Thursday, December 24, 2009

Curb Appeal, Co-existence & The Wildlife Garden

When the Home Bug Garden first started, I was worried that the neighbours might think I was an eccentric bugger with an eyesore frontage. As grass disappeared and the uniform mulch gave way to increasingly irregular eruptions of ‘wildflowers’, unmanaged horticultural variants of former wildflowers, grow-where-they-wish shrubs, and fallen autumn leaves, any claim to conformity with community norms was quickly lost. Nonconformity is rarely valued in our culture and under the relentless barrage of a monolithic media we are increasingly given one view of what is true, what we should think, and what we should not. Nonconformity, even in science, is denigrated and demonized. Living in Alberta, of course, I do have 6-7 months of a kind of conformity every year – the blanketing snow.

In Queensland, not smiling and saying hello to someone on a neighbourhood street would be unusual. Perhaps it is the constant sunshine, but an easy if superficial friendliness is the norm. Canadians seem far less welcoming to strangers on the street. I think the weather here encourages one to mind their own business and get where they are going before they freeze or are hailed upon. Most of those hurrying past the Home Bug Garden don’t stop to smile and pass the day. Those that do, however, have been uniformly pleasant and positive about my ‘woodland’. Even a door-knocking politician claimed to ‘like what you’ve done with your yard’. Well, maybe this office-seeker was just relieved there wasn’t a slavering dog or an old car up on cinderblocks. Still, none of these passersby had to say anything at all about the yard, let alone say something nice about something that is far from finished.

Of course, when neighbours ask, I am careful to describe my gardening as ‘wildlife friendly’, not as ‘bug friendly’: birds, bees, and butterflies come readily to my lips, wasps, spiders, and maggots almost never. I know then that I am on safe ground, because Wikipedia has pages for ‘Wildlife Garden’ and ‘Butterfly Gardening’. Never a reliable source of facts, Wikipedia, in its own 1984-ish kind of way, is a good guide to what are acceptable dogmas, politically correct attitudes, and proper forms of self expression. And according to Wikipedia (this morning anyway): “When one wildlife gardens, one acts always in accordance with the idea of keeping plants that are native to the area preeminent in the garden.” Sounds like a reasonable formula, I mean ‘native plants = native insects = native birds etc.’, right?

So how does one tell that a plant is ‘native to the area’? Unfortunately, ‘native’ isn’t a scientific term, but a collection of cultural concepts. As an adjective, it comes to us from Old French via the Latin ‘nativus’ for ‘produced by birth, innate, natural’. Appropriate to the season, ‘native’ has the same root as ‘nativity’, but also less savory derivatives such as ‘nativism’ and when used as a noun in Latin referred to a ‘natural slave’ – one born into bondage. As well as a plant bound to an area by birth, a ‘native plant’ is often taken to mean one that lived in an area ‘before people’ or, in a racist way common among some ideologies in North America, ‘before white people’.

The part of Edmonton that I live in was developed after World War II from a mixture of farmland and wetland. The wetland probably existed before European colonization, so its plants would count as ‘native’ by one usage. A pond is a great addition to any wildlife garden, but who wants to live in a slough?

Possibly there was some aspen forest earlier. That would be better, but if I converted my yard into an aspen forest there’d be little sun, lots of mosquitoes, clogged water and sewage pipes (aspen is bad), no veggies, and not many flowers. I suppose the largest plant in my garden is a ‘native’ spruce, so perhaps I could argue that I meet the ‘preeminent’ criterion, but a spruce forest would be a dark and oppressive place to live. If we try to expand our concept of ‘native’ and treat all peoples as equal, then the Clovis culture (~11,500-13,000 years ago) left the earliest human artifacts anywhere near here. But back then glacial ice covered all and algae was the only likely ‘native plants’. No thank you, I don’t think that kind of garden would be at all good for wildlife.

Should wildlife gardening be fun or a chore? Does ‘native’ have to imply a slavish devotion to what once grew in an area? Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a page called ‘Native Plant’ and (at least this morning) starts out with a not unreasonable definition: “A Native plant is one that develops, occurs naturally, or has existed for many years in an area.” Since I usually cannot afford the most recent horticultural fads and have no interest in putting in plants that are not going to develop, I think that a functional Home Bug Garden can be built around this concept of ‘native’. Moreover, such a garden could become a refuge of diversity in the increasingly developed and depauperate blotch of an ever-expanding Edmonton. Could be fun too.

