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Helen Chesnut's Garden Notes: Native plants help support insects, wildlife

Adding native plants to the garden is a venture worth investigating as the active planting and growing season approaches

Dear Helen: In your final column of last year you dealt with the alarming decline in insect and bird populations. You mention including native plants in home gardens as one way to help support these populations. How do these plants help?

L.V.

A response from another reader to that column contained a detailed, interesting answer to your question. Mary, who gardens in Cobble Hill, wrote to tell me about a book she had read: Nature’s Best Hope, by Dr. Doug Tallamy.

The book proposes that a major cause of decline in insect and other wildlife populations is destruction of the native plants that have supported them in their regional ecosystems, which have evolved over the ages.

Tallamy urges home owners to turn their properties into “conservation corridors” of wildlife habitat by exploring values beyond just aesthetics to include the needs of the local ecology.

It’s a venture worth investigating as the active planting and growing season approaches. I value the native plants in my garden. Sword ferns dot the landscape with their indestructible sprays of arching stems. Lacy red huckleberry shrubs bear small coral berries for the birds.

Salal and Oregon grape form patches of ornamental, no-care ground cover. In spring, I look forward to the early blooming of red flowering currant and the glorious patches of western trillium in bloom.

Dear Helen: I had planned to order seeds for the Siderno patio tomato you’ve written about, from the William Dam Seeds catalogue. It is not listed in this year’s print catalogue, though I found in on their online catalogue. Why would there be different listings on the two formats?

J.C.

That is not unusual. Online listings are often more extensive than those in the print versions. The 2022 William Dam print catalogue lists two patio tomatoes, both varieties new to the catalogue: Little Bing, and Little Napoli. No Siderno.

The last time I looked at the online version, Siderno was listed with the patio tomatoes, but it was marked “Sold Out.” Little Napoli, a wonderful compact Roma tomato, was listed as still available but Little Bing and Tiny Tim, another dwarf tomato for container cultivation, were both marked as sold out.

The advantage in consulting online seed listings is the up to date information to be found there on what is still available. It’s only this year that I’ve begun to feel somewhat comfortable ordering seeds online, using a charge card with a low limit. It’s a convenient way to acquire wanted seeds as speedily as possible.

It is inevitable that more companies each year will go exclusively online. Lee Valley Tools, Stokes Seeds, and our own Salt Spring Seeds no longer produce print catalogues for customers. The current global shortage of paper is no doubt adding to the trend.

Dear Helen: Last year I laid landscape fabric around a newly installed greenhouse and covered the fabric with a “road base” aggregate. Small clumps of grass appeared in the aggregate — too many to pull by hand. Is there a safe herbicide I could use?

R.S.

The safest treatment would be an acetic acid herbicide sprayed onto the grasses. These herbicides are most effective used while the weeds are still young and on a dry, sunny day.

Care needs to be taken to direct the solution accurately onto just the weeds. It will burn and damage desirable plantings, and can burn skin and eyes. To prevent the spray from drifting, avoid applying it on days with any wind.

Another option would be to use 10 per cent (washing) vinegar, with 1 Tbsp dishwashing soap added to every gallon of the vinegar to help it spread and stick on the weeds.

Whether a sprayer or watering can is used, rinse it out thoroughly afterward, to eliminate any potentially plant-damaging residues.

VHS meeting. The Victoria Horticultural Society is hosting a Zoom meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 1, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The featured speaker will be Karl Gercens, conservatory manager at Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania. He is currently working on their display gardens, including a new Mediterranean-inspired landscape opening in 2024. He is also a noted garden photographer. His topic will address our sub-Mediterranean Victoria climate in his talk, Pushing the Limits! Plant selection and design inspired by gardens in Australia, New Zealand and the British Isles. Drop-in fee for non-members is $5.

To register, visit the Victoria Horticultural Society website.

hchesnut@bcsupernet.com