This spring, I have been working hard to put in a large-ish bee and butterfly garden, to give the pollenators a little oasis in our big sea of surrounding commercial crop fields, which are heavily sprayed. I’m sure I’m not the only one doing this – there has been a lot of media attention on pollenators, recently. However, at the same time, I am seeing a ton of posts on social media of people looking for ways to get rid of caterpillars on their plants and trees. I think people are forgetting something important: caterpillars are baby butterflies!
My pollenator garden is going to have
caterpillars – that is part of the point! If you are planting
milkweed, its job is to feed the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies.
Let me repeat that sentence:
Milkweed’s job is to feed caterpillars.
Without caterpillars, there are no butterflies.
I get that tent caterpillars, especially, are a pain in the butt. They eat all the leaves off the trees, and infestations can be ugly. However, the leaves will grow back, and the trees aren’t even really damaged, and those caterpillars (and the moths they turn into) feed birds such as blue jays and chickadees, and all sorts of other wildlife, including frogs, squirrels, and, apparently, even bears!
Caterpillars can also do quite a number on your garden. Around here, the little green caterpillars of the Small White Butterfly decimate brassica crops, including commercial canola, and any cabbage I have ever tried growing. It’s not exactly fun picking them out of your home-grown broccoli, either. Once again, though, the adult moths feed birds such as sparrows and goldfinches, which we really enjoy seeing around our acreage.
At the same time, anything you spray or dust to kill the tent caterpillars or cabbage worms, from commercial pesticides to Bacillus thuringiensiswill also kill other caterpillars, including the caterpillars that turn into monarch butterflies, as well as some of my other favorites, like the Mourning Cloak and the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail. Some of the commercial pesticides are also really hard on bird and amphibian populations. In the same way that roses come with thorns, butterflies come from caterpillars, and if you want to have one, you are stuck dealing with the other.
Honestly, for us, the ‘dealing with’ isn’t a horrible hardship anyhow. We sometimes pick caterpillars off vegetable plants and fruit trees, but we generally leave them alone when they are feeding on the native chokecherries or decorative plants. Although we’ve had no luck with covering our brassicas (thanks to kids and puppies), I know that lots of people have been very successful with that tactic, and it is not detrimental to any of the other caterpillars and butterflies that may be in and around your garden. With the pollenator gardens, we are purposely planting favored plants, and there is a good chance they will gravitate to those, instead of ending up on our vegetables. Or maybe not, but we’re still okay with that, because we love butterflies.
Now, repeat after me, one more time: Caterpillars Are Baby Butterflies!
I’ve read a few news stories lately that lament the price of celery, which has more than doubled in some places, recently. My town has definitely been hit by the expensive celery bug, which can be a nuisance when we go to make soup stock!
On the bright side, our lovage plant is up, now, so we don’t actually have to buy celery, at least for the rest of the summer. Probably the fall and winter, too, if I get organized enough to dry some later, when the plant is bigger.
What is lovage, you ask?
Lovage is a large perennial herb that is hardy to at least zone 3. Wikipedia says it can grow as large as 8 feet tall, though I doubt it would reach that here, in our short season. All parts of the plant have uses, either in cooking or medicinally; the leaves, in particular, have a strong, sharp celery flavor that is spectacular in broths and soups.
So, if you’re not willing to pay for
expensive celery, consider growing lovage!
We started our lovage plant from seed last spring, and it was easy enough to do. I started it in a peat pot a few weeks before last frost, and planted it our later in the spring, once all danger of frost had passed. Once established, the plant can take some cold weather, but the seedlings seem to need a little pampering to really get going. It’s a little late to start seeds, though I’d imagine if you started them in the house and planted them out before midsummer, the plant would probably still have enough time to get established before winter. I have seen lovage available at greenhouses from time to time, as well.
Our lovage is planted in full sun,
though I’ve read that they can handle part shade. We put ours in a
corner of the vegetable garden, in good soil, which it seems to
appreciate. We watered it regularly through last summer, but we
haven’t watered it at all so far this spring, and it has been really
dry; the plant shot up about a week ago, despite the dry conditions,
and looks unperturbed with the heat and dry weather. Based on our
experience so far, growing lovage is very easy, and it doesn’t seem
to need a huge amount of care, nor does it appear to have significant
problems with pests.
