Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Holly Gathering


I must have gazed at one to many poinsettias, or eaten one too many mince pies, because I’ve been indulging in a little nostalgia.

Every year at this time, when I was a little sprout, my dad would take us holly gathering. It was such an exciting event, gathering holly to brighten the house at Christmas. Of course, in those days we were blithely ignorant of the times ahead when Christmas decorating would be raised to a unique art form with plastic penguins and flashing flamingos.

Each December we’d make the trek to our secret place where the holly trees grew, hoping to discover a bounty of berries. We weren’t always lucky; some years there would be a good crop, with lush clumps clinging to each twig on the tree, while other years there’d be hardly a speck of red to be seen. My dad always blamed the berry vultures — I don’t know if he meant birds or the people who’d been there before us.

Even in the best of years, only half the trees would bear any berries at all. Having only a limited understanding of procreation, we didn’t realize that only the female holly bears berries while, as usual, the male hangs around taking up useful space. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize the lack of berries was likely due to someone not in the mood.

Nonetheless, collecting was never easy. Holly has wicked prickles, and you could be sure the best sprigs were always at the top of the tree, at the outer limits, barely within reach. Since we had no concept of a limb lopper, someone had to climb the tree. “Go ahead, Dad,” I’d say, “show me one more time. Maybe next year I’ll be able to do it.” In this way the ancient tradition of holly gathering was slowly passed down through our family.

Yes, holly gathering was a challenge, but it was worth the struggle. At Christmas, friends and family would visit our home simply to admire our lovely holly sprig, burdened with two, maybe three berries. Meanwhile, Mum would serve mince pies and Dad would lie on the couch, groaning, with a mustard plaster taped to his back.

Ah, yes, the good old days. I often wonder what Dad would have thought of plastic penguins.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rockway Gardens, Kitchener, Ontario.


This is a short piece I wrote for Canadian Gardening magazine before it stopped publishing.

In 1928, a strip of wasteland alongside the eastern approach to the city of Kitchener, Ontario, sprouted nothing but scrub and billboards.

Today, it’s Rockway Gardens, a three hectare floral ribbon, created and maintained by the Kitchener Horticultural Society. The gardens are now within a vastly expanded city, a source of civic pride that sees numerous bridal parties waiting in line each weekend in summer for wedding photographs beside vintage fountains or before a low limestone escarpment.

It appears natural, but this impressive rockery, spilling with flowers, was constructed during the depression years with almost 2,000 tonnes of limestone. Designed by prominent English landscape architect, W. J. Jarman, the project provided relief work for the unemployed during difficult times; allowing many to hold onto their homes by contributing labour in lieu of paying property taxes. Work continues at the gardens. Each year, volunteers from the Horticultural Society, whose motto is “community beauty is a civic duty”, contribute to their heritage by planting thousands of bulbs and annuals at Rockway to welcome visitors to the city of Kitchener.

At 270 Simcoe Street North in the city of Oshawa lies another garden developed during the same period. Parkwood, now a national historic site, was the home of Sam McLaughlin, founder of General Motors of Canada. His impressive and imposing mansion is set amid five hectares of gardens designed by a series of prominent landscape architects of the early twentieth century, including W.E. Harries and A.V. Hall, and the Dunington-Grubbs, husband and wife team who were founding members of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects.

These talented people created delightful garden rooms adorned with beautiful statuary, including the Italian Garden, the Sunken Garden, the Sundial Garden, all linked by paths and hidden nooks to greenhouses where orchids and palms share space with the Japanese Garden and the Greenhouse Tea Room.

The last major development took place in the thirties, when architect John Lyle was commissioned to design a formal garden in the art moderne style, a branch of art deco. Viewed from the terrace, a bridal party posing amid the elegant simplicity of the garden with its string of fountains evokes a beautiful representation of the period.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Call a Spade a Shovel


How's the back? Has it stopped aching yet? Charles Dudley Warner said: "What one needs in gardening is a cast-iron back with a hinge in it." He was right! Mine's only just recovered from the snow-shovelling season and now the gardening season has arrived to restore it to its usual dull throb. Regardless, Im thrilled to be getting back into the yard (this will be the year, this will be the year).

And what will be the first job I must tackle as soon as the ground has thawed? -- Digging the veggie bed over. But with what? Old gardeners already know the answer to that question. But all those enthusiastic neophyte gardeners that have yet to experience the refreshing fragrance of horse lineament permeating their underwear may have difficulty making the right choice.

