Treefrog among the bonsai

Bonsai pots with green treefrog

We see it almost every day now. The gray treefrog that arrived recently has taken up residence in the potted garden on our deck. You can see it in the bottom righthand corner of the photo above.

I’ve begun training some plants as bonsai. The juniper and bougainvillea shown here are my favourites, displayed on a low pedestal table. They get dowsed with water from a sprinkler head every morning. It’s not hard to see why this spot appeals to our guest.

Gray Treefrog at home

The frog can most often be found at home under the bougainvillea pot. That’s where I discovered it huddling the first time, when I started moving things around. Fortunately, froggy didn’t mind the commotion too much and returned. Sometimes it sticks its nose out to catch some sun.

But when I check the table after dusk, the frog isn’t there. It’s out somewhere hunting insects in the dark. The treefrog is a good jumper, expert at catching hold of things with sticky toe pads, so getting around is easy.

In praise of potatoes

Caribe potatoes

Potatoes may not be the most charismatic vegetables, but for some reason I love growing them. It’s partly because groundhogs show no interest, so I can get along without extreme measures. There’s also the allure of growing something unusual, like these purple-skinned Caribe potatoes.

And specialty potatoes dug from the garden can taste a whole lot better than anything you’ll buy in a store. These Caribes taste surprisingly ordinary, but the Warba variety (yellow with pink eyes) growing alongside won my best-tasting potato certificate two years ago. I anticipate great things from the mid-season varieties coming along later.

It’s interesting how something so solid and wholesome can grow in the dark, taking you by surprise. I’ve been poking around their roots in anticipation of new potatoes for weeks now. We had a few itty-bitty ones a while back, but mostly I would look and find nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Then yesterday morning I dug up a plant and look what I found: a meal! Last night I made some basil pesto for mashing into them. Danny likes to mash. They were delicious.

Another thing I like about potatoes is they’re so easy to accessorize: mashed, baked, fries, latkes, soup, salad, pizza or quiche crust, and the list goes on.

Last year’s potato harvest was a total blowout. I thought I could establish a new garden bed by laying seed potatoes right on the sod and covering them with straw. It works for some people, but not here. Mice ate practically all of them. What a disappointment.

I learned its best to cover them with at least a little soil, then the mice won’t get at them. This spring I over-compensated by planting twice as many as last year. Potatoes are space hogs. About half the garden is planted with them.

They’re all coming along nicely now, throwing up great mounds of greenery to nourish the next generation of tubers. The early varieties are upon us. It’s harvest time. It looks like we’re going to be eating potatoes, lots and lots of them, well into the fall.

Intensely unfocused: core spinning a gray treefrog

Core-spun yarn inspired by a gray treefrog

It was a big craft weekend. Dyeing fibre with mountain-ash leaves was not our only project. While Danny developed a new design for a knitted sock, I did some hand-spinning.

Over the past 18 months, the majority of yarns I’ve spun were inspired by images. This began with a lace shawl based on the plumage of a Nicobar pigeon. Then the 2013 Ontario Handspinning Seminar connected spinning with storytelling, a metaphor that nicely fits my own creative narrative.

Finally, last fall at the Five Counties Seminar, I learned core spinning, in which fibre is wrapped around a core thread. The technique lends itself well to incorporating a variety of fibres and colours to create funky art yarn.

“Art yarn” sometimes gets a bad wrap (spelling intended) among spinners. It can be beautiful, but it’s also the mildly, humourously derogatory term we apply to our first attempts at spinning, the yarn that runs thick and thin, frequently breaks, and easily twists back on itself.

With experience, we learn to spin strong, consistent yarn. With habit, some spinners lose the ability or confidence to spin anything unpredictable or inconsistent. I’ve heard of a spinning teacher who makes her beginning students give her all their crazy novice novelties, as only a beginner can make.

I’m not an anal-retentive spinner. I may have a detail-oriented streak where writing is concerned, but in most other aspects of life I’m all over the place. I was raised in a house where neatness reigned supreme, but orderliness is not in my nature. For many years I was ashamed of this, but gradually I have come to embrace the fertile mess that is an artist’s friend.

Taking a more weedy approach to writing has even broken years of writer’s block, enabling me to pursue a freelance career with more gusto. Whenever possible, in the writing process, I set aside separate blocks of time for the uninhibited, intuitive act of creation, and the necessary, careful, niggling act of revision. That is another story.

