What’s That on My Flower? (Part 1)

What’s That on My Flower? (Part 1)

A simple guide to bees and things that look like bees
By Betsy Thorsteinson

There are hundreds of species of bees, wasps, and flower flies, and often it is not easy to identify which is which when you see them on your flowers, but they all do an important job, and our world could not go on without them. This is a basic guide to tell them apart.


Wasps visit flowers for nectar, but unlike bees, who are pollen-eaters, wasps are hunters and eat other insects. The wasp and bee illustrated below were photographed in the middle of May, both seeking food from early-blooming plants in my garden. They both have four wings. The wasp is social and lives in a hive constructed of paper, and the bee is solitary and constructs its nest in the ground.

Volunteering at Fort Whyte Alive

Volunteering at Fort Whyte Alive
By Judy Heppelle, Master Gardener

My volunteer role at Fort Whyte Alive (FWA) came about by chance. In 2010, I sat beside Jane Zoutman at one of the required classes for the Master Gardener (MG) designation. We started talking, Jane telling me about Fort Whyte and her various ‘jobs’ there. At the time, she had just finished cleaning out and revamping the two small garden ponds, “one heck of a smelly, messy job”. To learn more, read Jane’s “Building a Pond Garden.”

She asked me where I was volunteering. I said, “Nowhere, I just want to take these courses; they sound interesting.” She encouraged me to go talk to the volunteer coordinator at FWA. I did just that, had my interview, must have passed the muster, and started volunteering in the gardens the next summer.

There are dozens of volunteer opportunities at FWA – animal tracking with young students, canoeing, Bannock making, Goose Flight attendants in the fall, snowshoe trekking in the winter, and more, but gardening was what I wanted to do and what I did ­­– weeding, raking, mulching, trimming, pruning, and planting in the gardens and yard around the two main buildings, the Alloway Centre and the Interpretive Centre.

The Apiaceae or Carrot Family: The Good, the Bad, and the Dangerous

The Apiaceae or Carrot Family: The Good, the Bad, and the Dangerous
By Linda Dietrick, Master Gardener
Eastern black swallowtail nectaring on catmint flowers. Photo: Linda Dietrick

I hope that, for most of you, finding an Eastern black swallowtail caterpillar on your dill or parsley or carrot tops is cause for joy. Within a few weeks, those greenish-yellow caterpillars with the black and yellow stripes will crawl away, pupate, and emerge as one of our most spectacular butterflies. With their black wings spotted yellow, orange, and blue, and the tailed hindwings that give them their name, they are unmistakeable.

Like most butterflies, black swallowtails have specific larval food needs – in this case, plants in the family Apiaceae or, to use the older family name, Umbelliferae. The latter name comes from the fact that most members of the family have umbel-shaped inflorescences, with flower stalks of nearly equal length arising from a common center and forming what looks like a flat umbrella. Think dill flowers. Many kinds of insects feed on these flowers. The foliage, however, contains toxic compounds called furanocoumarins that black swallowtail caterpillars have uniquely evolved to tolerate.

“Growing under Cover” with Niki Jabbour

“Growing under Cover” with Niki Jabbour

MMGA Presentation on Saturday, March 23, 2024
11:00 am CST via Zoom

Tickets available on our website in the new year
Members $10, non-members $15
Watch for registration information on our home page

Join award-winning author Niki Jabbour as she shares her techniques for growing more food, reducing pest problems, and dealing with unpredictable weather in her Nova Scotia vegetable garden. With the special challenges of Manitoba’s climate in mind, she’ll spotlight a wide variety of season extenders like shade cloth, row cover, cold frames, and polytunnels, as well as show you how to use garden covers to prevent damage from deer, flea beetles, and cabbage worms. She’ll also share some of her stand-out crops and varieties for fall and even winter harvesting.

Niki Jabbour
About Niki Jabbour

Niki Jabbour is the best-selling, award-winning author of four books including The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener and Growing Under Cover. She’s a two-time winner of the prestigious American Horticultural Society Book Award, and has been a radio host for 16 years. Find Niki on SavvyGardening.com.

