Archive for January, 2010

Frosty World

Queen Anne's Lace

Frost on Ash Tree

Frost on Pine Tree

Frosty Morning

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Although the summer garden finds most northern plants at their most bountiful and eye-catching, there are a few species that can best be admired in the winter. Wild Clematis (Clematis virginiana) or Virgin’s Bower is one of these winter beauties. While the blooms of August are attractive enough, these vines tend to blend in with the abundant summer growth surrounding them. I have never noticed the Virgin’s Bower growing amongst the hedgerow here until winter, when it is suddenly made conspicuous by a pretty show of fluffy seed heads, sometimes called Old Man’s Beard.

Wild Clematis is a moisture lover, and is often found in damp areas. A member of the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family, Wild Clematis is a woody vine that commonly reaches about 3 metres in length. The vine lacks tendrils, and supports itself by wrapping around other plants or a fence as it grows. The white flowers have 4 sepals and bloom in clusters from July to September.

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When I was loitering in Canadian Tire recently, waiting for my car to be repaired, I spent some time looking over the seed rack. This packet of mixed heirloom tomatoes caught my eye and I bought one. It’s called Rainbow Blend. It offers a selection of multiple varieties, a good opportunity to try out a few different kinds. The label reads: A sensational blend of assorted Heirloom tomatoes. Varieties such as Black, Pink, Red and Yellow Brandywine tomatoes. Add to the Brandywine tomatoes some Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, White Wonder and a beautiful orange, like Nebraska Wedding and you have an Heirloom pack that can’t be beat! Well known for its size and rich flavour. Great for salads, canning, soups and sandwiches. Indeterminate variety.

Heirloom generally refers to older varieties that have been around since WWII, or were bred using traditional methods. Heirloom varieties have been enjoying new popularity in recent years with home gardeners. It is argued that commercial varieties may have been developed for the convenience of farmers, often ripening all at the same time, having tough skins for easy transport, uniform appearance, and so on, traits that don’t necessarily make them ideal for home gardeners. It’s also said that while commercial varieties are frequently marketed as having disease resistance, these diseases are often not a concern to home gardeners, but only to large scale farmers. Of course, different heirloom varieties have different traits, some being prone to cracking and other issues.

Heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate. That means they grow like a vine, often reaching heights of 6 feet or more. They will grow and produce fruit until killed by frost, blooming and setting new fruit throughout the growing season. Determinate varieties of tomatoes, also called “bush” tomatoes, are varieties that are bred to grow to a limited height, approximately 4 feet. They stop growing when fruit sets on the top bud and their whole crop ripens at or near the same time, usually over a 2 week period, and then the plant dies.

None of this really relates to why heirloom tomatoes appeal to me, however. I just love the mix of shapes and colours and sizes.

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At the Perth Wildlife Reserve, where Birdgirl and I enjoyed a hike last week, one of their Species at Risk signs concerned the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata). Not being too familiar with these creatures, I looked up more information about them when I got home. While no one would argue that they are cute and cuddly, American Eels are amazing. [This species is not to be confused with the Lamprey Eels or Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) that have invaded the Great Lakes.] These brownish, elongated fish grow to about a metre in length and weigh up to 1.5 kilograms. You’ll find a good information page about American eels at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources site here. Below is a map from that site showing the distribution of American eels.

All of the entire world population of American eels breed in just one place, the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. From there, young eels migrate inland along rivers and lakes and streams and may travel as far as 6000 kilometres. After reaching their freshwater home, the eels then mature for from 10 to 25 years before making the return journey to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. As the eel matures, it passes through a number of stages.

Virtually all of the eels found in Ontario are large, egg-bearing females and it is thought that the Ontario population contributed substantially to reproduction of the global eel population. I say contributed, past-tense. When you look at the following graph, you will see why.

