ASK PAT: Bees and Boulevards

CN asks—

Are there any plans in New West to plant bee-friendly/drought resistant native plants in medians and other city-managed land? I’ve noticed many enterprising residents have taken this task on themselves by replacing grass with curbside gardens that attract pollinators but I think there is a lot of opportunity for a city initiative in this area.

If you consider trees to be bee-friendly and drought resistant, then yes! But I think you had something else in mind, so before I talk about the trees, I’ll talk about boulevard maintenance and pollinators.

“Boulevards” are the colloquial for that metre or two of grassy area between the road and the sidewalk in front of some residential properties in New West . If you have one in front of where you live, you most likely don’t own it, but you are responsible for some maintenance of it. See this diagram put out by the City:

(above is official communications from the City, nothing else I write here is official communications from the City. It is kind of important that people recognize this, so I try to point it out whenever I can)

You may have noticed some boulevards like the one in the photo above are not your typical grass-with-the-occasional-tree, but have shrubs, flowers, even garden boxes. This may actually, technically, be against the law.

The City’s Street and Traffic Bylaw states:

6.30 An owner of land shall:
1 cut grass and weeds on the Boulevard abutting that owner’s property;


8.10 No person shall:
1 significantly alter a Boulevard without the consent of the City Engineer;

So that reads to me like you need permission to do anything on your boulevard except mow the grass and maybe water the tree, which is the thing you are you are required to do.

That said, some people have clearly done more, planting flowers, vegetables, and shrubs. Some have even gone so far as to install garden boxes, faux golf courses, and (I am not making this up) life-sized sculptures of harbour seals. The best advice I can give you is that you should probably not do anything that is a violation of City Bylaws. But, if you were to do something good for the environment like put a diversity of pollinating plants in your boulevard, I would avoid doing anything that will rise the ire of the City Engineer or Bylaw officers, by perhaps following a few tips:

Keep it neat so the neighbours don’t complain. Keep it modest so that it doesn’t restrict views or ingress for emergency responders. Don’t let it intrude into the sidewalk space making the sidewalk less accessible for your neighbours. I would strongly recommend against putting any kind of structure, even garden boxes, on the boulevard, as they can create a hazard, and the City may have to remove them (at your expense!) if they need to access the boulevard for utility maintenance or anything of the sort. Remember the boulevard doesn’t belong to you, so don’t be surprised if the City one day has to remove anything you put there, either to dig up utilities or do sidewalk or curb and gutter repairs – if it is valuable to you, the boulevard is not a place to store it. Also, you need to be very, very careful about digging in the boulevard. Anything more than a few inches down and you may run into utilities (water, gas, fiber optics, street light power, etc.) and breaking one of those lines could be an extremely expensive fix for you, or even dangerous. Finally, any digging, piling soil, or installing things like planter boxes within the critical root zone of the City’s boulevard trees is a violation of the City’s Tree Protection Bylaw. The root zones are really sensitive to damage or compaction.

Now, back to the City’s plans. Yes, we are working on pollinator gardens (I even talked about this during the last election campaign). I don’t think these will be on City boulevards so much as replacing some less ecologically diverse areas of green space in City Parks. Replacing programmed grassy spaces, or planters that have traditionally held annual flower plantings with native and pollinator-friendly plant species has already begun with our first installation at Sapperton Park with help from the NW Horticultural Society. And hopefully more will be coming from this soon, though I am not sure our public boulevards will shift this direction. As beautiful as pollinator gardens are for bees and hummingbirds, they definitely challenge our traditional aesthetic ideas of public space (nature is messy, Colonialism likes sharp lines), and of course operational changes would have an impact on landscaping budgets that we would need to consider. So progress, but probably slower than you might like.

As for trees, we are finally at a point where we can begin the serious tree-planting part of the Urban Forest Management Strategy the City adopted a couple of years ago. It has been a bit of time in coming, as staff first wanted to put their energy into getting the new Tree Protection Bylaw operating smoothly, and get caught up on some of the tree pruning and maintenance backlog (it makes sense to stop trees from going away before we start the work of putting new ones in). The plan is aggressive, with almost 12,000 new trees planned in 10 years. Most will go on City Boulevards prioritizing neighbourhoods like the Brow and Queensborough where the tree canopy is not as dense, and in un-programmed green spaces in City parks. There is a real short-term cost to taxpayers for this program, but our willingness to invest today will make for a much more livable city in the decades ahead.

The phrase I have been repeating since we started this Urban Forest Management Strategy is the old saw “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today”. Well, today has come, and I’ll see you in 20 years.

Council on Cannabis

My reports on the January 29th regular meeting and Public Hearing are here and here, respectively, but we also had a constructive Workshop session during the early afternoon that you can watch in its videotronic glory here.

