“Leaf” It in the Garden
Using leaves and leaf mulch in your garden
By Virginia Stephenson, Master Gardener
Traditionally, when fall rolls around we grab up our rakes and leaf bags, gather up all of our leaves, and dispose of them. But if you have a look at nature, where resources tend not to be wasted, you will see all the leaves lying in a carpet on the forest floor. This carpet of leaves protects young and tender plants during winter, provides food and shelter to small creatures, and eventually returns nutrients to the soil as the leaves decompose. Leaves and leaf mulch can do all these things in your garden, and more.
What is leaf mulch?
Leaf mulch is nothing more than leaves chopped up and possibly mixed with some grass clippings or other plant material. The easiest way to produce leaf mulch is with your lawn mower. Instead of raking up your leaves, collect them with your lawn mower, bagging them as you go, and, presto, you have leaf mulch.
Why mulch your leaves instead of leaving them whole as they are in the forest?
When you mulch your leaves, they become much denser and take up less space if you are storing them for later use. Mulch is easier to handle and spread in the garden and provides a more compact and uniform cover than whole leaves. As the leaves are already cut into small pieces, they decompose more quickly, returning their nutrients to the soil sooner than they would if they were whole.
When would I use whole leaves and when would I use leaf mulch?
If and when you mulch your leaves will depend on when and for what purpose you are using them.
If you are covering your garden perennials with leaves for protection in winter, you may wish to use whole leaves, as they will provide a looser cover, which will allow air to circulate, and make it easier for the plants to push through in spring. If you have access to oak leaves, they are excellent for this purpose, as they are quite fibrous and do not break down easily. They are therefore less likely to become a sodden mass weighing down your plants, making it difficult for them to emerge. When I have covered my perennials with leaves in the fall, I will often go out in the spring when it is getting warmer and the plants are ready to emerge and pull the leaf cover off the plants, so that the heat and light of the sun can reach them. I will, however, leave a wall of leaves around them, and possibly a few dry oak leaves partially covering them, to protect the emerging plants from any late frost.
If you wish to use your leaves as an organic fertilizer and benefit from their nutrients, then mulch them in the fall and spread them over your garden beds. In vegetable gardens or annual flower beds, they can then be gently incorporated into the top few centimetres of soil when you prepare it for planting in the spring. You can also pull back the mulch to create seed rows or openings for seedlings and leave the mulch on the surface of the surrounding soil. In perennial beds or shrub borders, spread the mulch around the plants and simply leave it there to decompose.
If you are interested in providing food and shelter for the small creatures in your garden, then use whole leaves to create a loose layer of leaf litter in your garden beds. Birds, small mammals, amphibians, and insects will all enjoy and benefit from this leaf litter.
In my garden, I use both whole leaves and leaf mulch. In the fall, I gather the whole leaves from my lawn and spread them over my flower beds for winter protection. In the spring, when the garden is emerging (perennials), or ready to be planted (annuals), I remove the layer of leaf litter and run it through the lawn mower to create leaf mulch. The leaf mulch is then returned to the garden to cover the soil around the plants.
Note that the mulch should not be touching nor piled against the plant stems, as this may keep them too moist and cause them to mildew or rot.
What are the benefits of using leaf mulch in my garden?
Using leaf mulch to cover the soil around the plants in your garden beds has a variety of benefits both practical and aesthetic.
Soil moisture: Leaf mulch will help to retain moisture in the soil. By protecting the surface of the soil from direct sunlight and exposure to hot dry air, you can reduce moisture loss from evaporation, keeping more moisture in the soil for longer periods. This retention of moisture can provide a variety of benefits to you as a gardener:
- By retaining moisture, the mulch helps ensure that more of the water that you put in your garden goes into your plants. As a result, you may find that you need to water less often and can save money on water over the course of the summer.
- We all know that the soil in containers tends to dry out very quickly and needs constant watering. Lyndon Penner, the head gardener at Riding Mountain National Park, is a big fan of mulch, and recommends using it in all your containers. A good layer of leaf mulch on the soil in your containers can help to keep the soil cooler and moister than if it was bare soil.
- Some plants, like clematis, need to have their roots in cool soil and others, like astilbe, do best in moist soil. A layer of leaf mulch around these plants can provide these conditions and help them thrive.
- The soil under the mulch stays soft and moist, which makes it much easier to dig and plant in than bare soil which has dried out and hardened.
- Our clay-based soils are very prone to surface drying and cracking. The mulch layer covering the soil surface and protecting it from drying can help to prevent soil cracking.
- Our clay soils, as they dry, are also prone to shrinkage with the result that in hot, dry weather the soil may pull away from your foundations. A thick layer of mulch in any garden bed against your foundations can help to keep the moisture in the soil and help prevent the deep drying which results in the soil pulling away from the foundations. Note that you do have to put the moisture in to start with and you should water your foundations in hot dry weather.
Weeds: Mulch will help to keep the weeds down by preventing weed seeds from touching the soil and germinating, and by keeping weed sprouts covered so they don’t get sun.
Fertilizer: Leaf mulch is an organic fertilizer, which will return nutrients to the soil. It is free, readily available, and easy to use.
Backsplash: A layer of leaf mulch on the soil around your plants can prevent mud from splashing up onto your plants during watering. This is a plus in terms of aesthetics and can also help to prevent the plants from being infected by soil-born fungi.
Aesthetics: Aside from preventing unsightly cracked soil, a layer of leaf mulch can provide a uniform and finished but natural look to your garden. It does not draw attention away from your plants to itself as some commercial mulch may. Empty areas between plants also look more natural and do not look as empty as bare soil tends to.
Are there cautions or counter indications for using leaf mulch?
Dust: Working with leaf mulch can be quite dusty, so you might want to wear a mask when bagging or spreading it, especially if you have respiratory issues.
Soggy leaves: Tree leaves are the best source for leaf mulch. Avoid using plant leaves which break down and become soggy after being frozen, as these can weigh down your plants or may cause them to rot.
Diseased or infested leaves: If your leaf source is diseased or infested with fungus or insects, avoid using these leaves to make leaf mulch, as you do not want to infect other areas or plants in your garden.
Grass clippings: If you gather and mulch your leaves using a lawn mower you are likely to have some grass clippings mixed in your mulch. This is not a problem if you let the grass clippings dry before bagging the mulch, as you do not want them composting in the bag. Avoid adding extra grass clippings, as too much grass can form a solid mat on your soil surface which can repel water and make it hard to get the water into the soil.
Wet soil conditions: If your soil is very wet in the spring, you may want to let it dry out somewhat before applying your mulch. The point of the mulch is to keep the moisture in the soil, but there is such a thing as too much moisture, which can be harmful to plants.
No leaves: If you do not have trees and leaves of your own, ask a friend or neighbour, who will probably happily donate as many leaves as you want from their spring or fall cleanup.
