The Battle Against the Duckweed

Dear Readers, this is a shot of the pond after we spent an hour yesterday getting rid of at least some of the duckweed – you couldn’t see any open water when we got home, so this is a bit of an improvement (believe it or not). We didn’t want to remove all of it (as if that’s even possible) because it provides a bit of cover for the tadpoles, and also, as it turns out, for the adult frogs, like this one sheltering under the marsh marigold.

I was also pleased to see that the bog bean is in flower, though as it’s said to be a bit of a thug I might not be happy for long. Let’s see. I rather like those extraordinary furry flowers.

This rather fine hoverfly put in an appearance too. I think it’s an Eristalis species, which breed in ponds and bogs appropriately enough.

And finally, this Herb Robert has made itself at home outside the kitchen door. I should probably pull it up, but I haven’t got the heart. I think it looks rather fine against the arsenic-green paintwork.


In other news the cat, who caterwauled about two dozen times all through the night that we arrived home has now reduced her complaints to two, although as one was at 3 a.m. it’s still not optimal. Let’s hope lots of strokes, titbits and brushing (her favourite things) restore us to favour. And let’s be very glad that, unlike one foster cat we had, her irritation doesn’t drive her to crapping right in the middle of the bed when we go away. That really wasn’t fun to come home to.


In Praise of Green Alkanet

Dear Readers, I know that many of you will be horrified by this post. After all, Green Alkanet is not native and a bit of a thug, with a tap root that  probably goes down to the centre of the earth. And when I got back from Canada on Saturday, I was horrified myself to see that what I thought was one or two plants has flowered forth into a positive thicket.

But then I stopped to listen. The plants were abuzz with bees. Mainly honeybees (probably from the local allotment), but also with bumblebees, hoverflies…

Hoverfly, probably Myathropa florea

This greenbottle is more often seen on carrion or dung, but also plays a role as a pollinator. 


There’s already cuckoospit on one of the stems, which will soon turn into a froghopper.

And did I mention the bees?

It’s no wonder that this plant is so popular – it’s a member of the Borage family, which contains some of the most nectar-rich of all plants. Plus it flowers prolifically over a long period. In the front garden, it’s currently filling the gap before the lavender flowers, followed by the buddleia. It’s clearly thriving. And so, while I have tried to grow other things here, it’s a tough spot – dry, exposed and stony. So for this year at least, I think the green alkanet will have its day.

Well, That’ll Teach Me….

Holy Moly readers, I should remember that when I go away in spring I come back to a garden that needs a machete to hack my way to the shed, but as it’s been three years since I’ve been anywhere I hope I can be forgiven. The whitebeam has sprung into leaf, the hawthorn is laden down with flowers…

The Geranium phaeum (or Dusky Cranesbill) is in full flower…

The Geranium macrorhizum has been flowering for weeks and is now in its full glory…

The Geranium nodosum (are you sensing a theme here?) is so delicate that I currently have it in a pot, but it too is flowering (along with the white Herb Robert that has seeded itself)

And finally, I planted an ornamental dead nettle, Lamium orvala (otherwise known as balm-leaved red dead-nettle) and it promptly looked very unhappy before it disappeared. This year, it’s about eighteen inches tall, covered in flowers and abuzz with bees. Very satisfying.

And here is a new visitor to the garden – I believe that she’s from the next road to us and that her name is Sadie. She was a tiny bit too interested in the frogs, but as the whole pond is currently covered in duckweed (at least until we start removing it tomorrow) they at least have plenty of cover.

Final Thoughts on Toronto

Photo by John Bolitho

Dear Readers, by the time you read this we should be home in London, after 15 days spent in Collingwood, Montreal and Toronto. When we arrived in Toronto, I spoke about it feeling ‘hollowed out’ after the pandemic, and there are definitely downtown spaces that are much quieter than they used to be. To my untutored eye it also feels as if there are many more homeless people sleeping on grates, and many more folk with mental health problems, but I suspect that this is not unique to Toronto – the pandemic has been terrible for many people, and for anyone who was already feeling mentally shaky, the past two years can only have made things worse.