Implementation of Cannabis Legislation
The Federal Government have announced that some time in July, 2018, the production, distribution and sale of cannabis for recreational use will be legal in Canada. This has resulted in a bit of a rush (by government standards) to develop appropriate regulatory controls around an industry that will transition from underground to commonplace. This has involved every level of government working at essentially the same time, trying to figure out where the overlaps and gaps are. At a national level, there is no precedence for this, so complications ensue…

What we know right now (and I am simplifying a bit here) is that the feds are going to regulate the commercial production and packaging, and create quality and other standards. The provincial governments are going to be responsible for distribution systems and regulating the retail market. Local governments will do what we always do – regulate local land use (through zoning) and business regulations to manage parochial concerns (business hours, signage standards, buffer zones, etc.).

The pressure on local governments right now is that we can’t really do our job until we have a good understanding of the framework that senior governments will provide. They are putting together laws, but we are not yet certain about what the details will be. In the regulation-as-sausage-making sense, we cannot just create new Bylaws instantly: between doing the drafting work, community consultation, legal review, Council approval, Public Hearings, and implementation, it can take 6 months or more to build an effective bylaw regime. July is 6 months away.

With this in mind, Council held a workshop to give staff guidance on a proposed regime for managing cannabis sales and production locally, within the limits of our regulatory role. Staff prepared some briefs on the ways they see this rolling out, leaving significant wiggle room as we are somewhat reading the tea leaves of semi-complete senior government regulation. It isn’t perfect, but it is a proactive approach.

All ideas were discussed as a set of basic principles to be put together into draft bylaws, with the intention of taking this out to public consultation to get a sense of where the community is on this. Therefore, take my comments and those of Council on this as a set of starting principles, which may change by the time we are finished this process later in the year. The discussion revolved around 5 basic areas:

1) Limiting retail locations (Zoning Bylaw)
The Province has indicated there will be government-run cannabis retailers and private retailers. This looks a bit like the current liquor store model. We can write a zoning bylaw to allow the sale of cannabis as an “add on use” to existing retail-zoned areas. Similar to a liquor retailer, an applicant would come to City Hall with a proposed location, staff would evaluate against a general set of guidelines and process an application that would require some public input. The actual guidelines are currently up in the air. What restrictions to put on these retail stores (if any) are the meat of the public discussion to come. Should there be a 300m buffer to the nearest school? 100m buffer from each other? Should it only be allowed in some retail areas, not others? Should there be a prohibition on selling in neighbourhood corner stores as opposed to retail strips? This is the conversation we need to have right now.

Notably, it does not look like consumption sites will be legal in the short term. There are a bunch of WorkSafe BC and other rules around smoking in work places, and edibles and tinctures will apparently not be legal until 2019, so we are limiting our discussion in the short term on retail sale for off-site consumption (think liquor stores, not pubs, for the alcohol corollary)

2)Production facilities (Zoning Bylaw)
It is anticipated that production will be pretty industrial, and due to security and energy costs, relatively large operations. Whether there will be a smaller “craft” production market is yet to be determined. The Federal Government is regulating this, but the City will need to assure our Zoning Bylaw allows this use in appropriate places. We have larger M2 zoned properties, mostly in Queensborough and the Braid Industrial Area, where staff feel it is most appropriate, and we have smaller M1 zones that are more light industry like in the Braid Triangle and adjacent to Stewardson Way. Which of these is most appropriate?

These industrial operations may smell, and it is a little unclear how prepared Metro Vancouver is to regulate air quality from them. It is not even clear where the proposed federal rules government production will intersect with the air quality bylaws of the regional government. This is something to watch.

3)Business licensing rules (Business License bylaw)
This is where we regulate things around the day-to-day operations of businesses, like hours of operation, staffing, limiting age of customers, and business streetscape. I am generally in favour of making this as similar to liquor stores as a starting point, but am willing to be convinced that either a more rigorous or more lax approach is appropriate. One important aspect is how we regulate the sale of “paraphernalia”: should it be limited to places that sell the product? we currently have (somewhat dated) Bylaws restricting the sale of “drug paraphernalia” in the City – these will need an update.

4)Public Consumption (Smoking Bylaw)
Another challenge that falls somewhat in to local jurisdiction is our public smoking law. Not all marijuana is smoked, but the nuisance and negative health impacts of second hand smoke are as real for pot as for cigarettes. Our current Bylaw does cover all smoking materials, so no big change needed here, though some clarifying language may help. I have other concerns around public education, but will cover that below.

5)Domestic production
The feds are going to make it legal to produce a few plants at home for personal use, and the city may want to create regulations around this, such as requiring that it only be done indoors or in an accessory building. I’m not sure if we need to take these measures, as I suspect much of the negative impact of previous “grow-op” practices were a product of growing under a prohibition regime – the need for intensive lights, hydroponics, etc. People growing a plant in their living room or deck may be no different than growing poinsettias or tomatoes, but I really don’t know. I feel we need some input from our Fire Chief and buildings staff to better understand potential issues.

This, and the smoking bylaw part above, brings up my final concern: New Westminster has a high proportion of people living in Multi-Family Buildings, be they condos or rentals, and I don’t really know how these new rules are going to impact that sector. Will building managers or stratas regulate the growing of plants on decks, the smoking of cannabis on decks, or even within apartments? Does the Strata Act or the Residential Tenancy Act address these issues already? What are the rights of residents (be they owners or renters) and what are their responsibilities? How much can stratas self-regulate this? I am afraid the City will be asked to intervene in this type of conflict between neighbours, and I don’t know if we understand how to manage this.

