Caution: degradable pots, soilless mix, goldfish, birdbaths

One of the advantages of being a “specialist” – be it native plants, rock garden, grasses or whatever – is that most of what’s on offer is of no interest because you either have it already or it doesn’t fit in the environment you’re creating.

So I cruise through the garden centre that’s been set up outside the Great Canadian Superstore in Midland at top speed, pausing only when I come up against a display labelled ‘Ontario natives.’ So seldom do I find the likes of Canadian Columbine or False Solomon’s Seal that it’s like an unexpected encounter with family members. I am distressed to see that they have not been carefully watered and some are bone-dry. 

I’m also worried by the pots they’re in; they look like peat and there are instructions to put the plant, pot and all, in the ground. The idea of this method is that the pot will break down and the plant won’t have to go through the trauma of having its roots disturbed. What actually happens is that any part of the pot that’s left above ground dries out and acts like a wick, sucking moisture out of the ground and dispersing it into the air, leaving the plant increasingly thirsty and distressed. So if you do decide to bury the degradable pot, make sure you tear off anything that would stick above the soil – and water regularly, to accelerate breakdown.

I buy a Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and a Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). When I get them home I find that the roots are loose because they’ve only recently been potted, so there’s no trauma to unpotting them. The pot seems to be coir or some really tough material. I wonder how fast it would break down. 

I set the pot aside and rinse the soilless mix off the roots. I know a couple of other people who do this, one being Keith Squires of the Country Squires Garden in Campbellville. Keith taught me that most perennial plants, especially those adapted to our limestone area, like a mineral soil that wraps close to the roots and provides good protection from the cold in winter. He says a perennial overwintered in the looser and more aerated soilless mix is much less likely to survive. I have found this to be true. Why do garden centres use soilless mix? One reason is weight – both for transportation and for moving around the garden centre, a lighter medium is more economical and easier. 

I have been looking at my pond and I plan to remake it – I will write about this when I do, but a warning right now against adding goldfish to your pond: If you want to attract native wildlife – and I am particularly passionate about frogs – goldfish are not a good fit. For one thing, they’re not native – they come from China. For another they eat the frogs’ eggs. So, no tadpoles, no baby frogs. But what about the mosquitoes, you say – aren’t the fish needed to eat the mosquito larvae? I thought that too, but it turns out that the frogs can do a perfectly good job controlling them. Another word of warning on creatures for ponds: if you build it, they will come. At least the frogs will. Some people take a turtle from the wild and relocate it in their yard. This is very unfair, they are territorial creatures and must be allowed to choose where they want to be. An ornamental pond most likely lined with rubber or plastic is not a suitable home.

Another local garden centre has a wonderful line-up of ceramic bird baths – burgundy red, olive green, navy blue pillars, to add a decorative touch to your garden. Unfortunately, they just don’t have the right touch for birds, because they’re too smooth and slippery. Birds like to perch on a rough surface. If you have one of these ceramic bird baths, add a few stones or pieces of wood to provide the birds something to land on securely. Providing wildlife with water is very important as we have covered or drained so many sources of water in our landscape. Besides a birdbath, I keep a couple of ground-level containers to provide refreshment for toads and other small creatures and insects. We’re heading into a hot summer, I think. Keep the drinks topped up.

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