It illustrates very clearly the population crash that has taken place. The decline is well-understood. It is due to a number of factors:
1) Turbines at hydroelectric facilities. In the St. Lawrence River system, 40 per cent of mature eels that pass through turbines are killed.
2) Physical barriers such as dams that block rivers.
3) Overfishing. American eel are killed throughout their global range and during all of their life stages.
4) Deteriorating habitat due to pollution.
5) Habitat loss in marine waters due to the over-harvest of seaweed in the Sargasso Sea.
6) Changing ocean conditions may influence the ability of eel to drift and migrate to and from the Sargasso Sea. Global warming, anyone?
7) An exotic parasite worm that was introduced into American waters.

Given this overwhelming list of challenges, it is a wonder there are any eels left at all. Probably, soon there won’t be. Are strong actions being taken to help the eel? Given that the population graph shows a significant and continuing drop in numbers from 1986, you might think that moving quickly to end all fishing of eels, would have been one of the easiest steps to take. In fact, Ontario waited until 2004, nearly two decades, before cancelling the commercial and recreational fishing of American eels. The Quebec government has reduced but not ended the commercial hunt of eels.

This is yet another example of Barndoor Conservation. Wait until the horse is gone, or in this case every last eel has been caught, before you shut the barn door or ban the hunt. This approach won’t get your horse back. It isn’t helping to protect our threatened wildlife any better.

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While the normal temperature for mid-January is around -6°C, a warming trend saw the thermometer rise to 6°C by Monday. Thus, the precipitation that fell all day, which normally would have been snow at this time of year, came down instead as rain. The remaining snow was washed away in areas that had been shovelled or plowed. The temperature dropped below freezing overnight, and by Tuesday morning, the water that was lying on the surface of the frozen ground had formed sheets of ice.

The river was flooded, the waterlevel as high as I’ve ever seen it in the year we’ve been here.

Giant  shelves of ice were tipped up in the water.

I walked down to where the road crosses the river. The water level was near the top of the two large drainage pipes that carry the flow beneath the road. The smaller drainage pipes nearer the riverbank are nearly empty under normal conditions. Now they were completely submerged, with little whirlpools forming at the surface as water was sucked down into the tube.

With some 41 millimetres of rain falling by late Monday afternoon, Ottawa broke the 33.6-millimetre record set in 1995.

River view, upstream

River view, downstream

The sander truck came by, leaving a pattern of crusty arches on the icy road surface.

Temperatures are expected to return to the seasonal average, about -7°C daytime and -15°C at night, by the weekend.

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Outdoor Flock

Elysian Fields Farm breeds fine, registered Dorset Horned sheep. I was delighted to have an invitation from my friend and neighbour to drop by and see their new lambs. On a beautiful, sunny afternoon, I called in for a tour and enjoyed a visit to the ‘nursery’.

Border Leicester Ewe

The first sheep I visited were outside in a pen near the driveway, and not Dorset Horned sheep, but rather a small flock of Border Leicester and Rideau-Arcott ewes.

Rideau-Arcott Ewe

What lovely, curious faces they have. Number 122 looks so gentle and wise, she reminds me of Ma in Babe. These ewes were being attended by Thunder II, a Dorset Horned ram.

Thunder II

We headed into the barn where the ewes with their lambs are lodged.

Dorset Horned lambs and ewes

Here they are! Little Dorset Horned youngsters, born in November and December. They will stay with their moms until about the beginning of March. Meanwhile, they will start eating hay and their own special lamb food.

Mairzy doats

and dozy doats

and liddle lamzy



The little lamb pictured above was having a meal the natural way, but one little lamb rushed over to us, hoping for a bottle. The poor little fellow had got off to a rough start in life. While his twin sibling was coping with the cold night, this little lamb was found cold and still and was brought inside to warm up, and became a bottle lamb.

Little Lamb

Little Lamb

With the help of a heat lamp to keep him warm, he was able to return to the barn and is doing well now. Bottle lambs are not uncommon. If a ewe has triplets, one lamb is raised with bottle feedings. The young lambs need feeding every four hours, a demanding schedule for their caretaker.

