Just Offshore from Downtown Toronto, Verdant Islands with Personality to Spare

Ward Island is part of the Toronto Islands, just a few minutes ferry ride from downtown Toronto, Canada. That short ferry ride transports you between what feels like one world and another.

The ferry to Ward Island in downtown Toronto.

The ferry to Ward Island in downtown Toronto.

You leave the bustling hub of a city of 2.6 million people. You arrive in a place of small cottages and modest houses, no motor vehicles (the Toronto Islands are the largest urban area in North America without cars), and gardens lovingly tended and often creatively inspired.

View of downtown Toronto from the Ward Island dock.

View of downtown Toronto from the Ward Island dock. It was a hazy, cloudy day.

Actually, Ward Island is not an island. Rather it is the eastern-most chunk of Centre Island, the largest part of this tiny archipelago.

Judy and I got to see the Toronto Islands as part of the brilliantly organized 2015 Garden Bloggers Fling. Once the Flingers got off the ferry and had a group picture taken, we were given maps and a list of the gardens that were open to visitors.

The "streets" of Ward Island were tiny, maybe wide enough for four people to walk abreast.

The “streets” of Ward Island were tiny, maybe wide enough for four people to walk abreast.

After that, we were free to spend the afternoon wandering at will. This post will focus on Ward Island, and in the near future I’ll write something about Algonquin Island, which had a slightly different feel.

To be honest, I can’t remember enough to write about the individual gardens we saw on Ward Island, but I can write about the general impression they made on me.

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The overall feel was certainly informal, often with a Bohemian vibe. These Bridalwreath-type Spirea were popular, and obligingly at peak bloom at the time of our visit.

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Lots of originality could be found in materials and objects used for hardscape, containers, and garden art.

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Why shouldn’t a toilet be repurposed as a planter?

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I liked this cow-themed mailbox.

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We also saw some wonderful water features. I like this rough-cut stone.
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Watch out for the spider!

Alliums were abundant in the gardens we saw.

Alliums were abundant in many of the gardens we saw.

As for color, it seemed as if all the flowers of spring were blooming simultaneously in June rather than sequentially throughout the season.

Hellebores in June.

Hellebores in June.

Tulips, Alliums, and Irises, Lilacs and Hellebores – all could be seen blooming at once.

Another view of downtown Toronto, this one from an island garden. Note the tulips, al;ks blooming in June.

Another view of downtown Toronto, this one from an island garden. Note the tulips blooming with Iris and Cammasia in June.

Perhaps there were all rushing to catch up from the long winter, knowing there was no time to waste.

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After seeing a number of gardens, Judy and I walked to the bridge leading to nearby Algonquin Island. Our route was a boardwalk along the south side of the island, facing Lake Ontario.

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We passed empty beaches.

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We saw quite of a few of these signs during our ramblings. On the opposite end of Center Island there is a small airport servicing propeller planes. There is a push to extend the runways so that jets can also land, but it is running into determined opposition.

Today’s Toronto Islands community actually owes its existence to such civic protest. In the 1950s a plan was devised to empty the islands of people and turn it into a park. A few hundred residents resisted, and a lengthy struggle ensued that did not end until about ten years ago.

We made use of this bench to contemplate the big lake.

We made use of this bench to contemplate the big lake.

The final resolution is that while the land is publicly owned, the residents own their houses and hold a 99 year lease on the land they live on. Development is severely restricted: there is a school, a senior center, three cafes, and a children’s amusement park – but no stores. Supplies must be brought from the mainland. People visit from the mainland to enjoy the Islands, but only on foot.

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Eventually Judy and I came to the Algonquin Island bridge. The narrow channel between the islands was full of boats.

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And the bridge took only a minute or two to cross.

Next: Algonquin Island.

Pondside Gardens of Eden in Toronto

Three private homes in the Swansea neighborhood were the first gardens we saw in Toronto during the Garden Bloggers Fling. Swansea borders on the Humber River, Lake Superior (Correction: Lake Ontario – sheesh, for dumb), and High Park, one of Toronto’s largest and most popular parks.

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The first garden we saw made the biggest impression on me. Once I came round the back of the house, my eyes were drawn through the relatively narrow yard to a path entrance.

