Saturday, June 30, 2007

Shade garden water feature up and running

Last weekend, in the nick of time for our open garden day tomorrow, my husband John finally got his carved granite water feature running. There's a picture in this post of the granite being put into place with a Bobcat machine, a job that got done last fall.

John carved a basin for the water into the big round piece of granite, and was able to custom-order the squared piece of granite - which came from China. He had his supplier bore a hole through its length for the water to come up.

The water now comes out of a piece of copper plumbing tubing. This looks very simple and elegant, but it took many hours to work out all the wrinkles of the pump installation. (Water features are never as easy as the garden magazines make them look.)

This piece is John's take on a Japanese-style fountain. It turned out very well, and has already become a magnet for birds and other garden critters, including our Toby-dog, who treats it as his personal water fountain.

More on water features in my next post: my sweetie has been creative, and very busy, but we now have four water features up and running.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Dormant lawns can't take traffic or mowing

If you're worried about your crispy lawn and drought stress, here's good advice from Pam Charbonneau, a turfgrass expert at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute, University of Guelph:
Just a bit of information about the lack of rain, a lawn requires 2.5 cm a week of water to keep it green and from going dormant and of course we have not had any significant rain for several weeks now. To add to this, many municipalities are starting to impose watering restrictions. There is no real problem in letting turf go dormant. A lawn or turf in general can survive for several weeks without water. It will recover when the rains do finally come. It is just a bit more fragile than a lush green stand of turf. Some general things to keep in mind with drought stressed or dormant turf:

• Try to keep traffic off of dormant turf
• Don't fertilize or mow dormant turf
As I expect at least 150 visitors at our Open Garden day on Sunday, July 1, I have actually been watering the lawn around my most important garden areas. I don't usually do this, but with a drought this severe, the added stress of foot traffic on the grass would probably kill it off - plus the greening-up of the lawn makes the garden beds look better.

And, thank goodness, at least the nasty humidity won't be plaguing us for a few days. The forecast is "mainly sunny." Heck, what else would it be when it never rains???

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Not a drop: June is determined to be driest ever

So that big cold front, the one that prompted severe thunderstorm watches all yesterday afternoon, what did it yield? Nothing, not a drop!

Zero POP in the forecast for the next three days, so this will remain the June in which we got less than an inch of rain.

And at the door, the hot, dry months of July and August. Yikes. I'm not liking this summer at all. I'm already counting the days to September, and sweet relief.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Drought update: watering with the fire-hose

Still horridly dry: the map above tells the story. Yellow means low, orange very low, and brown, extremely low. The full map with legend is at the Agriculture Canada site. I added the dot for Hamilton, Ont., close to where we are in the "extremely dry" territory.

So far this month we've had two rainfalls. Both came with thunderstorms and both were a huge disappointment: the first brought 3/10ths, and the second 4/10ths of an inch. This puts us under an inch of rain for the month. I've never experienced a June as dry as this one.

There is another cold front coming through and there's a 60% probability of precipation, according to the forecast. But the rainfall will be likely be spotty; they say 2-4 mm, which is nothing, when you need at least two inches.

I watered quite a bit during the day today, drawing down the cisterns, so that they can collect rain water if it does indeed come.

Here I am wielding the fire-hose.

This evening we decided to get out the pump and fire-hoses and water a couple of huge beds around the house from our pond. It's a lot of work taking the pump to the pond, priming it, and getting 150 feet of heavy-duty hose set up, so we don't do it until necessary; plus we don't want to draw the pond down too much.

Let me tell you: there's a lot of satisfaction wielding a fire-hose to water the garden: you can just pour it on! On the off-chance that we do get one of those thunderstorms that bring two inchs of rain, the pond will fill back up again. Right now, it's only down a couple of feet, but there's still a long, hot summer ahead. I think we took six inches of water off the pond this evening.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Serviceberries: Delicious with yogurt!

I don't think a lot of gardeners know that serviceberries are edible. It's kind of fun to pick berries from a landscape plant.

Our serviceberry shrubs are still laden with berries as the birds haven't got them all yet, so a couple of nights ago I went out and picked a bowl full. They are small, but nice to pick because you don't have to crouch down like you do with strawberries. They're delicious for breakfast with yogurt or for dessert mixed with strawberries. They also keep a lot longer than strawberries, so I've been eating them for a couple of days now.
I also found out that both my dog, Toby, and my neighbor's dog, Buddy, love them. They saw me picking and eating them after we came back from a walk, and immediately demanded samples.

Both have discovered that they can pick the low-growing berries by themselves. It was very cute to watch. My previous dog, Teddy, used like picking wild raspberries for himself. I guess that like us, dogs are omnivores, and they sure love sweet things.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer solstice: It's all down hill from here

In honour of the summer solstice, I made rhubarb custard pie for the garden helper crew today. It was not my finest effort: store-bought pie crust and the pie could have baked 10 more minutes and then cooled for a bit longer to help the custard set. Nonetheless, it was a hit. This pie has only rhubarb in it, no strawberries, which in my opinion are best eaten fresh.