These ewes, mothers-in-waiting, looked on from an adjoining pen.

Dorset Horned ewes

After visiting the lambs and ewes, we returned through the barn and saw the junior ram, Woden. He’s still growing his horns. He seemed pleased to have visitors.



Finally, here is Barcus, with his full set of curled horns. The horns sometimes require rasping if they come too close to the ram’s face. I very much enjoyed visiting the sheep. Thank you, Elysian Fields!


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A Night Out With Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems arranged by Andrew O’Hagan. McClelland & Stewart, 2008.

Great Scot! It’s Robert Burns Day! Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favorite son, the Bard of Ayrshire, was born on January 25, 1759. Now, people of Scottish descent all around the world celebrate the great poet on this, his birthday. In Canada, where many Scots settled in the early days of the country, Burns is remembered by memorials across the country. Halifax, Fredericton, Montreal, Toronto, Winsor, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria all have Burns monuments.

Unveiling of the Burns Monument in Toronto's Allan Gardens, 1902. Photo Wikipedia.

Even if, sadly, you don’t have a drop of Scottish blood, nor any interest in poetry, you likely are familiar with some of Burns’ works. Every New Year’s Eve, people around the world sing Auld Lang Syne, a Burns poem that is set to the tune of a traditional folksong, Can Ye Labour Lea.

Perhaps in high school you read John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men. The title is taken from a line in Burns poem To a Mouse on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough 1785: The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley.

Or perhaps you’ve heard a snippet from A Red, Red Rose:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune–

Andrew O’Hagan’s book offers up the most popular of Burns’ poems. Each is introduced with a bit of personal commentary or background information, and there is a glossary at the end of the book to help with deciphering some of the old Scottish words. Even so, it can be hard to interpret some of the language. It helps to have Google on hand! For those willing to make the effort, there are rewards to reap. Below is a nice side-by-side interpretation of To a Mouse, courtesy of Wikipedia. Closing this post is a photo (Wikipedia) of Burns Cottage, his birthplace, located a few miles south of Ayr. For many years, a small souvenir-style ceramic replica of Burns Cottage stood on a shelf in my Scottish grandparent’s dining room, my grandmother having grown up in Ayr. It’s what I always think of when I think of Burns.

Burns Cottage

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Tamworths in Love

Horned Dorsets

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Steam Shovel

The dinosaurs are not all dead.
I saw one raise its iron head
To watch me walking down the road
Beyond our house today.
Its jaws were dripping with a load
Of earth and grass that it had cropped.
It must have heard me where I stopped,
Snorted white steam my way,
And stretched its long neck out to see,
And chewed, and grinned quite amiably.

by Charles Malam

Cute little poem, eh? I thought of it when this piece of heavy equipment appeared in the field next-door. It was used to tidy up the erosion that had eaten away at the drainage ditches along the edges of the corn field. Cute, but not true, of course. Outside of heavy equipment, you’re not going to see any dinosaurs wandering about these days.

Six great spasms of extinction have struck the planet over the last 500 million years. The dinosaurs disappeared about 65 million years ago, when some apocalyptic shock rocked the planet. Maybe a massive meteorite crashed into the earth at 72,000 kilometers an hour. Or maybe huge volcanic eruptions filled the sky with ash. Or maybe the meteorite strike set off volcanoes. Whatever it was, this event is known as the K-T boundary, the end of the Cretaceous period (the youngest period of the Mesozoic era) and the Tertiary period, the oldest of the Cenozoic era. It’s easy to imagine this giant rock falling from space and boom, the dinosaurs all keel over dead. Not quite. The extinctions of various groups were spread out over millions of years on either side of the K-T boundary. Dinosaurs died out over about 10 million years.

