I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of lives otherwise unseen that winter reveals. So it was a real treat, on Saturday March 5, to join Shirley French at her property on Cranberry Lake as she led a session for DCLA (Dog & Cranberry Lakes Association) members on Tracks in the Snow.
I think someone must have had what my grandfather used to call ‘a hotline to the clerk of the weather’! Certainly, we were blessed with an almost perfect day – snow fresh enough for distinct tracks, cold but not too cold, dry, and reasonably bright.
A group of a dozen or so intrepid trackers, including two delightful young girls bursting with enthusiasm and curiosity, gathered on Shirley’s land for an initial briefing on what we might find. Helpful illustrations of the tracks we were likely to see supplemented what we had already gleaned from a video of winter visitors that Shirley made available before the event.
A story of a fox, a weasel, and a snake (and other animals)
Unsurprisingly, the first tracks we spotted were those of the ubiquitous white-tailed deer, as well as squirrel and rabbit.
However, there was real excitement when we spotted some intriguing tracks leading up over a rock. Of course, we had to investigate! Skirting carefully up the slope behind the rock we discovered the partially eaten remains of a snake, likely a water snake. Who dragged it there? At the time, we didn’t arrive at a clear answer. But later Shirley went back and measured the footprints on the rock. The narrative that emerged was that it was a fox who left the snake’s remains. The fox likely stole the prey from a weasel, an animal that could access a snake hibernaculum, perhaps in the side of a small island just offshore across the ice.
The ongoing story, as captured by video footage in the days that followed, included visits to the snake by a leery crow and a nibbling racoon; fox and porcupine also passed by.
It’s worth noting that this rock was already of interest as Shirley had previously identified a mink den beneath it, sharing some lovely footage of their comings and goings in her preliminary video.
We continued our explorations, edging out towards the lake and clambering up rocky paths, all the while noting the evidence of abundant life written in the snow. The distinctive tracks of porcupine often include the sweep of their dragging tail alongside their clawed toes – four at the front, five at the back. Turkey tracks are like direction markers, though they point back in the direction they’ve come from rather than forward to where they are going! We saw both of these.
It was truly exhilarating to forge a path through the snow to one of the highest points above Cranberry lake. What a view!
Many thanks to Shirley for her leadership, the sharing of her knowledge and the invitation to walk her land and to all the participants, especially the youngest ones, who helped make this a captivating and magical experience.
Ever since we moved to Cranberry Lake five years ago, I have been promising myself that I will catalogue, as far as possible, the trees on our 2.25 acres of land. For a British immigrant of twelve years, I’m surprisingly good at recognizing birds, animals and wildflowers despite an English country childhood in a very different ecological environment. But I don’t feel I know my Ontario trees quite so well and I am amazed by the diversity I see around us. I am embracing 2021 as the year of the trees!
i-naturalist – a useful tool
Back in December 2020 Dog & Cranberry Lakes Association offered a helpful webinar on how to use i-naturalist. This prompted me to create a project (The House at Turtle Pond · iNaturalist) where I am gathering together all our observations of the incredible variety of life around us. My experience has been that this has further sharpened my ‘seeing’ and boosted my knowledge. Be warned, though, that contributing to i-naturalist can be addictive! I felt that this was a tool that might provide me with way of bringing together what I discover about our trees as well as assisting me in identifying them.
As the deep cold of winter began to wane, I thought I’d start by looking at some of our evergreens. In all honesty, I’m finding it a lot harder than I imagined to arrive at definitive identifications. Who knew that there are so many different varieties of Pine, Spruce, Fir, and Cedar?! And the same is true of the deciduous trees. It’s a little overwhelming!
One of the issues I have found is that, to have confidence in your classification of a tree, it is helpful to be able to bring together observations from the different stages of the annual cycle. Unfortunately, i-naturalist doesn’t facilitate this. So, I have created a spreadsheet where I can record flower, leaf, seed, bark, and overall shape of tree as well as seasonal shifts. I also have started a simple list on this blog under Rural Life – Trees and Shrubs at the House at Turtle Pond.
