Sunday, November 27, 2016

Poinsettia Panic

One hundred and seventy three already. That’s how many poinsettias I’ve encountered so far this Christmas season. I have my rules — these have to be live poinsettias and not in a store or greenhouse, unless the store is displaying the plant as part of a seasonal display.Here’s what I say: First remove the foil from around the pot or poke holes in the bottom otherwise excess water will 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 to avoid root rot. Avoid exposure to hot or cold drafts as these can cause premature leaf drop. Water well when the surface is dry to the touch. Finally, poinsettia is not poisonous, but I wouldn’t eat it. 175, 176,177 . . .

This all started because of my aversion to poinsettias; it was getting worse each year. Don’t believe me? — read previous columns where I’ve complained about the boring ubiquity of these plants, the sheer numbers, the environmental impact of all that wasted potting soil, the energy required to grow and transport them, and don’t even mention the plastic pots that end up at the dump. Grocery stores charging five cents for a plastic bag? I think they missed a huge opportunity here. I say supply your own pot.

Trouble was, I was beginning to be perceived as a Christmas Scrooge, a real grouch bent on spoiling the pleasure of others. I tried not to, but whereas I used to only frown and grumble, I was beginning to openly sneer at these — ahem — plants. Oops, there I go again. I’m sorry. I am trying. Hey, at least I call it the Christmas season and not “holiday” season.

Anyway, the answer was counselling sessions, where I came to realize that unless I was to become completely ostracized by society I would have to learn to like poinsettias. Clearly they’re not going to go away. It was suggested I turn it into a game or challenge and it’s helped considerably. I can now smile when I see a poinsettia, knowing that I’m further along on my quest to set a personal record.

It’s such fun, and it makes Christmas shopping much more pleasurable. I now enter stores full of hope that there’ll be a poinsettia on display — there always is. Naturally, my face lights up immediately, which has the effect of cheering up the frazzled sales assistant, thereby resulting in especially good service.

When I attend a Christmas function, I no longer get annoyed when a whacking great green and red object has been plonked in the middle of the table, completely obscuring my dinner partner, causing us to bob and weave like a couple of boxers as we try to have a conversation. Now I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I even leave my table and explore the room, anxious to ensure I count them all.

I appear to be the most gregarious, happy person present as I visit other tables, smiling and chatting, saying things like lovely, great, or terrific, even though under my breath, I’m counting away. My obvious enthusiasm then gets me into numerous conversations about how to care for poinsettias.

Friday, July 29, 2016

July Report Card

Except for the extreme heat and lack of rain (heard a fire hydrant whistling for a dog the other day) the old garden isn’t looking too bad.

The Eustoma are amazing, and the Echinacea are providing sterling service. The Lantana, too, has been flowering relentlessly, as has the waterlily 

The portulaca are putting in a lot of effort but the begonias could try harder. I must also congratulate the white cosmos, a new addition that is showing a lot of enthusiasm.

Naturally, I publicly congratulated them all; a bit of positive feedback encourages the performers and, I hope, embarrasses the duds (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!).

I’ve certainly done my bit — tender loving care administered without a hint of favoritism.

I wish it would rain. My old oak rain barrel is beginning to look like a picket fence.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It's Dirty Work

It’s all hard, dirty work, battling insects, diagnosing diseases, dealing with erratic weather, and chasing critters. That’s what gardening must seem like to those without a hint of digital green, so I suppose it’s no surprise when someone tells me they just don’t get it. Like many who feel that way, they like a garden to look nice, in a vague sort of way — mainly tidy, I guess, but that’s as far as it goes.

So what is the attraction? I have a hard time explaining. I try the whole being connected with nature thing, hands in the soil feeling the energy of the earth beneath, yet the thought of dirty hands elicits only a frown.

But what about a beautifully landscaped garden that incorporates all the features that are designed to appeal to one’s sense of aesthetics — the winding pathways, subtly balanced colours, sculpted trees and shrubs mirrored in still pools? Makes it hard to hang out washing, they say, not that many still do.

Consider the fragrances that waft across the patio on a warm summer evening, I might say; people spend a fortune on being fragrant. Aren’t heavenly scents produced in a garden equally attractive? No, I suppose a spray can is more reliable, I have to agree, even if it is filled with questionable chemicals, and yes, for some, a steak sizzling on the barbeque trumps lavender any day.

Then what about the salad that goes with the steak; surely there’s nothing finer than a freshly picked tomato? Red and round, they’re all the same, says the one with dead taste buds.

See what I’m up against? But for those who have discovered gardening and the joy it brings, despite the dirty hands and all the challenges a gardener must face, you know it’s all worthwhile. I know I do, for all the reasons above, and more. I enjoy all aspects, but one in particular always inspires me and that’s the art. Not the art of design, at least not the gardener’s, but that of plants and flowers.

To stop and smell the roses is as relevant as ever, but when I remember to slow down and actually look at things closely, intensely, there’s a whole world of artistry that isn’t immediately apparent, especially if the bifocals are sitting in the house. 

This is when I recall my favourite garden quote by Sally Carrighar, one I should inscribe on the fence as a reminder: “The important thing is to know this flower, look at its colour until its blueness becomes as real as a keynote of music”. To this I’d add a reminder to observe artful intricacy of design.