Growing Calendula officinalis for Year-round Sunshine

Growing Calendula officinalis for Year-round Sunshine

By Emily Glover, Master Gardener Intern

You will always find Calendula officinalis growing in my garden. I included calendula in my first garden on a whim without realizing it would become one of my favourite plants of all time.

I love a little chaos in my garden so I let it self-sow wherever it pleases — little canary yellow, tangerine, and amber stars haphazardly settled between the tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans in my vegetable plot.

Calendula is a powerhouse plant in both the garden and home and can be beneficial in your life even outside of our short growing season.

In the garden

Calendula. Photo: Emily Glover

Calendula, sometimes referred to as its less glamorous common name pot marigold, is a member of the Asteraceae family. Despite the name, calendula is not the same as the other common garden plant marigold (Tagetes spp.) It has a long history of cultivation, going back to at least the 12th century. Because of this, its exact origins are unknown but are believed to be southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.

In zone 3, you can expect self-sowed calendula to start popping up sometime in mid-spring with blooms in full effect from July to as late as October, depending on the weather. Calendula is easy to start indoors and transplant if you’re eager for earlier blooms.

‘Planet Soil’ Film Review

Planet Soil Film Review
By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener

On November 18, a sell-out audience of privileged gardeners and friends participated in the premiere showing in Canada of the internationally acclaimed, award-winning documentary, Planet Soil. Filmed in the Netherlands, the 77-minute film explores the intricate connections linking the staggeringly abundant life beneath the soil with that above to create and sustain the mysterious systems of our living planet.

The journey of Planet Soil to Winnipeg’s Cinematheque theatre began with the team of dedicated filmmakers who created Planet Soil, leading to an August 19, 2023 Winnipeg Free Press review article by MMGA co-founder and journalist Colleen Zacharias, who described the extraordinary filming innovations that brought microscopic soil creatures to the big screen. Colleen’s article spurred Sophie Munro of the Charleswood Garden Club to email her extensive gardening network to stimulate interest in bringing the film to Manitoba. Two horticultural organizations responded – the Manitoba Horticultural Association (MHA) and the Manitoba Master Gardener Association (MMGA). Contact was made with the filmmakers, Mark Verkerk and Ignas van Schaik, who were pleased to hear of our local interest. Plans took off rapidly and the two organizations co-hosted this event so important for the knowledge base of all gardeners.

Besides revealing miraculous soil life never before seen in this intensity on screen, the film is beautiful. Brilliant use of time-lapse photography shows us the lace-like explosion of fungal growth over four to five months in seconds as the narrative explains how mazes of threadlike microscopic fungal hyphae permeate the soil to find nutrients to bring to plant roots in exchange for the sugars from photosynthesis that fungi need to survive but cannot produce themselves. We watch as the excretions of earthworms and nematodes lubricate the soil as they burrow to help create aggregates that allow for the passage of water and air to sustain smaller life forms. We see a mole blindly tunneling to find earthworms and soil-dwelling insects as it plays out its role in the soil food web. And we see more, much more.

Probably as important as the extraordinary cinematography, the film offers hope, hope that is so needed in our climate-stressed era. We see some regenerative projects in Europe that utilize this emerging science-based knowledge of living soil as the very foundation of all land-based life. The projects often involve children who learn to appreciate, not fear, the soil’s unfamiliar or strange-looking small creatures.

For those who missed the inaugural screening and due to the acclaim of viewers, another showing will be hosted by the MMGA and the MHA on Saturday, February 3rd, 2024, at 12:00 noon, also at the Cinematheque theatre (tickets available via the MMGA and MHA websites in early January). Like the first event, this showing will be followed by a Zoom Q&A with Mark Verkerk, director of Planet Soil.

The Zoom Q&A at the November viewing was a surprise for me – and was a significant bonus, showing that our Covid lockdown years managing Zoom meetings were not wasted. As I had to leave early, MMGA member Lisa Renner took notes for me from the Q&A, referred to below.