The custard in this pie comes from the eggs and the juiciness of the rhubarb. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

10-inch unbaked deep pie shell
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
4 to 5 cups chopped rhubarb in 1/2 inch pieces
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp melted butter

1. Blend together flour and sugar and sprinkle one-quarter over bottom of pie shell. (This is a nice touch, and it keeps the crust from getting soggy.) Cover with chopped rhubarb.

2. Mix remaining flour-sugar mixture with egg and butter (I usually omit the butter), and spread evenly over rhubarb.

3. Bake at 450°F for 10 minutes, reduce heat to 350°F and continue baking at least one hour or until crust is golden, rhubarb soft, and the filling is set. Allow pie to cool for about two to three hours before serving.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Drought update

Well, we got a little rain today with the thunderstorms and cold front coming through southern Ontario.

But these systems are pretty spotty, so the bottom line is that we didn't get nearly enough rain. The total was about 4/10ths of an inch. Add that to the 3/10ths we got on about June 8th, and here we are coming toward the end of the most important growing month of the year with under an inch of rain. Ideally, you want an inch a week in June.

All I can say is: It's a good thing we're not farmers. At least making a living doesn't depend on the rain.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Nestlings on the move: barn swallow babies

Every year we have four or five barn swallow pairs nesting in our small barn. We keep our gardening tools and mowers there, and as the swallow babies start leaving the nest, their parents strongly discourage us from entering the barn.

We get furious alarm calls, and Mom and Pop buzzing our heads as we try to go about our business. Early on the weekend, there were three young fledglings on the floor in the barn. When I got too close to them, I discovered that they could actually fly. Well, two did, and the third just looked very scared.

Later I came back with a long lens and took the picture above. By Sunday morning, the babies were gone. I guess they had earned their wings. This usually isn't the end of it: they tend to come back and hang around the barn roof a bit more before they really embark on their outdoor adventures.

The swallows are an annual happening here. Last year, we had a pair nesting in the garage part of the barn where the ceiling is quite low, so I was able to get pictures of them in the nest and feeding. We enjoy their antics, but we're also relieved when they've flown the coop and all the bird droppings can be cleaned up. While they're around, it's a darn good thing our riding mower has a sunroof. Otherwise, the seat would be covered in you-know-what.

The swallows are very entertaining whenever the grass is getting cut. Mowing means fast food, so they swoop and dart in an impressive display of aerial acrobatics, harvesting insects coming out of the grass to avoid the mower's path.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Drought watch

This map (click on the picture to see a larger version), which I found on the Agriculture Canada site shows the areas of extreme dryness for this season in southern Ontario.

We are located to the right of London near the tip of Lake Ontario where the yellow (low) and orange (very low) regions converge. The long range forecast shows that there may be a chance of rain on June 24. That would make it roughly a month since the last decent rain, which brought only 2/3 of an inch.

I ran sprinklers this morning and evening and so far I've used up 2/3 of the water from the water truck, which delivers about 40,000 gallons to the cistern. The gardens that I watered are looking very grateful indeed, as it got up to 32C today (almost 90F).

I have to admit that in spite of all my grumbling about the weather and no rain, the garden looks wonderful early in the morning and positively magical in the evening. I must sit out more, and get away from the computer and the hoses. Don't ya love summer?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Dry, dry, rain in the forecast

Yep, we've got drought stress. We're almost into the middle of the month, and the only rain we had so far - a thunderstorm last Friday with winds so intense that a neighbor's weeping willows have major limbs ripped off - was a measly 3/10ths of an inch. (We were lucky with our willow: the arborists thinned it out that very morning, so only smaller branches came down.)

This dry June follows a parched spring that lasted from the latter half of April all the way through May.

I ordered my first truckload of water today after watering so much that I drained the cistern down to the last foot of rain water. The next couple of days will be spent watering all the plants that are in the driest spots.

At least, I feel I'm doing something for the plants and garden. Anyway, I'm not in despair yet, but if it stays this dry all summer I'll be questioning why I bother gardening at all - again. Without rain, there seems to be little point to all this effort.

Anyway, why worry?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Foiled the nasties: gypsy moth caterpillars, that is

I don't like dealing with pests and hate to spray anything, so mostly I tend to choose plants that are reputed to be pest-free. But, of course, when you're a gardener nothing is guaranteed, except that you will be plagued with all sorts of problems now and then.

This year one of the worries was a heavy gypsy moth caterpillar infestation. These beasties are voracious eaters that can defoliate entire forests, something we experienced in the early '90s, when we spent a lot of time in Ontario cottage country.

In previous years, we kept them under control by removing them from tree trunks, but this season, the caterpillar population has exploded.

Since we've been gardening here, we must have planted something in the range of 40 to 50 deciduous trees, mostly maples, oaks and ashes. When we checked the trees last week, there were so many caterpillars that we had to make a decision: to spray or not to spray.

The spray in question is the biological insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies kurstaki (Btk), a natural bacterial insecticide that works against gypsy moths.

