Archive for August, 2011


Made by Nana

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After our hike last weekend, we did a bit of exploring in the surrounding region and visited the village of Elgin’s Red Brick School. In 2006, the Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled an historical marker commemorating the pretty, two-room school, which was built in 1887. The T-shaped building has one floor level with a very high ceiling. A large classroom faces the road and features three very tall, arched four-over-twelve pane windows that allow plenty of natural light to illuminate the room. The T of the building includes an entrance on each side, one for girls and one for boys. At the base of the T is a second, smaller classroom, probably used for senior students. The school was in use until 1964.


Located about 35 km north of Gananoque, Elgin was an important regional centre in 1887. It featured a large hotel and a thriving business community, including a cheese factory, a cabinet-maker, and two farming implement dealers. The new school was a physical affirmation of the community’s faith in a prosperous future and in the value they placed on the education of their young people.

Early schoolhouses in Ontario were often unheated log cabins or frame buildings lacking even adequate seating. In the 1840s, the assistant superintendent of education in Ontario, the Reverend Egerton Ryerson set out to improve standards for school buildings, and in 1857 oversaw the publication of the province’s first manual of school design, The School House: Its Architecture, Internal and External Arrangements. In 1886, the Department of Education published a new study entitled School Architecture: Hints and Suggestions on School Architecture and Hygiene, with up-to-date views on late Victorian school design.

Elgin’s red brick school was built just a year later after the new guidelines were published and may have been the first schoolhouse in Ontario to incorporate the new design principles. For more information about the Red Brick School and early education in Ontario, visit the Ontario Heritage Trust site here.


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Because it’s tomato season, I’m including this book review at Willow House as well as at Willow Books, where it also appears. It’s a very interesting read, well worth checking out!

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011.

As someone who has purchased winter tomatoes here in the snowy north just for the sake of a little colour on the plate, I was interested in learning where those tasteless orbs come from and at what cost. The answer for many tomatoes is that they come from Florida, Estabrook’s Tomatoland, and the cost to workers and the environment is considerable. Tomatoland is a thorough exploration of the tomato business, written in a clear and well-organized manner that covers pretty much every aspect of the topic imaginable. I especially enjoyed the many portraits Estabrook offers of the people he interviews, everyone from farm owners to field workers to university researchers. They really bring the narrative to life.

Estabrook first looks at the tomato itself and offers a little bit of history about this favorite fruit. You would think that there is plenty of variety available in heirloom tomatoes, big ones and small ones, orange ones and green striped ones, but when it comes right down to it, these plants are all closely related and represent less than 5 per cent of the genes of wild tomato species. Those genes that could be used to improve cultivated tomatoes are being lost through the ever-expanding habitat loss and degradation that lead to species extinction.

Tomatoes are not a crop well-suited to the sandy soil and humid environment of Florida. What makes Florida a tomato centre is its proximity to the population centres of the eastern seaboard where an out-of-season winter tomato is welcomed with open wallet. It was in 1880 that Joel Hendrix first shipped green tomatoes to New York City and led the way for the development of the Florida tomato industry.

To produce tomatoes in an inhospitable environment, the soil is first treated with methyl bromide to kill nematodes. Methyl bromide is a potent poison and its use contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer, and its use was supposed to have been phased out. However, Florida growers have been granted a ‘critical use exemption’. Its alternative, methyl iodide, is a carcinogenic known to be one of the most toxic compounds employed in chemical manufacturing. From this beginning a toxic brew of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is added. Many of these chemicals are still on tomatoes when they reach the market. Tomatoes are picked as ‘mature greens’ and exposed to ethylene in gassing chambers to ‘degreen’ them.

Workers who labour in the tomato fields are exposed to these chemicals daily. Laws limiting worker exposure to pesticides are poorly enforced. Most are illegal migrant labourers who work for minimum wage and receive virtually no legal protection. Many live in seriously sub-standard housing. Land owners distance themselves from labourers by hiring middlemen, crew leaders who oversee workers and pay out wages. This opens the system to an array of abuses, the worst being slavery.

Human traffickers enslave workers by entrapping them in a web of debt, charging monstrous rates for housing and food and then withholding wages until the ‘debt’ is paid. Enslaved workers are locked up between work days and threatened with violence against themselves or their families. The conviction rate against traffickers who practise this highly profitable racket is very low.

The question the consumer who buys the end product may ask is why are these tomatoes so flavourless? The answer is that decades of research have all been directed at meeting the producers’ requirements and taste is not important. What makes for good taste anyway? Estabrook turns to researchers at the University of Florida for insight. Taste, it seems, is a complicated thing, a combination of sugars and acids and the trace chemicals (volatiles) you can smell. I found the discussion of taste and the research that the search for a tastier tomato has engendered very interesting. Estabrook also looks at alternatives to the status quo, from organic farming to better housing for workers.

