Caterpillar in my houseplants

Tiger moth caterpillar

If you grow it, they will come. A tiger moth caterpillar is feeding on my indoor succulents. Burro’s tail sedum might not be included in its preferred diet, but this bug is hungry for anything.

We spotted it in our houseplants several weeks ago. At first pale yellow, it shifted to rusty orange.

It’s making a mess, too. We can usually locate it by the pile of frass on the tile floor. Once, when I disturbed the larva, it immediately began producing bright green poop, an alarming if innocent defence.

I hardly know any caterpillars on sight, but this appears to be Spilosoma virginica, or Virginia tiger moth. At this stage it is known as the yellow woollybear, resembling its familiar relative, the woollybearPyrrharctia isabella. They’re members of the tiger moths, named for the bold black-and-white blotches or stripes on the adult wings of some species. But the family name Arctiidae comes from the Greek word for bear. Our visitor, if it keeps eating its breakfast, is destined to become a fat-bodied white moth.

How it got into my houseplants is no great mystery. They’re situated in our breakfast nook. The door onto the deck sometimes stands open for a few minutes. At night while we slip out to look at the moon, a moth might slip in.

These caterpillars are generalists, feeding on grass and groundcovers. Ours prefers to be on the ground. Sometimes it drops to the floor and gets lost for a while. While I’m happy to see it growing and enjoying my succulents, this indoor existence is doomed to misfortune.

Sometimes regular woollybears manage to get into the house. Supposedly they are not difficult to raise. I tried it once last winter. After feeding on greens for a few days, the visitor spun a fragile, half-hearted cocoon, then died.

It’s high time I moved this voracious critter into the garden where it stands a chance of completing its life cycle.

Come for a walk in the woods

Will you come for a walk in the woods with me? We’ll see a rare white form of red clover, some hummingbirds close up, a gartersnake, an Atlantis fritillary and more beauty.

Click the photo to view a gallery of eight images. Click an arrow at the margin of each photo to navigate. Use the back button on your browser to return to this page.

Dew on maple leaf

We visited the cottage on the weekend. These photos were taken on a walk along the road. Thanks to the neighbours who invited us to watch the hummingbird feeders on their deck overlooking the lake.

Who’s to blame: reversing pollution trends in Lake Erie

Lake Erie

In a recent post about a visit to the beach where I grew up, I mentioned Lake Erie had responded well to international efforts to clean up pollution. Such was the case in 1990s, but no longer, as current news and debates are headlining. Earlier this week, a severe bloom of poisonous algae left 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, without safe drinking water.

I haven’t kept up-to-date because I don’t live there anymore. It’s easy to go back for a few hours, see things looking the same and assume they haven’t changed. Still, my ignorance is inexcusable. When I flush my toilet, the water ultimately goes to the Speed River of this blog, and, via the Grand River, drains into Lake Erie.

The lake’s water quality has been declining (again) for the past decade or so. A severe algal bloom caused problems in 2011, and one municipality in Ohio lost drinking water last summer. People have called for action, research has been done and recommendations have been made, but now many people are wondering why this hasn’t led to more action, and who is to blame.

Pollution in Lake Erie in the 1960s and ’70s resulted largely from sewage effluent. That problem has been addressed, and led to cleaner water 20 years later.

This time there’s a different culprit. As reported by CBC News, the International Joint Commission released a report in February, blaming farmers. Fertilizer makes runoff rich in fertilizer, which feeds an overpopulation of algae.

Before we return absentmindedly to our garden parties and barbecues, let’s think about who eats the farm produce. Or more to the point, who needs the energy that had boosted corn crops for ethanol production? And while agriculture produces the majority of pollution, a lot also comes from lawns and golf courses.

We need to reduce our dependency on phosphorous fertilizers.

As for the zebra mussels, which I speculated had helped clean up the lakes with their filter-feeding activity, apparently they release additional nutrients into the water, increasing the problem. And while they remove suspended particles for clearer water, sunlight penetrates deeper, increasing the growth of water plants, fouling beaches. Essentially, they’re changing the ecology of the Great Lakes, and it’s no improvement for native species. So there’s no reason to like these toe-slicing invaders.

zebra mussels

Remember, Lake Erie is a relatively shallow lake and all the water flushes through it in about 2.5 years. That means we can clean it up quickly, which is lucky for people living around it. But as far as the rest of the Great Lakes are concerned, Erie is the canary in the coal mine. If we don’t address these problems now, things will slowly get worse throughout the other lakes, which take decades or centuries to flush. This problem won’t go away fast.

