Backyard Naturalists

At Biodiversity Day Kingston families told us what environmentally-friendly solutions they used around their backyards and about possible topics for future posts, looking for green solutions to problems they had.
Do people have suggestions for these problems? Submit a suggestion using the button at the top of the page.
Potato bugs
Growing vegetables in small spaces
Keeping cats out of the garden
How to compost
Preventing animals from eating corn and berries
How to use coffee grinds and tea leaves as mulch
Keep checking back for our solutions to these problems!

At Biodiversity Day Kingston families told us what environmentally-friendly solutions they used around their backyards and about possible topics for future posts, looking for green solutions to problems they had.

Do people have suggestions for these problems? Submit a suggestion using the button at the top of the page.

  • Potato bugs
  • Growing vegetables in small spaces
  • Keeping cats out of the garden
  • How to compost
  • Preventing animals from eating corn and berries
  • How to use coffee grinds and tea leaves as mulch

Keep checking back for our solutions to these problems!

Biodiversity Day

Hi! We’ll have a booth at Biodiversity Day at the Biosciences Complex on the Queen’s University Main Campus this Sunday from 10 - 3. Come find us!

Simple things you can do to attract wildlife

A green garden is a haven where wildlife can make homes, feed, and breed safely without danger from pesticides and other chemicals. You can support wildlife by making your garden into an animal/insect-friendly place by following these suggestions:

  • Providing water: created using an old basin or even a pond. It is one of the easiest ways to enjoy wildlife in your garden. It draws everything from frogs to birds! Make sure to change the water in your basin or pond regularly in order to prevent mosquitos from breeding there. 

  • Plants: Fragrant flowers can attract different insects and birds! Planting nectar plants can not only attract hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden, but can also attract beneficial insects which eat aphids. A wildflower patch can also encourage native insects and birds to linger in your garden. Growing a wildflower patch can be as simple as planting a flower mix seed packet from your local garden stores (or you can follow our suggestions in the previous link)!
  • Trees and shrubs: Not only can they provide cover, trees and shrubbery can also provide a place of escape from predators for animals, a refuge from the weather, and perhaps a safe place for raising young! As well, trees and shrubs that bear fruit, berries, and seeds are sources of food for your flurry friends.

  • Woodpiles and decayed areas: encourage frogs if adequately damp, and possibly even a place of resident for rabbits!
  • And lastly, boxes and feeders: to attract birds, bats, bugs as well as squirrels!
It’s important to reconnect ourselves with our local furred and feathered visitors by making our gardens more animal-friendly! It only takes a few simple steps that can immediately invite more life into your garden. So I encourage you today to do so and meet your real local neighbours out there, in your own backyard!


Growing Your Own Fruits & Veggies

Gardening is a great project to do with the kids or with your friends! It’s environmentally friendly, educational and saves you money on your weekly grocery bill. If you’ve already started your own butterfly garden and want to do more with your garden, why not consider a vegetable patch to make use of all the pollinators you’re drawing in?

What’s more rewarding after a summer of gardening in the sun than harvesting and enjoying your own home-grown tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, strawberries and cherries? Imagine how much sweeter the tomato in your burger, the zucchini on the grill and the strawberries in your fruit salad would taste knowing that you made it happen. This is also a great way to teach kids about good nutrition, as they are more likely to try and eat the fruits and vegetables that they helped grow during summer vacation. I recommend growing them organically, without use of pesticides, especially if you’re gardening with children. Here are some environmentally-friendly alternatives to pesticides.

Growing produce locally is environmentally friendly for a number of reasons. First of all, by effectively cutting out the distance needed for the fruits and vegetables to be transported, you are saving on the fuel needed to ship produce from other parts of the province or other parts of the world. No trucks, planes or ships are needed to bring in your harvest from your backyard to your kitchen! Even in a local community garden, your produce is only a short walk or bike ride away. Secondly, because you don’t need to harvest your produce until they are ripe you don’t need to bother with the artificial ripening process or refrigeration that commercial farmers use, saving on the energy needed to bring the produce to your home. Thirdly, because you are growing the plants yourself you can control the process. You know if and what kind of pesticides are being used, if they are highly toxic or a natural alternative. You know what kind of and how much fertilizer is being used, whether that is artificial (potentially leading to run-off that damages the water in lake Ontario) or if it is natural, in the form of compost.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common fruits and vegetables grown in gardens in Ontario. Don’t worry if you don’t think you have the land to really garden - check the end of the post for information on Kingston community gardens.

