November 12, 2013

Spectrums of Yard Decoration - A Journey from Weird to Weird x Infinity

A few weeks ago, as I drove home from work or somewhere in town, I noticed that a neighbour of mine had decided to make another dramatic adjustment to his front yard.  I remembered other, graphic examples of yard "decorating", which, when I added on the current action of the neighbour (as well as the many other “adjustments” made in recent years), tipped the balance, broke the camel’s back and did me in when it came to reserving my opinion (inside).  Ok, for those that know me, this wouldn’t appear to be a huge step, but I just had to write about it.

I will be the first to admit that I am a traditionalist.  In this case, I would define this as meaning that I like things to be a certain way.  Change is really NOT for me.  This character trait stands me in good stead when it comes to my precision, my attention to detail and my work ethic (I think).  However, it does render me somewhat less flexible when it comes to trying new things, or straying off the well-known and well-trodden pathways of life.

When it comes to yards and gardens, I will admit that I am a staunch traditionalist.  I like flowers, trees/shrubs, edible things (in the right places), mixed with an appropriate amount of rocks or other hard landscaping features.  Here are two examples of yards that I like.

Why do I like these yards?  Because they are simple, they offer variety that isn’t equal to a rainbow paintball gun shot at a blank canvas and they represent individuality that is something that I can achieve.  I can relate to them.  They are familiar, without being mine.  Hey, I’m simply complex.  Sue me.

Whether you are pro-change or anti-change is not what I’d like to open up for discussion today.  I just wanted to give you a frame of reference for what I am saying and why I might have issue(s) with the subjects of this topic.

As I conducted my investigative research (a.k.a. snoopy driving around looking at other yards, taking pictures to share with you), I noted a range of different yard "decorating" styles exhibited by the population of my community.  I have noted (now, and as I dredged my memory) that there are definite styles that show up in a community when it comes to “decorating” a yard.  While the following examples are ones that I frankly don’t like (but felt like sharing), I don’t judge the owners, but recognize that everyone is free to enjoy their space as they will.  I expect that you will almost certainly be able to bring to mind a personal example of each of them.  I don’t claim to understand the motivation behind the style, but hope that we can at least enjoy the journey through these weird yards.

DISCLAIMER - There is a good chance that some of the readers might use, or subscribe to one of these styles or might even like what they see.  Please don't be offended if we differ in taste. That is just fine.

Style #1 – Seizure in the Great Outdoors (a.k.a. Outdoor Disco; a.k.a. Outdoor Bling)
This type of yard decorating style is perhaps representative of what might have been common several decades ago.  I don’t know that for sure and don't want to anger the generationally enhanced.  Lots of weird things happened years ago, I am told.  I definitely don’t know what prompted someone to think that if ONE wind chime or windmill was good, 10 times that was better, but this appears to be the direction that they went.  Add in the flashy, shiny bits and you’ve got a health risk.  Other similar examples include those yards with any more than ONE spinning-legged animal/object (per 100 square feet) or some of the yards below.

Sparkly bits and motion everywhere

Here a wind chime, there a wind chime, everywhere a wind chime

Style #2 –Staunch Collector
Some folks collect things.  I can admire that, since I tend to be a bit of a collector myself.  However, I collect in private.  Indulging a collection in a public forum smacks of bad taste and narcissism.  When you dial it up, it can quickly move from an interesting idea to something awful, or at least, weird.

I'm guessing Tex-Mex inspired, with bonus wolves

Tex-Mex inspired meets gnome/fairy wonderland
Gnomes are a bit creepy, especially in gangs

Style #3 – Pet Cemetery
My wife and father-in-law have some good stories about this particular style.  In this case, there are no actual dead and/or buried animals (visible) but the sheer volume of lawn ornaments, often animal in nature, gives the impression that the yard is now some sort of bizarre tribute to animals or imaginary creatures.

My thoughts on this style are more questions, really.  Consider the following example.  If you think that putting 40 bright pink flamingoes on a lawn for someone’s birthday is a prank of epic proportions (not to be left in place for more than the time it takes the “lucky” recipient to discover and remove the birds), why would you think that dozens to hundreds of gnomes, frogs, gargoyles, sheep or unicorns is acceptable year round?  I hope you see that that was a rhetorical question.  And stuffed animals that are left outdoors equals mould and things that are disgusting.  Don't go there.