We were on the subway yesterday sitting next to a woman who was double-masked (masking is still mandatory on transport in Ontario unless you are exempt). A young woman got on who wasn’t wearing a mask. The masked woman asked/told her to put a mask on. She refused, and went back to her phone. The masked woman took a photo of her. At this point I was fully expecting things to escalate – in London there may well have been fisticuffs at this point, but fortunately Canadians are generally more laid back. Then three more people got on who weren’t wearing masks. The masked woman pointed out that they should be wearing masks as she got off, but she was clearly fighting a losing battle. I would say that probably 90% of the people that  I see on public transit are wearing masks, and I suspect that in London someone would have moved if they’d felt vulnerable rather than taking on the world. I could understand the masked woman’s fury, but it also seemed to me to be an indication of how divisive the whole masking thing has become, and how polarising. It felt as if this poor woman was trying to hold back the tide, like King Canute, rather than looking after herself.

I saw a friend who said that, basically, everyone in Toronto is stressed. You can sense it in the air. We have all lost a layer of mental security, even though it was only an illusion in the first place. I don’t know if it’s more acute here than in other places, but you can even see it in the restaurant menus. People are looking for comfort food – chicken pot pie and mashed potato, bread and butter pudding, stews and pasta and that Montreal favourite poutine (basically chips, cheese and gravy). Retro food is cropping up – I saw Irish Coffee on several menus, something that I haven’t seen for years. People want their safety back, something familiar and homely, and who can blame them? I jumped at the chance for some custard earlier this week. It felt like an old friend.

Cannabis is now legal in Canada as well, and one big change has been the sheer number of shops selling the stuff. In fact, there are so many that cannabis shops are now putting one another out of business, in much the same way that Starbucks did a decade ago. I am not sure that it’s good for productivity though – in a visit to a coffee shop recently all the baristas were clearly stoned, and kept messing up the orders, though the vibe was delightfully friendly and laid back. There was no uptightness there, and I do wonder if some people have turned to cannabis to help with their anxiety as opposed to that old favourite, alcohol.

But in general, Toronto is still here, and in the sunshine  of our last day here it looks modern, and vertical, and exciting. It is still a pleasure to visit, and to spend time with friends and family. It has the feeling of a second home, after all these years, and it will be good to be able to come more regularly now that things are easing – even though I know that Covid hasn’t finished with us yet, there is a tiny chip of hope in my heart. It’s certainly reignited my passion for travel, in spite of all the hassle of getting to and from my destination.

Photo by John Bolitho

The Beach in Toronto

Dear Readers, on our last full day in Toronto we took a walk along The Beach in Toronto. It’s actually the edge of Lake Ontario, so there isn’t any marine life, but on a gorgeous sunny day (only the second of our fifteen-day visit) you could easily be looking at the ocean. The Beach is actually four separate beaches, but as people have almost come to blows over whether this area is called ‘The Beaches’ or ‘The Beach’ I have opted for the current favoured name.

The sand for the beach actually comes from the erosion of the cliffs at Scarborough Bluffs to the east, but the current carries the sand away. Various rocky groynes have been established to try to keep the sand for longer, and I see that there are some attempts to encourage sand dunes as well. It will be interesting to see how successful they are.

Clearly the area is popular with wildlife. This fox looks like the one that we saw in Mount Pleasant Cemetery yesterday – are they svelter in Toronto than back in London, I wonder? I love that this one appears to be making off with a whole hot dog, although a London fox would also have snatched the bun I think.

This squirrel gave us a long hard stare, as if trying to work out whether it was worth his while to come down from the tree for a hand out. He decided we weren’t worth the bother.

It was lovely to see that swallows had arrived – they were gathering mud from nearby puddles, presumably to make their nests. This is a barn swallow, the same species that we have in the UK – apparently this is the most widespread species of swallow in the world.

Out on the water, there were two pairs of mute swans, separated by a healthy expanse of water. That didn’t stop one pair steaming at speed towards the other, however. How much space do they need, I wonder?

There were some fine Common Mergansers out on the lake as well – the females have attractive ginger crests, while the males are sleeker with green heads. These are saw-billed ducks who dive to catch small fish and invertebrates.

