Monday, October 16, 2017

Rockway Gardens, Kitchener, Ontario.

This is a short piece I wrote for Canadian Gardening magazine some time ago.

In 1928, a strip of wasteland alongside the eastern approach to the city of Kitchener, Ontario, sprouted nothing but scrub and billboards.

Today, it’s Rockway Gardens, a three hectare floral ribbon, created and maintained by the Kitchener Horticultural Society. The gardens are now within a vastly expanded city, a source of civic pride that sees numerous bridal parties waiting in line each weekend in summer for wedding photographs beside vintage fountains or before a low limestone escarpment.

It appears natural, but this impressive rockery, spilling with flowers, was constructed during the depression years with almost 2,000 tonnes of limestone. Designed by prominent English landscape architect, W. J. Jarman, the project provided relief work for the unemployed during difficult times; allowing many to hold onto their homes by contributing labour in lieu of paying property taxes. Work continues at the gardens. Each year, volunteers from the Horticultural Society, whose motto is “community beauty is a civic duty”, contribute to their heritage by planting thousands of bulbs and annuals at Rockway to welcome visitors to the city of Kitchener.

At 270 Simcoe Street North in the city of Oshawa lies another garden developed during the same period. Parkwood, now a national historic site, was the home of Sam McLaughlin, founder of General Motors of Canada. His impressive and imposing mansion is set amid five hectares of gardens designed by a series of prominent landscape architects of the early twentieth century, including W.E. Harries and A.V. Hall, and the Dunington-Grubbs, husband and wife team who were founding members of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects.

These talented people created delightful garden rooms adorned with beautiful statuary, including the Italian Garden, the Sunken Garden, the Sundial Garden, all linked by paths and hidden nooks to greenhouses where orchids and palms share space with the Japanese Garden and the Greenhouse Tea Room.

The last major development took place in the thirties, when architect John Lyle was commissioned to design a formal garden in the art moderne style, a branch of art deco. Viewed from the terrace, a bridal party posing amid the elegant simplicity of the garden with its string of fountains evokes a beautiful representation of the period.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Call a Spade a Shovel

How's the back? Has it stopped aching yet? Charles Dudley Warner said: "What one needs in gardening is a cast-iron back with a hinge in it." He was right! Mine's only just recovered from the snow-shovelling season and now the gardening season has arrived to restore it to its usual dull throb. Regardless, Im thrilled to be getting back into the yard (this will be the year, this will be the year).
And what will be the first job I must tackle as soon as the ground has thawed? -- Digging the veggie bed over. But with what? Old gardeners already know the answer to that question. But all those enthusiastic neophyte gardeners that have yet to experience the refreshing fragrance of horse lineament permeating their underwear may have difficulty making the right choice.
Choosing the correct tool for the job is difficult for a beginner. I realized this when a friend asked, "What's the difference between a spade and a shovel?" I thought it was obvious until I tried to explain. Been down to your local garden centre lately? Seen the incredible array of digging or shovelling tools? There are long handles, short handles, even carbon fibre handles, T-grips, D-grips, and non-slip grips (eat your heart out Dr. Seuss). They also come in a wide variety of materials, including wood, steel, tungsten, aluminum, titanium, and even plastic (the rubber one is a hoot).

I know, it is confusing, and none of them will do much for your back. As far as I'm concerned, spades and shovels are designed for one purpose and one purpose only -- to inflict pain, but your back will wear out a little more slowly if you select the correct tool for the job.

Well, what is the difference between a spade and a shovel, you ask? Does it matter? Yes, of course it matters. A spade is a spade and a shovel is a shovel, even if they do look similar. A spade is for digging and a shovel is for shovelling, except one can substitute for the other -- like when you're at one end of the garden path, toiling away with a spade because the shovel you need is in the shed at the other end. The difference then is not always clear to a casual observer, other than my neighbour who likes to live dangerously by peering over the fence and saying, "Wouldn't a shovel be better for that job?" after I've already made umpteen trips up and down the yard that morning.
So, here’s a little information to set the new gardener straight: A spade in its purest form is straight and squarish, sometimes roundish, with or without a point. It's used for digging holes and turning soil over, or whatever poor excuse you have for soil in your yard (it's the soil, you know. If I only had better soil).

