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Wet peat trick, bird-killing burdock, hummingbird recipe, what not to plant, etc

There’s an old English saying, ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.’ This is said to mean, don’t discard your winter clothing until the end of this month. Another interpretation is that ‘May’ refers to the hawthorn, also known as the Mayflower, and you should keep your long johns handy until the Mayflower is in bloom (probably in another week, for us).

Whatever the case, the message is that winter’s grasp has not been released until the end of this month and that’s why I never write off a plant as dead until June although this year I have serious doubts about my Buttonbush. I cannot find the slightest glint of a growth point on it. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a wetland shrub with gorgeous globe-shaped flowers that start to bloom in July. While many wetland plants (for instance, Meadowsweet, Joe Pye Weed, Spiderwort, Smartweed) do fine in dry conditions, the Buttonbush may not be so accommodating.

I recently planted some Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), a low-growing dogwood that makes an excellent groundcover, with showy white bracts in spring and bright red berries in the fall. Various authorities state uncompromisingly that it requires moisture or it will die, so I used a method I learned from nursery industry veteran Keith Squires. I half-filled a bucket with peat, added water, came back, added more water, and repeated over the next couple of days. Keith says peat will absorb six times its volume in water so it has to be soaked repeatedly before it’s used. I dug the plant holes, laid a couple of handfuls of wet peat in each hole, added two inches of soil and then the plant. Once well covered, the peat will stay wet with the occasional recharging from rain, Keith says. It’s very important it stay wet, because when peat dries out it starts sucking in moisture, desertifying nearby soil. Regular readers will know I don’t like to use peat, but when it comes to accommodating wetland plants, a small amount will go a long way and I expect my bag of peat to last a few years.

The wet peat trick is explained in Chapter 10 of Hardy Perennial, my book about Keith. I recently visited him – he’s slowed down but is still enjoying life and plants. The County Squires Garden runs on nature’s timetable – as does Return of the Native – so with plants emerging late this season from dormancy, the nursery was off to a slow start, but plants are out now: customers welcome.

This is still a good time to move plants if you feel they are growing in the wrong place. Last year, I moved a Tulip Tree I had planted in shade and it really wasn’t happy. Plantsman David Pearl diagnosed it as chlorotic – meaning that the leaves weren’t producing enough chlorophyll to feed the tree. Out into the sun it went. I replaced it with a Red Mulberry (NOT the Asian and invasive White Mulberry that I mistakenly referred to in an earlier version of this blog) that had been languishing in the open; it’s an understory tree and needs shade. Today I will move a White Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) from the deep shade of a magnolia to a more dappled shade that I think will suit it better – it’s been flowering less each year and clearly signalling that change is needed. Meanwhile the Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) I planted in shade – it is a fern, isn’t it – has remained static for several years when it was supposed to spread like gangbusters. Turns out it likes sun. So it’s due for a move as soon as it appears… if it appears. I won’t lose hope until May is out.

Any time is a good time to get rid of bird-killing Burdock (Arctium minus). It’s a sturdy non-native weed with seed-heads that were the inspiration for Velcro. Here’s the problem, as outlined in the fall, 2015 issue of Blazing Star, a publication of the North American Native Plant Society:

“This biennial sends down a deep taproot then forms a basal rosette of leaves in its first year and flowers in its second summer. Its seeds are hooked burrs spread by hitchhiking on any living being that passes by. Birds will sometimes eat the seeds. They may also get snagged in the Velcro-like burrs, unable to extricate themselves, and die of starvation and exposure. NANPS director Bill Ford says, “I frequently rescue finches and other small birds this time of the year while walking my dog in Toronto’s ravines. It is really distressing seeing them caught on the burrs. When I go for walks on my farm in the late spring and early summer, I carry a long-handled clipper and lop burdocks off at their base, which usually does the trick.” The Ontario Wildflowers site has extensive information on the plant and the injury it inflicts on birds.

The first hummingbirds were reported in our area on May 6. They have yet to stop by my feeder. I wait, and replace the mixture every few days. When it gets hot, if the feeder is in the sun, the mixture should be replaced daily. This is the recipe, taken mostly from the Ontario Hummingbird Project website:

Take  four cups of water and add one cup of sugar (corrected from earlier version).  Heat until dissolved, allow to cool and fill feeder. Do not allow the mixture to boil for any length of time, that would change the sugar-water ratio. Higher concentrations of sugar are not recommended in cold weather because hummingbirds have very basic kidneys and can not easily process excess amounts of sugar. Excess sugar concentrations could harm or even kill hummingbirds. Leftover mixture can be kept in the fridge. Honey and other types of sugar are not recommended, and food colouring should not be added. Protein solutions are not recommended either. The hummingbirds will find protein sources in the environment. Commercial ‘nectar’ mixtures may contain chemicals. It’s better (and cheaper) to make your own. Glass feeders are recommended because soft plastic can break down in heat and sunlight, potentially adding chemical residue to the nectar. Choose a feeder that is easy to take apart for cleaning. Clean the feeders with warm, soapy water and rinse well every 3-4 days in cool weather and more often during the hot summer months.

Native plants that attract hummingbirds: Red Oswego Tea, Joe Pye Weed, Anise Hyssop, Phlox…

I wandered through a big box store plant section the other day and was astonished by the rows and rows of invasive plants that were on sale. Boston, or English Ivy, Periwinkle (Vinca) and Goutweed are the top three on my list of plants that are not only an environmental problem when they spread to the wild, but become an endless headache for homeowners who decide they want to eject these no longer wanted occupiers. Here’s a link to the full list of what not to plant.

Note: Plant sale this Friday (tomorrow, 10-7) and Saturday (10-5). Then, I’ll be open every Friday, 10 am -7 pm, until August.
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