Friday, July 31, 2015

Yard Art

I have a piece of sculpture in my garden. It’s a natural sculpture, not a traditional hunk of marble, chipped into shape by Michelangelo. My sculpture is made of wood, a piece of root from an ancient cedar, about my height and width, but otherwise without any human characteristics. I don’t display it prominently, in fact, it can easily be missed where it stands, slouched against the arbour. At times it makes me stop in wonder as I try to imagine the size and majesty of the tree that formed this remarkable shape. I suppose that’s its role now, like any sculpture, to cause one to pause and ponder.

Some would say that a garden is not complete without a sculpture or artwork. For many, a garden gnome might be the principal feature of their little plot, and I confess, I too own one, but he’s not easily spotted, partly because he’s not painted in garish colours, but mainly because he wanders off and I forget to look for him. Sometimes it’s months before he reappears, usually after the leaves have fallen from the shrubs. Interestingly, an internet poll shows gardeners are equally divided over whether gnomes should be welcomed into a garden.

If garden gnomes are indeed an artistic benchmark, then I’m guessing that plastic deer, fat fannies (those colourful plywood cut-outs of a person bent over weeding), or items that have served time in a bathroom would fall below the line.

A notch or two up the scale would have to be gazing balls, also known as gazing globes, rose balls, good luck balls, Victorian balls, or witch balls. The first recorded history of these hand-blown glass garden accents dates back to the 13th century where they were made in Venice.  In the 16th century Francis Bacon stated that a proper garden would have round coloured balls for the sun to play upon. I find them intriguing, but I’m happy to gaze at them in someone else’s garden.

I suppose at the top of the statuary heap would be something by Rodin, a little beyond my range, but there are tons (literally) of beautiful replicas, including Michelangelo’s David. Many are now cast in concrete and are long lasting, although they don’t look their best until they’ve attained that ancient, moss covered look.

Besides the work of the old masters, it’s possible these days to find something to suit anyone’s taste from cute hedgehogs to ancient urns, or even fascinating, but hideous, Victorian gargoyles. They make a great conversation piece but I think they look more at home lurking in a huge gothic garden than lurching off a suburban deck, unless, of course, they happen to frighten rabbits away.

Since most garden accents are not meant to have such a practical use, then placement becomes the most important factor. Smaller items are useful for punctuating an entrance or creating particular interest within a planting, but using too many can disrupt the flow and confuse the design.

A garden is enhanced by a sculpture, and many an expanse of green lawn cries out for a focal point, but a cleverly placed statue awaiting discovery at a turn in the pathway will gently delight the unwary visitor. Similarly, a magical effect is created when a piece concealed by plantings is revealed only when a breeze stirs foliage or tall grass, or when Aphrodite, framed by an archway, is positioned to emerge in the distance from a September mist. Scale, theme, and location, should be considered when choosing a sculpture for the garden.

I have in my collection of well-placed garden art (?), in addition to my old cedar root and my concrete gnome, one broken pedestal that originally supported an old birdbath; a pink cherub; a concrete fedora; a steel heron; and Albert, a small, stone figure—my favourite. Most of these were gifts, found, or simply wandered in and I haven’t the heart to dispose of them, despite their artistic merit, which I suppose is how other folk feel about their fat fannies and plastic Bambis.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Puttering Days

It’s understandable if readers assume that I must have a huge, sprawling property, the outer reaches only accessible after a day’s ride on the back of grumbling burro. In fact, it’s barely large enough to support a pair of anorexic sheep. Since I don’t believe I’ve ever really described my garden as a whole, I should tell a little more about it. The front, like many suburban gardens, is dominated by a driveway with a narrow strip along each side. The few scattered evergreens there are surrounded by ground covers — Scottish moss, creeping thyme, and phlox. I don’t spend a lot of time on the front as it’s fairly low maintenance.

The path that leads to the back yard is bordered on the shady side by periwinkle and old evergreens and is about halfway down my someday list for rejuvenation.  The other side of the path is startlingly different, and it’s glorious — for about week each year. Just three ornamental grasses soaring from a long bed of lavender.

Through the gate at the top of the steps is where my real garden begins, the backyard. There’s a brick courtyard first, a shady corner covered by a pergola. A climbing rose on the trellis at the end further cuts down on the light, making it perfect for the tuberous begonias I grow there in galvanised pails. They swing gently from the pergola, sometimes not so gently if I’m not looking where I’m going. Watch out. They’re just a few of the far too many containers that are everywhere around the garden.

Beyond the pergola is a brick patio, a mixed perennial bed on the left with a pair of clematis on the fence. It’s old barn board and surrounds the rear garden, except it’s completely covered at the bottom end by Virginia creeper and by Boston ivy down the right side. The rear garden is about ten metres wide and thirty meters deep, and I’d hardly call it formally landscaped as I tend to scatter plants at whim, but it seems to work out. Getting from one end to the other isn’t straightforward. The most obvious pathway diverts onto the mini lawn. A right turn right instead crosses the patio and around the trellis which hides the huge rose garden (ahem) and my pond — no diving from the deck.

