Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Grow Wild: Favourite native grasses and plants for the Prairie garden

In her book Grow Wild, Lorraine Johnson tackles three main garden zones in Canada and the United States. Prairie gardens take up the second chapter and offer an insightful and informative look at this popular garden style that turns its focus

on tough plants and hardy grasses.

Grow Wild is an excellent introduction to native plant gardening both in Canada and the Northern United States.

Ornamental grasses and hardy plants are focus of Prairie gardens

Many native plants we consider stalwarts in our gardens, such as coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and many ornamental grasses, actually have their roots in the Prairies.

Garden author Lorraine Johnson is a pioneer in the use of native plants in the garden.

These are tough plants – from the grasses of the lowlands to the flowers and plants that once filled wide open stretches of land as far as the eye can see,

Many are willing spreaders and are happy to find their own homes when given the chance. In fact, many of these native grasses, flowers and shrubs are just as at home in their prairie gardens as they are in our landscapes.

It helps, however, to gain an understanding of the roots of these plants and why we should consider incorporating at least some of them into our gardens.

In her book, Grow Wild, author Lorraine Johnson turns her focus on prairie gardens. Over the course of 42 pages in her book, Johnson weaves valuable information about the plants, growing conditions and unique characteristics of the growing zones with personal stories of gardeners and their native prairie gardens.

• If you are interested in more on Lorraine Johnson and her books on native plants, be sure to check out my earlier post here.

For prairie gardeners the information is priceless. Lorraine shares with readers her favourite clay-busting plants, winning combinations of prairie plants, favourite fall-blooming prairie plants as well as best native plants to use in moist areas.

For more Ferns & Feathers posts on prairie plants and meadow gardens please take a moment to check out the following articles:

Little Bluestem is a big winner

Serviceberry is perfect addition to landscape

The Making of a meadow garden

A little love for the black eyed Susan

And, since the Prairies are best known for the vast grasslands, here are a few favourite grasses from the book Grow Wild

Some favourite short to medium-height Prairie grasses

  • Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) a graceful fountain-like grass that reaches a comfortable 1-2 feet (30-60 cm) and is useful as an edging plant. Its fine, green leaves turn bronze in fall. It blooms in late summer with lovely-smelling seed heads. Grows in moist to dry soil, clay to sand with good drainage.

  • Sideout grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) oatlike seed heads and drupe and flutter. Grows to 1-3 feet in average dry soil.

  • Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) this drought-tolerant grass grows 1-2 feet in average to dry soil.

  • Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloids) grayish green low-growing grass 6 inches/15 cm makes a good alternative to non-native turf grass.

    Some favourite Tall Prairie grasses

  • Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) considered the signature plant of the tallgrass and mixed-grass prairie. Grows to 6- to 10 feet (2-3 m). Bluish-green in summer, turns a reddish-purple in fall. Sun to part shade; wet to dry soil in clay to sandy soil.

  • Little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius) a great alternative to Big bluestem for smaller gardens. Grows 2-3 feet 60-90 cm with attractive, fluffy, silverish seedheads. Leaves turn reddish bronze in fall. Tolerates shade and prefers sandy, well-drained average to dry soil.

  • Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) grows 3 to 6 feet (1-2 m) tallgrass prairie species features gracefu leaves that with airy clusters of flowers and seeds in late summer. Can be aggressive. Moist to dry soil.

Our front garden incorporates some prairie planting with Little Bluestem grasses on the right and a large drift of black eyed Susans combined with other grasses along a dry river bed.

A Naperville, Illinois prairie garden

The story of Pat Armstrong and her Naperville, Illinois prairie garden tells a tale about a gardener dedicated to her prairie roots – from the prairie grass profiles imprinted into the cement at the front walkway, to the myriad of native plants that fill her 1/3 acre of tallgrass prairie garden in Illinois.

She speaks about the wildlife the garden has attracted – from the Cooper’s hawk that hunts on the property, to the box turtles, fox snakes, toads, salamanders, opussums, cottontails and 16 species of birds that nest on the property.

The wildlife is all attributed to the habitat created by the native plantings.

Armstrong explains: “From a piece of property that harbored only one native plant when she bought it, there are now more than 140 species of prairie plants, 60 different woodland denizens, 20 species of trees, 20 species of trees, and 20 different native grasses and sedges.”

In this chapter of Grow Wild, Johnson explores five more Prairie gardens including a Chicago-based garden that is filled with bergamot, black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed, Canada goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, ox-eye, purple coneflower and woodland sunflower, just to name a few.

Some favourite spring bloomers

  • Pasqueflower (Anemone patens) White and purple flowers bloom in early spring beofre the fernlike leaves appear. Hairy stems with feathery plumes for seeeds. 6 to 12 inches in good draining soil.

  • Shooting star (Dodecatheoin meadia) can be a stunning display in the wild prairies where there pink to purple star-like flowers carpet the moist earth. Grows 1 to 2 feet (30-60 cm in sun to part shade in wet to dry soil.

  • Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium augustifolium) grasslike leaves with deep blue star flowers with yellow centres. Grows to about 1 foot (30 cm) in sunny average to dry soil.

Three categories of Prairies

Johnson explains that there are three broad categories of Prairie: tallgrass prairie, mixed grass prairie, and shortgrass prairie. These categories cover a wide area of Canada and the United States. The tallgrass prairie in the more easterly region and even stretching into parts of southern Ontario, is mostly predominant in Manitoba stretching down to the mid-western states down through the Gulf of Mexico.

Mixed grass prairies dominate in the drier areas from Saskatchewan and the Western regions of the Dakotas to central Texas.

Shortgrass prairies dominate East of the Rockies from southeastern Saskatchewan and Alberta into Texas.

The serviceberry or Saskatoon berry shrub or small tree (in flower above) is a beautiful addition to any landscape with its spring flowers followed by a profusion of berries for birds and other wildlife.

Shrubs for the prairie gardener

  • Saskatoon (Amelanchier ainifolia)

  • False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa)

  • New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)

  • Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)

  • American hazelnut (Corylus american)

    About the author: Lorraine Johnson’s other books to consider

Lorraine Johnson is a highly respected garden author with extensive expertise in the field. Her knowledge and experience in sustainable gardening practices, with a particular focus on native plants and their benefits, make her a trusted source for all things related to plants and gardening techniques. Through her books and advocacy work, she has played a crucial role in raising awareness about the importance of incorporating native plants into gardens.

Her newest book, A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators is a must read for native plant gardeners.

One of Lorraine’s key areas of expertise is in creating gardens that are not only beautiful but also environmentally friendly. She emphasizes the importance of using native plants in garden design, as they are well adapted to the local climate and require less maintenance. Her expertise in this area has made her a leading advocate for the use of native plants in landscaping.

Lorraine’s passion for gardening and expertise in the field is evident in the numerous books she has written on the subject. Her books cover a wide range of topics, providing valuable insights and practical advice for gardeners of all levels of experience.

• One of Lorraine's notable works is 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens.” This book highlights the beauty and benefits of using native plants in Canadian gardens. Lorraine explores the unique characteristics of each plant, including their adaptability to local climates and their ability to attract pollinators. This book serves as a comprehensive guide for gardeners looking to incorporate native plants into their landscapes.

•Another popular book by Lorraine is The New Ontario Naturalized Garden. In this book, she delves into the concept of naturalized gardening and its benefits for both the environment and gardeners. Lorraine provides practical tips on creating a naturalized garden, including plant selection, maintenance, and design principles. This book is a valuable resource for those interested in creating sustainable and wildlife-friendly gardens.

• Lorraine has also written City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, which explores the growing trend of urban agriculture. In this book, she shares stories and experiences from urban farmers across Canada, showcasing the innovative ways they are growing food in cities. Lorraine’s book inspires readers to embrace urban farming and provides practical advice for starting their own urban food gardens.

In conclusion: Perfect introduction to native plant gardening

Grow Wild is a pioneering work in the world of native plant gardening. Although many books have been written since Johnson published Grow Wild, the book remains a perfect introduction into the world of native plant gardening. When it was first published back in 20??? it was likely the first introduction to native plants for many gardeners. It remains an important source of knowledge for those of us craving for whatever knowledge we can get from experts willing to share their wealth of knowledge.

Author Profile: Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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Lorraine Johnson’s Grow Wild!: An early pioneer for using natives in the garden

Lorraine Johnson’s book Grow Wild was an early inspiration for me to explore native plant gardening.


Author Lorraine Johnson is one of the pioneers in extolling the importance and beauty of using native plants in our gardens. Her book Grow Wild continues to be an important influence on gardeners more than 14 years after it was published. Her latest book, A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee, continues her long line of outstanding garden books.


Book plants the seed for native plant gardening

About 14 years ago I discovered Grow Wild! Native Plant Gardening in Canada and it changed my life. It was the first time since I started down this road to woodland and natural gardening that I realized I was not alone.

Up until then, I had an underlying appreciation for simple native plants from wandering the nearby woods as a nature photographer. However, it took author Lorraine Johnson’s 150-page, soft-cover book to make me realize other gardeners shared many of the same ideas I had, and that it was entirely possible to create a beautiful garden with native plants and create a place where wildlife could call home.

Johnson is a highly respected garden author with extensive expertise in the field. Her knowledge and experience in sustainable gardening practices, with a particular focus on native plants and their benefits, make her a trusted source for all things related to plants and gardening techniques.

Lorraine’s most recent book is a must read for native plant gardeners.

Her extensive knowledge and passion for native plants have made her a leading figure in the field. Through her books and advocacy work, she has played a crucial role in raising awareness about the importance of incorporating native plants into gardens.

Her newest book, A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators is a must read for native plant gardeners. Her painstaking research for the book is evident as she works to connect insect species that specialize with individual plant species.

One of Lorraine’s key areas of expertise is in creating gardens that are not only beautiful but also environmentally friendly. She emphasizes the importance of using native plants in garden design, as they are well adapted to the local climate and require less maintenance. Her expertise in this area has made her a leading advocate for the use of native plants in landscaping.

In addition to her focus on native plants, Lorraine is also a proponent of organic gardening methods. She promotes the use of natural fertilizers and pest control methods, avoiding the use of chemicals that can harm the environment and human health.

Lorraine actively promotes the use of native plants through her speaking engagements and workshops, where she educates gardeners about the unique characteristics and benefits of native plants, such as their ability to attract pollinators and support local wildlife.

Her work has not only transformed the way we approach gardening but also contributed to the conservation of native plant species and the preservation of biodiversity. Through her advocacy and expertise, Lorraine continues to inspire gardeners to embrace the beauty and benefits of native plants in their own gardens.


Lorraine Johnson’s book Grow Wild opened my eyes to the possibilities of using native plants to create a garden that is both beautiful and beneficial for local wildlife.


Grow Wild is the perfect introduction to native plant gardening

Lorraine’s book, Grow Wild! Native Plant Gardening in Canada, was first published in 2008. Back then, information on native plant gardening certainly wasn’t as easy to come by as it is today. The book, though it focused on Canadian gardens, played a big role in revolutionizing the gardening industry by introducing a fresh perspective on native plant gardening. Since then, native plant gardening has become more popular – some might say even trendy with younger progressive thinkers.

Her extensive research and expertise in Canadian flora are evident throughout the book, making it an invaluable resource for Canadian gardeners.

But American-based native gardeners can benefit from her writings just as much as their Canadian counterparts.

The book’s chapters, covering the Pacific Northwest, the Prairies and the Northeast could just as easily be written about similar agricultural zones in the United States from Seattle Washington to New York City. Gardens and gardening zones have never recognized political boundaries and certainly what is native to Southern Ontario, Canada is also native to states in the Northeastern United States. The same can be said for the other gardening zones from the Prairies to the Pacific Northwest.

The book covers a wide range of topics, including plant selection, garden design, and maintenance techniques. Johnston’s practical advice and step-by-step instructions empower gardeners to create beautiful and sustainable landscapes using native plants.

Grow Wild also includes stunning photographs that showcase the beauty and diversity of native plants. These visuals not only inspire readers but also help them identify different species and envision how they can incorporate them into their own gardens.

Since its initial publication, Grow Wild has become a must-read. Its comprehensive and accessible approach has made it a go-to resource for both beginners and experienced gardeners alike. Whether you’re looking to attract pollinators, conserve water, or create a unique and vibrant garden, Grow Wild provides the knowledge and inspiration needed to succeed.

From towering woodlands to sunny meadows, Lorraine Johnson’s book Grow Wild has been an inspiration to natural gardeners across North America.

What other gardening books has Lorraine Johnson written?

Lorraine’s passion for gardening and expertise in the field is evident in the numerous books she has written on the subject. Her books cover a wide range of topics, providing valuable insights and practical advice for gardeners of all levels of experience.

• One of Lorraine's notable works is 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens.” This book highlights the beauty and benefits of using native plants in Canadian gardens. Lorraine explores the unique characteristics of each plant, including their adaptability to local climates and their ability to attract pollinators. This book serves as a comprehensive guide for gardeners looking to incorporate native plants into their landscapes.

•Another popular book by Lorraine is The New Ontario Naturalized Garden. In this book, she delves into the concept of naturalized gardening and its benefits for both the environment and gardeners. Lorraine provides practical tips on creating a naturalized garden, including plant selection, maintenance, and design principles. This book is a valuable resource for those interested in creating sustainable and wildlife-friendly gardens.

• Lorraine has also written City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, which explores the growing trend of urban agriculture. In this book, she shares stories and experiences from urban farmers across Canada, showcasing the innovative ways they are growing food in cities. Lorraine’s book inspires readers to embrace urban farming and provides practical advice for starting their own urban food gardens.

Lorraine’s work is groundbreaking because it addresses emerging trends in gardening, such as urban agriculture. Her book, City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, highlights the innovative ways in which urban farmers are growing food in cities. By showcasing these practices, Lorraine inspires readers to reimagine the possibilities of gardening in urban environments and encourages them to take part in the urban farming movement.

This is the first of three posts on Ferns & Feathers that will be exploring the various chapters in Lorraine’s book. Other posts will focus on building a Prairie garden, as well as a garden in the Northeast.

Grow Wild: The Northwest: From Lush Coastal Forests to Dry Grasslands

I have always admired the gardens of the Pacific Northwest. From Seattle Washington to Canada’s Vancouver Island, the area is rich with wonderful gardens let alone natural beauty ranging from coastal rainforests to Garry Oak meadows and mountain wildflowers.

In Grow Wild, Johnson explores the enormous possibilities in this growing region while admitting, like me, a certain envy toward those who are blessed to live in such a naturally beautiful and fruitful area.

For more on naturalized gardens in the Pacific Northwest including garden plans for a front garden, check out my earlier post here.

Lorraine writes: “And its not just a coastal phenomenon. In community after community in the Northwest, I was introduced to people and projects that warmed the heart (and fueled my envy): kids in Victoria, British Columbia, planting Garry oak meadow species in their schoolyard, learning all about the botanical and cultural history of their region, proudly nurturing their young gardens so that in 20 years, the next generation of pupils could spend recess in floral splendor…”

Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest is a must for gardeners living in this beautiful area.

Always a stickler for native plants, Johnson includes a section for gardeners to properly identify Northwest Native plants citing a number of excellent resource material including Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist’s Flora of the Pacific Northwest from Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973).

I can add the excellent Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur R. Kruckeberg and Linda Chalker-Scott from Greystone publishers. For my full report on this outstanding book, check out my earlier post here.

In her book Grow Wild, Johnson takes the time to list the trees for the Northwestern Gardener beginning with the Grand fir (Abies grandis) that she describes as a graceful giant that is often found growing in association with Douglas fir. Included in her short descriptions are the sun soil and water requirements.

She includes the Bigleaf maple (Acer Macrophyllum) with its leaves that can spread out to 12 inches (30 cm) across. Other trees include Arbutus, Oregon Ash, Pacific crab apple, Bitter cherry, Western red cedar and Western Hemlock.

Johnson then goes on to list Woodland Shrubs for the Northwestern Gardener including: Vine maples ( Acer circinatum), Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), Salal (Gaultheria shallon), Tall Oregon grape ( Mahonia aquifolium), Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) as well as Pacific rhodendron (Rhododendron macrophyllium), just to name a few.

One of the truly enjoyable aspects of Growing Wild is how Johnson disperses important plant listings with examples of outstanding local gardens to illustrate many of the plants flourishing in a real-life setting. In the Northwest section she explores a lovely 42-by-35-foot Vancouver garden described as a “Tiny Urban Forest.”

The garden’s rebirth after major house renovations is traced from the first plantings of native vine maples to cedars and a small waterfalls to mask the sounds of the neighbourhood. Photographs show the finished garden and its successful transformation from a pile of “scrubby fill” to a magnificent little hideaway in the middle of the city.

Other gardens featured from the Pacific Northwest include Bob Wiltermood’s “Wetland Wonder” garden in Port Orchard, Washington. It’s a fascinating study of how to take a wet area of the garden and by adding a raised boardwalk be able to experience nature at its finest – from the local turtle to otters, beavers and 38 species of nesting birds.

Johnson dedicates more than 35 pages to gardens in the Northwest covering everything from Woodland wildflowers, to woodland ferns, best shrubs and wildflowers for wetlands, sun-loving shrubs and wildflowers, drought-tolerant natives and best natives to use in rock gardens.

She wraps up the chapter with a story about a Victoria, British Columbia garden that is helping to highlight the beauty and importance of the endangered Garry oak meadows in the area. This final section provides valuable information on native grasses, shrubs and plants gardeners need to plant if they hope to restore their own Garry oak meadows.

For more information on Garry Oak meadow restoration, be sure to check out my earlier post on a Vancouver Island couple doing outstanding work to restore swaths of land and educate others on the importance of the Garry oak meadows.

Author Profile: Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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Garden Assistants: Don’t be afraid to hire some help

Creating a backyard escape has never been more important than it is today. Hiring unemployed students or part-time gardeners could be incredibly rewarding both for homeowners as well as students and small business people who learn new skills and appreciation for the importance of gardens.

Hiring garden helpers: best decision I could make

Sometimes a gift comes knocking and other times we have to go looking for it. When it comes to garden help, I’ve had it both ways. And, both times, hiring individuals to help with the garden has been one of the best decisions I’ve made.

I’m NOT talking about a landscape company to come and cut the grass, blow leaves, prune trees to within and inch of their lives and generally cause a bigger commotion than is necessary.

Our dogwood in full fall colours stands out in the woodland garden and adds a little pop to the landscape.

I am talking about two types of garden help: First a young man with little garden knowledge but a strong back and a good work ethic; and two, a young very knowledgeable woman who makes gardening her full time work.

Consider hiring a student to help fulfill your vision

My first foray into hiring help for the garden came just as Covid began to kick in. As stores and restaurants closed, jobs became quite scarce for young people. Finding work was difficult to say the least.

It was about that time that I got a text message from a young man – home from university – and looking for work. I had hired him the year prior for some garden work so I knew the type of young man and worker he was.

And, so the gift that came as a message on my phone: “Hi Vic… If there is any outdoor work that you would like to get done this summer I would be very happy to come and help out. If you are not comfortable with it, I completely understand, though I could come with my own gloves, water etc and stay outside to ensure proper distancing. Let me know what you think, no rush.”

Weeping Japanese maple and grasses

Keeping everything tidy in the Japanese-inspired garden is just one of the benefits of having a little help around the garden.

It was a gift from heaven. I had ideas and together with his young, brute strength we managed to transform the back garden that year.

His timing could not have been better.

Like most of us, our backyard garden became our refuge during the most difficult days of the pandemic. It’s always been a place my wife and I retreat to when we need some peace from the world, but it has never been more important than it was then.

(For more on gardening on a budget check out my in-depth here.

Our garden was looking a little shabby. The projects were piling up in my mind as fast as my right hip was disintegrating and making the simplest of these projects an extremely painful exercise.

And along comes the answer to our problems in the form of a young man looking for summer work to help pay for his university.

This image shows some of the work our student finished be removing most of the grass and covering the ground with mulch and stepping stones.

Sometimes you just need a little muscle

I am sure we are not alone. Those of us lucky enough to have homes and gardens to retreat to, who are still employed or living comfortably in retirement, owe it to our youth to help them get through difficult times.