The essential fussiness of hand-spinning did not appeal to me, until my desire to create my own yarn compelled me to try. Even then, I recognized the pressure to master neat, consistent yarn, the kind needed to knit classy sweaters and weave fine linen. But I felt a different calling. I never wanted to lose my ability for funkiness.

Fortunately, there are enough other spinners with the same inclination just to dive in and do it. Some even manage to bridge the divide between spontaneity and careful analysis. They provide insight and inspiration. They let me feel free to be unfocused.

Learning the core spinning technique was an important breakthrough. Almost immediately, I started using images as inspiration when blending fibre. I made a hat based on one of Lorraine Roy‘s art works, and a hat-scarf based on fall colours. Our purchase of a drum carder and blending board made it easier to blend fibre for these purposes. Since last winter I’ve made too many other core-spun items to count, both skeins and knitted items to be given as gifts, bartered, sold or worn.

It’s a groove and a great pleasure I don’t want to end anytime soon. A good process is a good teacher. I’m learning how to get different effects from fibre blended on the drum carder versus the blending board, what different colours and fibres look like when layered over one another, how to burnish the yarn with one finger as I spin, and any number of other lessons. I’m learning how to achieve effects, yet the outcome always surprises me somehow, which is gratifying and never boring.

Last week, when a gray treefrog showed up in our deck garden – what a handsome creature! – I knew immediately what I wanted to do. (It stuck around, too. This photo was taken yesterday morning.) Spinning yarn inspired by the visitor’s exquisite colours became my other weekend project.

Gray Treefrog

I’ve been exploring all kinds of different palettes this year. My fibre stash doesn’t contain any of the pale green that characterizes this fellow, but I could match it by combining other greens, light greys and a hint of blue. Brown Shetland wool, a bit of sparkly green Firestar, silvery-soft yak-silk blend and a few other delicious items went into the bag destined for the cottage.

The blending board, more portable than the drum carder, also went along. I don’t know which I prefer: blending fibres or spinning the results to see what happens. The only thing that could make the process more enjoyable was spinning on the dock.

Morning at Lake Fletcher

The project compelled me to spend several peaceful hours on a deck chair, watching the play of light on water, feeling the breeze, smelling the forest and listening to the songs of thrushes and warblers, punctuated occasionally by our friend’s green frog cousins, muttering in the shallows.

If there’s a more useful way of spending my time, I don’t care.

I filled two large bobbins to make 87 metres (97 yards) of core-spun yarn. It’s more than enough to knit a mobius cowl (maybe a hat?) but I haven’t decided what to do with it yet.

Skein of core-spun yarn inspired by a treefrog

Natural dye from mountain-ash leaves

Fibre dyed with mountain-ash

American mountain-ash (Sorbus americana) leaves provide an excellent natural dye in coppery-gold colours. This plant does not often arise in discussions of natural dyes, perhaps because it lacks wide distribution outside the northeastern Laurentian forests of North America. However, European mountain-ash (S. aucuparia), also known as rowan, commonly appears as an ornamental tree and presumably produces a similar pigment. Maybe these colours aren’t the trendiest, but they deserve some attention, given their intensity and the species’ reasonable abundance.

Another drawback is that a copper sulphate mordant is required to yield good colour, so I’ll address the environmental concern.

Mountain-ash has distinctive compound leaves with about 15 serrated leaflets. Clusters of white flowers in late spring give way to red, berry-like fruit ripening in the fall. They are edible but not especially tasty. They are small trees. Here’s the sapling that stands sentry beside our dock.

American mountain-ash

S. americana is found in Northern Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic provinces, New England, the Appalachians, Northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Note that it is endangered in Illionois, so avoid harming a tree. Leaves can be harvested in late September without consequence, and the dye colour might be even better at that time.

When I first took an interest in natural dyes, I found reference to mountain-ash in Spectrum: Dye Plants of Ontario by Nancy J. McGuffin. At the time, one large tree grew behind our cottage. So one day in September 2008 I climbed onto the roof (a challenge to my acrophobia), plucked leaves and passed them down to my partner. With the benefit of Danny’s dyeing experience, we achieved the impressive copper colour, with complex gold undertones, shown below (the top skein of yarn was dyed with black locust pods, not quite as interesting).

2008 dye experiment with black locust seed pods (above) and mountain-ash leaves

I have always wanted to experiment further. So last weekend with some free time at the cottage, we tried it again, with even more interesting, if less predictable, results.

