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Apr 22

Spring ephemerals, here and in Chelsea

It’s April 22 and I’m bent low over the shade bed tracking the native wildflowers that make the forests of the North East such a joy at this time of year. The delicate white and mauve flowers of the Sharp-lobed Hepatica were the first to appear, on April 15, pretty faces framed by a delicate circle of stamens lifted to the suddenly warm sun.

Today, it’s cold and wet and the Hepaticas have turned away towards the ground. But the Bloodroot’s white buds are on the verge of opening, leaves still curled around the stem. Later, after the dazzling white flowers are spent, the deeply cleft leaves will spread like little umbrellas above the ground.

A Trillium, rescued from the garden of a lady who died, is in full leaf, the buds tightly closed and giving no hint of the gorgeous deep red that makes me think affectionately of the gardener I never met, who unknowingly bequeathed some of her treasures to me. Another one is a Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper of which there is as yet no sign.
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Mar 20

What a pollinator needs

Pollinators have modest needs.
-Flowers, of the kind that grow willingly everywhere and produce nectar and pollen profusely. We mostly call them weeds and try to get rid of them. Nectar is food for butterflies, moths, bees, wasps and many other insects. Butterflies and moths don't eat pollen, although they play a role in pollination by moving it around. For bees, however, the high-protein pollen is an important food for their larvae. 
-Foliage, for the larvae (caterpillars) of moths and butterflies, of a kind that the caterpillars of this moth or that butterfly have feasted on for generations. Because plant and insect evolved together, the insect’s larvae are able to overcome the toxic chemicals that its specific plant produces to protect itself. Think monarch butterfly and milkweed (but note that a monarch consumes nectar from any accessible flower). Gardeners generally have no idea what plants play host to and make good nurseries for what specific insects – but a native plant is a safe bet. 
-Nesting spots – a sunny patch of bare soil warmed by the sun, the hollow stems of overwintering perennials, an old piece of wood that can be tunnelled into. We pave pathways and mulch beds, thus barring ground-nesting bees from access to the ground and we tidy up old stems and deadwood, leaving nowhere for insects like carpenter and leafcutter bees.
-Chemical-free food. We dust and spray our countryside with toxins that make their way into the pollen, nectar and foliage beneficial insects consume, even wildflowers'. These toxins can also migrate into soil and water. And many of the garden plants we hope will help our pollinators have been sprayed in the nursery and can be harmful.
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Feb 8

The gardening spirit

A trayful of pots filled with seeds and soil mix, ready to go. I dig down into the snowbank and clear a flat space on the frozen ground. I line the pots up, each with its little white label that I’ve cut out of yoghurt containers, the names lettered in thick black marker. Then I shovel the snow back on and the pots disappear. Almost. There’s not as much snow as I would like. I have to go down a small incline to get more and the task is completed.

Under the snow, it will be cold enough for the seeds to get the message – it’s winter. These are the seeds of native perennials, shrubs, or trees. They are complex. They won’t break dormancy unless the conditions are right. And in this northern land, the first condition a seed must go through is winter - the process is known as stratification. Some species have specialized requirements. It appears that germination for Wild Sarsaparilla is significantly higher if the seeds are taken from Black Bear scat - a 62-93 per cent success rate compared to 27-28 per cent for uneaten seeds. I’m grateful that USDA biologists investigated the matter (it’s actually not a crazy idea as, in the wild, bears are an important disseminator of the seed) but, in the absence of a helpful bear, I shall have to settle for the lower germination rate.
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