I had a garden vision, I just needed someone to make it happen and hiring a student in this case was much less expensive than hiring a landscaping firm.

Just two weeks later and our backyard was transformed by this young man.

Bringing the garden vision to life

Nine yards of natural cedar mulch plus an additional 15-20 bags have replaced huge swaths of grass and over-run gardens that are now perfectly edged.

Trees have a new home, hostas and grasses split into multiple plants and moved to new locations around the garden.

A massive woodpile was created to provide a home for chipmunks, birds, snakes, salamanders and a host of insects.

Patio stones lifted and straightened after years of slowly sinking into the ground and making the patio look shabbier than it was. Stone edges were added to the patio. Old composters and BBQs disposed of and, in some cases, replaced after laying new patio stones.

Stepping stones placed strategically around the garden to help bring it all together.

When the work was completed, I could tell he was almost as pleased with the results as I was. There was a lot for him to be proud of here.

Walkway into the woodland garden

By working with a garden helper, those little things are easier to take car of and the garden can look its best for a longer period over the summer and fall.

Together, an old retired guy with a bad hip and a young man with a quiet disposition and a fierce work habit, got together to create something extremely important – a garden.

My vision, his muscle all came together in just a few weeks of work.

And I barely lifted a finger.

Truly a gift my wife and I will enjoy for years to come, and, who knows, maybe our Woodland garden inspired a young man to take a real interest in the environment, gardening and one day creating his own Woodland retreat some time in the future.

A young woman with expertise and a vision

Fast forward to this year and that hip I mentioned earlier was only getting worse. Garden work was not an option. Heck, walking from one end of the garden to the other proved too difficult some days.

That’s when My Garden Helper, Michelle, came into the picture. Michelle operates her own gardening business aimed at helping seniors stay in their homes longer by taking care of all the garden work that gets more and more difficult as age and old bones take over.

This was the year I needed someone like Michelle more than ever. After years of having to do all the work ourselves, my wife and I were able to find someone to make life just a little easier.

From her first visit, I knew we were going to make a great team. It wasn’t just her eagerness, but when we toured the garden and I explained my non-traditional approach to gardening, I could tell she got me and my vision of a garden for wildlife rather than a pretty picture of plants lined up in a row.

Not only did I see that she got my vision, but I knew quickly that I could benefit from her garden vision and experience.

From the back half of summer, through to fall, Michelle would drop by for about four hours every second week to help out. She split and moved plants, cleaned up a couple of wilder areas, planted bags and bags of bulbs that I can’t wait to see emerge this spring and helped with a little fall cleanup.

She’ll be back in spring to begin on some of our new projects and together we’ll create a garden to dream of.

If you have been putting off hiring some help, now is the perfect time to line up your Garden Helper for next season.

Gardening on a budget links

DIY moss garden

Proven Winners Idea Book

Ten money-saving tips for the weekend gardener

Window boxes on a budget

DIY Bark Butter feeder for Woodpeckers

DIY reflection pond for photography

Click & Grow is ideal for Native Plants from seed

Nature’s DIY garden art

DIY solar drip for bird bath

Remove your turf and save money

DIY succulent planter

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Gardening Vic MacBournie Gardening Vic MacBournie

Mulch: Organic vs Non-organic

The decision to use an organic vs a non-organic mulch is not always obvious. Here are some tips on when and how I use mulch in our woodland gardens .

How and when to use various types of mulch in the garden

Our garden gets by with four types of mulch. But only one is organic.

The organic mulch – mostly shredded cedar bark – is my primary go-to mulch that I have used in the garden since day 1. I can’t begin to even think how many truck loads of cedar mulch we have had dumped at the top of the driveway over the past twenty-plus years. Much of it is long gone, absorbed into the earth helping to make for a richer, more woodsy soil.

Other mulch selections in the garden include pea gravel, river rock, boulders and a red aggregate that I use as a driveway rather than asphalt or concrete. The aggregate is not only pleasing to look at, but more importantly, it allows water from rains or snow cover to seep into the ground and feed the roots of our trees rather than running down the driveway, onto the street and into the already overburdened sewer systems.

The garden’s design will often dictate when and what type of mulch to use.

A woodland garden benefits from shredded bark that looks natural and decomposes over time enriching the earth.

But there is room for other types of organic mulch, including pine needles (a favourite in the United States), cacao hulls and, of course, compost. Cacao is a great mulch to use in small quantities near a front door or a patio so you can take in the rich chocolate smell the mulch gives off.

Looking down on an island of black mondo grass planted in a dry river path to break up stone and give it a more natural look. (also see below)

Looking down on an island of black mondo grass planted in a dry river path to break up stone and give it a more natural look. (also see below)

5 uses for organic mulch

1) Use as a substitute for a living ground cover (either for a short- or long-term solution)

2) Around individual plants to keep weeds out, moderate the temperature and water content of the soil

3) As a first step to cover large areas that will eventually become part of the natural garden

4) Together with black landscape fabric to eliminate weeds or grass to begin or revitalize an area in the garden

5) To create a natural pathway through your woodland landscape

5 uses for non-organic mulch

1) Use pea gravel and stepping stones for an inexpensive, yet pleasing pathway that is more formal than a shredded bark path

2) To create dry-creek beds as garden focal points or to deal with drainage problems

3) In service areas around the home where you have no intention of adding bedding plants (ex: around utility boxes)

4) Consider converting an old asphalt driveway back to stone to eliminate water runoff and create a more textured, natural appearance.

5) Around your home’s foundation to encourage better drainage

Our garden’s organic mulch has not all been cedar. When one of the neighbours cut down a massive spruce tree on their front lawn several years ago, I asked the tree company workers if they would drop the entire tree on our driveway when they had finished shredding it. They were happy to oblige, but warned me that it would create a very acidic soil when it broke down.

It sat at the top of the driveway for a few weeks that fall and literally burned itself up as it began to decompose. I remember finally going out to move it onto the garden on a cool morning and it was so hot that every shovel full created enough steam that it appeared to be on fire.

I think I put about six inches of mulch down the side of the driveway that year.

I could not argue with the price, but it was ugly stuff with bits of spruce needles mixed in with the still-sappy branches. The next spring I covered the whole thing with a thin layer of cedar mulch and proceeded to allow it all to break down. Today, you would be hard pressed to find much evidence of the spruce tree and the final result is not acidic soil.

Just recently we moved two dump trucks full of cedar mulch into the backyard as part of a major landscaping project to eliminate as much grass as possible and create new gardens.

It involved putting down a layer of landscaping fabric to cut off any light to the existing grass, followed by at least three inches of cedar mulch.

I am definitely not a fan of black landscape fabric, but I always use it, (or old newspapers) as a first step in a new landscape project.

A combination of all our mulches come together in this images. Large boulders combine with pea gravel, river rock, crushed red brick (driveway) and even a little cedar bark mulch to create this ground cover.

The landscape fabric is great for keeping weeds out and, more importantly, killing existing grass. Its major problem, however, is that it also blocks living organisms from moving through the different layers of soil. If you are trying to build a healthy, woodsy soil, black landscape fabric certainly does more harm than good, over the long term.

My plan is always to remove it over time as the weeds and grass die off. I would expect that it is ready to be removed one to three years after it was installed.

In the meantime, I usually begin cutting large planting holes in the fabric a year after installing it. By then most of the grass is dead and it’s safe to begin gardening as long as you are careful to cover the bare soil with a thick layer of mulch after planting.

This process not only eliminates the huge task of removing the turf, it also takes advantage of the decomposing turf and leaves behind a nice layer of top soil to begin gardening. Patience is the key obviously.

If a low-maintenance garden is your priority, by all means leave the fabric and continue to garden through it. While it lasts a long time, it will eventually break down in the soil and lose its effectiveness as a weed barrier.

When it comes to using non-organic forms of mulch, the black landscape fabric always remains in place.

These are usually areas that I have no intention of ever converting to a traditional garden, so the fabric’s main purpose is to ensure nothing grows up through it.

In fact, it’s not unusual for me to double it up just to ensure unwanted guests can never make an appearance. They usually do, eventually, but it can take years before the weeds begin to break through the fabric.

Non-organic mulch

Non-organic mulch, mostly pea gravel and river rock, play a major role in our gardens.

They are used extensively in both the front and back gardens bringing a cohesiveness to the entire space while serving as a natural bridge from the garden to the hardscaping areas located closer to the house.

Great effort is made to make them look as natural as possible. Too often, homeowners and some landscapers try to get “cute” with river rock. In a woodland or natural garden, surrounding a tree or a garden with river rocks positioned in a perfect circle just doesn’t work. It looks unnatural and would never occur in nature, so try to come up with a more natural approach.

Little Bluestem, Milkweed and black eyed susans give a natural look to this dry river bed that takes advantage of small boulders, river rock and pea gravel for a natural look.

Little Bluestem, Milkweed and Black Eyed Susans give a natural look to this dry river bed that takes advantage of small boulders, river rock and pea gravel for a more natural look.

A natural-looking dry river bed, for example, benefits from more than one size of river rock to help it take on a more natural appearance. Ideally, very large river rocks need to be set in place at strategic locations throughout the river bed to anchor the design. Then, a layer of medium-size river rock added as the base, followed by smaller river rock pushed out toward the edges and finally pea gravel in what would be the stream’s washout area.

Now you don’t have to go to such extremes every time you use pea gravel or river rocks in the landscape, but it helps to keep it as natural looking as possible.

Our dry-river-bed journey began by filling in a large gully in the front of the house after cars kept falling in while turning at the end of our cul-de-sac. By turning the drainage ditch into a dry river bed using mostly river rock along with some pea gravel to fill in the edges, the water that naturally flowed through the area in the spring and during heavy rainfall, is allowed to continue along its course under and through the river rocks. The dry river bed solved three problems: it eliminated an eyesore; cleaned up any standing water that hung around in the spring; and still allowed the water to flow through the drainage gully.

Japanese-inspired garden

This Japanese-inspired garden uses massive boulders, river rock and pea gravel as a mulch.

Since then, we have used river rock and pea gravel, as well as some large boulders, to crate a Japanese-inspired garden in a part of the front yard. The river rock and pea gravel continue down the side of our home and pick up again in the backyard where they are used extensively as both a dry river and pea gravel pathway leading to the patio.

Inorganic mulches like stone can be effective in the landscape if used with care. Try to soften the harsh look of stone by allowing plants to spill over the edges. At times, I will even plant right into the pea gravel to create an island of green in the sea of stone. Along the back path, I have a planting of black mondo grass growing in a small island of larger river rock that never fails to make me smile when I see it.

Elsewhere, grasses grow out from a dry river bed suggesting a small island in the creek bed.

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Woodland nurseries you need to know about

Not all Nurseries are created equal. Most provide plants your average gardener is looking to plant. But Woodland gardeners and native-plant gardeners are not your average gardeners. Here are four specialty nurseries you will want to check out online if you are looking for special plants or just reliable information on growing plants you already own.

Nurseries specializing in Woodland plants

It’s not always easy to find Woodland plants in your local nurseries. Even if they do carry one or two native woodland plants, there’s no guarantee the plants were not harvested from the wild or that they will do well in your area.

In the past few years since writing the original article, more and more nurseries are carrying more native and woodland plants. In fact, most nurseries are recognizing the move toward more natural and native plants, whether they would be considered “woodland” plants or more sunny meadow-style plants.

Buying from reputable local nurseries is always the best choice, but when they don’t carry what you are looking for or lack the expertise to help you in your Woodland endeavours, there is no shame tracking down nurseries that specialize in hard-to-find native plants.

Here are four that know their stuff (two American-based and two Canadian). All are working hard to offer the best native plants possible. Please recognize that transporting plants across borders is often very difficult or impossible.

Fernwood Nursery & Gardens (U.S.)

Rick and Denise Sawyer have been running “Maine’s Shadiest Nursery” since 2012 in Montville, Maine. Their nursery specializes in native and Woodland plants hardy to their area.

They are proud to say they have one of the largest collections of shade tolerant plant collections in New England, many of which are propagated at the nursery. Display beds at the nursery help demonstrate how the plants can best be grown and grouped together aesthetically.

Wild native showy lady slippers can be difficult to grow. They can be almost impossible to find at regular nurseries, but they are available through responsible specialty growers.

Wild native showy lady slippers can be difficult to grow. They can be almost impossible to find at regular nurseries, but they are available through responsible specialty growers.

They do not appear to do mail-order, which is unfortunate for those living outside their area. Their down-to-earth blog, documenting life at the nursery is a good read with lots of interesting tidbits for the Woodland gardener. You can find their website at

Big-time hosta lovers, their website lists close to 20 with good descriptions of each. What really caught my eye, however, was the Cypripedium retinae or Showy lady slipper which they feature in a beautiful photograph showing a massive grouping on their website planted with Maidenhair fern. A glorious combination.

Other featured plants include:

Trillium grandiflorum flora plena – this double flowering great white trillium prefers a sweeter soil and more sun than most trilliums. Being sterile, the flowers bloom longer than the single and then turn from white to pink.

Sanguinaria canadense multiplex – a double flowering form of our native bloodroot that blooms a little later and much longer than the single. Grows to 6″ and tolerates drier shade.

Anemonopsis macrophylla – a wonderful Japanese woodlander with nodding lilac and white flowers on 3′ stems in late summer.

Anemonella thalictroides – ‘Snowflake’ A 6″ double flowering selection of our native. Two months of bloom beginning April/May.

Convallaria ‘Cream da Mint’ – larger leaves have gold edges on green centers with a glaucus coating, especially in the spring.

Convallaria ‘Fernwood’s Golden Slippers’ – leaves are all gold with white flowers and red fruit. Not as aggressive as most Lily-of-the-Valley.

Great Lakes Orchids (U.S. Mail order)

Is a family owned tissue culture laboratory and licensed nursery specializing in hardy terrestrial orchids. You read that right. Their orchids are grown in a laboratory using tissue culture techniques. No worries here about wild-dug orchids.

Check them out at

In fact, this nursery is devoted to the One Test Tube at a Time Initiative, established to share their “services, laboratory, seedlings, plants, and expertise to help save endangered orchid populations.”

There are diminishing plant populations growing in various habitats and areas. For a number of reasons these plant populations are unable to re-establish themselves or fall outside of funding sources that would allow them to remain protected or undisturbed. We would like to see the return to thriving orchid populations for the benefit and enjoyment of all.”

They offer via-mailorder a large variety of orchids both native and non-native selections, including Lady Slipper Orchids, Chinese orchids and European fringed orchids.

Their website says they are branching out with select hardy perennials and bog plants.

Besides their great work, here is the real reason I have included Great Lakes Orchids in this list: The sites Growing Tips for raising Cypripediums is first rate. If you already have native Lady Slippers in your woodland or hope to acquire them at some point soon, you have to bookmark this site and study these growing tips.

If you live in the United States, consider supporting this group by purchasing some of their plants.

Ontario Native Plants (Cda mail order)

And now a plug for newcomer and local mail-order nursery, Ontario Native Plants. A gardening friend and I decided to place an order with this Hamilton-Ontario area online provider of native trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers and were pleasantly surprised by not only the product we received but their professional approach. Packaging was first rate. The website says they deliver anywhere across the province of Ontario.

If their website is any indication of how their business will grow in the future, we can expect big things from this nursery. Their 2020 catalogue lists about 100 products. In addition, they have a newsletter notifying regular customers of promotions and native gardening tips.

Since the initial writing of this post, Ontario Native Plants have certainly grown and now offer a huge variety of top-notch native plants to Ontario Gardeners. Their 2023 catalogue can be seen here. Get your orders in early spring for best delivery dates.

For my full story on this outstanding provider of native plants, be sure to check out my posts here.

Included in the list of individual plants are groups of plants packaged together that offer, for example, high-colour impact, fall beauty, as well as shady and sunny rain garden packs. There is a fern package, a pollinator pack and a Prairie pack. As an example, the Sun Lovers pack in the 2020 catalogue includes 12 plants made up of 2 plants from 6 species.

The website is extremely informative breaking down the native plants into light requirements, moisture requirements and soil type. Well done.

This post is not sponsored by any of the above nurseries. As an affiliate marketer with Amazon or other marketing companies, I earn money from qualifying purchases.

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Mulch Mania: Building a foundation for a low-maintenance garden

Building a solid foundation starts with your garden’s soil and there’s no better way to build a high-quality soil than to use mulch. Cedar mulch forms the foundation of our low-maintenance woodland garden. It’s benefits are too numerous to list but here’s a start.

A temporary alternative to natural ground cover

Good or bad, we all remember the gardens of our childhood.

I remember dry, barren earth that literally turned to sand when you held it in your hands. It was the 1960s and the only plants that grew in the front gardens were traditional purple iris.

Not that my parents didn’t try. They turned over the soil religiously revealing the darker damp soil for a few hours until the sun baked it again.

It’s hard to imagine a worse recipe for building high-quality, healthy soil. But they toiled on, sometimes adding peat moss or top soil. The ending was always the same. Dry, bleached and baked sandy soil.

The missing ingredient was, of course, mulch. I am sure it was available at that time, but it certainly wasn’t piled up in bags at every building supply, grocery and nursery store.

A natural mulch of fallen leaves is not only beautiful, but acts like a cover for plants, insect and small animals throughout the winter months.

Today, cedar mulch is so common in our area, it’s hard to believe there are any cedar trees still standing.

Organic mulch is commonly made from bark or wood chippings, but it can also be made of grass clippings or pine needles (a popular choice in parts of the United States,) to name just a few.

Non-organic mulch is another option and another blog post but includes stone such as pea gravel, aggregates and man-made substances.

Cedar mulch is a forest byproduct made from the shredded wood of cedar trees. Compared to pine mulch, the inherent nature of cedar makes it a longer-lasting mulch in the garden.

The benefits of mulch far outweigh any argument for not using it. Not only is cedar mulch attractive, whether you choose natural-, black-, brown- or red-coloured, it has a pleasant smell for the first few weeks it is put down, helps unify the garden and better shows off the plant foliage.

Despite its obvious benefits, it’s still not unusual to see uncovered, baked earth on my daily walks, usually accompanied by the homeowners on their hands and knees pulling weeds or, God forbid, turning the soil over so they can enjoy a few hours of dark soil before the sun comes out to bake it beige again.

Mulch is the perfect backdrop for the foliage of this Pagoda dogwood, while it protects and insulates the soil below. Over time it breaks down and adds a woodsy organic material to the soil.

Mulch is the perfect backdrop for the foliage of this Pagoda dogwood, while it protects and insulates the soil below. Over time it breaks down and adds a woodsy organic material to the soil.

In many ways, mulch actually takes the place of a living ground cover.

And, although bark mulch is a great beginning to amending your soil an creating a more woodsy soild, it’s best not to consider it the finished product.

In a woodland garden, a native and natural ground cover such as wild geraniums, bunchberry or ferns are a more desirable alternative than organic mulch, but there are plenty of situations where a ground cover is not feasible at the time.

That’s where an organic mulch truly shines.

Without going into all the benefits of heavily mulching your gardens, let’s examine just a few of the reasons mulch should be high on your list when you are building your Woodland garden.

Water retention: By shading the soil with a thick layer of mulch (ideally 3 inches or more), evaporation, both from the sun and wind, is minimized.

It also helps to regulate the temperature of the soil further reducing water evaporation and giving the plants a layer of insulation that helps keep the plants’ roots cool in the summer and warm in winter.

Bark mulch used in woodland garden

Wood mulch is used here to cover the ground around woodland plants including bee balm and ferns.

It is important to note, however, that mulch can also act as a barrier that makes getting sufficient water to your plants’ roots more difficult. It is much more water-efficient to target the plants individually either through a drip system or by hand watering them individually.

Deep watering a plant by leaving the hose dripping at its roots for several hours will allow the water to dive deep into the ground rather than getting locked into the mulch layer or just licking the top inch of the soil.

If your garden is properly mulched, you need to water less often but when you do water, ensure you are deep watering and targeting the plants’ roots.

One of the often overlooked benefits of mulch is that it helps prevent water runoff by trapping the moisture and moving it slowly to the soil below.