There are many reasons for the variety of colours and forms taken by flowers and foliage, though I doubt any were originally designed to look appealing to a human perspective — insects mainly — yet we are the beneficiaries of these amazing works of art, many of which inspired the great masters.

Take a closer look at some of the flowers in your garden and you’ll be endlessly fascinated. Take the African daisy, or Osteospermum. It’s a genus of annual plants popular in bedding schemes and there are numerous hybrids and cultivars in a wide range of lively colours. Sun lovers and easy to grow, I have them in flower beds and in containers.

Most are daisy-like, some double, but one in particular always catches my eye thanks to the unique design of its petals. They radiate out in a perfect circle, each one resembling a tiny spoon. I stop, I look, I smile, then I shake my head at this miniature work of art. It’s just one of the reasons to “get” gardening.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Slugfest in the Garden

It’s lurking in your garden — one of the worst killers encountered in horticulture. Not only does it kill; it maims and tortures too. If they weren’t so easily recognized by every gardener in the world, there would be wanted posters for this pest everywhere.

  • It is a voracious eater
  • It has disgusting habits
  • It is sloppy and slimy
  • It has a serious drinking problem
  • And it causes adults to squirm at the very sight of one

Slugs! They are the bane of gardeners everywhere. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t hate them. Even my live and let live philosophy weakens at the sight of a slug. Ugh! If it weren't for my steely nerve, I’d squirm too.

Gardeners are desperate to rid their yards of slugs. I could give you a list a mile long of techniques people have tried for dispatching this marauding mollusk. Sure, some of these tricks work, but only to a point. It seems the more slugs you slaughter, the more there are, no doubt a result of their squalid little sex lives. They bring a whole new meaning to monogamy — if you don't know, don’t ask; it's all part of slug evolution. Evolution? That’s a joke. I’d say slugs are at a bit of a standstill.

However, in yet another attempt to wipe out the slugs in my yard, I thought this year I 'd try a different approach, an approach based on the fact slugs have no friends, other than their nasty sluggy buddies. What with the whole world hating them and trying to kill them (and failing miserably), I wondered if slugs might just react differently if they thought someone, or something, actually liked them, or cared for them.

I had this great idea of using reverse psychology to make them go away. Instead of attacking them every step (and stomp) of the way, I decided to go to great lengths to befriend them, to show them compassion, even love them (okay, I may have had to fake it a bit). My theory was that this would prove devastating to their little sluggy psyches. I intended to kill them with kindness.

I began by setting out some of their favourite food on the patio — marigolds and hosta leaves, and some beer of course, but in a shallow container so they couldn't fall in and drown. I also swept the patio first to get rid of any sharp bits that might snag their little sluggy tummies. It certainly attracted them; they showed up in droves.

They were so confused by these seemingly random acts of kindness, they didn't know whether they were coming or going, which isn't surprising. They're a bit like the VW beetle that way — from a distance it's hard to tell which end is the front.

After a few days I had them exactly where I wanted them, eating out of my hand (ugh). This is when I began playing a few mind games. I thought, we’ll just see who’s well balanced around my yard. Now that I had their confidence I invited them to share a beer and chips with me — SALT AND VINEGAR — my favourites. I figured one chomp and they'd shrivel right up. They drank the beer of course, but they wouldn’t go near the chips. I don’t think they trusted me; they turned up their noses at them.

Noses? I’m not sure if slugs have noses. They do have eyes. I know that because they stick right out on the end when they get excited. One of them was obviously half-drunk and quite belligerent. He tried using his "eyes" to stare me down. Next thing you know we got into a staring contest. After 15 minutes I began to get nervous. I thought, if this sucker wins it’ll be slug anarchy around here. I stomped on it. That kinda put the end to the killing with kindness experiment.

I’m afraid my slugs don’t have a very high opinion of me now. I guess the feeling is mutual. I decided to go back to my old method for dealing with them. Instead of hand feeding, I’m hand picking. I try to dispatch them as humanely as possible — even accidentally. That way I don't feel too guilty. I use my garden clippers to gently pick them up and . . . oops, oops, oops.

Like these stories? Share below.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Two Four Time

This is it, the traditional May two four planting weekend in this part of the world, but if you don’t get around to planting because of other exciting two four stuff, don’t worry. There’s plenty of time left for planting.

Once upon a time, most annuals were sold in tiny cell packs and it created an urgency to get them into the garden early to ensure they started growing, even though they wouldn’t budge until the soil warmed up. Now, with a trend towards larger, more mature plants in individual pots, timing is less critical.

Whether you plant this weekend or wait until early June, there is one thing that will help your flowers and vegetables when they have to face blazing hot summer days, and that’s mulch. In nature, there’s always mulch on the surface of the soil, usually in the form of a leafy layer.

Plants expect to be surrounded by mulch; bare soil is not normal. Covering soil conserves moisture, keeps down weeds, and if organic, it slowly adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. Over the years, I’ve used a variety of materials as mulch: leaves, manure, mushroom compost, wood chips, straw, shredded bark, and cocoa bean husks.