Female Common Merganser


There were some painted pebbles, which I’m beginning to think of as prime indicators of the pandemic.

I was very struck by the lifeboat station, which was built in 1920, at which point the beach was crowded with vendors, swimmers and all manner of goings on. A lifeguard would sit in the tower at the top, and shout if s/he saw anyone in trouble. The station started to fall into disrepair in the 1920’s, but was rescued by the local community. It’s estimated that over 6000 lives have been saved by people based at this station. There was no swimming and no lifeguards today, but no doubt there will be later in the season.

And then it was time to turn for home, past the very fine houses that line the streets and onto the main road, which has a surprisingly high proportion of independent shops. We stopped for coffee at the Remarkable Bean, which not only has very good coffee, but also highly-recommended cheese scones and rhubarb tarts. So good, in fact, that we’d eaten most of them before I thought to take a photo, but you get the idea.

And finally, here are two other residents. The cat rather reminds me of my old friend Bailey.

And how about this splendid dog (a Newfoundland I think), waiting patiently outside a coffee shop for his owner? Canada is not quite as dog-friendly as the UK has become in recent years, where dogs are allowed in a lot of cafes and restaurants, but maybe this chap would have taken up quite a lot of room anyway. He is a very fine dog, and took his unexpected stardom completely in his stride.

Along the Beltline


After we left Mount Pleasant Cemetery yesterday, we took a walk along the Kay Gardner Beltline Trail – this follows the line of a railway that opened for passenger traffic in 1892, but which was unprofitable and only ran for two years before falling into misuse. Then, it was reopened for freight, and trains ran along the Beltline until the late 1960s – one of our friends remembers waving to the 1 p.m. train as it went past when he was a small boy. Today, it’s a trail much loved by walkers, runners, dogs and cyclists. We entered the trail via the cemetery and crossed a bridge adorned with’iron’ (actually fibre glass) horses manufactured by Toronto company Plastiglas. The horses are said to hark back to when the Beltline was a buggy trail, and then to the steam trains that would have run on the line. The original sculptures were in place from 1994 to 1996, but were then sold off, so this is a welcome return.

You have views of Yonge Street in both directions.

 After many disputes about its use (developers wanted to use it for housing, local residents wanted it closed to public use because of vandalism and general bad behaviour), the Beltline Trail was finally converted to the track that we see today in 1988. It’s certainly well-used, and we met some very fine dogs on the way. It’s wide enough that cyclists, runners and dogwalkers seem to be able to get along without tripping over one another.

I was rather moved by this hopeful grafitti.

I am noticing a lot of periwinkle (Vinca minor) popping up all over the place – this is classed as (yet another) invasive alien in Canada, but this doesn’t seem to be dissuading it. It’s a bit smaller and more delicate than the Vinca major species which is most often seen in the UK, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that both are in Canada.

And in just one spot there’s a stand of chionodoxa large enough to rival those that I’ve seen elsewhere. A whole garden seems to have eroded and spread down the slope. I rather enjoyed seeing this black squirrel playing in a sea of blue.

The trail goes on for quite a way both north and south of the part that we walked, but alas our walking time was over, and we needed to head for home. Still, the Beltline was interesting, and gives us something else to investigate next time we’re in Canada. However long our visits are, they’re never quite enough.

A Visit to Mount Pleasant Cemetery

Dear Readers, my father-in-law, Richard Bolitho, is laid to rest in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, and so we always make a point of visiting his memorial when we come to Canada. It will be ten years since he died on 11th May – he was run down by a car on his way home from an appointment with his cardiologist, who had just given him a clean bill of health. He was an engineer, and had stopped to chat with the builders who were working on some condominiums close to where he lived. Realising that he was running late he turned to cross the road, and was knocked down. The builders apparently scaled a six foot fence to see if they could help, but it was too late. We still miss his wry sense of humour, his old-world charm and his fund of knowledge about all things to do with energy and construction.