Dinosaurs used to be, probably still are, a popular subject with primary students. As a parent, I got very tired of dinosaurs as each child progressed through dinosaur units at school. I’m pretty sure teachers loved dinosaurs not because they hoped to turn out a generation of paleontologists, but because they found dinosaurs helpful in leading their restless XYers into basic literacy. In any case, most kindergarteners could identify stegosaurus or triceratops and even discuss the merits of the volcano or meteorite theory. Unfortunately, fewer youngsters could tell you that the K-T boundary represented the 5th Great Extinction. Nor could they tell you much about the 6th Great Extinction, its timeline, or its cause. The 6th Great Extinction is ongoing. We are the cause.

The 6th Great Extinction began centuries ago, as humans spread around the globe. In Madagascar, humans arrived about 500 AD. Following hard on their arrival was the extinction of the elephant birds, birds like the Aepyornis maximus, a giant almost 10 feet tall, with massive legs. Seven of the seventeen genera of lemurs disappeared. A pygmy hippopotamus, two huge species of land tortoises, an aardvark, all gone. In New Zealand, the Moa, another giant bird disappeared. The Thylacine, the largest marsupial predator to have survived into historic times, was exterminated from Tasmania. The Dodo was infamously slaughtered on Mauritius. In recent times, unfathomable numbers of passenger pigeons were destroyed. Of course, that’s just a tiny list of notables, some of the megafauna, from a long, long list of extinctions. E.O. Wilson estimates 27,000 species are currently lost per year. Scientist Paul Ehrlich estimates extinction rates at 7,000 to 13,000 times the background rate, 70,000 to 130,000 species per year. By 2022, 22% of all species will be extinct if no action is taken. As the human population spirals beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, habitat loss is the most significant cause of extinctions. If we fail to arrest climate change, the rate of extinctions we are already causing will increase.

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January is my very favorite month for gardening. By January, the snow is deep on the ground. Even though we’ve been experiencing a bit of a January thaw over the last few days, there is still a blanket of white. But over in my mailbox, there are signs of spring! Seed catalogues, plant catalogues, and gardening magazines are sprouting, gearing up for the new gardening season.

When I stopped by the feed store to get grain for the horses and sunflower seed for the birds, there were lovely Ontario Seed Company (OSC) catalogues sitting there, free for the taking. Who could resist? Especially with that cute baby face on the cover. Not to mention the giant pumpkins, and what’s this? A new Rudbeckia? I probably should have that in my garden.

Ah, yes. January. When you can throw another log on the fire, sit back in your favorite chair and dream of your summer garden. Why, this year will be the best yet! This year, I’ll keep on top of those darn weeds. This year, I’ll keep the tomatoes from trailing on the ground. This year…. Yes, you can plan to your heart’s content, design, make lists, and all without lifting a finger. The spade is safely tucked away in the shed. No nagging back pain. It’s all good.

The list of catalogues you can have delivered to your mail box is long. Most of them are free, or cost a couple of dollars at most, a small price to pay for such pleasure. If you would like to indulge your fantasies, check out this site at Canadian Gardening. I used to get an assortment of catalogues when I was a newbie gardener. These days, I mostly settle for just a couple. Veseys, out in Prince Edward Island, kindly keeps me supplied with a delightful cornucopia of choice. The lovely, colourful catalogues are like candy for gardeners.

Just look at this spread of gladiolus! Oooo! Ahhhh! I don’t actually grow glads. They’re not hardy and I’m too lazy to dig them up and replant them the next year. But I sure do like to admire all the varieties in the catalogue.

Same thing with dahlias. Too much bother. But look at all those pretty faces! Mmmm, mmh. The kids are cute, too.
Then there are the perennials that I actually grow. I have several peony plants, but who wouldn’t want one of these dandies? And probably I could use some more phlox…

There are always a few exotics to tempt the gardener who might be craving something new and exciting. I was particularly taken with the jack-in-the-pulpit, especially Arisaema sikokianum. Here’s a photo from Wikipedia:

Hmm, let’s see. Arisaema sikokianum….69.95 each. Well. Maybe not this year. Maybe a new echinacea. The butterflies would like that.

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