Anything that covers the soil surface while allowing moisture to penetrate does the trick. I’ll even use clippings from evergreen shrubs, and I always make use of my ornamental grasses crop. It does a fine job in the veggie garden. As they break down, they all help feed the soil, which is so important.

Wood chips or shredded bark are popular, especially on flower beds in front yard gardens. A few bags may be all you need, but if you’re a heavy user, consider ordering in bulk. When spreading mulch from four to eight centimetres deep, which is usually sufficient, a big bag will go a long way.

There has been a concern that as wood based mulches break down, they can deplete the nitrogen in the soil, but this only occurs in the uppermost layer and isn’t as much of a problem as was once believed. If you use wood chip mulches every year on the same flower beds, it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle a little blood meal or alfalfa pellets on the surface to counteract the effect.

As mulch slowly decomposes, nutrients and organic matter are absorbed, feeding the organisms in the soil. This is a natural process, but it is far more complex than it appears, especially to anyone who dismisses soil as dirt — dirt is what you get on your pants after sitting in soil.

Soil is not inert brown stuff, devoid of life, although it may well be if it’s been regularly doused with chemical fertilizers. It is teaming with an incredible number of life forms, each of which has a role to play. Worms and soil insects are easy to spot, but it’s what we don’t see that’s tremendously important:  microscopic insects, fungi, bacteria (good and bad) all play a role. They form symbiotic relationships with each other and with the roots of plants and trees, processing organic matter and minerals, converting them into nutrients in a form that plants can use.

Healthy soil is essential, the source of the life above ground that we can see. As you plant like crazy over the next few weeks, give a thought to what’s going on below — and spread the mulch.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Macho Gardening

Gardening a macho pastime? I don't think so. Lots of men must garden, of course, but you wouldn't think so judging by the people passing through the garden centers and nurseries. I've been spending a fair bit of time in them this spring and they're always packed with women.

I'm often the only guy in the place. Oh, there's the odd man present — dragged there against his will. I usually spot him kicking the tires on the wheelbarrows, or browsing the tool display, checking out all that tungsten steel and carbon fiber — macho materials. He won't go near the flowers and vegetables; they're just not tough enough.

You can hardly blame the guys. They're overloaded with genes that attract them to power equipment like slugs to hostas. Give a guy a garden job and he'll find the horsepower to accomplish it, and with as much noise as possible. Mowers and blowers, chippers and clippers — that's gardening! What's the use of a lawn if it's not big enough to handle a riding mower? Garden work to men is spreading fertilizer, tuning up the tools, hosing down the patio, even painting the driveway. Definitely not fiddling with flowers.

Gardening has traditionally been the women's job — something to keep her busy between fixing meals and doing laundry by hand for a family of fifteen. Man's thing was ploughing fields and felling trees — a different kind of nurturing. Just don’t call it that.

The fundamentals are all there; it's just a matter of redirecting their focus, and it's happening. Men are beginning to reveal their nurturing side. They're changing diapers and hugging their kids, even ordering the pizza. With a little re-training they might enjoy tending a garden. They already appreciate a nice landscape; they just don't know it.

Every weekend golf courses are crowded with guys whacking little balls around a vista that could have been designed by Capability Brown, except I'm not sure they even notice it. They're too busy getting terribly frustrated because the ball never goes where they want it to go. It must be so stressful. If it weren't for the calming effect of the pastoral scene they'd be whacking each other around (green rage).

I've nothing against golf. It's just that men need to learn that gardening is healthier, more fulfilling. Once that ball is dropped in the cup, that's it! Nothing else happens. It's non-productive, and they always come home disappointed. If they tried dropping little plants into holes, instead of little balls, then watching them grow, they'd be winners every time.

So how are you going to bring out the gardening nature in a man? You could take advantage of his competitive instinct by giving him a packet of monster pumpkin seeds and telling him nobody's ever grown one bigger than fifty pounds. You know, plant the seed! I know one woman who had great success using a subliminal technique. She cut pictures out of garden magazines and pasted them into her husband's copy of Sports Illustrated. I'm not sure what the pictures were, but the following week he went out and switched his subscription to Roots and Fruits.

I think the marketing people could help a lot too. If they can convince a whole nation to tune in to the Stanley Cup in the middle of June, then surely they can turn men on to gardening. They're missing a huge opportunity.

Can you imagine the effect of placing a picture of Rory McIlroy on every packet of pansy seed? What would happen if Captain America was a guest host discussing delphiniums on the Martha Stewart show? I know it's a bit sexist, but how about using the Beyonce or Kim Kardashian (never thought I’d ever write that name) to sell bedding plants. Men would be browsing seed catalogs all winter.

Think of it, though, a world full of gardeners. Flowers everywhere. Macho male world leaders getting together for a photo opportunity as they turn a compost heap. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Everyone growing — happier, healthier, and peacefully.

So here's your chance to change the world. Father's day is coming up. Instead of the hardware store, why not drop into the garden center. Forget the aftershave — give dad a sunflower seed in a pot and challenge him to grow one bigger than his buddy can. Manipulate his machismo!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Enough is Never Enough

I plant far too much stuff in my garden. I can’t help it. I drop in at a garden centre for a couple of plants and I come home with a couple of flats. It’s less expensive if you fill the whole flat, they tell me at the cash register. So back I go to fill the thing, even though I only have two plants in it. Then I find I still have a couple too many so I fill the second flat.