Although i-naturalist can point me in the right direction or occasionally confirm something I’m already reasonably sure about, in many cases I am going to have to turn to books and additional online resources. What I really need, once we have a little more freedom to interact, is a local expert. Are there any volunteers out there, I wonder?
If my ability to catalogue our trees is, as yet, still somewhat limited, my awareness has shifted significantly.
I have become conscious that, in an area where water is all around us – constantly changing, taking our breath away on a daily basis – it is easy to relegate the incredible beauty of the woods to a supporting role. Yet looking at our photos it struck me that, if the lake is the backdrop to our lives, the trees provide the framing.
Never, until this year’s slow sidle into Spring, have I realized quite how beautiful is the flowering of the trees! It’s easy to be uplifted by the obvious blossoming of Cherry trees, Magnolia or Serviceberry. But, perhaps because so much of the action takes place far above our heads, I think many of us miss the delicate beauty of the blooms of Maple and Basswood, Oak and Elm, Willow and Birch; tiny explosions of colour, curled catkins, soft Pussy-Willow puffs!
We are barely into the growing months of the year and already there is a deepening intimacy in my relationship with trees that will only increase with the shifting seasons. I can’t wait to make the connections between flower, fruit and leaf, to witness the greening with newly heightened senses, then later the florid fullness of Fall.
I’m reminded that, when we choose to focus in a specific direction, there is invariably a richness to be discovered that, once found, will never wholly be lost.
As we moved to this beautiful place, I was startled by the unexpected strength of a sense not of ownership but of stewardship of the land; of a deep love and great desire to do right by it and by all the beings with which we share it. This sense of responsibility underpins my life here. There are many ways in which we try to put this into action, including supplementary planting of native species, particularly those supportive to pollinators and wildlife.
As part of this, we have tried to make sure we plant at least a few trees and shrubs each year. After less than stellar attempts amid last year’s uncertainties, we have big plans for 2021. We will be adding to an existing grove of White Pine with seedlings courtesy of the DCLA 2021 Spring Tree Sale. (There will be further availability in the Fall – keep an eye open for mailings to get your order in!)
Having struggled for the last few years to find a relatively local source for a wide range of native plants, I was like a kid in a candy shop when I discoveredNatural Themes Native Plant Nursery in Frankford. My order, to be picked up in the latter part of May, includes eight native species of trees and shrubs. We have more Serviceberry in our woods than I had realized, but all our other purchases are supplementary to what is already here.
I am writing this on Earth Day 2021. At a time when many of us have moments when we feel as if it is difficult to breathe, how apt it seems to focus on appreciating the trees that are often described as Earth’s lungs.
A friend recently asked what the motivation is to plant trees knowing you will never see them reach maturity. There are so many good, practical ecological reasons. More than that, though, I think that every tree you plant is a statement of hope, of belief in a future in which you will no longer play a part and an act of love for the planet and future generations.
It is my intention to add in updates and, in particular, progress photos over time so as to capture the garden evolution progress!
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of ‘garden evolution’ activity. In Ontario, so often a heatwave follows rapidly on the heels of the last frost, making garden clearance and planting tricky. This year has been no exception, with the last few days at above 30C (86F) not much more than a week after the final frost. Thankfully we are back to the low 20s now, better for working and for the plants.
We’ve managed to plant four more native trees, six native shrubs and a number of perennials as well as starting my Three Sisters planting as is supposed to be traditional with the corn seeds going into the ground three days before the May full moon! Most of this year’s vegetables are now planted. Hopefully they will survive the run of three cooler nights (down to 6C) later this week.
