Saturday, August 13, 2011

Monster Bee - Bumble Bee Queen

Two years ago while wandering in the garden I heard what sounded like an abnormally low and loud buzzing from a flying insect. I then watched in disbelief as a bee about 4 cm long buzzed around the flowers! Having grown up in a rural setting on the Canadian prairies, I have seen most noteworthy common insects. Never in my life have I seen a bee larger than the typical +/- 2 cm long variety. This bee was at least twice as large! Since then I have not seen a bee like this. Until today.

I managed to get a few fuzzy photos of the creature. I'm guessing this much be either a relatively new species to the Canadian prairies, or a very rare one at least. The bee is on Delphinium flowers about 3 cm in width. I estimate the bee to be about 3.5 to 4 cm in length (depending if you include wingtips).

UPDATE: Thanks to a tip from the Home Bug Gardener, the bee in the photo looks likely to be a queen bumble-bee. I later discovered my next door neighbour has a bee nest under her back step, the possible bee colony location for this queen. The bees are frequent visitors in particular to our oregano plant, where I typically see at least 10 bees feeding at any given time. However, the queen is rarely seen, this is only the second time in the last two years I've seen her.

In other news, we have been enjoying garden produce all summer, especially lettuce, spinach, volunteer lamb's quarter and chervil salads (I also include radish leaves, though the rest of the family does not care for them due to the small fuzz on them). Most plants are recovering from the hail except maybe the potatoes.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Saskatoon and False Solomon's Seal Berries

On an urban foraging outing today I gathered some wild Saskatoons. It is a bit early as the few that were not under-ripe were barely ripe. The best picking will be in a week or two. We compared the taste with a commercial variety and find the taste much stronger (and a bit more tart) in the wild berries. I'm guessing that one wild berry contains more nutrients/anti-oxidants/etc. than a single commerical berry, even though the commercial berries are larger. The commercial berry is quite bland, watery and sweet tasting in comparison.

There was a lot of False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) growing among the saskatoon berries. When picking the low Saskatoon berries it could potentially be easy to accidentally pick a False Solomon's Seal. The berries look similar at this time of year on quick glance. So I did some quick online and book searching to check if it is poisonous (as I may take the kids next time). My book source [1] does not indicate edibility, but a few online sources indicated they are "edible, but no palatable" and high in Vitamin C [2], [3].

Also, "the fruit is said to be laxative in large quantities when eaten raw, especially if one is not used to eating it, though thorough cooking removes this laxative effect. Young leaves are edible, raw or cooked. The young shoots, as they emerge in spring, can be used as an asparagus substitute. The young shoots and leaves are cooked and used as greens. The root is edible cooked. It should be soaked in alkaline water first to get rid of a disagreeable taste. It can be eaten like potatoes."[3] Medicinal uses are also listed at the link.

So it appears the occasional False Solomon's Seal berry will not do much harm if not too many are eaten at once.

[1] Wildflowers Across the Prairies, Field-Use Edition, F.R. Vance, J.R. Jowsey, J.S. McLean, Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1977.
[2] Northern Bushcraft, list of website references, accessed August 7, 2011.
[3] Montana Plant Life , accessed August 7, 2011.

When it rains it... hails!

We usually get at least one hail storm each summer. Fortunately this year it was later in the summer than usual. Unfortunately the hail was a bit larger and longer duration than usual, plus we had two big hailstorms in three days (August 3 and 5).

Most plants have a varying degree of leaf shredding. The potatoes, lettuce (except for the ones I managed to cover with plastic during both storms), swiss chard and rhubard got the worst of it and the others faired quite well and I think will recover fine. I don't think the potatoes will grow much more this year.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Companion Planting & June Garden Update

Something I need to learn more about is companion planting. I find in the rush of spring planting , the thought of suitable companion plants is often overlooked. However, I did manage to plant lettuce and radish together (see photo below), which I now discover in hindsight are good companion plants. Reader's Digest has a good companion planting list which confirms this.

I planted some spearmint among the raspberries and rhubarb, though these are not listed together in the above list. In hindsight, I should have planted the mint in a container to keep it from spreading. But does not appear to be germinating, which may be due to use of seed several years old.