The water, the big old trees (some covered with ivy), the weeping willow, and the lush greenery made me think of a north woods Eden, a tranquil forest primeval.

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Where exactly the path leads cannot be seen, but the waters of Grenadier Pond lie in the middle distance (I thought it way too big to be a pond, but that’s a minor point).

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The path descends a steep slope towards the pond. The rough stonework provides a stimulating contrast to the abundant foliage.

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I admired how the steep and rocky slope was beautifully and cunningly planted, in patches and in little gems here and there. Love these Maidenhair Ferns (Adiantum pedatum).

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More ferns.

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These look like some kind of Hardy Geranium, but I’m not sure.

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Double Columbine growing with Irises, sadly not in bloom.

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I don’t usually like double Columbine (or double flowers generally), but in this case I could make an exception.

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As you descend, a Gazebo comes into view. Talk about an ideal place for your morning coffee. The only drawback being the steep slope, which some of us may not be alert enough to navigate early in the morning, especially when carrying a cup of hot liquid. An underground two-way escalator seems like the obvious solution.

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There was also a second garden incorporating the shore of Grenadier Pond. A patio provided a view of the water, another good location for morning coffee or other refreshments. Those are custom-made iron railings.

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Here too you can descend on a stone path to get closer to the water.

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There is an impressively large dry stone retaining wall.

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This garden also featured some interesting metal sculpture. I like how these accompany the Foxgloves growing in the wooden container.

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There was a third garden, this one not on the pond. Its main feature was a more formal boxwood garden. It was very nice, but I just don’t get excited about boxwood. Just a question of personal taste.

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There was, however, a very impressive hedge of white Rugosa roses along the street.

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And a huge Double-File Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum) in full flower.

I generally like to wait until the gardening season is over before I write posts about the Fling. However, there’s too much good stuff to hold back everything until then. Much more to come.

Naming My New Border … We Have A Winner!

Back in early May I launched a contest to name the new border I have planted in the parkway where a maple recently died, creating a new sunny spot. Well, I am pleased to announce that we have a winner … the Lamppost Border, submitted by Sunil of Sunil’s Garden.

The newly planted Lamppost Border, back on May 2.

The newly planted Lamppost Border, back on May 2.

Congratulations, Sunil! As promised, you will receive the thanks of a grateful nation. Details are still being worked out as to which nation exactly it will be, but early indications point to either Lichtenstein or Krgyzstan.

Honorable mention goes to Prairie Parkway, submitted by Jackie Totsch, and Stumpy (because there’s a stump), submitted by Jeff Park Mom. They will receive the thanks of a grateful township or municipality, to be selected in a reasonably timely manner. I should also mention that Karen Boutall got very close with Lamppost Garden.

So, why the Lamppost Border? Well, I like names that are distinct and easy to remember, and this is the only border planted around a lamppost.

The Parkway Border on June 20th.

The Parkway Border on June 20th.

As to the border itself, here’s how it was looking in mid-June. Almost all the plants  are settling in nicely. Though all the perennials were planted this spring, I have hopes that many will bloom their first year. In fact, the Blanket Flower ‘Arizona Sun’ (Gaillardia aristata) is already blooming.

Blanket Flower

Blanket Flower ‘Arizona Sun’

What, you say? Blanket Flower wasn’t on my original plant list? Well, they were left on my doorstep wrapped in a blanket (get it?) and what was I to do? I had to give them a home.

The one disappointment has been the Prairie Baby’s Breath (Euphorbia corollata). I waited a long time for it to emerge, and then suddenly – it was gone. The Demon Bunnies of Mordor are suspected.

‘Disco Red’ Marigolds (Tagetes patula) and ‘Profusion Fire’ Zinnias are filling in the space between the new perennials.

The stump makes a nice pedestal for a flowering container.

The stump makes a nice pedestal for a flowering container.

A flowering container deals with the stump issue, I feel, satisfactorily.

I have started to remove the strip of grass that ran down the middle of the border, following advice from Donna of Garden Walk, Garden Talk and Christina of My Hesperides Garden. I am, however, leaving a square of grass around the gas main cover and the strip along the street.