I want to know from the province about their efforts to educate the general public about the new rules, and where funding will come from to support local governments in addressing conflicts.

The City is initiating a public conversation about all of these issues, in the hopes that we can have a solid framework as soon as we have certainty on senior government regulations. I’m not sure we will have every piece in place by July, but we did emphasize to staff that we don’t want to drag our feet on this, even if it means holding Public Hearings in the summer (which is not a preferred practice).

Staff suggested we need to make a few changes to our existing Bylaws now in order to prevent unanticipated problems leading up to July and the city getting its entire regulatory regime passed. It is still illegal to sell cannabis from a storefront in Canada, and in New Westminster we have taken the approach of not providing business licenses to businesses wanting to engage in illegal activity. Staff recommended updating the language in our Zoning Bylaw to clarify that practice, and bring the language up to date with newer Federal regulations. They are not recommending changing any practices here in the short term, just making sure the language meets the current standard to remove uncertainty. Council agreed to give those Bylaw updates First and Second reading.

So stay tuned, folks, and let us know what you think about this new direction we are taking. I think we are entering with open minds and clear intent, but also aware that there will be some hiccups along the way.

Green Drinks and Food Security!

I’ve mentioned the Southwest BC Bio-Regional Food System Design Project (SWBCBRFSDP – my acronym, not theirs!) on this blog before, but it was tied in with a bunch of bummer complaining about lack of government support for protecting the ALR, so the good news might have been buried in all that whining. So this is the “good news” follow-up post. Folks in the know are coming to New West on Tuesday to tell us about this really cool project.

Recognizing the need to support more robust local food systems, the researchers at Kwantlen’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems are applying their significant expertise, and partnering with a diverse community of business, governance, and agricultural experts, to bring about change in how we source our food.

There are a lot of words in SWBCBRFSDP, but I like the idea of showing why every word is relevant:

SWBC: Southwest BC is defined by the project as the area from Hope to Powell River, and from Delta to Lillooet: an extensive area that ties the lower stretch of the Fraser River to the Sunshine Coast, and essentially comprises the mainland Canadian portions of the traditional lands of the Coast Salish People.

BR: A Bio-Region is and area defined by a common topography, climate, plant and animal life, and human cultural influence. In this sense, the watersheds of the Salish Sea from the desert of Lillooet to Howe Sound has a diversity of eco-zones, but are tied together by bio-cultural heritage and geography.

FS: This project is not just about farming and protecting the ALR. Yes, preserving farmland when we can will be an important part of the food security equation, but we also have to consider the other major food inputs, such as the salmon we catch from the river, and the traditional food-gathering that many of us are separated from, but are still an important part of the region’s culture. However, there is much more to food than having profitable local Agri-business farms (how many cranberries do you eat in the average year?). A Food System would support the regional economy by connecting together food sources with processors, warehousing and retail, delivery systems from Farmers’ Markets to restaurants and standard retail. A true system would even connect our disjointed organic waste stream, to bring the nutrients in our food waste back to the farms and better manage in the industrial-scale waste sometimes produced in Agri-business. Ultimately, every step in the food cycle should not just just feed British Columbians, but employ, include, and benefit British Columbians. That is how local economic resiliency is built.

Design Project: This project will start by performing an actual, science-based evaluation of what the food potential of the region is – can this region actually meet its own food needs? And if so, how? They will also be evaluating the critical needs and opportunities for our local food systems to get the food we produce to our local plates. The eventual plan is to create a series of science-based policy papers and best practices reviews that decision-makers in municipal, regional and provincial government can use to help bring a more sustainable local food system into existence.

This project hopes to realize that building a local food economy is about more than just Food Sovereignty (our ability to feed ourselves domestically and not being overly reliant on volatile global markets), but also supports economic development for the region. Every bit of food we import is a bleed on the local economy – it is a flow of our wealth to other places that we could instead use to fuel our local economy. If food is grown in BC, processed in BC, sold in BC, and the waste recycled in BC, we are creating jobs at every step, we are having a smaller environmental impact on the planet. It also brings our communities together by bringing us closer to the people who provide us our nourishment.

At a time when many of us feel bombarded by bad news and general malaise about the future of sustainability planning in our communities / province / country, this is a good news story – a positive look forward towards a better future.

At this point, the project is still being set up, and the proponents are trying to tie stakeholders together. The proponents are putting on a bit of a travelling discussion about the project and food security, which is why I am talking about this here and now – because Dr. Kent Mullinix and Sofia Fortin from the SW BC Bio-Regional Food System Design Project are coming to Green Drinks in New West!

The NWEP is moving it’s every-second-month-or-so Green Drinks to the Terminal Pub (where there is a new menu, many excellent choices at the taps, and a cool new room) on June 10. Green Drinks is always fun, casual, and no-stress. You get to chat with a wide diversity of New Westies and people from a little further afield. The formal program is kept short to give you lots of chat time, and there is no need to drink if that isn’t your thing. It’s mostly just a social gathering of folks concerned about sustainability issues, socializing, talking, and having some fun.