During a major storm, for example, water that might traditionally just run off in one direction, flooding one area and leaving another area more or less dry, will be better constrained to the general area it fell on. The result, a more evenly irrigated garden that will retain the moisture much longer than barren earth – possibly days or even weeks.

Weed Inhibition: Everyone is striving for a low-maintenance garden. Mulch is the key ingredient to achieving that end. But, let’s not kid ourselves it can’t perform miracles, especially if it is spread too thinly over the soil.

We’ve all seen it. A layer of mulch so thin that you can see the soil through it. Using large pieces of bark rather than the shredded bark, is often the biggest culprit here.

Unlike the shredded mulch, or pine needles, the bark pieces are too large to properly cover the soil and the resulting gaps make it too easy for seeds to find their way to the soil. (If you really love the look of the larger bark pieces, consider using the shredded mulch as your primary covering and top dress with the larger pieces.)

if the ground is not covered properly, once the weed seeds germinate, pulling them out brings more soil to the surface and before you know it, your garden is covered in weeds.

Here is a good example of natural wood mulch being used to cover the ground while our native virginia creeper gets a chance to establish itself as a living ground cover or mulch.

The key is to block light from reaching the soil to keep the seeds from germinating.

Some seeds will germinate right in the mulch but without proper soil they are either not long-lived or easily removed because it is near impossible for them to get properly rooted in the bark medium.

Also, if you water your individual plants rather than a general watering of the entire garden, the weeds’ roots often eventually are starved of water and die off. This is especially true following a wet spring. Weeds from the previous year will sprout in the damp mulch left by snow cover, but as the mulch dries out, the seedling roots will often die off.

A common complaint against the use of cedar mulch in the garden is that it can deplete the amount of nitrogen in the soil. While this can be true, it is not something most homeowners should be worried about.

What is more worrying is the practise of piling mulch around trees and plants in a volcanic mound that is almost guaranteed to kill the plant over time.

I often see it done by unknowing city workers who like to pile mulch up the tree’s trunk as high as possible thinking they are conserving water. Do not fall into this trap. Roots of trees and plants do not benefit from mulch touching them in any way.

Keep the mulch away from the plants and, instead, create a bowl of mulch around the tree trunks or plants where the sides can hold the water or at least slow its runoff from around the plant or tree. The bowl should be larger according to the size of the tree or plant and can actually extend out to the drip line of a young tree or plant.

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The Garden Awakening will change the way you garden

Mary Reynolds’ The Garden Awakening is an important book during these troubled times. It is both a gardening book and a road map we all need to follow into the future. For some it is a treasure map to help them rediscover nature and themselves. For others, it will provide them with a new way of looking at their gardens, their land and their life. Please, click on the link for the full review.

The Garden Awakening

Designs to Nurture our Land & Ourselves

By Mary Reynolds

“If nature is left to its own devices and without imbalances in the ecosystem such as the overpopulation of hungry deer or an infestation of rabbits it will reclaim its territory and become Woodlands once more.”

This might be one of the most inspirational gardening books I have ever read.

It’s certainly not your average how-to gardening book. If you are looking for a typical gardening book, The Garden Awakening might not be for you.

Beautiful illustrations by artist Ruth Evans both on the cover and throughout the book.

Beautiful illustrations by artist Ruth Evans both on the cover and throughout the book.

But if you are interested in the environment, restoring your garden to a healthy, productive space and/or creating a Woodland naturalized garden, then you owe it to yourself to spend some time with Mary Reynold’s book, The Garden Awakening, Designs to Nurture our Land & Ourselves and her vision for the future of gardening.

Since this writing, Ms Reynolds has published a second informative book titled We Are The Ark. This follow to The Garden Awakening, expounds on her successful approach that each garden can be a small Ark in a world for where wildlife desperately needs our help.

For more information on using native plants to restore your garden, take a moment to check out my article on the importance of using native plants in your garden. For full post go here.

An important book at a crucial time

The Garden Awakening is an extremely important book for the time. It’s a reminder that we are destroying the very land we depend on for survival. It’s a reminder that the world we live in cannot continue to absorb this abuse and not unleash its own fury back upon us.

And, as climate change continues to change the world we live in, it’s important that we as inviduals take action to stem the tide.

But Reynolds offers solutions to problems that we need so desperately in these trying times.

Her inspirational book actually provides a roadmap for anyone interested in doing their part to not only protect but revive the land they live on. Along the way, she provides a “treasure map for finding your way back to the truth of who you are.”

“We are the ark” movement

Be part of the movement

Her movement, “We are the Ark” is bringing together like-minded people around the world to join her in creating a healthy environment, one garden at a time. It provides an important stepping stone to a better environment, a healthier garden and a more optimistic future.

Gardens were like still-life paintings; controlled and manipulated spaces.... somehow, somewhere along the way gardens had become dead zones.
— Mary Reynolds

If Ireland’s feisty Mary Reynolds is not familiar to you, I suggest you watch a movie called Dare to Be Wild, which maps her journey from an outsider to a gold-medal winner at the prestigious Chelsea Flower show. The movie used to be available on Netflix, but I notice that it is no longer available. (The link provided above will take you to Amazon where it is available as a DVD.)

The movie led me to her book, her vision and her unique and thoughtful approach to gardening.

To purchase the Mary Reynold’s book, here is a link from the excellent book seller Alibris: Books, Music, & Movies for The Garden Awakening. Below is the Amazon link.

For those without access to the movie, take note; Mary Reynolds was the youngest garden designer to win the highly coveted gold at the 2002 Chelsey Garden Show. That alone should be enough to interest you in her book.

   Reynolds doesn’t waste much time getting to the point. She describes a vision of her embodying a crow flying over the landscape where she comes across a woman (let’s call her Mother Nature) in a forest clearing. She is then swept up high into the heavens and when she finally wakes up she comes to the instant recognition that she “shouldn’t make any more pretty gardens.”

She realizes that she must be guided by the natural world, rather than pure beauty, in her work as a garden designer.

Unlike nature, “gardens were like still-life paintings; controlled and manipulated spaces.... somehow, somewhere along the way gardens had become dead zones,” she writes.

Being in harmony with nature

The revelation that she was “failing to work in harmony with nature,” eventually leads her to unveil 5 garden design ideas in a system aimed at helping anyone, including gardeners, connect with nature.

Throughout the book, Reynolds returns to her Irish roots and uses folklore to help explain her spiritual views of nature and gardening.

Of particular interest to Woodland gardeners, Reynolds explains that all land strives to become a mature Woodland and the job of the gardener is to allow the land to become what it desires to be.

She also encourages people to design their own gardens and provides a road map in five chapters. Each chapter slowly opens up the world of garden design and includes suggestions for intimate garden areas; a nighttime place, a praying place, a gathering place…

In another chapter, she talks about designing with the patterns and shapes of nature. This all leads to a chapter encouraging readers to put their garden design concepts onto paper, including several illustrations and designs that help readers visualize their garden design ideas.

Throughout the book, Reynolds offers suggestions on plants, although these plants might not all be appropriate for all garden zones.

The book wraps up with a chapter on Forest Gardening, a style of gardening that seems to be once again gaining in popularity and importance.

Many would say that Forest gardening is a logical extension to Woodland gardening. It involves producing food by developing a multi-tiered Woodland where berries, nuts and root vegetables are encouraged to be grown.

Her forest garden includes seven layers beginning with the upper canopy including a shrub layer, a layer for herbaceous plants a ground cover layer, an underground layer and finally climbers or vines.

This is a book every Woodland gardener will enjoy and learn from. It’s a book that should be required reading for all gardeners at a time when our futures may well depend on it.

If you are interested in having Mary Reynolds help design your garden virtually, be sure to check out my post on Ms Reynolds’ virtual makeovers.

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Large bird feeder plays big role at feeding station

Large bird feeders are an excellent choice to not only provide a reliable food source for backyard birds, but also makes keeping them filled less taxing, especially in winter.

Fill-and-forget-it makes larger bird feeder best choice

A large resin, hopper-style feeder is a good all round choice as a bird feeder.

A large bird feeder is a great investment to attract a huge variety of backyard birds.

In fact, incorporating a large bird feeder into your backyard-feeding strategy will play an important role in both attracting more birds as well as making the feeding experience much more enjoyable.

Let’s face it, going out every day to fill your feeders can quickly become a chore you can do without.

More importantly, if you fail to keep your smaller bird feeders full, backyard birds may look at your feeding station as an unreliable source of food and go elsewhere.

If you are just starting out on your bird feeding journey, purchasing the largest, high quality bird feeder you can afford is probably your best chance at success. It’s a lot easier to keep a large feeder filled and ensure the birds return to a reliable food source than to spend your time trying to keep a small feeder filled.

Bird pole with a number of feeders including the large fly thru idustrial feeder

Our bird feeding pole showing a number of feeders including the large black industrial strength fly-thru feeder on the right.

One visit from a squirrel, and the small feeder can be emptied in minutes. If the empty feeder goes unnoticed for any period of time, birds will begin to look elsewhere for a reliable food source.

Consider using smaller feeders for more specialized seeds, including niger, safflower and millet. These sources of food are preferred by more specialized birds and, for the most part, are not as appealing to squirrels. There is a good chance they will not be raided by squirrels or birds looking for sunflowers. As a result, they will need less filling and monitoring than if they were filled with more desirable sunflower seed.

Three large feeders add variety and reliability

I use three large feeders at various times during the year. One is ideally built for black oil sunflower (see image above of large black screened feeder), another is a large feeder that works like three smaller feeders that allow me to offer a variety of food to specific birds. The final feeder is a larger, covered hopper style feeder that is good for a variety of birds and seed concoctions.

If you are either looking to purchase your first feeder, or your first large feeder, consider purchasing a large resin hopper feeder, They tend to be the best all-round choice. The larger feeders not only hold plenty of seed, but they offer sufficient space for larger birds like blue jays to perch while they eat.

Industrial strength black oil bird feeder

The black oil sunflower feeder is a massive, fly-through, industrial type feeder that leaves the seed completely open to the elements. Made from industrial strength steel mesh, this is an ideal fill-and-forget-it feeder that can act as a real magnet for many backyard birds that thrive on black oil sunflower seed. That, as most of us know, includes almost all backyard birds.

The above Green Meleave Bird Feeder, that holds up to 6.5 lbs of seed, is similar to our larger industrial fly-through feeder. This high quality feeder is made entirely of metal and the bird-shaped safety lock lid makes the feeder extra secure against squirrels, deer and raccoons.

Our large black industrial-grade feeder makes it the ideal feeder to take on squirrels and even racoons that might make it up our feeder pole system. Even deer have trouble shaking out much seed with their noses.

Because its metal screen leaves the seed open to the elements, black oil sunflower – with its protective outer shell – is best used in this feeder.

Our feeder is large enough to allow several birds to feed on it at once, including several smaller birds that can actually fly into the interior of the feeder and feel protected surrounded by their favourite food. I can’t help but think birds imagine themselves in heaven when they actually fly into the feeder and realize they are literally surrounded by their favourite food.

This feeder can stay full for more than a week, depending on the time of year and the number of birds using the feeding station.


Three cylinder feeder offers variety of seed to specialized birds

The second feeder we use on a regular basis is a large, three-cylinder feeder like this one from Heath that allows you to feed three different types of food and includes 6 feeding perches. These feeders are particularly attractive to smaller perching birds.

These feeders are completely covered and do a good job of keeping the seed dry even in harsh weather conditions.

I use this style of feeder to provide a variety of bird feed to attract more specialized birds at different times of the year. In spring and summer, for example, I use one of the feeding cylinders for white proso millet, which is a favourite for Indigo Buntings. In another cylinder, safflower can be used to give Cardinals their own special treat. The third cylinder can be filled with a combination of no-mess sunflower seeds and meal worms for nuthaches, chickadees and woodpeckers or specialized finch food for goldfinches, housefinches etc.

This image shows two hopper-style feeders on our pole system. The larger one in the front and a smaller version in the back.

Hopper-style feeders are excellent choices for general bird feeding. The larger hopper in the front not only holds more food, but gives larger birds more area to perch while they eat. The size of the feeder you choose is in part dependent on the type of birds you are looking to attract.


Large hopper-style feeder is always a solid choice

The final choice is a large hopper-style feeder that is an excellent all-round feeder for a variety of birds.

I particularly like the resin-feeders (see post on why resin feeders are superior to wood ones) for their more hygenic properties.

Filling these feeders is easy and cleaning them, especially the Wild Bird Unlimited feeders that have removable bottom plates, involves a simple blast of water and a little soap.

I use the large hopper feeder and a smaller one to hold the expensive, no-mess feed that is my mainstay for most of the summer when I don’t want a build-up of seed and husks under the feeders.

I also recommend trying to purchase resin feeders over the wood ones. Although the more modern resin feeders are more expensive, they tend to last longer and, most importantly, are easier to clean. For more on choosing resin feeders over wood ones.

This steel feeder availabe at Walmart

This Audubon squirrel feeder, available on-line from walmart offers strong construction and weight sensitive feeding….


Another option is to invest in a steel hopper-style feeder much like this one available from Walmart and other sellers. This hopper style feeder even has weight sensitive adjustments that help you target the type of birds that can use the feeder.

This style of feeder was one of the first feeders I purchased when I started to feed birds. The feeder was exceptionally well made and lasted for years before I replaced it. The all-metal construction makes them ideal for situations where squirrels and racoons are a problem, and the touch sensitive feeding bar makes it ideal for discouraging larger heavier birds like Blue Jays, Grackles and blackbirds that tend to throw feed on the ground in search of their favourite seed.



Large covered table feeders can be a useful addition

Now that we have explored the importance of including a large feeder as part of your bird feeding arsenal, let’s look at another large feeder that also offers lots of potential.

Feeders such as the Large Amish Homemade Gazebo Vinyl Bird feeder (also pictured above as a clickable Amazon link), is an ideal choice for those looking for both an attractive and an effective bird feeder. The fact it is vinyl rather than wood makes the feeder even more desirable.

Large covered table feeders can be ideal to attract certain types of birds to your yard. Many of these feeders are also very attractive and can be used as functional pieces of art in your landscape.

To show them in their best light, these feeders really need to stand alone in a picturesque area of the garden where they can shine. Look for feeders like the Large Amish Homemade Gazebo feeder that has a large, built-in seed storage container.

Without built-in seed storage, the covered table feeders either have to be filled on a daily basis, or simply become attractive works of art in the landscape.

If they are used as stand alone feeders, they will also need to have their own pole and guards to keep squirrels and raccoons off the feeder.

A nuthatch feeds from a small resin hopper-style feeder.

Can a large bird feeder save you money?

Whether you are just starting out on your bird feeding journey, or have been feeding backyard birds for a number of years, investing in a large high-quality feeder is a good choice.

A large feeder will help ensure that your yard becomes a reliable source of food for the neighbourhood birds. They are particularly important in winter, when keeping feeders full becomes both more important as well as more difficult.

Large backyard feeders can indeed save you money in several ways. One of the main advantages is that they allow you to purchase bird seed in bulk instead of smaller bags. By having one or two larger bird feeders, you can use an entire large bag of bird seed, which is usually more cost-effective than buying multiple small bags. This way, you can take advantage of bulk discounts and save money in the long run.

Another benefit of using larger feeders is that they can help minimize food waste. When squirrels, raccoons, and deer are unable to access the feeders, there will be less spilled food or seeds eaten by these critters. This means that more of the bird seed will be available for the birds you are trying to attract, reducing the need to constantly refill the feeders and ultimately saving you money on bird seed.

By investing in larger backyard feeders, you not only save money on bird seed but also ensure that the food you provide is primarily consumed by the birds you want to attract. This can lead to a more enjoyable bird-watching experience and a greater variety of bird species visiting your backyard. So, if you're looking to attract backyard birds while also saving some money, consider using larger bird feeders.

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Best bat house: Turn your garden into a home for Bats

BatBnB is changing the world for gardeners and bats alike by encouraging and educating people about the benefits of Bats. The company hopes to convince people that there is no need for pesticides to reduce the mosquito population when you have bats that do the job much more efficiently.

Bats need help to survive and prosper?

BatBnB wants to change the world, but not just any world. They want to change the world of bats.

Their future, how they survive and where they live.

Most important, the BatBnB wants to change how humans see bats in the environment, and that includes our gardens. The Louisville, Kentucky company’s vision starts with eliminating the use of pesticides and replacing them with natural solutions – bats, and if they have their way, lots of them.

In fact, they want to change the minds of gardeners and convince them that every garden needs to encourage bats. In the Woodland Wildlife garden, bats fill a niche that is often left unfilled in our gardens. By bringing them into our garden we not only help improve our gardens, we also play an important role in helping these mammals recover their dwindling numbers.

Graphic showing various bat houses

Bat houses are an excellent way to create habitat for native bats which, in turn, help reduce mosquitoes in your yard.

BatBnB are not alone. More and more garden experts are recognizing the value of our native bats and are urging homeowners to help the bats any way they can. For some, that may mean eliminating pesticides and using more native plants in their gardens to encourage insects.

For others, putting up a large nesting box to create habitat and attract a small colony of native bats to control insects – especially mosquitoes – is the right direction.

Bat boxes are available in many styles, sizes and configurations from many different retailers ranging from specialized bird stores, to popular commercial and on-line outlets. Purchasing a high quality bat house will go a long way to provide a safe and enticing place for the bats to roost.

Placement of the house is also important.

Five tips to help Bats

• Eliminate all pesticides from your garden

• Provide a natural habitat like a woodland garden with trees, fruiting shrubs and flowers to attract insects.

• Offer evening- and night-blooming flowers as well as compost heaps that attract insects.

• Provide access to water in your garden. A fountain left on during the night is excellent but bird baths or natural ponds also work well.

• Add a high-quality bat house to the garden to provide a safe and comfortable environment for these incredible mammals.

The BatBnB team, consisting of only five fanatical bat lovers, are doing it many ways – through education about the importance of our native bats on their impressive website and by showing the world that providing a place for bats in our gardens is not only beneficial to the bats and the gardeners, but it can be done with a whole lot of style.

“We are all big bat fans and want to see these animals thrive,” says Community Manager Jessica Woodend.

To ensure they can get as many BatBnBs out into the world as possible, the small team of bat enthusiasts has partnered with a U.S.-based distributor to make and ship the stylish boxes.

Just one look at the company’s elegant bat house designs, and you would be forgiven for mistaking them for an elegant piece of garden art.

Bat BnB house being installed.

An example of the high-quality and good-looks of the BatBnB bat houses.

If the BatBnB houses are not to your liking, there are many bat house styles available.

One of the best is the Vundahboah Amish Goods Outdoor Bat Box Shelter with Large Double Chamber. The bat house (pictured below) is handmade from solid cedar in the United States. The cedar is not only long lasting, it will also age gracefully to a lovely shade of gray over time.

Ferns & Feathers readers are being offered a 15 per cent discount on BatBnB houses when they use the code FERN at checkout. Simply go to the BatBnB website and use the code FERN when checking out.

Education is key to bat survival

“We’re here to rewrite the narrative around one of the world’s most commonly misunderstood animals,”the company states in its website.

And it doesn’t take long to realize just how serious they are.

“Our team is on a mission to empower the conservation movement by designing products that facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between people and wildlife. In doing so we welcome a broader demographic to participate in conservation in a meaningful way. With BatBnB, we’re empowering customers to ditch pesticides in favor of a natural alternative, provide a safe home for an animal in need, and educate their communities about the benefits these amazing animals bring.”

And, in case you thought these are meaningless statements just to sell bat houses, consider that BatBnB is endorsed by leading bat expert Merlin Tuttle.

The Gold Label Bat Houses (see below) are an excellent alternative to consider. It includes shingles for added warmth and protection long-life, and has two chambers.

Expertise and commitment from the beginning

The company started in 2016 after the founders recognized the problem bats faced.

We spent about 2 months doing our own research into the design. We then spent about 4 months working with world renowned bat biologist Merlin Tuttle, who has spent years studying what was working for bat houses and what wasn’t. Once we had the design ready, and Merlin’s seal of approval, it was about 6 months into our journey starting BatBnB,” explains Ms. Woodend.

