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.