Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A Very Prickly Christmas


Maybe it was the six poinsettias I had to stare at for two hours and thirty-three minutes while sitting in a greasy waiting room as my car had its annual oil change, or the Vegas style Christmas lights that can now be seen from space. This must be why I've been feeling nostalgic for a time when decorating for the season was a simpler, heartwarming experience.

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 berry laden sprigs 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, inflatable Santas, and flashing flamingos.

Each December we’d make the trek to our secret wood 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 would 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, after yet another prickly plunge from the tree, “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 sprig of holly, burdened with two, maybe three berries. Meanwhile, Mum would serve mince pies and Dad would lie on the couch, groaning, band-aids stuck to his face, a mustard plaster taped to his back.

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Shred Those Leaves

It's fall, and once again I have designed and built my very own leaf shredder. This one is the Mark Three model. The Mark One and the Mark Two were failures . . . well, not failures, just a little too risky to operate. Using them could have got me featured in one of those TV shows on extreme sports. This model is much safer.

I first began designing and building leaf shredders about five years ago. The Mark One used an old electric lawn mower that I tried to modify by cutting a hole in the top and mounting it on a wheelbarrow.

The idea was that I'd stuff the leaves through the hole where they'd be finely chopped by the whirling blades below before falling into the barrow for composting. It did work, but only one handful at a time, and after seeing what it did to the wheelbarrow when the mounting came loose I quickly remembered that I had only two hands -- each containing five, very useful, fingers. I junked it; there are some things you don't want to discover when turning compost.

The Mark Two was much more promising; it almost resembled a store-bought shredder. I built it with parts from an old washing machine. I was able to use the drum as a hopper and the motor to drive the shredding rod. With a few modifications to speed up the rotation, the mark two looked as though it might do the trick, but I never did get the chance to toss any leaves into it. As soon as I plugged it in the thing took off down the yard like a Star Wars pill bug battle droid.

What surprised me was the illusion I'd built artificial intelligence into the Mark Two. The way it zeroed in on Mrs. Fellini's cat was astonishing. I didn't even know the cat was skulking around behind the spirea. When the cat leapt the fence in a single bound the shredder immediately changed direction, rolled up its extension cord and unplugged itself.

Fortunately, the length of the cord limited its range otherwise I would have had some explaining to do to Mrs. Fellini. I dismantled it right away before it figured out how to plug itself back in. The last thing I need is a barren wasteland and a leaf shredder thinking it's smarter than I am.

Now I have the Mark Three. I made this one with a large plastic barrel that I'd planned to use for storing rainwater and the motor from a hot tub pump that I decided might be a tad powerful for the pond.

This one is a much simpler design than the Marks One and Two, and I'm sure it will be a winner. All I’ve done is attach the motor to the bottom of the barrel and add legs.

At last I'm ready to shred, and I can't wait. All I have to do now is find enough leaves to begin performance trials. Did I mention it resembles a huge food processor?

It's funny how actions that would normally be considered uneventful can be seriously misunderstood when performed out of sequence. As a gardener/inventor it seemed perfectly logical to me:

             (a). Leaves needed to test out new leaf shredder.
             (b). Collect leaves.
             (c). Leaves have not begun falling yet.
             (d). Leaves grow on trees.
             (e). Collect leaves.

I shouldn't have climbed the tree. All right, it may have appeared a little unusual, but I don't think there was any need for the neighbours to call the emergency response team. It was so embarrassing, and I had a fair bit of explaining to do.

At first I told them I was trying to rescue a cat, but they heard Mrs. Fellini snort when I said it, and when I dropped the bag of leaves they had me. They were all for taking me downtown (Mrs Fellini was yelling encouragement), but I was able to convince them to let me demonstrate my leaf shredder and prove that I wasn't nuts.

Lucky for me it worked perfectly first time. It might have been better if I'd let the leaves dry out a bit first, but it did a terrific job. I flicked on the switch and dumped in the bagful of maple leaves; it pureed the lot in two seconds flat. The emergency guys were so impressed they went and used the ladder truck to collect more leaves.

They all wanted to try my new shredder, and then they had to see what it would do to tomatoes -- cleared out the veggie garden. They were having so much fun I couldn't get rid of them. A couple of them want the plans so that they can build their own. One is into wine making and the other is crazy about pesto.

Funny, in no time at all I went from a code twenty-three to a harmless eccentric to a brilliant inventor. I may have to patent the mark three.

From the book Diary of a Mad Gardener



Monday, September 9, 2019

Don't Quit Yet.

Don’t quit now! Even though there might have been a little frost about, September and October are perfect gardening months. Cooler temperatures and no bugs make working in the garden a pleasure.

Gardening is fun — really, and the benefits are endless. It’s obviously a source of joy and satisfaction given the way people flock to garden centres in spring, but then spring gives way to summer and the concept of gardening for fun is set aside. It’s too hot and buggy, and the beach or cottage beckons. Then fall arrives; the grass turns green again and begins to grow, which means more mowing, and before you know it, there are leaves to rake.

But there are lots of other things to accomplish at this time of year. Fall is just as good as spring is for planting, even better in some cases, especially for trees and shrubs. They love this season, yet I’d hazard a guess that 70 – 80 percent are planted in spring compared to fall. Part of the reason is the natural inclination for gardeners to get out and do something in the garden, but it’s also because of the strong marketing that goes on, plus the plants look alive. They have green leaves and plenty of flowers, whereas at this time of year they might look dead.

Don’t be fooled. Trees and shrubs — and perennials, are going into dormancy rather than coming out — perfect for planting, whereas in May, just as the poor tree or shrub at the garden centre pops a few leaves, it’s tossed in a trunk or truck, shipped across town, dumped from the pot and stuffed into a hole in the ground. Someone runs the hose on it — when they remember — or they drown it, then it’s left to survive on its own while it bakes under a blazing sun. The poor plant has used what energy it had to pop those leaves, and now it’s supposed to grow new roots to support itself, with precious little help? For a tree, it’s the worst time to begin multi-tasking.

Plant a tree in early fall and what happens? Soon as it’s in the ground, the leaves fall off. But that’s okay. It’s not dead; it’s not even dying. Despite its appearance, it’s probably flourishing. Since it doesn't have to shove out leaves and impress the planter, it can focus on what plants do best in fall — they grow roots. The soil is warm, the sun is kinder, and there’s usually more moisture available.

With the help of a layer of mulch, the soil will stay warm enough to encourage roots to grow for months, even as late as December. Come spring, after a good spell of root growth, the tree or shrub will be bursting to produce leaves. One important note here, evergreens, unlike deciduous trees, lose moisture over winter, so they need to be well watered before freeze-up.

What’s even better about planting in fall is the price. Plant material is always less expensive. There’s a good reason for this. It costs money to store plants at a garden centres or nurseries due to the huge amount of work required to prepare containers for winter. In some cases, it’s necessary to provide heating. They’d much rather sell the stuff and restock in spring.

Everything I've said about trees and shrubs goes for perennials. They’re cheaper too and most will appreciate fall planting. If there’s an exception, it’s plants that flower in early spring. They may be reluctant, but then they probably won’t flower much in the first year anyway.

So, take a trip to the garden centre where deceptively dead looking plants and great deals are waiting, then get out in the garden and have a little fun. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

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.
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From Diary of a Mad Gardener, available on Amazon