Mount  Pleasant is a haven for wildlife and is a fine arboretum. We saw a fox run past (too quickly for me to get a photograph), but the squirrels are everywhere, and very tame they are too. I have a sneaking suspicion that someone feeds them. The fellow below leaves us in no doubt that it’s the breeding season. Apologies to anyone of a sensitive disposition.

And then there’s this American Red Squirrel(Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) – what a little charmer! These animals defend a year round territory, and primarily eat the seeds of spruce trees – the fallen scales and cones fall and form something known as a midden. If I’d known this in advance of my encounter, I’d have kept my eyes open to see if I could see such a thing. In the breeding season, the female, who only comes into oestrus for one day, is hotly pursued by males, and will mate with any that are fast enough to catch her – it’s the act of mating that stimulates ovulation. The female will give birth to three or four young, and will move these between nests that she creates in trees in her territory. But apart from mating and rearing young, these are very asocial rodents, who spend less than 1% of their time with other squirrels (and most of that is chasing rivals who’ve encroached on their territory).

American Red Squirrel

We also found the grave of William Lyon Mackenzie, who was Prime Minister of Canada several times. What a modest grave, and somehow very Canadian.

I was very moved by this memorial to Jason Edward Winston Churchill, a firefighter for over 30 years who died of cancer aged only 50 years old. His colleagues described him as a man who was ahead of his time – he was thinking about using drones to assess the extent of fires before anyone had even heard of them. Inscribed on the statue are the words ‘Brothers Who Stand Together Cannot Fall Alone’.

And the cherries are coming into blossom. Apparently the cherry trees in High Park in Toronto are expected to peak this weekend, and there will be crazy amounts of traffic in the area. By that time, we will be heading back to London, but it was lovely to see some blossom in much quieter surroundings here.

And  finally, here are a few graves that caught my eye while I was wandering through the cemetery. The one below has a most unusual design.

George Pears established Toronto’s first spice and coffee mill at Yonge and Alexander Street in the 1850s, and, after retiring from this business in the 1880s, embarked on a second career in real estate, at which he was evidently also very successful.

The design of headstones in Toronto is very different from those back in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery – they are lower and somehow stockier, maybe to survive the extremes of temperature and the snow. I love the way that this tombstone is nestled between the trunks of the tree, almost as if it’s being embraced.

And finally, just a quick shot showing the variety of trees and gravestones in the cemetery – in this photo there are three different fonts, two different materials and yet the whole scene  is harmonious. Mount Pleasant is such an interesting place, and well worth a visit if you’re in Toronto.



A Visit to Lilactree Farm

Dear Readers, you might remember that in April last year I reviewed ‘Minding the Garden – Lilactree Farm’ by Brian Bixley, a fascinating book about a year in the life of a garden in Ontario, and lots of other things besides. This year, the stars aligned so that, on an exceptionally sunny day, we were able to visit Brian and his wife Maureen at Lilactree Farm, to see the garden in its spring glory. I should say that my photos don’t do the garden justice, but hopefully you’ll get an idea of what a delight it is.

I have noted how splendid the scilla was in Collingwood, but it really comes into its own here, along with the chionodoxa: the shrubs stand ankle-deep in different shades of blue and pale pink, with hellebores, winter aconite and summer snowflake marking the changes.

On a sunny bank outside the house there was a fine selection of fumitory – I’m familiar with yellow corydalis, which grows like a weed in London, but these were a rainbow of lilac and pink. Known as ‘bird-in-a-bush’, the wild type of the plant (Corydalis solida) is a pale lavender, but there are several varieties in pink and coral. They looked spectacular growing amongst the chionodoxa, and were very popular with the bees – the bumblebee in the second photo is, I think, a Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), but as it was the first one I’d ever seen I was enchanted by its completely black, furry abdomen. Bumblebees are important pollinators of long-throated flowers such as fumitories, and the bees certainly need the early nectar and pollen, so everyone is happy. In fact, I have never seen a bank of flowers so abuzz with bees and hoverflies – I even asked Brian if he was keeping bees but no, these are travelling to enjoy his largesse.

There was a row of daphne just coming into flower, and a tricolour bumblebee(Bombus ternarius) was foraging – again, a new species for me, and surely one of the most handsome bumblebees anywhere.