This time, you get a chance to talk to the folks from the above-raved-about project (and ask Kent about pruning your trees- I took a pruning course from him a few years ago and learned more than anyone should ever need to know- the guy is a font of knowledge on all things growing!)

Join us! It’s Free!

Too Busy to Blog

Sorry, long time fans and first time listeners. I’m just too busy these days to write much here. I have many things on my mind, and several half-written blog posts, but I just don’t have the time these days to get the words down.

What am I doing?

Some NWEP stuff – there are some events coming up, and we are a little short on volunteer help right now.
[p.s. if you have some time and energy and need some environmental karma points to earn, drop by that site and contact us to sign up for helping out!]

Quite a bit of RCCC stuff – lots of off-season projects to get completed before the ice returns in September. [p.s. if you own a business in New West and might want to advertise at the RCCC, get in touch with me soon!]

A fair amount of time is being spent here:

Some time managing these:

Some quality time doing things like this:

And a fair amount of time doing this:

and still setting a little time aside to spend on the more important stuff:

So light blogging anticipated for August. Please, talk amongst yourselves, and keep in touch!  

Reaping and Sowing

I guess I never explained why I didn’t post for quite a while there the last couple of weeks. Mostly I was out of town for 4 days. Then I was 4 days behind on everything when I got back. Life is full of complications.

Luckily, the weather held out this weekend so I could finally get some long-neglected gardening done after RiverFest. Or, it being the end of the season, de-gardening. The days are sunny and warm, but the nights are getting longer and cooler, and the garden looks pretty much done for the year (see pictures below).

Last Sunday was all about putting planter soil in storage, putting dying plants in the compost, and harvesting the last of the crops.

Talking to friends and neighbours, I was not the only one who had a less-than-stellar gardening year. The wet cold spring meant everything was a little late starting, and the dry hot August meant keeping things irrigated was a constant battle.

Luckily(?) this year, I decided to not follow the “plant everything, see what sticks” gardening technique I have used the last couple of years, instead opting for fewer plants that I have had success with in the past. This means no radishes (which in my garden get bored through by worms before I could harvest them), free-range tomatoes (which always get the blight) or eggplants (that just don’t survive). Having absolutely no idea what I am doing the garden, anything edible that comes out of it is a bonus to me
As Ms.NWimby and I eat way too much salad for our own good, a mix of lettuce types is always on, and although the start was late and the bolt was quick once it got hot, we definitely had a variety this year, and kept ourselves saladed for several months.
I also installed my first semi-trellis in the front yard this year, to facilitate the growth of cucumbers and zucchini. We had great luck for the second year with lemon cucumbers. These yellow, round cukes are sweet and pretty hardy (I am still harvesting a few in early October), and provide a unique look in a salad. They seem less prone to drought trouble as my regular green field cukes, and produce a ton of fruit.
Cukes, still producing (kind of) in October.

The lone zucchini plant that survived the late cold spring seemed to like the trellising: stretching 8 feet across the top, and 8 feet back the other way. There was plentiful green vine and lots of flowers, but only a few actual zucchinis: Hand-pollination definitely helped, because once a gourd got going, they grew fast and huge. We ate the last of the season’s crop last night. We also had a pumpkin plant survive and produce one nice-sized round gourd. The vine has almost died off from the cold, so final ripening will happen indoors. I haven’t carved Jack-o’-lantern in a few years, this should be fun.

The cold has also spelled an end to growth of our peppers, another crop that was so late starting that the hot dry August and September were just enough for a semi-crop. We only grew jalapenos this year (we had grown red chillis and habanero in the past – we still have a jar of habaneros from two year ago that are potentially lethal). We harvested them this weekend and pickled them along with some fresh garlic.

This was a great year for the garlic, and our root cellar is – um – fragrant with hanging vines. We will not be buying those ubiquitous plastic socks of garlic from China any time soon. I also harvested the florettes from the garlic and have thousands of little bulbs. They will go in the ground this fall, and will produce “seed bulbs” next summer, which will in turn be harvested and re-planted. Garlic from seed like this is a two-year project, but this is one crop that loves my garden so much and produces so much, that I am willing to take the time.

While harvesting Garlic, I also ran into the few “volunteer” potatoes in the garden. This whole garden project began a few years ago when I tore the grass off of half of my front lawn and planted potatoes. The one thing about potatoes: once you plant them, they never really go away. I only had a half dozen or so this year, but they are like free surprise food when you find them.

I also had three “volunteer” sunflowers from last year’s crop. The birds got at the seeds of two of them long before I could harvest them, and spread them about the garden, so no doubt there will be more volunteers next year. The one I saved I will probably take to Saturna Island and spread the seeds on a small, sunny field of weeds to see if they prosper, or even out-compete the Scotch Broom and nettle. It’s a shot in the dark.

The only tomatoes we grew this year were a few planters worth of cherry varieties on our sunny back deck, and they are pretty much done now.