I climbed onto the roof again. It was a lot more nerve-wracking this time. The cottage has a new metal roof, offering hardly any purchase for my footing, except the occasional rivet. I retrieved all the leaves I could from a seated position. Fortunately, a number of saplings have appeared along our lake shore, as in the photograph above. We thinned them, leaving the strongest to maintain a future population. Altogether we collected 1.8 kg (4 lbs.) of leaves.

This dye requires a relatively high plant-to-fibre ratio of 4:1. So we used 600 g (1.3 lbs.) in each of two pots to dye 150 g (5.3 oz.) of fibre. The remaining third we brought home and are drying for another time.

My fibre interest has shifted away from commercial yarn to fibre, for blending and hand-spinning my own yarn. I brought rovings of Rambouillet wool, 70%/30% alpaca-wool blend, and Bombyx and tussah silk to the pot. Also, with every dyeing exercise I have included some Border Leicester locks. This is a coarse but glossy wool I plan to spin into tapestry yarn, so I’m building a palette of colours. Danny’s project was a skein of lace-weight silk yarn (results below).

Silk yarn dyed with mountain-ash leaves

Mountain-ash leaves need to be soaked overnight, then brought to a boil and simmered for two hours. They don’t seem to release as much pigment, but don’t be deceived: the outcome will be intense.

After two hours, the leaves can be strained out and the fibre added to the dye water and simmered. That was how we did it in 2008. This time we had the leaves bundled in mesh bags, so we left them with the fibre for the first hour of dyeing. After the first hour, the leaves and fibre come out and the mordant is added to the pot, copper sulphate at two percent (3 g per 150 g of fibre). After it dissolves, the fibre returns to the pot for another hour. Waiting to add mordant halfway through ensures the dye has time to penetrate the fibre and doesn’t all bind with the mordant in the water.

Afterward we turned off the heat, and let the fibre sit and cool in the pots overnight to soak up as much pigment as possible. Then the fibre must be removed and given an after-bath in a basic, not acidic, solution. McGuffin used ammonia and we followed her advice in 2008. This time we tried baking soda. I also tried some samples in clear water and an acid after-bath with some vinegar. The difference was barely noticeable, although the base sample was slightly redder and darker. Here’s how the Border Leicester locks turned out.

Border Leicester locks dyed with mountain-ash leaves

We had much more inconsistent results this time. The dye seems to have two components: an orange-copper-brown and a brassy gold. The silks picked these up in a variety of ways. Danny’s yarn turned out with an attractive variegation. The dye didn’t penetrate my silk rovings or locks consistently, so they have lots of shades including scarlet, dark copper, peach, brass and pale gold. Below are the Rambouillet, Bombyx silk and alpaca-wool rovings.

Rambouillet wool, bombyx silk, and alpaca-wool dyed with mountai

The Rambouillet and Border Leicester picked up the orange-copper most consistently, taking on the deepest tones. The alpaca-wool blend seemed to resist this colour, taking on more of the gold, so the result was a light peachy brown.

This might have been a frustrating experiment if we had expected the same solid colour as 2008, but for my purposes the variety is more interesting than disappointing. For more consistent results we might try pre-soaking the fibre longer (our silk was soaked overnight, as it normally needs to be, but we didn’t add any soap to the water). For the future I might try harvesting leaves in September again, to see if the pigment intensifies later in the season, as is the case with some plant dyes. Including silk in the pots, which tends to absorb a lot of pigment quickly, may have affected the uptake by other fibres. Here are the Rambouillet, alpaca-wool and Border Leicester after they dried.

Rambouillet wool, alpaca-wool blend and Border Leicester wool lo

Natural dyes, used in the traditional way, are not very environmentally friendly. Most require metal salt mordants, many of which are fairly toxic. Mordants bind pigments to the fibre. Alum is a safe option. Unfortunately it does not provide good colours with mountain-ash.

Synthetic dyes can provide great colour and more versatility with less environmental impact. Meanwhile, many fans of natural dyes are trying to develop safer procedures. For this reason, many will not use mordants such as copper sulphate.

Although copper occurs naturally in soils and is an important fertilizer for plants, concentrated copper sulphate is toxic to many organisms, notably bacteria and fungi. If leached into rivers and streams, it can lead to fish die-off.