We’re here to rewrite the narrative around one of the world’s most commonly misunderstood animals.
— BatBnB Founders

“Merlin Tuttle has been on the forefront of bat conservation for over 60 years,” she explains. “It was very important to us that we created a product, alongside Merlin, because he knows what works and what doesn’t. I don’t think there is anyone who knows as much about bats as Merlin does, and we wanted to have a product that would help these animals. He doesn’t give his seal approval out lightly, and we are proud of the product we have that checks all of the boxes for what Merlin found in his own research.”

Mr. Tuttle writes: “The BatBnB line of houses is the first to be developed for mass sale that meets all my personal criteria. I have been involved in the design and construction of these houses from the beginning and am happy to endorse them as unsurpassed in meeting bat needs, resisting deterioration, and still looking great.”

Education at the root of BatBnB website

Visitors to the BatBnB website can get an in-depth education on the value of bats.

The company has teamed up with the the Tuttle Bat Conservation group to provide the Bat Education Zone on the website where they explain the types of insect bats love to eat (1000 mosquito-size insects an hour) including Japanese Beetles, Cucumber Beetles, mosquitoes, stink bugs, leaf hoppers and army worm moths.

Check out this link to a fun but informative YouTube video about the importance of bats.

Visitors to the site will also learn what type of bats they might be able to encourage into the bat house, where the bats live in winter (some migrate south) and why bats need our help.

For parents looking to provide important outdoor education to their children or grandchilden, the kid-friendly website includes videos and fun facts about bats. There is even a quiz at the end to test your knowledge about bats.

The company has come a long way since their beginnings.

Company founders Christopher Rännefors and architectural designer Harrison Broadhurst started with the dual-chambered designs, and the company’s Mammoth bat house, explains Ms. Woodend.

“A year later we released the single-chamber option in order to create a different price point to meet the needs of our customers.

“We have made slight modifications to the mounting apparatuses to make things easier for the consumer to install, and to shift to more eco-friendly options. Our overall structure hasn’t changed much, and that is something we take a lot of pride in. Our research paid off and we were able to offer a high quality product to the masses,” explains Rännefors.

Just how much help has the company been to the survival of bats?

“We have sold enough BatBnBs to provide a safe home for almost 1,000,000 bats! We have BatBnBs in all 50 states, and 13 countries,” he explains.

Three bat houses tied together to create the ultimate bat condo.

The Triple Crown is a stunning bat house made up of three of the company’s most popular single units. The trio can hold more than 300 bats and eliminate hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes from your yard.

Why gardeners should attract bats?

“Bats provide some major benefits,” explains Ms. Woodend. Not only do they help control mosquito populations, but they also eat a wide range of other garden pests. Also, bats don’t typically eat bees or butterflies due to a scheduling difference, so our local pollinators are safe.”

As an added bonus, Bat guano is also a really rich fertilizer that can be used in small quantities on our gardens.

So not only are they a natural pest control, they’re a natural fertilizer with no chemicals needed. That’s a combination that is difficult to beat.

Ms. Woodend adds that there are also locations that benefit from pollination from bats. Although bats don’t get the same credit that our native bees and butterflies enjoy when it comes to pollination, bats can be important pollinators especially in tropical climates as well as deserts in the American Southwest where they pollinate agave plants as well as native cactus.

The United States Forest Service Rangeland Management Botany Program credit bats with pollinating more than 300 species of food-producing plants including cashews, bananas, peaches and figs.

Plants such as French Marigolds, Cleome, Yucca, Night-blooming phlox, Evening primrose, Fleabane, Moonflowers, Goldenrod, Nicotiana, Honeysuckle and Four o’clocks all benefit from possible pollination from bats.

If adding a moon garden of night-blooming flowers is in your plans, having bats will help ensure its success.

Bats also help spread seeds from hundreds of different plant species. Tropical fruit bats are good examples of how important seed dispersers bats can be, especially in warmer tropical climates.

Bat tips from a wildlife rehabilitator

Crystal Faye, Animal Care coordinator for Procyon Wildlife in Beeton Ontario, offers Ferns & Feathers readers some vital information about bats from years of helping injured animals or those needing a helping hand.

Here are just a few of her recommendations:

• Leaving dead trees (if safe to do so) to act as roosting spots

• Choosing native flowers that bloom late in the day or at night to attract insects bats will feed on

• Having a pond or birdbath to provide them a water source

• Don’t evict bats from structures during summer when they are raising pups. They have small litter sizes and low reproductive rates, so loss of an entire colony’s pups can really impact their population.

A few bat recommendations for anyone:

• If a bat pup falls from a roost you may be able to get it to grasp onto a broom and raise it back up to the bat house/nesting area. If given the chance it may climb back up to its colony.

• If a bat is found out of hibernation in the winter it has likely used up all its fat stores and needs help to survive. Releasing a bat outdoors in winter will cause it to die from freezing or of starvation. A bat found awake in Ontario or other cold climate during winter needs to be cared for by a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

• Never handle a bat bare handed. Like most wild mammals they can contract and spread the rabies virus. Always wear thick gloves or use a thick towel if attempting to catch a bat.

To find a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Ontario visit the Ontario Wildlife Rescue. Ontario Wildlife Rescue is a network of rehabilitators and wildlife centres across Ontario.

Why we need bats in our gardens

But what about woodland gardeners? Why should we care about bats?

In a Woodland garden, we strive to create a natural environment where everything is in check. Bats are an important part of that natural environment helping to create a balance. Bats fill a niche that few other animals can meet.

When my wife and I first moved into our home more that 20 years ago, the evening sky was filled with bats flitting about capturing their dinner in mid flight. I remember sitting out with a glass of wine just watching the little bats fly about in the openings between trees.

Mosquitoes were never really a concern at that time. West Nile didn’t exist in our area and the odd nip from a mosquito was no problem.

Life went by and working afternoons meant looking up into the evening sky became a rare endeavour available only on busy weekends. Since retirement, however, looking up into the evening sky has become an alarming exercise in futility.

No longer are bats filling the evening skies with their frenetic flights. There are still bats, but the numbers have fallen drastically. Seeing them flying about is now an exciting moment, rather than a common one.

Even in an area surrounded by acres of conservation land forests the bat population is in decline.

The result, besides the increase in the mosquito population and the inability to sit out in the evening without being attacked by a barrage of blood suckers, is the likely rise in pesticides to deal with the increasing numbers. This doesn’t include the enormous increase in electronic bug zappers that kill not only mosquitoes but every other flying insect at night including moths.

Bat houses are the perfect way to reduce mosquitoes in your yard

Company founders Christopher Rännefors and Harrison Broadhurst display two of their popular bat houses.

Artificial roosts help bats recover from White-Nose Syndrome

Adding to the problem is the enormous loss of bats due to White-Nose Syndrome.

According to Mr. Tuttle, “The bat-killing fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, that causes white-nose syndrom (WNS), has triggered the most serious wildlife disease epidemic in American history.”

The immediate goals of wildlife experts has been to try to halt the spread and find a cure for the disease.

Mr. Tuttle goes on to explain that White-Nose Syndrome “has proven unstoppable. Bats have spread it rapidly across an entire continent since 2008, killing millions of cave-hibernating species. This is extremely discouraging.

However, the most dire predictions have not come to pass, and encouraging discoveries have been made.

Bat facts from the U.S. Department of the Interior

1) There are more than 1,400 species of bats worldwide.

2) Not all bats hibernate

3) Bats have few natural predators – disease is one of the biggest threats particularly white-nose syndrome.

4) No bats mean no bananas, avocados and mangoes.

5) Night insects have the most to fear from bats.

6) Bats are the only flying mammal

7) Bats may be small, but they’re fast reaching speeds over 100 miles per hour.

8) Conservation efforts are helping bat species recover. At least 12 types of U.S. bats are endangered. In 1988, estimates of lesser long-nosed bat numbers put them at fewer than 1,000 bats at 14 roosts. There are now an estimated 200,000 bats at 75 roosts.

9) The longest living bat is 41 years old. In 2006, a tiny bat from Siberia set the world record at 41 years.

10) Not unlike cats, bats spend a lot of time cleaning and grooming their sleek fur. It also helps to control parasites.

For more interesting facts on our native bats, check out government website 13 awesome facts about Bats.

How gardeners can help bats

Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation suggests the way to help bats deal with White-Nose Syndrome is to focus “on helping bats recover, (by) strictly protecting and restoring their most important hibernation sites, protecting remaining summer colonies, and providing artificial roosts.”

There is mounting evidence of a gradual recovery, when these steps have been taken.

Individual gardeners can do their part by providing natural roosting places in their gardens and by erecting specialized bat houses that help to provide habitat for these critical garden helpers.

Properly constructed and well built bat houses will go a long way in helping our local bats survive and prosper until wildlife scientists are able to wrestle WNS into submission.

The problem, however, is not going away. Efforts to stop the spread of WNS has not slowed its progression. Bats are spreading the disease themselves and cures and vaccinations are are proving impractical, according to the Tuttle Bat organization.

Individual bats can be cured of the fungus that causes WNS, but “cures do not confer immunity, so cannot prevent reinfection.”

In addition, “Widespread vaccination is cost prohibitive and could slow natural selection needed to evolve genetic resistance in future populations.”

In the meantime, all we can do is provide them with the best and healthiest environment possible.

That does not include the use of pesticides.

“Merlin Tuttle always says it best,” explains Woodend, “that the biggest threat to bats is our failure to understand them. We have made it our mission, along with providing quality bat houses, to educate the public about these misunderstood animals. Highlighting the benefits we receive from these animals, and how we can help. Not everyone has to love bats, but we do need to respect them and their role in the ecosystems we all depend on.”

Do bats carry rabies?

Probably the biggest fear of bats is the possibility of contracting rabies.

It’s important to remember that bats are already living all around us, and the chances of getting rabies from a bat is exceedingly rare.

“Like all mammals, bats can contract rabies (though often at a lower rate than other mammals like raccoons or skunks), but transmission to humans is extremely rare, with just 1-2 cases per year in the U.S. and Canada combined,” explains Ms. Woodend.

“It’s worth noting that in the majority of those cases, it was a result of a human making the mistake of touching the bat. Never do that. Bats are not pets and should never be handled. For anyone who simply doesn’t handle bats, the odds of contracting any disease are exceedingly remote,” she explains.

“Additionally, there are hundreds of thousands of bats living in bat houses across North America, and according to bat expert, Merlin Tuttle, there’s not a single recorded case of a bat house owner being harmed by a bat.

“In Austin, Texas 1.5 million bats live under the Congress Ave Bridge in the center of the city, have attracted millions of visitors to view their spectacular emergence close-up, and none has ever been attacked or contracted a disease.

BatBnB recognizes that, although contracting rabies from a bat is extremely rare, their responsibility to educate customers is vital and to make them aware that bats are “absolutely not pets.”

“If a bat is ever seen on the ground or in the home then an animal control professional should be called, and the bat should never be handled directly,” they are quick to point out.

“We don’t pretend there isn’t a risk of rabies with bats, but we also don’t want to allow over-blown scare stories in the media to prevent us from looking at the real numbers in the data that show how small a risk this is to the general population. If we didn’t, then bats would continue to be vilified, threatened, and ultimately tumble down the path of becoming endangered species.”

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Forest Bathing: How to use nature to find peace, better health

Forest bathing has found its place in North America during the Covid pandemic, but it got its start in Japan in the 1980s. Come explore Forest bathing in your own backyard.

Let me bring you songs from the wood
To make you feel much better than you could know
Dust you down from tip to toe
Show you how the garden grows

Ian Anderson

Gardens can be the perfect starting point

Finding peace in the forest or woodland is nothing new. For centuries, people have sought the quiet solitude of these places to escape the stress of urban life.

Tapping into and recognizing the true healing power of the forest, woodlands and natural areas, however, is a fairly recent endeavour.

“It was the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries that established the practice of “shinrin-yoku” (literally translated to “forest bathing”) in the 1980s, as a response to a rising health crisis in their country,” explains Fru Molnar, a Certified Forest Therapy Guide (

Fru Molnar a certified Forest Bathing guide

Fru Molnar, a certified Forest Bathing guide from New York state.


She explains that: “Spending time in nature has been an accessible way to co-regulate the human nervous system for as long as we’ve been on this planet. And, with the evolution of humans, our consciousnesses, and our technologies, we have also developed multifaceted practices to connect with the natural world in order to heal ourselves.”

In the United States, Canada and Europe, the Covid pandemic helped turn woodlands and natural areas – including our gardens – into places of refuge where we could escape the stress and worries associated with big cities, crowded streets and the constant fear of contracting the disease.

Forest bathing for many, whether we realized it or not, became a lifesaver.

“In recent years, I would posit that forest bathing has been gaining traction throughout the pandemic in particular not only because it’s a tangible stress reliever, but also because it was one of the only activities that many folks could still enjoy during peak lockdown times, at least in the United States,” explains Fru, from her home in Peekskill, New York, a town on the Hudson River about an hour north of Manhattan

When you’re truly engaged with your senses in the present moment in nature, that’s forest bathing to me.
— Fru Molnar

“Even in the height of the pandemic, people were able to discover that being outdoors in fresh air with plenty of distance between each other can be an avenue for self-care, play, socializing or community care, and recreation. It’s no coincidence, either, that forest bathing has been proven to boost the immune system – so the health and wellness benefits are obvious draws.”

Fru, a certified forest bathing guide, with her husband Evan exploring the mountains.

Forest bathing actually played a key role in helping Fru and her husband, Evan, find a more satisfying life away from the stress of the big city life.

Evan, a creative designer and digital artist created beautiful images to promote Fru’s Forest Bathing business. For my complete story on Evan’s outstanding work go here.

The couple escaped the big city life in Manhattan by taking a leap to a more rural area of New York state to create Fru’s dream of a more natural lifestyle as a Forest Bathing guide.

“Yes, absolutely. New York City will always have a huge piece of my heart, but I needed balance,” she explains.

“I learned that the concrete jungle isn’t always the most healthful environment for a sensitive person who longs to feel synced to the movements and energies of the natural world; I realized I needed to be living somewhere where I could actually touch the earth with my bare feet on a daily basis, where I could look out my windows and see more trees than buildings, where I could plant a garden and grow flowers for my friends, where I could hike up a mountain after work instead of hiking up endless subway steps.

This experience was amazing. It took me days to speed back up again, and I don’t think I will ever feel like I have to move so fast again!
— Forest bathing client

For a few years, the couple combined the fast pace of Manhattan during the week with a slower pace of nature on weekends they hiked in the Hudson Valley.

Eventually, everything fell in place to “re-root here in Peekskill” she explains.

Peekskill is the basecamp for her forest therapy guide company.

To get to this stage she needed to become a certified forest therapy guide which she did via the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.

The program consists of a six-month online intensive training, followed by a four-day in-person immersion training, Fru explains. She also holds a certification in Wilderness First Aid Basics – an important addition in case of an emergency in the field.


Opening the door to nature

“Additionally, I’ve spent over a decade walking the trails and intimately getting to know the natural landscapes of the Lower Hudson Valley area as an avid hiking, camping, and outdoor adventure enthusiast,” Fru explains.

She is quick to point out that she – and others in her profession – are not therapists, but guides.

“In this practice, we allow the therapeutic work to be done by the natural setting itself. We hold the container for this unique relationship to form between each participant and the forest. A favorite motto among forest therapy guides is: “The forest is the therapist. The guide opens the doors.”

How to discover nature through the senses

“What forest bathing means to me is to be present in nature (any nature, it doesn’t actually have to be a literal forest). It’s really as simple as that. Coming into the present itself can be done through a variety of methods, and I find the most accessible is through the senses,” explains Fru.

“Nature offers such a gorgeously rich tapestry of sensory delights that make it almost impossible not to be present when touching the delicate petal of a flower, or listening to the birds singing, or watching water in a stream.

“When you’re truly engaged with your senses in the present moment in nature, that’s forest bathing to me.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re not having thoughts, of course, but the idea behind the practice is that it’s a restorative one – one where we get to step out of our minds a little bit, and step into our bodies, relax into nature, and enjoy the moment without expectations, without trying to “achieve” anything, just being open to receiving the gifts of Mother Earth. Try it – you might be surprised at how profound things can get when you start looking more closely at the mushrooms, or start actually listening to the trees."

“I had such a good time yesterday that I went out into the woods again later that day, just to do some writing on paper and be with the trees.”
— Forest bather client

What are the benefits to forest bathing?

There are so many physical, mental, and emotional benefits to the practice of forest bathing, some of which can be felt immediately, while others have more subtle effects.”

Three decades of scientific studies in Japan show the vast array of benefits that can be derived from spending mindful, structured time in nature, explains Fru.

These benefits range from the purely physical – boosting immunity, lowering cortisol and adrenaline levels, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and lowered blood pressure, to the emotional and mental – enhanced mental clarity and cognition, increased access to certain types of creativity, improved mood, increased sense of vitality, and relief for chronic depression, anxiety, and other mental conditions.

“It’s truly incredible the breadth of ways in which simply being in the atmosphere of the forest can have a profound effect on us humans, both physiologically and psychologically,” says Fru, adding that “anyone who has spent a few hours in the woods knows how much better you feel afterward.”

Readers who are interested in diving deeper into the science behind any of these benefits, can find links to many of the studies on Fru’s website here.

I had a pretty profound experience where I met my higher self and she told me that I’m worthy of love- it was a beautiful goddess version of me.
— Forest bathing client

What to expect during a forest bathing session

If you have never experienced an organized forest bathing session, you might be surprised.

It is not necessarily travelling deep into a forest and meditating for hours until the perfect Zen state is achieved. Of course, that can be part of an experience but most experiences are simpler and more accessible. For some, it could involve a slow movement through a natural area, for others, it may just involve sitting in a quiet place.

“This practice can be done while in motion, too – nature itself is always in motion, after all. So it’s not necessary to be seated or meditating while enjoying nature, but I do encourage slowness during movement. We want to let our bodies really feel relaxed and held, and for some this might mean moving around, and for others it may mean laying on the earth and watching the clouds float by. It’s all medicine.”

What’s a typical forest bathing session?

Fru explains: “Sessions range from 2-3 hours depending on the size of the group. We don’t walk the entire time, and there are usually several opportunities to take seated breaks along the way. Typically we cover no more than 1 mile in total distance. 

“We gather at our meeting spot and I give a brief introduction. Then, I guide us in some gentle mindfulness practices to awaken our senses and ground us in the present moment.

“From there, we slowly wander and get to know our forest or natural setting. Along the way, I offer a few invitations designed to further connect us with our surroundings as we explore. I always build in chances for you to connect with the forest on your own terms, in your own authentic way. All elements of the session are completely optional and offered as invitations only.

“There are also opportunities to gather in a group and share with others. I really prefer guiding groups for this reason – when we share with others, and even more importantly, when we listen to and witness others’ experiences, our own experiences become all the more enriched for it. Someone sharing a story about a moment they had with a turtle might awaken something deep within another participant, or might prompt someone else to seek out their own kindred creature.”

You don’t have to be out in the deep forest to practise Forest bathing. Pick a chair in your own garden and work to become one with nature. Fru will even work with far-away gardeners over zoom through their smartphones.

Can we practise forest bathing in our own natural garden?

The benefits of forest bathing can be achieved as much in your backyard as they can in the deepest forest. Afterall, it is as much a presence of mind as it is a physical place.

Our woodland gardens just might be the ideal place for us to experience the joys and peace forest bathing offers.

“Gardening is a perfect gateway to forest bathing! Caring for plants in a reciprocal relationship is a core value of forest therapy guides and gardeners alike,” explains Fru.

I was surprised how much better I felt after and how deeply positively it affected me.
— Forest bathing client

 She offers a simple technique: “I’d like to share a very simple but truly profound forest bathing invitation that gardeners can do every single day in their own backyards. It’s called “sit spot,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like — find a place in your garden where you can sit (or lie down) very comfortably for at least 15-20 minutes. 

“Then, do just that — sit. And be. Allow yourself to do nothing. See what happens as you observe the world around you unfold. Notice with all of your senses. Cultivate patience. 

Fru recommends people who have a peaceful garden to do this exercise every single day in the same spot, if possible. “It’s truly magical to notice how the landscape changes, and how it stays the same — and how we change and stay the same right alongside it.”

