Archive for the 'In The Garden' Category

Tulip the Swan

Earlier this spring, while on a morning walk, I happened upon a most memorable front yard. The landscaping consisted of three beautifully simple ingredients: a blanket of lush, overgrown grass, a scattering of candy-coloured tulips, and a kitschy plastic swan placed proudly in the centre, but mostly obscured by the surrounding vegetation.

I’ve since named her Tulip and she’s inspired me to write the following poem, as well as collage a new piece of art.

There is a swan / who lives in a lawn / of towering tulips and sod.
Her neck, stiff and starched /  and pleasantly arched / dips into a neighbourly nod.
“Hello”, I did say / and, “How is your day?” / while admiring her palace of green.
I kid you not / I most certainly thought / I heard her say, “Oh, peachy-keen.”


Can you spot the swan?

(I biked by this same yard recently, and as suspected, the tulips have since run their course. What a pleasant surprise to see a cascade of daisies had taken their place!)




Painted Ladies

Have you ever witnessed a butterfly break free of it’s cocoon? I had always imagined the molting process as being long and gradual; something one surely wouldn’t miss in the blink of an eye.

Last week my neighbour, Kathryn, called me up in an hurry, asking if I wanted to come over and witness a chrysalis hatching. (Kathryn’s son is an insect enthusiast and for the past two years, they’ve ordered Painted Lady Caterpillar kits through the mail.) I went over not knowing what to expect. On their kitchen table sat a netted enclosure (which looked like a collapsible laundry hamper) with cocoons pinned to the inside wall. Eight butterflies had hatched earlier that morning and were now flexing their wings along the mesh wall. Lucky for me, there were still 6 cocoons remaining. The one we focused our attention on had a deeper colour showing through the chrysalid shell…a sign it could open any second.

painted lady butterfly cocoon

Kathryn and I sat in front of the hamper with our eyes glued to the cocoon. Sure enough, a little break started to form along the cocoon’s side, and then within seconds, out popped the butterfly! As it pumped up it’s wings, a red liquid trickled down. What I thought was blood was actually a substance called Meconium: a metabolic waste product from the pupal stage. You can see the red stains from the process in the above photo.

Toy and the butterflies

Butterflies are pretty low maintenance, however, they do require a a fresh supply of fruit to feed from until their release. Because Kathryn and her family were heading out camping that weekend, I was delighted to be given the task of butterfly sitter. Toy, our cat, was equally delighted and kept a close watch on her new flitty friends.


I was able to make some sketches while the butterflies were resting. The top and bottom of the Painted Lady wings are so different in colour and pattern.

painted butterfly sketch

The underwing has such a sophisticated pallet of chocolate browns, honey browns, creams and clever hits of turquoise and sky blue.

painted lady butterfly wing eating

Perhaps next year I’ll order a butterfly kit of my own. It would be neat to witness the caterpillar stage all the way through to the big, final release!

Time Lapse of a Flowering Croton

Have you seen the film Dennis the Menace? There’s a scene were Mr. Wilson is hosting a garden party to celebrate the anticipated blooming of his treasured “Night-Blooming Mock Orchid”, a fictional species of plant that only flowers once every 40 years.  Just as the flower’s petals begin to unfold, Dennis bursts into the scene, drawing everyone’s attention away from the spectacle—only for it to have completely withered by the time they look back. (Here’s the clip)

I feel for poor, old Mr. Wilson. Forty years is a long time to wait for a plant to perform a 10-second show and then miss it. Luckily for me, one of my houseplants performed a flowering show that was a little harder to miss.

croton marker drawing, croton illustration, croton plant

Sketch of the same Croton plant, back in 2012.

For the first time in the seven years I had cared for it, my Croton plant decided to grow a strand of tightly clustered buds from it’s crown. It was early July and I had just moved apartments, and so instead of sitting in its usual south-facing window, my Croton found a new place in front of a north-facing window. A little research revealed that it’s quite rare for indoor Crotons to flower, so perhaps the change in light direction really did play a part.

Well whatever the reason, this plant sure put on a nice show. And thanks to the magic of time lapse photography I can share its blooming spectacle with you. (see video below)

flowering croton plant

one week into flowering

flowering croton

3 weeks into flowering

time lapse photography, flowering croton

To make the time lapse video, my boyfriend, Kevin, hooked up an intervalometer to his Canon 6D. After experimenting with different frame rates, we settled on taking one frame every 5 minutes. A soft box gave us a steady source of light throughout the two and a bit weeks we spent shooting it.