So, give it a go. Don’t throw away your leaves and see what leaves and leaf mulch can do for your gardening efforts.
FEATURED PHOTO: V. Stephenson.
Feeding Backyard Birds in Winter
By Meredith Stoesz, Wild Birds Unlimited
Feeding backyard birds during the winter is not only a fun pastime but can also be quite beneficial for birds and humans alike! Studies show that Black-capped Chickadees with access to supplemental food have higher survival rates than chickadees without access to supplemental food. As well, there are many mental health benefits for us humans. The opportunity to interact and see birds up close is priceless. But of course, there are many things to consider when it comes to inviting birds into our yards and gardens.
First things first: food! You want the food you offer to be of high quality and seeds that birds in Manitoba will eat. The simplest food to offer is black oil sunflower seed. High in oil and fat, with a soft shell, it is a favourite among many species of birds including chickadees, nuthatches, and finches. You can also try sunflower seeds out of the shell – less mess and less effort for the birds for a win-win situation. Adding a bit of white millet into the mix will accommodate ground feeders like sparrows and, during warmer months, Mourning Doves. But beware of blends that are mainly millet as you can end up with a big mess and less diversity.
Next up, peanuts! Blue jays love peanuts in the shell. They spend weeks in September and October caching peanuts all over neighbourhoods to prepare for colder weather. Skinless peanuts are a great option for smaller birds like chickadees and nuthatches who may not want to put the effort into cracking the shell. Woodpeckers also enjoy sunflower seeds and peanuts, but they especially love suet which is made from rendered beef fat and can be mixed with nuts, fruit, and mealworms. Other birds, like chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and sometimes early spring Yellow-rumped Warblers, will also go after suet.
Now that you have food, you need a feeder. Suet comes in a universal square cake which can be offered in a cage feeder or a tail-prop feeder to mimic a woodpecker’s natural foraging behaviour. If you’re just interested in smaller birds at the feeder, then a tube feeder is the right choice with its small perches for small birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and finches. Tray feeders, platform feeders, or hopper feeders provide a larger perching area which accommodates a larger number of species.
When feeding birds, their health and well-being should be the top priority. Unmaintained feeders can spread disease and sickness. It is recommended that feeders be cleaned with a 10% bleach/water solution (1:9) regularly. This means every couple of weeks. Times that I would highly recommend cleaning feeders would be after large congregations of birds have been visiting, when weather has been fluctuating between humid and hot, after heavy precipitation, and before and after seasonal migration. It is very important to keep your feeders clean! You wouldn’t want guests eating off dirty plates.
The Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak of 2022 and spring of 2023 was a confusing time for bird feeders, but studies have found that only two per cent of wild bird cases were songbirds or feeder visitors. The chance of spreading Avian Influenza via bird feeders is low but is still something bird watchers should be aware of. Poultry are much more susceptible to Avian Influenza so if you keep chickens or ducks it is recommended to remove bird feeders from your property. If you do encounter sick or dead birds at your feeders, it is best to remove feeders for two weeks to allow birds to disperse and report such birds to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative information line at 1-800-567-2033 or make a report online. The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative website provides bi-weekly HPAI updates.
Supporting Bird Populations
Backyard birds that spend the winter with us start choosing winter territories in August and September. They’re looking not only for food sources but shelter as well. Shelter for birds could be mature trees, shrubs, and tall grasses. You can even provide a brush pile over the winter months or, if you celebrate Christmas, that real tree can serve another purpose for the birds after the holiday is over.
If you’re thinking about birds, then you are probably already aware of the danger and struggle that all birds face. Since 1970, we’ve lost 2.9 billion birds, but the good news is there are many ways we can help! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has come up with seven simple actions to help conserve current and future bird populations. These actions include making windows safer to reduce the incidence of bird strikes, keeping cats indoors, planting native plants, avoiding pesticides, drinking shade-grown coffee, using less plastics, and participating in citizen science projects like Project FeederWatch and eBird. Taking steps towards these actions or even being able to enact one or two is an amazing accomplishment. It’s important to keep in mind that every little bit helps. If you’ve got the birds in mind, then there’s no stopping you!
Backyard bird feeding is a fun, rewarding, and exciting hobby especially when spring migration rolls around. You never know who is going to visit your yard and the more bird friendly the yard the more diversity you’ll see. One thing that I always stress to beginner bird feeders is adding native plants to their yard or garden. Native plants provide food sources for many different insects which in turn provide more food for birds! It is an, “if you build it, they will come,” situation. One of my favourite places to visit after a long winter is a native plant nursery. Then I like to plan how to squeeze those newly purchased native plants into my yard.
Featured Photo: (Courtesy of M. Stoesz, Wild Birds Unlimited.)
White-breasted Nuthatch and Black-capped Chickadee
 Brittingham, M. C. & Temple, S. A. 1988 Impacts of Supplemental Feeding on Survival Rates of Black-Capped Chickadees. Ecology 69, 581.
Home lawn care – and then some!
By Gosia Barrette, Master Gardener
I wrote an article for the May 2023/3 newsletter about recent changes to provincial legislation around the use and sale of cosmetic pesticides (you can read it here: https://www.mgmanitoba.com/2023/04/26/the-gardener-and-the-law/).
In that article, I made a commitment to provide an update on how I incorporated the recommended methods for chemical-free lawn care based on the research I did for that article and to improve my front yard this season. It has been seven years since we moved into this house and this summer, we finally decided to tackle the front yard and spruce up its curb appeal, and this was our project!
The first thing my husband and I did was to de-thatch the grass. We tackled this while the weather was mild and before summer’s hot sun made the task harder. This was an excellent recommendation from the research I did as de-thatching rid the lawn of old grass growth and rejuvenated it. To my surprise, the task was quite straight forward and only involved taking time to rake the old grass. There was a lot of dry grass that had collected under the lawn for years and I was surprised by the amount.
Gardening at USask provides in-depth information for gardeners on this topic and recommends de-thatching should only be done if the layer of thatch is more than 1.5 cm (1/2”)1.
According to Gardening at USask, the process of de-thatching is best done by using a machine specifically designed for the task. It looks (and sounds) like a typical lawnmower with a series of rake-like teeth (“tines” or springs) underneath that spin to comb through the grass and remove all the built-up old grass and debris.
We were lucky to have access to an industrial machine, but I later found out that machines can be rented or alternatively one can purchase a de-thatching blade and attaching it to a lawnmower. De-thatching can also be done by hand as I did at first (with a standard hand-held rake), but it requires some strength to dig deep into the lawn for optimal effectiveness of removing the debris. To achieve the best results, Gardening at USask recommends that, prior to de-thatching, cut the lawn to about 5 cm (2”). If attaching a de-thatching component to a lawnmower, set the mower to the lowest setting.
