Wednesday, July 31, 2013

More Crops!

Yesterday I showed the grain crops, some of which are nearly ready for harvest - after all, tomorrow is Lammas Day, the traditional festival of the wheat harvest.  But several other crops are also important in Grey County.  In fact, there are more acres of corn and soybeans than any of the grain crops, even though Grey is the biggest barley producer in the province.  Grey ranks highly in canola production too.

Canola is one of the most beautiful crops, turning bright yellow when in flower.  It's not a grass, but was developed from rapeseed by researchers in Manitoba.  It's definitely a northern crop, grown all across the Canadian prairies, and in the relatively more northern parts of Ontario, not even making it to southern parts of the province.  In the prairies it sometimes alternate with brilliant blue fields of flax -you have to see it to believe it!

Canola is related to mustard, cabbage, turnip and brussels sprouts, and is harvested when the seed pods ripen much later, and used for oil production.  As you can see here, it's one of the crops with round heart-shaped leaves when first germinating, and a field before blooming tends to have a bluish-green colour.

Soybeans are another crop with oval leaves in threes, just like the beans you grow in a garden.  At this time of year it's still a rich deep green and growing fast.  This is the biggest crop in Grey County other than hay.

Corn is similar, growing fast, getting up to 6 feet high now, and in some fields beginning to tassle.  The tassles are actually the male flowers, which release pollen fertilizing the corn kernels   It won't be harvested for months yet, but we are getting the first sweet corn in stores now.

And I added a picture of a very minor crop, buckwheat, simply because it fascinates me.  I always think of it in relation to buckwheat honey, but it's main use is as a cover crop, and it's also used for livestock feed and some human consumption.

The buckwheat plant is actually related to rhubarb, and also has round heart-shaped leaves a bit like canola.  It looks like a field of plants about 3 feet tall with small white blooms, but you won't see it often.

Finally I couldn't resist another picture of the hay harvest, which has been going on for weeks now.  After all, Grey produces more hay by acres than any other county in Ontario, by far.  It's the real backbone of our farm landscape.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Harvest Season Will Soon Be Here

Much of the landscape around the Beaver Valley is farmland, and like much of southern Ontario is characterized by mixed farms - some cropland, some livestock, a lot of hayfields, and some pasture.  Most of the hay is already harvested, and even a second cut is in on some of the dairy farms.  But soon the other crops, at least the grain crops - wheat, barley, mixed grain and oats will start.  It's a busy time of the year for farmers, and its always interesting to watch how the harvest is progressing.

Wheat fields will usually be the first harvested, here running in narrow rows to the back of the field.  Most of this is probably winter wheat, that is it was planted late last fall and had the chance to germinate and grow a bit before winter, giving it a head start for this year.  Wheat is after all, a cold climate crop, abundant all over the Canadian prairies, easily surviving our winter as a young grass.  I actually had to hunt to find a nearby wheat field; the high price of corn has made it the crop of choice around here this year it seems.

Wheat, like oats and barley, is a grass, and it's the seeds that are actually harvested, used of course to make flour, and thus a mainstay of our diet.  As you can see here, the seed heads of the wheat are clearly visible, with no 'awns' to speak of, unlike the barley plants, below.

Barley fields are looking ready for harvest too.  Neither barley or oats are normally as popular crops in Ontario as wheat, which usually brings a better return, but around here barley seems to be very popular this year.  It's used largely as livestock feed, but some of course is used in brewing! Canada actually ranks higher as a barley producer than as a wheat producer internationally, ranking #2 in 2006.

Barley fields have that beautiful wavy grain blowing in the wind.  Unlike wheat, barley does have long 'awns', (long needle-like or hair-like projections from the seed head), which contribute to that wavy look of a barley field on a windy day.

Oats look quite different than wheat or barley, with the individual seeds spread out separately on the inflorescence of the plant.  And fields of oats also tend to have a bluish-green colour, as here, at least until the grain ripens.

In this case barley and oats have been planted together, as 'mixed grain'.  You can see the shorter barley stalks in this picture, below the oats, already ripening to a light golden brown.

