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Mow in May; garden thugs and easy ways to make a difference

By Sharon Harrison
With many folks hopeful spring is surely just around the corner, early March seems a good time to talk about gardens and how to make a big difference in small ways in your own back yard.

Some may be surprised to learn they should mow in May,  should limit very popular ‘alien’ plants (‘ditch lilies’, periwinkle, pest-free) and know the only way to bring butterflies back, among other information shared by  Prince Edward County Master Gardener member Gail Walker. She was speaking to guests of the Prince Edward County Community Care for Seniors Association, as part of the not-for-profit organization’s active living program for March.

Gail Walker

Walker, a Tyendinaga Township resident, describes herself as a life-long gardener. Her presentation covered native plants (what they are, why they are important and why they are disappearing); the problem with invasive plants and how they got here, and what every gardener can do in small ways to help the environment.

She also addressed the concept of having less lawn area, and why she is on board with the idea that people should be mowing in May.

Walker described native plants as ones that have been here for hundreds or thousands of years, so pre-settlement by Europeans.

“They are in contrast to any plants that have been brought in from around the globe, of which we have many nowadays; if they were not native to here, we call them non-native or alien.”

A few examples of native plants that work well in a home garden include: purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, bee balm, columbine, false indigo, butterfly weed, violets, cardinal flower, goldenrod, native honeysuckle, lupins, coreopsis, sneezeweed and sunflowers.

Walker outlines four key services native plants provide to help the environment, such as supporting a diverse group of pollinators, and providing the base of the local food web.

“They also help to manage the watershed because they will absorb a huge amount of rainfall if we have large storms, they will hold the moisture in the earth and gradually release it, and they remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it within their roots.”

Walker quotes Dr. Doug Tallamy, someone she says is a leading advocate to get us to grow more native plants:

‘Butterflies used to reproduce on the native plants that grew in our yards before the plants were bulldozed and replaced with lawns. To have butterflies in our future, we need to replace those lost host plants – no if’s, and’s or but’s. If we do not, butterfly populations will continue to decline with every new house that is built.’

Walker says, knowing and understanding the important role native plants play starts with the food chain.

“We all know the story of the little fish getting eaten by the bigger fish, but all food chains start with plants,” explains Walker.

“It is the only living organism on the planet that can basically grow from almost nothing: you take the energy from the sun and create carbohydrates and proteins that the rest of the animal kingdom needs to survive.”

She describes how insects and larger animals that are herbivores eat plants and get their energy that way.

“Insects will also eat the pollen from the flowers and get energy, and then carnivores all eat creatures that once ate plants, so that’s where the whole food chain ties in.”

She describes one example of how caterpillars like to eat plants, but a chickadee needs 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to provide the protein needs for just a single nest of fledglings.

“We have been talking in the last few years how the bird populations have been declining and that is the direct result of the insect population declining as well.”

She says, plants have developed over time to have a way of defending themselves from being eaten totally by developing a bad taste or a certain smell or a toxin that insects can’t eat or don’t like.

“Then the native insects co-evolved with them and have all specialized and become adapted to a particular plant that they can eat.”

She provides a human example by way of explanation, using peppers.

“I like sweet red peppers, will eat them raw or cooked in all kinds of dishes, but if you were to substitute that with Scotch bonnet peppers, I would not eat them; I would leave them alone and have nothing to eat if that was the only thing available.”

She outlines how the same thing has happened with some of our insects because we took away native plants.

“We are taking away the food source for those insects. Those insects stop reproducing and eventually disappear, and it takes the insects an incredibly long time to adapt to the change of vegetation.”

An example Walker uses to illustrate is the common reed (phragmites australis), a plant she said is found everywhere.

“There are a 170 species that will live off that plant in the Middle East, but in North America, there is only five that do and that’s over 300 years since it was introduced, so incredibly long adaptation time that, at this point, we just don’t have time to save our environment.”

Walker also spoke to the symbiotic relationships between plants and insects and gave two examples of the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly, as well as the yucca plant and the yucca moth.

“Monarchs can benefit from the pollen of many different plants, but it is actually the caterpillars of the monarch that is completely dependent upon the milkweed plant.”

She said, monarchs have adapted to the toxic white sap of the milkweed plant.

“As they eat it, they develop the toxins within their own body which makes them safe from predators because the predators will die if they eat the monarchs.”

The monarch butterfly will lay their eggs on the milkweed knowing that when the caterpillars emerge they will be able to feed on it and grow to maturity.

The other example is the yucca moth and the yucca plant, something Walker describes as a reciprocal arrangement.

