Big City, Little Homestead

Living rural in the city.

Month: June 2013

“Nuisance” wildlife strategies in gardening

Last week, during Pollinator week, I attended a talk on the wild bees of Montreal. We have 350 species, and not all of them look like bees. Some are iridescent blue and green (and I saw some of them recently in a swarm around a flowering bush on the farm, at right).

But bees need forests and open green spaces to get around; they don’t like highways. Unfortunately people seem to need pavement like bees need green spaces (ha ha ha. Not really).

Populations respond to an abundance of food by increasing in number. We definitely want this for native pollinators, and it’s easy – plant native species. This was the take-home message from last week’s talk, so instead of looking to get a hive of honey bees on my property as I was thinking about, I am looking to increase the habitat and feeding options with native species. Honeybees outcompete native species for food, but the benefit of increased honeybees in the city is increased awareness of, and response to, their needs; if people accomodate honey bees, then they increase accommodation for native bees with food sources and by exposing earth that ground-dwellers can live in, wood for them to burrow into, and putting houses in the right places. Most bees like a sunny spot in the morning; that’s the one problem with my current Mason bee house as it doesn’t get sun until 11 o’clock or so.

On the flip side, the abundance of food and shelter attracting wildlife means that if you garden, you’ll have visitors. With some experience, you’ll know what animals and insects are pests, and what animals and insects are merely hazards of gardening. In some cases, you might want to welcome them, and so you should ask for advice from a local wildlife service that knows the area’s ecology (some advertise for removal; if that’s their income, ask your nearest university’s Biology department or other ecology organization).

People who don’t garden have different ideas of what a pest is: something that gets into your unsecured garbage, something that has a “bad reputation,” something that they haven’t seen before and isn’t necessarily cute… The most obvious recourse to people who aren’t used to sharing the outdoors with non-humans: Don’t leave garbage unsecured, and for the animals’ own security, don’t feed the wildlife – except with secure bird feeders.

For the gardener, we do have to protect our work and our harvests from being shredded and made off with. The Canadian Wildlife Federation (join their Bike for Wildlife campaign!) has a tip sheet on dealing with problem wildlife. Strategies begin with repellents and exclusion – such as fences, chicken wire coverings, netting, and companion planting with strong-smelling plants that herbivores don’t like such as chives, onion, garlic, lavender, rosemary, and marigolds (which are known for repelling insects). Do not use cayenne or hot pepper as a repellent. It can get into the animal’s eyes, causing it extreme pain, and it is vindictive and hardly instructive to do so. Coffee grounds are one recommended substitute. A high-tech repellent that works for cats and other animals is to install a motion-detector sprinkler.

In the city, we rarely have to consider rabbits and hares and we don’t have to consider deer getting into our gardens and eating our vegetables and shrubs. But if we did, or if we live on the riverside, we need to use trunk wrapping on trees, made of plastic or wire, to keep the deer or beavers from eating the bark or cutting down the tree. You can see this in various parks with watercourses in them.

The SPA de l’Estrie has a site in French what to do if you’re having problems with a small mammal – and explains why removing the animals don’t help the situation. Nature abhors a vacuum. If, on the other hand, you find a baby wild animal in your garden, you can start with the Sherwood Park Vet (Beaconsfield, QC) blog post about what to do with them.

I’ve also recently found out that repellents for moles are hyacinths, spurges (Euphorbia, one variety at right) and castor oil plants. Moles don’t like their odour, so they may not hang around. Alternatively, the following sound repellent might work: Stick an empty soda bottle in the ground near the mole nest, right side up. The sound of the whistling wind in the empty bottle will drive the animals away. Caution: don’t use a rodent-repellent sound emitter device outdoors. It could interfere with more animals than rodents, and eventually they will become desensitized to it.

You can also plant with thorny plants such as roses, which will attract bees and other pollinators, or hawthorns (not buckthorn, which is an invasive species that produces allelopathic chemicals in the soil to ward off other plants competing with it), which are native and will feed birds in the winter. But if you did have wild rabbits, low thorny shrubs can become welcome refuges from predators, just as evergreen trees are refuges for birds in winter. Just keep your vegetable plot fenced!

If there are birds that you want to repel, such as pigeons, starlings, and others (personally, I’m a fan of house sparrows, though only in parts where the native birds have gone away due to no place to live), you can read up on strategies at the Audubon FAQ website.

While one does not want a colony of fire ants anywhere where people are going to sit or dig in the garden, the only other ants that we need to be concerned about are carpenter ants, as they are destructive to structures and will eat wood from the inside out. As for the rest, the videos on YouTube and eHow of attracting ants with boric-sugar mixes just pisses me off: the ants they are killing are harmless and in fact can be beneficial! The biggest “danger” of sugar ants, who are ubiquitous this time of year, is that they are aphid farmers – so the aphids live off your plants, and the ants live off the nectar the aphids secrete.

If repelling ants is the goal, which I recommend in most cases, sprinkle cinnamon in the path where you don’t want them to go. It reportedly confuses their sense of direction. Keep your sugar sources in airtight containers. Don’t let them bother you, even if this doesn’t seem to be natural behaviour after being raised on cans of Raid. (You are now weaning yourself off.) And if you have other questions about insects, ask Étienne from AnimaNature.

As for insect pests, when you choose your vegetables for planting, read up at the same time what pests they tend to attract. For cucumbers, squash, zucchini, and melons, we do have to beware the many kinds of cucumber beetle. They can decimate your crop in less than a week, by transmitting bacteria that cause wilting disease. The best prevention for this: a daily inspection of your plants, with a handy dust-buster or hand-sized vacuum. Flip the leaves over and look for masses of eggs. Be as thorough as possible. A big country-sized garden (say, a 5 x 10 meter plot) takes about an hour a day to inspect during pest season. That’s one advantage our small city gardens have: we can do the tending and watering in a fraction of that time.