Solitary Bee House

Bees are a hot topic right now, and rightly so.

Bee populations are falling at an alarming rate, which isn’t cool when you consider how essential they are to our food system. The use of pesticides and monocultures of commodity crops (like wheat and corn) that sterilize the landscape of biodiversity are just two of the contributing factors to their disappearance.

Agapostemon, Solitary Bee

Last summer I attended a Pollinators workshop put on by the good people at The presenter that day was artist and bee enthusiast, Stephen Humphrey. He explained the differences between solitary and communal bees and how important it was to encourage their presence in our yards through the help of bee houses and by growing native plants.

I was especially delighted to learn that a certain emerald wasp-like insect I had photographed in my garden (see above) was in fact a species of solitary bee called Agapostemon. In fact, it’s one of Stephen’s favourite species and it’s not hard to see why. They’re absolutely gorgeous!

Stephen is part of an ecologically-minded artist’s group called Resonating Bodies. I recommend checking out their bee house installations!

paper cut bee illustration solitary bee house

Flash forward 6 months later, and there I was, illustrating solitary bees for the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s kid’s publication, WILD. (Thanks to AD, Steve Balaban)


The step by step guide teaches kids how to make their own bee house out of the simplest of materials: drilling holes into pieces of wood. Here’s another way of making a bee house I spotted at Toronto Blooms, using clustered bamboo sticks.


The construction of bee houses combined with the replanting of native wildflowers is one small step we can all take to help improve our bee numbers.

I plan on making one for my backyard and I’ll be sure to post an update on how it turns out!

Sweet Potato Vine Update

I find it coincidental that the same week I watched “Gravity” in theatres, my sweet potato plant decided to give in to gravity and lower its vines.

As mentioned in my previous post, the vines were “growing upwards, straight like a sapling”…well, that’s simply not the case anymore! In the span of 48 hours, it’s stalks bent completely over like fallen timber and continued growing like nothing had happened. Its newly swooped vines give the plant a more balanced shape now, and I’m happy to see that it’s settling comfortably into its new, roomier pot.

sweet potato vine plant potted

Sweet Potato Vine

I came across this diagram in one of my old houseplant books:

vintage houseplant book sweet potato vine diagram

Sweet-potato placed in a pickle jar soon makes an attractive house vine”, it read. Seeming easy enough, I gave it a try with a few modifications.

Placed in a pot with soil, my store-bought sweet potato began to grow leaves a couple of days after it’s first watering. The leaves were waxy and veiny like tiny techni-colour bat’s wings, at first — a really strange sight to see!

sweet potato vine plant

It’s been over a month now, and this experiment of a plant is doing quite well. Unlike the diagram, my sweet potato’s vine is growing upwards, straight like a sapling. Maybe if it stays healthy over the winter I’ll be able to plant it outside come spring. I’ll share its progress in the coming months.

Spoils of Soil

Soil is an amazingly complex thing. Scoop up just a handful of it and (ideally) you’ll be holding a combination of silt, sand, clay, organic matter, as well as countless micro organisms in the form of bacteria and fungi.

Toronto’s dirt is top-notch, containing 1/3 of Canada’s Class 1 soil, thanks to the ancient lake basin we now call home. So if you think about it, there are loads of superstar soil hiding right below the pavement under our feet!


After taking a workshop on soil, I was eager to build my own backyard compost. (Yes, Toronto’s soil is really good, but I wanted to make it even better.) With a little help from gardening blogs, I realized how easy it was to make one.

My idyllic vision of a compost had always been a wooden slat box, and thanks to a discarded wooden slat futon sitting on the side of the road, I was able to make it a reality. All of the pieces were there; they just had to be reworked a little. The only thing I had to purchase from the hardware store was the wire mesh to line it.

As you can see from the photos below, my compost is without a side door. That’s on the list of things to do, but not urgent, as my compost heap is still quite small.

compost DIY homemade

Composting is all about layering, plain and simple. I started with a base of shredded newspaper and from there it’s been a pattern of  layering mulch, manure, kitchen waste and black earth as I go. There aren’t any rules, really. The layers are just there to encourage bacteria formation and keep air flowing.