And occasionally I see a field that is simply oats, again with that slight bluish green colour, and the same seed heads where each seed is visible individually.  We grow fewer oats than barley, and nearly half of what we grow is used on-farm as livestock feed.

You can see there is no layer of barley stalks below these oats silhouetted against the sky. Traditionally oats have been a food crop for horses.  I remember my parents talking of giving the family horse it's ration of oats.

 Farming is a big part of our world around the valley;
check out other things around the world here:

Monday, July 29, 2013

Insect Shots

Summer is the time that bees, wasps, flies and hornets are around, occasionally causing problems by taking up residence too close for comfort, but they play an incredibly important role in the world around us.  We enjoy the flowers all summer but take for granted the thousands of insects that provide the pollinating.  I've been trying to get a few close-up pictures, (with considerable frustration!), but these few are relatively clear - now all I have to do is learn to identify them!

I'm pretty sure on this one - it's a yellowjacket, here visiting the bloom of a gooseneck loosetrife in our garden.

And this one is a fly of some type - perhaps a blow fly, or a tachinid fly.  I have a long way to go to think of identifying flies correctly!

But I think I'm sure of this one - a bumblebee, here visiting a very tall purple loosestrife in a garden we were visiting last week.

When I photographed hosta blooms and posted them last week, I wondered what insect would provide the pollination for these.  Then a couple of days ago I watched a bumblebee crawl up into the hosta blossoms until it nearly disappeared.  It did this repeatedly, flying from blossom to blossom and almost disappearing each time.  Here it's emerging from a flower and about to fly onward.

Visit Macro Monday 2, to see other close-ups of various things:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lavender Farm - Flowers to Fragrance

After we spotted that remarkable osprey nest we continued on to visit a lavender farm, 'Flowers to Fragrance', just west of Mount Forest, Ontario.  Now let me caution you right up front!  This is not southern France with rolling fields of lavender!  Some varieties won't even grow here, and those that do are at the limit of their range.  Never-the-less, I was still fascinated with this as a 'farming' operation.

You're greeted by a small lavender field right at the entrance to the farm, just behind the sales building which welcomes you.  Some has already been harvested at this point in the summer, and the super hot weather we had last week was apparently ideal for that.  But these rows of lavender in bloom looked beautiful.

We walked all the way to the back of the small farm, to see more fields, and learn about how it was grown.  Lavender likes sandy, gravelly soil (so it's a challenge to grow it in our garden, which is all clay!), so this gentle gravel slope was ideal for it.  The rows that show up in the far left corner of the field have already been harvested; these rows are next.  Even if you weren't harvesting it as a crop, clipping it short in the late summer is important for continued growth.

This cut and harvest the lavender with this modified harvester imported from Australia.  A blade low to the ground cuts the lavender, and it's blown into the small wagon.  They only harvest 3-4 rows at once, because that's the amount that can be processed in the distiller.

And this is the distiller, the heart of the operation, mounted on a trailer for convenience.  The harvested lavender is placed in the large steel drums on the left, while hot water is heated to steam by the boiler in the box on the right.  Steam is fed through the bottom of the lavender drums, and rises, taking the moisture in the plants and flowers with it.  Separate cold water is run through the two cooling towers, so as the steam enters at the top it condenses as essential oils and as hydrosols.  The latter (moisture from the plants themselves) is collected in the large white tank to the left, and used as the basis for a number of

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Great Spangled Fritillary and White Admiral

You would not believe the times I've seen these two butterflies and hoped they would stop fluttering and alight quietly for a moment.  And when they eventually did, you would not believe the number of photos it took to get a few good ones!  So here they are.

The 'Great Spangled Fritillary' has got to be the neatest name for a butterfly.  This one alighted briefly on a coneflower in our garden.  It flits around the garden frequently, tantalizing me with the orange colour I always hope is a monarch - but so far not this year.  Never-the-less, this is a beautiful butterfly with striking patterns on both upper and lower wing surfaces.
The underside hind wing is heavily silvered, like several of the other fritillaries, gleaming if the light hits it at the right angle.  It's just been around for 2-3 weeks now, seeming to be a July butterfly.