One observation – and maybe just a coincidence – was that, after the de-thatching, I saw larger and more aggressive weeds popping up throughout the summer. Was it possible that, somehow, the de-thatching brought the deeper-lying weed seeds to the surface? I am sharing as an observation that I was not expecting. I ended up pulling the weeds out to avoid further spread. After the de-thatching, we followed up by laying down some topsoil and overseeding some bare spots in the lawn. I also threw handfuls of clover seeds into the lawn seed mix (I used white clover – common no. 1) just to see how it would take. The clover grew in patches so hopefully it spreads more across the lawn in 2024. My hope is to slowly add more clover each season. The front lawn did well throughout the summer and de-thatching is a practice that I will definitely use again.
My house faces south and, due to this, an area right under the bay window could never keep grass. Thus, the second project was to finally decide how we would cover this section of lawn. One of the recommendations from my research was to consider areas around the home where a lawn would not work and to replace it with something else. This patch of lawn definitely met this, and we opted for something as a focal point. We decided to build a planter box where I planted some alpine currant shrubs that I hope will spread to create a hedge. Behind the alpine currant, I planted hydrangeas and echinacea. These will of course take some time to develop, but I am happy with the results so far – for the front yard, that is.
Let me turn to what happened in the backyard – a very different and unexpected turn of events. My original goal was to update the results of the front yard project but, ironically, what happened this season in the backyard put my research skills to the test as well. I was met with something we have never experienced, and honestly it made me question whether having a lawn in the backyard was even worth it. It was vole damage! Apparently, this was common and, this year, almost everyone I spoke with had the same issue.
Having no experience with what vole damage looked like, I was quite puzzled when the snow began to melt, and I saw these patches around the lawn – a neighbour confirmed it was voles. Once the lawn was completely dry and I cleaned up the debris left behind, my husband de-thatched the lawn. We then laid down topsoil and over-seeded quite heavily with a recommended seed mix (with part clover mix) that I got from a garden centre to cover the patches where there was vole damage.
Surprisingly, the lawn recovered but it made me think about the process we went through to bring it back to its original state. During the summer, I reflected on the possible changes that could be made to the backyard and whether we would be happy to rid ourselves of the regular maintenance that a lawn requires. We very much enjoy being in the backyard throughout the summer and maybe this experience with voles was enough to reconsider the need for a backyard lawn.
I’ll probably spend the winter months pondering a long-term plan to replace the lawn.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of G. Barrette. De-thatching.
Ode to the Office Plant
By Ashley Gaden, Master Gardener
Did you know on average we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors? This is according to research by Health Canada, and the proportion of this time seems to grow each decade. The remainder of our time is split between being outside or in vehicles. On average, Canadians spend about 1.5 hours outside each day.
Although gardeners’ lifestyles may or may not fit this mold, it stands to reason that Canadians, especially in winter, spend a significant portion of their lives in dwellings protected from the elements. Fortunately for us, plants can enliven our environments and, with the right care, thrive in our homes and workplaces. This article focuses on how to successfully keep plants in the indoor work environment.
Plants provide loads of benefits for indoor environments. They remove carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds. They increase humidity and oxygen. Plants can also reduce dust and noise levels. Scientific studies also show that plants reduce stress and improve mental health. They enhance concentration, reduce mental fatigue, help to make us feel relaxed and happy, and contribute to higher creativity and productivity. Foliage makes workspaces more attractive and welcoming for workers, clients, customers, students, and visitors. Plants can also be great conversation starters.
There are some key differences between home and away-from-home indoor environments:
- We usually have very little control of the environmental settings in institutional, commercial, or industrial establishments. Windowed or windowless, level of brightness, duration of light, drafts, and variations in humidity and temperature are things people can adjust to; however, not all plants are as adaptable. We may also be limited to the physical space available for plants, or there may be rules or standards for keeping plants related to health or sanitation.
- We’re joined by co-workers, clients, and other building tenants. If plants are in a common area, plant care responsibilities may be shared.
- We likely spend less time at our workplaces than at our homes and, depending on workloads and schedules, it can be easy to forget about basic plant maintenance. Vacations, sick time, work trips, field work, hybrid work arrangements between the office and home, or even building-related emergencies can keep us out of the workplace for extended periods of time.
Don’t have a plant at your workspace but would like one? Before bringing in a plant, first take stock of the environmental conditions to determine what plants are most suitable for the space.
Light is the most important variable for selecting the right plant for the right space indoors. Generally speaking, south-facing windows receive the brightest natural light, followed by east- and west-facing windows; north-facing windows receive the least light. However, obstructions like trees, buildings, or even overhangs can reduce natural light levels. Window size and coverings (e.g. blinds) also affect lighting conditions.
To get a better sense of your lighting environment, you can use a light meter or a phone app to determine light levels at different times of the day. I tried an app suggested by Jonathan Ebba, a University of New Hampshire Extension landscape and greenhouse field specialist. When I tried the app in the office, I was surprised by how relatively dark my cubicle was.
Once you get a good idea of your lighting levels, you can start cross-referencing what plants do well in those light levels. For example, check out the University of Minnesota Extension’s suggestions for low, medium and high light level ranges and plant lists for each.
If you have your heart set on bringing in a high light plant into a darker workplace, or if you’re concerned your plants aren’t getting enough light in the winter months, look into options for setting up additional grow lights. See this article from the University of Missouri Extension for more information.
Turn plants 90 degrees every week to balance the light exposure on each of their sides. This will keep plants from growing disproportionately and becoming unbalanced.
Containers and potting medium
Containers need drainage holes and a tray to sit on to allow excess water to drain away from the plant. Potted plants can also be placed on some gravel in a decorative container to allow drainage. Non-porous containers (e.g. plastic, ceramic) will retain moisture better than porous containers (e.g. clay).
Use soilless potting mix available for purchase or make your own potting mix (check out Jessica Walliser’s potting soil recipe for houseplants here as an example). Some plants need a specialized potting medium. For example, cacti and succulents, which are adapted to drought, require fast-draining mixes.
If you buy a plant at a greenhouse or nursery, the plant is likely already growing in the right medium and has drainage holes. If you’re not sure about how to care for the plant, take the time to ask a worker. Staff are often extremely knowledgeable and helpful.
Watering and fertilizing
Just as every plant has its own lighting preference, each plant has its own watering needs. Too much water will rot plant roots and too little water will stress a plant. Look up or ask what moisture level your plant needs. Plants in warmer, brighter spaces generally need more water than cooler, dimmer spaces. The time of the year and humidity levels also affect how much water a plant needs.
In general, water when the first inch of potting mix from the surface is dry or use a water gauge. Water that has sat overnight (allowing the chlorine to dissipate and reach room temperature) is preferred. Allow the potting medium to dry between waterings. Over time, you may be able to lift the container and feel the difference in weight to signal when your plant needs watering.
