Art, ephemerals and weeding

Generalizations about the weather are fraught with peril at this time of year. It's supposed to be raining, but at 8:30 am the sun is out and it's 15C. Still, a storm is predicted, and these wet and warm days are perfect for plants. So, if it rains, let Mother Nature do the work and sit back with a good book, tend seedlings and keep the binoculars handy for the return of interesting migrants. I note that the website Journey North had a Baltimore Oriole arriving in Toronto yesterday! And for the Midland-Penetanguishene Field Naturalists, out in the Copeland Forest today, it's spring warbler season - many of these small, distinctively marked migratory songbirds are passing through on their way to their boreal forest breeding grounds.

Two days ago, the weather gods smiled on our band of forest gardeners. We had sun and a temperature of 12C for the Garlic Mustard pull at Tiny Marsh. If there's one job we can't leave to Mother Nature, it's weeding, of any unwanted plant, which should be done early before flowering and seed-setting. Here's a primer on the problem with invasive Garlic Mustard, and a link to the upcoming pull days at Tiny Marsh. Volunteers welcome!  Interesting people show up; yesterday, it was Clare Ross, a Tiny Township artist photographer who has a deep knowledge and love of nature, as can be seen from her website

There’s an intensity to the colour, a sharpness to the detail and an unexpected quality to her work that adds up to a quite unique expression of the natural world. Take the bird’s nest with a single blue ribbon woven into it – linking us to a small hardworking creature that created not just a home for nestlings but a work of art with an extra highlight. It’s so good to have Clare’s eye to guide us to these memorable images. 

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a weed that spreads with such intensity as to be quite intimidating. Yet there are expanses of natives on the Tiny Marsh property that have been planted to replace the invader – and they give us hope and encouragement. Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis), Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), Heartleaf Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) have all spread to fill the space vacated by the weed.  And False Starry Eyed Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) emerged unprompted in another spot where the Garlic Mustard had been removed. Now there’s a welcome invader.

Outside my window today, my native spring flowers are up – the brilliant white flowers of Bloodroot (Sanguinara canadensis), the pink-streaked blossoms of Spring Beauty (Claytona virginica), the tiny yellow stars of Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), the delicate mauves and whites of Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba). 

The trilliums are just beginning to show their colours – white or maroon. The Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), of which I planted half a dozen a few years ago, is now a large patch, keeping me in suspense for when the ground-facing yellow flower will appear, with its brightly contrasting red stamens. And the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are in full bud – their drifts of blue will be creating magic in the shade bed any day now.

And as the rain falls gently on emerging vegetation, Mother Nature will be getting on with the job of watering down a carpet of leaves around the trees. This protective cover ensure that late frosts can’t attack tender roots close to the surface and discourages grass that will compete with the roots. The leaf litter also provides shelter for the larvae of butterflies and other insects that overwinter at soil level (you may have noticed the robins picking through the detritus in search of them).

Raking the leaves away from the tree is basically a bad idea. You don’t want them to pile up against the trunk, that will induce rot. But neither do you want the grass to grow right up to the trunk because of a) the competition factor mentioned above, and b) the danger of wounding the bark by going too close with the lawn mower or cutting it back should you be using a whipper snipper, opening the tree up to attack by pest, fungus or disease. If you want to make the leaf circle look more intentional and attractive to the human eye, define it with stones or some other decorative perimeter.

While we’re talking cleanup – let’s focus briefly on leaf blowers. A lot has been written about the impact of noise and fossil fuel pollution. But the argument that I find most persuasive against their use is that leaf blowers throw a cloud of dust up into the air where we find then ourselves breathing in material that our lungs are not adapted to deal with, because it’s normally safely at our feet. 

This is an invisible cocktail that includes moulds, pesticides, animal waste, and dust particles small enough to get past our natural defences – the cilla and mucus in our nose and throat – and deposit on the surfaces of the lungs. Children are particularly vulnerable to this toxic cloud which takes several hours to settle. Wear a mask while using the blower, but better yet, don’t use it. A rake, broom or hose will get the job done with minimal extra effort.

Mother Nature has structured perennial stems to stay intact as long as possible so insect larvae remain safe where they overwintered. Those neatly bundled stems by the side of the road? This summer’s bees on their way to the dump. If you’re intent on cutting back, bundle the stems up and tie them somewhere off the ground where they can be left to decompose naturally. 

As the ground unfreezes, the soil organisms have set to work, each in its appointed place - close to the surface, within distance of roots, or deeper down. When we dig and turn the soil, we mess up relationships. Best to keep or provide a protective layer of mulch and leave the worms, fungi, bacteria and arthropods to open up your soil for the coming season. Just pull the mulch back from touching the fresh shoots of perennials, but keep it around the plant. My favourite mulch is 18-month-old leaf litter, which I save in a large wire bin, turning and watering it occasionally when I remember. See this post on making leaf mould. Other good alternatives are compost and well-rotted wood chips. 

However, and it’s a big however – 70 per cent of native North American bees nest in the ground. They need access to the soil, and that means leaving some bare patches, free of mulch, free of groundcover vegetation, of gravel, of paving etc. A natural path can provide suitable space. Many of these bees are among the earliest pollinators to emerge in spring, and are essential to spring ephemerals like Trout Lily and early-flowering native trees like the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and shrubs like Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp). Here’s a timely reminder from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Magot Edge
- 28 April 2024 at 12:11pm

Good read. My gardener Susan Hendsley has her sign posted here suggesting people leave the leaves. Just watched a robin poking around in leaves under our lilac.Male and female Mallard strutting across our lawn at the back here in urban Barrie.Like the book offerings. Keep the sun and hope you have a great blooming time M
Elaine Stephenson
- 30 April 2024 at 12:27pm

Great article Kate. Always enjoy. Didn't realize bees need uncovered areas, but I leave lots for them, unknowingly. Btw, Today is April 30. I have not seen one bee, bumble or otherwise. Only wasps. Have you?
- 30 April 2024 at 06:17pm

Thanks Elaine! I did see some small bees (not sure what they were) on my non-native early flowering scilla. No others yet. But it's not been very bee-friendly weather.
- 30 April 2024 at 06:52pm

My purple Arabis is in full bloom and covered in bumble bees and other small bees. Also I live up near Peterborough so there are no leaves on the trees yet.
Patricia Taylor
- 2 May 2024 at 11:34am

Leaves left on the gardens. Strong plants
growing through and the odd bee invest-
igating doing its work.
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