I've seen the White Admiral for several weeks longer, since earlier in the spring, and often see it fluttering past, but here it sat on a Gooseneck Loosetrife flower and allowed me to approach quite closely.  At a distance all you notice are the dark wings and the white band, but up close the blue and orange borders of the hindwings show up clearly.

The underside of both fore and hindwings are quite different, with obviously more orange spotting, and seemingly a lighter brown background rather than the almost black of the upper wing.

I like to think that the plants we have in the garden are serving them well!  I've thought about signs of the changing seasons for years, but only recently concluded that July is the month of the butterflies.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Osprey Family!

I'm so pleased with the picture below that I'm just going to leave it here for another day, and link it to Skywatch Friday - if you keep an eye on the sky you'll never know what you'll see!  Check out other views of the sky here:

We were just driving along the road between visiting gardens today, an hour southwest of here, when we noticed a familiar flat platorm on top of a hydro pole, a nesting platform for osprey.  This one appeared to be occupied by young who were sitting up high, so we stopped to have a look.  Wow!  Fully grown osprey young sitting up on the nest, looking back down at us.

Looking at those eyes you can understand how they have a reputation for being fierce!  Osprey are fish hunters, and this nest was just a short distance from a shallow lake created for flood control, so the parents had obviously been successful in their fishing.

Such osprey platforms are not unusual in southern Ontario.  Many community groups have put up nesting platforms, and this has helped osprey populations rebound very successfully from very low levels since DDT was banned in 1974.  Osprey are still listed as endangered in some U.S. states, but they tolerate human presence and populations are growing well, partly thanks to all the nest platforms.

In this case we just pulled to the side of the road and had a really good look at the three chicks, looking back at us.  Then I looked across the road and noticed another!  Take a close look at the top of the hydro pole below - one of the parent ospreys!

Meanwhile, my wife was sure she had seen 4 chicks as we drove up, so we backed up to get a different view, pulled to the other side of the road, and yes, there was the fourth chick - all pretty large now to be called 'chicks'.
As we drove away we looked back and saw the 6th osprey - the other parent, sitting on the back of the nest.  The most successful osprey nest I've ever seen, and the best look at the chicks.  For most of their time on the nest, they are down within the nest and you're lucky just to see their head.  These chicks must have been just about ready to leave the nest.
 A very memorable sighting on a beautiful blue-sky summer's day!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bear's Breeches

One of the most interesting plants in our garden is the Bear's Breeches, Acanthus mollis,  a striking plant if it's in a location where you can appreciate the whole plant.  Ours was buried in an overly-flourishing part of the garden for awhile, but a year ago we dug it out, split it in four, and planted them where they'd have more room.  It has grown fast!
When it has a chance to grow unrestricted, it can easily reach 3 feet across, and 4 or 5 feet high.  The leaves are a little thistle-like, and spikes of purple and white flowers reach above.  It's really much more striking to see the entire plant than just some flower spikes among other crowded flowers.

The blossoms are unusual too, with a hood extending forward over the petals, and the pistil and stamens hidden in underneath, almost impossible to see.  It's a Mediterranean plant, and there are numerous horticultural varieties. It also blooms for quite a long time, over a month.

Spikes with no flowers are REALLY like thistles.  I've never touched a plant with such tough and sharp bristles.  No thistle I've seen even comes close.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Having shown you the flowers up close, it seems logical to share a few pictures of actual hosta plants, since they're so well known for the beautiful leaves (and their willingness to flourish in the shade).  These plants do form part of a collection, so we do have labels, and I can tell you the names.  So here's a taste of the hostas in our collection.

Gypsy Rose

Captain Kirk (behind) and Lemon Lime (foreground)

The largest two in this view are Blue Moon (left) and Gold Standard (right).

 One of my favourite, Paradigm.


In the foreground, Leading Edge (right) and September Sun (left).

Another favourite, Twilight (right) and Centre of Attention (left).

One particularly dense corner of our hosta garden - some are even buried underneath!

And one more corner.  That's all the hostas for now!