Similarly, determine the type and frequency of fertilizer your plant needs. Indoor plants need fertilizer because the soilless medium they’re grown in will have limited or no nutrients. Plants that are actively growing will need more frequent applications of fertilizer than those in dormancy. I’ve taken up Betsy Thorsteinson’s tip of top-dressing potted plants with commercially available composted fish and forest by-products.
The Manitoba Master Gardener program offered by the University of Saskatchewan includes several courses related to plant disorders and diseases. One of their key messages is that there is rarely a simple diagnosis. However, if you do see signs of an unhealthy indoor plant, start with basic troubleshooting of symptoms. For example, see the last page of this article from the Mississippi State University Extension or this table from the University of Maryland Extension for a chart of common indoor plant symptoms and their possible causes. If in doubt, ask a plant specialist or Master Gardener.
Air care: Wipe dust off plants every few months to keep them photosynthesizing and green. Keep plants away from window glass in the winter and away from cold drafts. Give plants enough space to encourage adequate air circulation to prevent disease. If you suspect your plant has a disease or insect infestation, quarantine it to prevent spreading to other plants in the workplace.
Health and safety: Finally, consider the health and safety factors of keeping a plant in the workplace. Place plants in areas where people won’t trip over them, avoid blocking emergency exits, and keep away from electrical outlets and equipment when watering. Opt for non-flowering plants to avoid allergens. Will the plant be within touching distance by young or curious visitors? If so, avoid toxic plants. Depending on your workplace, you may need to ask your supervisor or health and safety committee for permission before bringing in any green co-habitants.
So remember, if you’re cooped up inside, you can always have a green ally by your side to give you a little zen for your workday.
FEATURED PHOTO: Courtesy of A. Gaden
Plants add colour and texture to invigorate workplaces.
Klepis, N.E., et al. 2001. “The national human activity pattern survey (NHAPS).” Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, 11:231–252. https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc719357/m2/1/high_res_d/785282.pdf
Lohr, V.I. 2010. “What are the benefits of plants indoors and why do we respond positively to them?” Acta Horticulturae 881: 675-682 https://doi.org/10.17660/ActaHortic.2010.881.111
Maryville University. “Psychological Benefits of Having Plants in Your House and Workspace.” https://online.maryville.edu/blog/benefits-of-stress-relief-plants/ Retrieved October 9, 2023.
SafetyRisk. 2013. Are your office plants a health and safety danger? https://safetyrisk.net/are-your-office-plants-a-health-and-safety-danger/
University of Saskatchewan. 2021. Basic houseplant care. https://gardening.usask.ca/articles-and-lists/articles-indoor-growing/basic-houseplant-care.php
University of Technology Sydney. 2023. Plants remove cancer causing toxins from air. https://www.uts.edu.au/news/health-science/plants-remove-cancer-causing-toxins-air
How Will El Niño Affect Manitoba’s Winter?
By Scott Kehler, M.Sc. President and Chief Scientist at Weatherlogics Inc.
El Niño is this fall’s weather buzz word. But what on Earth is El Niño and why do we care? In short, El Niño refers to unusually warm waters in the central Pacific Ocean. Because the Pacific is a massive body of water, covering about one third of the Earth’s surface, it plays a big role in controlling global weather patterns. The impacts of El Niño are often felt right here in Manitoba, especially during the winter. For more information on how these conditions initially develop in the ocean, see this article.
El Niño is part of a series of oceanic patterns called ENSO, or El Niño-Southern Oscillation. The Climate Prediction Center in the United States tracks ENSO, the state of the central Pacific Ocean as it varies from warm to cold. During the cold phase, the opposite of El Niño, the conditions are referred to as La Niña. Since 1950, the Climate Prediction Center has identified 20 La Niña events and 23 El Niño events. However, there are also periods in between La Niña or El Niño where ocean temperatures are “normal.” These in-between periods are referred to as neutral conditions.
In Manitoba, our weather is affected the most by ENSO (El Niño or La Niña) during the winter. On average, El Niño tends to bring warmer and drier winters, while La Niña tends to bring colder and snowier winters. But it’s not always that simple.
There have been warm La Niña winters and cold El Niño winters, so the winter forecast cannot be based on these events alone. One important factor in gauging the possible impact of El Niño or La Niña is its strength. The warmer the central Pacific Ocean, the “stronger” the El Niño event. This year’s El Niño currently has ocean temperatures that are more than 1.5˚C warmer than normal. Such warm temperatures cause the El Niño to be categorized as “strong”, which makes its impact on Manitoba weather a bit more certain. Historically, strong El Niño events are almost always associated with warm winters in Manitoba. The correlation isn’t 100 per cent, but it is among the strongest predictors of our winter weather. Snow is less correlated than temperature, but a strong El Niño increases the chance of a dry winter.
While winter is important to help the land rest, summer weather is more important for determining the success of a growing season. The correlation between El Niño and summer weather in Manitoba is not as strong as its correlation with winter weather. The impact on temperatures is neutral, neither favouring warmer or colder conditions on average. However, El Niño is often associated with stormier summers, bringing more chances for rain and severe weather. Like with winter weather, this association does not always play out the same way, but it does increase the probability of a wet summer.
For gardeners, both precipitation and temperatures play an important role in determining how well plants will grow. During El Niño, there may be less snow cover, which means less insulation for plants and greater potential for damage from the cold. Even though El Niño winters tend to be warmer than normal, that doesn’t mean there won’t be some cold stretches. The potential for less snow cover this year makes it especially important to protect vulnerable plants from winter damage. In addition, the lack of snow could result in less soil moisture recharge come spring. A melting snowpack can add beneficial soil moisture, especially during a gradual melt where the ground thaws as the snow is melting. However, less snow cover could reduce the potential for this extra soil moisture boost.
While many gardeners can utilize irrigation, adequate soil moisture and regular precipitation during the growing season makes everything a bit easier. With the winter outlook currently looking less snowy, the potential for a stormier summer may help to mitigate a drier start to the year. Frequent chances for storms during the growing season could help keep plants happy. While these storms can produce unwelcome side effects, like strong winds and hail, those phenomena are a risk every year, and whether you are impacted by a storm is largely luck of the draw.
In closing, here are a few important notes to remember about long-range forecasting. Unlike day-to-day forecasts, long-range forecasts, including those based on El Niño, should be thought of in simple terms. The outlook for a season can only indicate if it’s likely to be above, below, or normal in terms of temperature and precipitation. These broad trends are useful, but they don’t always tell the whole story. Consider that a single thunderstorm could produce more than an entire month’s worth of rain in a matter of hours. Technically, the month could therefore be wetter than normal, even if it only rained on one day. While that’s an extreme example, just keep in mind that long-range forecasts are general for a reason. The science of weather prediction continues to improve, but small-scale details still simply can’t be predicted months in advance. While El Niño is likely to bring certain trends next year, Mother Nature will no doubt have some curveballs in store.