Find your way back onto the original path and it will take you down between flowerbeds to a cedar rail archway into the veggie garden, which also contains a couple of compost heaps, and a rabbit sanctuary. At least they think it’s a rabbit sanctuary.

I don’t seem to be growing as many vegetables as I used to, so I’m thinking — just thinking, of completely redesigning the whole area here. Retrace your steps and take the shortcut onto the dog lounging lawn and there’s a bench to sit on. This spring I took out and old shrub behind the bench. It was one of the originals and had become overgrown. It blossomed in spring but didn’t contribute much through the rest of the year. Its removal opened up a completely new area where I’ve stuck a few things in to fill the space. I didn’t so formulate a plan, but rather, I’ve given the plants an opportunity to perform and then I’ll manipulate the results. There’s definitely a lot of replanting that goes on in my garden.

Overall, I think it’s a gardener’s garden and I try to keep it interesting for as much of the year as possible, but there’s always one day when I look at it and think, yes, this is it; this is the day. Maybe it will be tomorrow — maybe not.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Treasure in my Garden

I have treasure in my garden, lots of it, but please, don't rush over with picks and shovels. Before I have to bar the gate and electrify the fence, I should clarify my concept of treasure. There is nothing remotely of value buried in my garden apart from the composted remains of numerous plants that were not as hardy as I'd hoped. The ones that are healthy can be found in any nursery or garden centre. Of these, I do have a few favourites that I'd hate to lose. But there are a number of items that I do treasure, things that I couldn't leave behind I were ever to abandon this garden for another.

I think most gardeners feel this way. A friend once wrote to me of her cherished items — a collection of rocks (just shy of boulder variety), cement planter "bowls" made in an art class, an old piece of fence from an address three moves ago, and a the hunk of barbed wire and wood from a rotted fence post, all of which she would be moving to any new address.

The treasures in my garden are similarly varied, and just as eccentric. Many are hidden from sight, but I know roughly where they are. They turn up when I'm weeding or pruning and I delight in rediscovering them. I also rediscover other items that needed to be hidden — garden show paraphernalia that is not to my taste. I don't have the heart to junk it, so back it goes, under the shrubbery.

Amongst my oldest treasures is a huge chunk of root from an ancient cedar tree, a remnant of the giants that once grew around here. It's somehow symbolic of the loss of forest and farmland within this region. The place where I discovered it has long since been swept away by urban sprawl and is now closer to downtown than the present edge of the city. Root, as I call it, has travelled with me from home to home and garden to garden. I think by now it deserves to be designated as a heritage artefact.

Beside Root, attached to the trellis, are three, nifty, glass insulators that might vanish from view for a while if  the new climbing rose stops lolling about and puts a little more effort into doing what it's supposed to do. Glass insulators aren't particularly rare, but these three came from an old telephone post on my late Grandfather-in-law's farm. I tell my wife that they might be useful in case he ever tries to reach us.

Nearby, in the side yard, are a few railroad spikes and a handful of dated nails driven into a post. I found the nails along a stretch of disused railroad track where I used to walk a dog I once knew, many years ago. They would have been used to record the date when the ties were originally laid — 1937 is the earliest.

At the corner of the pathway stands a slender piece of rock. It is, in fact, two pieces of rock, the smaller one balanced on the other. The smaller piece is a piece of weathered limestone which, when approached from the right direction, resembles a face. I call it Albert, the garden guardian, after my old dad.

Across the lawn, beneath the hibiscus, stands Gneville the gnome, a gift from someone special who believes no garden is complete without one. He is of unpainted concrete, wears a wry smile, and believes the garden is his domain. Interestingly, an internet poll lists the acceptance rating for garden gnomes at roughly fifty percent — about the same as cats. Providing Gneville stays put, and stays out of trouble, he is welcome to stay and believe whatever he likes.

There are other miscellaneous items about, including a few best described, charitably, as objet trouvĂ©. I even have a pair of small, plastic rabbits, gifts for a pair of small non-plastic boys. The rabbits disappear for months, even years, one of them even passed unharmed through the compost heap, but they always return, just like the real ones, but with far less frequency. 

These are my treasures, as is the compost heap, and as I wander the garden I'll occasionally reflect on the nostalgia of the inert items that make up my garden. I'm sure you do the same.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mellow Yellow

It must have been the yellow rose I’d been examining, and then the yellow purslane, followed by a glance at the yellow lilies, because as I pottered about the garden the other day, I found myself singing the words to Mellow Yellow (Donovan from way back). I should point out that I don’t really sing — I simply know the first line to a million songs. Even then, anyone in range would assume they were hearing a coughing goat.