It’s not that I don’t possess a degree of logic and the ability to make calculations in my head that would show it’s costing me more. That’s not the reason. The reason is the season.

In spring I have to plant and plant and plant. I admire people that can enter a garden centre with a list and leave the place with no more items purchased than were on their list. At any other store I can do this, but not where plants are concerned. It must have something to do with survival — the instinct to ensure there’ll be a good crop by fall. Except it’s mostly flowering plants I’m buying.
As for vegetables, it’s a much simpler process. I plant most from seed — beans, peas, lettuce, zucchini. In the veggie garden I worry less about how it looks or whether the colours are coordinated.

I’ve come to the conclusion that planting my garden is like doing a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to go by and, if you’ve ever completed a jigsaw puzzle, you’ll know that the pieces with flowers or foliage are the hardest ones to place. On top of that, I’m always missing pieces or having to force in extra ones.

I typically take an extended walking tour of my property doing just that — trying to find the perfect spot for whatever plant is in my hand. Prefers shade says the tag, but the best shady corner is full. There’s space in another shady spot, but the plant in my hand is too large for that location. There’s only one more option, but the colour is all wrong and it will clash terribly — too bad, I’ll relocate the one that’s beside it. If I can’t find a space, I’ll fill another planter — there’s still room on the deck for a couple more.

Days later I begin again with another trunk load. I know it’s madness, but I love it. Despite the
turmoil and frenzy of planting that I go through each May, it’s the best of times and it only gets better as the garden grows lush and more colourful throughout the season.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Garden work work work work work work (Rihanna)

Watching my backyard slowly reappear over the last week or two has been like watching a photograph develop. It’s hardly poster quality, but at least I can walk down the garden path again. Not much is happening out there yet, but it won’t be long, and I’m raring to go, along with all the other gardeners revving their engines.

Except, what if you’re feeling overwhelmed at the sight of a naked yard that reminds you of your worst vacation photo. As long as the place was covered in snow it was easy to avoid, but now there it is, an empty lot covered in scruffy, boring grass, glaring at you. It won’t go away. It will demand attention until winter returns, but what will it provide in return? — Not much more than another record breaking water bill.

You know that’s not what you want; you want a beautifully landscaped yard, always did, but never got around to it. Where to start, what plants to purchase, where to place them? Maybe you attended one of the garden shows and came home filled with inspiration, but you still feel intimidated by the whole process. 

If only you could wave a magic wand, or at least a magic credit card, it would all be taken care of. But there’s no fun in that, and besides, landscaping isn’t something that has to be completed overnight. The transformation might be exciting, but think of your poor mail carrier getting lost in unfamiliar territory.

No, take a deep breath, relax, and understand that landscaping your yard can be a slow, enjoyable process. This is an opportunity to discover your creative nature, and don’t ever think you don’t have one. Constructing an attractive garden may well surprise you.

Will there be work? — Yes, lots, but garden work is not the same kind of work as the mind numbing, soul destroying, and stress inducing toil that can fill your day from nine to five. In fact, it’s the complete antidote to that kind of work; it’s exercise in disguise. Garden work can invigorate and restore the body, and also the soul. 

In the words of the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association, horticultural therapy improves the social, spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being of individuals who participate in it -- that is, working in a garden. 

So what’s stopping you? Oh yes, a plan. It’s probably a good idea to have a plan, otherwise you may make mistakes, and that will mean more work, and then you'll be stuck with a toned and perfect body and a blissful smile. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day Everyday

Did someone say Earth Day? With all the media attention on budgets, possible elections and of course, the Stanley cup, Earth Day can easily be sidelined, so I’m doing my bit for Earth Day by mentioning Earth Day.

I try to approach every day as Earth Day around my garden. It isn’t hard as I’ve always avoided using pesticides and herbicides, but now that pesticides are largely banned, we’re all doing our bit, like it or not, and the world hasn’t ended.

Sure, it’s more of a challenge to produce a perfect weed free lawn, but that’s never been my goal. I’ve preferred to plant plants and shrubs as they’re much more interesting. At least newer environmentally friendly products are being marketed. Iron or vinegar based herbicides are available, and although they may not be as effective on lawns as the chemical products that were banned, they do help, and they work quite well on weeds that grow in patios and driveways. Meanwhile, I’ll continue pulling weeds by hand which isn’t difficult as I don’t have many, thanks to mulching every bit of bare soil in sight, including that in containers.

Dealing with insects in a garden has always been a challenge, but I never believed blanket spraying with insecticides was the answer. Of course, I do get insect problems. The red lily beetle ravished my lilies terribly. What an eyesore. I solved it by giving up on lilies for a couple of years. I’ve planted a few new bulbs this year to see if I’ve fooled the beetles into abandoning my garden.

Of all the insects in a garden, only a minority are a problem. Most others are beneficial. In fact, killing off the beneficial insects only compounds the problem as an unbalance is created. In nature, no one species gets the upper hand for long. They all have their enemies and it’s just a matter of time before one shows up. It’s not only other insects that provide control. Birds do their bit, too, and there’s no finer sight than a flock of starlings cleaning out the grubs in a lawn. Is it me, or are there a lot more birds around now?