We have mostly just used lovage as a replacement for celery, but a little goes a long way; a couple of sprigs will flavor a large pot of soup. For the more adventurous, you can find some interesting lovage recipes here.
As a child, I remember Mom pointing out ‘tiger lilies’ in the ditches when we were driving to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm. I later discovered that they were more properly called Western Red Lilies – the floral emblem of Saskatchewan. I don’t recall seeing them from then until we moved to the acreage in 2008 – that summer, I noticed them in some of the ditches around here, and I was really delighted by that! Mom really hammered it into my head that the lilies were endangered, and should never be picked or dug up, so I’ve just been enjoying them as I drive by for the last several years.
However, when I was doing research on native plant sources for a pollenator garden, I came across an actual seed source for these lilies – Blazing Star Wildflower Seed Company out of Aberdeen, Saskatchewan. I had no idea you could grow Western Red Lilies from seed – I thought they propegated via bulbs…which they do, but you can grow them from seed as well. Of course, as soon as I saw them, I had to have them.
I read the packet instructions when they arrived. The directions called for starting the seeds in a baggie of damp vermiculite, and noted that the seeds could take up to four weeks to germinate. Once they had sprouted, the directions called for transplanting them into pots to grow until they could go out into the garden.
The whole packet of seeds were dumped into a plastic baggie of damp verimculite on March 13th, when I started the asparagus. I set them in a warm-ish spot on a bookshelf, out of direct sun. The lily seeds actually did take over three weeks to germinate, and on April 7th, I picked the teeny little sprouts out of the (overly sticky) vermiculite, and transplanted them into peat pots to grow for a while before they go outside. Given that it was still snowing last week, they should have some time to grow. I got 14 little lily sprouts, which is not bad, but if these work out okay, I’ll order several more seed packets for next year.
I am really excited about these little plants – if I can grow them out to a decent size in my flowerbed without too much trouble, I’ll start transplanting them in the ditches along my lane, so the pollenators (and I) can have even more of them to enjoy!
Three weeks ago, I planted a bunch of asparagus seeds. I know it’s waayyyy too early to be starting stuff for my regular garden, but the asparagus seed packets clearly stated that the seeds should be started three months before last frost, in part because the seeds take up to four weeks to germinate.
My asparagus seeds did not take four weeks to germinate.
Neither did the rudbeckia, echanasia, yarrow, or any of the other supposedly slow to germinate things I planted that day. I didn’t do anything special with the seed trays at all. I planted the seeds, watered them, put the covers on, and set them in a south-facing window…then basically forgot all about them, since they weren’t supposed to do much of anything for a long time.
The asparagus plants are so tall now that they are all crumpled up from pushing on the lid of my seed starting tray, but I don’t have anywhere to put the little plants, because it’s still snowing outside…
I get a little frustrated with my
access to garden plants, sometimes. There are no fruit tree
nurseries in the nearest town, and only a couple of big-box stores
that carry garden stuff; the locally-owned place shut down last fall.
There are a couple of bedding plant places, but they don’t generally
have much (or anything) for perennial plants.
Big box stores are frustrating places
to try to buy perennials. Far too often, I see zone 4 or even 5
stuff being sold; a lot of tree and shrub buyers are going to be
disappointed the first time their purchases encounter a normal
I am also sick of winter. Seriously sick of winter. The local news pointed out that we had 67 consecutive days that did not come above freezing; more than half of them were -30 or colder. The days are getting longer, but the snow is still at least thigh deep across most of our acreage, and while it is around freezing, it’s not really warm. This is probably a taste of our new normal with climate change. The hype had us all set for growing mangoes on the prairies in my lifetime, but instead it’s looking more like drought and polar vortexes and forest fire smoke. Blech.
Clearly, I needed something to get into
a better headspace. What better than playing in some dirt?
I ordered a couple of asparagus seed
packets over the winter, since there are only three (!) varieties of
asparagus that I have come across to order as roots online in Canada.
What the heck, Canada? I’m all about the diversity, and have been
pretty disappointed about the Mary Washington / Jersey Giant / Sweet
Purple asparagus options.
Luckily, Baker Creek had a couple of new options I hadn’t seen before – Connovers Colossal and Precoce D’Argenteuil. Ordering those effectively doubles my asparagus options. I have never tried growing asparagus from seed, though, so it may or may not work out as planned. Some of our asparagus has self-seeded before, as we’ve found tiny little fronds in the garden, but we haven’t tried to do it on purpose, up until now. Stay tuned for updates in a few months.
