Submitted by Candy Venning

Gardens are accessible ecosystems bursting with life backed by the evolution of millions of years under our very noses!

Hear me out,

A garden is more than that simple word can contain – it’s an outdoor laboratory to experiment with and learn – so many things are happening there at all times, day and night. The type of plants, the time of year, the weather and the location will all change who is in the garden. It’s a dynamic place or at least it should be.

Technology has given us more tools than ever to identify species and there are ways for every age or ability to learn who eats who and what their names are.

By song ‘Merlin’ a free app by Cornell that helps you identify and learn about birds by song or by location and description – I think of this as the most important app on my phone and the best ‘game’ to play.

By sight; ‘iNaturalist’ a free app that contributes to citizen science and is useful for anything from plants to animals and the human aspect of others looking at the photo can be better than AI – a bit clunky to use but wonderful nonetheless.

Google lens, Picture this and many other free or subscription uses of AI can be a good starting point but are never good enough to learn whether to eat something or not, whether it’s invasive or not – details should be worked out by more research as results can vary widely!

Trail cams, not free but often very interesting to find out what creatures are on the move at night, from cats, rats, skunks and possums to owls and even humans!

Go on a mini safari and see how many fungi, birds or insects you can find – crawling, flying, wriggling and then find out what their names are – creatures I was once afraid of like common red centipedes (Scolopocryptops sexspinosus) I now understand to be a crucial part of bio control – fierce little hunters they are!

Teaching children and ourselves, to respect and interact positively with insects opens a world of wonder – and perhaps fewer phobias too.

Adding native species and then seeing what creatures come to interact with that plant, for pollen/nectar, for food and as a host plant is also quite engaging– did a butterfly lay eggs on the plant and are caterpillars eating it? What kind of caterpillars are they?

One of the easiest to monitor is the Monarch butterfly, distinctive markings are easily recognized and their cocoons and caterpillars are also very easy to identify (as well as being visually stunning). The Monarch’s connection to Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa or Asclepias syriacus, or Asclepias incarnata are all good choices and can be grown from seed – follow instructions online for ‘cold moist stratification’ or go to wildflower farm for fun videos on how to) – no yard? No problem. Hamilton and surrounding areas have plenty of Monarch Waystations and native plant plantings from Sunset Gardens to the RBG – an interactive map can be found here

Everybody can get out on safari – from micro to mammals from fungi to flapping, it’s all connected and yah, I’m gonna say it, it’s a jungle out there!