The garden has what I always think of as ‘good bones’ – the structural elements, such as the sculpture and the blue posts below, will look different throughout the year, as they are enhanced and supported by what is happening botanically. The sculpture below twinkles in the sun, reflecting aspects of the landscape.

And when you reach the top of the path, you have a wonderful view over the hills and woods beyond.

The blue posts below provide a strong linear element in a garden of many curves. In the spring they pick up the colour of the scylla. I would love to see them later in the year as other plants come into flower.

Blue posts with scilla

It was wonderful to see Lilactree Farm after falling in love with it through Brian’s book. It seems to me that it’s a prime example of gardening with passion – Brian grows what he loves, and is constantly experimenting to see what will work in the temperamental Canadian climate. He is not a ‘wildlife gardener’, and yet his garden is absolutely full of life. By growing a variety of plants with a long flowering season, Brian has created a place which is welcoming to pollinators as it is to people. It was an Open Day for the garden, and there was a constant stream of people coming to see it, many of them repeat visitors who obviously love it. It made me yearn to see what it’s like in the summer, or in autumn. But in spring, when we have been so deprived of colour and scent, it is a real treasure. I could imagine myself sitting under a tree with a book in a pool of scilla and feeling very content with life.

You can buy Brian’s book ‘Minding the Garden – Lilactree Farm’ here.

Chionodoxa luciliae

Blue posts with scilla



A Wet Walk Along the Toronto Waterfront

Dear Readers, the weather in Toronto has taken a turn for the worst, but before the rain really kicked in we decided to have a quick walk along the waterfront of Lake Ontario. The land that you can see on the other side is The Island – it wasn’t an island until a storm in 1885 cut it off from the mainland. Now, it’s accessible by ferry or by a water taxi, and it has some of the best views of Toronto to be had in the city. Sadly today wasn’t the day for such an excursion, but there was plenty to see on the walk down.

Toronto is such a mix of the old and the new, the concrete and more modern glass/steel combination. This view down Yonge Street shows the contrast. Yonge Street used to be in the record books as the longest street in the world, but alas it was decided that this was because the street was ‘conflated with Highway 11’ which reduced its length from over 1000 kilometres to a measly 86 kilometres. The bronze building is Scotia Plaza.

This is a view towards the Hockey Hall of Fame (that’s ice hockey, guys), with the CIBC building in the background, and numerous condominiums in the background.

And here’s a view of the CN tower, which, at 553 metres is still the tallest free-standing concrete structure in the  world. You can zip up to the round bit in a lift, and for the brave you can then go a bit higher to the pod in the top bit. For a while, you could bungee jump at least part of the way down. For some reason, I never saw the allure. Union Station is to the left, and from here you can trundle off to Montreal or Quebec City by Via Rail, or to the Royal Botanical Gardens by the double-decker Go trains.

It’s fair to say that the building boom in Toronto isn’t over just yet. And how about this amazing eagle sculpture, which looms over the commuters just before you go under the railway bridge to reach the lakeside? It was designed by MIsha Kovalenko, and you can see some photos of its installation here.

And before you reach the lakeside, you have to pass under the Gardiner Expressway, that takes traffic into and out of Toronto from the never-ending sprawl of the Greater Toronto area. Before you get there, though, there’s this endearing sculpture, plonked down by the side of the road. It’s by sculptor Tom Otterness, who has specialised in making work on social and political issues. Unfortunately, he is also famous for filming himself shooting a dog that he’d rescued from a shelter back in 1978 when he was a very young man. He has apologised profusely since, but let’s move swiftly on.

And here we are at the Gardiner. The concrete gets eaten by the salt that’s put down every year in winter, and the whole structure requires constant maintenance.

And I can’t resist another view of the CN tower.

This is Number One Yonge Street, the headquarters of the Toronto Star newspaper. It originally also housed the printing presses, but the new press centre was relocated to Vaughan in Ontario (which is on the subway system now, we noticed).

I’m not quite sure what’s going on below, but it must have been a long time since breakfast, as the building reminds me of some badly-stacked sandwiches.

