of the outstretched fingers at the end of the day.

To celebrate the arrival of warmer weather I filled a little wire basket with some purple Campanula. This hanging basket is a case of short-term glory. Soon enough the flowers will fade. 

Then I'll cut the plant back hard and put the Campanula somewhere in the garden. 'Dark Get Mee Campanula' are supposedly hardy, but I haven't had much success with them. Who knows, maybe I'll be luckier this time.

For the summer, I think I'll drop in a pot of thyme. Only a couple of types of thyme seem hardy here and this isn't one of them, but I so love the look, smell and taste of this 'Golden Lemon Thyme', I splurge on a few pots each year. 

The urn in its spring glory

Tulips and Forget-Me-Nots line the path between the four raised beds

When spring pansies start to fade in summer heat, one of the pots of lemon thyme goes into the tall black urn between the four raised beds. There the thyme bakes in the sun, but it never seems to complain.

This makes me think that thyme will be the perfect choice for the little wire basket. 

Quick Wire Basket How-to: To make the basket, I bought a length of coconut liner. I rolled the liner out and with a permanent marker I traced the bottom of the basket. Then I cut out the circle and placed it at the bottom of the basket. 

Next I cut a rectangular length of coconut liner that matched the height of my wire basket. The basket is fairly small, so to make the liner more manageable I cut it into two shorter lengths. I inserted the two pieces overlapping them just a bit. 

I removed the thyme from its plastic pot and slipped it into my basket. To finish, I gave it a good drink.

For my large hanging baskets, I wanted to do something a little different this year, so I went for some edibles. I bought one basket of strawberries and plan to pot up a second with strawberry plants I already have.

Though one of the raised beds is filled with berries, I didn't get a single strawberry last year. I am not sure if the birds got them all or it was some other creature. This spring, I may see if I can get netting of some kind.

If it was birds that ate my berries, I may just have made their thievery that much easier by hanging the berries in baskets. The baskets just might have to move to the porch as the strawberries ripen.

I also bought a basket of cherry tomatoes. The red and yellow 'Tumbling Tom' tomatoes were completely potbound, so I removed them from the plastic pot and transferred them to a much larger basket with a coconut liner. 

What's your experience with coconut liners? 

I find the water drains through really, really quickly and the plant and soil don't get enough chance to absorb the moisture. To compensate for the sieve-like drainage, I place a second piece of liner at the bottom of the basket. The water seems to slow down when it has to pass through two layers of liner.

To fill out the basket I added several types of thyme.

This metal bucket was a dollar store find. A few holes for drainage was all it needed. The wicker furniture in the backyard has red seat cushions, so I thought the bucket might look nice planted with red and white petunias.

I have a number of vintage watering cans, which I use to water areas of the garden that the hose doesn't reach. I also have a few decorative ones. One such watering can has an open top making it the perfect vessel for a container planting.

This weekend I finally got around to planting it up. I punched a few holes in the bottom forever committing the watering can to a new life as a container. Then I used 'Hula Pastel Pink' Calibrachoa, white 'Techno Heat Lobelia' and purple petunias to fill it.

The metal hangers with the decorative bird are from Walmart.

One final project was a birdcage planter I made for the front porch. I have always wanted to make one of these container plantings. For instructions on how to make one of your own, click here.

Enjoy the start of your week!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Collectable Hostas

This is Bernie's garden in Belwood, Ontario. He has hosta scattered throughout the garden, but they steal the show in a shady nook near his backyard shed. 

In beds on either side of the path to the little grey shed, Bernie has done a really terrific job of mixing a color, texture and shape. Let's take a look:

Hosta 'Praying Hands'

Once you get hooked on collecting hosta, they're hard to resist. Today's post looks at some of the latest and greatest varieties of hosta available this spring.

With a really great name, this hosta has been honoured with the title 'Hosta of the Year'. What makes it a standout? As the name suggests, it's the curly foliage.