 A spring crop of beets grew quickly and got eaten almost as fast, and I just had no luck with my cabbage and broccoli starters.

The weather was good for one crop this year especially: berries. We replaced our hedge with about 10 blueberry plants a couple of years ago, and they pumped out a cup or two of blueberries a day for the better part of three months. Last year they were beaten pretty badly by aphids, and this year the hailstorm we had in May caused a lot of leaf damage, but the berries arrived and kept producing on all but one plant. I planted strawberries as groundcover under a lot of the plants this year, and they are –unbelievably for October- still producing a few berries.

Next year’s strategy is to reduce and concentrate. Instead of growing in the ground, I am going to install a couple of raised beds and take a more dedicated approach to rotating crops. The planters will hopefully allow me to better control water and nutrient levels, make weeding and pest control a little easier, and facilitate using plastic row cover in the spring. Winter construction project ahoy.

Still, above the work and the food and the learning, the best thing about my front yard garden is how it facilitates conversation. Digging, weeding, planting, watering, harvesting, whatever I am doing in the front yard, people walking by stop and chat. Complete strangers walking by stop, ask about the blueberries, the lettuce, or the soil. They talk about their gardens (past or present), they comment on the weather or the neighbourhood. They stop and talk. They never do that when I am mowing grass or raking leaves or sweeping my deck. Something about the garden grows curiosity and grows conversation.

That is the best part- because as I am a terrible, terrible gardener, but I am pretty good at talking. I’m not sure I am as good a listening, but (just like with the garden) I am finding the rewards in learning.

Knowledge Drain

This long weekend is full of little tasks. Besides a little volunteering at the Westcoast Curling Classic, I did a bunch of tasks that are the opposite of Spring Cleaning: harvesting plants, putting compost on the garden, and putting away the potting soil in the deck pots that produced so many tomatoes and peppers this year.

Part of that last task is separating the soil from the drain rock I use at the bottom of the pots. It got me thinking about how our veggie plants are benefiting from our education. More directly that you might expect: my drain rocks are mostly rock samples collected during thesis work by me, or by my better half.

My Master’s thesis was a pretty old-school map-the-geology type thing. I spent probably the most idyllic summer fieldwork season even mapping a bunch of little islands off the east costs of the Saanich Peninsula, and a bit of the Peninsula itself. You can read the abstract here , or even download the entire 260MB bastard in pdf. I would highly recommend against that, unless you find ichnofacies analysis to be compelling, but it does include a lot of pretty diagrams I drew myself!

Three years of my life: zoom to enrage.

During the summer, I collected a lot of rock samples. Some to serve are representative hand samples for future comparison, some to cut into thin sections to do petrology, some because they contained fossils (my not being a palaeontologist, I need to look them up or ask someone smarter than me to identify them); and some just because they looked cool.

The Smart One in the Family had a different type of thesis. She was up in the interior of BC looking at glacial deposits, and trying to decipher patterns in the deposits to figure out which way the ice flowed at what time, and concomitant to that, where gold or other lucrative minerals might be found under the glacial deposits based on evidence smeared out within the surface deposits.

Aspects of her thesis relied on statistics to tease trends out of seemingly random data. To do that, you generally need to start with a lot of very meticulously collected data. One line of evidence she used for ice flow was collecting samples of pebbles from glacial till, and characterising the pebble types to see if there are patterns across space. To have adequate statistical support, she needed to collect 100 samples (using a randomising selection method) from each site. To provide adequate statistical control over these sites, she needed 100 sites. So she collected, and petrologically described, 10,000 pebbles. Compared to my couple of buckets of samples, this was a monumental task, and it was only one aspect of her thesis. It is clear which of us is the geologic stud.

So what to do with 10,000 pebble-sized samples, and thousands of others, once your thesis is done?

A few years after her defence, I took a couple of 20L pails of pebbles and mud samples (used for geochemical analysis) that were kicking around a lab at SFU and dropped them in a persistent pothole puddle on the North Road Trail on Burnaby Mountain – every time I ride my mountain bike around that (to this day, puddle-free) corner, I think about the rocks there, and what an enterprising geologist would make of all these Adams Plateau pebbles on Burnaby Mountain.

Some of my samples were pretty enough that they are around my garden today. Some of her samples were used to make patio tiles by her Mom, as part of a family-themed patio paving project.

However, a combined ~17 years after our thesis defences, we still have a few 20-L buckets of pebbles, samples, off-cuts, and fossil samples kicking about. Averse to throwing things out (much to her chagrin), I am always trying to find uses for them… This is how the drainage rocks in our veggie pots came from the Gulf Islands and the Adams Plateau. I think this makes them cooler than a $4.99 bag of crushed quartzite drainage rock I could buy from Home Depot. Especially when I find a nice polished piece of sandstone with a Sharpie-lettered sample number on it. Memories of that summer in the bottom of my veggie pots.. oh, look, there is good ol’ sample PDJ04-107a. That was a nice spot. 

UNIBUG – Learning & Science around bugs.