Playing on that beach may be a thing of my past, but it shouldn’t be for millions of other people who live around these lakes.

Guelph artist Sue Richards has died

Poppy posted Blog Guelph July 2008

Guelph artist Sue Richards has died. She had a huge impact on cultural life in Guelph, including myself. Sue’s initiatives in the 1980s helped start Hillside Festival, one of Canada’s most important summer music events.

In 2002, she launched Breast of Canada, an art calendar containing black and white images of women with breast cancer, to promote women’s health. The project lasted until 2007, when Sue was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

In 2006 Sue started Blog Guelph to chronicle life in the city and showcase the work of local photographers. Several sets of my photos appeared there. The poppy above was part of the first set in July 2008.

That was the first time anybody else published my images. It boosted my self-concept as an artistic photographer with a unique way of seeing things. I’m grateful to Sue and our mutual friend, Lynn Broughton, for the introduction.

Sue left the world a changed place. She died on Saturday, age 56. A tribute appeared yesterday in the Guelph Mercury.

July insect gallery

Click on the image to view the gallery (six photos), then click arrows at right or left edge of photo to navigate. Click the back button on your browser to return to this page.

July insects

These are a few insects I found on a walk last week through Hanlon Creek Conservation Area (Preservation Park) behind our house.

The ruby meadowhawk, Sympetrum rubicundulum, is the dragonfly I see most commonly in these meadows. The female, which I posted here last summer, is golden.

Ruby meadowhawk

Skippers are Lepidoptera with characteristics that distinguish them from both moths and butterflies. Their antennae are backward-hooked, rather than fine and club-shaped like those of most butterflies. Moth antennae are varied, but commonly feather- or comb-shaped. Skippers have relatively small wings and large, compound eyes. Like moths and unlike most butterflies they have a plump thorax to house strong wing muscles.


They are traditionally classified in their own separate superfamily. However, recent research indicates skippers are closely related with other butterflies.

They are often drab. Species can be difficult to tell apart. One of these is too damaged to work out, but the brassy iridescence of its scales is quite attractive. The other is plainer but in good shape, a member of the genus Erynnis, duskywings.

Common eastern bumblebee with a smaller bee

A bumblebee, probably the common eastern Bombus impatiens, shared a flower with a smaller bee. The robber fly is an agile flyer and effective predator on other winged insects.

The common red soldier beetle, Rhagnonycha fulva, found in a Convolvulus arvensis flower on our back fence, is a species introduced from Eurasia.

Common red soldier beetle

They are predatory on other insect and can often be found on top of flower clusters looking for pray. This individual seems to be drinking nectar, and is covered with bindweed pollen.


Eight ways to celebrate Food Day Canada

August snacks

Saturday, August 2, is Food Day Canada. The event was founded by Anita Stewart in 2003 to promote Canadian farmers, fishers and other food producers. Let’s celebrate by enjoying the diversity and quality of local and Canadian-grown food. Here are some ideas.

1. Do a Canadian dinner date

Go out for dinner at a restaurant featuring local fare. In Guelph and Wellington County, Farmalicious runs until early October, each week spotlighting an eatery with a featured local dish or full menu. It begins Food Canada day at Enver’s of Morriston offering a table d’hôte menu, $50 per person. Among the local items are quail eggs and honey from Chassagne. The Food Day Canada site can point the way to restaurants in other areas.

2. Visit a farmers’ market

Find friends and regional food at your farmers’ market. Tomorrow at Guelph Farmers’ Market we’ll look for local raspberries, cucumbers and Niagara apricots, maybe even peaches.

3. Preserve it

Throw a canning fest. It’s hard to maintain a local diet in Canada through the winter. We can improve the situation by freezing or preserving fruits and vegetables while they’re in season. Now is the time to buy local sweet corn and berries to freeze, cucumbers and other vegetables for pickling, and fruit for preserving jams, jellies and chutneys. The Danish Schnapps website has ideas for flavouring vodka with fruits and herbs, and brandy also works well.

4. Throw a party

Host a games day or barbecue and invite a few friends to share the bounty. It’s easy to assemble a plate of crudites from local vegetables like zucchini, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and snap peas with dips like hummus or guacamole. Include some Canadian artisan cheeses, smoked salmon or trout, and Ontario or other Canadian wines.