FEATURED PHOTO: from S. Kehler / NWS/NCEP Climate Prediction Centre
Priority Invasive and Migratory Insects to Report
Do you spend time monitoring, photographing or observing insects? If so, your help is needed to watch for and report invasive and migratory insect pests that harm plants, causing damage to Canada’s environment, farm lands, forests, parks and other natural areas. Early detection is critical for slowing the spread of these insect pests.
View the poster for your region, distributed in June 2023, to learn more about priority insect pests to watch out for. Use the QR code to report your detections!
This initiative is a collaborative project developed by the Insect Surveillance Community of Practice of the Canadian Plant Health Council, a multi-partner body that coordinates action for the protection of plant health in Canada.
View the poster and QR code here
Reporting Priority Insects Poster_Prairies_2023
PHOTO: Featured image is from the Priority Invasive and Migratory Insects to Report poster.
By Linda Dietrick, Master Gardener
At one time, gardeners could be fairly evenly divided into those who preferred to leave space and bare soil around their plants and those who preferred to see no bare soil. Older gardening friends will tell you it was simply a matter of taste. Now, however, it is widely agreed that fully covering the soil has many important benefits. Landscaping fashion has followed this good horticultural practice by favouring densely woven “plant communities” and, especially in new gardens, layers of organic mulch.
Although I’ve always been a no-bare-soil gardener, I’ll admit the choice was initially made for me. Somehow, I had to squeeze an expanding plant collection into a tiny garden, so I started ignoring the spacing requirement on the tags! Also, tired of dealing with the annual snowstorm of Siberian elm seeds that all seemed to germinate, I found that having ground covers between the larger plants meant a lot less weeding. And so I got to know a large number of low-growing perennial species that could be combined attractively with the anchor shrubs and the taller flowering showstoppers. Eventually, I learned why this was good for my plants and soil as well as very on-trend in terms of design.
First, the horticultural benefits: as the regenerative agriculture folks like to say, we need to “armour” the soil, that is, avoid tilling and keep live plants or at least their residues in place at all times. The advantages are huge: this minimizes wind and water erosion; retains moisture; keeps the soil cool; reduces compaction; suppresses weeds; sequesters carbon; helps enrich the soil; and above all protects the soil food web. As scientists have learned, plants depend on a teeming web of fungi and other (micro)organisms in the soil to supply them with critical nutrients. We should probably now think of this invisible, living underworld as part of our gardens. For details, see Darlene Belton’s article “What your garden isn’t telling you (but you can learn)” in the June 2021 MMGA Newsletter.
As for the trendiness of covering the soil, the New Perennialist movement in landscape design, most famously represented by Piet Oudolf, has learned to copy nature, where you almost never see bare soil. In natural ecosystems like the tallgrass prairie, a diversity of plants forms a dense, interlocking community of species that partly compete and partly cooperate, resulting in a stable whole that is greater than its parts. Mature natural landscapes feel beautiful and harmonious, and they seem to bring us back to our roots. New Perennialists try to duplicate that experience of nature by design. Key to their designs is the “matrix”: a ground cover layer that knits everything together like the grasses of the prairies or the understory plants of woodlands.
Today’s landscape design trends mesh well with the increasing desire of gardeners to support wildlife, especially pollinators like bees, moths, and butterflies, and the birds that depend on their larvae to feed their chicks. The climate and diversity crises make this especially urgent. As Douglas Tallamy has argued, we need to incorporate as many regionally native plants as we can into our gardens, because these are the food and habitat resources that regionally native creatures have co-evolved with and depend on. Native shrubs, perennials, and matrix plants (ground covers) are now much easier to source, thanks to local nurseries. We do well to replace non-native plants of low value to wildlife with garden-worthy native plants, or at least to add native wildflowers and grasses to our existing plantings.
In addition, we should be mindful of the invasive or potentially invasive characteristics of some exotic, i.e., non-native, plants that are still being sold or traded among gardeners or may already be growing in our gardens. For a list of “What Not to Plant in Manitoba,” visit https://mgmanitoba.com/resources/invasive-plants-weeds. The fewer of these we have on our properties, the less likely they are to invade our precious remaining natural spaces.
So how do you redesign garden beds to ensure that there is no bare soil, and that wildlife and soil health are supported? A good place to start is by adding ground covers, preferably native or at least non-invasive exotics. Below are some recommendations, grouped according to light requirements, native vs. non-native origins, and spreading behaviour.
For the reasons mentioned, native plants are preferable. In my experience, however, many of the non-native ground covers have flowers that provide nectar and pollen to non-specialist pollinators like bumble bees and hoverflies. And speaking of pollinators: to support ground-nesting bees, gardeners should consider leaving a small area that does have bare soil.
A few notes on spreading: some regionally native plants are vigorous spreaders (we do not call them invasive because they come from here), but that characteristic can be useful. For example, Canada anemone has been shown to outcompete invasive exotic grasses and keep them in check. See Robert G. Mears’s photos at https://grasslandmatters.info/native-plants-which-displace-other-plants/using-ground-cover-plants-to-lead-the-way. In his garden, Derek Yarnell, Master Gardener, has planted Canada anemone next to a mass of bishop’s goutweed, and the anemone seems to be winning.
On the other hand, many native and non-native ground covers are moderate spreaders. Generally speaking, moderate spreaders will not “take over” or outcompete your existing perennials but will grow around them or up to them and then coexist. You can keep an eye out and remove some if you feel there is too much or let the balance in the bed naturally evolve. Finally, non-native ground covers that are vigorous spreaders are not listed here because they either are already invasive or have the potential to become so with climate change.
Ground Covers (most 30 cm and under)
For sun: natives that clump or spread moderately
Pussytoes (Antennaria parvifolia)
Blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)
Sheep fescue (Festuca ovina)
Northern bedstraw (Galium boreale)
Three-flowered avens (Geum triflorum)
Alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii)
June grass (Koeleria macrantha)
For sun: natives that spread vigorously
Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis)
Silverweed (Argentina anserina syn. Potentilla anserina)
Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
Wild mint (Mentha arvensis)
For sun: non-natives that spread moderately
Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum)
Maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides)
Stonecrops (shorter ones) (Sedum species)
Thyme (Thymus species)
Prostrate speedwell (Veronica cvs. such as ‘Tidal Pool’)
Creeping phlox (Phlox subulate)
For shade/part shade: natives that clump or spread moderately
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)
Oak sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
Sweet scented bedstraw (Galium triflorum)
Oak fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris)
Star-flowered Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum syn. Smilacina stellata)
Purple oat grass (Schizachne purpurascens)
Downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens)
For shade/part shade: natives that spread vigorously
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Western Canada violet (Viola canadensis)
For shade/part shade: non-natives that clump or spread moderately
Dwarf Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumila’)
Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia)
Red barrenwort (Epimedium x rubrum)
Cranesbill (Geranium macrorrhizum and others)
Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum)
Fleeceflower (Persicaria affinis ‘Dimity’)
Lungwort (Pulmonaria species)
Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia ternate)
Until ground covers fill in or new plants are established, the soil can also be covered with a thick layer of organic mulch such as arborist’s chips. Landscape fabric and rock mulch should not be used, as they are detrimental to plant and soil health.