Hosta 'Curly Fries' has narrow ruffled leaves that emerge a chartreuse color and turn golden. This is a miniature sized hosta that makes a nice rounded mound. Lavender flowers are held on deep purple scapes. Part-shade (morning sun) for best color. Height: 10-15 cm (4-6 inches), Spread: 35-40 cm (14-16 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

More Miniature Hostas:

Miniature hostas are so gosh-darned adorable! Beside bigger neighbours, they offer a nice contrast in scale. Here is a selection of the minis to tempt you:

'Cheating Heart' is a sun tolerant mini with nice color and a rippled margin. In the sun the leaves will be a deep gold, and in part shade, the color will be more of a chartreuse. It flowers in early summer with light purple flowers. Height: 20 cm (8 inches), Spread: 50 cm (20 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Dragon Tails' (on the left) has narrow lance-shaped yellow leaves and lavender flowers. Full to part- shade. Height: 10-15 cm ( 4-6 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Alakazaam' (on the right) forms an arching mound of narrow tapered leaves with ruffled yellow margins that brighten to creamy-white in the summer. Its flowers are pale lavender. Full to part-shade. 10-15 cm ( 4-6 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Little Treasure' has leaves with a wide blue margin and a creamy-white centre. This hosta has lavender flowers in June to July. Height: 20-25 cm (8-10 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Cherry Tomato' (on the left) has lance-shaped leaves with a creamy white centre. The flowers are deep purple. Full to part-shade. Height: 8-10 cm (4-6inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Bachelor Party' (on the right) has twisted green leaves with creamy-white margins. This hosta forms an upright mound with purple flowers. Full to part shade. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches), Spread: 80 cm (32 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Church Mouse' has blue-green foliage that is shaped like a mouse ear. Church Mouse has lavender flowers in early summer. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches), Spread: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Hush Puppies' (on the left) has twisted leaves with a cream margin. The flowers are lavender. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9

'Cameo' (on the right) has tiny green leaves edged with creamy-white. It blooms in early summer with lavender flowers. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Carolyn of Carolyn's Shade Gardens (they are a nursery that does mail order as well) has done a great post on using mini hosta as a groundcover. Check out her post here.

Hostas with Red Petioles

Beyond foliage, hosta can offer color in their petioles (the transition between the stem and leaf blade). Here are a few of the varieties with this feature:

The leaves of 'Fire Island' emerge a brilliant yellow color and turn chartreuse. The red petioles keep their color all season. Fire Island has lavender flowers mid-summer. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 25-35 cm ( 10-14 inches), Spread: 45-75 cm (18-30 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Island Breeze' (on the left) has vibrant yellow centred leaves that turn chartreuse-green with dark green margins as they mature. A key feature is the petioles, which are bright red. The lavender flowers appear in late summer. Height: 30-40 cm (12-16 inches), Spread: 45-50 cm ( 18-20 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Designer Genes' (on the right) has brilliant yellow leaves that emerge from deep red shoots. The showy red petioles turn chartreuse green in summer. It blooms later than many hosta (August to October) with flowers that are purple. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 45-50 cm, (18-20 inches), Spread: 25-35 cm (10-14 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.


A quick reminder not to forget to consider color when choosing a hosta:

'American Hero' (seen on the left) has really striking dark grey-green leaves with a cream streak down the centre. This hosta forms a very dense clump and has lavender flowers in summer. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 30-35 cm (12-14 inches), Spread: 60-65 cm (24-26 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Orange Marmalade' (seen on the right) has leaves that emerge green and develop a yellow centre with a hint of orange. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches), Spread: 75-85 cm ( 29-33 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Curvaceous Hosta:

It seems only fitting to begin this section of the listing with a hosta named after a woman famous for her curves.

Hosta 'Marilyn Munroe' has bluish-green, rounded leaves with a lovely ruffled edge. This is a large hosta that flowers very late in the gardening season with lavender flowers. Height: 40-45 cm ( 16-18 inches), Spread: 100-110 cm ( 39-43 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

'Joy Ride' not only has great curves, but it also has foliage with a wonderful powdery, blue-green color. Light lavender flowers appear mid-summer. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches), Spread: 90 cm ( 35 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

The Really Big Hosta Everybody seems to be Talking About:

'Empress Wu' is a very large hosta whose thick, leathery foliage is pretty slug resistant. The grey-green leaves have dark green veining and can be as much as 45 cm or 18 inches wide and long! This hosta has violet flowers in summer. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 150-180 cm (59-70 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.

My plant buying dollars are always stretched, but I try to invest in at least one new hosta each year. 

This spring it was Hosta 'Joy Ride' (seen in the Curvaceous listings) that came home with me. I just couldn't pass up those powdery, grey-green leaves!

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