Choosing the correct tool for the job is difficult for a beginner. I realized this when a friend asked, "What's the difference between a spade and a shovel?" I thought it was obvious until I tried to explain. Been down to your local garden centre lately? Seen the incredible array of digging or shovelling tools? There are long handles, short handles, even carbon fibre handles, T-grips, D-grips, and non-slip grips (eat your heart out Dr. Seuss). They also come in a wide variety of materials, including wood, steel, tungsten, aluminum, titanium, and even plastic (the rubber one is a hoot).

I know, it is confusing, and none of them will do much for your back. As far as I'm concerned, spades and shovels are designed for one purpose and one purpose only -- to inflict pain, but your back will wear out a little more slowly if you select the correct tool for the job.

Well, what is the difference between a spade and a shovel, you ask? Does it matter? Yes, of course it matters. A spade is a spade and a shovel is a shovel, even if they do look similar. A spade is for digging and a shovel is for shovelling, except one can substitute for the other -- like when you're at one end of the garden path, toiling away with a spade because the shovel you need is in the shed at the other end. The difference then is not always clear to a casual observer, other than my neighbour who likes to live dangerously by peering over the fence and saying, "Wouldn't a shovel be better for that job?" after I've already made umpteen trips up and down the yard that morning.

So, heres a little information to set the new gardener straight: A spade in its purest form is straight and squarish, sometimes roundish, with or without a point. It's used for digging holes and turning soil over, or whatever poor excuse you have for soil in your yard (it's the soil, you know. If I only had better soil).
Because of its superior performance when digging holes, compared to the shovel, spades are much favoured by gravediggers. I should know because I dug a grave once -- okay, it was only for a hamster. However, if you had to bury a body on a beach for instance, then a shovel might be the better choice (see how confusing it is).

And there's such an amazing variety of spades available. For example: the garden spade, border spade, tree spade, trenching spade, Dutch spade (to go with the Dutch hoe) and an odd one -- the poacher's spade. Thanks to democracy and a steady food supply, the poacher's spade has gone out of production -- and a good thing too. In feudal times, the gamekeeper bashed many a poor peasant over the head with his own ACME Poacher's spade, thus providing work for the gravedigger and his spade -- or shovel.

As for shovels, there is a crucial difference -- they usually have sides to stop things falling off, and the blade is typically larger than that of a spade -- but not always. The shovel's main purpose is for moving loose bulky stuff like sand, gravel, or even that expensive load of topsoil you had delivered that looks like sand and gravel. In fact, some highly specialized shovels have been created to increase productivity when moving gravel or stuff like beans, popcorn, or whatever's left behind when the circus leaves town.

And like the spade family, the shovel family is huge. There are round point shovels, dirt shovels, square point, medium point, narrow point, eastern scoops and western scoops, grain scoops, American pattern, and my personal nemesis -- the snow.

Spades and shovels have been modified and adapted so much over the years it's hard to tell one from the other. What one person may call a spade, another may call a shovel -- hence the confusion -- and the expression, call a spade a . . .

I hope this has cleared up any misunderstandings about shovels and spades, but if you're still unsure, don't worry. As any old gardener will tell you, if your back aches when you're using it, then you're probably using the right one. It's easy to spot an old gardener. They're the ones that are all bent and twisted and smelling of horse lineament. I wonder if the neighbour will let me borrow his Roto-tiller.

Friday, April 7, 2017

No Spring in Your step?


At the first opportunity in spring, I'm out there poking away at the compost heap to see if it moves. If it does it means the frost is out of it, so I run to the shed and fetch a fork to give it an enthusiastic turning. Then I spend the rest of the week walking funny and cursing the compost heap, when it's really my own fault for letting myself get out of shape.

I've been finding that as each year goes by it's getting harder to stay in shape, so I came up with a great idea. This winter I cleaned up the garage and turned it into my very own garden gym. It was easy. I tied a couple of bricks to a shovel, and I hooked up a rake to the wall with a bungee cord. Now I can stand there for hours pretending I'm digging the veggie garden over or cleaning up the lawn.

That's not all. I developed a whole range of exercises to simulate yard work. One of the harder jobs in the yard is pushing a wheelbarrow. I wanted to bring Wally (my faithful wheelbarrow) in to wheel around the garage but there isn't enough room. I solved that by substituting a couple of pails for Wally and I carry them back and forth instead. When I get the hang of it I'll put something in the pails instead of pretending Wally's empty.

