Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Gruelling Garden

Survival of the fittest. You see that every day in the garden, and not only among plants and bugs. Every spring I barely survive my own enthusiasm. This is the time of year when I'm wishing the snow away and eager to get out into the yard, where the first thing I'll likely do is strain something. I do it every year. At the first opportunity 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 do try to stay fit over winter by shovelling snow, but there's only so much to shovel and this year it hardly snowed at all. When this happens I soon start to lose the little bit of muscle tone I have. When there is a lot of snow still around, I'll sometimes haul out Wally, my wheelbarrow, and use him to move it from the pile beside the driveway to the backyard. This way I keep in reasonable shape and at the same time help the garden by extending the snow coverage for my more tender perennials.

Of course, the neighbours aren't too sure what to make of this. Clearing snow off the driveway may be acceptable -- even encouraged, but putting it in a wheelbarrow to move it around the yard does raise a few eyebrows. I know they think I'm nuts, but a fresh lettuce tossed over the fence in summer helps keep down the rumours.

What I don't understand is, the neighbours may roll their eyes at me doing a little honest toil, but they think nothing of someone jogging down the street in the middle of winter wearing pink spandex, shrink-wrapped around too many big Macs. Maybe it's the colour. Maybe I shouldn't wear the yellow ones when I'm getting my workout, even though they match Wally perfectly.

As each year goes by I'm finding harder to stay in shape, so I came up with a great idea. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. 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 raking 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 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.

Another exercise I discovered 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 grueling 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 medalists: "I owe it all to my pony, Jenny, for providing me with what it takes to grow healthy plants." Meanwhile the medalists will all be sitting there holding shovels with trademarks showing 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, ow.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

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 kid’s 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 I’m 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! That’s 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 don’t 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 isn’t a bare spot in my house. I have plants on every surface — tables, chairs, floors, windowsills, husband’s bar, everywhere. There’s no lawn left. I’ve even moved onto my neighbor’s 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.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Holly Days are Here

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 by the use of plastic penguins and flashing flamingos in a Vegas scale display.

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.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Zap Those Plant Pests

My neighbour, Olaf, has a large collection of houseplants. They keep him busy through the winter -- help keep his mind off TV. Like me, he watches too much, especially late movies. Still, he's always complaining. His plants are either turning brown or the flowers are dropping off. If it isn't white fly, it's scale.

There seems to be no end to the pests Olaf has to put up with. His latest problem is fungus gnats -- those things that look like fruit flies -- speaking of which -- I’ve never seen one in a grocery store. Racks and racks of fruit displays screaming eat me, eat me, and not a fruit fly in sight. This worries me. I leave one grape on the kitchen counter and the fruit flies are rolling it out the door!

Anyway, back to Olaf. The Fungus Gnats were driving him nuts. He’d tried everything to get rid of them, but they kept returning. I told him, "You have to destroy the source. They're laying their eggs in the soil, you know. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae and then turn into the gnats that are bugging you”

"Oh, really," he said.

Next day, Olaf went down to the local petro-chemical by-product outlet and purchased a variety of toxic waste to drench the plants and soil with -- so much that I'm surprised he didn't get a visit from a U.N. weapons inspection team. Even so, the stuff had little effect. The gnats vanished all right, but a week later they returned -- bigger and meaner. Olaf was wild.

Since then he’s tried everything: soaking his plants in the shower, wrapping them in plastic, and even heating them in the microwave (moderately successful as far as wiping out the gnat larvae, but it made the leaves a bit crisp). Things got really serious when he put all his plants in the garage and ran the car to try to asphyxiate them. It might have been successful, but he had to call off the experiment when the Peace Lily passed out.

Olaf asked me over for a beer the other weekend -- told me that at last he had a sure-fire way to zap the critters in the soil. "Follow me," he said, and led me into the garage. The car was in there, and so were all his houseplants -- lined up like they were on death row.

The hood was up on the car and he had a pair of cables attached to the battery. The other ends of the cables were hooked to two large meat probes.

"These are my bug-zapping light sabres," he said. “Watch this.” He then yelled, "Clear," just like on E.R. -- or St. Elswhere if you're still watching re-runs -- and plunged the two meat probes into a pot containing a huge schefflera.

Sure-fire was right. Blue sparks flashed and the battery began to smoke as steam rose from the soil. Both Olaf and the schefflera shuddered. "There," he groaned, "that should fry em." I wasn't convinced; I've seen too many Frankenstein movies. I got out of the garage fast with visions of a crazy professor and mutant larvae flashing to mind.

It's been a month now and Olaf still hasn't solved his fungus gnat problem. Last time I talked with him he was thinking of taking them down to the grocery store and standing them beside the fruit racks for a day or two. Meanwhile, I've stopped watching late movies and, just as a precaution, I got the screen on the window fixed.

WARNING! This is fiction. Do not attempt this at home, or anywhere else for that matter -- you may wind up on Grey's Anatomy. But if you see Olaf's sure-fire bug killer on a late- night infomercial, remember, you saw it here first.