Another view

Another view

Now it so happens that I have come into possession of a couple of Little Bluestem ‘Carousel’ and ‘Jazz’ (Schizachyrium scoparium). (I really have to stop these strangers from leaving plants on my doorstep.) These I intend to plant in a little drift in the newly opened up space, because I really have no other place to put them. Will that look weird? I hope not.

Because this is a vignette of sorts, I am linking to the Wednesday Vignette meme at Flutter and Hum. Take a look, as this is a blog that always has something interesting to say.

Foliage and Fruits of June

Recently a friend told me I needed more color and variegation among the foliage in my garden. I admit that when I think about  plants, the foliage is often an afterthought. That’s one reason I like to participate in Garden Bloggers Foliage Day, sponsored monthly by Christine at My Hesperides Garden, which nudges me to go beyond the flowers.

Gray's Sedge

Gray’s Sedge

There is some interesting foliage in the garden this June, as well as the first fruits and seedheads of the season. Gray’s Sedge (Carex grayi) has very interesting seedheads, perfect for small boys to throw at each other.

Near the Gray’s Sedge is a patch of Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata’). We inherited this plant, which I know can be a nasty invasive.

Variegated Bishop's Weed, with Gray's Sedge in the background.

Variegated Bishop’s Weed, with Gray’s Sedge in the background.

However, in my garden it has been kept under control. I always pull all the flowers before they bloom, and the plant is limited to a small area. It is surrounded by natives that can more than hold their own – Great Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora) and Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis).

Having said that, I must risk outraging some by saying that in my view this plant is an attractive groundcover in shade, though I wouldn’t plant more or recommend that anyone else do so.

Our fountain surrounded by Cinnamon Ferns.

Our fountain surrounded by Cinnamon Ferns.

There are lots of ferns in the shady parts of our garden. A patch of Cinnamon Fern (Osmandustrum cinnamomeum) around our little fountain takes over after the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) die back.

Lady Ferns

Lady Ferns mix with Great Merrybells, Wild Ginger, and ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea. 

Lady Ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) are perhaps named for their rather demure behavior, at least compared to many other ferns. They grow along the west side of the house.

The remaining Ostrich Ferns in the foundation bed.

The remaining Ostrich Ferns in the foundation bed.

Majestic, beautiful and rambunctious rather than demure are the Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) in the front foundation bed. In fact I just dug out a small mountain of Ostrich Ferns to prevent a total takeover.

An alarmingly large hole is the result, as I trampled the Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) that grew among the ferns. There was no way to remove these ferns delicately. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Paeonia anomala

Paeonia anomala

The Peonies are done blooming, but their foliage is still looking good, particularly that of Paeonia anomala.

Berries of Starry Solomon's Plume.

Berries of Starry Solomon’s Plume.

I really love the berries of Starry Solomon’s Plume (Smilacina stellata) when they are at their striped stage (eventually they turn red).

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Red Elderberry

June is a time for other fruits as well: Serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora), Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginica), and Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). The Red Elderberry is supposed to be very popular with birds, but they seem to leave the fruit on my shrubs alone.



The big Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) in the Sidewalk Border did not bloom much this year, and the new foliage looks almost chartreuse. Nice, but a sign of decline?

For more intriguing foliage, visit My Hesperides Garden.

A Gardener Grew in Brooklyn


I originally posted this in June, 2012. This year Father’s Day and Judy’s birthday coincide, and the following day is our anniversary. With all this going on, it seemed like a good time to repost these thoughts on my father, gardening, and fatherhood.

Originally posted on gardeninacity:

I had a very nice Father’s Day. In the morning, Judy and I went to the Skokie Farmer’s Market for the first time this year. When we returned, we found our oldest son Daniel at our doorstep, bearing bagels. We sat on the porch through the late morning and into the afternoon, drinking coffee and eating bagels, talking about things serious and silly. During that time, our younger son David called from his apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, and we had an excellent talk.

I count myself very lucky to have such good kids. Thinking about them on this day makes me think about my own father. Our relationship did not always go smoothly, but of course he influenced what I became as a person through ways intentional and not. He was the one who started me on the path to becoming a gardener.