Fortunately, apart from plagues of locust, most insect pests feed on specific plants, so don’t harm everything. I grow a wide range of plants in my garden and it lessens apparent damage. If just one type of plant is affected, there’s always another that looks just fine. It also helps somewhat by confusing insects as they have to figure out where a plant is in my garden before they can eat it. Consequently, the garden usually looks fine overall.

Weeds and insects have always been the bane of the gardener and always will be. Making adjustments, growing different varieties, and working with nature to maintain the balance are ways to garden in an earth friendly way. If all else fails, leave off the bifocals or reading glasses when in the garden and take five steps backwards. Weeds and insect damage will vanish like magic.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Spring Bounced In

Even though the snow dump on the patio was fighting a meltdown and the lawn a squishy, soggy mess, the glorious weather last weekend made it a joy to rediscover my garden. Although the snow cover stayed longer than it normally does, it didn’t bother the plants below. The crocuses must have been bursting to bloom because as soon as the snow vanished, they flowered. A hellebore, which usually suffers from late winter weather, benefited from the deep snow drift that covered it all winter, is thinking of flowering.

Green shoots of other plants are poking up, many of which are familiar as they’re old timers, but I’m afraid I’m at a loss to identify others until they give me more clues, like leaves, or even flowers. It’s partly because I planted new stuff last fall and moved a few things around, but I do tend to forget where I plant things. In fact, I discovered a plant tag thrust aside by a clump of crocus. I planted something new there last fall not realizing there were crocus below.

I do keep notes and photographs taken at different times throughout the growing season to help keep track of what is where, but when I’m in the garden I’m reluctant to return indoors. Instead, I make a mental note to check it out later, except those mental notes tend to get misplaced when I’m having so much fun puttering about on a beautiful spring day.

And besides, it’s been almost half a year since I last worked in the garden, around the middle of November when I crammed everything into the shed. Is it any wonder I might have forgotten a few things? By the time summer rolls around, I’ll have everything sorted out.

Right now, there are plenty of things to keep me busy. I’ve cut back all my ornamental grasses. It was quite a crop, almost too much for the compost pile. They’re slow to break down unless they’re chopped up, so I save some of those long clumps of stalks to use as mulch between the rows in a vegetable garden. I’m cutting back the stalks of perennials to make way for new growth and cleaning up the mushy leaves of my hostas. It’s not a job for the squeamish as you never know what might be lurking beneath, a slug or two most likely.

Toss the leaves on the compost pile then scuff up the soil a little to expose any slug eggs to spring frosts. This will finish them off before they get chance to start munching.  This is also the time of year, just at the moment when leaf tips are showing a little green, to spray a dormant oil mix on any shrubs or trees that are particularly susceptible to insect damage or fungal diseases. I’ve found it useful in controlling black spot on roses. I spray the soil lightly around the roses too.

As for my one climbing rose, it does need attention. The dead wood and stringy branches with rose hips need to be removed, and I really need to try and bend some of the younger canes horizontally to encourage more blooms. It’s always a challenge, and I rarely escape unscathed, but at this time of year, anything job in the garden is fun. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Critters in the Garden?

You may be expecting to read tree planting tips or information on new plants today, but when unusual events take place, it’s news, even in the gardening world. This news isn't new, but tracks in the snow this morning brought to mind an event that took place a year or so ago.

It happened one morning as I was about to sit down with a cup of coffee. I happened to glance through the window that looks over the back yard when, from the corner of my bleary eye, I briefly saw a large brown object, little more than a shadow, retreating behind the cedar at the end of the pond. I know some of you may be thinking water buffalo, but it wasn’t quite that large. I grabbed my camera, which invariably means the extra time it takes guarantees the subject will be gone before I make it out the door. In this case, it hadn’t. Something was still lurking behind the cedar.

I stealthily approached, camera in one hand, thinking I should probably have a stick in the other since I had no idea if it was rabid groundhog, an ornery raccoon, or just another rabbit. Regardless, it stealthily managed to stay one cedar width ahead of me.

I reversed direction. It reversed direction. Thinks it’s smart, I thought. Luckily, I’ve played this game around the dining room table with my dog, and even though she always wins, I’ve become pretty adept at the fake reverse trick. I pulled my patent double reverse and gotcha!

We met face to face between the cedar and the fence. It wasn’t a furry animal after all. It was a bird, a huge bird — it was wild turkey. I had a wild turkey in my garden! At this point I’m not sure who was the more surprised — the turkey or me. We stared each other down for only a moment before the turkey’s nerve failed. It panicked and hopped over the fence into the neighbour’s yard, where it calmly began eating the grass.

From there it worked its way out front, across the front yard and back to my front door. I know turkeys aren’t the brightest creature, and it did cross my mind that it might have arrived early for Thanksgiving dinner, but then, using the path as a runway, it took off. Last I saw of it, it was heading south.

