Gardening in Almonte: A Bee in Her Bonnet?

David

The recent Royal Wedding provided this envious colonial gardener many views of lush English gardens and landscapes (sadly by telly only).

Echoing this riotous display of nature’s bounty was the fantastic display of the milliners’ craft adorning the heads of the rich and famous and the heads of state. But nary a bee was to be seen in the bevy of bonnets!

Returning my attention to this side of the pond, I recently attended a monthly meeting of the Lanark Master Gardeners held at the home of Master Gardener Paul (I don’t recall any bonnets being in view.)  During a pre-meeting garden tour of his pristine lawn and well-tended perennial garden beds a bed of dying flowers caught my eye. Surely this bed of plants on the noxious weed list had no place in his garden!

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is a low-growing perennial plant native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. It was introduced to Canada in the 1920’s, and can now be found in most provinces. It has been positively identified through the Weed Alert Program in 27 counties in Southern Ontario. The most common location for coltsfoot is on roadsides. From this foothold, it can spread by seed or rhizomes to adjacent fields. While this plant has not spread rapidly, it is of concern to farmers because there are very few herbicides that will control it, it thrives in several crops and competes strongly with grasses.

Coltsfoot has large, deep green leaves, often forming a complete canopy covering the soil. It spreads by underground rhizomes, which produce dense stands of above-ground foliage. This would suggest that it might be useful in some situations as a groundcover. However, like many plants that have a tendency to be vigorous (invasive) it needs to be in a place where it can be contained. Do not attempt this without professional advice. Unrestrained coltsfoot can gallop into your carefully prepared perennial beds like a terrified colt headed for the barn in a thunderstorm.

So why would this noxious weed be found in the garden of a master of the art and science of gardening? The answer lies in its very unique flowering characteristic. The bright yellow flowers, similar to dandelions but slightly smaller, appear early in the spring, before any leaves emerge. In Southern Ontario, coltsfoot flowers in April, often before the last of the snowbanks have melted. Flower heads have even been known to push through snow.

It is one of the very first sources of food for pollinators.

Millstone photo

Why does it matter if pollinators have food? Well, it’s essential to our continuing life on this planet. More than three-quarters of the world’s food crops rely on pollination by insects and other animals. There are more than 20,000 species of wild bees alone, plus many species of butterflies, flies, moths, wasps, beetles, birds, bats and other animals that contribute to pollination. But many of these species are now under threat from disease, pesticides and climate change, according to a report, compiled by over 70 scientists from around the world for a United Nations agency.

They estimated that 16 per cent of vertebrate pollinators, such as birds and bats, are threatened with global extinction and more than 40 per cent of some invertebrates are threatened – declines in bees, for example, have been confirmed for North Western Europe and in North America.The report blames the increasing risk to pollinators on a combination of factors, including changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change. They note that it’s hard to pin down a single factor to account for the change in numbers and diversity because effects vary from species to species, and from location to location. It is hard to definitively link pesticides to pollinator decline, for example, as the picture is complicated by the fact that the use of these chemicals is closely related to the penchant of modern cash-cropping agriculture to create ever-larger fields.

June 18-24, 2018 is National Pollinator Week. This is an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

It’s a time to celebrate pollinators and spread the word about protecting them.

Some suggestions from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment to create a pollinator-friendly garden:

  • Choose native Ontario plants to attract native pollinators
  • Make a bee bath by filling a bowl with large rocks and shallow water
  • Select plants that bloom at different times from spring to fall to ensure that pollinators have food and adequate shelter throughout the growing season
  • Plant flowers in clusters – creating clusters makes it easier for pollinators to find the flowers and improves the efficiency of pollination
  • Eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides including pollinator attractive plants treated with systemic pesticides.
  • Build a bee hotel for solitary bees. A simple bee hotel can be made out of hollow reeds or bamboo and a milk carton
  • Attract a range of pollinators by planting flowers of different shapes and sizes
  • Create a window box with pollinator-friendly herbs
  • Leave mulch-free space for ground-nesting bees
  • Plant milkweed for Monarch butterflies

Locally we owe much to the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists for their work with schools and children through their Environmental Education Program and their tireless work to create Monarch butterfly programs at all the schools in the region. Check out their website mvfn.ca