Birds in a grocery store parking lot

The Super C near me has a long row of cedars and then a traffic island with pines, honey locusts, and spirea bushes planted. As I was walking past, I saw and heard several unusual little birds, smaller than sparrows, with a striped breast and a quiet but constant song. Their flight was alarmingly quick. This video doesn’t give a clear picture of the three little birds on the ground, but their song and their foraging behavior ought to give their identity away to a better birder than me. 

Can you identify this bird? Answer in the Comments, please!

June 20th update: Though the comments tumbled their tumbleweed, we have two winning suggestions that concur: these birds were a family of Chipping sparrows. The young have striped breasts and they are all noisy and active in that kind of habitat. And today, when I walked through the parking lot again, I did not see them, but I did hear a chipping sparrow. One also visited my back yard this morning.

June gardening calendar, Pollinator Week, and a Mason bee house

Gardening PSA: If you are in the Montreal area and would like to know when and where to see garden shows and sales, to better know about the science and art of gardening and also its place in our local history, refer to the 2013 Gardening Calendar compiled by the Gazette.  And please do drop me a line when you know you are going to one of the functions; if it fits with one of my current activities, it would be motivating to meet up there.

We have had a very rainy June so far, after a brief and not-extreme warm spell in May. I prefer rain to heat at this time of year, but I am watching my plants, wondering “why is it only the perennials and native weeds that are lush?” So many of my plants have sprouted and stopped. They’re waiting for something, and I’d say it’s the sun right now. Still, with all the transplanting that’s gone on, the rain and cool have helped them take root rather than die, like they did last year.

Flying insects have not been abundant around here yet, with cooler weather and fewer flowers to choose from, though the blooms have been on time. In the interest of serving bees and having the bees serve us, I am celebrating bees because NEXT WEEK, June 17 – 23, is Pollinator Week! (I had to use all caps because I’m excited about it.) The Pollinator Partnership has tons of information about pollinators and things that we can do – such as provide them with habitat – to be as hospitable to them as possible.

What’s more, it’s not just about bees, as the website explains: “Birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles, and other small mammals that pollinate plants are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food.” Even rats, who I’ve blogged about here before and will soon again regarding nuisance wildlife, have demonstrated a role in pollination. (Click the title of that blog post to be taken to an article on The Globe & Mail.)

Bees that pollinate are honey, bumble, and many solitary types such as Mason (or orchard) bees. To learn more about bees, check out the videos on the Pollinator Partnership website, put together by Burt’s Bees, Wild for Bees, and Isabella Rosselini. Even more fascinating is the Ideas radio documentary “Dancing in the Dark” on the CBC website. If you want to learn a lot about bees’ variety, language, complexity and sheer sophistication in a short time, listen to this while doing other work. 

Because honey bees are suffering from a disease called “Colony Collapse Disorder” and there is no human intervention or cure for it yet, it is worrying. I’m a biologist by training, and so the basic tool I know of to do something that might help is throw numbers at it – and help by buying honey from local beekeepers, rather than at the grocery store. We need to drastically increase our beekeeping, even at temporary personal expense and expected loss, so as to increase the opportunity and occurrence of bees that are naturally more resistant to the disease to survive and go on to make queens and drones that help increase the surviving population.

I was pleased to receive an announcement on the francophone Urban Agriculture list about an event to attend on June 18th: “Nos abeilles sauvages en ville : une diversité insoupçonnée en lien avec l’aménagement urbain”“Our wild bees in the city: an unexpected diversity in relation to urban development.”

Two years ago, an apiary installed some hives downtown, and the Ville is not planning on regulating the practice.  And members of CRAPAUD, including Eric Duchemin who disseminates the Urban Agriculture list of events, will be in attendance at the wild bees discussion. They have hives of their own at UQAM. (A Google translation of that link can be read here.)

This past weekend, I created a Mason bee house. I first got the idea last year because of an interesting rant on the Montana Wildlife Gardener blog against honey bees (It’s interesting – here’s a link to all of his posts on the topic of bees.) Also, I received a comment about doing it, which spurred me to action. Now, my Mason bee house isn’t finished yet, as it needs a “roof” and it needs more holes (what can I say, except that my drill’s battery has a short life). But it is up there in the garden and I think there’s been a bit of insect interest in it. Here’s the process, in pictures:

A good-sized triangular log of wood

Drill bits! Choose 1/4″ or 5/16″ and at least 3″ long,
but don’t drill all the way through the wood. 

I drilled in rows that cross-hatched along the long sides
of the triangle. This is the first hole. 
Hung with a cup hook and a chain, with a notch on the triangle,
on the tall fencepost in my garden. Only half as many holes are
drilled on both sides as there will be when it’s done.

Urban soil and how we handle it, in perpetuity

A little over a month ago, I had an informal meeting Eric Duchemin, Associate Professor of Science and the Environment at UQAM, who has intelligently fostered entire classes of students working in urban agriculture for several years now. I participated in the École d’été sur agriculture urbaine in its second year, and learned (and forgot) some of what I know now – it was a challenge at times to keep up with the blistering pace of some French parole, and it can sometimes be more of a challenge to insert oneself into a conversation, but I did my best.

The meeting was prompted by a grad student giving a talk about the urban agricultural history of Montreal, and I took the opportunity to ask Eric some questions about remediating urban land and returning it back to primary use – forestry and agriculture.
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