Friday, November 27, 2015

It's a Garden Guy Gift Thing

It's that time of year when I feel compelled to join the Christmas onslaught and suggest a list of possible gifts for gardeners, much as I've done in the past. You know — buy this book, that tool, or those seeds.

If my intention is truly to support gardeners and ensure they receive an appropriate, garden related gift, then it might make more sense to disguise this column and connive to have it printed in the sports or
business section of the paper.

This is not meant to be sexist in any way, suggesting that all garden gifters are male while garden giftees are female, nor am I claiming that the fairer sex (and even that statement can be troublesome) never read the sports or business sections — BUT and it's a big BUT, I have overwhelming evidence to support my argument that the majority of gardeners in North America are female rather than male. It's much the same in Europe, although much less so in Britain.

I grew up there where it was perfectly acceptable for men to grow plants and flowers. My dad did, my uncles did, and so did their male neighbours. 

The popular pastime of tending a small allotment (a community garden) was largely the prerogative of men, and they didn't produce only cabbages and potatoes. They spent just as much time on growing perfect dahlias, mums, or sweet peas; although I'll willingly admit there was an element of competitiveness. 

A conversation between men about flowers was just as likely to be overheard in the local pub as one about cricket, rugby or soccer. This makes it difficult for me. Whenever I sit down with a bunch of guys, say for coffee or a beer, the conversation frequently turns to cars, baseball, or hockey. It never seems quite the right time for me to say, "Hey, anyone like to see pictures of my prize peony?"

No, the garden world is strongly weighted on the feminine side. Need more proof? Since 1998, I've operated a website called Garden Humour. Readers there can take a test to determine if they are a mad, passionate, gardener. Pass the test (and no one fails), and the applicant receives a certificate of membership in the fictional International Society of Mad Gardeners. Thousands have applied and guess what: 95% are women.

I also receive quite a few emails and letters in response to the columns I write. Guess who writes most often? I often speak at garden clubs and horticultural societies, too, and I can tell you, there is never, ever, a line-up at the men's washroom.

This isn't a scientific survey, but I've a feeling that the majority of my readers are more likely women, although any apparent lack of interest in gardening on the part of men could be due to them traditionally preferring not to ask for advice, but rather to figure things out for themselves. 

Regardless, the question of what to suggest as Christmas gifts for gardeners is more easily solved, since it's a given that, children excepted, those buying these gifts will most likely be men. As this is the case, there's a strong possibility that a large number of gifts will be hurriedly purchased at the last minute from a garden gift store on Christmas Eve. 

Many of these gifts will typically be what I call garden accoutrements. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Men can have good taste. I mean, you can hardly expect him to remember the more practical items you hinted at when you dragged him whining to a garden show last spring.

Because my research on the gender balance of gardeners is impeccable, I feel I can safely say that gardeners are overwhelmingly practical types, and more than anything, they will appreciate a gift they can actually use. 

Having said that, it is essential that a Christmas gift be a complete surprise, and so when you make up a list to pin on the fridge or slip into the sports section, be sure to make it a long one, and yes, it is permissible to underline certain items.

And what am I putting on my Christmas list? I'm seriously considering a request for a tee shirt printed with the slogan: REAL MEN GROW PETUNIAS

Friday, November 20, 2015

Martha Would be Proud of Me

The frost has finished off the last of the summer plants. This included the bowl of begonias that I've been dragging in an out of the garage every morning and night in a forlorn attempt to keep a few cheery blossoms going as long as possible.

In late October, it always feels as though there's never enough time to complete all my fall tasks, but then we're blessed with a few fine days in November and I find myself puttering about the garden looking for something to do. I took advantage of the last few days of good weather by making big piles of leaves for compost, then I tidied up the shed and I emptied the soil from the last of the planters before storing them away.

As I dragged away the two large ones from the front porch, I couldn't help but notice that the approach to the front door was now looking particularly barren. It had previously sported an assortment of containers, including the large enamel bowl that had held the begonias, although I'm sure the mail carrier is happier now that she doesn’t require the leaping skills of a gazelle to reach the mailbox. In fact, I'd fully expected her to give up by mid summer and simply toss the mail in the driveway. She's such a trooper.

I wasn't planning to seek out more stuff to replace the obstacle course, but it occurred to me that I should add something to the front porch to make it more welcoming, and a winter planter seemed like a good idea. I've seen pictures of them in magazines, but never got around to making my own. I already had the perfect container, the enamel bowl with soil still intact, so I began to think about what I could "plant" in it.

Red willow twigs seemed an obvious choice because I'd seen them stacked up for sale outside one of the garden centres — so many that I'm convinced there must be willow plantations to supply the demand.  Since it was a Saturday afternoon, and I was content to be in the garden, there was no way I was going to fight weekend traffic to fetch a few twigs when there surely would be stuff out back that I could use.