These birds have thrived since they were reintroduced to the area a few years ago, but isn’t a wild turkey supposed to stay in the wild? I could understand this one visiting if I lived in the country, or even on the edge of the city, but I wouldn’t have expected a turkey to flop down into an urban garden. What’s next — a kangaroo? My garden sure is an interesting place.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Almost as Prolific as Poinsettias

I’ve not heard any mention of Lilium longiflorum this week. No signs in stores, not a comment around the water cooler, although the advent of bottled water has curtailed most daily conversations in the workplace. No wonder everyone is on Facebook. Stop drinking alone, I say. Talk to people.

I digress. Lilium longiflorum is everywhere, but no one calls it that, and rightly so or it might not sell as well as it does. Besides, speaking in botanical terms does tend to disperse groups rather quickly.

Lilium longiflorum is the Easter lily and it’s everywhere. The plant became associated with Easter a little over a hundred years ago after a Ms. Thomas Sargent visited Bermuda

Apparently she loved the plants so much she stuffed a few bulbs into her luggage before returning to her home in Philadelphia. You could do that then, before border controls, drug enforcement agencies, and homeland security complicated travel.

After a local nurseryman forced the bulbs into bloom in time for Easter, the idea of a plant symbolizing Christ's Resurrection took off. If you’re wondering what Ms. Sargent was doing in Bermuda, and if she was regularly smuggling other items back to the US, I’ve no idea — but I do know why she found lilies growing there.

The plant is native to southern Japan and was living happily on the Ryukyu islands until plant hunter Carl Peter Thunberg sent a few to England in 1819 where it became popular. From there it made its way to Bermuda where the climate suited the plant perfectly — and the British too, no doubt. They began growing the plant as a cash crop and everyone was happy until 1898 when a sneaky virus wiped out bulb production. Japan stepped in, since it was their plant originally, and took over the industry until World War II messed up the market and everything else in the world.

At that point, anyone growing the plants for fun in North America quickly realized they’d been handed an opportunity when the price of bulbs skyrocketed. Bulb growing became centered in an area on the California-Oregon border that today accounts for about 95% of bulb production. They are shipped out to commercial greenhouses across Canada and the US. Because Easter is not a fixed date, these growers must carefully juggle growing conditions to ensure the plants are in bloom for Easter.

And that’s how the Easter lily arrived at your grocery store. All you have to do is care for it for a week or two, and here’s how.

Easter lilies prefer moderately cool temperatures, so place where daytime temperatures are fifteen to eighteen degrees Celsius with slightly cooler night temperatures. They dislike drafts and won’t put up with excess heat or dry air from heating ducts.

They thrive best near a window in bright, indirect natural daylight — not direct sunlight. Water well when the soil surface feels dry, but avoid drenching. If the pot is still wrapped in decorative foil, rip it off as otherwise the plant’s roots are standing in water all the time.

As the flowers mature, remove the yellow anthers before the pollen starts to shed. This prolongs flower life and prevents the pollen from staining the white flowers.

The bulbs can be planted outdoors in spring and grown on; however, they aren’t reliably hardy in this area, but if you want to chance it, plant it about eight to ten centimetres deep in a sheltered, sunny, well-drained corner of your garden and mulch well to keep the soil cool. Mulch even more in fall for winter protection. Happy Easter and long live Lilium longiflorum.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Roses or Wheelbarrows on Valentine's Day

This is it; the big day that allows macho guys to walk around in public carrying bunches of flowers. Guys, you may feel a little self conscious, embarrassed even, but there is a payoff — a happy partner.

This raises a serious question, however, given society has come so far in so many areas. Why is it the majority of flowers are given by men and received by women? I know, the bunch of red roses on Valentine’s Day is traditional, but men in general do seem to have an aversion to flowers. 
There’s no avoiding it; they don’t see an interest in plants, flowers, and gardening as macho enough. Lots of men must garden, of course, but you wouldn't think so judging by the people passing through garden centers and nurseries each spring. I'm often the only guy in the place — buying plants, that is. 

A few are often dragged there reluctantly. I usually spot them kicking the tires on wheelbarrows or browsing the sharp tool display. I’m almost always outnumbered at horticultural society meetings, too, but on the positive side, there’s never a line up for the men’s washroom.

It isn’t easy being a plant and flower lover (hey, I grow potatoes too). For instance, whenever I’m having coffee with a group of guys, the conversation invariable turns to golf, baseball, hockey or cars. Consequently, it never seems quite the right time to say — anyone like to see pictures of my prize peony?
You can hardly blame the guys. Historically, gardening has been women's work — something to keep her busy between fixing meals and doing laundry by hand for a family of fifteen. Man's thing was ploughing fields and felling trees. They're now overloaded with genes that cause them to be drawn to power equipment. Give a guy a garden job and he'll find the horsepower to accomplish it, and with as much noise as possible.
Mowers and blowers, chippers and clippers — that's gardening! They'll spread fertilizer, tune up the tools, hose down the patio, even paint the driveway, but fiddle with flowers — forget it. What's the use of a lawn if it's not big enough to handle a riding mower?
Yet the fundamentals are all there. Despite Red Green, men are slowly changing and are beginning to reveal their nurturing side. They're changing diapers and hugging their kids, even ordering the pizza. With a little re-training they might enjoy tending a garden.