5. Grow your own

Make it even more local using produce from your own garden.

6. Forage

Now is the season when resourceful city foragers can find ripe mulberries and rosehips. Read my post about foraging for summer fruit on the Japan Farmers Markets blog. If you’re new to foraging, start by learning the ethics. Attend a workshop or talk to an expert in wildcrafting, like Guelph’s Scott Reid.

7. Try these summer harvest recipes

Here are some more ideas for ways to use those local vegetables:

  1. Try one of my midsummer harvest soups: tomato chicken soup Provençal, borage soup or gluten-free New England clam chowder.
  2. Vegetarian lasagna takes advantage of this season’s harvest.
  3. Have an abundance of summer sqaush? Mine are barely starting, but I can hardly wait. Check out my six great ways to use zucchini. My favourite is the slightly decadent basil margarita shrimp.
  4. Speaking of basil, here’s a recipe and some ideas for how to use basil pesto.

8. Tell others

Go to the Food Day Canada page on Facebook to share your ideas and experience of the day. The Food Day Canada website has more information about Canadian products, restaurants according to region and numerous recipe suggestions. Stop by here, too, and let us know. But most of all, enjoy eating.


Tomatoes at the heart of summer; four varieties reviewed

Heritage tomatoes

It’s such a pleasure to go outside each morning at 8 a.m, still tottering on sleep legs. My brain starts opening like a book as sunlight breaks over the pines. Sometimes I dig a few potatoes, or run and grab my camera to photograph dew on the dill.

We’ve reached the very heart of summer in Ontario. Hard work and patience are reaping benefits in the garden. A few days of cooler weather don’t seem to be bothering the tomatoes, which have started coming on fast and furious. The more heat units, the better for them, but apparently we have had a good overall mix of sun and solid rain this season.

This is my third year vegetable gardening here, and the first time I’ve had such a satisfying crop. Last year, as I recall, we had cherry tomatoes in July, but no other varieties before mid-August.

We’ve already tasted four varieties, shown here with some shallots and a red onion from the garden.

Cosmonaut Volkov (centre) is Ukrainian, apparently good for cool climates. Ours are not as large, colourful or tasty as they’re reputed to be, and the plant is the only one affected by blight so far. It’s a good early tomato, but not my favourite.

Sun Sugar (bottom), on the other hand, is super sweet, flavourful and large for a cherry. It might be less productive than other cherry varieties, but with tomatoes I prefer quality to quantity. This hybrid I will grow again.

Purple Plum (left) is a repeat in my garden: nice colour, flavour and productivity. My only regret is that I only bought one plant this year, as it’s great for sauces.

Black Sea Man (the big guy) is a Russian heirloom tomato. It’s wonderful to have a big, delicious beefsteak tomato ripening so early in the garden. The colour is even more spectacular when you slice it, a work of art alongside anything from the barbecue. It’s another one to remember. By happy accident we’ll have lots of them. I meant to buy seven varieties, one plant of each, but arrived home with two Black Sea Man and no Earl of Edgecombe. But I could have done worse, and we’ll fit the earl in next summer somehow.

Even the Brandywines (below), a later heritage variety worth the extra wait, are ripening nicely and will be ready in another day or two. Coming along slowest of all is the Black Cherry, which is supposed to be ready 15 days earlier than the Brandywine. It’s just starting to ripen, so we’ll soon find out whether it’s worth the patience. Cherries are supposed to provide quick gratification while we’re waiting for the beefsteaks.

Brandywine tomatoes

Many tomato fans consider Brandywines a touchstone of tomato flavour, practically a meal in themselves with a little salt and fresh basil. I grew some many years ago and they were the best I had ever tasted. They were pink, gnarly and ugly.

There seems to be a lot of variety in Brandywines. Last year I had a plant, but the fruit didn’t ripen until the cool of September, a disappointing harvest. This year’s plant is doing much better. The tomatoes are more orange and nicer to look at than the ones of memory. Hopefully their flavour will be up to par.

Still the best part of having a garden is just – having a garden.

Dew on Mammoth DillSome mornings I simply stand and watch bumblebees in the visiting the borage and anise-hyssop flowers. A garden is pleasure, and I soak it in. Life is a collection of moments; some we should treat with special honour.

Vegetable garden in July

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.



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