The absolute amount and concentration of copper used in occasional dyeing are small, and probably safe if used and disposed of carefully. It is safe to dispose of these die baths down the sink with lots of water, if and only if it drains into a sewer. Do not dispose of copper sulphate into a septic tank, where it will kill essential microorganisms.

Our cottage has a septic bed, so instead I dumped the dye pots along the gravel road where the water can diffuse and dilute before entering the surroundings. It would be unsafe to do this frequently or with large amounts of dye. Most natural dyes work well with safer mordants, so I will reserve copper sulphate for occasional use with this particular favourite.

Another environmental concern with natural dyes is the amount of water required for the process and safe disposal. We have a huge supply of clean lake water at the cottage, but I would never take this for granted.

It’s hard to beat spending a long weekend in my happy place, playing with a plant I have grown to admire for it’s natural dye.

A gray treefrog visits our deck garden

Gray Treefrog

Yesterday morning I lifted one of the bonsai pots on our deck and found this gray treefrog resting underneath. This frog is an arboreal species, seldom descending to the ground. Apparently our deck garden resembles a tree.

Gray Treefrog

When I tried to encourage it to return to its hiding place under a bonsai pot, the frog leapt out of my hand and caught the edge of a little table by one toe. These frogs have powerful toe pads, allowing them to jump away from predators and find purchase on the first passing leaf or branch. They also have a vivid yellow flush on the inside of their thighs to startle any hungry creature that disturbs them.

Gray treefrogs can be distinguished from other Ontario frogs by their warty skin and the pale triangular patch under the eye. Toads are warty but solid brown and lack toe pads. This adult frog is about the length of my thumb.

Gray Treefrog

At rest the yellow flash is hidden, and these amphibians are well camouflaged. Gray treefrogs can change their colour to match their surroundings, from green to grey to brown. This frog would be hard to distinguish like a mound of lichen on a high tree branch.

Sometimes at our cottage we find a treefrog on one of the windows, where they catch insects attracted to the lights. I’ve never seen one here in the city, though. The conservation area behind our house must provide a home for them. Its nice to find one living in our garden, a reminder that cities can offer good backyard habitats, too.

Treefrogs seem to be common. However, because of their arboreal habit and excellent camouflage, they are seldom seen. Try listening for them on spring and early summer nights in wooded areas. Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-A-Pond program has an audio file of the gray treefrog’s song.

David Attenborough has a special passion for frogs. We recently watched his documentary, Fabulous Frogs, on PBS Nature. I recommend it as an insight into the world’s great diversity of frogs, and their intriguing behaviour.

Maybe birds did not descend from dinosaurs

Scansoriopteryx

New research suggests evidence against the widespread hypothesis that birds descended directly from dinosaurs. The study, published in the Journal of Ornithology, used advanced scanning techniques to reveal the bone structure of Scansoriopteryx, an early ancestor of birds illustrated above, showing important differences from dinosaur skeletons. Read more about this story on Sci-News.

Almost as fascinating as this idea is the controversy surrounding Scansoriopteryx and the people researching it. There is confusion about what geological formation the Scansoriopteryx fossil came from and the date of the rock. The creature may or may not have preceded the more famous ancestral bird, Archaeopteryx, which lived 150 million years ago. However, several fossil creatures from as much as 10 million years earlier seem to support birds evolving from dinosaurs.

The authors of this study, Alan Feduccia of the University of North Carolina and Stephen Czerkas of the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah, would place avian ancestry firmly in the trees. This group of small, gliding, feathered reptiles would have appeared before dinosaurs ever walked the Earth. The physiology of Scansoriopteryx has previously led Czerkas and Chongxi Yuan to speculate the creatures were adept climbers, and well-equipped for leaping between branches, but incapable of powered flight.

Image credit: Matt Martyniuk

Wines of Lake Erie North Shore

Wines of Lake Erie North Shore

A number of small wineries have sprung up in the countryside where I grew up. Needless to say, as a wine-lover, I am proud of this. It’s my own terroir! In June my partner and I had a chance to tour the region, and I was pleased to find some enjoyable wines grown practically on my old back doorstep.

Ontario’s wine industry has grown in recent years. Three regions are developing, with unique landscape, soil and weather features. Niagara Peninsula is the most famous and well-established. I have also explored the newest terroir in Prince Edward County, which is practically an island in Lake Ontario. But the one that particularly interests me is the Lake Erie North Shore.