The good news is that Fru is available to hep guide gardeners either in person if you live nearby, virtually using a smart phone or through a zoom call.

Gardeners who would like to contact Fru can do so easily through email at her website at ([email protected]), or by filling out the booking form on her website.

Walk was extremely calming and relaxing. I felt very supported to allow the invitations to flow easily, without judgment or control. Heart rate decreased, breathing felt more nourishing, filled with gratitude post-walk. Felt more connected with myself, my environment, and the walk group.
— Forest bathing client

Exploring a virtual forest bathing experience

Even if you don’t live anywhere near the Lower Hudson Valley (NY), Fru is available to guide virtually.

“On virtually-guided walks, you get to choose the location, and I’ll guide from my own location. So we won’t be physically present with each other, but we will be doing the practice simultaneously on our phones,” Fru explains. “These 1.5-hour journeys are a low-key, accessible way to get many of the benefits of an in-person forest therapy experience from your own backyard or favorite outdoor spot. All you need is a device with Wifi or cell connection, headphones, and someplace green that calls out to you. Wherever you participate from, the guided session includes sensory invitations and optional group sharing opportunities, and we’ll finish with a virtual tea circle!”

Exploring the virtual experience is just another way natural, woodland gardeners can explore the benefits of their hard work and become more aware and connected to their garden.

Gardeners who would like to contact Fru can do so easily through email at her website at ([email protected]), or by filling out the booking form on her website. You can visit her website at

Lastly, if readers want to find other ANFT-certified forest bathing guides near them, check out this comprehensive list of more than 500 certified forest bathers in the following directory and search by city or state or country, including forest bathers in Canada, the U.K. etc.

•A quick search in my area turned up Forestbathingwithbeth which is operated in Barrie just outside Toronto, Ont., Canada.

• For those in the west, or those readers looking for the ultimate Forest bathing experience in the Cdn. Rocky Mountains, contact Ronna at Forest Fix who operates in the Canmore/Banff area.

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Creating your own “Ark” landscape design has never been easier

Here is your opportunity to have Chelsey Gold Medal winning landscape designer Mary Reynolds create a garden of your dreams based around her concept of creating Arks. A natural landscape or woodland garden based on native plants for wildlife.

Mary Reynolds’ gift makes it all possible

Chelsea award-winning Irish landscape designer, Mary Reynolds, has given the world too many gifts to count, but her latest gift might just be her most inspiring.

Especially if you are the one either giving it, or, even better, on the beneficiary end.

Mary, both an accomplished author and landscaper designer, has been working hard over the past several years to help homeowners and especially gardeners develop a new appreciation for a more “wild landscape” – one that respects native plants and the wildlife that either calls it home or would love to make it their home.

Image of Irish landscape designer Mary Reynolds

Landscape designer Mary Reynolds is now offering readers in North America and elsewhere the opportunity to have her help create a landscape design for their properties.

She has developed an entire movement and website (We Are The Ark) around creating “Arks” in the suburban and rural landscapes. These Arks act as stepping stones across the landscape, where pollinators, birds and even mammals can find refuge and habitat they can call home.

Every thread of the web we remove through human expansion, destruction and pollution, could be the last thread holding it all together and we just dont know when it is all going to fall apart. If you want to save the planet, start with your own patch of it.
— Mary Reynolds

Why is it so important for homeowners to develop their Ark?

Mary explains, over email, to Ferns & Feathers that it is increasingly important for homeowners to consider creating an Ark.

“Because the web of life is collapsing. We have lost 70 per cent of all our earth’s wild creatures since 1970 when the ‘green’ revolution kicked in and the population exploded. With the collapse in insect populations and the 75 per cent loss of our topsoil, we are looking at a catastrophic collapse of the earth’s ability to provide us with clean air, water, food and shelter,” Mary explains.

“Every thread of the web we remove through human expansion, destruction and pollution, could be the last thread holding it all together and we just don’t know when it is all going to fall apart.”

Mary urges homeowners to recognize their role in saving the planet, even if it is just a small patch in an urban environment.

“If you want to save the planet, start with your own patch of it. Set your land free and support it to become a native plant ecosystem, removing the non natives and importing as many locally sourced native plant layers as possible. These are the plant communities that have evolved alongside their local insects and mammals who cannot survive without them. We have to make a patchwork quilt of hope for nature, for the seeds of restoration to spring forth when the time comes.”

Her website already tracks the number of people who have created their own Arks and marked them on her arkivist world map.

To date, there are more than 1,000 documented Arks, including about 320 in the United States and Canada. Mary hopes her individual and more personalized assistance will help boost that number.

Now, Mary wants to offer her services to help even more homeowners turn their properties into “Arks.”

Landscape designer Mary Reynolds is offering to help howmowners in North America and elsewhere create their own Arks.

And, for homeowners in the United States and Canada, she will provide the service all on line.

She tells Ferns & Feathers that she is ready for the onslaught of requests undoubtedly coming her way.

“I have been doing online consultations for a couple of years now across the world, the complexities are not too hard, most places have similar problems, and simple, if often different solutions,” Mary explains.

Hummingbird in the garden.

Giving wildlife a place to prosper in your garden is an important part of creating your own Ark.

Why do we need an Ark?

Mary points out on the website that the earth is “losing 150 to 200 species to extinction every single day. Each species lost is lost FOREVER.

Biodiversity is short for “Biological diversity”.

Biodiversity is “the variety of all living things, and the systems which connect them.” This includes all the planet’s different plants, animals and micro- organisms, plus the genetic information they contain and the ecosystems of which they are a part.”

An incredible opportunity to build your Ark

It’s an incredible opportunity to have a Chelsea Gold-Medal winning landscape designer dig into your landscape and help transform it into a woodland/wildlife refuge.

Mary, of course, is not limited to “woodland” designs, but given that this website is dedicated to woodland/wildlife design and Mary has gone on record saying that most land wants to revert back to a woodland style, the odds are good that the design will lean in that direction.

In the announcement, Mary said she “wants you to give any land under your care back to nature, to re-wild, to be Arked.”

Mary Reynolds’ first book Garden Awakening, where she introduced the concept of creating Arks to the world of gardening.

“The hour consultation is a zoom call where I have been supplied with photos and short videos of their land. Then we talk through each area discussing how to increase the sanctuary there for the local wildlife in all its forms,” explains Mary.

“Also we work out how to weave the guardians’ own needs in with these ideas. The sketch designs are more detailed and are to scale, mapping out a concept design for you to work with on your own land, though I need a proper land survey for that option,  with all of the existing trees, plants, paths etc,” Mary says, adding that the on-line services will be an ongoing service for homeowners and businesses.

Anywhere in the world, Mary can work online with you, from an hour long consultation to a full ARK design.
In particular, Mary “can help you design a space that allows for the maximum amount of edges and ecotones, the most diverse range of habitats you can fit into your land. A magical place for your family to enjoy and protect, which will be hopping with life and beauty. A sanctuary for all of the native creatures that need it, places to rest and recover and finally thrive.”

“She will guide you to understand how to step in and provide the ecosystem services required to maintain that diversity going forward, to replace the missing parts of the web of life that we have broken. To become the wolf, the deer, the beaver.
To be a Guardian, not a gardener.
To be an Arkevist.”

There are several approaches homeowners can take to have Mary design their gardens.

Mary is asking readers to email her with the property’s size, and some photos to receive a quote for the work.  

All of the details are available at her website (link.) Below are excerpts from her website to give readers a better understanding how the process may work.

• An online advice hour over Skype or Zoom: Send a number of comprehensive photos of your land, a google maps pin so we can look at it from above and even some very short videos (less than 1 minute if possible). Once I have all the information, I can talk through ideas with you over zoom. Please note that this is not a gardening advice service. It is for Ark development and design. €184.50 (€150 plus VAT @ 23%) (approximately $230 US, or $310 Cdn. to be paid before the appointment.)

An on-site consultancy including a design: This involves me coming to visit you, at your home, where we sit down and I sketch a design out over a pre-prepared landscape survey of the site (which you will have provided from a surveyor), creating spaces within the land for spending time, growing food, building a magical connection between your land and yourself and supporting wildlife to share the land with you.  I draw up a scaled master plan before I leave. However, there will be no detailed construction details or detailed drawings, but you will be able to work with a contractor using the master plan or use it yourself to develop your Ark.

If I am working out of the country, I would be asking you to consider an online design consultation as I do not want to travel unless absolutely necessary.

The process usually takes 3 – 4  hours on site (I will need a dry warm space with a large table to work on). In order to give you a definite price I need you to email me some photographs of the land so I can see how big it is, as size is everything in terms of the amount of design involved. But I usually manage most gardens in the one day, if the areas I am designing are not too complicated and under an acre in size.

Online Design Consultation: 
This is a good way to get the Mary design experience if you are a distance away.

“I will work on a survey pre-prepared and sent to me before the appointment date. I can get to talk to you by zoom in the morning to hear the design brief and feel into the situation. Then I will work on the design to get a good solution for both the client and the Ark’s requirements and call you back as required during the day, finally presenting it by zoom and scanning the drawings and emailing them to you day following completion.”

“You will end up with a good overall master plan to work towards yourself, or to use in conjunction with a contractor to manifest the design on the ground, or develop the Ark yourself.”

“However, there will be no detailed construction details or planting details. As I am not spending time travelling to the site, I get to spend more time at the design during the day and it is a good solution for people a distance away.”

In order to give you a definite price I would need you to send me photographs of the land so I can see how big it is, as size is everything in terms of the amount of design involved!
But I usually manage most gardens in the one day, if the areas I am designing are not too complicated and under an acre in size.

However, there is also the cost of the survey, which needs to be emailed to me before I begin so that I can do some preparation drawings. The survey is a separate contract which doesn’t involve my input and best organized locally to your site.

The amount of information Mary will need will depend on how detailed a plan you are looking for her to design.

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Garden profiles Vic MacBournie Garden profiles Vic MacBournie

The Woodland comes to life in Evan Rosen’s exquisite artwork

It took the death of his father and a complete immersion into nature, the forest and woodlands to take Evan Rosens art from the darkness into the sunlight.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

–Paul Simon

Darkness turns to light as the seeds of nature take root

The darkness in Evan Rosen’s art was clearly evident. It emerged from the skulls and knives, the snakes and the dark figures that are hard not to miss in his Instagram feed.

Today, that darkness has given way to light in the form of exquisite, woodland floral art.

A series of flower bouquets combining woodland flowers, dogwood bracts, berries and even emerging skunk cabbage are evidence that his artistic path has taken a dramatic change.

But it took the death of his father and the work of his wife to bring about that change.

A spring woodland bouquet including trillium, dogwood, lilac, dog-tooth violet and, of course, our native bumble bee.

A spring woodland bouquet including trillium, dogwood, lilac, dog-tooth violet and, of course, our native bumble bee.


His wife’s life-changing decision to leave a hectic corporate job in New York and take on a new career in the quiet of nature’s woodland, that had a pronounced influence on Evan’s work.

A project to create a series of images of forest bouquets to promote his wife’s Forest Bathing venture was the catalyst behind his new artistic path.

This project started as a way to market Forest Baths. I’d made the logo and we were both happy with it, but we needed something visually interesting for the newsletter and flyers. I can’t recall exactly how we came up with the first one, but I’m sure we were walking in the woods when it happened.
— Evan Rosen

Evan Rosen’s woodland floral artwork captures the forest and its inhabitants in perfect detail.


Not only was the series of images for his wife’s work the original impetus for creating the floral work, but Evan is quick to add that it is also “because going forest bathing and hiking with his wife, Fru, was where we found much of the inspiration.”

If you want to learn more about Fru’s forest bathing business, you might enjoy my comprehensive story on Fru’s business, here.

Evan also attributes his change in focus to the loss of his dad to cancer in November of 2020. His death and the enormous influence of his mother, an award-winning gardener in her own right.

“My Mom is a flower maniac. She’s very talented at creating flower arrangements and our house was always full of them. She has grown an incredible variety of flowers (especially roses), and has a small mountain of prize ribbons from the local garden show. Which, shell have you know, she won without the use of fertilizers or pesticides, just compost!

My father’s death led to “a big tonal shift in my work,” he adds.

Evan created a collage portrait of his father which was eventually used as a poster for his memorial.

“He was an avid gardener of fruit trees, and an attorney who specialized in cannabis law. I wanted to create an image of him exalted and enthroned by the plants that he loved and cultivated. It’s the way I wanted to remember him, surrounded by life. I think it’s a critical bridge between my older work and my newer stuff.

Memorial image of Richard Allen Rosen that acted as an inspiration for Evan's new artistic path.

A tribute Evan created for his father’s memorial.


“I think before I experienced loss, I was much more drawn toward dark imagery, skulls, etc. After spending a year grieving and experiencing actual darkness, flowers started to be really appealing! We also bought a house and I started growing flowers myself in addition to vegetable gardening.”

Evan’s path is quite extraordinary.

The self-taught artist grew up in California and attended University of California, Santa Cruz where he majored in Community Studies where he studied the theory and practice of activism. In high school and college he became interested in working on and designing web sites.

He eventually made his way to New York (Brooklyn in 2006) for a college internship, but he “liked it so much that I never went back to finish my degree. I continued doing freelance design and eventually transitioned to working desk jobs as a web, then UX (user experience) designer,” he explains.

In 2010 he met his wife through a dating website, and the rest was history.

But, let’s go back to the beginning again.

Evan traces the path back to 2014 in a small apartment in Brooklyn N.Y.

“I started making collage in earnest around 2014, while living in a small apartment in Brooklyn. I was exploring the medium in earnest, falling in love with the process, and didn’t have a particular statement I was trying to make. So a lot of the early things I made were derivative of, or direct homage, to the stuff I loved – weird scifi and dark fantasy, anime and comics and fiction.

Evan’s story certainly has a dark side, but it’s one he doesn’t mind sharing.

He remembers his artwork as a “reflection of my mental environment, which has not always been a friendly place. I was, for the first time, trying to treat my depression, anxiety and ADHD, with therapy, medication and meditation. This was not some program, I was just trying everything that seemed promising.

“It turns out making collage art was a key part of that healing process for me. By sifting through images and recombining them, I was able to let my subconscious process things that I wasn’t able to reckon with directly. So unsurprisingly, there are a lot of monsters,” he explains.

His outlook and creative vision continued to evolve and “in 2019 we left Brooklyn for Peekskill, NY, driven in large part by my wife’s passionate love of nature and my industry (web design) becoming increasingly friendly to remote-work. I started gardening and around the same time – the second half of 2019 – you start to see nature imagery creeping into my work.

That becomes clear in a series of biome environmental images he created that he calls the Islands series.

“I think it was also an expression of eco-anxiety – these tiny biomes floating in different voids symbolized a hopeful outcome for vanishing wild places,” Evan explains.

Biodome image

An example of one of Evan’s floating biodome pieces.


It was about that time that his wife needed artwork for her Forest Bathing business and Evan seemed like the logical choice to create it.

And the woodland floral bouquets were born.

But, it wasn’t quite that simple.

First, his outdoorsy wife, Fru, had to get this indoor recluse out in nature so he could experience what she was planning to dedicate her life doing.

“Well, I spend a LOT more time in the woods now. That’s always been a key part of our relationship, spending time in nature together. And for most of the time we’ve been together, she was always the one who would suggest we do outdoorsy things. And I’d half jokingly say ‘thanks for making sure I go outside sometimes.’ Because collage art is a pretty inherently indoor activity.”

Evan explains how getting outdoors changed his life.


Evan and his wife, Fru, enjoying the forest in New York State near their home.


“Learning the science has also been really eye opening. There are so many profound, and objectively measurable, health benefits to spending time in the woods. One of the most useful for me is the way it helps me regulate my nervous system. After I’ve been out in the woods for maybe 45 minutes or an hour, the sense of calm I feel in my body is tremendous, and lasts well past when we return to civilization.”

But, there was still the matter of creating these exquisite woodland bouquets. Again, that’s where his wife’s extensive knowledge of the woodland came to the rescue.

“I feel the bouquets are very much a collaboration, and never would have happened without her business as a client. They always start with a list of plants that we’re excited about seeing in the month ahead. Typically Fru would write most of that. So, she should get credit for a lot of the knowledge you’re seeing displayed!”

“From there, I’d learn the latin names and go find them on, an incredible archive of botanical imagery. Some species have hundreds of illustrations, while others might only have a few. But that site provides 90 per cent of my source material.

“Often I’ll combine elements from several different illustrations. The arranging itself is mostly my solo activity. But then I’ll always work with her to fine tune it, because she also has a great eye, especially for things like color balancing and getting the right mix of simple and complex.”

Evan also admits that it is his wife who does most of the planning.

“I do pretty well with my ADHD, but these take weeks to finish and if it were left up to me they’d all be two months late. She would make sure we start the process the month before which usually was enough time for me to finish a piece during the intended month.”

And so it was that the bouquets were born – one for each month of the year to promote Fru’s Forest Bathing business and, in turn, bring new life and focus to Evan’s art.

“I will definitely keep doing more floral arrangements,” he says. “I’d love to do commissions in this style, creating a custom piece based on the plants that are meaningful to someone.”

Where can you purchase Evan’s art?

Evan and his wife operate an Etsy shop where you can purchase his work as fine art prints, greeting cards and even a calendar displaying all the woodland images. Use this link to visit the Etsy site (or the one above.)

Evan has generously offered a 15 per cent discount to Ferns & Feathers readers by using the code “FERNSANDFLOWERS” at checkout. Evan points out that any order over $35 (which amounts to a calendar and two cards!) and there’s free shipping.

In addition, consider that 50 per cent of the Etsy shop profits are donated to an indigenous people’s arts and culture organization in New York.

“We donate 50 per cent of our profits to The Lenape Center, an arts and culture organization run by and for Lenape, the indigenous people of the Lower Hudson Valley,” explains Evan.

“As a white person, land acknowledgements are a good start, but pretty meaningless if they aren’t backed up with action, Evan explains. “So, we wanted to make sure that this project gave back to the land, by giving back to the people who have stewarded it.”

In their own words: “Since 2009, Lenape Center, based in Manhattan and led by Lenape elders, has created programs, exhibitions, workshops, performances, symposia, land acknowledgment, and ceremonies to continue our Lenape presence. We push back against our erasure and seed the ground with Lenape consciousness for the next generations.”

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Garden profiles Vic MacBournie Garden profiles Vic MacBournie

Understory Gardens: Focus on sustainable west-coast landscapes

Alexa LeBouef Brooks is a west coast garden designer looking to convince people that we need a more sustainable approach to garden design in the face of climate change.

Garden designer’s favourite plants for the natural garden

Alexa LeBouef Brooks is changing the world around her, and she’s not alone.

Like so many other people her age working to protect the earth, Alexa recognizes that the environment is at a critical juncture – either something is done soon or we risk losing much of what we have in the not-too-distant future.

The 33-year-old landscape designer is fully aware of the environmental challenges that lay ahead for future generations and the precarious path humans could be facing in the future.

Alexa is part of a new breed of progressive landscape designers taking it upon themselves to reject traditional garden designs and embrace a new, more sustainable garden style – at least in the town she calls home. Her Pacific West-Coast designs specialize in developing a more sustainable, woodland or naturalized gardening approach – hence the name Understory Gardens.

(For more on West Coast garden designs and native plants, be sure to check out my post on Vancouver-Island-based Satinflower Nurseries, Native plants find a home on Vancouver Island.)

Also, if you are interested in native plants, be sure to check out my post on Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle area landscape designer Alex Leboeuf Brooks is one of many new progressive designers who is challenging old landscape approaches to create more sustainable landscapes for the future.

Seattle area landscape designer Alex LeBoeuf Brooks is one of many new progressive designers who is challenging old landscape approaches to create more sustainable landscapes for the future.

That love of woodland and natural garden designs has its roots in her childhood.

“Growing up in the Pacific Northwest my parents often brought me to the mountains or the river and seasides to go camping and exploring. From a young age I found myself in awe of our natural beauty,” Alexa explains.

“I think the development of my style of gardening grew from my desire to always be connected to the natural beauty I spent so much time in as a child. Although I embrace multiple garden aesthetics, the native and natural style of gardening keeps me rooted in the land I call home.”