“The yucca moth will take the pollen from one flower and take it over to another flower, bury their eggs within the ovary of the flower of the yucca, then pollinate that flower so it ensures that their larvae will survive, that the plants will reproduce,” she explains. “They will eat that seed and then drop to the ground and pupate and become moths in time for the next time the yucca flowers.”

Walker showed a satellite overview of Prince Edward County illustrating the disruption to the natural landscape.

“You can see there are splotches of green, but there is a ton of farmland and built-up areas, so we have taken away the natural connection that was there 500 years ago.”

She said Dr. Tallamy has come up with a concept of Homegrown National Park where he believes “all of the national parks and provincial parks are wonderful for preserving nature”, but says they are “too small in total, and too disconnected to really be the total answer”.

“What he is proposing is that homeowners sign-up to be part of Homegrown National Park pledge to grow more native plants, so that we will basically connect all of our backyards to create more of a wildlife corridor for the insects and the birds, and to help repair the environment.”

Walker also addressed how the non-native or alien plants got here in the first place, reminding that a lot of them were brought by settlers to remind them of their home country.

She notes some examples of alien species are the orange daylilies (also known as tiger lilies or ditch lilies) that can be seen along roadsides, describing it as an “absolute thug” as it takes over areas of the garden with really thick root masses so nothing else can grow.

“They are everywhere and you would think they are native, but they are not, they were brought by settlers and they have remained. Lilacs are another great example, and we see them everywhere in the wild, but it’s not a native plant at all.”

She also notes how some of the plants have been introduced by the horticultural trade, either as a novelty item or because they are pest-free.

“You can see the conundrum,” she says, “they are pest-free because no insect will eat them, so if we want to have an absolutely pristine garden without insects, we are doing so at the detriment of our food chain and native animals, and certainly our birds.”

Some of the other native plants arrive accidently, either seeds that are within soil or plants that have come along, or small seedlings that have tagged along in the importation process.

Walker says she isn’t expecting everyone to rip out all the foreign plants from their gardens, but her ask is to get to the point where gardens have 70 per cent native plants, with 30 per cent of other non-native (non-invasive) plants, or special plants as Walker refers to them.

“The special plants that mean something to you, such as your grandmother’s irises or maybe roses, or a particular show stopping plant you want to have in your garden,” she says. “By all means, you can have some of those things, it’s just a question of balance.”

She says the hope is to aim for a target of 30 per cent non-native plants and 70 per cent native plants which will help insects to reproduce and maintain the quality of the food chain, but she adds that it doesn’t have to be done all at once, but can be a gradual process.

She says not all non-native plants are bad, but there are some really bad ones known as invasive species.

“They have no known natural predators here, nothing is eating them, they reproduce like crazy and they are thugs that escape from our gardens, get into natural areas and just completely crowd out all of the native species.”

She urges gardeners to not buy invasive plants knowingly, and not to give them away to neighbours because you might have lots and they grow so easily.

“They grow so easily because they are a problem to the environment, and they are crowding out everything else.”

Along with the orange day lily, she gave a few more examples of invasive plants that might be growing in our gardens, such as miscanthus (or silvergrass) and periwinkle.

“A tall feathery grass, we saw miscanthus introduced along the 401, probably about 20 years ago when the Ministry of Transportation started to plant these,” she said. “We see kilometres and kilometres and kilometres and kilometres of them, and what we don’t see today are the bull rushes that we used to see that the red-winged blackbirds live on, those are all disappearing because they are all being crowded out by miscanthus.”

Another example of an invasive species is a lovely pretty groundcover, periwinkle, something Walker says, “runs like crazy and gets into the rest of your garden”.

In addition to running rampant in gardens and taking over, Walker says the other thing of concern with these types of plants are the seeds.

“We think, I can control the plant in my garden, but what we cannot control are any birds that come along and eat the seeds, and then fly off to another area, and have a nice little poop, and deposit the seeds there,” expressed Walker. “I want you to say no to these plants.”

One aspect that is tricky to navigate is the ease of accessibility of many non-native, and even invasive plants, especially when they are readily available at garden centres.

“Just because they are at a nursery doesn’t mean they are safe, and it’s a vicious cycle,” explains Walker.

“The nurseries say, I have to provide these plants because people come in and ask for them, the consumers say, well, they must be safe otherwise the nurseries wouldn’t sell them.”

