Documents: Special Interest: Wildlife Gardening:

A Follow-up On Zone Pushers’ Plants This Year

...and Do You Know About Mason Bees?
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

February 23, 2003

LaurasAucuba3.jpg (40580 bytes)
Japaneseumbrella-pine.jpg (59421 bytes)
Above, Japanese laurel (Aucuba japonica) growing in Laura Grant’s East York garden in central Toronto this February. Below, the Japanese umbrella-pine.
Photos by Laura Grant and the University of Connecticut.

Last week I wrote extensively about zone pushing, and mentioned I had not been in touch with either Laura Grant or Mary Dragan, both of whom grow numerous plants that are not supposed to be hardy at all in southern Ontario. This week I was in touch with both of these gardeners and I have basically a very good report to bring to you.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait until at least mid March to report on my Kashmir cedar (Cedrus deodara ’Kashmir’) and my evergreen magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) planted in the Toronto garden that was mine until last year. Fortunately, both Mary and Laura either grow both of these plants or close relatives (cultivars) of them. They both report no visible damage at this stage of a relatively long and hard winter. That’s good news.

Mary also reports that her camellias have fared well so far this year too. She is now more concerned about what the squirrels may do to the buds, than the effect of the winter. She says the squirrels seem to prefer Camellia buds to those on rhodos! I guess she should be out shopping for some of that natural Squirrel Off product and using that in and around the camellias.

As a follow-up to what I wrote about Mary’s camellias last year (November 30th) I should pass on her comment of this past week that she is experimenting with various locations in her garden to plant her new Camellia seedlings. She mentions that the seedlings she planted in shade are looking well, but that seedlings generally make better growth when planted in full sun. However, she says the seedlings planted in full sun have considerable scorched leaves, and she hopes they will come back. In hindsight, she says she perhaps should have put up a screen for the sun-exposed seedlings to reduce the amount of sun on the young leaves over the winter.

Mary also comments about her Skimmia spp. and Aucuba japonica (Japanese laurel) plants. Both of these are generally considered British Columbia plants, and in fact I planted several Skimmia and an Aucuba just last summer in my own garden here. Mary’s are all apparently doing well. Laura Grant reports much the same with both plants. In fact, Laura included a photo of her Aucuba that I’ve included with this article.

Laura also reports on some other not-considered-hardy plants that I’ve not written or talked about previously. For example, her sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is apparently doing very well. It is an evergreen shrub both the leaves and flowers of which resemble the cherry or English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) evergreen shrub which is also very much on the borderline of hardiness in southern Ontario. There was an old plant of cherry laurel located in my Toronto neighbourhood. In the days when it was planted (probably 30+ years ago) Sheridan Nurseries carried it because it was (the founder) Howard Dunington-Grubb’s favourite plant.

Sweet olive has a nice apricot fragrance to its flowers that appear not very significantly over lengthy periods of the spring and summer. It generally only grows to 3 metres (10’) in height, whereas many cherry laurels can grow to three times that height. Sweet olive will take partial shade to full sun, whereas cherry laurel will grow in both sun and shade. Both plants may be judiciously pruned to keep them in bounds. Good luck in finding plants of either of these!

Laura does say that there has been some damage to one plant, but that it is still alive. I will obtain more information and report back on this one. She also mentions that her pomegranate seems to be thriving; it having reached about 60 cm (2’).

Finally. Laura Grant also comments on the Japanese umbrella-pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) I mentioned in last week’s article. Her’s is doing quite nicely even at this point in a hard winter. The gentleman who called about this plant may well be interested in this news. Unfortunately he did not stay on the line so I don’t have a way of contacting him (to send his 1.6 kg. package of Pink—the all-purpose fertilizer from Nu-Gro). This plant’s common name is somewhat misleading because the plant is not a pine at all; in fact it is a bit of a loner in that many botanists believe it is in a plant family all by itself!

My second topic this week is bees!
Specifically, I want to tell you a bit about the orchard Mason bee that is being promoted and sold extensively out here in British Columbia. It is apparently not new and has been known in North America since creation. This bee is about two-thirds the size of a honeybee but with its blue sheen, resembles a black fly. They are far better pollinators of plants than honeybees, thus the interest of orchardists and many gardeners has been peaked. Bee people tell me that the average honeybee visits 700 blooms in a day but only pollinates about 30 individual flowers. The Mason bee, on the other hand, visits and pollinates 1600 flowers in a day. Their life cycle is only about four to six weeks.

Each spring male Mason bees begin emerging around the end of February here. They await the females and when these emerge, the lovemaking takes place. The female finds a hole or tube about 8mm (5/16”) in diameter and places her bee bread (a mixture of pollen and nectar) in the back of it. She follows that with an egg on top of the bee bread and then a grey-coloured mud plug. Each female lays about 35 eggs in about four to six weeks, and each is enclosed with its own protective chamber within the nest.

Eggs for females are always laid in the back of the tube or hole, followed, of course, by eggs of the males. Man-made nests for these bees generally consist of numerous 10 cm (4”) tubes 8 mm in diameter. The following spring, each tube, on average, yields two female and four male bees. Interesting that the mother female is always able to tell the sex of the eggs she lays. Within four days eggs turn into larvae that eat the food on which each egg was laid. That food supply lasts about 30 days and the larvae then spin cocoons. They remain cocooned up until the end of September when the final moult occurs and each cocoon contains a full adult bee. Each adult stays in a dormant state until the temperature begins to go up to 13-14 C. the following spring.

As you can imagine from this brief description of the life cycle, Mason bees are ideal for use in gardens. Their “nests” are small, and easily built using an infrastructure of straws about 10 cm long. The bees are being sold here at many garden centres, and if buyers are not ready to put them out when they get them, they may store them in a (not frost-free) refrigerator until about (at the latest) the end of April.

One of the problems often cited with other natural controls, such as ladybugs, is that soon after you release them in your garden, they’re gone to another “more favourable” garden several houses away. Well, generally that is not the case with Mason bees. This bee is unique in that it only flies about 60 to 90 metres (200 – 300’) from its nest, so even in a small garden, two neighbours could share their improved pollination practices.

If you are interested in more information there is a book, Pollination With Mason Bees, by Margriet Dogterom of Bee Diverse in B.C. ( for just $12.95. As to availability in Ontario, the only source I found was long-time natural control advocates David and Sandra Mitchell of Natural Insect Control in Stevensville in the Niagara area. They are now entering their 14th year of operation and have a catalogue, as well as a good website (

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