Because of its superior performance when digging holes, compared to the shovel, spades are much favoured by gravediggers. I should know because I dug a grave once -- okay, it was only for a hamster. However, if you had to bury a body on a beach for instance, then a shovel might be the better choice (see how confusing it is).

And there's such an amazing variety of spades available. For example: the garden spade, border spade, tree spade, trenching spade, Dutch spade (to go with the Dutch hoe) and an odd one -- the poacher's spade. Thanks to democracy and a steady food supply, the poacher's spade has gone out of production -- and a good thing too. In feudal times, the gamekeeper bashed many a poor peasant over the head with his own ACME Poacher's spade, thus providing work for the gravedigger and his spade -- or shovel.

As for shovels, there is a crucial difference -- they usually have sides to stop things falling off, and the blade is typically larger than that of a spade -- but not always. The shovel's main purpose is for moving loose bulky stuff like sand, gravel, or even that expensive load of topsoil you had delivered that looks like sand and gravel. In fact, some highly specialized shovels have been created to increase productivity when moving gravel or stuff like beans, popcorn, or whatever's left behind when the circus leaves town.
And like the spade family, the shovel family is huge. There are round point shovels, dirt shovels, square point, medium point, narrow point, eastern scoops and western scoops, grain scoops, American pattern, and my personal nemesis -- the snow.

Spades and shovels have been modified and adapted so much over the years it's hard to tell one from the other. What one person may call a spade, another may call a shovel -- hence the confusion -- and the expression, call a spade a . . 
I hope this has cleared up any misunderstandings about shovels and spades, but if you're still unsure, don't worry. As any old gardener will tell you, if your back aches when you're using it, then you're probably using the right one. It's easy to spot an old gardener. They're the ones that are all bent and twisted and smelling of horse lineament. I wonder if the neighbour will let me borrow his Roto-tiller.

Friday, April 7, 2017

No Spring in Your step?

At the first opportunity in spring, I'm out there poking away at the compost heap to see if it moves. If it does it means the frost is out of it, so I run to the shed and fetch a fork to give it an enthusiastic turning. Then I spend the rest of the week walking funny and cursing the compost heap, when it's really my own fault for letting myself get out of shape.

I've been finding that as each year goes by it's getting harder to stay in shape, so I came up with a great idea. This winter I cleaned up the garage and turned it into my very own garden gym. It was easy. I tied a couple of bricks to a shovel, and I hooked up a rake to the wall with a bungee cord. Now I can stand there for hours pretending I'm digging the veggie garden over or cleaning up the lawn.

That's not all. I developed a whole range of exercises to simulate yard work. One of the harder jobs in the yard is pushing a wheelbarrow. I wanted to bring Wally (my faithful wheelbarrow) in to wheel around the garage but there isn't enough room. I solved that by substituting a couple of pails for Wally and I carry them back and forth instead. When I get the hang of it I'll put something in the pails instead of pretending Wally's empty.

I discovered another exercise quite by chance. I was in the gym doing some bungee raking and hadn't quite got the hang of it. I had the rake pulled to the limit when it slipped out of my hand and boinged around the garage. Dangerous? I'll say. It slapped me in the head a couple of times before raking everything off the shelf where I store all my odds and ends. Two hours of simulated weeding as I cleaned them up was easily as effective, and exciting, as the real thing.

Yes, the garden gym works great; however, being cooped up in the garage without the distractions of nature I've discovered a whole new perspective on what I'm actually doing to myself out there in the yard every spring. After a few weeks of working out I've come to realize how much stress I actually put my poor body through. No wonder it's always grumbling.

I now believe that gardening is just as grueling as any sport. Why, maybe gardening should be in the Olympics. That would be so thrilling. Can you imagine the spine-tingling tension of a topiary competition, or the excitement of competitive weeding? And let's not forget the sheer titillation of questionable garden clothing. But then I suppose there'd be the usual scandal over the use of illegal growth hormones (that will be a biggie, I'm sure), and we'd have to watch those hokey interviews with the medalists: "I owe it all to my pony, Jenny, for providing me with what it takes to grow healthy plants." Meanwhile the medalists will all be standing there holding shovels and wearing shrink-wrapped spandex with the logos of huge fertilizer companies plastered over them.

Maybe not. Maybe I'll skip today's workout and give the compost heap a poke instead -- ooh,ooh.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Soiled Again

Convoys of dump trucks are hurtling through the streets with increasing frequency. It's topsoil time. It happens each spring when gardeners peek into their neighbour's yard and see stuff growing twice as fast as in their own yard -- or at least it appears that way. 