Beginning to overflow in abundance. . . the rockery at the front of the house. As I have learned more about native plants and the impact of invasive species, it is irksome and somewhat overwhelming to spot non-native invaders, undoubtedly planted in good faith and often recommended, that really should be removed; Bugleweed(Ajuga reptans), Red Deadnettle (Lamium pupureum) and more. On the plus side, there are many natives forming part of this cascade, including Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), which I love and seemed to have lost over the winter; native geraniums, Spiderwort (Tradescantia), Echinacea, Mountain Mint, and Asters. There are also native cultivars like Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) and Aquilegia variants. As well as the Prairie Smoke, I added Field Pussytoes (Antennaria nglecta) and Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata).
This bed, new for this year, is primarily a cutting bed but also a place to try out native perennials to guide later plantings, not to mention a pollinator patch. Most of these plants are pink, purple, blue or white.
The Perennials bed flanks our asparagus bed, now in its third year, which has another cutting bed on the other side. This is currently a mish mash based on seeds I could get at the last minute last year! Next year I hope to fill this with more native perennials, probably focusing on the reds and golds. A few other perennials were slotted into gaps, notably Turtle Head (Chelone glabra), Blanket Flower ( Gaillardia aristata) and Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which I love not least for its ability to attract hummingbirds.
Reducing Grassed Areas
Another project we have begun to address is reducing the amount of our property kept mown. We are trying to do this in a way that is mindful of keeping walking and working space as free from ticks as possible. Where we need to keep an area cut, we are trying to interplant with clover and to oversow with slow growing, drought tolerant seed (Eco-Lawn).
One of the first things we are tackling is underplanting some of our trees. This has the additional advantage of removing some of the ‘awkward to mow’ areas. I hope we will manage to do this without too much damage to the trees!
We have started with just a couple of trees this year. One is underplanted with Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Yellow Wood Poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) and ferns. The other has various Spring favourites from other areas of our garden. I moved ferns, violets, False Solomon’s Seal, Canada Anemone and Canadian Wild Ginger, even a Trillium around the tree but have just seeded the rest with commercial wildflower seeds for this summer before planting more thoughtfully in the Fall or next Spring.
Over time, we also plan to add in swathes of wildflowers, cut through with mown paths. We will need to ensure that we smother existing growth where we want to do this, so it will take time. The cutting beds will help us decide on the planting for these areas.
Trees and Shrubs
We started our tree planting for this year with five white pines for succession planting in our pine grove.
Last weekend we added four more native trees and three plants each of two native shrubs.
We planted Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in the clearing created by the beavers. It can grow to 60 ft at up to 3 ft per year and hopefully will give a blossom highlight in Spring and lots of fruit for wildlife.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier Laevis), a big favourite of mine, went in at the edge of our Pine Grove, a small tree with lovely blossom and berries. In Toronto the racoons tended to vandalised our Serviceberry for its fruit!
We already have Weeping Willows (not native, but I love them) and Bebb’s Willow, but I finally have the Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) I always wanted.
Backing the edge of our pond we added three Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) that will hopefully form a wall of yellow blossom in the Spring (and more berries for wildlife if we’ve successfully managed to get both male and female plants).
The other new shrub is Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), our native Holly, not really like European Hollies. It does have red berries though (again assuming we have male and female plants).
I always understood that traditionally Holly should be paired with Rowan for protection against malevolent beings. So, on the other side of the driveway, there is a Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana). It’s another tree I’ve always loved.
Vegetable Bed to Kitchen Garden!
How did we come to expand from a vegetable bed to a kitchen garden?!
This was the original vegetable bed! To the right you can see the Hugelkultur bed we added last year. This year’s plantings include: zucchini, bush beans, broad beans, snow peas, lettuce, radishes, eggplant, cantaloupe, baby watermelon, spaghetti squash, delicata squash, peppers and herbs various.
We added more raised beds two or three years ago. These were fenced in last Fall and now have additional beds at either end, as well as built in planters outside at the front. Sunflowers to the fore, onions, chard tomatoes, a Three Sister mound (corn, pole beans, squash), cucumbers, more pole beans, with calendula, marigolds and nasturtiums outside in the front planters.