Two wineries in the region are well-established. Colio Estate Wines was the first. It opened in my hometown, Harrow, Ontario, more than 30 years ago, and produces some respectable wines. I recommend their Cabernet-Merlot.

Pelee Island Winery started later but has taken off and become one of Canada’s most successful. Its products are available internationally. Pelee Island Gewürztraminer is one of my favourite wines.

Point Pelee National Park is a mecca for birders, one of the best places in Eastern North America to observe spring migration. Pelee Island lies just offshore. The southernmost point in Canada, it has a uniquely mild habitat, and harbours many of Canada’s rare and endangered species. Bird- and wine-lovers can access the island by ferry from Leamington and Kingsville, Ont., and Sundusky, Ohio. The winery follows rigorous sustainable farming protocols. Many of the wine labels picture distinctive local flora and fauna, such as prothonotary warbler, indigo bunting and monarch butterfly.

Our tour last month skipped the big ones and explored vineyards that seem to have appeared within the past 10 or 20 years. Altogether, about 13 wineries in the region are recognized by the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA).

Aleksander Gewurztraminer, Paglione Rose, Cooper's Hawk Talon Red wines

The opportunity for our visit was a reunion with a few high school friends. Two of my pals, Sarah and Vicky, organized a tour that including Mastronardi Estate Winery, Aleksander Estate Winery and Cooper’s Hawk Winery. Over the course of the weekend, my partner and I on our own visited two more estate wineries listed on the VQA site, Oxley and Viewpointe.

Many Canadian wines mix imported grapes and juice with domestic ones. The VQA Act of 1999 set standards for production and labeling so consumers would know what they were buying. A Canadian wine may bear the label VQA only if it is made 100 percent from grapes grown in the province. The label may also list its terroir if additional production standards ensure it uses 85 percent grapes from that region.

We visited two additional wineries not listed on the VQA website: Paglione Estate Winery and Black Bear Farms.

This part of Ontario is extraordinarily flat and almost completely surrounded by Great Lakes. A few thousand years ago, glaciers left this region submerged under a giant lake. As the ice receded, the land gradually lifted. Its soil is sandy, light and fertile. Breezes off Lake Erie warm the climate. Throughout the growing season it is the hottest part of the province. Grape harvest begins in August. Some grape varieties commonly grown are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

We’re not experts by any means, but we were looking for some distinctive wines, and came across three varietals completely new to us.

Lake Erie Auxerrois wines

Viewpointe is apparently the first winery in Ontario to grow and produce wine from Auxerrois Blanc grapes. The 2012 vintage is a full-flavoured, smooth white with a hint of sweetness, finishing with peach and pineapple. It’s pleasant enough to drink on its own or with cheese, but robust enough to stand up to rich, spicy summer meals. This was the first bottle we opened from our trip. It paired nicely with last night’s dinner of chicken, tzatziki and apricot cashew rice pilaf.

Just down the road, Oxley Estate Winery acquired some Auxerrois vines from Viewpointe and began making their own varietal. This vineyard is one of the newest, just four years old, and the Auxerrois tasted new, more earthy and herbal than the one from Viewpointe. We’ll let our bottle mature for a few months. These are both interesting wines, and I will look for them in the future.

Lake Erie Chambourcin wines

Chambourcin was another rare varietal we came across at two of the smaller wineries, Aleksander and Paglione. I neglected to make any notes on the tasting, but we were impressed enough to choose these over more familiar reds. They are medium-bodied, fruity and dry.

Another unique wine was the Viewpointe 2009 Colchester Cuvée, made from a new hybrid bred by the winery and grown using sustainable practices. This wine was very full-bodied with a smooth finish, and would go well with strong meats like lamb or game.

Lake Erie Riesling wines

We also chose some wines made from more familiar grapes. Overall I was impressed with the Rieslings, especially the Cooper’s Hawk 2013. It is fresh, fruity, fragrant and well-balanced and would make a good companion for white fish or a fruit platter. We brought home two bottles of this excellent wine.

Mastronardi offers an interesting Chardonnay. The one from Viewpointe is barrel-aged, very full-bodied and oaky, more of an evening wine. We will save this bottle to accompany a cheese fondue.

Lake Erie fruit wines

We also like fruit wines. After we picked up some raspberry wine from Aleksander, someone recommended Black Bear Farms, located on the main road between Harrow and Kingsville. Walking into their boutique was like entering somebody’s basement, with a clutter of open bottles inviting us to taste. This is a small, earthy enterprise, but the offerings are diverse and intriguing. Making our selection was anything but easy. The gooseberry wine is, without rival, the most unusual thing we tasted all weekend.