Too. Many. Figurines!

Style #4 - Seasonal Decoration Disorder (SDD)
Some people like to put up a bit of decoration for their favourite season or holiday.  And, some people take that idea and mutate it into a grotesque display that nauseates and overpowers any seasonal sentiments. People that do this for EVERY season or holiday need help.  The following pictures are middle-of-the-road crazy.  I'm writing a special article just for this malady, I mean, style.

This picture demonstrates taking something tacky and making it uber-tacky.  Lions shouldn't have spider headdresses or pumpkin baskets.
Style #5 – Toy Graveyard/Playground
This one follows up on Style #2.  A toadstool or a little barn ornament is ok.  A creepy kids toy display is awkward.  Unless you want to draw children into the flower bed to play with the toys in the dirt, don’t put them out.  Just don’t.

Style #6 – Creepy
Some yards don't have any style.  They are just creepy.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  CREEPY.  Thankfully, I've never seen anything like the following example anywhere else.  The 2-3 foot tall Bavarian Freak people are slightly more creepy than the giant cat-table.  While I can excuse most styles, this one cannot be.

Style #7 – Fake Flowers
Real flowers and plants represent hard work, good taste and honest effort.  So what do fake flowers represent?  Maybe, laziness and the fact that you just gave up, without trying.  Seeing flower beds with silk or plastic flowers, which are removed just like real ones are in the fall, just about kills me every time.

Style #8 – Blown Up Paradise
This is a relatively new style, but cheap technology has facilitated rapid growth and has resulted in it becoming more and more prevalent.  Sadly, with all things that are "cute", "clever" or "neat" to begin with, it becomes horrifyingly mutated over time.  One inflatable entity is maybe ok.  Moving to multiple specimens dials it up to tacky.

The following example has been growing each year, with different seasonal variations.  Chopping down the beautiful hedge to expose the atrocity is what prompted this post.  Adding the spider webbing and having more, larger inflatable things makes this location a spectacle.  Blending in the Christmas lights rendered me speechless.  Changing it out for close to ten Christmas-themed inflatable thingies and other paraphrenalia on November 1st...

Webbing on the bushes is difficult to remove (especially with a foot of snow on it - sorry, spoiler alert, that is what happened days later)

Ole Frankie there is close to 10 to 15 feet tall.

Style #9 – The Loveless (a.k.a. The parking lot OR Barren Landscape OR Zero maintenance)
Not all of the styles of yard decoration that you'll see are full of things.  In recent years, there has been an upswing in interest in zeroscaping, or yards that are full of low maintenance, native, low water use plant selections and are designed in a way to sort of exist as a horticultural desert, while still looking deliberate.  Am I am fan?  Not really, but only because it can quickly move from tasteful, intelligent and a generally good idea, to something that isn't any of that.  People who want to reduce watering, etc. are different from people who don't really want a yard at all, but just want the non-house space filled with something that they can ignore.  The example below is well-designed but I just can't love it, because it is empty of the joy that plants bring to me, through interaction.  (Yeah, that sounds weird, but just go with it).

Style #10 - Urban Redneck
There is (or should be) a saying about the general impossibility of removing the redneck tendencies from the redneck.  If you see a yard containing toilets, rubber boots, or any other sort of hunting or fishing implement adapted for decorative yard or garden use, you might have located a redneck.  While I can appreciate the novelty of using some of the above as planters, they tend to automatically downgrade your yard decorating style from deliberate to lazy or accidental.

Style #11 – Random Weirdness
There are lots of other things that people do (or try to do), to "decorate" their yard.  Some are ok.  Some aren't, but none fit in any specific category.  Some of the following pictures are from my own front yard, but the kids did them and I don't mind them, temporarily.  They even border on cute, I guess.

This makes me think that some sort of mechanical something decided to die in the front flowerbed

This is a bit of a wasteland, which is trying to cram lots of practical stuff in, but just looks cluttered, messy and a bit strange. A for Effort, C for Execution.