FEATURED PHOTO (courtesy of L.Dietrick):
Image of “goldenlocks” elder underplanted with wild ginger, alumroot, and fleeceflower
How We Replaced Our Front Lawn with a Native Plant Garden…
and stayed out of trouble with the city bylaw officer and neighbours
By Lisa Renner, Master Gardener
Full disclosure: I am a native plant gardener. I started out small, adding a native plant here and there into empty spaces of an old garden with overgrown shrubs and beautiful hemlock and Japanese bloodgood maple. Within a year, butterflies and other pollinators discovered the changes and visited my garden. Then I attended a lecture by Douglas W. Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home. As a lecturer he was visiting Toronto, where I lived at that time. His presentation opened my eyes to the crucial role gardeners play to counteract, by planting native plants, the fragmentation of habitat and the loss of biodiversity in our environment. This is obvious in our cities, but holds equally true for our monoculture-dominated agricultural spaces. Since plants, with the ability to photosynthesize, are at the bottom of the trophic pyramid, any loss of biodiversity in plants will profoundly affect insects, birds, and mammals, including humans. Tallamy’s talk set me on the path to convert our entire front lawn into a native plant garden.
Fast forward ten years. While writing this article I am looking out at our front yard here in Winnipeg. I enjoy seeing the last blooms of black-eyed Susan and the purple dots of meadow blazing star between little bluestem grasses. In front of the ninebarks planted along the property line, I can see pollinators visiting the fading blooms of giant hyssop and the New England asters that have just come into bloom. This garden is now five years old. I sometimes get asked: How do your neighbours react to your garden? Did you ever have problems with the city bylaw officer? I receive many positive comments about my garden from neighbours and passers-by. And no, no complaints have come to my attention so far. Most likely for multiple reasons.
Much has changed since I moved to Winnipeg in 2016. Organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation’s Butterflyway Project and Bee Better Manitoba have become active in the province and city. The Winnipeg Wildflower Project was established in 2019. Several Master Gardener projects in public spaces have created native plant gardens. The visibility of these organizations and their engagement to encourage native plant gardening doesn’t go unnoticed with the interested public. They seem to help the public embrace the new aesthetic of wilder gardens.
Yet still, reports of conflicts between native plant gardeners and a neighbour or bylaw officer keep popping up in the press. They often leave gardeners discouraged and frustrated and, at worst, with a fine, sometimes even a lawsuit. So, what has kept me out of trouble?
Complying with city guidelines
It was our choice to adhere to the city’s guidelines for Non-standard Boulevard Treatment and not to apply for a permit for a planting plan outside those guidelines. However, proof that such permits are granted is the report of a street in a Winnipeg neighbourhood where all the residents teamed together and applied for a permit to create boulevard gardens along their entire street.
I recommend paying attention to the guideline that nothing but sod can be planted within one metre of the curb and within 0.5 metre of the sidewalk. Vegetation planted in the rest of the boulevard section of a property should not grow higher than one metre. On a property without a sidewalk, the information of the depth of the city-owned boulevard depends on the width of the street. This information can be difficult to find; if a property survey is available, it contains the information. Otherwise, it is helpful to know that the property line typically runs within about a foot of the water valve of your property or a fire hydrant. Within the property line, planting height is no longer restricted although the obligation to Click Before You Dig [https://clickbeforeyoudigmb.com] to obtain clearance for the utility lines remains.
Being compliant with city guidelines regarding boulevard planting or applying for a permit should one choose not to be compliant is one way to stay out of trouble; the other way, depending on the neighbourhood one lives in, is to avoid the common stereotype that native plant gardens are unkempt and weedy and risk a neighbour calling on you to enforce section 1.8 (1) of the Neighbourhood Livability By-Law which vaguely states that “Plants and vegetation must be kept trimmed so as not to become unsightly”. How can we avoid this stereotype without compromising our goal to create a habitat garden?
Informing our neighbours of our intention to create a habitat garden with native plants, and as soon as our garden plan was available for visualization sharing the plan, took the guess work out for them of what was going to happen next door and if they would be affected by it.
The garden looks intended and planned. In our garden we kept the one-metre wide lawn strip along the curb in accordance with city guidelines and purposefully delineated the beginning of the garden with an undulating clean edge running parallel to the lawn strip. This gives the garden a pretty conventional look, not out of line with the traditional neighbourhood we live in. Again complying with city guidelines, only plants growing one metre or less were chosen to fill the space between the edge of the garden bed and the property line. These plantings don’t convey wildness even though the plant choices—wild ginger, Canada anemone, long-fruited anemone, golden Alexander, early blue violet, and blue-eyed grass growing in shade to part-shade—are all native plants. Paths laid out for maintenance, access to a bench and a seating area, roughly defining the shade, part shade, and sunny areas of our garden, show intention and planning. In a very small garden, a strategically placed garden bed, a mulch path to a nook with a single chair, a birdbath, or a quirky piece of art as a focal point can achieve the same goal. Putting up a sign with information which pollinators your plants support shows the intention of creating a habitat garden and encourages conversations with neighbours and passers-by alike.
Interest is created for all seasons to defy weediness. Saskatoon shrubs and a plum tree start flowering early as do three-flowered avens, bloodroot, and early blue violet. Asters, recently added stiff goldenrod, and the grasses hold the show at the end of the season. No plant is cut down in fall, and in winter the grasses and dried seedheads poke through a good layer of snow.
Plants are chosen carefully. As in a traditional garden, light, moisture, and soil conditions help make the plant choices. Paying attention to bloom times particularly at the beginning and the end of the season is crucial for creating habitat. Plant communities have to be chosen carefully, so plants have similar tendencies to self-seed and spread and no single species runs the risk of overtaking the entire garden as this may be perceived as weedy. Giant hyssop is one of those profuse self-seeders in my front garden as is blue vervain in my back garden. Where the soil is richer, its seedlings pop up in every nook and cranny. It is also noteworthy that some native plants grow taller in a garden environment and may flop over, giving the garden an unkempt look. This is due to a richer soil and less competition than in their natural environment. Joe Pye weed, blue vervain, and golden Alexander show this tendency in my back garden where four-way mix was added to the garden beds. In the front, where top soil mixed with sand was added after removal of the lawn, the same plants grow shorter and stay upright. Lastly, we avoided planting the stately and beautiful common milkweed which is listed in the Declaration of Noxious Weeds in Manitoba and planted swamp milkweed instead.