The Environmental Science field is full of biologists, so I have worked with a lot of biologists in my day. In my current job, I am the “token geologist”, surrounded by Bio-types. This results in a lot of ribbing back and forth. After listening to a long discussion on some arcane invasive plant species or some subtlety of insect biology, I will finally respond with: “what is its preservation potential in the rock record?” (trust me, to geologists, that is hilarious if well timed). They often exclude me from a conversation by saying “you won’t be interested, it is alive…” Good fun.

Kidding aside, having done a lot of field work with enough biologists, I am amazed by what they know. I can look at rock outcrop and tell them more-or-less believable stories about the history of the rocks, and what they say about the tectonic history of the region. They can look at the surroundings, and tell me things about the plants, the animals, and the ecological interactions that I am completely blind to.

After a couple of years of geology field work in the interior, I could identify two types of trees: pine (they are red or brown) and alder (they are sprouting up all over the decommissioned logging roads I need to access to get to the rocks). I could also tell the difference between mosquitoes, blackflies, noseeums, and deer fly based on the geography of the bites on my skin, but that was about the limit of my field biology. All bugging of my co-workers aside, I lament that I don’t know more.

So I am trying to learn some more biology. Because I work with an invasive plant control guy, I cam now good at recognizing giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed, purple loosestrife, English ivy, Scotch broom and other invasive plants that cause so much stress to our local ecosystems. I am now expanding into learning a bit more about insects, good and bad, in my garden.

Partly to help with this, I joined a local program this year to identify beneficial insects in urban gardens. The program is called UNIBUG: a rather ungainly acronym for “User Network for Insect Biology In Urban Gardens”. This is a program run by the Institute of Urban Ecology at Douglas College, and is administered by Dr. Veronica Wahl.

The idea is really simple: give urban gardeners a bit of background material and the tools they need to collect useful data on beneficial insects. The gardeners dedicate a bit of garden space, and collect a lot more data than the researcher would working alone, setting up and maintaining their own test plots across the City (many hands make light work). It also allows a small army of “citizen scientists” to learn a bit more about beneficial insects, about their gardens, and about how science is done. For some of us, just getting the chance to bend the ear of a PhD ecologist in our gardens is worth a fortune.

The basic program this year involves evaluating if two different plants (yarrow and white alyssum), which are colloquially known to attract beneficial insects, actually do attract statistically significant numbers of insects. To do this, each gardener places a “pitfall trap” (for crawling insects) and a “sticky trap” for flying insects in each of two locations of their garden. The attracting plant is located adjacent to one set of traps, and there is no attracting plant within 5m of the “control” trap. In theory, there will be more bugs trapped near the attracting plant… or, as my grade 10 science teacher would say “The null hypothesis is that the traps would collect the same number of bugs, within the range of statistical significance”.

A pitfall trap with Yarrow planted around it.

My “control” pitfall and sticky traps.

For the pit-fall traps, we are instructed to only count the beetles, and to compare the beetles we see to an identification guide we are provided. Our main target are ground beetles of the Carabidae family. These guys eat many common garden pests like caterpillars, aphids, and slugs. Identifying the genus of the beetles we catch is the fun part of the exercise. The sticky traps have to be counted by experts working with microscopes back at the lab, so we just collect and catalogue those.

One of the beetles I trapped and counted in week 1. He was subsequently released.

There are UNIBUG volunteers across the Lower Mainland (keeping Dr. Ronnie running around keeping things running smoothly!), and here in New West, we have volunteers with yard gardens (like me) and several volunteers at each of the City’s three Community Gardens. With us all entering data on-line every week, and collecting stickytrap each week, I see a lot of lab time crunching data in Dr. Ronnie’s future. We get the fun part, she has to do the grunt work. The glory of a career in science!

Bugs in the Garden – UPDATE

This has been a tough year for the garden. A cool wet spring had a lot of our seeds dying in the ground. The weather also brought us slugs, snails, and aphids. The first crop of lettuce expired, as did the first attempt at carrots. The beets and radishes got eaten by slugs. Radishes wormed-through. I am a terrible gardener.

By the Middle of June, not much was happening. Besdies the Garlic and the two “vounteer” potatoes, everything seen was transplants sprouted inside.

??Besides the weather, a constant issue in my garden is the combined aphid-ant battle. I learned last year that some species of ants actually farm aphids. The aphids apparently take more sugar-filled sap out of some plants than they can digest, so they…uh… pass a very sugar-rich waste that the ants harvest. Ants “milk” the aphids like we do cows. This is so successful that the ants have actually learned to farm the aphids. They move small aphids from one part of a plant to another to spread around the feeding space, they even defend the aphids from predators. My attempts to dissuade the ants from my plants, using tanglefoot on my blueberries, and diatomaceous earth on my sunflowers, were to no avail. Using a spray-bottle or water to knock the aphids off was pretty effective, until the ants replaced the lost flock with more young aphids. I just don’t have the time to do it every day. I’m a terrible gardener.

Ants and aphids working together to kill my bluberry plant. (click to zoom).