That's right, your very own soil, the very soil that was stripped off a lovely, flower filled meadow and sold to a soil cartel before your house was even built. 

This is actually an optical illusion caused by breathing the fumes of a gas lawnmower mixed with freshly applied lawn chemicals (optical illusions are one of the less serious effects). “It's has to be my meagre topsoil," they say, "I have to have more topsoil."

There's a commonly held belief that more topsoil will solve all garden problems. Fact is, if you live in a newer home it might be true. I've seen yards that had no topsoil, other than the little bit stuck to the back of the turf. There are two ways to remedy this: Make some or buy some.

Since making topsoil is time consuming (at least half an aeon per inch), the alternative is to buy soil, and the place to buy it is from the grocery store in little plastic bags -- or by the truck load.
Buying by the bag is very expensive if you need any kind of quantity, especially when you factor in the price of the new shocks the car will need after hauling multiple loads. And the trouble with bags is, the soil vanishes as soon as it's dumped onto the flowerbed -- "I just emptied a whole bagful there. Where'd it go?"

This is not an optical illusion. It really happens. Whats more, it may not be soil. What better way to dispose of industrial waste than to have it dispersed in small quantities across the country?

Its much better to order by the yard from a local dealer, preferably a whole dump truck full. It never goes to waste, and you might even get your own soil back.

At least youll know where it came from. Of course, it will have passed through a few hands before ending up in the back of the dump truck that's hurtling down your street this very moment -- and you'll still have to pay for it -- the street value, not the field value.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Genuine examples of passionate (mad) gardeners:

I have to stop at every garden centre in town including home improvements stores. I spend winters slobbering over seed catalogues and doodling garden designs on everything in sight, including the kid’s homework. I rip up every inch of the yard millions of times over till I am happy with the outcome.

All my trees have people names, so friends think I always have friends to talk to when I say "Yesterday, I was speaking to Paul about the dry weather" (Paul is a 70-year-old twisted hazelnut tree!).

Balancing on one crutch, digging holes to plant tomatoes in June.

I will go out to the garden in the morning in my PJs to see how everything is. I stop to pick a weed (or so I think), and I'm still there in my PJs at two in the afternoon, still in my PJs.

I bought four coleus plants eight months ago. I couldn't even spell propagation, and now I have 400 of the little devils!

I don't usually keep secrets from my husband, but I never show him my receipt when returning from the gardening center.

I think moving 300 or so plants from one house to another counts!

The dirt under my nails is layered in strata.  My favorite cologne is eau de earth.  I garden by flashlight.

I never met a plant I didn't want.

I talk to my plants and play classical music for them.

My husband is crying "No more flowers, no more flowery dishes, no more of flowery wallpaper, " but I can't hear because I’m in the winter garden preparing for more flowers!

I pull more weeds in other people's gardens than I do in my own.

I think moving 300 or so plants from one house to another makes me a mad gardener!

Growing . . . growing old, excited, cuttings, seeds, happy, fatter, dirtier, smarter. Gardening madness helps me to grow all these and many more!
Let's just say, my husband often brings out a shop light so that I can continue to see what I'm doing.

Obsessed! That’s what my family says I am.  I am determined to eradicate every blade of grass from our Florida lawn and replace it with plants for birds and butterflies.

I have childhood memories of being in the car with Mom on the way to nurseries, her knuckles whiter on the steering wheel, speedometer clicking ever higher, breath coming faster . . . I don’t really think of myself as mad, just that I'm a bit like my mother.

Getting up at 3 am to widen a border so the family didn't catch me removing yet more lawn. I'm banned from doing that.

There isn’t a bare spot in my house. I have plants on every surface — tables, chairs, floors, windowsills, husband’s bar, everywhere. There’s no lawn left. I’ve even moved onto my neighbor’s property.

I am obsessed . . . can't think about anything much other than my garden. Hard to pass the garden centres without stopping in to see if a plant says "take me home."

I spend more time thinking of and planning where I can use or obtain more plants than I spend on what to have for dinner.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Spring is Bouncing About

Finally, I am able to see part of my garden again. Most of the snow has almost left, revealing a very grubby scene. I cleaned up the patio, tidied the shed a little — just enough to be able to get past the doorway. I even did a little pruning when I tentatively approached my climbing rose, snips in hand. We don’t get along. A snip here and there at a couple of wayward canes and I was soon reminded that full combat gear is essential.