TIP: The above might work, but the best is yellow sticky strips and a layer of grit or perlite on the surface of the soil.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Patty, the Lucky Petunia

The garden centre that sucked me in to their clearance sale the other day had a sign out yesterday saying LAST CHANCE SALE. Last chance? Who are they fooling? These places will do anything to coax and con nutty gardeners into buying one more plant. Can’t fool me, I said to myself, but I stopped in anyway. Hey, I enjoy the atmosphere, even if it isn’t a real nursery — only a tent they stick up in the parking lot at the local plaza.

Of course, I did buy something; it doesn't seem right to hang around and not do so. And you can't beat the prices. I picked up perennials at four for a buck — amazing! They were seven dollars each a month ago.

There are no tags on them, so I'm not sure what they are, and I can't identify them by their foliage, either, because it's kinda shriveled, but there are some green bits sticking up which means there’s life still in them.

Hah! The price slashers at this particular garden centre don't seem to realize that in the hands of a mad gardener these tiny scraps of green will become huge luxurious plants by next season. What a challenge! And if they don't survive, I'll have lost nothing because I'll still own the pots (not that I need more pots when the shed is knee deep in them, but I can always use the premium potting soil).

As I was paying for my purchases, I asked the person at the cash register what they did with the leftovers when they finally do close for the season. She told me they toss them all in the garbage. Being a curious type, I naturally asked where. She just smiled and took my money.

I returned to the plaza the following day — I had to. I was determined to see what they would do with the leftover plants when they closed up and took the tent down. I couldn't believe they'd throw them in the garbage, but if they did I was going to be there to rescue them. It didn't look as though it was going to happen, though, because when I arrived the following day, they’d changed the sign again. It now read LAST CHANCE SALE EXTENDED!

I hung around anyway, just in case, browsing until they began to give me the subtle looks that told me it was time to leave, even though I'd bought a limp lupine from the bargain table. Too bad it's in rough shape, but if I can nurse it back to health, I'll keep it potted up and use it to intimidate some of the poor performers I planted a month ago.

After that, I spent an hour or two casually wandering around the parking lot, keeping one eye on the tent and the other on the mall security guard. Earlier, he'd asked me what I was doing and I'd told him I was an agent from the S.P.C.P. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants). I don't think he believed me, so I said I was only joking and was actually trying to find my car, which meant I had to keep moving to maintain the pretence of looking for it.

The parking lot is huge, and I walked an awful long way. At first it was fun trying to lose the security guard, but at four o'clock his shift ended and a fresh guy took over — he could run too. By then the garden place was closing for the day and it didn't look as though the tent would be coming down, so I figured I'd better get out of there before I was arrested. I went back to the garden centre this morning, but instead of being chased around the parking lot again, I sat in the car to watch — all day. Was it ever hot in there! I learned that I never want to be a greenhouse worker.

But my patience paid off; I had a perfect view of the garden tent. At four o'clock, they took all the benches and equipment out, including the trays of annuals that were still not sold. They set them off to one side where I was able to keep an eye on them. No way were they going into the dumpster if I could help it. Shortly afterwards a truck arrived with a bunch of guys who began to dismantle the tent. I felt awfully melancholy. It was like watching the circus leave town.

They crammed everything onto the truck except for the plants. My hopes shot up. I was ready. As soon as those plants went into the dumpster, I'd swoop to the rescue. But then, at the last moment, one of the guys picked up the trays and, instead of taking them to the dumpster, he shoved them into the back of the truck. Then they drove away. I was wild; a whole afternoon wasted getting a free sauna that I didn't need. I took off after that truck. If they were planning to dump the plants someplace else, I was going to be there.

I tailed that truck all the way across town. I never let them get more than half a block ahead of me. It wasn't easy; they were in a real hurry and I had to run red lights to keep up. I could barely stay with them.

It was crazy. We were tearing along the expressway when it happened. Disaster! It was terrible. As the truck swung onto the exit ramp, the rear door flew open and a tray of petunias flew out. I hit the brakes, but it was too late. I'll never forget the horrible sound and sickening crunch as I ran over that plastic tray.

I stopped the car, leapt out, and raced back to find soil and plants scattered across two lanes of heavy traffic. Botanical road kill! It was hopeless, every bit of vegetation crushed beyond recognition. I felt so sad, especially since I felt partially responsible. If I hadn't been chasing the truck, it might not have happened. But when I remembered the plants were probably headed for the garbage dump, I felt much better.

Regardless, I had tears in my eyes as I returned to my car thinking what an awful waste. That was when I spotted it — almost buried in the flotsam of the hard shoulder — one little petunia. My heart leapt! A miracle. Except for a little shredding around the edges it had survived the crash unharmed. I carefully picked it up and placed it in a discarded coffee cup and for once, I actually blessed someone for littering. I took the cup and reverently set it in the cup holder, then drove home slowly and safely — a little too slowly; I got a ticket for obstructing traffic, but it was worth it. I saved a life.

I have Patty here now (that's her name — Patty), beside me as I write. Today I'm going to find the perfect place in the garden where she'll grow and thrive. Patty the luckiest petunia in the city.
From Diary of a Mad Gardener, available on Amazon

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rockway Gardens, Kitchener, Ontario.

This is a short piece I wrote for Canadian Gardening magazine some time ago.

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, here’s 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.