To Europe and back: An absence of birds, an abundance of cucumber vine...

Fall is almost upon us and with it comes the joy of a new planting season.  Get your plants in the ground in September or October and they will send some roots out before it freezes (with luck, one can have success in planting right up to freeze-up). In spring, you’ll be ahead of the game with the work done in the coming weeks. The Return of the Native plant nursery will re-open 10 am on Saturday September 1 and will be open 10 am-4 pm Fridays and Saturdays after that until the end of October. Check out the plant list, there are some new items.

How does your garden grow? I have been away for two weeks and have come back to rampant growth – a stark contrast to conditions in Europe, where trees are wilting, lawns are blasted and vegetable gardens have shut down in protest. It’s just been too hot and dry. My feeling is that the baking from the sun has killed off the micro-organisms in the upper layers of the soil so even regular watering, as carried out by my brother in France, has failed to save many of the crops he normally grows. The cucumbers in particular were a sad sight.

Another brother, in England, enlisted my help in restructuring some of his garden beds. He wanted the pink phlox banished and also objected strongly to the orange roses. So the phlox went to the compost heap, a couple of rose bushes were dispatched to a new home, and we were off to a nearby garden centre to do some shopping. 

I anticipated little activity and slim pickings in mid-August. How wrong I was – the place was packed! Unlike Canadians who after a few days activity in the spring consider the gardening job done, the English garden all year round. Another surprise was the number of North American native plants on offer – granted, a lot were cultivars in which breeding has tweaked heights and colours, but still, many were ones with which I am very familiar - Black Cohosh, Anise Hyssop, Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod among them. 

One saddening aspect of the area I was in - the Lake District - was a striking absence of birds. Time was when no garden would be without its resident robin, intensely territorial and aggressive to others of its kind while unafraid of people (it’s smaller than and unrelated to our North American robin - all they share is a red breast). It felt strange to be working out of doors in England without the benefit of the interested supervision of this friendly bird. I saw the occasional pigeon or crow and a couple of shy songbirds that vanished into the undergrowth before I could figure them out. 

However I didn’t wander from the immediate area, so I don’t know if my impression would hold elsewhere, but, used as I am to constant avian activity in the garden, it was disturbing. Thank goodness for one outing, to Walney Island, a nature reserve off the west coast of England that boasts gannets, kittiwakes, shearwaters, godwits, redknots and many species of gulls and terns. And also, especially lovely, a population of grey seals. We sat on the shore and watched them play in the sea a short distance away, and they watched us – I will always remember how expressive their faces are. A magical experience. The Yellow Horned-poppy (Glaucum flavum) was in bloom – it is not a rare plant, and it grows on both our seaboards, but it's very showy and really dresses up a pebble beach. I heartily recommend a visit to South Walney if you are in the vicinity.

Here at home, the leader in rampant growth is the Cucumber Vine (Echinocystis lobata). It is in full creamy flower, tumbled over a railing in front of the house, scenting the air with honey. It has had to be cut back to stop it from spreading all over the front bed. I think once the flowers die I will pull it out. It’s an annual that does produce an interesting little gourd, each containing two large seeds that are useful to wildlife – but I have it growing elsewhere and I need to get some light to the perennial trumpet honeysuckle that is supposed to share the space.

Also newly in flower is my Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor). I searched for several years for a native thistle, and finally in 2017 got some seed through the North American Native Plant Society. It germinated easily and I set the seedlings out in June. A biennial or short-lived perennial, it doesn’t flower in the first year. Now, the seven-foot-stems are topped with fluffy pink flowerheads that aren’t easily viewed (unless they’ve been blown down) but are clearly visible to bees. In an email one customer, who has a pollinator garden in Barrie that includes several thistles she purchased from me this spring, described watching one bee stay on the thistle for at least 15 minutes, scooping up pollen with its legs. It must be said that this plant is not for those who want only pretty in their space. I proudly showed it to a friend yesterday and she visibly shuddered. Not only is it imposing and prickly, but, to quote the Illinois Wildflowers website, “it has a tendency to appear rather the worse for wear as the growing season progresses.” In fact, it looks as if a gang of moths have worked it over brutally. But the bees like it.

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