I discovered another exercise quite by chance. I was in the gym doing some bungee raking and hadn't quite got the hang of it. I had the rake pulled to the limit when it slipped out of my hand and boinged around the garage. Dangerous? I'll say. It slapped me in the head a couple of times before raking everything off the shelf where I store all my odds and ends. Two hours of simulated weeding as I cleaned them up was easily as effective, and exciting, as the real thing.

Yes, the garden gym works great; however, being cooped up in the garage without the distractions of nature I've discovered a whole new perspective on what I'm actually doing to myself out there in the yard every spring. After a few weeks of working out I've come to realize how much stress I actually put my poor body through. No wonder it's always grumbling.

I now believe that gardening is just as gruelling as any sport. Why, maybe gardening should be in the Olympics. That would be so thrilling. Can you imagine the spine-tingling tension of a topiary competition, or the excitement of competitive weeding? And let's not forget the sheer titillation of questionable garden clothing. But then I suppose there'd be the usual scandal over the use of illegal growth hormones (that will be a biggie, I'm sure), and we'd have to watch those hokey interviews with the medallists: "I owe it all to my pony, Jenny, for providing me with what it takes to grow healthy plants." Meanwhile the medallists will all be standing there holding shovels and wearing shrink-wrapped spandex with the logos of huge fertilizer companies plastered over them.

Maybe not. Maybe I'll skip today's workout and give the compost heap a poke instead -- ooh,ooh.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Soiled Again


Convoys of dump trucks are hurtling through the streets with increasing frequency. It's topsoil time. It happens each spring when gardeners peek into their neighbour's yard and see stuff growing twice as fast as in their own yard -- or at least it appears that way.
This is actually an optical illusion caused by breathing the fumes of a gas lawnmower mixed with freshly applied lawn chemicals (optical illusions are one of the less serious effects).
"It's has to be my meagre topsoil," they say, "I have to have more topsoil."

There's a commonly held belief that more topsoil will solve all garden problems. Fact is, if you live in a newer home it might be true. I've seen yards that had no topsoil, other than the little bit stuck to the back of the turf. There are two ways to remedy this: Make some or buy some.

Since making topsoil is time consuming (at least half an aeon per inch), the alternative is to buy soil, and the place to buy it is from the grocery store in little plastic bags -- or by the truck load.

Buying by the bag is very expensive if you need any kind of quantity, especially when you factor in the price of the new shocks the car will need after hauling multiple loads. And the trouble with bags is, the soil vanishes as soon as it's dumped onto the flowerbed -- "I just emptied a whole bagful there. Where'd it go?"

This is not an optical illusion. It really happens. Whats more, it may not be soil. What better way to dispose of industrial waste than to have it dispersed in small quantities across the country?

Its much better to order by the yard from a local dealer, preferably a whole dump truck full. It never goes to waste, and you might even get your own soil back.

That's right, your very own soil, the very soil that was stripped off a lovely, flower filled meadow and sold to a soil cartel before your house was even built.

At least youll know where it came from. Of course, it will have passed through a few hands before ending up in the back of the dump truck that's hurtling down your street this very moment -- and you'll still have to pay for it -- the street value, not the field value.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Genuine examples of passionate (mad) gardeners:


I have to stop at every garden centre in town including home improvements stores. I spend winters slobbering over seed catalogues and doodling garden designs on everything in sight, including the kids homework. I rip up every inch of the yard millions of times over till I am happy with the outcome.

All my trees have people names, so friends think I always have friends to talk to when I say "Yesterday, I was speaking to Paul about the dry weather" (Paul is a 70-year-old twisted hazelnut tree!).

Balancing on one crutch, digging holes to plant tomatoes in June.

I will go out to the garden in the morning in my PJs to see how everything is. I stop to pick a weed (or so I think), and I'm still there in my PJs at two in the afternoon, still in my PJs.

I bought four coleus plants eight months ago. I couldn't even spell propagation, and now I have 400 of the little devils!

I don't usually keep secrets from my husband, but I never show him my receipt when returning from the gardening center.

I think moving 300 or so plants from one house to another counts!

The dirt under my nails is layered in strata.  My favorite cologne is eau de earth.  I garden by flashlight.