Tomatoland is a must-read for tomato lovers and highly recommended for any one interested in the inside story of industrial food production.

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It’s not easy, being a little frog. When a lot of other critters think “What’s for dinner?”, often you are their answer! Even your larger relatives can’t be trusted. Lately, I’ve spotted a Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) close to the ornamental pond on a couple of occasions. I wondered if he was looking for a froggy dinner. Garter snakes are good swimmers, but I had no evidence of him entering the water. Recently, RailGuy noticed this snake just emerged from the pond. The telltale coating of duckweed shows that he was indeed in the water, no doubt hunting for a meal.

Of course, Garter snakes are themselves popular food items for a range of predators from large fish, bigger snakes, birds including crows, hawks and herons, and many mammals. Although harmless to humans, they are very often victims of undeserved persecution, and are also killed by dogs and cats, lawnmowers, automobiles, and pesticides. Like the frogs they hunt, they suffer from the destruction of their habitat, including wetlands.


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Today, the morning woke me as it arrived. I opened my eyes and saw that the sky was awash with colour. I rose and collected my camera, tucked my pajamas into my wellies, and went out to greet the day.


Red sky at morning, Sailor take warning, the old saying goes, but today was meteorologically uneventful, a mix of sun and cloud.


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When out hiking last weekend, I collected photos of three dragonflies that we saw along the way, all close to water. All three are members of the Skimmer family, a colourful and diverse group of dragonflies comprising about 100 species. One of the very easiest to identify is the Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella). This male’s distinctive wing pattern makes the source of its name obvious. Each of the four wings have three dark patches at the base, midpoint and tip, with white patches in between. Females are similar but lack the white patches. These large dragonflies may be seen along shorelines, perched on vegetation or patrolling their territory over the water. You may also come upon Twelve-spotted dragonflies in upland fields and clearings.


The dragonfly above is a Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina). Its brown and orange wings give this medium-sized odonate a butterfly-like appearance. Like other skimmers, it is a percher. That is, it tends to spend a lot of time perched, making brief flights before landing again, an attribute appreciated by photographers! Dragonflies in some other families, such as darners, are fliers, and spend most of their time on the wing.

The pretty dragonfly below is a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Blue Dashers may be found in a wide range of habitat, but are partial to well-vegetated ponds. What stunning eyes! Like the other two skimmers featured here, this small to medium-sized dragonfly is a summer flier.


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When I was entering our local Canadian Tire store last weekend, a tray with two potted plants was sitting at the door. It was marked ‘Perennials: Free!’ As garden centres wind down, many places are closing for the season and selling off the last of their plants at a discounted price. There are some bargains to be had, but free! That’s the best price of all! You can bet that I snapped up those two babies and brought them home with me.


The new plants are two ligularia dentata. These plants produce orange or yellow flowers in late summer, but they are primarily grown for their mound of large handsome leaves. They are a moisture lover, although they will tolerate dry conditions as long as they are protected from the heat of the afternoon sun. I currently have three cultivars in my garden. Pictured above is a mature clump of ligularia dentata ‘Othello’.


Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’ is new this year. This plant is quite similar to ‘Othello’ but blooms a bit later. ‘Desdemona’ has suffered a bit of damage to her leaves, probably from slugs, but is doing well and should be quite showy next year.

Below is Ligularia dentata ‘Orange Queen’. I transplanted her from my former garden. Unfortunately, she was in an unsuitable location and I just moved and split the plant about a month ago. After some initial struggling, she is doing well too.


Ligularia dentata is quite different from ligularia stenocephala, also commonly available at nurseries. Stenocephala has upright stems with bottle-brush spikes of yellow flowers in midsummer.

The new plants are ligularia dentata ‘Osaris Café Noir’. You can see that their dark leaves are quite different from the rounded leaves of the other dentatas. Here they are, shortly after being planted in their new home, tucked in beyond some Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum).


‘Osiris Café Noir’ was hybridized in Quebec by Les Jardins Osiris. I just discovered their website, which you can link to here. The nursery is located about half an hour east of Montreal and was open from April to August 20th this year. I’ll have to plan a visit next spring.

Below is the shade garden with the new plants. The bright green hosta in the foreground is ‘August Moon’. The white flower stalks at the rear belong to Hosta ‘Royal Standard’. In between are the ligularias and Japanese Painted Ferns.