Highlights of the live Q&A session with Mark Verkerk

Explaining that he was not a biologist, Mark responded to the first question that the film missed aspects of the complex relationship of the soil, air, and water, by saying that Planet Soil’s goal was intended to be a first level, graphically visual introduction to present how significantly below-ground activity impacts life above ground. He added that there could be 100 more films made on this topic. Mark described the technical challenges of capturing the enormous range of soil creatures, from earthworms to bacteria, and then demonstrating their interrelationships. Microscopes and a specially developed lens system created depth for the colourful three-dimensional shots.

Electron microscopes were not used, Mark said, because this requires organisms to be killed and their intention was to represent live interactions. The filmmakers showed admirable respect for their small subjects. For example, fresh soil plugs were placed in containers with holes to permit filming, then the soil and its living contents were returned to the exact extraction sites.

Special methodology was used to keep fungi alive and its growth filmable over the three-to-four-month period of its beautiful, intricate expansion to present in mere seconds through time lapse photography. Recordings of the ‘sound of soil’ were done by musician and recording artist Cosmo Sheldrake. The captured sounds, mostly beyond unassisted human hearing, are increasingly tapped into by scientists to assess levels of soil biodiversity.

MMGA emeritus member Lenore Linton captured the sentiments of many in the audience with her heartfelt thank you to Mark and the film team for always relating what happens below ground to its impact above ground, plus, among much else, to our duty as gardeners ‘to give back’ when we take from the earth. She referred to the scene where beet leaves were left on the ground to nurture the soil, adding that she even eats the beet leaves!

To this remark, Director Mark Verkerk generously replied, “But if you are composting, you are giving back.”

“Leaf” It in the Garden

“Leaf” It in the Garden

Using leaves and leaf mulch in your garden

By Virginia Stephenson, Master Gardener
PHOTO: V. Stephenson. Leaf mulch as a natural uniform ground cover.

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.

PHOTO: V. Stephenson. Leaf mulch in foundation beds.

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.

PHOTO: V. Stephenson. Leaves at the base of clematis to keep the roots cool.

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

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.[1] As well, there are many mental health benefits for us humans.[2] 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.


PHOTO: Courtesy of M.Stoesz, Wild Birds Unlimited. Pileated Woodpecker on double tail-prop suet feeder.


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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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

PHOTO: Courtesy of M.Stoesz, Wild Birds Unlimited. House Finch and White-breasted Nuthatch on tube feeder.

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![6] 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.[7] 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


[1] Brittingham, M. C. & Temple, S. A. 1988 Impacts of Supplemental Feeding on Survival Rates of Black-Capped Chickadees. Ecology 69, 581.
[2] https://news-archive.exeter.ac.uk/2017/february/title_571299_en.html
[3] https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/migratory-game-bird-hunting/avian-influenza-wild-birds.html#toc3[1]https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/avian-influenza-outbreak-should-you-take-down-your-bird-feeders/#
[4] https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/avian-influenza-outbreak-should-you-take-down-your-bird-feeders/#
[5] https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/migratory-game-bird-hunting/avian-influenza-wild-birds.html#toc2
[6] https://www.3billionbirds.org/
[7] https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/seven-simple-actions-to-help-birds/

Home Lawn Care – and Then Some!

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[1] 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.

PHOTO: Courtesy of G. Barrette. Frontyard planter.

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.

PHOTO: Courtesy of G. Barrette. Backyard vole damage, May 2023 (aerial view).

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.


[1] https://gardening.usask.ca/gardening-advice/sorted-by-plant/lawns.php#Newlawns

Ode to the Office Plant

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.

PHOTO: Courtesy of A. Gaden. A welcoming potted plant inside a school entrance (Thaumatophyllum sp., philodendron).

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:

  1. 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.
  2. We’re joined by co-workers, clients, and other building tenants. If plants are in a common area, plant care responsibilities may be shared.
  3. 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.

Plant problems

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.

Other tips

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.

Additional Sources

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