The red twigs were easy because the variegated dogwood that annually tries to invade the pathway at the bottom of the garden was asking for a quick snipping. I continued looking around for potential material. The yarrow still had large seed heads on and might have made the display, but then I spotted the limelight hydrangea. The heads are large, in proportion to the planter, and although a pale brown colour, they still had a faint pink tinge to them — perfect. The planter needed a little greenery — no problem. I snipped a few bits from the blue spruce that's hidden in the back corner. It wouldn't miss a sprig or two, and besides, I have to dig it out and find a new home for it next year before it grows any larger.

As I plunged my bits and pieces into the bowl, I realized the soil needed brightening up a little. In the shed I had just the thing — a lovely, rich brown coir (peat moss would have done almost as well). An inch of that on the surface made all the difference. A few pine cones I'd used as container mulch in summer to fill in the gaps, plumes of ornamental grass, and I was finished — or so I thought.

While walking the dog the next day I picked a few teasel stalks from the empty lot across the street and brought them home. Next, it was a pair of red seed heads from a sumac and finally I was done. Knowing when to stop is important, especially with my primitive Ikebana skills. 

I doubt a master like Martha Stewart would even let me weed the flowerbeds in which her plants grow, but I'm happy with my winter planter. Fortunately, the resident Ikebana master has tidied it up nicely and now the front porch looks a little welcoming. It shouldn't be much of a challenge to the mail carrier, but if the weather is nice this weekend, I might plant up another one — or two.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Enthusiastic, Passionate, Committed Gardener?

Are you an enthusiastic, passionate, committed gardener? Perhaps you're regarded less charitably by your family and friends as a touch eccentric, nay, even a little nutty? Ignore them; it's perfectly all right to be ardent about your pastime.

Most people display passion about something in their lives, although it's usually something that's strangely more socially acceptable, such as: being a rabid sports fan, a follower of the Kardashian saga, or waxing a car. However, admit to relishing the earthy fragrance of compost or brag about your prize peonies on a coffee break and you're soon relegated to the outer fringes.

And yet only a generation or so back, almost everyone was a gardener and it was considered a normal part of life. A patch of ground and a packet of seeds was how the family was fed. That's when a blackberry really was a blackberry. Meanwhile, flowers were grown to brighten the home and feed the soul.

Somehow, we're losing this challenge, this connection with nature. It can't be found in fast food, plastic flowers, or in the fragrance of an air freshener. It's in the elation felt when a seed sprouts, the taste of a fruit or vegetable that you grew yourself, or in seeing the soul feeding magic of petals unfolding. A garden is where the life enriching spiritual connection between mankind and this precious earth is the strongest.

With increasing concern about what we are eating, where it comes from, and what's in the food, plus the realization that we've cocooned ourselves in an unsustainable world; it may be that soon we'll come full circle and fully appreciate the skills of the serious gardener.

But how passionate and committed are you — to the point where eyebrows are raised or eyes roll? Do you go out in the garden for a few minutes and disappear for the day, no matter what the weather? Are you constantly moving plants around in your garden? Do you visit a garden centre and return with more plants than you can possibly find room for in your garden? Do you pull weeds in friends' gardens — or even public gardens? Do neighbours lock their doors and hide when they see your zucchinis ripening? These are all signs of a passionate, committed gardener — or should be. Who said that? Who said he's nuts?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bloom or Bust

“How do I get my Christmas cactus to bloom in time for Christmas?” Sorry, I can’t help. It’s too late. This is really not the best time to offer solutions to the big question. Early fall might have been a better time to bring up the subject, but no one was thinking about Christmas cactus in September. You might be thinking about it now, but the time to do anything has passed.

This all came about as I was wandering around my local monster hardware store last week during a family excursion to buy paint. I don’t know why, but going there always seems more like a visit to a popular tourist attraction than a shopping trip — crowds, long line-ups, and hot dog vendors.

While we were in the store waiting for the paint to be mixed, I wandered over to a nearby rack that had caught my attention — it was full of bright red and green items,  more colourful than the pastel paints I’d been staring at for twenty minutes trying to decide between blue, blue, or a different blue. And no, it wasn’t an early shipment of the Poinsettias, it was a large  display of Christmas cactus plants. They were all in bloom doing their darnedest to entice shoppers to buy, a classic case of plant marketing -- sell while in bloom and let the petals fall where they may. 

Sadly, the ambient temperature might have been fine for keeping the paint flowing, but it was much warmer than these plants prefer. They were being subjected to a lot of movement, too, as shoppers picked them up and sorted through them, looking for something that wouldn't clash with the new wallpaper they'd just purchased. And they were under lights that hardly ever turn off — all the wrong conditions to promote blooming. However, at a buck fifty each they were a deal for those wily gardeners who are able to restore life to a dead stick.

Fortunately, the Christmas cactus (CC) is a resilient plant, and with a little care can potentially outlive the average shopper, but the plants I saw on display will likely have dropped all their blooms by Christmas day, and consequently far too many will go out with the wrapping paper, just like the other red and green Christmas plant, the one that every year is looking more and more like Christmas wrapping paper. But, with a little care, a CC can live for years and produce a show of blooms that the P plant can only ever dream of.

So buy now while the plants are on sale, but don’t worry about whether it will be in bloom this Christmas. We’re thinking about next year, we’re planning ahead.