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Hard on the heels of ‘Black Sea Man’ is ‘Persimmon’, a medium to large orange tomato. This is a very pretty tomato, a glowing golden orange. The vines are indeterminate, meaning that they keep on growing and producing flowers as long as weather allows.

‘Persimmon’ is reputed to be a very sweet tomato, and RailGuy and I agreed that it is the sweetest of the three we’ve sampled this year, with a very pleasing taste. It is a meaty tomato without a lot of gel or seeds. As the citric and malic acids that give tomatoes their tang is stored in the gel, you would expect a tomato with less gel to be less acidic as is the case here. (That said, taste is derived from a complex combination of compounds.)

Last year, I grew ‘Nebraska Wedding’, another orange variety, which I liked very much. I think ‘Persimmon’ may be a bit sweeter but ‘Nebraska Wedding’ is a determinate tomato, so if space is an issue, it might be a better choice. Either makes an attractive addition to a salad or serving plate.


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‘Black Sea Man’ is the second variety of tomato in my garden to ripen this year. It is a Russian entry, classed as a black determinate. I was a little disappointed with the colour. I was expecting it to be a little darker. It is advertised as deep red-black with dark olive shoulders, but mine look more like red tomatoes with a bit of a dark blush to them. When sliced, they display a greenish outside ring with a red centre and do add a bit of variety to a mixed plate of tomatoes.

As a determinate, ‘Black Sea Man’ is a compact plant, and doesn’t have the long, sprawling vines that can be difficult to stake or otherwise control. It is recommended for patio plantings or small gardens. The fruits are a nice size, on the large side of medium. The flesh is firm and meaty, and it slices nicely, making it a good choice for sandwiches.

As to the all-important matter of taste, ‘Black Sea Man’ has a pleasing, mild flavour. I prefer a bit more tartness, but that’s a personal preference, and RailGuy pronounced his sampling delicious. All in all, ‘Black Sea Man’ is a satisfactory tomato, but I think I will try a different black variety next year.


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On Saturday, the weather was beautiful, bright and sunny, and RailGuy and I decided it was a good opportunity to try out the Rock Dunder trail. The trail is located near the little hamlet of Morton, north of Gananoque, in the Frontenac Arch region.


We chose to do the 3.9 km Summit Loop. The trail is well-marked and neatly maintained, but is moderately demanding because it follows the contours of the landscape up and down…and up…and down…and up…and down! You set off uphill right from the parking lot, above.


The trail leads through mature woodlands with maples, oaks and eastern pines. It was very peaceful. In spite of the fine weather, there weren’t many people out on the trail.


A sign at the trailhead warns hikers not to approach or feed any black bears they might encounter. We laughed. Who would be crazy enough to approach a black bear? But I guess there are people with no better sense out there. The biggest mammal that we encountered, outside of other people, was this cute chipmunk. We didn’t approach or feed him.


The trail passed through clearings that feature bare rock and reindeer lichen, giving the area a distinctly rugged, northern feel. The Frontenac Arch is an ancient granite ridge that runs through south-eastern Ontario and links the Canadian Shield to the north and the Adirondack Mountains to the south. The Arch region offers an entirely different landscape than the flatter farmlands in most of southern Ontario.


This tree had been well worked by both Pileated Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The big Pileateds are responsible for the large excavations, while the sapsuckers drilled the rows of little holes.


This beaver meadow overlook has a conveniently located bench that we were happy to rest on for a few minutes. Then we followed the trail down to water level as it continues in a loop around the wetland and climbs back uphill on the other side.


Then the trail began to open up as we approached the Rock Dunder lookout. At first, we could see forest stretching away and then as we reached the edge of the lookout, we could see lakes set out below us. What a panoramic view!


We took turns photographing each other in front of the scenery and watched the numerous boats on the water below for a bit.


Then we rested our backs against a well-situated rock wall where we could admire the view and eat the lunch that RailGuy backpacked in for us.


After a pleasant intermission, we continued with our hike. The lookout is more or less half way around the loop, and the trail continues along the shore line, climbing down to water level and back up again. There was far more activity on the water than on the trail, with motorboats and canoes coming and going. We pause to watch a group of young people jumping into the water from the cliff face.



The trail returns to the brow of the cliff where another bench offers a spot to take in the view of the north end of the lake.



A lone loon was diving and resurfacing, avoiding the motor traffic on the lake. One of several cabins that can be used for resting or emergency shelter marks the spot where the trail turns back inland towards the parking lot. From this point, it is an easy walk back to the trailhead. This was a very rewarding hike, with a fabulous view making the ups and downs worthwhile. We plan to return in the autumn to see the fall colours. It should be spectacular.


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