The key thing is that Btk must be eaten by the caterpillars when they're very young, just as they start to feed. After they take it in, they get sick, stop feeding and eventually die. The great thing about Btk is that spiders, birds and bees are not affected at all, and neither are people or pets.

The indicator plant for the right time to apply Btk is bridal wreath spirea in bloom. If you don't spray at the right time, you may as well not bother. Btk isn't effective when the caterpillars are big (like the ones in the picture, above).

So we sprayed early last week with a backpack sprayer. It's hard work holding the spray nozzle above your head. Luckily, our trees are still young - 15 to 20 feet tall - and the spray reached the leaves of the lower part branches where most of the caterpillars were. My husband had to spell me off halfway through when my arm got sore.

Today, I looked at all of the trees and, tada, there were very few caterpillars. The ones I found I scraped off and killed if I could reach them. So the upshot of our spraying is that our trees get to keep their leaves this season. My arm was sore for a day or two after the effort, but it was worth it.

If you have gypsy moth caterpillars and the Btk spray window has closed, there are still things you can do:

• pick caterpillars off leaves and soak them in a pail of soapy water
• place sticky bands on tree trunks, where the caterpillers rest during the day (they feed mostly at night)
• tie burlap wraps around tree trunks and then collect and destroy the caterpillars

More information about gypsy moth caterpillars.

Featured comment:
Anonymous said...
We live in the Poconos in Northeastern PA. These disgusting gypsy moth caterpillars have literally invaded our area. Our houses are "moving/crawling structures". The caterpillars have even eaten the evergreens down to sticks. Our brilliant politicians have decided it was expensive to spray the BT and comments were "they will be gone in a few weeks". We are hostages in our own homes. Backyard picnics, graduation parties, swimming in pools, none existent in our area.
Our beautiful landscape has been eaten alive and hopefully will recover. Our area is known for the beauty, which is now nonexistent.
Thanks PA politicians for keeping our area safe. Spending our tax dollars wisely isn't a concern of yours.
Creepy-Crawly Disgusted Pennsylvanian

Monday, June 04, 2007

Our weekend projects: could be John Deere ads

We finally placed another one of my husband John's carved stone pieces. It's a water feature made out of a piece of polished black slate. It has a hole drilled through its length for water to come bubbling out the top.

There was a lot of trial and error to set it up. It has a plastic basin reservior that's sunk into the ground, but the first basin John tried was too small, and too much water spilled outside the basin so it couldn't be recirculated. Just the situation for running the pump dry.

We dug a bigger hole and installed a larger basin, and now the water feature is finally running. All we need to finish the project is more pea gravel to cover up the black plastic top. I'll post a picture once that is done later this week.

Our tractor has a front-end loader, which can be removed and forks put on. Both the loader and forks are hugely useful.

A couple of weeks ago, we used the forks to move a large balled and burlapped crabapple to its planting spot. I don't know how we could manage a lot of the jobs around here without our trusty John Deere. The same goes for my handy husband!

A couple of weeks ago I used the tractor bucket to mix up all the potting soil to plant up my too many containers.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Drought stress - the bane of my gardening life

When it comes to drought, I don't know who suffers more, me or the plants.

When it gets really hot and dry, I actually get what I call drought stress, which shows up as insomnia, depression, even high blood pressure, believe it or not.

We've now been at this country garden thing for nine years - we moved here exactly nine years ago yesterday - and most of those summers have been lacking in enough rainfall. Having a huge country garden and being on a well doesn't make watering easy.

There's no irrigation system, but we have hundreds of feet of hoses that we can drag around - one of my least favorite jobs. We also have inground cisterns that collect rainwater from the roof of both the house and the barn. When it doesn't rain for weeks on end and we get desperate to water the plants, the cisterns can be filled with trucked-in water. Last summer, I bought five truckloads of water at $115 a pop.

Most of our plants are tough, drought-tolerant perennials and grasses, so we water only the plants that need it: new perennials, trees and shrubs, the rock garden, the shade garden and certain sun-drenched areas that get fried. We don't water the lawn: there's too much of it.

The trouble is remembering where the new plantings are: they're spread out all over the place, a new tree here, a new shrub over there, and odd patch of annuals and perennials in this bed or that one.

This year I'm determined not to let drought get to me, but it isn't easy. Already we've had a record dry spring: little rain in the latter part of April, with none at all in the first half of May. A few thundershowers brought the total for May to just under two inches. The landscape isn't looking too bad yet because we had a wet fall and reasonable snow cover over the winter.

With this dry trend, I'm not looking forward to the rest of the summer (I hate heat and humidity too). I can only hope the tide turns. My problem is this: I'm a perfectionist, and there's nothing like drought to make a garden look sad instead of thriving. And that's really frustrating after spending all of April and May to get it looking great.

I guess these trials test if we really are devoted gardeners. On the battle of gardeners versus recalcitrant nature, one of my favorite garden wits, the acerbic Henry Mitchell, wrote:
"There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises."
For a change, Mother Nature, how about a little cooperation this season?