by Catherine Robertson
Autumn in Ontario is a time of glorious colour as the trees shed their foliage once more in preparation for the colder months ahead. The smell of fall leaves as they crunch underfoot is delightful to the senses. In autumn, the air gets crisp as squirrels scurry about the yard, hiding food away for winter. The cool days are a welcome reprieve from the intense heat of summer. Autumn here truly is spectacular, even when we realize that its presence is short when compared to the long winter months that lie ahead.
In Southern Ontario, winters are quite mild compared to the climate elsewhere in the country. Growing up in the snow belt on the shores of Georgian Bay, I find it amusing when folks in Guelph complain about the amount of snow. As a child, I clearly remember snow banks piled so high that we could reach the hydro wires. Apparently, that maneuver is a “no-no” and our teachers would always scold us when we demonstrated this proficiency at recess. These days, even a light dusting of the white stuff is enough to warrant deserted streets as everyone hunkers down, safe and warm indoors.
Eagerly we anticipate the arrival of robins, signaling the long-awaited return of spring each year. One weekend, we discovered that our backyard pond was home to a couple of small, silvery-brown fish. While surprised to say the least, I suspected they may have come here as eggs on some water lettuce. In our community, there are opportunities for plant exchanges with other gardeners, and I unwittingly adopted two goldfish when I traded for some aquatic plants. These little fellows didn’t make their presence known until flashes of silver movement caught my eye in mid-January. As I stared into the murky water, I was thankful for the pond heater which had kept a small part of the pond thawed for wildlife to bathe and drink. Without it they would have been frozen fish sticks for sure!
I’m always planning ahead for my next project, even when it won’t be happening for several weeks or months. I bought a 100-gallon stock tank and planned on turning it into an above-ground pond, complete with plants and aquatic critters. Our little fishy friends would surely love it, assuming they survived the winter. I had briefly contemplated getting turtles for the pond as well, but in researching this idea I learned that they might crawl away if they were unhappy with their environment. I was not willing to chance that, living in an urban neighbourhood with only a few other ornamental ponds on our street.
Since so many species of turtles are extirpated or endangered in Ontario, I was tempted to provide a haven for a few Red-Eared Sliders or Painted Turtles. A nearby pond where we liked to hike provided habitat for hundreds of turtles, and on a sunny day you would usually catch a glimpse of them sunning themselves on a log. They would watch us stroll past and one by one, as we got closer, each turtle would slip below the water surface, and reemerge only once we were safely past.
The tank I had was a tad more modest in size at 100-gallons. Still lots of room for healthy plants and aquascaping. At a time of year when being outside for long was impractical, I needed things to look forward to in spring. Really excited about this project, I daydreamed about warm breezes, sitting on the patio watching the new water feature.
It is so important to find beauty in all four seasons. Here, they change in the blink of an eye, and unpredictable weather in Ontario is about as certain as a sighting of Wiarton Willie in early February. The yard on a snowy winter’s day is a flurry of excitement with chickadees, nuthatches, juncoes, and mourning doves all enjoying the bounty of seed we provide for them. In chickadee mating season, you may also see and hear a lot of commotion around your own feeders.
Providing shelter for birds and other wildlife is vital in attracting them to your property. Last week I bought three new little wooden birdhouses from an artisan in Kitchener. I am looking forward to putting them up as soon as the weather is a tad warmer. Houses like these provide shelter, warmth, and a place for birds to hatch and raise their young. And don’t forget the thrill of watching them fledge for the first time under the watchful eye of their parents.
Soon, gardens will be blooming with colour, as the temperatures warm substantially. Folks will seem to emerge from their own hibernation of sorts as the days get longer again. Parks, nature trails, and other urban spaces will come alive with activity. The days will lengthen. The insects will reappear. It will be a time of enjoyment of outdoor spaces for families and friends – both human and animal alike.
Year-round, I enjoy the beauty of my urban yard. With a little effort, it’s quite amazing how much wildlife you can attract. Naturalization has been an important concept in my gardens for as long as I can remember. In 2019 I had our yard officially certified as a Wildlife Habitat, meeting simple criteria that make it appealing to birds, animals, and insects. Sources of food, water, and shelter all being important in the certification process. It seems fair to me that I provide them with the necessities of life, seeing as how I live on land we share as our home.
With a little planning and care, your yard can become home to a plethora of neighbourhood critters, native plants, and insects. In each season, it is our responsibility to be stewards of our space, enjoying the highlights nature has to offer.