– Jessica Rose Powell, Grow Me Instead

She said consumers have to be their own advocates by researching plants before buying them, where Walker also suggests using the ‘Grow Me Instead’ brochure [put out by the Ontario Invasive Plant Council] which outlines the most common invasive plants, recommending a better alternative to grow instead. Click here for the brochure.

Walker also spoke to ‘keystone’ plants, which are plants that support a huge number of different species, where she would like people to focus on planting a keystone plant, tree or bush.

She explains that you can grow one native plant, such as a coneflower, which is good, but explains the impact of that coneflower compared to a tree or a shrub is much diminished.

“Think about your bigger plantings, and perhaps you can put in a tree this year and it does not have to be a $200 tree, put in a smaller one, and the insects will find it very, very quickly, that will help this whole natural cycle I am talking about.”

When it comes to the number of caterpillar species supported by a species, Walker says the single most important plant that any of us can plant is an oak tree – they support up to 436 different species, making them incredibly important.

Other useful species for supporting the caterpillar population include, plum and black cherry trees, choke cherry, birches, cottonwood, members of the acer family (box elder, silver and sugar maples), as well as shrubs (willows, highbush blackberries), and flowers (goldenrod, asters and woodland sunflowers).

“Please include plants that include caterpillars, then once you have fed the caterpillars, allow them to develop completely and to do that you need to make sure that leaf litter is available.”

“We do not need to clean our gardens, so that there isn’t a dropped leaf or any plant material sitting on the ground. That plant material is important for feeding the soil, it provides natural mulch and it allows a place for the caterpillars to pupate and grow into adults.”

When planting trees, she suggests putting in a layered landscape beneath the trees which will allow the caterpillars to drop down into a bush or into a ground cover so they can mature and develop completely.

She suggests when you are clearing up the garden in the fall, to stop, and leave it.

“It’s an idea that we loved and embraced in the past, but let me save you a lot of work and just let Mother Nature do its thing throughout the fall and winter: leave the seed heads, leave some structure in your garden, the snow will look pretty on top of it.”

She says, in the spring, not to cut the plant stalks right to the ground, but leave about 10 inches because of the number of insects that will have over-wintered in the stalks.

“The new foliage will grow up around the stalks and hide all that ugliness in no time at all, and all of that natural plant material will decay and go into your soil, improve it and provide a natural mulch which causes you to need less water,” she says.

“All of those are good things, and in the process you are allowing those caterpillars to develop completely.”

Eliminating light pollution at night as much as possible around a house and garden was another suggestion because the lights are a problem for the insects, where she recommends turning lights off earlier, or having fewer of them.

“The less light there is, the better, and that will be better for the native world in your garden.” she says.

“What happens with the insects is their circadian rhythms get upset, they get exhausted flying at them, they get confused what they are foraging, their mating habits go off-key and their reproduction goes down.”

Walker’s final point, her final ask, is to consider shrinking the lawn area in home gardens because, she says, lawns don’t support pollinators.

“They don’t nourish insects , they don’t control storm water run-off (and if anything, they promote it); the short roots of our lawn grasses don’t sequester much in the way of carbon, and then we put more carbon into the atmosphere as we cut the grass.”

“Make grass a design choice, not a default,” she adds.

She says, for those with a small lawn, consider replacing some of it with a tree and a collection of shrubs.

“If you’ve got a large lawn, consider a wildflower or natural grass meadow, define the area around the house and make the rest a native natural area.”

And, do mow in May, she adds.

“Every May, I hear these stories about No Mow May, leave the dandelions, they are wonderful for pollen, etc., but in Canada dandelions are an invasive alien species,” she says. “We don’t want them, and the insects don’t want them.”

Walker suggests cutting off all the little yellow heads because the “insects can actually be harmed by the dandelions”.

She quotes a study that was done on the pollen of the dandelion.

“The study showed it caused some queen bumblebees to eat their own eggs because it was so deficient in protein that they were not getting enough nutrients to be able to live on.”

Click here to find out more about the Prince Edward County Master Gardeners.

Community Care for Seniors, a not-for-profit organization, helps older adults (aged 60-plus) live independently in Prince Edward County. It offers an extensive range of services, from hot meals, escorted transportation, recreation and social activities, among them.

Monthly active living programs change every month and includes a range of programming, such as interesting talks, exercise programs, music and arts activities and more.

Virtual programming continues through March with a talk on downtown revitalization, a segment with a family health team dietician, a fitness series, and the free income tax program continues.
Community Care’s extensive list of services and resources for seniors can be found at, or call 613-476-7493.

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  1. David Thomas says:

    Fantastic, informative article! Thanks for taking the time to report on the presentation with in so much detail.

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