The seed packets indicated to start the
seeds 8-12 weeks prior to last frost, and here we are, 11 (or so)
weeks from our anticipated planting date. Perfect timing.
So I got out all of my seed starting
supplies (hello, old friends!) and played in the dirt for a bit.
Besides the asparagus, I planted a bunch of seeds for perennial
flowers that will attract bees and butterflies. Black Eyed Susans,
Purple Coneflowers, and some Speedwell – pretty things for the
flowerbeds I plan to dig in the front lawn this spring.
Usually, Seedy Saturday (or Sunday) is in March in our nearest town. Seedy Saturday is a really cool event – in our town, there are speakers, seed and garden vendors, a few activities for the kids, and some information tables about permaculture, composting, local environmental initiatives, and such. It’s held in the basement of our local library, and one of the neat offshoots of the event is that our book library now also has a seed library – a filing cabinet full of donated seeds that people can take, grow out, and later replace with seeds they’ve saved.
With the kids being little, and not very patient, our ventures into Seedy Saturday have been brief, and we haven’t been able to stay for the speakers or activities. This year, the kids are a bit bigger, and have more of an attention span. We hummed and hawed about whether or not to go, though, since I’ve already ordered more garden seeds than we really need, and it’s a long drive into town, plus it’s -30 today, which saps everyone’s motivation to leave the house!
…but there is the Parsnip Lady.
Last year, one of the vendors (Prairie Garden Seeds) talked us into trying parsnips. We followed her advice, and the parsnips did very well in our garden. We had a good harvest, and found several ways to cook them that we really enjoy – even the kids enjoy their ‘parsnippitys’ (as our youngest has dubbed them).
Unfortunately, parsnip seeds don’t last
very well. From what I’ve read, germination goes way down even after
just one year. I want to grow a lot of parsnips this year, since we
enjoyed them so much, and they should keep for a while in the root
cellar. We weren’t able to save seeds from the parsnips last year,
because parsnips are biennial – they grow big roots the first year,
then flower and set seed the second year.
The lady from Prairie Garden Seeds told us that one of her varieties of parsnip (the Short Thick) can be overwintered right in the garden, even in zone 2, with a bit of protection. We dumped a couple of bales of straw over the end of the parsnip row last fall, and hopefully, they will have survived the brutal cold, and will grow and flower for us this summer. Meanwhile, we needed to buy seed if we are going to plant the Short Thick parsnips again this year, as I haven’t been able to find them anywhere else.
So, we packed up and headed in to Seedy Saturday. One $4 packet of parsnip seed later, we were ready to go…except there is no such thing as just buying one packet of seed. The Prairie Garden Seeds lady talked us into trying melons this year…so we’ll see how that goes! I also picked up a couple of books, bringing the total up significantly. I’m glad we went, though, and now I’ve got parsnip seeds to overwinter again, to tide us over until this year’s seed crop is ready (which will hopefully work out okay!)
Spring is almost here, and for those of
us in the North, it’s time to be thinking about ordering seeds and
But which seeds to order? How do you make sure you aren’t putting genetically modified (GMO) vegetables in your garden?
A lot of people have concerns about GMO foods, and want to make sure that they are not growing GMO’s in their garden or feeding them to their kids. However, there is a lot of hysteria and misinformation floating around out there, making it hard to figure out where to shop or what is safe to buy. Here is an explanation of the differences between Heirloom, Hybrid, and Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.
Genetically Modified Organisms
First, it is important to remember that
Genetically Modified Organism (or GMO) seeds are not really available
to the general public. The majority of GMO seeds out there are
grains, such as canola and corn, or other commercial plants, like
cotton and alfalfa.
GMO’s are created in a laboratory,
often using genes from completely different species that would never
be able to breed in nature. They are usually created to be disease
resistant, or, more commonly, resistant to specific herbicides, such
as Roundup Ready canola, which will survive being sprayed with
glysophate, allowing farmers to use Roundup to control weeds in their
Farmers have to sign an agreement not to save their seeds, since the GMO producing seed companies hold patents to the seeds, and require royalties from anyone planting those seeds. While The Non-GMO Project lists corn, papaya, summer squash, and potatoes as having widely available GMO options, it is unlikely you would come across GMO garden seeds for a backyard garden or orchard. If you are curious about what plants have GMO varieties, the ISAAA’s GM Approval Database has a searchable list that is quite interesting.