Inside the cage . . . The makings of an irrigation system have just arrived! There is getting to be too much watering to do it by hand, plus it is wasteful.
This, along with the asparagus bed, is really Paul’s domain. First and foremost it is the rapidly expanding rhubarb bed. This year there are also onions and a fallow area where we are trying to choke out the weeds with black plastic and mulch.
I finally seem to have cracked growing lettuce and arugula! These pots just got brought up from the vegetable garden, with the next just started. Sooo good! To the right is our main herb patch – lemon balm, two kinds of oregano, sage, chives, two kinds of mint, two kinds of rosemary, thyme, with basils various and cilantro in pots.
Asparagus rhubarb and lettuce have all done well and are being much enjoyed. Let’s hope most of the other vegetables do as well.
It’s a bit like having a magic portal when ‘going to the cottage’ requires no packing or travel, just a determination and discipline to embrace our home as we would a rental and ‘not do’!
A dear UK friend asked us what made us think to do this but, in truth, I know few people who live in this amazing area we call our home who regularly choose to go away during the summer. Instead, we head for the water and move lazily from hammock to gazebo or fire pit!
on Loughborough Lake, a 20-minute drive to the dock at Battersea; at times it
felt almost like wilderness and at others what we term rural suburbia but
always beautiful, blessed by loons and herons and so quiet! It was lucky that Paul
snapped his paddle before we set out and even luckier to be able to get a
new one just 12 minutes’ drive away.
the south end of Dog Lake in our underpowered metal tub, Tin Lizzie, running
out of fuel just at the tip of Carrying Place – we paddled over to a neighbour
who kindly ran us up the road to fetch the extra fuel.
These minor adventures are the true stuff of Canadian cottage time!
more about the origins and build of our house over a cream tea here with the
original owners and about the past and renovation of the beautiful Arts and
Crafts home on Beaupre Island, truly a piece of living history.
We ate out a couple of times (at the Holiday Country Manor and the Opinicon Pub – both in local villages), just enough to feel we were ‘away’, with simple cottage BBQs and salads the rest of the time.
And we were blessed with 10 days of probably the best weather this summer so far – golden and hot without being suffocating.
stays with me is time to just sit and soak up the sights and sounds, the
delight of being distracted from my book by the whirring wings and peeping of
the hummingbirds and the orange flashes of the Monarch butterflies, and the sense
quiet companionship – with Paul and with all that is.
It was so
tempting just to ‘stay at the cottage’ . . .
One of the great joys in living where we do is the abundance of life around us. Each day we bear witness to these other lives, the small (and not so small) birds and animals that inhabit and visit our land. I have, on at least one occasion, counted as many as sixteen different species visible at a time.
The squirrels and chipmunks are ubiquitous. Some of our neighbours experience them only as pests and it is true that they can be. We lost a couple of cushions to them last winter. They also have a reputation for getting into motorized equipment and trashing the wiring. And the black bomber spent much of the latter part of the summer pelting us with acorn laden twigs. But I remind myself that this is their land as much as it is ours. I can’t help being aware that mankind is notoriously the most destructive animal on the planet.
I am awed by our squirrels’ ability to overcome challenges. We have tried at least to limit their access to our bird-feeders, which hang as a smorgasbord on a wire line between trees. Last winter there was little ingress – we seemed to have lost the wily old guard. But this summer there is a new generation of athletes. One black squirrel in particular has an extraordinary ability to jump both up from the ground and out from the trunk of a tree, covering distances equivalent to at least five times his own height. And there are a number of tightrope walkers – I am fascinated by their seeming ability to eat and swallow when hanging upside down.
Every day, there is some unexpected presence. Every time I open a window or step outside, I am aware of what I think of as ‘the noisy silence’. Every day, there is an invitation to wonder, joy and gratitude.