Ontario provides home gardeners with an Online Gardener’s Handbook describing the basics of growing produce yourself. It includes specific advice and instructions for a list of vegetables and fruits. Immature plants ready to be planted can be found at the Farmer’s Market at Springer Market Square every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during the summer, as well as at local produce stores such as Old Farm Fine Foods at 204 Barrie Street. Seeds can be purchased at most grocery stores.


Fruits & Veggies

Tomatoes are one of the easiest fruit-bearing plants to grow. Immature plants can even be grown in a large pot (8” diameter for cherry tomatoes) without needing to be transplanted to the yard. You could even try growing them in the Topsy Turvy tomato planter from the infomercials! Tomato plants should be grown spaced apart in full or almost-full sunlight outdoors. They don’t need much maintenance besides regular watering at first, though once they get larger you should prune the bottom leaves and remove leaves that develop where branches meet the trunk. They must be grown outdoors because the yellow flowers require pollination, usually by bees, to develop into fruit. More information here, 10 extra tips for tomato growing, and a list of Onatrio tomato plant diseases.

Other fruits and vegetables that grow well in Kingston’s summer are:


Community Gardens

If you’re a student, live in an apartment, have an unsuitable backyards or would just like to socialize with other gardeners, consider applying for a community garden. These are plots of land gardeners or potential gardeners can rent by the year or by the season, typically for less than $30 a year. Kingston is lucky because it had a vibrant network of community gardens available to those interested in growing local produce. The main benefit of using a community garden as opposed to just gardening at home is the social aspect. Other gardeners are always around to give you advice, chat or do a produce trade. They also provide a lot of space for the kids to run around and get some fresh air when they’re done helping out mom and dad at the garden.

Kingston Community Garden Network brings together the produce gardening community and provides valuable resources such as workshops and tutorials.

Queen’s University student Chris Jungkunz (Sci ‘12) shares his experience using a community garden at Queen’s University West Campus last summer:

Last summer I was able to rent a was it 3’ by 7’ plot for $25. This allowed me the plot for the growing season from May 1 to Oct 1. It was a raised garden plot which meant that the soil was contained within some wooden walls and therefore required less bending. I had access to tools, such as shovels, watering cans, etc and there were a number of rain barrels that I get water from. I personally prefer to grow plants from seed. I had planted a wide variety of vegetables, probably too many for the size of the plot, and yielded a decent crop. The vegetables that were planted were: tomatoes-cherry and beefsteak, three types of peppers, carrots, beans, beets, peas… As I prefer to plant from seed I did not get any peppers due to my lateness of planting. Also since I packed the rows rather tightly, some of the plants were competing with one another.


Grow A Row for Charity

If you start up a vegetable garden, at home or at a community garden in Kingston, consider joining the Grow A Row initiative dedicated to encouraging farmers and vegetable gardeners to literally grow an extra row of produce to donate to emergency food services.

Happy gardening!

Species-Specific Pesticides

In continuation of the post on natural alternatives to pesticides, I wanted to post today on species-specific pesticides. Instead of choosing cruel chemical methods that either injure or kill garden visitors, these techniques will protect your garden while ensuring that you do not harm any living things!

So give these fragrances and plants a try as deterrents against the following critters:

  • Aphids (plant lice): Plant chives, marigolds, mint, basil, or cilantro. Or place aluminum foil at the base of your plants. The foil will reflect light onto the undersides of the leaves, which will scare away aphids.
  • Ants: Put out cucumber peels or slices (bitter ones are best). You can also try coffee grounds, garlic, soap and water, or a string soaked in cayenne pepper, citrus oil, clove oil, or lemon juice. Place, sprinkle, or spray these items wherever you don’t want ants to go.
  • Cockroaches: Create sachets of catnip and place them throughout the infested area. Cockroaches like high places, so put a few sachets on top of shelves and other elevated surface. Bay leave, cucumbers, and garlic can also help to keep cockroaches away!
  • Moths: Use a cheesecloth full of lavender, chives and garlic, or cedar chips. Try adding cedar oil, rosemary, dried lemon peels, or rose petals. This will keep moths away!
  • Deer: Place some soap shavings or used cat litter along the ground to create a boundary between their grazing area and your garden. Also try hanging a salt lick on their path to distract them from your plants.
  • Grasshoppers: Simply spray garlic oil where you don’t want them, or plant calendula, or cilantro.
  • Mice: Use mint plants, especially peppermint plants! Mice don’t like these and will avoid any areas where they grows!
  • Mites: Try planting alder, coriander, or dill, and use rye mulch and wheat mulch.
  • Rabbits: Sprinkle chili pepper around plants (it must be reapplied if it gets wet). Install oven racks around plants. Rabbits tend to dislike their texture and the way that they feel on their feet. Other natural rabbit repellants include bellflowers, asters, lavender, sage, and other textured or thorny plants.
  • Slugs: Place mint, lemon balm, human hair (remove excess hair from hairbrushes and place in gardens), pine needles, sage, or parsley in your garden.
  • Ticks and fleas: Plant mint, sweet woodruff, rosemary, and lavender. Also try placing cedar chips in your garden. They smell great to you, but not to fleas and ticks!

Remember, you can keep your garden in great shape without harming any of our animal friends! Good luck!

Attracting Pollinators with a Butterfly Garden/Wildflower Meadow

Want ideas for a fun outdoors project to do with your family or housemates this spring and summer? We’ve got a few ideas for you, including growing a vegetable patch and making your backyard bird-friendly. To kick things off, we’ll look at creating a butterfly garden, or wildflower meadow, for your backyard using only flower species native to this part of Ontario. More creative types make a coordinated front garden with our list of flower suggestions!

The purpose of a butterfly garden made up of endemic wildflowers is to attract pollinators. Pollinators are insects that fly from flower to flower and transfer pollen, which flowers need to become produce seeds for next year’s flowers. Pollinators get a drink of nectar as reward for their job. Pollinators are also very important for producing the fruits and vegetables we eat. Without pollinators, we either wouldn’t be able to get foods such as tomatoes, watermelon and chocolate, or we wouldn’t see them nearly as often in the grocery store.

Most pollinators we see are bees, such as your European honey bee or Canadian bumblebees. Other pollinators include butterflies, moths, and a few species of flies. A few mammals (such as bats) and birds (such as hummingbirds) are pollinators as well. We’ll be focusing on attracting the insect variety.

With so much of the Kingston area becoming urban or suburban, there aren’t many places that feel like home to these insects. Additionally, wildflowers are usually no longer welcome in much of the city. Gardens are important to drawing bees from miles around, and what better plants to use than wildflowers?

Create your own beautifully chaotic wildflower meadow or carefully landscape your yard with the following beginner-friendly suggestions, organized by flowering season so you’ll always have some colour in your garden. If you want even more variety in your garden, Wildflower Farm has a list of wildflowers with seeds available for purchase, including most from this list. Ontario Invasive Plant Council has a PDF containing even more suggestions.Asterisks (*) mark slightly more challenging plants. Most flowers here prefer full or partial sunlight.



Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

These have been popping up all over the place recently! They’re one of the earliest plants to flower. These are usually pollinated by butterflies, but they can also be pollinated by bumblebees.

*Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans)

This is an ideal plant to use to fill out the shady areas underneath trees as it prefers full or partial shade.

*Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

The shape of these flowers make them particularly ideal for hummingbirds to feed on. This flower blooms in late spring and prefers the dappled shade of beneath of tree but will grow in full sun.



Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

These are very common to natural and disturbed meadows around Kingston. Once planted they tend to spread out, so it’s best to plant them where they can grow in a bunch or interspersed with other flowers. Milkweed is very important to monarch butterflies.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

This unique flower opens at dusk and closes in the morning. It has a lemony scent which attracts moths in the evening.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Everyone knows and loves asters! They are among the easiest wildflowers to grow and will bloom mid-summer to early fall. Many pollinators are drawn to the big, bright flowers.