So far, the raccoons and other night scavengers haven’t shown any interest in my little compost heap, which is a huge relief! The reason being that the kitchen scraps I’ve been feeding it are strictly plant based.

I guess I’ll have to wait until next summer to put my composting efforts to the test. In the mean time, I’ll continue to gaze at roadside, land-fill-destined futons, with the knowledge that each one of them has the potential to be a stylish, free compost bin.

Crassula Ovata

I’ve been working on some plant studies and thought I’d share one of my favourites: Crassula Ovata, otherwise known as Jade.

Jade is a succulent native to South Africa. It has chubby spoon-like leaves that grow opposite to each other on a stem that will eventually turn woody with age. The leaves are a dark green colour with hits of contrasting red on their undersides. The graceful, predictable structure of this plant is what attracts me most.

jade plant crassula ovata

I find it funny how very opposing people’s tastes are when it comes to houseplants.

Here I am raving about Jade when a former Brooklyn Botanical Garden horticulturist by the name of Montague Free can’t stand the species. He writes in his 1946 book, “All About House Plants”:

“Under any name (Jade) leaves me cold, for it is a dreary plant with fat, uninteresting leaves and a stodgy habit of growth. It’s tiny flowers are so seldom produced under house conditions that they cannot be looked on as a redeeming feature.”

My response to him (because this is clearly a debate between me and a now dead horticulturist) is:

“Dear Montague Free, I’m sorry that Jade plants were uninteresting to you simply because they seldom flower. You are right, I should’ve stuck to growing poinsettias all year round, as your reference photos suggest because that’s not at all tacky!”

crassula ovata jade plant drawings

A piece of summer

This time last summer, I was busy making sketches for Shaping Up Summer’s book spreads. I remember scouring the city’s public gardens for insects and flowering perennials with my camera in hand, crouching in funny positions to record their details and capture that-oh-so-right perspective. 

Since one of the aims of the Math in Number series is to educate readers on indigenous plants and animals, the ecosystems I sketched out had to be seasonally accurate. This meant learning which flowers bloomed around the same time as each other. For instance, a iris paired with a sunflower would be a very unlikely sight, as one blooms in spring and the other in late summer.

Lizann Flatt, the author of the series, was a great help when it came to suggesting which plants to group together. Lizann lives up in the Muskoka region of Ontario and is well-versed in her wildflowers. Her attention to detail is what makes this series so special, in my opinion.


I wish I could share with you the cover of Shaping Up Summer to go along with this post, but I must first wait until the book has been fully released, come spring 2014.

So instead, I’ll hint at it in pieces, starting with the photos of the Purple Coneflowers and Blue Globe Thistles pictured above (including the bees), and this process shot of a Swallowtail butterfly coming together below.

swallowtail butterfly paper collage shaping up summer

Watercolour Plant Studies

zebrina pendula potted plantI’m in love with this Zebrina Pendula, sometimes referred to as “Wandering Jew”. It’s iridescent leaves can play tricks on your eyes: in the morning’s full sun they’re bright fuschia and as my room gets darker, a deep royal purple sets in.

Look from above, and the tops of the leaves are a dusty green with faded stripes. These unique leaves add a punch of colour to the otherwise green line up of plant species sitting on my sill.

But besides a pretty face , I’ve found Zebrina Pendula to be one of the easiest plants to propagate. Just cut off a piece, stick it in soil and within a couple days, roots will take form. This entire plant came from two tiny cuttings my friend Celeste had given me. (Celeste’s a fellow green thumb/illustrator/textile designer who recently moved back to Australia, and in doing so, had to find homes for all of her plant babies.)

Below I’ve included some watercolour studies I made from different houseplants around my apartment. Jade (pictured below right), like the Zebrina, also has a reddish underside to it’s leaf. It was fun to work with a brush for a change. Watercolour allows me to transition from one colour to the next with ease. I have yet to find a way to replicate this in my paper collage, but I’m definitely working on it.

zebrina pendula jade watercolour houseplantsThe succulent blooms I painted below are from a photo reference. Some day I hope to own an assortment like this, especially the lime-coloured one with the fiery tips!

succulent blooms Ashley Barron watercolour


My name is Ashley Barron and I'm a Toronto based illustrator. This is my online show & tell of new artwork and anything else I find inspiring. Thanks for taking a look :)

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