The marketing people could help a lot. If they can convince a whole nation to tune in to hockey in the middle of June, then surely they can turn men on to gardening. Can you imagine the effect of placing a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger on every packet of seed? What would happen if Tiger Woods were a guest host on a TV gardening show? Call it sexist, but I know that if Beyonce or Jennifer Lawrence were featured alongside flowers in gardening magazines, there are many men who would be browsing them all winter instead of Sports Illustrated.
Just think of it, a world full of gardeners. World leaders getting together for a photo opportunity while turning a compost heap — before retiring to the golf course — then imagine the conversations. I can hear it now: "Oh no, I think I just sliced my ball over the purple buddleia into the periwinkle beneath that Acer negundo." I’m convinced it would help if women began giving flowers to men. They’d at least have to pretend they liked them, and that’s a start. Try it. He might just appreciate a bunch of long stemmed roses – or maybe not.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Big Rocks Rock

I know there are many folks with new homes who are currently surveying their snow covered front yards, looking for inspiration on how to make it attractive enough to fit in with other front yards in the neighborhood. 

It’s almost turned into a competition in some areas. Gone are the days of the foundation planting — half a dozen assorted evergreens sold as, yes, the foundation package. Toss in a few red and white geraniums and a lush lawn that had to be mowed weekly and the landscaping was complete.

In older neighborhoods there are still plenty of examples around of the featured design of the sixties. If maintained, they’re neat and tidy, but when old plantings of junipers, cedars, and a giant maple that was once the size of a drinking straw become overgrown, the result is a front yard with the life sucked out of the soil. 

By summer, the lawn looks as though a herd of caribou passed through, but leaving untouched the gout weed, a plant sold originally as a pretty little ground cover. As many have learned, it’s a plant that even a bulldozer can’t kill.

Of course, this can happen when any garden is neglected, but nowadays, the availability of plant material and the skills of a landscape designer mean it's possible to have a low-maintenance, attractive garden. This, however, too often results in a presentable and oft repeated design that's sure to include at least a pair of whacking big, expensive rocks plunked in the middle of the lawn and surrounded by clumps of ornamental grass with at least one Stella d'Oro day lily -- and a small tree.

Even though design options are unlimited, I do think the big rocks are an overused feature — the foundation collection of the current decade. See amazing designs here. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

On the Seedy Side of Town

I’m browsing through the seed catalogues that have been appearing in my mailbox since December. Apparently, the people at William Dam, McFayden, McKenzie, Stokes, Dominion, OSC, and Veseys all believe I have a greenhouse the size of an arena, or at least a chain of grow ops. 

I usually order a few packets of stuff that look interesting, but I doubt my order would cover the postage on the catalogue; nevertheless, they keep coming. 

I’m always overwhelmed by the range of seeds offered: twenty seven varieties of lettuce or green stuff that looks like lettuce and seventeen types of carrots in all shapes and colours. I don’t have a sophisticated palate, so to me I’m afraid it all tastes like, well, lettuce or carrots; however, I’m happy to try different ones, and besides, some of the more colourful lettuce makes attractive filler in the flowerbed.

As for the flowers, I’m a sucker for anything labelled as new. Is it new, or is it just a new name? The trend of labelling things with something catchy to attract the consumer has spread to plants. Names like Berry Smoothie, Tiki Torch, and Black Negligee make it sound more like an interesting evening than a trip to the garden center. It could be so embarrassing — PA announcing that a gentleman at the cash would like a flat of Black Negligees. That plant is actually a new variety of Actaea simplex. 
The common name is bugbane, which I admit isn’t likely to get the same attention as lingerie.

The Berry Smoothie is not a refreshing drink; it’s another new Heuchera, while the Tiki Torch is yet another new echinacea. This type of labelling isn’t likely to change as marketers have taken over the industry and if catchy names are what sell, then that’s what we’ll get. In fact, I read in a trade magazine that a garden center in Ireland has abolished the use of botanical terms.

No doubt the idea will spread. Granted, botanical names are challenging, but at least they keep order in the plant world. Poor Carl Linnaeus, father of binomial nomenclature, must be turning in his grave. 

On the other hand, if goofy names get more people out of the mall and into the garden, it may not be a bad thing, except a shopping mall, preferably one that resembles a greenhouse, is more attractive than most gardens at this time of year.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Spring is Coming -- But

I just heard the snowplough go rattling down my street, which means the driveway awaits my attention. There's no denying it, despite a late start, winter is here and the garden season of 2015 is finally over. 

It was the longest I've known in this area. I actually worked in my garden for a full nine months beginning with a little pruning in early March and ending with bulb planting in December.

Now that's something that needs to be changed — the idea that gardening is work. Sure, mowing a lawn or digging a hole might be considered work by some, but really, gardening is anything but work. To me, it's a joy-filled pastime with huge benefits. 

But now, deep in this world of muffled senses, ice scrapers, and salt stained pants, the garden is in hibernation and I'm feeling the withdrawal a little more than usual. Shoveling snow may be good exercise, but I'd much rather be pottering about the back yard.

But what's a poor gardener to do at this time of year? I browse seed catalogues or draw up plans for a landscaping project, I attend garden conferences, read garden books, pamper the philodendron a little more than normal, and on occasion, I'll loiter in the greenhouse at one of our local garden centres, but these things don't quite make up for my garden. 