November 6, 2013

Canadian Winter Blessings

Normally, I wouldn’t be celebrating the arrival of winter, especially at the beginning of November.  Typically, I’d go into winter grumbling and complaining.  Actually, I was complaining about it the other day, but that isn’t what this particular post is about.

This morning (November 5) was one of those glorious winter mornings that has everything that makes me love winter, love our great northern country and love being a Canadian (born and raised).  Every sense was enhanced, augmented and became more finely tuned.  The snow covering the ground, the trees and the roofs of the houses was crisp, clean and pristine (mostly).  The air was totally still, without any wind to disturb the frost on the trees.  It was absolutely breathtaking (literally, actually, since it was cold enough to freeze the lungs a little bit).  Everything was motionless, with even sound seeming to hang in the air, making each movement distinct, unique and noteworthy.  There was that pale glow in the air, ranging from almost white, through to pale yellow to blush pink.  The trees and houses weren’t entirely silhouetted and shadowed, but stood out in that strange way, with depth that only comes in this sort of half-light.

The snow was piled deeply on the branches of the trees and shrubs, in some cases bending them down to create a unique shape, different from the customary ones.  Icicles hung from the houses and waves of snow twisted and turned and cascaded from the eaves in big waves.  Frost crystals glistened as the sun rose, sparkling in the light.  Tufts and puffs of steam and exhaust rose from the chimneys, the vehicles and from people breathing as they walked (ok, that was just me, but I did see one or two other folk out and about).

The snow crackled and squeaked as you walked.  Ice sounded hollow underneath.  All of your clothing feels brittle and stiff, like somehow it might just crack if moved too suddenly.  Any flash of movement is noticeable, whether from a little Black-capped Chickadee flitting from branch to branch collecting seeds from the pine cones, a bluejay flying tree to tree in the distance or a snowflake falling past your head.

Gone are the myriad of blended autumn shades and colours.  Now, shades of grey, brown and black contrast sharply against the whites and silvers of the snow and ice.  Some colours are muted, such as the bright blue-green of the Colorado blue spruce, becoming a dull, but beautiful, dark aquamarine, or the grey-brown patterns of the bark of the Elms jumping with a splash of white.  Other colours become more vibrant, such as the bright clusters of red berries of the Mountain Ash against the tufts of white snow dusted across them or the yellow-orange of leaves exposed by shovelling.

This is the type of weather where you think that you might be able to see forever into the distance.  You appreciate the warmth of the indoors, the crackle of the fire and the feel of a fresh, clean wool scarf across your face.  This is when you think, “Yeah, I’d go tobogganing or sledding” instead of sitting down at the table.  Hot chocolate takes on a flavour and texture that is beyond comprehension.

Today is a day to celebrate winter and the beauty that it brings.  Be grateful for the hardy heritage that Canadians are known for, which makes this sharp transition from fall to winter tolerable.

When the depths of winter settle in, the days get shorter, or when the cold just seems beyond bearing, remember TODAY.   Enjoy the unique beauty of the Canadian winter.

And, for my Jamaican neighbours, that are quite likely hunkered down and wondering why they came to Canada, be patient.  You’ll get used to it.  Eventually.

October 19, 2013

Weird Insects - Part 4 - Aphids - Deformers and Misshapers

In Part 3, we looked at insects that "defile" or misshape plants through the creation of web nests for feeding, development and protection (and maybe company?).  In this final part, I'll talk about a common group of insects, aphids.  However, we'll look at some of the unusual or unique reactions that we sometimes see in plants from the feeding of different species.

Aphids don’t tend to be all that subtle about their feeding.  They are inefficient feeders, basically sucking in the sugar-rich sap from the plant and firing it right out the back end in a pretty similar form (this is according to my simplified understanding).  They feed in big groups, don’t tend to move much and cause mostly localized damage.  That being said, they can cause a pretty dramatic impact on plants.

In some cases, the degree of response will depend on the plant species being attacked.  In the case of this currant, it responds to damage with the production of darker pigments and some weird cellular growth, which looks like red blisters from the top.  Turning over the leaf reveals the many aphids chowing down on the plant.