The biggest threat to the home gardener
would be if your crop was cross-pollenated by a GMO crop. Given that
most home gardeners are not growing canola, soybeans, or cotton, it
is not an issue for most people. However, if you live in a rural
location, and are growing summer squash next to a field of commercial
summer squash, it might be worth speaking to the farmer about what
variety he or she has planted, or simply don’t save your summer
squash seeds that year.
There are other issues with GMO seeds,
such as herbicide use and resistance, concerns with untested genetics
getting into wild populations through cross-pollenation, and moral
issues with large international companies holding patents to the
seeds that provide our food. However, you don’t really need to worry
about finding them in your garden.
Hybrid seeds are sometimes confused with GMO’s, but they are completely different. Hybrids not created in a lab using biotechnology; rather, they are created by crossing two different plant cultivars (types) of the same species – so, for instance, a hybrid squash seed is created when one type of squash plant is intentionally pollenated using another type of squash plant. These crosses could occur naturally in people’s gardens, but seed companies create the crosses under carefully controlled conditions, so that the person who plants and grows the seeds gets a consistent and predictable end product.
Hybrid seeds often have better disease
resistance or better yield; some hybrids are bred for better flavor,
as well. Hybrids are widely available in seed catalogs, and many
gardeners grow them. Seed companies usually mark which seeds are
The one significant drawback to hybrids
is that they do not come true from seed. This means that if you save
seeds from a hybrid plant, then plant them the following year, the
plants you get will most likely resemble one of the original hybrid’s
parents, rather than resembling the hybrid plant you saved your seed
A totally fictional example would be
something like a purple squash that was created by breeding a red
squash plant with a blue squash plant (silly fictional example,
remember). If you saved seeds from your purple squash and planted
them, you might get red squash plants or blue squash plants, but you
would not be able to count on getting purple squash plants.
Hybrids are nothing to be afraid of,
and are often a good choice for a gardener looking for specific
traits such as high yield or drought tolerance. Unfortunately,
because of the confusion over GMO’s, hybrids sometimes get a bad rap,
which they really don’t deserve.
Heirloom seeds are seeds from stable
cultivars. This means that the flower or vegetable sub-type was
created through traditional breeding, by crossing various plants of
the same species, then selecting specific plants that have the traits
the gardener was looking for, and saving seeds from those for several
generations, until the offspring plants have the same traits as the
parent plants. Heirloom varieties are perfect for saving seeds from,
since the parent plants are the same as each other, so plants you
grow from saved seeds will have predictable traits.
Back to our fictional purple squash, an heirloom variety of purple squash might have started out by crossing blue squash with red squash, but over several generations, the farmer re-planted saved seed, and selected for purple squashes. This means the farmer only saved seeds from purple squashes, and any squash plants that reverted to the red or blue types of the original parents would be eliminated, and none of their seeds would be kept in the gene pool. Eventually, the saved seeds would only produce purple squash, and if you saved seeds from purple squash one year, and planted them the next year, you would end up with purple squash in the second generation (and third generation, and so on).
Which Is Best For Me?
Most homesteaders and gardeners who save their own seeds prefer heirloom varieties, because of the predictability of the offspring. Sometimes, heirloom varieties are hardier, or tolerate poor conditions better than hybrid plants, though some heirloom varieties are less productive than hybrids.
Ultimately, the choice between hybrid
and heirloom seeds comes down to your own goals. Do you want a plant
that will give you the most possible produce in the smallest space?
A hybrid might be perfect for you. Do you want to save seeds from
your garden and get away from having to buy new seed every year? An
heirloom variety is probably your best bet. You are unlikely to end
up with GMO seeds in your garden, so even if you are trying to avoid
GMO foods, luckily, you won’t have to work very hard or worry about
where you are getting your seeds from.
If you have moral concerns with
supporting any company that produces or sells GMO seeds, look for the
Safe Seed Pledge. Many smaller seed producers have pledged not to
plant or sell GMO seeds, and have signed the Pledge. The Safe Seed
Pledge reads as follows:
“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities.”
You can find a list of seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge here.
Remember, though, that just because a
company sells hybrid seeds, or may not have signed the Safe Seed
Pledge, doesn’t automatically mean they are selling you GMO seeds or
supporting companies who do. Contact them and see what they say!