Anyway, we can finally see the water. The Gardiner Expressway might not be the worst example of a waterfront cut off from public use, but it’s certainly a formidable barrier, though in fairness Toronto has spent a lot of time and effort to make the waterside more amenable.

There is a memorial to Jack Layton, a controversial politician who seems to have inspired love and hate in equal measure.

The first red-winged blackbirds that I’d seen since Collingwood were fluttering about and drawing attention to themselves.

This female was fluttering and calling from a shrub, and a male popped down to feed her.

The weeping willows are getting their new growth…

And that strange concrete and metal  ball on the left hand side of the photo is not, as I first thought, some kind of deactivated mine rescued after war time, but an installation – you walk above a shallow pond and peer through the gap in the wall at the Island. Every time a boat goes past the sound is amplified until you can feel it travelling up through your feet. And at this point the weather took a decided turn for the worst, so it was into a Tim Hortons for a coffee and my first ever Tim Bits (round balls of doughnut dipped in something delicious). All in all, not a bad way to spend a drizzly day!

View from inside the art installation, plus raindrops.


The Mourning Dove – Canada’s Own Pigeon

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Dear Readers, Canada is blessed with the usual feral pigeons and (increasingly) the Eurasian Collared Dove (which looks set to be as successful in North America as it has been in the UK). However, the Mourning Dove is the bird that always typifies Canada to me. It’s a small, bright-eyed bird with a distinctively doleful call.

Interestingly, the wings also make a strange whistling sound, which you can hear at the end of the clip below – it sounds almost like the call of a different bird, or maybe a very tiny horse whinnying. Like most pigeons, the Mourning Dove is an excellent flyer, being able to reach speeds of over 55 mph.

The bird is a popular game bird in the USA, with up to 20 million of these small birds shot every year, but it maintains its population by being able to have up to six broods every year, each with two chicks. Both parents feed the squabs with crop milk, a secretion unique to the pigeon family which enables the birds to breed more or less all year round, especially as the adults eat seeds and so are not dependent on the insect population.

Photo One by By Andrew Atzert from Mesa, AZ, USA - Family of DovesUploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0,

Mourning Dove parent with two chicks (Photo One)

Mourning Doves are not showy birds, but their feathers have a delicate, misty beauty. A legend of the Huron/Wyandot people of North America tells how a Mourning Dove was the favourite bird of a maiden, Ay’ura, who died. Her spirit travelled towards the entrance of the underworld but all the Mourning Doves followed, and wanted to go with her. The Sky Deity, who guards the gate to the underworld, lit torches so that the smoke would obscure the entrance, and so Ay’ura went on to the spirit world, but the feathers of the Mourning Doves were smudged with the smoke. Their cry is said to resemble the chant that used to be said over the dead.

Photo Two from By -, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Mourning Dove (Photo Two)

The birds that I saw in Canada are probably recent arrivals – Ontario is towards the northern range of the Mourning Dove, which can be found throughout the US and down into Mexico. The Canadian birds tend to migrate south every year, returning into Canada between March and May. On arrival, the males court the females with graceful, circular glides, followed by the usual pigeon-y bobbing dance. The male then leads the female to some potential nest sites, and she chooses one. The male then finds the nesting material while the female builds the nest, no doubt being extremely picky about the male’s offerings. Both parents incubate the eggs, and both feed the young. They seem to be devoted parents, which is probably another reason for their success – they are considered of ‘Least Concern’ as far as conservation goes.

And while this is not directly related to the Mourning Dove, I am in the mood to share this poem with you. It has been such a hard two years, and yet the birds are still singing, and the sun is shining outside my hotel window. If nothing else, so many of us have learned to look at familiar things in a new way. The Mourning Dove is one of Canada’s commonest birds, and yet I’d never really considered it before. There is always something new to learn, and to admire.

“Hope is the thing with feathers”  by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Sound Credits

First file by Manuel Grosselet from XC381111 Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) :: xeno-canto

Second file by Paul Marvin from

Photo Credits

Photo One By Andrew Atzert from Mesa, AZ, USA – Family of DovesUploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Two from By, CC BY-SA 2.5,