I never met a plant I didn't want.

I talk to my plants and play classical music for them. 

My husband is crying "No more flowers, no more flowery dishes, no more of flowery wallpaper, " but I can't hear because Im in the winter garden preparing for more flowers!

I pull more weeds in other people's gardens than I do in my own.

I think moving 300 or so plants from one house to another makes me a mad gardener!

Growing . . . growing old, excited, cuttings, seeds, happy, fatter, dirtier, smarter. Gardening madness helps me to grow all these and many more!

Let's just say, my husband often brings out a shop light so that I can continue to see what I'm doing.

Obsessed! Thats what my family says I am.  I am determined to eradicate every blade of grass from our Florida lawn and replace it with plants for birds and butterflies.

I have childhood memories of being in the car with Mom on the way to nurseries, her knuckles whiter on the steering wheel, speedometer clicking ever higher, breath coming faster . . . I dont really think of myself as mad, just that I'm a bit like my mother. 

Getting up at 3 am to widen a border so the family didn't catch me removing yet more lawn. I'm banned from doing that.

There isnt a bare spot in my house. I have plants on every surface tables, chairs, floors, windowsills, husbands bar, everywhere. Theres no lawn left. Ive even moved onto my neighbors property.

I am obsessed . . . can't think about anything much other than my garden. Hard to pass the garden centres without stopping in to see if a plant says "take me home."

I spend more time thinking of and planning where I can use or obtain more plants than I spend on what to have for dinner.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Spring is Bouncing About


Finally, I am able to see part of my garden again. Most of the snow has almost left, revealing a very grubby scene. I cleaned up the patio, tidied the shed a little — just enough to be able to get past the doorway. I even did a little pruning when I tentatively approached my climbing rose, snips in hand. We don’t get along. A snip here and there at a couple of wayward canes and I was soon reminded that full combat gear is essential.

Sure, it looks lovely in full bloom, but winter reveals a bad tempered monster fully intent on crushing the arbor. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde of my garden. I have to cut out old, woody branches, plus dead or damaged ones. I try to remove all the weak, stringy shoots, if I can get at them, and I must shorten the healthy ones that are trying to snag my neighbour’s gazebo. The trick is to bend a few healthy canes horizontally to encourage more blooms.

It’s all worthwhile in the end, but it’s rarely a painless process when every thorn is out for blood. They’re only wannabe thorns as technically they’re prickles — outgrowths of the stem surface rather than true thorns. Call em what you like, they’re still nasty, but I’ll forget that come June when the arbor is a mass of pink blooms.

I have other shrubs that need attention and are far less trouble, but I couldn’t get near them until the snow melted. Most shrubs and trees are best pruned while dormant, especially deciduous ones, and right now they’re about to wake up. A little pruning after leaves sprout won’t cause harm, it’s just easier to see what needs trimming — dead, diseased, and wayward branches. They should be cut out, and if the shrub needs shaping at all, now is the time to do it unless it’s a spring flowering shrub.

Here’s the standard reminder: Do not prune spring flowering shrubs until after they’ve finished blooming or you’ll be removing flower buds and it won’t bloom at all.

It’s easy now to check online for pruning requirements of specific plants, but it’s essential to know the species or variety. For instance, I often hear of problems with hydrangeas not blooming. Sometimes it’s due to environmental conditions, but it might just be because someone with a sharp pair of snips and misplaced enthusiasm has lopped off the flower buds.

Mop head, lacecap, and oakleaf species all bloom on old wood, that is, stems that have been on the plant since the previous summer, so prune immediately after blooming (if neccessary), but no later than the end of July.

Paniculata and Annabelle types set flower buds on new growth and can be pruned in fall, winter, or early spring. The so called endless blooming varieties can be pruned almost anytime.

A similar situation exists for clematis. Again, some bloom on old wood, some on new, and some on both old and new, which means there are three different pruning methods. It’s usually noted on the tag, but if that’s long gone, to correctly identify the type, simply observe how and when the flowers appear. 

Fortunately, pruning at the wrong time won’t kill clematis, not when it’s well established. If it’s an out of control, straggly mess and doesn’t flower at all well, it may be worthwhile to have a fresh start by cutting it back severely. This may result in fewer flowers this year but it will recover.

The bottom line for any pruning is 1. Know the plant. 2. Only prune if necessary. 3. Be absolutely sure because you can’t glue branches back on the tree.