Sure, it looks lovely in full bloom, but winter reveals a bad tempered monster fully intent on crushing the arbor. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde of my garden. I have to cut out old, woody branches, plus dead or damaged ones. I try to remove all the weak, stringy shoots, if I can get at them, and I must shorten the healthy ones that are trying to snag my neighbour’s gazebo. The trick is to bend a few healthy canes horizontally to encourage more blooms.

It’s all worthwhile in the end, but it’s rarely a painless process when every thorn is out for blood. They’re only wannabe thorns as technically they’re prickles — outgrowths of the stem surface rather than true thorns. Call em what you like, they’re still nasty, but I’ll forget that come June when the arbor is a mass of pink blooms.

I have other shrubs that need attention and are far less trouble, but I couldn’t get near them until the snow melted. Most shrubs and trees are best pruned while dormant, especially deciduous ones, and right now they’re about to wake up. A little pruning after leaves sprout won’t cause harm, it’s just easier to see what needs trimming — dead, diseased, and wayward branches. They should be cut out, and if the shrub needs shaping at all, now is the time to do it unless it’s a spring flowering shrub.

Here’s the standard reminder: Do not prune spring flowering shrubs until after they’ve finished blooming or you’ll be removing flower buds and it won’t bloom at all.

It’s easy now to check online for pruning requirements of specific plants, but it’s essential to know the species or variety. For instance, I often hear of problems with hydrangeas not blooming. Sometimes it’s due to environmental conditions, but it might just be because someone with a sharp pair of snips and misplaced enthusiasm has lopped off the flower buds.

Mop head, lacecap, and oakleaf species all bloom on old wood, that is, stems that have been on the plant since the previous summer, so prune immediately after blooming (if neccessary), but no later than the end of July.

Paniculata and Annabelle types set flower buds on new growth and can be pruned in fall, winter, or early spring. The so called endless blooming varieties can be pruned almost anytime.

A similar situation exists for clematis. Again, some bloom on old wood, some on new, and some on both old and new, which means there are three different pruning methods. It’s usually noted on the tag, but if that’s long gone, to correctly identify the type, simply observe how and when the flowers appear. 

Fortunately, pruning at the wrong time won’t kill clematis, not when it’s well established. If it’s an out of control, straggly mess and doesn’t flower at all well, it may be worthwhile to have a fresh start by cutting it back severely. This may result in fewer flowers this year but it will recover.

The bottom line for any pruning is 1. Know the plant. 2. Only prune if necessary. 3. Be absolutely sure because you can’t glue branches back on the tree.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Start em Early

If you wait until young people are teenagers and then introduce them to gardening by telling them to go mow the lawn, it will hardly endear them to the pastime. But, when you plant seeds with a child, you’ll be planting a seed in their head. When the seed in the soil sprouts and begins to grow, the magic of this amazing process will never be forgotten.

This is important, this understanding of how the natural world works. We’ve heard how too many city children can make no connection between milk and a cow, and I dare say there as many who haven’t a clue where the lettuce on a Big Mac comes from — it grows in dirt? — Oh yuck.

Okay, it may have been grown hydroponically, but my point is, we now have a generation that has had little contact with the natural world. There’s practically nothing that can’t now be done online in a virtual world, including gardening. Sure, there are no dirty hands, but a computer program will never replicate the joy in the face of a child seeing their very own seeds sprout — or maybe it will. Maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe it’s too late, but it will be a loss, so start seeds with a child today and give them a gift they’ll never forget, something they may need someday.

It’s easy enough; young plant growers need seeds, a container, and soil. Other essentials are warmth, light, food and water, and a few minutes of attention each day.

Small children (and plenty of adults) need instant gratification; therefore fast germinating seeds are essential for the first time grower. Fast germinating flower seeds include Centaurea (bachelor buttons) 5 to 7 days, Cosmos 7 to 10 days, and Zinnia 5 to 7 days. A favourite of mine is Four-o’clocks (Mirabilis). It’s ideal for small children because the seeds are large and easy to handle. Soak them overnight and they’ll sprout surprisingly quickly.

