Flower teacher

Jeffersonia dubia. Original plant purchased from Rundle Wood Gardens 8 years ago. All photographs B. Wanhill iPhone X, 2022.

Last week on bus duty, I came across three young girls stomping their feet up and down and loudly yelling something. I went over to see what was going on and they were trying to kill an ant.

I told them to stop and when they asked why, I told them ants were beneficial. When they asked what they did, I told them they had an important job in bringing air to the soil – but bus duty is busy and I left it there. I certainly did not have time to tell them the story of my garden ants.

Our garden is built on the less than ideal clay bed the suburban developers left behind after they harvested the top soil from their development. My husband and I spent a few years digging some of it out with a pick axe and when the dump truck showed up to haul the small yard sized mound away, he was impressed that it had all been dug out by hand.

Then came years of adding brick retaining walls, patio stones (and lots of sand) compost, zeolite, manure and seasons of fallen leaves and dead plant parts and now after 15 years, the garden is host to a diversity of plant life and other-than-plant life. It is my oasis from the realities of living within acres of suburban vinyl siding and lawn.

I don’t know if it is the sand that drew the ants or if they were always there, but for years I battled them. I first noticed their annoying presence when they would bury and kill small plants with the earth they dug up while doing their work underground. There were two areas of the garden that were particularly bad and yet it didn’t matter what I tried: ant killer, boiling water, borax – they always came back and continued (from my perspective) their destructive work.

At the same time, I was admiring a newly acquired spring ephemeral from a favourite independent local garden nursery. I had seen two sets of striking butterfly-like leaves when I was walking the Rundle Wood garden and Rodney told me it was Jeffersonia dubia. He dug it up, I paid $20 and brought it home to tend to my new, delicate and expensive(!) plant baby.

If you live in Calgary, you get to know that if you plant the right plants and give them the right conditions, they will be absolutely fine regardless of their fragile appearance. And that was the case with my beautiful Asian Twinleaf.

One spring I was surprised to see those unmistakable leaf forms showing up in miniature around other parts of the garden. When I told Rodney about it, he mentioned that this was the work of ants.

In the last two years, life circumstance, learning about Indigenous worldview and the importance of developing biodiversity where we can has helped me see ants from a more empathetic and even wondrous viewpoint.

I have now made peace with where they have formed colonies. The one most active is now sheltered by the hollow base of my grandmother’s birdbath. The other ones I know to leave spaces open for them. They are fascinating to watch and last summer I was surprised to learn that some people even keep ants as a hobby!

Ants have greater purpose than helping reproduce beautiful plants in my garden, but it was the story of the Twinleaf seeds that inspired me to look at their existence from a different perspective.

Stories of small get me every time.

A brief garden update, 2017

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Every garden year is different and this one was no exception. As our yard matures, some plants have settled in, new challenges have developed and I have shifted my focus from acquiring new specimens to editing and caring for plants that I have an affinity for. (But let’s be honest: I will always have difficulty passing up a good plant trade or garden centre bargain!)

Spring brought the welcome sight of botanical ephemerals. Hepaticas and the Jeffersonian dubia are favourites for their exotic and delicate appearance. Inside, I was surprised to see an orchid I had purchased on clearance years ago, finally bloom again.

In May, I started to see the rock garden perennials wake and the Oak fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris) is starting to spread. Sadly, I had no success with cultivating Mason bees that I had overwintered as cocoons. I did catch a photo of one below as it briefly visited some Dwarf Valerian.

I credit the mason bees for doing such great work pollinating the cherry trees this year. On both my potted ‘Nanking’ and ‘Carmine Jewel’ we had profuse blossoms which yielded large quantities of cherries.

Unfortunately, the beauty of our crabapples was marred by the discovery of Fire blight. I am carefully pruning away affected branches of our ‘Spring Snow Flowering’ crabapple and this was the first autumn where I had to dispose of the leaves which I would normally use for mulch. At least the distinctive leaf markings made for an interesting drawing study in pencil crayon.

Other lesser garden challenges included finding out a Martagon lily I planted two years ago was actually not an ‘Alba’ but some unknown magenta imposter as it finally bloomed this summer. The specimen Saxifraga  borisii  ‘Vincent van Gogh’ also spent most of the summer recovering from vole damage incurred last winter. (With the amount of snow we are currently having, I wonder if our lawn and perennials will be visited again by those marauding beasts!) And unexpectedly, a ‘Morden Blush’ rose which I thought I had dug up and given to a friend is back in full glory after I let a wayward piece of root have its way. This proves to me that roses need not be temperamental!

The last challenge which is a continual one every winter in Calgary is a long standing Chinook that led to 14ºC temperatures in December followed by the current -27ºC we are enduring. I took this photo of the seed heads of Clematis koreana ‘Brunette’ while watering the evergreens on December 10.

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It has been a whirlwind trying to summarize my creative pursuits in three blog posts in 2 days. Now that I have reformatted this space, I hope to visit it more often in 2018 in this less formal way. Best wishes.

(All photos taken with iPhone 5 or iPhone 6s.)

Baker’s dozen of flora

In 2016 I took a lot of photographs… on my phone. Here are 12 photos from my garden and one from a local park we discovered this year. All photos taken with an iPhone 5 using ProCamera app and Photoshop Express.

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Winter aconite emerged early. March 5, 2016.

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Narcissus ‘Thalia’ – new to the garden. April 17, 2016.

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Remarkably, Townsendia parryi survived the hail storm of June 30, 2016.

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We had a lot of rain. Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ gift from my Mom. July 2016.

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Early spring and lots of moisture brought a bounty of ‘Carmine Jewel’ cherries. July 2016.

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And ‘Dragon Tongue’ beans. Grown in containers which saved them from slugs. July 2016.

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An Oak fern was planted to remember family in Terrace, BC. July 30, 2016.

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Also from Rundlewood garden, a 2nd year Veronicastrum shot up like fireworks. August 21, 2016.

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A new calendula also bloomed in our garden. Thanks to seed shared from my Mom. August 2016.

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The beauty of this annual was its state before unfurling. August 2016.

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Despite frequent hail and rain, our small garden flourished. August 2016.

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Alpine Rock Jasmine was the inspiration for Christmas cards. School boy was inspired by Christopher Boffoli. October 22, 2016.

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There is nothing like nature to truly inspire. Ralph Klein park. July 31, 2016.