*Stiff Goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum)

Butterflies and songbirds love goldenrods! A mini-ecosystem of goldenrod soldier beetles, ambushbugs and little spiders can often be observed living on goldenrod plants as well. They made an interesting break from the larger flowers in the garden bed.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Add some purple and pink to your garden with these asters. Many types of butterflies and bees are drawn to these flowers.

Sky-blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense)

Another autumn aster to add more colour to the garden.


Kingston Resources:

Natural alternatives to pesticides

Lo and behold! Spring is finally upon us! It’s that glorious time of the year full of greens and vibrant ecstasy of colours rich in our gardens. And so it can be disheartening to pests devouring our hard-earned fruits of labour. But before you rush off to the nearest garden centre for toxic chemicals, try making your own solution from less harsh ingredients. You probably have most of what you need on hand!

These natural alternatives to pesticides reduce environmental impact of chemical residues on ecosystems. They also reduce human and pet exposure to potentially harmful substances. Here are a few simple and effective sprays that will keep chemicals out of the garden.

  • Soap Spray Insecticide: Mix 1 tablespoon of detergent-based liquid soap (such as dishwashing liquid) per 1 gallon of water in a sprayer. Apply liberally to both tops and bottoms of leaves. Reapply about once a week, or after a rainstorm.
  • Garlic Spray Insecticide: Combine 1 whole garlic bulb an 2 cups of water in a blender and blend on high speed until the garlic if finely pureed. Put this mixture in a storage container and set aside for a day. Then strain out the pulp, and mix this mixture with 1 gallon of water in a sprayer. Spray tops and bottoms of leaves thoroughly. Apply this about once a week or after a rain.
  • Fungicide Spray: This will treat powdery mildew and other fungus. Mix 1 gallon of water, 3 tablespoons of baking soda, 1 teaspoon of dishwashing liquid, and 1 tablespoon of bleach in a sprayer and spray all areas of the plant that looks affected. It is best to remove all leaves and other parts of the plant that are heavily affected by the fungus. Apply this mix sparingly to unaffected areas and keep in mind that too much bleach can harm the plant. Try avoiding getting this spray on healthy leaves of the plant. 
  • Hot Pepper Spray: This solution will help repel rabbits, deer, and other nibblers. Mix 6 to 10 hot peppers and 2 cups of water in a blender and blend on high speed for about 1 to 2 minutes. Pour this mixture in a storage container with a lid and put it aside for a day. Then strain this through a cheesecloth and add this mixture to 1 quart of water in a sprayer. Spray the plants liberally every week and after a rain. 

And that’s really it! Quite simple to prepare yet very effective! Please remember that fewer toxic chemicals in our environment will eventually lead to less harmful bugs! And as the beneficial insectivores that control plant-eating bugs thrive in a chemical-free habitat, such insects can be controlled with the need for harmful chemicals. So, throw away those noxious pesticides and use more natural resources to take care of pest problems. This way, we can enjoy the pleasure of more butterflies, bees, fireflies, dragonflies, ladybugs, and other summer visitors we all enjoy so much in our gardens.

Part Two here.

(Photo 1, Photo 2, Map)

Spring has arrived after an unusually short and mild winter. Temperatures in Kingston this week are pushing 20°C, and you can dawn chorus loud and clear every morning. Starling flocks are becoming prominent and active around the city, especially noticeable parks like downtown’s City Park.

Like the rock pigeon, common starlings, also known as European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris vulgaris) were introduced to North America by Europeans. Almost 100 starlings were released in Central Park in New York City in 1890 as part of the American Acclimatization Society, which planned to introduce every bird species from William Shakespeare’s works to the continent. From Central Park the starlings spread to much of North America. On the map above lighter colours represent the exotic range of the starlings, where they are found now but were not found prior to being brought over by people.

Let’s kick off Backyard Naturalists with a look at one of the city’s most common birds: the humble pigeon.

You may not think of pigeons as exotic animals, but they are! Nowadays everyone sees pigeons (Columba livia) around Kingston, but you wouldn’t have if you were in the area in the 1500s. Pigeons are actually from the Europe, Asia and Africa, as you can see from the dark red areas in the map above. This is why we call them “exotic,” or “introduced.” Species that are originally from a location are called “endemic.”

Europeans domesticated pigeons and kept them to carry messages, race or as pets. Most city’s pigeon populations can trace their roots to escaped domestic pigeons.