The problem with using anything more powerful (even insecticidal soap) is that it tends to knock down the natural enemies that control aphids and ants and other pests. The natural enemy of the aphid is the lady bug. So every time I see a lady bug in the garden, I know it is on my side. My experiences with ladybugs this year have included the whole life cycle.

Back in June I found a bunch of ladybug eggs on one of my sunflower plants:

Not long after, I found a bunch of freshly-hatched ladybug larvae on a leaf on my pepper plants:

Problem is, my pepper plants are amongst my tomatoes on the hot back deck, and the only two plants not being nuked by aphids. So I took matters into my own hands. I clipped the leaf off the pepper plant and attached it with a twist-tie to an aphid-infested blueberry plant in my front yard. I hoped the larvae would find a quick bounty, and stick around the garden patch where they were most needed.

That is where I learned about the ants and their defensive skills. 10 minutes after moving the leaf, there were a half dozen ants on the leaf, attacking the freshly hatched larvae. Oops. I moved the leaf to safer spot, and hopefully some of them survived! When they get big enough to defend themselves, the larvae are pretty cool looking:

And I can announce now that the weather has turned, there is a good population of ladybugs in my garden, and the aphids are almost gone completely. I still see a lot of ants around, and the sunflowers seem to have some aphids, but they are big enough to defend themselves, and they seem to be just populous enough to keep the ladybugs fed.

Oh, and now that the weather has turned, the garden is booming. Too late to get too much off the tomatoes this year I expect, but the beets, carrots, cukes and zuchs, the garlic, the blueberries, the potatoes and the onions seems to be going gangbusters, and the herb garden is loving the summer. We may even get a pumpkin to survive. Unfortunately, lettuce has been hit-and-miss this year, after a really successful last season. I really don’t know what I am doing. It sure is fun learning.

It looks like about two weeks until Fig Season, the greatest week of the year.

I am also taking part in a community science project being sponsored by Douglas College’s Institute of Urban Ecology, but I’ll talk about that later. If you are on Facebook, you can check it out now.

First update: That picture at the top shows what the garden was like inJune, with the late start, here is what it looks like now:

Second Update: I did a little research into Lady bugs, and I am supposing that little bug I photographed above is actually not a native ladybug, it is likely Harmonia axyridis, or a Japanese multi-colour ladybug. OK, because they eat a lot of aphids. but bad because are apparently displacing native species that might be better adapted to our climate. An interesting peice of background on native vs. introduced ladybugs. good reading!.

Community -updated!

I had such a fun weekend. One that reminded me how much I love my community.

I just want to add the note that back in December, I did an interview with the News Leader, and made my predictions for the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. OK, I said Canucks-Habs, but Boston are an original six team that needed 7 games to knock Montreal out, so I’ll call that predition 75% accurate.

Friday evening was spent in Downtown Vancouver with some great friends, performing an unusual ritual for a life-long Canuck fan: drinking beer and watching hockey in the month of June. The sounds of the crowds downtown when the goal was scored, and when the final buzzer sounded, were amazing. I was lucky enough to be downtown during the Olympic Gold Metal Game as well, and the feeling was much the same. To be in amongst a crowd of tens of thousands, everyone throwing high-fives as they walk the street, the feeling was electric. Lots of cops in the crowd, but much like the olympics, they were present to make us feel secure, not to “keep order”, and they shared as many high-fives as anyone else. It was a great time.

It wasn’t the camera – it was actually this blurry out.

It is silly to try to explain it. Generally and really large crowd of like-minded individuals is inherently a dangerous thing, but the feeling was so positive. Why? Because, as XKCD so eloquently put it, a weighted random number generator just produced a new batch of numbers. Why care if the Professional Sports Franchise in my hometown is superior to the Professional Sports Franchise in another town? Is the only benefit to all the time and energy we put into ultimately meaningless entertainment just about feeling good, collectively, once in a while? Is this a better way to spend out time an energy than curing cancer or writing piano concertos?  Is this community building?

It occurred to me on the SkyTrain home; it might have been the beer.

Saturday was mostly a garden day. Putting out a lot of the plants that I started indoors: the peppers, the tomatoes and the cucumbers, along with a few squash plants I was gifted from a friend. The radishes, lettuce and spinach are already out of the ground and into my salads, but with the cool spring we had, everything is starting late, and I have to fight the slugs, aphids and cutworms for every leaf. More bloggin on this to come, an ongoing summer project.

Finally, Sunday was spent at Sapperton Day, and it went off great. The event itself was incredibly well attended, the bands were great, the food was great (mmm…pulled Pork sandwich from the Crave/Ranch), and it was great to connect with many people I only see during summer events.

The NWEP booth was well attended, and there was lots of great discussion about the future of transportation in New West, post-UBE. We had a “blank map” to allow people to attach post-it notes with ideas about transportation in the City – What works, what doesn’t, pet peeves and points to ponder. Hopefully ,we can use this blank slate to collect ideas at all the summer events we are attending this year. It was great at facilitating conversation, and lots of great ideas were placed on the board. Notably, not all were NWEP member ideas, or even ideas the NWEP would endorse! The point was to start people thinking about transportation, as the City is getting into its Master Transportation Plan process. We hope that by starting the conversation, people will be informed and curious when the public consultations start.