I gambled and planted the potatoes early (above photo), first week in May, as well as several other veggies. This year we were fortunate to have the last heavy frost on April 30, well before the average last frost date of May 20. Now to see if we have a below or above average hail year...

Future posts will include a scan of the garden layout for this year. Overall the plantings are more of the same that was planted in previous years. I did not plant peas this year as they did not do so well in the last two years. Most plants are doing well except the beans, which are struggling with poor germination and insect (or bird?) nibbling.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Rhubarb is up!

The rhubarb is up, beginning the push upward around May 5 for 2011. For comparison, previous years as follows:

2010: April 16
2009: April 25
2008: April 15

Definitely a late start this year.

Last fall I pulled out the low producing strawberries (originally transplanted from neighbour). The berries were very small (a few mm at most) and sparse. Today I transplanted some larger/higher producing strawberries from another neighbour. Nice rains this evening to help them establish. Now to figure out what all to plant this year...!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Local Calgary Area Farms

For the most part, the garden produce from the backyard is a supplement to regular purchases from the local Co-op grocery store. However, I have been seeking alternative local sources for certain bulk purchases, mainly grain and meat.

The following is intended as a mostly personal reference summarizing local Calgary area farms that sell produce through non-retail outlets such as direct to consumers and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA's). I will include links to Farmer's Markets in Calgary, but not include individual links to the farms at the markets as they are likely already listed online.

Community Supported Agriculture

A comprehensive list can be found at the following link:

Community Supported Agriculture in Alberta

Some of the farms include:

Oxyoke Farms (near Linden, AB)

Thompson Small Farm (near Sundre, AB as of MAR 2011, formerly near Carbon, AB)

Organic Grain Suppliers

Local Organic Spelt Growers - Page with additional links specifically related to Spelt Growers

Organic Agriculture Websites - links from the Alberta Government

Calgary Farmer's Markets

A list of local farmers markets can be found at (needs updating):

Calgary Farmers Markets

Another list of Calgary and area farmers markets, may be outdated plus has annoying pop-up ads:

Calgary & Area Farmers' Markets

Below: Some Calgary Farmers Markets near north Calgary with websites:

Blackfoot Farmers Market

Calgary Farmers' Market

Kingsland Farmers' Market

Usually has some local Hutterites selling veggies in the parking lot in July and August.

This page is intended mainly for my own reference and will not be comprehensive. My interest is primarily ordering cuts of meat and organic grains directly from farmers, so that is the focus of the list. I will update it from time to time. Let me know if you see any errors or have discovered a farm that should be added.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Black Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) - Alberta Invasive Species Series

Catching up on some contemplated summer posts that never materialized, the following describes my encounter last summer with the intimidating (cue scary music): BLACK HENBANE (Hyoscyamus niger), also known as Stinking Nightshade . Both names sounding quite ominous. And for good reason.

I encountered a patch of these evildoers in West Nose Creek Park. Not knowing what they were at the time, I took some photos and did some research. The plants were hard to miss, standing up to four feet tall!

As someone who grew up on the prairies and never having seen this plant before, I figured such a large and obtrusive plant must be an invasive species. This narrowed my search considerably. Once identifying the plant, I washed my hands after learning of its toxic nature.

Black Henbane is classified as "Noxious" by the Alberta Invasive Plants Council [1]. Some interesting characteristics of the plant are summarized below (from [1]):
  • Annual or Perennial
  • Reproduces by seed only (see photos below of seed pods)
  • Native to Eurasia
  • All parts of the plant are poisonous to animals (including humans)
  • A single plant can produce up to 500,000 seeds per season
  • Seeds are typically viable for up to four years
  • Prefers sunny areas
Proliferate Seed Pods (above)

West Nose Creek Park (natural area), above

I notified the City of Calgary about the weeds presence and offered my volunteer labour to help remove them. Being such a large bushy plant, I envisioned that hand removal would be quite easy with a pair of rubber gloves and garbage bags. But then what to do with the remains to prevent further spread?

I received no response from the City, but a few weeks later the plants had been removed and the City had done some spot spraying for invasive weeds, primarily Yellow Clematis (Clematis tangutica) which has really taken hold in the park. I'll be keeping my eye out for their potential return.

[1] Black Henbane - Alberta Invasive Plants Council