More traditional design principles and maintenance help keep wildness at bay. Examples are planting taller plants in the back, or in the middle of a bed and grouping lower growing plants in front and around them. Planting in drifts and blocks and creating cohesion with repetition are options too. Our garden shows elements of all three principles. A very formal design would be enclosing native plantings with low growing shrubs suitable for a hedge, like a dwarf chokeberry or bush honeysuckle cultivar.
Our garden was planted with a mix of plugs and plants in four-inch pots. Weeding in the first two years was crucial and time consuming. But as plants grew in there was less and less uncovered soil to give weeds a chance. While weeding, I learned more about the different conditions of my site. I also learned to identify the little seedlings of the plants I was growing (grasses I find the most difficult) and where they had the tendency to move. I noticed which plants expanded quickly beyond their assigned space and made me ponder how much I should let things go and where eventually some editing would be needed. As much as I like to let my garden show me its way, I observe it closely and remove seedlings here and there. I also cut back plants that flop onto the driveway, like prairie sage, and sometimes chop and drop the spent flower stalks of three-flowered avens along a path once they are completely dried up and all seeds are gone to keep a tidy appearance. There are some bare patches where deer and rabbit have grazed too extensively; they need to be replanted.
It gives me hope that since Doug Tallamy’s first book was published, native plants and native plant gardening gained increasing public attention. The recent signing of the Montreal pledge by the City of Winnipeg indicates that the need for rewilding our city is officially recognized as crucial.
Latin names of plants mentioned in the article:
black-eyed Susan – Rudbeckia hirta; bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis; blue-eyed grass – Sisyrinchium montanum; blue vervain – Verbena hastata; bush honeysuckle – Diervilla lonicera; Canada anemone – Anemone canadensis; chokeberry – Aronia melanocarpa; common milkweed – Asclepias syriaca; early blue violet – Viola adunca; giant hyssop – Agastache foeniculum; golden Alexander – Zizia aurea; Joe Pye weed– Eutrochium maculatum; little blue stem – Schizachyrium scoparium; long-fruited anemone – Anemone cylindrica; meadow blazing star – Liatris ligulistylis; New England aster – Symphiotrichum Nova Angliae; ninebark – Physocarpus opulifolius; prairie sage – Artemisia ludoviciana; purple clover – Dalea purpurea; Saskatoon – Amelanchier alnifolia; stiff goldenrod – Oligoneurum rigidum; swamp milkweed – Asclepias incarnata; three-flowered Avens – Geum triflorum; wild ginger – Asarum canadense; yarrow – Achillea millefolium
For this article I drew from my experience of working with John Harper, Landscape Architect, Studio 169, to create my garden, from observing and maintaining my own gardens, and from perusing the resources listed below over and over again.
Darke, Rick and Tallamy, Douglas W., The Living Landscape, Timber Press 2014
Tallamy, Douglas W., Bringing Nature Home, Timber Press Inc., 2009
Tallamy, Douglas W., Nature’s Best Hope, Timber Press 2019
Vogt, Benjamin, Prairie Up, Three Fields Books, University of Illinois Press, 2023
Wasowski, Sally, Gardening with Prairie Plants, University of Minnesota Press, 2002
Find more native plant resources under Sustainable Gardening Resources on our website and inspiration in our newsletter.
by Lindsay Mamchur
Improving your compost
By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener
Probably like you, I do backyard composting of kitchen scraps and yard waste. I have also almost completed Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web Foundation Program, an in-depth study of soil microbiology including how to produce Biocomplete™ compost. The program’s last section, which I haven’t finished yet, trains you to use a microscope to analyze soil and compost to verify whether the microbes present are beneficial or harmful to plants. I have yet to practise on the excellent microscope I’ve been loaned, but the program’s theory portion has already helped me improve my backyard ‘cold’ compost, even while I wait to have the yard space and time to practise producing ‘hot’ Biocomplete™ compost.
Compost is a fertilizer, but it works very differently than man-made inorganic fertilizers, which only succeed if the chemicals actually touch a plant’s roots; the residue is washed through subsoil and watersheds to harm downstream rivers and lakes. There are many benefits to compost, as a living mulch and organic matter-rich, water-retaining soil additive, but its greatest benefit is that it grows the bacteria and fungi that can partner with plants in a mutually beneficial nutrient exchange, the best plant growth and health-enhancer known. Then, these first-level microbes are consumed by microscopic predators such as protozoa and nematodes, and this initiates the self-sustaining system called the soil food web. Healthy, undisturbed soil already has a good food web, but with the disturbance we create in our gardens through digging and harvesting, every garden will benefit from the addition of good, living compost to replenish its food web. So, how can we improve the compost we produce?
Maintain aerobic conditions
This is probably the most important concern. Microbes are tightly adapted to specific conditions, such as different temperatures and amounts of oxygen. Most pathogenic microbes need anaerobic conditions to thrive and outcompete the ‘good’ microbes that support plant health. You know the ‘bad guys’ are winning when you smell that sour odour we all recognize. By ensuring your compost bins have good sized openings for air to penetrate and by turning the compost regularly you ensure that oxygen reaches all corners of your pile, which weakens or kills pathogens and allows ‘good’ microbes to proliferate. The fresh woodsy smell you inhale tells you that your little ‘good guys’ are winning! As one market gardener says, “If it smells good, it is good.”
Maintain moisture content
Microbes are unable to grow and function effectively in dry conditions, and ‘bad’ microbes win when it’s too wet, partly because this creates anaerobic conditions. So, like Goldilocks, aim for ‘just right’, or about 50 per cent moisture content. In the absence of a moisture meter, test by taking handfuls of compost from various places in your pile and squeeze in your hand. If a few drops appear between your fingers from a tight squeeze, this is a sign of about 50 per cent moisture.
Provide lots of food for fungi
Bacteria are very tiny, one-celled, not very mobile organisms that can only break down the simple sugars found in food waste and other ‘green’ compost material. Good bacteria are extremely useful in soil as they cluster around and even flow through plant roots for nutrient exchange, so you definitely want them in your compost, but they cannot provide plants with the incredible services provided by mycorrhizal fungi. Plants ‘ask’ these fungal partners to deliver specific needed nutrients by varying the sugar and protein content of their exudates. The fungi respond by dissolving the nutrients from rocks or by sourcing water, often at some distance, then transporting it all back to the plant through intricate mycelium networks. Scientists have much more to learn about this process, but what is being discovered now is mind-blowing.
The general composting recommendation is to add equal amounts by volume of ‘greens’ and ‘browns’, but although greens are needed to activate decomposition by feeding bacteria, it is the browns that provide fungal food (dried leaves, grass, wood chips, etc.). You can significantly multiply beneficial fungi by increasing the fungal to bacterial food ratio, especially by including lignin found in wood chips that only fungi can consume.