Conspicuous distortion and discolouration on the upper leaf surface of a currant bush

Severe discolouration and distorted growth of a currant bush

Examination of the leaf underside reveals scores of aphids feeding, which results in the wound reponse (discolouration) and the distortion (feeding injury) - Note the crocodile-like larva of a predatory insect eating out at the all-u-can-eat Aphid buffet (lower left)
Sometimes, the way an aphid feeds on a particular host and the resulting distortion of the plant can be used in identifying the species.  On these elms leaves, we find either the Woolly Apple Aphid, which causes a terminal distortion or the Woolly Elm Aphid, which causes a bit of a leaf rolling effect.  If you open up the roll, you’ll find scores of aphids feeding, with plenty of honeydew pouring out.

Terminal leaf distortion likely caused by an infestation of Woolly Apple Aphids

Distorted leaf growth, likely caused by Woolly Apple Aphid

A rolled leaf edge is the result of feeding injury by Woolly Elm Aphids

Underside of the rolled leaf reveals scores of aphids feeding - honeydew secretions and waxy deposits are also evident
When aphids feed on a more succulent or tender plant, particularly at or near a growing point, you’ll find that the undifferentiated growth their feeding can cause tends to result in distortion of the plant tissues, as viewed on this Larkspur.

Twisted, distorted growth due to severe levels of aphid feeding

Damaged and distorted growth
Sometimes, you find something that is totally freaky, like what these aphids did to this poplar leaf.  Somehow (I have no idea how), they formed a bit of a pocket to feed within.  When you open it up, you find it packed full of aphid-y goodness.  This is close to the weirdest aphid-related thing I’ve ever encountered.

Odd looking swellings along a Poplar leaf vein

Leaf underside showing a pocket-like swelling

Opening of the swelling (from the top side) shows masses of aphids feeding inside
Cooley Spruce Gall Adelgid (Adelges cooleyi)
There are a number of different adelgids, which are distinctly aphid-like.  In this case, this species moves between Douglas fir and Spruce, causing a “pineapple-like” gall on the new growth of spruce trees.  The galls mature with the stages of the insect inside over a period of one or two years.  The insects eventually move back to the Douglas fir to complete the life cycle.  The pictures show mature, empty galls.

Swelling on the new growth of a Spruce caused by infestation by Cooley Spruce Gall Adelgid

Gall/swelling is very old, as evidenced by grey colour of the gall
Two gall/swellings caused by Cooley Spruce Gall Adelgid - open gaps indicate that the insects have left for the alternate host (Douglas Fir)

The opening of one of the swellings shows cavities where the insects lived while developing - some waxy deposits are also visible

Some other types of gall-forming adelgids cause slightly different swellings

October 16, 2013

Weird Insects - Part 3 - Defilers

In Part 1 and Part 2, we looked at insects that are shelter or protect themselves in unusual ways or in galls to hide themselves during development.  In this part, we'll look at a couple of insects that "defile" and/or create misshapen growth in plants.

Some insects create nasty web homes for them to feed and develop within.  They produce silk webbing and tie together leaves and branches to varying degrees, depending on the species.  They go through developmental stages, eat, poop, etc. creating a big pile of grossness.  I would guess that the mess protects them, for the most part, from predators and the environment.  The two examples that I’ve come across are the Ugly Nest Caterpillar (aptly named, I’d say) and another insect on Pine, which I haven’t sorted out yet.  It is equally gross, as it is tough to say what exactly all the stuff you are seeing is.  I’d lean towards poop.  Poop tends to end up nearby, no matter which insect you are dealing with.  Overall, these “defilers” can mess up the shape and form of the tree, as they tend to stick to the new growth of the tree.

Ugly Nest Caterpillar (Archips cerasivorana)

Large number of nests are visible from a distance in a chokecherry shelterbelt

Multiple nests apparent on a single chokecherry bush

Nest of Ugly Nest Caterpillar - masses of webbing ties together branches and leaves to create a place for hundreds of larvae to develop

Big nest of Ugly Nest Caterpillar
Ugly Nest Caterpillar nest - pupal casings, frass (poop) and other debris are visible within the mass

Ugly Nest Caterpillar adult moth
Some sort of nest-creating insect in Pine

Somewhat conspicuous, reddish-brown nest/mass on a Pine tree - it appeared to be approximately 6-12 inches in length

Numerous messy reddish-brown nests can be seen on this large Pine