Regardless, as I was pottering and singing, and feeling mellow, it occurred to me that although yellow might be mellow, it sure isn’t when you discover the leaves on a plant have turned that colour overnight. One day they’re a lovely, rich green then one sleep later the jaundice has set in. That’s when the singing stops. In my case it was the lower leaves on a tomato plant in a container on the deck that were fading fast, but why?

I had moved the container the day before and may inadvertently have caused physical damage, but a close examination didn’t reveal any broken stems. Had it only been the odd leaf, I wouldn’t have been concerned, but something was obviously wrong. Yellowing leaves, also known as chlorosis, is a symptom of trouble on any plant, but what was the reason?

As far as tomatoes go, it could be a viral, fungal, or bacterial disease; insect damage, lack of nutrients, lack of water, too much water, sunburn, or possibly, though perhaps not likely, deep rooted psychological problems. The list of possible reasons is so long it really needs a House (popular show) in the garden when it comes to diagnosing a specific cause.
The tomatoes in my raised beds were doing fine; it was just the one container plant that was suffering. I checked over and under the leaves for insects or insect eggs and found nothing, and besides, the problem was spreading upwards from the lower leaves, which made insects the less likely culprit. There were no spots, irregular markings or leaf curling to indicate a disease, so that left an environmental or nutritional reason. I doubted the latter as the plant was in good soil, the same soil as other plants, none of which were suffering.

So was it environmental, specifically the weather, more specifically rain, and lots of it? I’ve been rejoicing in the regular rainfalls we’ve had this spring, but too much and trouble can arise here and there, particularly where there’s poor drainage.

This, I believe was the problem. Because the container was sitting tightly on the deck, the drainage holes were sealed, and with excessive rain this resulted in waterlogged soil. I’ve since set the pot on three or four pebbles (my own advice that I sometimes forget to follow), and I also took a thin twig and carefully poked a few holes into the soil. This improved drainage considerably. I can’t do much about the yellow leaves, other than pull them off, but there shouldn’t be more. Meanwhile, there are lots of tomatoes forming on the plant.

It isn’t easy to diagnose plant problems. If an insect pest is the culprit, they’re usually a little easier to spot, but diseases and ailments caused by nutritional deficiencies are harder to identify. As in humans, prevention is the best policy when it comes to good health. Think of plants as people. Give them a healthy balanced diet, sufficient clean water, and plenty of fresh air. Exercise is essential too, but don’t force a workout on your plants, just spend some mellow time with them.  

Friday, July 3, 2015

I do -- I Think

They will have been featured in a number of wedding bouquets this summer, or any floral display for that matter. But right now, they're blooming in my garden and as always, they're gorgeous.

Zantedeschia or, if you prefer, calla lilies, are one of my favourite flowers, and despite their almost tropical appearance, they're one of the easiest plants to grow. I have a couple of pink varieties, but somehow it's the plain white that always stand out, particularly after sunset. Like many white flowers they almost glow in the dark, but more so because of the expanse of the spathe, which is really one large petal.

We call them calla, although the true calla is a plant called Calla palustris, also known as bog arum. It's a hardy little plant native to our northern hemisphere that will grow happily in a pond or bog garden. The flower has a similar form to that of Zantedeschia, and they are in the same family, but of a different genus. In fact, Calla palustris is the only species in its genus, whereas the genus Zantedeschia comprises six species, all of which originate in the moist soil and swamps of southern and eastern Africa.

But that’s enough of the botanical language. We all know a calla when we see one, and calla is what we calla them. I don't get to many weddings, but I've yet to hear anyone exclaim, "Isn't she beautiful, and aren't the Zantedeschia rehmannia in her bouquet simply divine?" Maybe I attend the wrong weddings.

Wedding white may be the most familiar calla, but many other colours have been created through the hybridization of two slightly different groups. The above-mentioned rehmannia have lance-shaped, green or dark green leaves. The flowers, or spathes as they are called, are typically white to pink or purple and surround a yellow spadix (oops, the botanical crept back in there).

The other group is the Elliottiana. Callas in this group generally have green leaves covered with translucent white spots. I think this is probably what I have growing beside my pond. I'm only being vague because I've had them so long I can't remember where they came from. I probably had them given to me at least ten years ago. That's how callas proliferate. It's not that they're invasive.

On the contrary, they grow from tuberous rhizomes that tend to increase in size. Leave them in the ground over winter in this climate and they're goners, but dig them in fall for cool storage and come spring you can cut the big ones in half and pass them on to friends, as in — here, take this knobbly looking thing that looks like Mr. Potato Head's disowned cousin and stick it in your flowerbed. If the friend has never grown a calla, you'll hear the "Wows" a mile away when it blooms.

Between the hybridising and ongoing tissue culture of callas, the colour range keeps expanding. There are pinks, reds, peaches, and purples with names like Pink Chiffon, Pillow Talk, Bridal Bliss, and Garnet Glow. You can see that these are being marketed to the wedding planner rather than the gardener. There's also a black calla (read dark burgundy) called Black Forest. I suppose it's best suited to the "She should never have married him" wedding.