For a container, almost anything that will hold soil will do providing there’s a hole in the bottom for drainage. Mini greenhouses for starting seeds are available, including whole kits, but using stuff from around the house is fun. The container should be deep enough to hold 50 – 75mm of soil. Too shallow and the soil will dry out quickly. Clear plastic food containers are great because you’ll be able to see the roots growing as well as the plant. Use a second one as a cover and your mini greenhouse is complete.

Fill with a light, good quality potting soil, not garden soil as it may contain weed seeds and unwelcome bugs. Moisten the soil before planting, and then after you’ve planted the seeds, cover them lightly with more potting soil, but not too deep. Too much and the seed won’t have enough stored food to make it to the surface.

Some seeds need light to germinate, while others prefer darkness. This information is usually on the seed packet, but regardless; don’t plunk the container down on a window sill in full sun right away. It will get far to hot and broil everything. The soil has to stay moist but not wet.

When the seeds have sprouted, remove the cover and move to a sunny location beside a window, but avoid a window that faces full south as it may be to hot for the seedlings. If they grow leggy and lean towards the window, it means they need more light (growing under lights avoids these problems). 

It’s essential to check at least once a day to ensure the soil hasn’t dried out, but don’t over water. It’s best to water from the bottom if possible as a permanently moist soil surface can result in fungal problems.

Remember, like seedlings, kids need care and attention, but as they grow they become tougher, tough enough to rake and hoe, to plant and harvest, to pull weeds — and mow lawns. Start them early for future success.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Put Down That Chainsaw

It’s almost spring, and despite the overwhelming urge in gardeners to get out there and do something, anything, the garden will either be snow covered, frozen, or muddy. This does dampen the excitement a tad, but just being able to walk around the backyard is a pleasure.

If I can actually see the ground, I find enjoyment cleaning up the detritus of winter, wondering why junk mail and flyers were so efficiently delivered to all points of the garden. The sign should have at least stopped them at the mailbox — I thought it was politely written.

Spring joy aside, fun in the garden is limited. As an aside here, I’m calling it fun instead of work as that word is so inappropriate. It’s a word that puts people off finding the pleasure in gardening. Meanwhile, I plan to tidy the shed. It’s a make fun project where I prepare the shed for my annual springtime recluttering.

All the pots and trays that I tossed in there during planting last season can now go for recycling, something I should have done a year ago. I’ll likely discover broken pots, and tools without handles that have been on the repair list far too long. I'll probably leave them on the must fix list for just a little while longer. Yes, it’s going to be fun.

Something I should do is sharpen all my pruning tools. I don’t have many as I find a pair of manicure scissors and a chainsaw take care of most pruning requirements. I’m joking, of course, despite the awareness that there is a school of thought that believes a chainsaw alone is sufficient, and the bigger the better.

Chainsaws aside, this is a good time of year to do a little pruning while everything is still dormant, and I do have a few things that need attention. I’m cautious, however, when offering pruning advice to others. Too much snipping and hacking is as bad as pruning nothing until there’s a threat to cut off utilities because the meters can’t be read.

First rule of pruning is, if a tree requires ladders and chainsaws to lop off branches, unless you’ve at least auditioned for Cirque Du Soleil, I highly recommend hiring a professional.

If a tree needs branches removed, don’t cut flush with the main trunk; cut just at the outer edge of the branch collar to allow for healing. If the branch is of any size, make an undercut first to prevent it from stripping the bark back to the trunk as it breaks. Some trees tend to bleed sap heavily in spring. There’s not much that can be done to prevent it, and it is harmless.

Painting with sealants or fashioning tourniquets around limbs isn’t recommended (unless it’s your own limb, chainsaw wielders). If the sap looks unsightly, prune later when it will be hidden by foliage. Evergreens such as spruce and pine are unlikely to need much pruning.

Unless trees are obscuring vision, I don’t like to see the lower branches of evergreens removed. It’s unnatural and the tree can suffer when the sun dries out the soil below. If you must, add mulch to compensate for the lack of shade.

As for shrub pruning, don’t prune ones that flower in spring until after they’ve bloomed or there’ll be no blooms at all. The exception might be if there’s a need to take in hand something that dreams of being a privacy screen for an aircraft hanger. Otherwise, prune only where necessary to remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches, including branches that rub against others.

That should keep us having fun for at least an hour or two. If the wind picks up, I may have more junk mail to attend to.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Zap Those Plant Pests

My neighbour, Olaf, has a large collection of houseplants. They keep him busy through the winter -- help keep his mind off TV. Like me, he watches too much, especially late movies. Still, he's always complaining. His plants are either turning brown or the flowers are dropping off. If it isn't white fly, it's scale.