Inspired by the work of Irish landscaper, author Mary Reynolds

Although her love for natural gardens has its roots in her childhood, Alexa owes much of her garden design approach to the work of famed Irish landscape designer and author Mary Reynolds who, rejected the traditional landscape design methods to focus mainly on restoring the land and habitats. She is founder of the environmental movement, that encourages gardeners around the world to create more natural, sustainable gardens through the use of native plants.

If you are interested in getting more on the work of Mary Reynolds and her book Garden Awakening, you might be interested in my article Garden Awakening will change the way you garden.

Another landscape designer that has shaped Alexa’s work are the more classic designs of Miranda Brooks.


Although her passion is landscape design, Alexa’s real challenge is about combining beautiful, but ecologically sustainable landscapes for her clients.

Her long list of achievements has helped lead her to starting landscape design in 2018.

  • Vice chair and landscape designer for the Edmonds Architectural Design Board

  • Completed Edmonds Community College courses in specialty pruning and design

  • Member of the Plant Amnesty Gardener Referral List

  • 9 years experience with organic Agriculture and animal husbandry

  • 8 years experience with ornamental Horticulture

Plant Amnesty: Focus on maintaining ecology and environment

Through the excellent work of the Seattle-based, non-profit organization called Plant Amnesty, many of Alexa’s clientele are already aware of the importance of protecting the ecology of the area.

The organization’s focus is to educate the greater Puget Sound area on proper pruning, responsible gardening and land preservation.

“I find that most clients who seek gardeners and designers through Plant Amnesty have a shared interest in maintaining the integrity of our delicate ecology and environment. Even outside of my Plant Amnesty clients, when a potential client sees my business name and website, they are anticipating a particular style of gardening from my work. Most are open to the suggestions I make when designing their gardens and plugging in additional plants to an existing design as well as garden maintenance methods.

“The more I learn about the benefits of using strictly native plants, the more I turn to them,” Alexa LeBouef Brooks.

Designer is turning gardens into works of art

Alexa’s background in fine art certainly helped prepare her for the challenge

“In 2012 I received my bachelor’s degree of Fine Arts and Art History and pursued the art world in my twenties. I have always had my hands in the soil for as long as my memory serves me. I think that is why I enjoy art and art making so much, is because there is a tactile element that requires the use of hands and creativity, while getting a little messy along the way,” she explains.

“Somewhere along the journey I started getting interested in the design element of landscaping. I could use my creative skills on paper to transform beautiful outdoor living spaces. Landscape design has become the perfect marriage of all my interests in the art and landscaping world.”

Along the journey, she is playing a vital role in saving the natural environment and landscapes in her home town of Edmonds, Washington just outside Seattle, where she is the vice-chair for the Edmonds Architectural Design Board.

“I believe all homeowners should be stewards of their land, to preserve and maintain the diverse ecology of surrounding plants and species,” she explains.

Alexa is doing her part to help guide her clients along this path. Education plays an important role in her relationship both with her clients and the environment she creates for them.

“My design process includes an educational element in which I teach my clients about individual plant and seasonal needs. I like involving my clients in the design process because it inspires them to learn more about maintaining our natural environment, and their personal garden is the perfect tool to achieve this.”

I believe the natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest stirs inspiration in people of all ages to maintain its beauty.

She is quick to point out that, “responsible stewardship can also be achieved by creating designs for clients that integrate native and drought tolerant plants as well as plants that attract our resident pollinators.”

Alexa uses her extensive knowledge of the environment and use of native plants to guide her clients.

“I believe the natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest stirs inspiration in people of all ages to maintain its beauty,” she explains.

“It could be as simple as leaving most of the fallen leaves and using it as an attractive mulch for garden beds. Destructive methods include stripping the top layer of mulch and soil using powerful gas blowers and excessive raking. Not only does this negatively impact butterfly larvae populations as well as leave little nesting materials and berries for birds, but you are left with bare soil that does not retain moisture and nutrients for our increasing summer temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.”

Climate change: Awakening a new style of gardening

Alexa is the first to admit that climate change is awakening homeowners, who may have once dreamed for a certain style of garden, into realizing that a new, more sustainable approach to gardening is now needed.

“In the midst of our climate crisis and environmental destruction, Washington’s winters are bringing in more rain and colder temperatures while our summers are bringing in more drought and higher temperatures. What was a temperate climate is slowly becoming more extreme,” she explains.

“One of the biggest challenges we now face are forest and brush fires. Because of our increasing temperatures in the summer, many landscapers are implementing more California natives. The drawback is not all California natives thrive in our decreasing winter temperatures. So, instead of trying to control a shift in our plant hardiness zones, we must adapt and allow our plants to adapt. This, of course, comes with trial and often error. More and more clients are requesting drought tolerant plants in their gardens, and I am happy to oblige.”

(Be sure to check out the full story of Alexa’s Seattle-area garden design, including a list of native plants used in the design.)

An example of one of Alex’a garden design plans.

Alexa’s favourite Understory trees for Pacific Northwest gardens

  1. Acer circinatum (native Vine Maple) for its spectacular fall color and interesting structure.

  2. Cornus nuttallii (native Pacific Dogwood) for its cascading branching and delicate flowers.

  3. Cornus controversa 'Variegata' (giant Dogwood or Wedding Cake tree) for its gorgeous cake-like layers of branches and delicate variegated color.

  4. Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura) for its fall color and fragrance of leaves that smell like burnt sugar.

  5. Magnolia macrophylla (Bigleaf Magnolia) for its broad leaves that provide a tropical feel.

Alexa’s favourite ground covers for Pacific Northwest gardens

  1. Cornus canadensis (native Bunchberry dogwood) for its seasonal interest from flowers, to berries, to multi color leaves. (For more information on our native bunchberry be sure to check out my story here.)

  2. Frageria chiloensis (native Beach Strawberry) for its fruit, flowers and evergreen interest.

  3. Ophiopogon 'Nana' (Dwarf Mondo) for its hardy evergreen blades that can withstand heavy traffic.

  4. Erigeron glaucus (native Seaside Fleabane) for its spring through fall blooms.

  5. Erigeron karvinskianus 'Profusion' (Fleabane) for its delicate white and pink flowers.

Alexa’s favourite Shrubs for Pacific Northwest gardens

  1. Vaccinium ovatum (native Evergreen Huckleberry) for its edible berries and sculptural element.

  2. Ribes sanguinium (native Flowering Currant) for its vibrant flowers.

  3. Arctostaphylos 'Howard McMinn' (California native Manzanita) for its red bark, bell shaped flowers and silver leaves.

  4. Picea abies 'Pusch' (Norway Spruce) for its hot pink cones and pin cushion shape.

  5. Rosa nutkana (native Nootka Rose), for its rose hips and just to add a bonus, Corylopsis spicata (Winter Hazel) for its winter flowers.

Incorporating natives and non-natives in the landscape

While Alexa strives to incorporate more and more native plants in her landscapes, clients needs often dictate the use of non-natives. In many cases, non-natives are already well established in the gardens.

“My designs meet the clients where they are, and I incorporate many different aesthetics that cater to the clients needs and desires. That being said, I will always see myself as a student in anything I pursue. The more I learn about the benefits of using strictly native plants, the more I turn to them, explains Alexa.

(If you are looking for more information on the importance of using native plants in our gardens, check out my comprehensive post: Why we need native plants in our gardens.

“There is a list of plants that I strictly avoid in our area. These include invasive species that drive out beneficial pollinators, degrade habitat, cause disturbance in the food web, and even chemically alter soil biology. This doesn't even cover genetically engineered plants which is an increasing technology being utilized that has known and unknown consequences. The most important act we can do as gardeners and landscapers is educate our clients on what is appropriate for our area and be cognizant of our watershed, soils and precious species.”

Alexa gives much of her success and knowledge of plants to her friend Bre Moravec.

“My friend and fellow gardener Bre Moravec, owner of Gaia Gardens is the perfect example of this. She goes the extra mile to educate herself to educate others. Because of Bre’s passion she has mentored me and other gardeners, teaching specialty pruning methods and in depth plant species knowledge and identification.”

How Covid changed the way we garden

When asked how important she thought it is for homeowners’ physical and mental health to surround themselves in a landscape they love, and how rewarding it is for her when her clients fall in love with their new gardens, Alexa responded: “It has always been important, but ever since the Covid pandemic it is more important than ever.

“There have been studies that time spent outside, specifically in a more natural setting improves sleep, lowers overall inflammation, enhances blood flow, repairs cells and tissues, and improves electrical activity in the brain. How amazing would it be if we can access this from our backdoor! I love helping my clients transform what was once an uninviting space into a space in which they and their families can retreat to, where it is safe because they know chemicals aren't being used, and they can enjoy all the benefits and pleasures that our seasons bring.

(If you are looking for more information on the importance of being outdoors in nature and in our gardens, you will want to check out my post Why kids need more nature in their lives.

And what does Alexa love most about her job?

“My relationships with my clients and time outside bring me most joy. The most difficult hurdle about this job is probably Washington’s weather. We’re known to get a lot of rain here!

For more information, or to contact Alexa about landscaping, visit her website at Understory Gardens.

If you are looking for more inspiration, you may be interested in Gardens of the Pacific Northwest.

If you are on the lookout for high quality, non-GMO seed for the Pacific North West consider West Coast Seeds. The company, based in Vancouver BC says that “part of our mission to help repair the world, we place a high priority on education and community outreach. Our intent is to encourage sustainable, organic growing practices through knowledge and support. We believe in the principles of eating locally produced food whenever possible, sharing gardening wisdom, and teaching people how to grow from seed.”

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What are the best bird feeders: Wood or more modern plastic bird feeders?

The days of wood bird feeders are quickly giving way to Resin feeders made out of recycled plastic containers. These resin containers look great and are more importantly, easy to clean.

Avian flu outbreak is good reason to move to modern resin-based or plastic feeders

I love wood as much as the next guy, but when it comes to bird feeders, today’s more modern resin/plastic bird feeders are always the better choice.

The new plastic or resin-based feeders are easier to clean and keep clean and that helps to reduce the spread of disease among our songbirds.

This is especially important now with the emergence of Avian flu, which can be devastating to large flocks of birds that come in contact with the virus. It struck earlier this year in parts of the United States with primarily waterfowl and migrated north to northern states and into Canada. It was detected in Ontario in March of this year entering from migrating birds.

According to Cornell University’s All About Birds website: There is currently very low risk of an outbreak among wild songbirds, and no official recommendation to take down feeders unless you also keep domestic poultry, according to the National Wildlife Disease Program. We do always recommend that you clean bird feeders and birdbaths regularly as a way to keep many kinds of diseases at bay. We also always recommend that you follow any recommendations put out by your state government, such as the recent request to take down feeders in Illinois.”

Woodpecker on Wild Birds Unlimited recycled plastic feeder.

Woodpecker on Wild Birds Unlimited recycled plastic feeder.

Cornell reports that as of mid July, 2022, “they’ve detected the HPAI strain in 1,826 wild birds, with 41 detections in songbirds.

The website also reports that “Songbirds are much less likely than waterfowl to contract avian influenza and less likely to shed large amounts of virus, meaning they do not transmit the disease easily.”

The CDC reports the following: “Infected birds can shed avian influenza A viruses in their saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Susceptible birds become infected when they have contact with the virus as it is shed by infected birds. They also can become infected through contact with surfaces that are contaminated with virus from infected birds.”

White breasted nuthatch on recycled plastic feeder.

White breasted nuthatch on recycled plastic feeder.

What can we do to reduce the spread of Avian Flu?

I have seriously reduced the amount of feed I use this year, preferring to put out just a little of the no-mess blend on a daily basis. This eliminates seed build-up and keeps the number of birds at the feeding station down considerably.

For more on purchasing these bird feeders on a budget check out my best bird feeder finds.

Having plastic or resin bird feeders is no guarantee that your backyard birds will escape the deadly virus, but plastic feeders are easier to keep clean and should help keep the birds at your feeder safe. Regular cleaning of the resin feeders is quick and easy. A quick wipe with bleach gets the job done and this will not damage the resins.

In fact, a quick look at the Wild Birds Unlimited website shows 12 eco-friendly (resin) hopper bird feeders and only a single wood hopper feeder. I’m sure more are available in-store, but there is no question that the eco-friendly recycled plastic feeders are proving popular despite their high price tag.

Wild Birds Unlimited is not the only location where you can purchase high-quality, plastic feeders. If you are looking for a stylish addition to your garden, Look no further than Garret Wade’s impressive line of feeders. Their church-style-bird feeder is currently on clearance and would be a good choice as both a high quality bird feeder and piece of garden art.

Wild Birds Unlimited is a leader in the industry when it comes to backyard bird feeding. They describe their EcoTough Classic hopper-style feeder as a high quality feeder that “won’t crack, fade or rot. EcoTough® feeders are environmentally friendly, high quality products made from recycled plastic milk jugs. … Perch drains allow seed to drop out of the feeder for ground-feeding birds to eat, and angled perches let empty seed hulls be blown away by the wind. The removable screen bottom is treated with EcoClean® Product Protection, providing 24/7 product protection.”


Amish-made bird feeder is built to last and perform in your woodland garden

The Amish crafted large gazebo vinyl birdfeeder is the perfect addition to any backyard. Include it as a finishing touch topping feeder for your bird feeding pole, or use it as a stand alone feeder on a separate pole. If you use it as a stand alone feeder, be sure to include a squirrel baffle to keep squirrels and racoons of the feeder. This handmade and handcrafted feeder includes a clear plastic, built-in seed storage container that can hold up to four pounds of bird seed.

This makes it an ideal feeder to fill-and-forget for a week or two while, at the same time, protecting the seed from the elements and providing our feathered friends with a comfortable and sheltered place to feed. The fact that the feeder is made from high quality vinyl, plastic and cedar ensures it is a long-lasting, easy-to-clean and maintain feeder.


If you are looking to set up a bird-feeding station, be sure to check out my post on Setting Up a Bird Feeding Pole.

At our feeding station, plastic, or more appropriately resin, certainly takes centre stage. All wood products have been replaced with resin ones including two WBU hopper-style feeders, a catch tray that doubles as a platform feeder and a suet feeder for our woodpeckers.

The resin feeders, although expensive, are extremely well-built and will likely last a lifetime if treated and cared for properly. Using a jet of water from the hose or even a power washer is not likely to damage these sturdy feeders and will clean out any food that might have built up. Wooden feeders eventually break down and, for the most part, are unable to withstand many power washings.


Two of our Wild Birds Unlimited hopper feeders (a large one and a smaller one.) Cleaning is easy and the feeders stand up to both the weather and squirrels.


Any other feeders in our yard are either steel or a combination of steel and plastic.

The only feeder with wood is a small, stylish copper and cedar feeder that is kept separate from the main feeding area and is filled once a day with only a handful of safflower seeds.

In addition to the array of resin hopper feeders available at Wild Birds Unlimited, there are also resin bark butter feeders, and a series of rustic feeders.

Similar plastic feeders are available at other specialty bird stores as well as more affordable versions at Amazon with, for example, the Woodlink Premier Bird Feeder with suet cages and the Birds Choice Hopper Feeder in medium green.

These feeders are built to withstand everything our friendly squirrels can throw at them and keep performing at their best.

If you are thinking about creating a bird feeding station, investing in a single recycled plastic hopper feeder is an excellent choice. Over time, you can add additional feeders and build a high quality bird-feeding station that is easy to keep clean and will last a lifetime, while providing the birds with well thought out feeders that will help to keep them safe.

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Garden wildlife Vic MacBournie Garden wildlife Vic MacBournie

Are raccoons good for the garden?

Raccoons can be very beneficial in your woodland garden, but too many of these masked bandits are a recipe for problems.

Take steps to discourage over population of raccoons

A quick search on the internet and you would think Raccoons are the devil incarnate when, in fact, they can be welcome visitors to our gardens much like foxes, coyotes and other animals that share our garden spaces with us.

The problem is not raccoons, the problem – not unlike so many in our gardens – is too many raccoons. That’s especially true in smaller urban and inner-city backyards where they can quickly become overpopulated, get into trouble and too easily invade our living spaces.

If you’ve had a family of raccoons living in the attic or taking over your shed, you may not be quick to welcome them back.

A digital portrait of a young raccoon.

My digital portrait of a young raccoon is evidence of just how cute these little masked bandits can be.


Can raccoons be beneficial in a garden?

But did you know that, despite the mischief they seem to get into regularly, these cute little critters are one link to ensuring healthy landscapes?

These masked bandits can play an important role in garden pest control as well as seed distribution throughout the garden.

(Read on for more details on how raccoons can be beneficial in the garden.)

While raccoons in small numbers can be good for a garden, they can pose dangers if they get into your home and live in the attic or chimney. (More details on the dangers of the raccoon at the end of the post.)

But first, back to the problem of when the numbers get out of hand and there are too many raccoons in a given area.

This ballooning population is often the result of either a lack of predators and/or too many resources that allow for a disproportionate number of raccoons to survive comfortably in a given area.

In the wild, raccoon density is usually about 5-10 per square kilometre. In urban areas that number can climb to as many as 100 raccoons per square kilometre. And, where the situation is particularly out of hand, those numbers can get up even higher.


Obviously, predators can play a major role in keeping the population down. The problem is that raccoons are fierce little mammals and have few predators in the wild let alone inner cities.

A raccon’s main predators include mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, dogs, wolves, Great Horned Owls, and fishers. Besides coyotes, foxes, dogs and maybe Great Horned owls, few of these top predators are found in urban areas and even fewer are found in inner-city cores. Here, traffic easily accounts for the highest death rates in raccoons.

Even traffic, however, can’t stop these little critters. Studies have shown that in urban areas, part of a mother raccoon’s training for her babies is learning to cross the road quickly leading to a reduction in road kills.

In our woodland garden we benefit from the existence of foxes, coyotes and birds of prey including owls that I suspect keep raccoon numbers manageable.

In fact, I rarely see raccoons in our garden even at night. When I do see them, they are almost always under the bird feeder, which I ensure has very little if any feed remaining on the ground as evening approaches.

A high quality, no-mess bird food and a catch tray to keep seed off the ground goes a long way in keeping the ground around the feeders free of bird seed.

Despite problems with raccoons, there are good reasons to admire them and welcome them into your environment.

A young raccoon pokes its head out of the ferns near our front porch.

A young raccoon at home on our front porch among the ferns, coleus and hostas.

Do’s and don’ts to create a healthy environment for raccoons

  • Do not leave cat or dog food out at any time. Feed your domesticated animals inside your home. If you must feed them outside, be sure to bring in the dishes or ensure there is no food remaining at night.

  • Do leave old dead trees (snags) remaining in your garden. Cut off branches that might pose a threat to humans, but leave the main trunk (or at least part of it) for habitat. You might be surprised what you attract, including a family of owls.

  • Do not leave access points uncovered in your home or shed where raccoons could gain access to your attic or chimney.

  • Do leave a large brush pile in a corner of the yard where raccoons can forage for food or even possibly burrow in for the winter.

  • Do not use poisons in the yard to kill small mammals or insects that could be prey for raccoons.

  • Do grow a variety of berry, fruit and nut bearing shrubs and trees to provide raccoons and other wildlife with a natural food source.

  • Do not trap raccoons and move them far away into a forest or another part of town.

  • Do provide a water source for them. If there is one thing raccoons need, it is a source of water. Originally raccoons were found in the tropics where they could be found foraging along riverbanks. Today, a small pond or patio container of water is enough to satisfy their needs.

  • Do not allow bird seed to pile up under your feeders. Use a high quality seed and catch trays to keep the ground under feeders free of large quantities of seed.

Raccoons are excellent at pest control

Did you know that raccoons are excellent at pest control – both insects, small mammals and reptiles – not only eliminating problems but cleaning up any remains. For this reason, it’s important not to use pesticides in the garden for fear of poisoning the very animals that are tasked with the job of keeping the garden free of certain pests.

A raccoon forages for food in the grass.

What do raccoons eat in their natural environment?

Much of the success of raccoons is based on the fact they are omnivores – meaning they will eat, similar to humans, just about anything.