But mostly Sapperton days is about getting together in the community to meet neighbours, catch up with friends, make new friends, get a little sunburned and have fun. Again, it is all about people coming together to community build.

…and have a little fun along the way.

NWEP’s cycling wildman and Ryan Kesler look-alike Pete taking a few turns on his new bike?

Spring time is Garden Time

The Gardening season is pretty late this year. Although some early plants (lettuce, radishes, carrots) have been in the ground for almost a month, nothing is showing at the surface yet. The only green I have in my garden is last fall’s onions and garlic, and a heck of a lot of chickweed (where does that stuff come from?). But this last weekend was warm and sunny, so much untended garden was now tended to.

We had a lot of well-digested compost, so I spent much of Sunday hauling it out, spreading it, then cutting and raking it in. Fun stuff, but working with well-worn compost is much more pleasant than working with manure, and there is some satisfaction in using the free fertilizer that might have otherwise gone to the curb, not to mention giving the few remaining worms their freedom.

? This year we are starting our Cukes, Tomatoes, Zucchini and Peppers inside, instead of buying young plants. Many of the tomatoes are last year’s seeds. We also collected carrot seeds last year, along with fennel and coriander, although we have actually eaten most of the last two…

The spring is also weeding time, as we slowly wage war against the creeping buttercup and blue bells. There are places in our back yard where you turn over the soil and hit a layer about 8” down of solid bulbs. I’m sure the flowers were beautiful at one point, but now they are just voracious, crowd everything else out, and create this non-permeable layer that hurts the yard’s drainage, leading to moss in what is generally really sandy, well-drained storage. Here is The iCandy using an oversized tool for an oversized job.

Some of the weeds are going in the Green Cone. The weather is starting to warm up, and the sun is getting longer in the day, so the cone is getting warm and the digestion has noticeable sped up. The water glass here was hardly boiling, but the fact the Breadwinner would rest her drinking glass on it is proof that the digester doesn’t smell.

A look inside, and you can see the Cone Salad is a not-unhealthy mix of bones, breads, and weeds.

I’m not ready to declare the Green Cone a success or a failure: it seems to me that the material did not digest at the rate I would expect over the winter, we will see if the summer heat helps before I make a decision on this thing. Regardless, all of the bones and breads we have tossed in the last 5 months have gone into this thing, along with quite a few weeds, and we are no-where near full yet, or even over the top of the “basket” level, which is what I would consider functionally full. Jury’s out on the Green Cone, more to come.

I am clearly an amateur at gardening, and I really need to start reading up on it to improve my yields, but the learn-as-you go thing has some appeal. The only part of my garden that I really understand are the rocks in it. Most of them are samples from my Masters thesis, where I mapped some Cretaceous sedimentary rocks on the Gulf Islands. Others are rocks I just picked up in my travels, because they were nice looking, or they had some significance.

Click to Geologic-size

This pic from my front yard has (A) a big hunk of clearly fully-marine upper Comox Formation sandstone with a big oyster fossil in it, from the vicinity of Sidney Island; (B) a smaller piece of Comox where it is it more estuarine or marginal marine, with a well-preserved fern impression, probably 95-odd million years old, from Brethour Island; (D) a big piece of Eocene Cedar Formation basalt or andesite, from Merritt BC, where there were large shield volcanoes around 50 million years ago; and (D) a hunk of ugly Extension formation fosiliferous pebble conglomerate from Piers Island.

But I like this rock even more. It is a piece of sandstone from Sidney Island, Comox Formation, probably 95 Million years old or so. But notice the funny weathering pattern on the surface? Is isn’t only on the surface but runs through the entire rock, and it is a “trace fossil”, referred to as Macaronichnus segregatis. Yes, “segregated macaroni-tubes”. But it isn’t just the fossil name I like, I like this trace because it is diagnostic.

M. segregatis is made by polychete worms, colloquially “bloodworms”, as they sift through the sand on the wet part of the beach, sucking biofilm sustenance off of the quartz and feldspar grains while preferentially avoiding the micas and other dark grains, leaving very faint “tubes” of quartz and feldspar surrounded by micas, which differentially weather and stick out like a sore thumb. Or like a bowl of spaghetti. We can see modern polychetes doing this on beaches today. What is cool about this is that these animals are specialists; they are one of the few animals happy to be living in the high-energy “swash zone” of the beach. So when you find M. segregatis, you always know you have found the fossil beach deposits. That means the rocks conformably above it are always fully marine in a transgressive regime (rising sea levels) or are terrestrial in a regressive regime (falling sea levels). When someone asks a sedimentologist how he knows where the beach was 95 million years ago, he can say “Macaronichnus segregatis, my friend”. If he finds some handy cross-beds nearby, he can even point at which direction the sea was. Presuming, of course, some jerk in the intervening 95 million years hasn’t picked the rock up and used it as a corner piece in his rock garden.

Spring has sprung, and a middle-aged man’s mind turns to geology…