Saturday, December 26, 2015

Talking Turkey in the Garden

Don’t forget the cranberry sauce. It’s absolutely essential with turkey and, like the turkey, cranberries are native to North America. It’s not surprising then they go so well together. In fact, if I had to eat one without the other, it would be the cranberry sauce. 

Cranberries were an important staple for Native Americans, who used the berries mixed with grains, meat, and animal fat to produce cakes of pemmican, traditional travelling food. Aboriginal people shared their turkeys with the first pilgrims, but I don’t know if there was cranberry sauce on hand.

The pilgrims, however, came up with the name cranberry, or rather crane berry, apparently because they thought the blossom resembled a crane. I suppose it could just as easily have been called the heron berry or stork berry. It wasn’t long before early settlers were using the berries to make sauces and supply seafarers with scurvy fighting vitamin C.

 I’d grow them in my garden if I could, but the conditions aren’t suitable. One of the tricks to growing cranberries successfully was discovered in 1816 by Captain Henry Hall, a veteran of the war of independence in the US. He discovered that spreading sand over the bogs where the cranberries grew naturally increased the berry yield.

Commercial growers take advantage of ideal conditions in the Muskoka region of Ontario where the soil is sandy and moist with layers of peat, which makes it acidic. My soil, like most around the here, is clay with a pH value that is neutral to alkaline. Cranberry grows as a sprawling vine and needs little pruning. Once planted, they rarely need replacing and continue to produce berries providing the flowers are pollinated, primarily by honey bees.

Thanks to popular photographs showing lakes covered with berries, it’s understandable that many believe they are grown in water, or cranberry paddies, I suppose. Not so. The photos are taken during harvesting when the fields are purposely flooded. A small air pocket inside each berry causes it to pop to the water surface when shaken from the stem. The shaking, or raking, once done by hand with special rakes, is now accomplished by machines that gently comb the vines releasing the berries. They are then corralled and it’s off to the processor.

Unless you have a suitable boggy area in your garden, the only alternative is to grow them in a large container.  The turkey sauce cranberry is Vaccinium macrocarpon, not to be confused with the Highbush cranberry (Viburnam trilobum), better known as viburnum, the spring flowering shrub. It also produces fruit which, like the true cranberry, can be used to make wines, sauces, and jellies.

Although these plants are not related, growing conditions are much the same. The viburnum is also extremely winter hardy, as it should be, being a native Canadian. It’s the ideal shrub for shady, moist places alongside a stream or in a boggy river bottom, where moist soil ensures it grows well as its shallow roots make it susceptible to drought.

Planting the right plant in the right place is the key to success in gardening. To help the gardener in your life and take care of that last minute gift, consider The Toronto Gardener’s Journal by Margaret Bennet-Alder. This is the twenty-fourth year Margaret has produced this very useful source of information for gardeners in the Golden Horseshoe. Copies can be ordered online at Now, let me at that leftover turkey — AND the cranberry sauce, please.

Friday, December 18, 2015

An Exceptional Gift any True Gardener Will Love

It arrived last weekend by special delivery, my first gift of the season. I was puttering around the house when the doorbell rang. Standing on the doorstep, looking a little uncertain in his role as courier, was Jeff, my daughter's boyfriend (now husband).

He'd been called upon to make the delivery — perhaps as a test — something along the lines of, "Look, you don't have to slay a dragon, just take this over to my dad's place and you may win the hand of the princess."

I followed Jeff down to the driveway where he quickly unloaded my gift from the trunk of his car. He looked relieved, especially when he saw my face light up. I recognized the bag immediately — it wasn't gift-wrapped.

The stamp on the side read High Quality, Organic Horse Feed, except both Jeff and I knew that was not what was in the bag (obvious olfactory clues were emanating).

In the bag was high quality, organic horse feed after it has been recycled into organic fertilizer by the finest of thoroughbred race horses. Perfectly aged like a fine wine, it came from a farm down the highway that regularly places bags for sale at the roadside — same concept as a fruit stand.

My daughter had been along one time when I picked up a few bags and she knew how much I'd appreciate even more of the stuff. I thanked Jeff profusely and asked him if he knew what the stuff he'd delivered would do for lazy roses?

I'm not sure he understood. When he drove off he did have the windows down, even though it was cold out, but I suspect that if it had been a big white charger he'd been riding, he would have been sitting a little taller in the saddle.

Not all gardeners can expect to receive Christmas gifts of this remarkable quality. If you're looking for the perfect gift for the gardener in your family, it shouldn't be too difficult.

The secret is in knowing what will be appreciated and what will vanish to the back of the shed. Mine is spread across my rose garden for everyone to admire. It's the gift that keeps on giving (you should see my roses).

Friday, December 11, 2015

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 4, 2015

You Gotta Love the Things

Bracts of red and leaves of green — first line of a poinsettia poem.  I was hoping to celebrate this amazingly popular Christmas decoration in rhyme, but that’s all I came up with. I tried, but once I had the image in my head I couldn’t go any further.

Regular readers know of my difficulty accepting the poinsettia as a plant, even though it is one, yet each year at this time I feel compelled to provide a little information that, if nothing else, might help keep everyone’s favourite centerpiece alive long enough to contribute to the spirit of the season.

I wrote last December of how I felt I’d come to grips with my phobia, of how I’d turned a corner, learned at last to accept the omnipresence of poinsettias, but by Boxing Day my usual disaffection had returned. 

I just can’t help it. I mean, who else has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal in an article glorifying the plant’s qualities as someone with an opposing opinion?

That bit of negative exposure sure ruled out any thought of Christmas shopping trips to Buffalo. I had visions of wanted posters at the border with me holding a poinsettia in one hand and a can of Roundup in the other.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy everything else about Christmas. The joy, the goodwill to all, and especially my mother-in-law’s mince pies, but I just can’t bring myself to embrace the poinsettia. It isn’t easy. 

Just last weekend I was at a Christmas dance and had to leave the dance floor in a hurry when the DJ began awarding you know what as spot prizes.

Regardless, I have a duty here, so despite any misgivings on my part, and the fact that at this very moment there is a poinsettia within arms reach of practically every person on this continent, here is everything you need to know to keep them looking happy and healthy, at least until Boxing Day.

First remove the garish foil from around the pot or at least poke holes in the bottom and set the pot on a saucer otherwise excess water can rot the roots. Locate in a sunny window, but not against the glass. Maintain at a daytime temperature of 18 to 21C and if possible move to a cooler place at night, but no cooler than 15C, again to avoid root rot. Water well when the surface is dry to the touch. Poinsettias don’t tolerate drafts so keep them away from air registers and doorways.

Bracts of red and leaves of green . . . take em away, they shouldn’t be seen — not bad.