In fact, a typical diet of a raccoon in a natural environment is made up of about 40 per cent invertebrates (including everything from insects to crustaceans like crayfish that live in fresh-water streams), 30 per cent plant material, and another 30 per cent vertebrates (such as small mammals including mice, birds and reptiles.)

Young Raccoons (called kits or cubs) have a range of sounds

  • Young raccoons chitter to call their mom, or when they are interacting with one another

  • Raccoons also purr much like a cat when they feel happy and safe, often when they are in the den with their mother

  • They will bark and growl quite viciously when they feel they are in extreme danger

  • Young raccoons will actually scream if they feel extremely frightened

  • As they get older, they make more of a chattering sound to communicate with family members

  • Adult raccoons will snarl and growl loudly when they are protecting their young or a food source.

Raccoon on a fallen tree high in the forest canopy.

Raccoon on a partially fallen tree high in the tree canopy.

Where do raccoons live in natural environments?

Raccoons inhabit a wide range of environments including forests, shrublands and grasslands. They are even known to keep up to 20 denning areas at one time.

These masked bandits are sometimes categorized as “little bears” because they are closer to the bear family than the cat family.

Racoons are members of the Procyonidae family. Wikipedia classifies it as a “New World family of the order Carnivora.” This group includes our North and Central American-based raccoons. Just for a little perspective, members of the Procynonidae family also include ringtails, cacomistles, coatis, kinkajous, olingos, and olinguitos.

How did raccoons migrate so far north?

Raccoons are originally from warm climates but have used trains, and trucks to migrate north where they found barns and sheds to aid their northern migration and escape cold winters. Now, raccoons have been found as far north as Alaska.

A baby raccoon adventures out into the world in search of a new adventure.

I was able to photograph this baby raccoon in the backyard after it ventured out of its den in search of an adventure.

Why is Toronto called the raccoon capital of the world?

Racoons are common in the United States and most parts of Canada, especially in large cities like New York, Chicago and, in Canada, Toronto, which has become known as the raccoon capital of the world. Estimates show that there are 50 times more raccoons living in Toronto than in the adjacent countryside. This has helped to earn them the reputation as the raccoon capital of the world.

Raccoons are extremely adaptable animals thriving in natural, rural woodland areas as well as in heavily urban areas.

Are country and city raccoons different?

Studies have even shown that country and city raccoons have adapted into two very different creatures. There are the shy reclusive raccoons that make their homes in the country, and bold city raccoons that are right at home sharing backyards with human neighbours. Some studies have shown that they are quick learners and this enables them to be so successful in very urban areas.

Are raccoons smart?

Some would call raccoons the quintessential generalists that are able to live in a whole variety of habitats. Part of their success stems from the fact that they are smart animals able to adapt to a range of environments and habitats. They are also able to figure out basic puzzles and obstacles through persistence and brain power.

Raccoons see urban areas as opportunities rich in resources including both food and habitat. They are particularly successful in exploiting their surroundings and more than able to move into buildings where there are structural defects that allow easy access.

One of the important features that help these animals be so successful in an urban environment is the dexterity of their “fingers.” These long slender fingers are particularly sensitive to touch and allows raccoons to manipulate both food and complicated devices to the point where they can easily open garbage cans and doors (even those fitted with locking devices).

Do raccoons come out during the day?

They are primarily nocturnal, however, don’t be surprised to see them up and about during daylight hours especially in fall – much like bears – when they are looking to increase reserves in preparation for winter.

Although raccoons are rarely seen in winter, they do at times come out of their hibernation (more a torpor) to obtain food or water. Seen here is a young raccoon in the cold of winter.

Although raccoons are rarely seen in winter, they do at times come out of their hibernation (more a torpor) to obtain food or water. Seen here is a young raccoon in the cold of winter.

Do raccoons hibernate during winter?

You might wonder why you rarely see raccoons during winter. Are they hibernating? Technically, raccoons are not true hibernators although, like bears, they store body fat throughout the summer and into fall so they can sleep through the coldest part of winters, especially in colder environments in the United States and into Canada.

Raccoons actually go into a state of torpor during winter where they sleep for extended periods to reduce the amount of energy needed, but at the same time are aware of changing conditions including threats from predators.

Where do raccoons live in nature?

In natural rural areas, raccoons set up dens primarily in hollow trees but have even been known to take over smaller animals’ underground burrows where they spend the winter tucked away with family members to stay warm. In urban environments, where hollow trees (or snags) are immediately removed by most homeowners, attics, sheds and chimneys are substituted for the comfort of hollow trees.

Since raccoons are less active during the winter, you may not even know they are living with you in the home’s attic until they begin moving around in spring.

Let’s get back to the benefits of these little masked bandits.

Besides pest management, what other benefits do raccoons have in our gardens?

Since raccoons are voracious eaters of seeds, berries and fruit, they play an important role in seed distribution both in the wild and in our gardens. Many seeds require a certain type of stratification which can be achieved by going through the digestive system of racoons and other mammals. One look at their feces in fall and you’ll see quite clearly that they are working hard at this important job.

Is raccoon poop/feces dangerous?

You may ask that besides a bite from a raccoon, what other dangers can a raccoon pose to humans?

Any animal feces can be dangerous in the garden, but it should be noted that a raccoon can carry a particularly dangerous strain of roundworm in their feces. It is particularly dangerous if ingested, but this is not uncommon if you have toddlers around or pets. The real danger are the eggs of roundworm that are in the feces. They can spread to the soil around the feces and survive for extended periods of time in the soil.

In addition to raccoon roundworm, raccoons can pose dangers to our pets including canine distemper, Leptospirosis, parvovirus, mange, fleas and rabies.

How dangerous is raccoon roundworm?

Raccoon roundworm should not be put in the same category as other roundworms because it is a much more serious problem for humans. Dogs can carry raccoon roundworms and be a spreader of the illnesses associated with it.

Roundworms come from eggs in raccoon feces and if left untreated in humans, these eggs can hatch and worms can spread to our brains resulting in serious neurological problems leading to loss of coordination, seizures, coma and eventually possible death. The worms can also travel into your eyes causing vision impairment and eventual blindness.

Roundworm contraction is most often found in children who play in soil or sand outside where raccoon feces is present. It can also be contracted by people in close contact with raccoon feces like if the animals are living in your attic and you try to extricate them on your own without experts.

If you think you or your children may have been exposed, contact your doctor immediately to obtain a deworming medication.

Try to leave snags like these in the garden to give raccoons safe places to raise their young.

Try to leave snags like these in the garden to give raccoons safe places to raise their young.

Can you trap a raccoon and bring it out to a forest?

The answer, in most cases, is no you cannot live trap a raccoon and move it to the forest.

There are two reasons why this practise is unacceptable.

First, it is too easy to separate a mother from her kits when they are vulnerable and cannot survive on their own.

More importantly, however, is the potential to spread rabies and other diseases. Governments restrict the movement of wildlife through human intervention if there is a chance that the animals may have rabies. This practise helps to limit the spread of rabies.

How to get raccoons out of your attic

The more acceptable way to rid an attic of raccoons is to hire a wildlife company that will chase the adults out of the house and then screen off any access points back into the attic. Once that is completed, any raccoon kits that are left in the attic are removed and put into a special reunion box and left nearby for mom to find. The mother raccoon will quickly find her babies and relocate them to another den in the area.

Young raccoon foraging for food in the back garden.

A young raccoon foraging for food in the back garden.

Are raccoons aggressive?

Raccoons are not generally aggressive animals unless they feel threatened or are sick or injured. Absolutely raccoons can be aggressive if they feel threatened or are cornered. They come equipped with sharp teeth and know how to use them if necessary. But they are not dangerous in a normal garden setting where they do not feel threatened. Just make sure they know you are around and it is unlikely that they will stick around.

If a raccoon is aggressive, contact your local animal control because it could be injured or be carrying rabies.

Never corner a raccoon, say in a garage or shed. Instead, open the door and let them leave on their own. Better to make the environment they are in less attractive for them so they leave on their own.

For all kinds of reasons, keep your dogs and other pets away from raccoons if possible. It is however, not unheard of that raccoons can befriend family pets and live in harmony, but better not to encourage that behaviour.

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Bees and butterflies Vic MacBournie Bees and butterflies Vic MacBournie

Saving our native Humble Bumble Bee

The Bumble Bee needs to be celebrated for the work it does quietly and without a lot of fanfare. You can thank this native bee for the spaghetti sauce on your pasta and the toasted tomato sandwich that you ate for lunch. Unfortunately many of the native bees face an unsure future.

What’s the big buzz about Bumble bees?

Could there be a better bee than our humble Bumble?

A tireless worker that really does not get the credit it deserves. While the non-native honey bee gets the spotlight in the media and just about anywhere climate change comes up, our native Bumble Bee just keeps going about its business and getting the job done.

And quite the job it does.

The Humble Bumble Bee deserves a lot more credit for the work it does in our gardens and agricultural fields.

In case you are not aware, the Bumble bee is the one that brings those juicy tomatoes to your table. In fact, without them, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be chowing down on that spaghetti or toasted tomato sandwich.

It’s the Bumble bee that is the primary pollinator of tomatoes, not the honey bee.

Why? you may ask.

Bumble bees, unlike honey bees, are capable of buzz pollination. The problem with pollinating tomatoes is the fact that on most flowers the pollen is located out on the end of a stalk on the anthers and easily accessed by most pollinators.

However, explains Paige Embry in her informative book Our Native Bees, “some flowers, including those of tomatoes, hide their pollen inside the anthers so it has to be shaken out. A Bumble bee does this by grabbing the flower in its mouth, curling its body around the anthers and rapidly contracting muscles in its throax, causing vibrations that shake the pollen right out of the tiny holes in the anthers, like shaking salt from a shaker. This activity makes a buzzing noise, and so, buzz pollination.”

So the next time you pick a tomato from your garden, you can thank our humble Bumble Bee.

For more on how we can help save our native bees, check out my story on making a lawn for native bees.

But most tomatoes these days are grown in greenhouses throughout the year. The challenge that faced commercial growers was how to pollinate these tomato plants in a greenhouse, in the winter when there are no Bumble bees around to get the job done.

Going back to 1891, scientists tried to unlock the secret to pollinating tomato plants without the Bumble bee, to very limited success.

Then, according to Embry: “in 1985, Roland de Jonghe a Belgian vet and bee enthusiast put all the bee rearing information together with the fact that a colony of Bumble bees could pollinate a greenhouse full of tomatoes way better than a bunch of people with vibrators or blowers. Since Bumble bee nests only last a few months, people would need new nests every year, and de Jonghe saw the business potential of those Bumble bees. In 1987, he started the first business rearing Bumble bees for commercial use. … By 2004 close to a million colonies of Bumble bees pollinated nearly 100,000 acres of greenhouse tomatoes worldwide, with an estimated value so large that I thought it was a typo accept it was written the same way twice. 12,000 million Euros (about $14 billion) per year.”

Okay, so we now we know the value of our native Bumble bees.

Let’s now take a closer look at these interesting, almost cuddly little creatures with the furry backs.

Do Bumble bees live in hives?

Bumblebees, of the genus Bombus, are common native bees and are important pollinators for many of our woodland wildflowers. Like honeybees, they are social and live in a hive, but one that is the fraction of the size of a honey bee colony – think hundreds rather than thousands.

How many different types of Bumble bees exist?

In the United States alone there are 49 species of these native bees, separated into three different classes depending on the length of their proboscis, or tongue – short, medium, and long. The length of their proboscis will help dictate which species pollinates the various flowers, although some short-tongued Bumble bees have come up with an ingenious way to feed on Long-tube flowers by biting holes in the flowers near the nectar source and feeding through the hole.

Are Bumble bees threatened?

According to the United States Forest Service, Bumblebees have become a conservation issue, resulting from habitat fragmentation caused primarily by human activities, the use of pesticides, as well as disease transmission and the loss of native floral resources.

In the U.S., just in the past few years, two species of Bumblebees have likely gone extinct: Franklin’s bumblebee (Bombus franklini) originally found in a restricted geographic range from southwest Oregon to northwest California; and another species from the eastern United States, which was once found from Canada to North Carolina.

In Ontario alone, there are three at-risk bumble bee species: Rusty-patched (Bombus afinis), Gypsy Cuckoo (Bombus bohemicus) and Yellow-banded (Bombus terricola).

Where do Bumble bees live?

Bumble bees, like most native bees, are primarily ground nesting bees. In spring, the queens begin to emerge from underground where they have spent the winter, and begin to look for a nest site, which can include an already existing but abandoned mouse or rodent burrow.

Bumblebees visit flowers where they feed on the the nectar and pollen. Once their eggs have hatched, they use the plant resources to feed larval worker bees. Unlike honey bees that store large quantities of honey in order to survive winter, Bumble bees may use empty cocoons for short-term storage of nectar.

In a single summer, the Bumble bee queen produces a few generations of workers, which then take over the task of collecting nectar and pollen and help rear the final generation of the colony, which includes queens for the next summer, and males to mate with them.

The colony has all but died out by late fall. All that remains is a few workers and males, as well as the the new queens. These bees burrow into the ground to wait out the cold winter to, once again, begin the process the following spring.

How can we help Bumble bees?

There are reasons you often see native gardeners promoting the practise of leaving your leaves where they fall to help insects and other fauna survive winter.

Well the Bumble bee is a good case in point. Queen Bumble bees overwinter in our gardens in underground burrows and the leaf cover provides protection and helps hold in heat that is vital to their survival.

Check out my earlier post on Why We Need to Leave Our Leaves.

So, in addition to leaving your leaves on the ground in the fall and over the winter, it is also important to provide the native bees with plenty of fall flowers, especially native plants like asters and goldenrods. These late blooming plants are an important food source to enable next year’s queen bees to build up stores of food to last them through the winter in their dormant state.

In addition, refrain from digging up your gardens in early spring to allow the queen bumble bees to leave their underground burrows and begin their new hives.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

The Garden pond vs. Container pond

A garden pond is likely the single most beneficial act you could do to attract wildlife to your backyard, but not everyone wants to make that commitment. An alternative is to use a garden container pond which brings water into the yard and allows you to grow many of the plants that woul grow in a pond.

Adding water offers opportunities to grow new plants

Everyone loves a little water in the garden, but not everyone wants a full fledged garden pond.

For some, it’s the potential danger a pond might pose to children or grandchildren. For others, it’s the perceived maintenance a full in-ground pond requires to keep it looking and performing its best that convinces them not to install a garden pond.

No matter large, small or simply in a container, a natural pond will transform your garden probably more than anything else you can add to your garden and attract more wildlife to your yard than you could ever imagine. Install it right, and it will perform and look spectacular for years to come with minimal maintenance. If it’s a container pond, lower your expectations, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself falling in love with your tiny container pond and the plants that call it home.

I would love a pond in our current backyard.

In fact, at our previous home, I installed a lovely little in-ground pond complete with a waterfalls. It was the focal point in a massive backyard DIY landscaping project that took an average suburban backyard surrounded by pools, outdoor decks and acres of grass, and installed an island of natural plantings. To say it was a magnet for backyard birds would be an understatement.

It’s difficult to not love the beauty of a water lily in a pond. The same lilies can be grown in a container pond.

Installing a backyard oasis

My little backyard oasis began soon after we moved into the home. I noticed the builder was digging up massive boulders around the neighbourhood and looking to get rid of them. I was more than happy to take them and asked him to drop them in a corner of the yard. The massive boulders weighed close to a ton but through a series of levers and a whole lot of muscle (which I had back then) I was able to manipulate the boulders into a semi circle that became the perfect little secret garden in corner of the yard.

The circle of boulders in the corner of the yard became the “source” of the perceived water that would eventually run along a dry river bed surrounded by birch trees and grasses before flowing over some rocks and spilling over a small waterfall into a pond.

The recirculating waterfalls helped keep mosquitoes at bay and the moving water created sound in the yard to drown out much of the typical noise related to suburban gardens. Fish and frogs were added to the pond that eventually resulted in more fish and tadpoles and frogs. Insects, dragonflies and lots of birds visited the small pond in the middle of suburbia.

A full-sized pond really needs a proper combination of plants to keep it healthy and looking its best. The large pond needs a mix of plants including:

• Aquatics – a group of plants that have their roots submerged. Aquatics include water lilies, and lotuses as well as golden club, water hawthorn, and water violet.

• Floaters – plants include water lettuce and duckweed, which float on top of the water. This group of plants help reduce algae by blocking sunlight and competing for nutrients. Unfortunately, they also block you from seeing the water and can quickly overwhelm a smaller pond because they reproduce so quickly.

• Oxygenating – plants are mostly submerged, though it’s not unusual that part of them protrude above the water. Their ability to add oxygen to the water is particularly important if you include fish in the pond. Look for plants such as cabomba, anacharis and myriophyllum.

• Marginals – these plants take up residence in the shallower areas of the pond, along the edge or in the boggy area around the edge. They include both deep- and shallow-water plants and include cattails, forget-me-nots, sedges and rushes.

• Bog plants – These are the moisture-loving plants that thrive in extremely soggy soil and include Irises and sweet flag, ferns, astilbes as well as shrubs including dogwood varieties.

Container water gardens really only need a few of these plants to maintain a healthy balance. Most often an Aquatic plant like a water lily is combined with a few floaters like water hyacinth and an oxygenating plant.

Getting back to our former home and small pond. I truly loved that pond and was particularly proud of how it turned out. Eventually, I added a large overhead pergola with random flagstones that overlooked the pond. Large pines and cedars across the back increased the sense of being in a natural environment.

But there was no hiding the fact we were in the middle of suburbia.

So we moved.

The container pond is an option that can allow the gardener to grow plants they would not have been able to and attract wildlife at the same time.

Going from a garden pond to a container

In our current home, although I would love an in-ground pond, I knew that unless the pond was large and deep, it would be an ongoing battle with local wildlife to keep the pond from becoming a playground for racoons and other critters. I also did not want to fence off our large property partially for the cost, but more important, it would keep out much of the wildlife I was trying to attract to the yard.

Therefore, I settled for a patio pond container which I was able to find used on Kijiji . The pond involves almost zero maintenance but still gives me some of the benefits a full, on-ground pond brings to the landscape.

Let’s not kid ourselves, however, there is no comparison between an on-ground pond and a container pond.


I also installed a small DIY bubbling rock to give wildlife access to fresh water at ground level without the maintenance of a pond.

If you can and are willing to install a pond in your yard, I can guarantee that you will not regret it. I will add though, make the pond bigger than you think you want it. You will thank me later.

But, even a small pond will create an environment in the yard that is attractive to all types of fauna – frogs, toads, snakes and dragonflies – not to mention the birds and the mammals that will come to depend on the reliable source of water.

If you live in an area where winter brings freezing temperatures, keeping even a small area of the pond ice-free could become a lifesaver for a number of animals and birds. A small bubbling device is usually all it takes to keep an area of the pond ice free.

The benefits of a garden pond to area wildlife is undeniable, but for many it’s the ability to grow water plants and possibly even bog plants that make ponds and container ponds irresistible.


Marsh marigold, one of our native plants, are just one of the beautiful plants that can be grown in a bog area on the edge of a pond.


Water lilies in the garden

Water lilies (Nymphaea) are a good case in point.

In her informative book Natural Landscaping, Gardening With Nature To Create A Backyard Paradise, Sally Roth writes: “It’s amazing how satisfying even a tiny water garden can be. If you only have room for one plant, grow a water lily. They may seem costly when you compare the cost to perennials , but even the most common types are exquisite. A single water lily, partnered with a glimpse of dark, shining water, is a delight to the soul.”

Water lilies grow to between 3 and 6 inches tall and can spread out to between 4 and feet wide. Full sun will bring out more flowers which can vary in colour from blue, purple, yellow, red, white and even pink. Hardy waterlilies can survive in zones 4-10, whereas the tropical varieties, which often have larger flowers and a better range in colours, need to be brought in during winter or treated like annuals. The tropical varieties tend to be more fragrant and are available in day-blooming and night-blooming varieties. Hardy varieties only bloom during daylight hours.

I remember the first time a water lily bloomed in my pond. (see image below) That was an exciting time. Water lilies alone offer a wealth of possibilities for the gardener.