Other wines we selected, not already mentioned, included Aleksander 2011 Gewürztraminer, Paglione 2012 Santino Rosé, and Cooper’s Hawk Talon Red. Overall the wines of this region show great promise. We brought home a collection of 16 bottles to provide weekend enjoyment for months to come.

Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Viewpointe Estate Winery are two to look out for. A few of their wines have appeared in large Ontario LCBOs, and we might expect to see more in the future. Both estates are well set up for events such as weddings, and Cooper’s Hawk has hosted concerts. Viewpointe, as the name suggests, has an exceptional view of Lake Erie, a welcome stop on a weekend outing.

Unfortunately, the polar vortex last winter caused a heavy die-off of vines, affecting all the wineries in this region. It will take several years for them to recover. Limited harvests are expected in 2014 and 2015. I’ll watch patiently and hope for milder winters to come.

Danny at Oxley Estate Winery

Personally, I will keep an eye on Oxley Estate Winery and Paglione Estate Winery, both within a 10 minute walk of the house on Lake Erie where I grew up. Paglione is situated across the road from where I first took horseback riding lessons when I was eight.

As an even smaller child I used to walk to a variety store in the hamlet of Oxley to buy penny candy. Oxley Estate has established a reputable restaurant on its beautiful premises, although we did not have a chance to try it out. I’m excited to see what becomes of these two new, small producers, as local as can be to my original soil.

The buzz on neonicotinoid pesticides

IMG_3696

Your garden might not be humming with bumblebees, but scientists this week are buzzing with a possible reason why. Neonicotinoid pesticides have in the past been blamed for colony collapse disorder in honey bees and sudden, massive die-offs of bumblebees. New research has added evidence, showing that this type of pesticide impairs bumblebees’ ability to collect food. There is also new evidence this problem is cascading up the food chain to affect birds.

Young bumblebees normally become more effective foragers with age. A study published in Functional Ecology this week found that young bees exposed to pesticide started off collecting less pollen than healthy bees, and their performance did not improve. The affected insects also appear to change their flower preference. Poor foraging behaviour threatens the health and survival of bee colonies. More details on this University of Guelph study were published by CBC News.

This is only the latest evidence connecting neonicotinoids with bee mortality. Coincidentally, the concern received response from governments and industry this week.

Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal announced the government is looking for ways to restrict the use of these pesticides in the province.

Last month, Friends of the Earth released a study showing that many nurseries across Canada and the United States routinely treat plants with neonicotinoid pesticides. Many people buy these flowering plants intending to attract bees, and end up exposing them to a toxin. Friends of the Earth drew particular attention to Home Depot, Walmart and Lowe’s.

This week Home Depot Canada announced it will begin labeling plants exposed to neonicotinoids, following the lead of its U.S. parent.

But now the consequences of pesticide use are showing further up the food chain. This isn’t the first time, of course. Rachel Carson raised the alarm about DDT affecting birds in her 1962 book, Silent Spring.

In that case, DDT concentrated at the top of the food chain, in birds of prey. It weakened their eggs, causing them to break before maturity. Species such as the bald eagle were disappearing before governments responded by banning the pesticide.

Neonicotinoids appear to be affecting a different group of birds, aerial insectivores, by depleting their preferred food. Insects provide an especially important protein-rich food source during the spring when birds are raising their young. A variety of insectivorous bird species have declined seriously around the world in recent years, but scientists have been hard-pressed to find direct evidence for the role of pesticides.

However, a new Dutch study published in Nature found insectivorous birds have declined most seriously in parts of the country where surface water was most contaminated by neonicotinoids since the pesticides’ introduction in the 1990s. This provides some of the clearest insight so far in a serious problem that has stumped bird ecologists for years. The picture is still unclear, but presents a warning that these chemicals may have an even more serious effect on biodiversity than was previously suspected. See the Nature editorial about this study.

The sweet spot, tomato’s first blush

Nasturtium

In the past 24 hours, two things appeared in the garden: the first nasturtium flower grown from seed, and the first blush on a cherry tomato. We’ll taste the first tomato by mid-July, almost a month earlier than last year. The garden appears to be on a high road to success this summer, which reminds me of something I’ve noticed before: a garden seems to reach a sweet spot in its third year.