What's really missing is the spiritual connection I have with the old place, the total stress busting transformation that takes place when I'm surrounded by the life affirming growth of living things.

As calm as he appears, I'm sure my garden Buddha is wishing he was some place else too.

It's a good thing spring is only weeks away -- hah!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Your Garden -- Planned or Evolved?

These are the planning days, planning for the season ahead, but my planning is limited to a few new plants and shifting old ones around. My current garden has been established for almost thirty years and didn’t have much planning in the first place days, more a case of adaptation as requirements changed. The front yard received more consideration, but the back had to evolve somewhat on its own as it passed through a number of unavoidable stages.

It started out as an unfenced, blank palette, then once enclosed by a solid barn board fence it held a small vegetable plot. It was a children's playground with equipment for a while, then after the addition of flowerbeds along the fence, followed by patios, pathways, and a pond, it gradually filled in until the lawn is barely large enough park a wheelbarrow.

The flowerbeds expanded drastically, trees grew, many shrubs and perennials were tried and died over the years. I made many mistakes, but most things have worked out, despite deviations due to the eccentricities of the head gardener, and more than anything, it brought me a lot of joy in the process. Certainly, had I planned it more directly, it would probably look like a different garden, but then any blank space can be designed in a million different ways to create a garden.

If you are in the early stages of developing a garden, either by design, evolution, or adaptation, there are a few things that are best considered that will prove helpful, and at the same time will avoid costly or annoying errors, especially with trees and shrubs.

Choosing the right one for the right location is essential. I have one tree that could have been better placed, and although it's not entirely without merit, I could do without it, but any change now would require drastic action, as in a chainsaw and shrieks of dismay from bystanders.

Apart from felling, trees and large shrubs are like heavy furniture that isn’t easily moved, and unlike a couch they improve with age, making them even harder to part with. And they grow, slowly maybe, but a small suburban yard isn’t the place for a monster maple. Too often, trees are planted much too close to the house where they can interfere with drainage or even cause structural damage, so before planting any tree, seriously consider the location and potential size of that skinny sapling in the pot. For a large tree, four or five meters from a building is a good guideline.

A lot of work has been done in creating smaller, compact trees and shrubs in recent years, which are much more suited to a smaller garden. An advantage of incorporating smaller trees and shrubs into a design means there’s room for more plants. And if you do find you’ve planted one of these smaller shrubs in the wrong place, they’re a lot easier to dig out and move.

Good planning is important, but it’s only part of the final result as a garden is a living thing, never static, and will constantly attempt to thwart the designer. I’ll leave you with the words of  Scottish poet, Rabbie Burns, whose birthday is on the 25th: "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley". (go often askew).

Friday, January 1, 2016

New or Not

Gardening in Canada, eh? There’s nothing but snow and slush in the garden and I’m going crazy, cooped up, poring over old seed catalogues. I briefly considered opening a sanctuary for abandoned poinsettias, but I’ve seen quite enough of them this past month.

There's an old saying that goes as follows — people want one of two things: something that everyone else has, or something that no one else has. That's why some love to grow petunias, impatiens, or geraniums and little else, while others become obsessed with possessing the rarest plant in the world.

In this consumer culture, we are encouraged, even, dare I say it, conditioned to go for the new and exciting, except the object of our desire only remains something that no one else has for a very short time. Before you know it, it's ubiquitous.

When Joel Roberts Poinsett returned from Mexico in 1828 with Euphorbia pulcherrima and plunked it on his dining room table, I imagine all his dinner guests said, Wow, Joel, that is so cool, man. Where can I get me one? That's why, for the last month, poinsettias have been disrupting dinner table conversation in every home in the country.

What's your choice, commonplace or unique? Are you adventurous or do you tend to stick with the familiar? Are you a golden oldies fan or are you into indie rock? Is it reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies for you or do you prefer to be on the edge of your seat (or rolling on the floor) with the latest episode of (fill in the blank)? There's nothing wrong with the familiar — it's soothing, comforting, and it brings back happy memories. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion.

I like to see familiar plants thriving, yet I'm always keen to find something different, rare, or difficult to grow. I'll often grow something out of pure curiosity.

Rare doesn't necessarily mean hard to grow or difficult to propagate. It could be a newly discovered plant, a new hybrid, or one that's been neglected, almost forgotten until rediscovered and reintroduced, sometimes with a new name. For instance, I saw Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) listed in an online catalogue as "New". New? It's been growing in my garden since at least 1992 and elsewhere forever. 

I guess nothing sells better than new and improved, and if it's new to you, it probably doesn't matter, especially when you consider there are three or four hundred thousand plant species to work your way through.

The variety of seed and plants available each spring, however, is largely dependent on what the growers choose to produce and market. If a particular plant has not been popular, then there's the possibility the variety could disappear.

Many new and even improved plants will appear this spring. I’m afraid I don’t need another waving petunia, or a new variety that's a slightly more intense pink than one introduced last year, but as the old familiars sprout in my garden for the umpteenth time, I’ll be out there planting something rare or unique. I'll also be wearing my ancient but comfortable, one of a kind gardening coat, the one no one else could possibly desire.