Even for someone who has no interest in insect conservation, gardening does not have to be incompatible with bugs. Perhaps the biggest barrier is in the vegetable garden, because it is unfortunately true that there are a lot of insects that are far more efficient at harvesting our crops than we are. Tomatoes, potatoes, beets, spinach, radishes, arugula, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, and the like host far too many pests and many are of little use to foraging bees and butterflies. If you let your mustards (arugula, radish, and others in one of those plant families with two-names: Brassicaceae or Cruciferae) bolt they provide bees with some solace. Solanaceae (tomato, potato, pepper, ground cherry, eggplant) are better. But beans and peas (Fabaceae-Leguminosae) are probably the best veggies for bees. The more acceptable insects and the not too entomophobic gardener, however, can share the wealth of culinary herbs without any worries. That will be the topic of the next post.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Winter Interest: Bye-bye Zone 3b?

The Home Bug Garden broke a record this morning: -40 C (aka -40 F) from at least 6:30 am until after 9 am. The previous record low, a smeary -39 C on our red alcohol thermometer, is burned into my memory, but alas, not recorded in my notes. My Garden Journal started on Canada Day (1 July) 2004, just in time for the 2 July flood. But regular recording of daily high and low winter temperatures didn’t start until 2006 – obsession with the weather takes a while to develop in a transplanted Queenslander used to constant warm, sunny days. So, this morning was the coldest in the HBG, but that’s a long shot from Edmonton’s coldest on record: -48.3 on 28 December 1938 (when Edmonton was a much smaller city) and matched at the International Airport on 26 January 1972 (just a few years after the airport opened).

When I checked the Environment Canada Weatheroffice website this morning, my clean, sharp -40 was perfectly bracketed by the -35 C at the City Centre Airport and the -45 C at the International Airport. Ten degrees Celsius seems like a startling difference for two airports so close together. The City Centre is a bit further north (53 34.2 vs 53 19.2 N), but ~50 m lower in elevation (671 vs 723 m). All else being equal, a site 50 m lower would be expected to average about 0.34 degrees warmer. The annual mean daily temperature of the City Centre (3.9 +/- 1.1), however, averages a full degree and a half Celsius higher than the International Airport (2.4 +/- 1.2).

This does seem strange for two weather stations only 30 km apart, and given the recent Climategate leak, perhaps a little paranoia is in order. The City Centre has been consistently claiming higher highs and higher lows than I can find on my thermometer (at almost the same elevation, 669 m, and only 15 km south). Could they be fudging the data to make things look warmer? I doubt it – as far as I can make out from the CRUtape Letters, all the value adding to the temperature data happens later, once the ‘scientists’ discover that the data does not agree with their models, and therefore, must be wrong.

Moreover, a simpler and well supported alternative answer is available – the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHI) - all the buildings and tarmac that absorb heat during the day and radiate it out at night and all the energy burned to keep the city going add up to a warmer local climate. So while the City Centre is usually warmer at night than my backyard, the backyard is often warmer than the International Airport. For morning lows, I’m often halfway in between – not surprising since the HBG is situated halfway in between the two airports and is in an area that is maybe half as urbanized as the City Centre. Daytime highs are more variable, but are more like the Airport than like downtown. UHI seems like a good explanation for these differences – and I would imagine that the International Airport is warmer than the rural areas around it.

My friend at Gardening Zone 3b near the City Centre seems to have an unfair share of UHI, but he displays the results beautifully on his blog, so I forgive him his 2-3 week advantage in spring bloom time and his later killing frosts (I’m a noble guy). I certainly don’t want my neighbourhood to get more urbanized, so I guess the HBG will just have to make do with the little UHI it has. The last couple of years, however, seem to be getting colder. That is a worry, as is the apparent correlation between sunspot activity and warmth (the Sun appears to be in a deep funk). If, as it seems, global warming was at best a delusion, then Zone 3 gardeners are going to miss it more than most people, except for Phil Jones and his mates, of course.