Dad and Daniel at the Museum of Natural History. This picture is from around 1995. Dad and Daniel at the Museum of…

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Use That Overripe Fruit to Attract Butterflies

Did you forget about that slice of watermelon sitting in the back of the fridge? You’ve been ignoring it because throwing away food makes you feel guilty, and you’re hoping that the refrigerator fairies will carry it away.

However, that dumpsterish odor is making this approach more and more difficult.

Mourning Cloak feeding on overripe orange.

Mourning Cloak feeding on overripe orange.

Good news! You can take your overripe fruit and put it to an environmentally beneficial use. That’s because many species of butterflies, including Monarchs, will feed on fruit that is past its prime.

We discovered this recently when we found butterflies feeding on oranges that had been left out for the Baltimore Orioles for a few too many days. Orioles do like oranges, but they prefer fresh.

The butterflies we saw were Mourning Cloaks and Commas. Neither are rare or among the more beautiful of the Lepidoptera, but nor are they often seen in our garden. These days I am pleased to see any butterfly.

Comma butterfly. It gets the name from the little white mark on the lower left part of the wing, which arguably look like a comma.

Comma butterfly. It gets the name from the little white mark on the lower left part of the wing, which arguably look like a comma.

The host plants for Comma caterpillars are all members of the elm and nettle families, according to Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA).

There are many Elm trees in the neighborhood, though they are mostly either Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) or hybrids – the American Elm (Ulmus americana) having become very rare. Apparently the non-native Elms can still serve as hosts for the Mourning Cloaks.

Hosts for the Comma include Willows, Cottonwoods, and Hackberries. There’s a huge Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) across the alley from us, a Western Hackberry (Celtis occidentalus)  in the front parkway, and a huge Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) across the street.

Commas are found only in North America, while the range of Mourning Cloaks extends into the temperate parts of Eurasia.

If you are stumped by a butterfly, moth, or caterpillar ID in North America, you can submit a snapshot to BAMONA and they will get back to you with a positive identification. You do need to set up a free account, but all the IDs go into a database that helps to monitor population trends. Is that a great resource or what?

In addition to oranges, butterflies are fond of apples, cantaloupe, and watermelon. The fruit needs to be sliced open so that there is easy access to the juices. For more information on attracting butterflies with fruit, click on this link.

Seen many butterflies in your garden so far this year?

The Four-Lined Plant Bugs of the Apocalypse

In a recent post I speculated about a possible fungal disease disfiguring some of my plants. Alert readers Brenda Coulter and Julia V correctly identified the problem as four-lined plant bug.

Four-lined plant bug

Four-lined plant bug


It’s odd how after they mentioned this bug, I started seeing it everywhere. This either says something about my limited powers of observation, or suddenly my four-lined plant bugs stopped using their invisibility cloaks.

Four-lined plant bugs have piercing mouth parts. They suck the chlorophyll out of the leaf cells, which sounds rather sinister. After that the cells turn brown or black and may fall from the leaf, leaving little holes. If there is enough damage the leaves may shrivel up.

Culver's Root damaged by four-lined plant bug.

Culver’s Root damaged by four-lined plant bug.

There is one good thing about four-lined plant bugs: they don’t stick around for very long. They hatch in May or June and mature over about six weeks. Then they feed for another month or so, mate, and die, leaving their eggs to overwinter. They have only one generation per year.

Healthy plants should recover from the vampire-like attentions of the four-lined plant bug. The damage is cosmetic, though it can look darn ugly.

In my garden it looks like these bugs have matured, so they should be around for another month or less. When they are gone I may cut back the damaged plants – primarily Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) and Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). It doesn’t make sense to me to cut the plants back while the bugs a still feeding.

How the four-lined plant bug looks to your garden plants.

How the four-lined plant bug looks to your garden plants.

My hope is that everything will recover by August 1, when our garden will be part of the Wild Ones garden tour. If not, I’ll survive.

I considered using an organic insecticidal soap, but decided against it. My understanding is the soap can kill non-target insects, including beneficial predators. My garden has been remarkably free of insect pests for some years, which I attribute to a diverse and balanced insect population. In order to maintain that balance, I will tolerate some cosmetic damage, even some delayed or lost flowering.

Do you ever use insecticidal soaps? If so, at what point do you think it is warranted?