By increasing fungal food, you produce compost that supports the more complex needs of plants such as perennials, shrubs, and fruit trees that prefer a higher soil fungi to bacteria ratio. Plants in earlier stages of succession such as, first, weeds, and then annual vegetables and flowers, prefer a lower fungi to bacteria ratio. You can therefore roughly match the ratio to plant type, perhaps by having one bin for lower fungi to bacteria ratio and one for higher. However, because much damage occurs to fungal networks in human-intense landscapes, it is a challenge to help nature reach adequate beneficial fungi in our soils for our desired annuals, vegetables, and up the succession ladder. Saving leaf bags from fall through the following summer provides for an ongoing needed source of fungal food in cold compost bins.
One caveat: regular turning of compost to ensure proper aeration breaks up mycelia that has started to grow. Therefore, a rest period is recommended after your compost finishes actively working to allow fungi to recover, eat, and reproduce. The spores of mycorrhizal fungi will go dormant, maybe for years, until they come into close proximity with plant roots, so your compost is truly a ‘slow-release’ fertilizer.
Inoculate your compost
If you are composting in a typically depleted urban or rural setting, the soil beneath your pile is likely deficient in the rich, highly diverse mix of beneficial microbes needed to inoculate for the best compost. How to remedy this? Dr. Ingham suggests that you add a small amount of healthy soil sourced from an old growth forest located as near as possible to your home. Like native plants, microbes are adapted to their specific locales, such that if you introduce species from elsewhere, they either will be outcompeted by local species – and therefore be ineffective – or, much like invasive plants, they could upset the local ecosystem. You don’t need much forest soil, a snack bagful or even less, as the microbes will multiply rapidly in the rich food environment of your aerobically maintained compost.
Blooms for Spring Pollinators
By Derek Yarnell, Master Gardener
Let’s cut right to the chase with the bad news: global insect populations are on the decline1 and this is not good ecologically or economically since insects play a major role in pollinating both wild and commercial plants. Even in the prairies, where many of our native plants are wind-pollinated, we still rely on our insect friends for this critical service.
And now for the good news: as a passionate gardener you have an outsized opportunity to help. I am in the River Heights / Tuxedo Master Gardener Study Group, and as I walk about our neighbourhood, I see yard after yard with practically nothing to support pollinators. Instead, I see landscapes consisting of large lawns and non-flowering shrubs and trees. With this in mind, every action you take to support pollinator populations really does make a tremendous difference. Here are some ways you can help, with an eye to spring pollinators in particular.
By avoiding the use of pesticides (both insecticides and herbicides) in your own garden and in your volunteer projects, you help keep existing insect populations healthier.
Don’t clean up too much
This fall, consider leaving leaves on your property. Last year, for the first time, I had all the leaves from my lawn added on top of my garden beds and none of the plants in my garden had trouble pushing up though this nutritious mess which broke down quite quickly in the spring. Not only is this good for overwintering pollinators but also for soil quality.
If you leave up the stalks of your spent perennials, you are creating habitat for cavity-nesting bees and other insects that will make them their homes.
By choosing pollinator-friendly plants, you are helping to restore habitat which has become degraded and fragmented.
Some of the earliest blooming plants in our gardens are spring bulbs. I was sad to learn a few years ago that most spring bulbs are heavily hybridized and don’t robustly support pollinators. In my garden, alliums are hands-down the winner. Happily, they can bloom from early to late spring (and yes, even into summer) depending on the variety.
Sticking to unhybridized bulbs such as species-variety tulips can help ensure you are choosing plants which have retained their pollen and nectar. Since Narcissus pseudonarcissus, or wild daffodil, is still in its natural state, it is a great choice if you are looking to add an early season pop of yellow. When selecting your bulbs, take the time to do a quick internet search to understand what kind of relationship they have with pollinators, if any.
While the Siberian squills I planted years ago do attract pollinators, I have read this non-native can be invasive and have seen evidence of it, with some having escaped their garden habitats, growing in the woods in Assiniboine Park. Knowing this, I would not add them again into my garden despite their beauty.
In my own yard, I have Saskatoon berries (Amelanchier alnifolia) and a sour cherry tree (Prunus cerasus) which sustain early pollinator populations. Others to consider include narrowleaf meadowsweet (Spirea alba), leadplant (Amorpha canescens), indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa), dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana), speckled alder (Alnus rugosa), hawthorn (Crataegus chrysocarpa), wild plum (Prunus americana), pincherry (Prunus pensylvanica), western sandcherry (Prunus pumila besseyi), wild black currant (Ribes americanum), downy arrowwood (Viburnum rafinesquianum), highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), and a variety of dogwoods.
I have wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) which pollinators enjoy and a burgundy double-flowered columbine which they avoid, which is common with double-flowered plants. Tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata) have been proliferating nicely in my yard since I added them two years ago and get absolutely covered in bees to the delight of my two-year-old neighbour.
While blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) didn’t survive in my heavy clay soil, in more appropriate conditions this diminutive member of the iris family supports a variety of pollinators. I also have three-flowered avens (Geum triflorum), cut-leaf anemone (Anemone multifida), golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) and heartleaf Alexander (Zizia aptera), the latter two being host plants for the gorgeous black swallowtail butterfly. I planted the Alexanders together and learned this spring that the golden prefers more moisture than the heartleaf. Hopefully, it will like its new spot better next spring and bring butterflies to the yard.
The violets in my garden include Western Canada (Viola canadensis) and crowfoot (Viola pedatifida). Others to choose from include the downy yellow (Viola pubescens), northern bog (Viola cucullata), and early blue (Viola adunca).
Another native plant that pollinators and I both love is the gorgeous wild iris (Iris versicolor) which supports a variety of bees.
Since I do not have sandy, well-drained soils, I do not grow prairie crocus (Anemone patens) but if you have the right conditions, our provincial flower will be a treat for both you and your pollinators. This summer, I was gifted some pussytoes (Antennaria parvifolia), which I look forward to seeing bloom next May as food plant for American painted lady butterfly caterpillars.
While you may not think of flax as a spring bloomer, mine was certainly blooming in the first week of June (and has continued through to early August).
Another June-blooming native is Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), which as you can see is popular with pollinators.
A somewhat aggressive native I have been interplanting with my bishop’s goutweed to give it a run for its money is Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis). And, finally, I have northern bedstraw (Galium boreale), though I may have it in too deep shade as it has not bloomed after two years, much to the disappointment I am sure of the bees, flies, beetles, and butterflies that enjoy them.
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is another native I did not have luck with, given I don’t have conditions as moist as it would prefer, but if you do, you’ll support a wide variety of pollinating bees, flies, and even pollinating ants.
If you are interested in visiting a pollinator garden, I hope you will consider joining your fellow Master Gardeners and Interns to visit my gardens this September 7th between 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm. Some of the spring-blooming plants I’ve mentioned will be long gone and yet others will still be standing strong although their blooms have passed. There are many summer and fall blooming plants to discover which we have not touched on which I am sure would be delighted to show themselves off.