Along Loon Lake Road – Preparing the garden for winter

Barbara Hendricks' monthly column of community news and events in Loon Lake.

How do you tell a hummingbird it is time to fly away for the winter?

I understand why they are reluctant to leave us but there is winter on its way and small hummingbirds just can’t handle our winters. Is it possible that their late departure is a signal that winter will be a warmer one? I don’t think so and the Farmer’s Almanac predicts a colder winter than normal for BC. The Almanac is also predicting that there will be less rain ands snow than usual, with the cold arriving in mid-November (which is quite usual).

Every year and every season brings some changes and differences from previous seasons. This year the alder was attacked by a bug which ate off all the leaves by early summer and just in the last month or so they have produced a new set of green leaves that remain on the bushes while everything else has lost its leaves. I do hope that these leaves allow the shrubs to store up enough food to continue to live and produce leaves again next spring. Alder is an important food source for a number of butterfly larvae and also for other wildlife.

The October family festivities are over with pumpkins featured at both Thanksgiving and Hallowe’en. Those bright orange globes sure are decorative and some kinds taste good in pies, although squash also makes a good tasting pie. I find it interesting that in the Danish language as well as several other European languages, a zucchini is called squash while all the winter keeping varieties are classed in one group; their language makes no distinction between a pumpkin and a squash as we do in North American English. These plants are of American origin and I wonder how the indigenous people who first cultivated these plants named them.

This has been a busy month with chores to get ready for winter. The last of the food is more or less harvested and the garden beds mulched for the winter. The last green tomatoes are ripening in a bowl.

I am made very much aware however that I am not the busiest or most industrious creature in the garden. Squirrels just don’t seem to have a “rest” setting at this time of the year. I watched one climb up a post into the bird feeder and take a sunflower seed. Then it would go down the pole, run some 30 meters or so, bury the seeds and then run back to the feeder again. This work continued for quite sometime until he was scared away. Similarly they are always busy carrying fir cones every which way and burying them or piling them up and covering them with grass and twigs.

Another very busy creature is the bushy-tailed woodrat. They are nocturnal so all I get to see is the mess they have made in the pot shed. That messy pile of sticks, cones, plastic plant pots and whatever else they can pull around is called a “midden”. I am amazed at the size and weight of things they can move over into their piles.

While these animals are interesting to observe, they are not a welcome resident in a shed or storage area. They do not hibernate but do compile a store of food for the winter months. Fortunately they are solitary creatures so it is usually only one that has to be dealt with in the shed.

I have noticed how they cut the greens they collect all in about the same lengths and arrange them with the stems all neatly parallel to each other. Now if they could also be so neat with other things.

There have been several articles on microbes in our food lately that have caught my attention. Some research is suggesting that the microbes in our digestive system are a very important factor in our overall health and that use of antibiotics has disrupted and reduced these normal healthy and varied populations of microbes, leading to obesity in some people.

This has turned my attention to the microbes in the soil. Not only do microbes do a major job of fixing nitrogen in the soil to provide food for plants, they also perform other beneficial functions for plants, helping them by making nutrients available, helping them resist drought and better endure extreme fluctuations of temperatures such as we have at Loon Lake in June.

Researchers also suggest that microbes in the soil contribute to the better flavour of fruits and vegetables that are grown in certain soils. They cite strawberries as a good example of a food crop that takes on a better flavour when grown in soils with a healthy microbe population. All these factors are good reasons for taking good care of the soil and to nurture the microbial life of the soil.

While researchers understand only a tiny fraction of the role of microbes and I understand much less, I am convinced of the importance of mulching the soil  all year round to enable a healthy population of microbes to develop and to avoid too frequent tilling and cultivating that breaks up the operations of these microbes.

Less cultivation may challenge the traditional way of gardening but if it works better why work so hard? I have a great respect for traditions, especially in the garden, but sometimes we can also learn new ways of doing things that are better.

Barbara Hendricks