You don’t need a huge pond to grow one or two of the colourful flowers. Even a small pond will allow you to experience the joy of these plants.

But don’t think a large pond in the only way to grow a water lily. I have successfully grown them in my container pond.

What can you grow in a container pond?

Many of the plants that can be grown in a large on-ground pond can also be grown in a small patio container pond.

But, as Sally Roth writes in Natural Landscaping: “The biggest problem with container water gardens is that they’re too small. Water plants move faster than Napolean, an their aim is the same – to expand theri empire. Even if you choose well-mannered plants, you’ll soon run out of room for more than a few. What to do with the rest? If you are still not ready to install a pool, try a metal horse trough,” she explains.

She suggests painting it black with a can of matte-finish spray paint. I’m not sure how that would look in every garden but it certainly would give you the room to grow more plants.

Unlike a traditional pond, our container pond is always emptied at the end of the season. Mine is concrete based so leaving it full all winter could result in damage. I empty the container, turn it over for the winter, and refill it in the spring.

I try to store the plants over the winter from year to year. Some survive the winter in the shed, others do not and must be purchased each year. The good news is that the container is small and takes just a few plants to fill it up.

Duckweed and Water hyacinth help to quickly cover the pond and create shade which helps to keep the water free of algae.

Besides water lilies, I always grow Water hyacinth, (Eichhornia crassipes) whose roots help to keep the water clear and whose purple blooms can be stunning in the container pond.

Ruffled Water Lettuce (Pistia Stratiotes), Water Mint (Mentha aquatica), Corkscrew Rush (Juncus spiralis), Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) and Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia spp.) are some of the best plants for containers as suggested by the website Pondinformer.

Build a bog garden for the ultimate in plant varieties

A bog garden is the ideal addition to a backyard pond, but it can also be installed in isolation by using a perforated plastic liner that holds water for an extended period of time and keeps the soil moist (almost wet).

Better still, if you have an area in the garden that stays wet just plant bog plants and let them take care of the wet area of the garden. Consider adding Cardinal flower for a dramatic effect and lots of hummingbirds and pollinators. The bog garden opens up a whole new world of opportunities.

Marsh Marigold is a local native plant that also does well in a bog garden. Also consider plants like the Ligularia with its tall yellow spikes.

Staying in the yellow family, Iris pseudacorus ‘Variegata’ can be a good choice.

Another plant to consider if the bog area is large, includes Cornus Alba a dogwood shrub with bright red stems.

Conclusion: Be sure to include a pond in your garden

A good size garden pond is an outstanding addition to any garden and one that will likely change the relationship you have with your backyard. The wildlife that the pond will bring into the landscape, the new plants and the movement the pond creates is difficult to overlook.

For the most part, the ponds are too shallow to pose serious danger to older children. My first pond was installed when my daughter was about six years old. The pond quickly became a hit in the neighbourhood with my daughter’s friends who took turns searching for the frogs, fish and other wildlife. Rather than being looked at as only a danger to children, consider them like an outdoor science classroom and an incredible learning experience for our children and grandchildren.

And, if the pond makes you too uncomfortable, consider the benefits of a container pond, which offers many of the same benefits a full-fledged pond brings.

Either way, a pond will be a great addition to your deck, patio or even in a corner of the yard where you enjoy taking in the early morning sun.

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Garden wildlife Vic MacBournie Garden wildlife Vic MacBournie

How important are skunks in our gardens?

Skunks are extremely beneficial in our gardens helping to reduce unwanted visitors. These gentle creatures pose no threat to us and are rarely seen accept at night.

An evening of garden photography with a friendly skunk

There is no reason to be afraid of a skunk in your backyard. In fact, skunks are gentle creatures that benefit nature and our environment by controlling insect populations and other unwanted garden visitors particularly the dreaded Japanese beetle, cutworms, hornworms and grubs, along with small rodents like mice and moles.

So, I was thrilled to recently spend some time in the garden and add images of skunks to my collection of garden photography wildlife images.

The negative publicity these animals have to live with struck me the other day when I was sitting in my favourite chair in the garden waiting for the neighbourhood fox to show up. The skunk came in from behind me, (paying no attention to the guy sitting very still in the chair) and proceeded to walk by on her way to another part of the garden. She went unnoticed until I caught the white tail out of the corner of my eye. A beautiful, white fluffy tail carried proudly above her for all to see.

A few weeks earlier the skunk decided to pay me a visit on the patio. I would have let it join me on the patio accept my dog, Holly, was sitting beside me. Thankfully she did not notice the skunk until I quietly asked it to leave the patio with a gentle hand motion and soft, persuasive voice. As soon as it saw me, it moved away just as Holly noticed her. I had my hand on her leash to keep her from going after the skunk. That was another fun adventure but much more stressful with a dog at my side.

There’s no mistaking a skunk for, say, a black squirrel. Although they look similar, they carry themselves quite differently. Unlike the sometimes frenetic pace of black squirrels, skunks move slowly and deliberately, possibly because of their relatively poor eyesight and possibly to let other woodland animals know that they are around.

Our gentle skunk spent the evening with me showing off her beautiful tail and looking for grubs and other insects.

I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with the skunk as it rooted about the garden not far from me (but far enough.) She did not seem bothered by my camera and flash going off with her every movement. Although I did not hide from her, and was not in my Tragopan blind, she seemed quite happy to go about her business.

Actually, because of her poor eyesight, I’m pretty sure she didn’t even realize I was there, especially considering she was more than happy to make a bee-line directly toward me.

That’s the time our evening photographic adventure came to an abrupt end. When she started moving toward me through the grass where I was sitting, all it took was for me to wave my hand slowly and speak gently to her for the little skunk to realize it might be better for her to head in another direction. She abruptly turned around and waddled off into the ferns to go dig up some more grubs.

It was a great garden photography encounter and one I’ll not soon forget.


What’s my favourite garden photography wildlife lens?

What made the encounter a little more unusual was that there was still plenty of light left in the sky and, although I used the flash at times hoping to create a catch light in the skunk’s little eyes, I much preferred the more natural images taken without flash on my Pentax K5 DSLR fitted with my favourite wildlife lens – the FA300mm F4.5. Originally built for film cameras, the smaller sensor in the K5 gives users an effective 420mm F4.5 focal length. I have a 1.4 converter that I use occasionally to get in even closer.

The white stripe starts on its head, runs the entire length of its body and explodes on its magnificent tail.

Skunks help rid your garden of snakes

Did you know that, much like opossums, skunks are immune to snake venom and are more than happy to rid your garden of poisonous snakes. We don’t have any poisonous snakes where I live so I’d prefer our little skunk keeps mice and voles and other critters in check rather than kill the few snakes I’ve seen in the garden.

Keep skunks safe in your backyard

In our backyards, as long as we do NOT use pesticides, skunks are safe from their biggest cause of death.

Weak eyesight means that skunks’ greatest threat is being hit by cars and trucks while they are trying to cross a road. The evidence is hard not to notice when out for a drive. If you don’t see them lying dead on the road, you certainly smell the results of the collision.

In our garden, it is more likely they will fall victim to a Great Horned Owl who are one of the few birds or animals that see the little stinkers as prey. Turns out Great Horned owls’ lack the sense of smell needed to be repulsed by the odour skunks use as a self defence. That makes them easy, slow moving prey for the owls massive claws.

Fox kits with a road-killed skunk

These fox kits seemed to enjoy playing with the dead skunk more than anything else. The den was situated beside a road so I suspect that it was killed by a car and salvaged my the mother fox for her kits. And yes, it did smell but not too bad.

Do fox consider skunks prey?

I have photographed a dead skunk outside an active fox den (see above) but I suspect that the skunk was a victim of a car rather than the mother fox. In fact, I have watched on our trail camera video of a fox and skunk interacting, and neither was looking for a fight.

Although coyotes, foxes, dogs, bobcats, mountain lions, badgers and big owls are known to eat skunks, few put it anywhere near the top of their list of fine dining.

So I don’t think skunks need to fear a fox or other large predators despite the fact that they will eat them if they find a skunk as road kill.

Are skunks a threat to my family?

Skunks are not a threat to our families. They can be an annoyance for dog owners if a family of skunks decide to build a nest under our deck or shed. If you don’t want them there, ensure that efforts are made to keep them from getting under decks by installing fencing that reaches under the ground and makes it difficult for them to dig under it.

It’s not fair to the animals to move them once they have had their families under your deck. Take steps to encourage them to eventually move on from under the deck (playing music in the area of the den), in the meantime, keep your dog away from the area until the skunks leave. Your dog will survive with daily walks or visits to the local dog park until the skunk family moves on its way.

Skunks can carry rabies, but there is apparently no known deaths caused by contracting rabies from a skunk.

Know when to back off

It’s much more likely you will be sprayed by a skunk rather than bitten by one. It’s important to know, however, that skunks don’t just run around spraying people and dogs at the first chance they get.

The skunk sprays a very strong musk oil from 2 anal glands. Even baby skunks, whose eyes have not yet opened, are capable of spraying in self defence.

Spraying is, however, the last thing skunks want to resort to in self defence because, once they use all their spray, they are left completely defenceless for up to ten days – the length of time it takes for the skunk to replace the musk.

Well before a skunk sprays, it will give you a warning to back off. First it stomps its feet on the ground and hisses making it clear it is very uncomfortable with your presence. It will make their bodies in a u-shape before aiming its anal glands at its unfortunate victim. That’s a good time to gently and slowly back off making it clear that you are no threat.

Why did I get sprayed by a skunk?

People are most often sprayed when they surprise a skunk in very close proximity and don’t have time to assure it that you are no threat. It’s a good idea to always expect a skunk as evening sets upon us. Keep an eye out for them when stepping outdoor into your garden and avoid sudden movements that might be mistaken as a threat. If you are with your dog, be sure to keep it on at SHORT LEASE rather than a retractible one that is best left for walks during daylight hours.

Are there different varieties of skunks?

There are actually 12 different species of skunks but not all of them live in North America. Skunks can also be found in South America, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Striped skunks: Most of us are familiar with the cat-sized striped skunk with the white stripe down the middle stretching through its long black tail. They are the ones at home in the woodland as well as in suburban areas.

Spotted skunks: have three white spots on their faces and four more on their backs in addition to six stripes on their tails. These guys are more the size of squirrels and like to climb trees. These are the fellas who stand on their front paws to take aim at their victims. These skunks can be found in the eastern U.S., Mexico, and more rarely in southern Ontario, Canada. The Mexican pygmy spotted skunk is more the size of a rat and is considered the smallest and rarest of our skunk species.

Hooded skunks: An interesting skunk with faces that are framed by a shaggy white mane that covers the tops of their bodies from head to the tip of their tails. It’s unlikely you will come across this species unless you are hiking in rocky areas of southwestern North and Central America where they live in burrows near streams where they survive primarily on insects.

Hog-Nosed skunks: These skunks feature pig-like snouts that help them root for food in their southwestern U.S. homes or in Central and South America where three other species of the hog-nosed skunk can be found.

Stink Badgers: Recently welcomed into the skunk family in 1990 are found in parts of Indonesia, Philippines.

Check out my article on getting prepared in advance for a skunking. Hint: make sure you have hydrogen peroxide and baking soda handy. Forget the tomato juice unless you enjoy smelling like tomato juice and musk.

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Garden widlife Vic MacBournie Garden widlife Vic MacBournie

Why do I smell skunks in mid February?

Why am I smelling skunk every night when there is still snow on the ground? Chances are you are experiencing a female skunk sending a strong message to an amorous male looking to mate or quite possibly two males letting off a little steam over the chance to mate with a female.

Why are we seeing and smelling skunks in the middle of February?

The ground is covered with two feet of snow and skunks seem to be everywhere – we see them roaming through the back and front gardens and smell them on a nightly basis.

What gives?

Turns out female skunks are down right stinkers when it comes to fending off amorous male skunks looking to mate, and all this takes place in mid February right around the time of Valentine’s Day.

That explains the nightly smells we get sitting in our family room – not enough to suggest a full-fledged unleashing of the musky odour experienced when one of our striped friends unleashes on an excitable canine – but enough to get your attention. Especially if it’s right outside the door.

A skunk looking for food in the early evening in the garden. I was out hoping to get a photograph of a fox and the skunk showed up instead with its beautiful tail.

The mating season brings out more of these solitary, elusive animals as they look for partners to begin families. It’s a time when male skunks are more active asserting dominance over other males, while females skunks, who are either not ready to mate or choose not to with a particular male, use their musk glands to fend of advances. These encounters cause both the males and females to spread small amounts of musk – just enough to make us take notice.

You may also be getting a slight odour from under your shed or deck where they are living. Be sure to give them plenty of space and move slowly around them, but they are harmless and very beneficial so it’s much better to learn to live with them than have them removed.

This mid-February odour is not near as strong as you will experience when skunks are killed along the road or when they use it in self defence after being frightened by a neighbourhood dog.

Be prepared for a skunk spray. Check out my post on what to do if your dog or family member has been sprayed by a skunk.

What are skunks’ breeding habits?

Female striped skunks give birth to kits in early spring around April and May after mating in and around mid February. Females can breed in their second summer and give birth to as many as four to seven babies. Older females can come into estrus earlier than younger female skunks and may have litters earlier in spring. Following a sixty-day gestation period, the kits are born in shallow dens or, more likely, under sheds or decks in our yards.

Born blind and deaf and sporting short, fine fur, babies are nursed in the den for about six weeks before venturing out of the den for short excursions with mom. The young skunks are usually weaned from their mother by two months of age.

By fall, the family members have gone their separate ways, travelling as far as 50 kms but usually no more than 5-10 kms, looking for new territory.

Skunks and Great Horned Owls: A deadly combination

We’ve lived in our current home for almost 25 years and have only experienced skunks in the past few years. Where did these skunks come from?

Although we live in a heavily forested area surrounded by conservation lands where you would expect to be living with skunks, up until recently they were nowhere to be seen. I firmly believe that the reason we are experiencing more skunks in our neighbourhood is the result of a severe decline of the Great Horned Owl – skunks’ greatest natural predator.

Typical neighbourhoods offer a cornucopia of food for these shy, inquisitive animals in the form of unprotected garbage cans and pet food left out on decks and back patios. Acres of manicured grass provide skunks with an abundance of grubs, other insects and even mice, just to name a few.

Coyotes, foxes and other predators know enough not to tangle with skunks and will not prey on them unless they are desperate, but Great Horned Owls’ lack of smell allows them to prey on skunks.

This makes the Great horned Owl the primary predator of striped skunks. Although skunks can weigh up to three times more than a typical Great Horned Owl, the deadly talons of the owls make them efficient killers of skunks, whose only real defence is their ability to spray the strong sulphur musk. The owls’ huge, deadly talons combined with their ability to squeeze up to 500 pounds per square inch, means this crushing grip will often kill larger prey like skunks instantly.

The fact that skunks like to travel at night, just when the Great Horned Owls are on the prowl, makes them easy prey. In fact, it is reported that one owl nest contained the remains of nearly 60 skunks.

With an average life span in the wild of between 5-15 years, a Great Horned Owl can certainly do its part in keeping neighbourhoods free of skunks.

That’s good a good reason to do all you can to encourage Great Horned Owls to your neighbourhood. The best way to accomplish this is not to cut down dead trees, especially those that are large enough to provide habitat for these large owls. See my earlier article on the importance of leaving snags in your garden.

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Garden wildlife Vic MacBournie Garden wildlife Vic MacBournie

Wildlife rescue: Living with foxes and other garden wildlife

If you are fortunate enough to have foxes living in or near your garden consider yourself lucky. These entertaining little critters are great to have in your yard to control mice and rats.

Are foxes good or bad to have around the garden

All Photographs by Jennifer Howard

Count yourself lucky if you are fortunate enough to have a fox living in or visiting your garden on a daily basis.

Besides keeping rodents like mice and rats at bay, having a fox family living or visiting your woodland garden is likely a signal that your garden is healthy and offers good habitat for an upper level predator. That includes access to an abundant supply of food, water and shelter.

“If you are lucky enough to have a family of foxes move into your yard. Please try to let them stay. It’s a wonderful experience watching them raise their kits from a distance,” explains Jennifer Howard, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitator at Procyon Wildlife Centre in Beeton Ontario.

“They are incredible parents and to be honest, until the wee ones start to come out of the den at around 3 to 4 weeks you may not even know they are there,” she adds.

A beautiful photograph of a fox rambling through the garden.

Can foxes be removed from your yard humanely?

If having a family of foxes in your yard is unworkable, you may be able to gently convince the family to move on to another denning site.

“Foxes do have more than one den. If they are disturbed too much by their human neighbours the foxes will move their kits to another den,” explains Howard.

Playing music near the den and staying close by making some noise whenever possible might be enough to convince the parents to move the kits to a second den. You should never use loud noises to stress out the animals.

“But personally, if it were me,” says Howard. “I would be thrilled (with the fox family) and would work around it. And allow them their space. They have a hard enough time as it is living in our world of craziness, what is a few months of sharing. After all, it was their space first and we are taking it away at an alarming rate. It’s very sad,” she adds.

There is no need to feed foxes in the backyard. Foxes are perfectly capable of finding thier own prey. When they do, they pounce on their prey to stun it before eating it.

Should I feed foxes in my backyard?

Feeding foxes, unlike birds, is not a good idea. These upper level predators need to retain their wildness and eat a healthy, raw diet rather than become habituated to eating processed food provided by humans.

“They are wild,” says Howard. “both parents feed the kits and teach them how to hunt. They need to stay wild and eat the proper diet. The kits learn from their parents and you are not helping if you feed them. In fact, you may do them more harm.”

The only time Howard recommends feeding foxes is if the animals are being live trapped for medical reasons.

“They don’t need your help. They are born into this world to hunt live prey or eat road kill,” she explains.

But the biggest reason not to feed the foxes in your yard is the risk of the fox “losing their healthy fear of humans.”

“Not all humans are kind,” she says. “Because the foxes are not afraid to approach people for handouts, they may be shot or injured in some other way.”

Foxes that have been fed by a human can begin to approach other humans who think there is something wrong with the animals usually attributing the friendliness to rabies.

A fox makes itself at home in the garden, sitting in a wooden barrel.

Will feeding foxes attract other animals

“By feeding our furry critters you have no control over who you will attract – Opossums, raccoons, skunks, weasels, rabbits, and even bears,” says Howard.

Feeding foxes also creates the potential of increasing rodents in the backyard.

“Since rodents are the main food source for foxes, if you feed the foxes they may have no need to eat the rodents you have attracted. An abundance of rodents in the garden is never a good thing especially if they find a way into your home or shed.

Howard adds that feeding foxes could also attract a sick animal with distemper or mange to your yard, which, in turn, could infect otherwise healthy animals or even pets.

“Distemper is a horrible disease to which there is no cure,” she adds. “It affects the animal’s brain and it is the worst thing for wildlife rehabilitators because euthanasia is the only thing we can do,” adds Howard.

“Raccoons and skunks have been awful,” at the Procyon Wildlife Centre, explains Howard. “Raccoons carry raccoon roundworm which can be contagious to your pets and you. But raccoons show no sign of having the disease and it doesn’t harm them. Distemper can be passed to foxes as well. Do you still want to feed them? Keep them wild, let them hunt and forage for food the way Mother Nature intended them to do, and what they know to do. These are incredibly beautiful animals that have been forced to coexist among us. And they do that very well.

Will foxes attack our cat or dog?

Foxes have virtually no interest in attacking your cat and even less in attacking a dog. A fox’s life depends on staying healthy and any injury, even a small one that could result from say a cat’s claws, could end in death for the fox. These animals are too intelligent to pick a prey that is a potential threat to them. A mouse, grasshoppers and maybe a squirrel or rat are better choices.

It needs to be noted, however, that a kitten, puppy or very small dog might be prey for an adult fox, especially if it is feeding kits. These animals should never be left out alone in the backyard anyway.

“Let them continue to coexist on their own, they won’t eat your cats or dogs or attack you. You now must learn to coexist with them. It’s a beautiful relationship when it’s done right,” Howard adds.

More information from Ferns & Feathers on Foxes

The Fox Den in your backyard

Wildlife Rescue: The Year of the Fox

The urban fox and why we need them

Why do foxes scream

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