Tomato's first blush

It takes time to build up soil fertility.

Sure, if you can afford it, go ahead and give the new garden a complete makeover. Excavate the topsoil down as far as you dare, mix it with lots of aged compost, bone meal and whatever other nutrients it might require, then shovel it back in place. Or simply truck in a load of better topsoil, robbing another piece of land to nourish your own. It’s a quick fix.

But if you want to establish a respectful relationship with the Earth, you’ll be missing the whole point. Nothing has taught me to appreciate nature than gardening slowly and the magic of soil ecology. You start with a leached, abused tract of dirt, suitable only for supporting a chemical-enhanced lawn, and gradually restore a living community. Beneficial microbes, insects and countless other inhabitants return.

The plants show the difference. They start off weak, prone to disease and insect infestation. In my experience, the benefit of adding all that organic material does not kick in until the third season.

In my garden this year there is still a marked difference between the two beds closest to the fence, established in 2012, and the third one added last year. Clumps of sage, thyme and anise hyssop, now in their third year, are flourishing.

Garden year 3

Potatoes, tomatoes and squashes are proving an interesting test case. Tomato vines and potatoes in the old beds are vigorous and lush, while those in the new one are relatively small and pale. They will all produce in good time, but some more generously than others.

The zucchini in the new bed is another story. It is growing, but only barely struggling to produce flower buds. Its promise of over-abundance is in doubt this year. Admittedly, zucchini performed better the first two years, and by mid-July last year I had already harvested some. This indicates some mistakes I made in establishing the third bed. So it is only partly a matter of age. I’m sure the bed’s shortcomings would be addressed by next year, if we continue to live and garden here.

In contrast, the Table Queen acorn squash in the first bed is flourishing. It’s first butter-coloured flower appears toward the left in the photo above.

Container Garden

The container garden on our deck adds some additional successes this year. Safe from the ravages of groundhogs and bunnies, I am free to grow practically anything. Container gardening presents a different set of challenges and advantages. I’ll post more about it soon.

Garden tour: a peak behind the locked gate

Kitchen garden

Do you glimpse a beautiful backyard and wish you could wander through the gate? Most cities allow voyeuristic opportunities every summer. Garden tours offer an opportunity to step into private sanctuaries, see what other gardeners are thinking about, and find inspiration.

At least two annual tours occur in Guelph. MacDonald-Stewart Art Centre holds Gardenscapes in June to raise money for art acquisitions. The properties included in this circuit tend to be larger and more mature.

Guelph Horticultural Society held its Garden Showcase last Sunday, July 6, and we attended. This seems a little late to find gardens at their best. I don’t know whether they chose to hold it later than usual because spring was so delayed this year. Fortunately, a good mix of rain and warm sun the past few weeks allowed the best show that could be expected for midsummer.

All the flowering trees were long faded. However, July is a good time to appreciate the cooling greens of ferns, hostas and groundcovers. Roses, daylilies and begonias added vivid accents. Well-designed mixed planters spiced everything up with colourful annuals.

Of the seven gardens, the one that impressed me most featured a large, productive kitchen garden (photo above) with neat rows of tomatoes, celery, onions and other vegetables. A small flock of chickens scratched in a fenced area along one side. Some of last year’s parsnips gone to made a rambunctious show of glossy foliage and yellow flowers against a shed wall. Ornamental borders made this far more than a utilitarian garden; it was a lush, lovely and functional use of space. It was inspiring to see principles of urban farming applied with rigour and good taste.

Lady Emma Hamilton rose

Visiting other people’s garden is good way of finding ideas. What plants interest you? What colour combinations work nicely? Can you find something you never would have thought of doing that appeals to you?

Probably the one most memorable flower for me was this Lady Emma Hamilton rose. David Austin roses are favourites of mine, such as Abraham Darby and especially the yellow Graham Thomas rose. This is a newer variety, and one I covet.

It was set near a small, unique ceramic fountain. Robin’s-egg blue glaze complemented the rose perfectly, emphasizing its orangeness. Blue and orange are my favourite complementary colours, but seldom appear in gardens because true blue flowers are hard to find and oranges tend to be raucous. I can imagine planting Emma Hamilton with blue larkspur, morning-glory or flax. The more common purplish-blues would not have such an interesting relationship with this rose.

I’ll save this idea for the time and opportunity to plant a perennial garden.