There seems to be no end to the pests Olaf has to put up with. His latest problem is fungus gnats -- those things that look like fruit flies -- speaking of which -- I’ve never seen one in a grocery store. Racks and racks of fruit displays screaming eat me, eat me, and not a fruit fly in sight. This worries me. I leave one grape on the kitchen counter and the fruit flies are rolling it out the door!

Anyway, back to Olaf. The Fungus Gnats were driving him nuts. He’d tried everything to get rid of them, but they kept returning. I told him, "You have to destroy the source. They're laying their eggs in the soil, you know. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae and then turn into the gnats that are bugging you”

"Oh, really," he said.

Next day, Olaf went down to the local petro-chemical by-product outlet and purchased a variety of toxic waste to drench the plants and soil with -- so much that I'm surprised he didn't get a visit from a U.N. weapons inspection team. Even so, the stuff had little effect. The gnats vanished all right, but a week later they returned -- bigger and meaner. Olaf was wild.

Since then he’s tried everything: soaking his plants in the shower, wrapping them in plastic, and even heating them in the microwave (moderately successful as far as wiping out the gnat larvae, but it made the leaves a bit crisp). Things got really serious when he put all his plants in the garage and ran the car to try to asphyxiate them. It might have been successful, but he had to call off the experiment when the Peace Lily passed out.

Olaf asked me over for a beer the other weekend -- told me that at last he had a sure-fire way to zap the critters in the soil. "Follow me," he said, and led me into the garage. The car was in there, and so were all his houseplants -- lined up like they were on death row.

The hood was up on the car and he had a pair of cables attached to the battery. The other ends of the cables were hooked to two large meat probes.

"These are my bug-zapping light sabres," he said. “Watch this.” He then yelled, "Clear," just like on E.R. -- or St. Elswhere if you're still watching re-runs -- and plunged the two meat probes into a pot containing a huge schefflera.

Sure-fire was right. Blue sparks flashed and the battery began to smoke as steam rose from the soil. Both Olaf and the schefflera shuddered. "There," he groaned, "that should fry em." I wasn't convinced; I've seen too many Frankenstein movies. I got out of the garage fast with visions of a crazy professor and mutant larvae flashing to mind.

It's been a month now and Olaf still hasn't solved his fungus gnat problem. Last time I talked with him he was thinking of taking them down to the grocery store and standing them beside the fruit racks for a day or two. Meanwhile, I've stopped watching late movies and, just as a precaution, I got the screen on the window fixed.

WARNING! This is fiction. Do not attempt this at home, or anywhere else for that matter -- you may wind up on Grey's Anatomy. But if you see Olaf's sure-fire bug killer on a late- night infomercial, remember, you saw it here first.

TIP: The above might work, but the best is yellow sticky strips and a layer of grit or perlite on the surface of the soil.

Lost in the Art Gallery

As pretty as the landscape is now, shrouded in white with impressive icicles threatening to drag eaves troughs from roofs, I’m beginning to miss color — real colors, not indoor TV colors, but colors produced by nature.

That’s what I was thinking the other day while at my local hardware store browsing an extensive display of seeds. And then I began to think of summer gardens and burgers on a barbecue, probably because of the barbecue in the corner, marked down for an unlikely winter sale.

I refocused on the seeds and I was no longer in a hardware store, but in an art gallery of miniature still lifes. I gazed at the packets of rosy red tomato seeds, marveled at the complex shading in the ruffled leaves of Romaine lettuce, I compared the subtle hues of the shiny green peas, and I admired the glamour shots of the ornamental gourds. Then it was on to the flower seeds — bouquet after bouquet, tiny images of exquisite beauty, each one screaming buy me, buy me.

And I did, but I only bought a single packet of seed, and what’s more, there wasn’t even a picture of a flower on it. It was the name that caught my eye — Columbine (Aquilegia).

Now, I’m a sucker for columbine; it’s one of my favorite flowers, but beneath the species name on the simple white packet, in large uppercase letters it said: Lime Sorbert.
Lime Sorbert? Despite the misspelling, the urge to buy seeds combined with images of sizzling burgers then culminated with a flash image of a dripping lime sorbet. How could I resist?

Am I the only one who shops in this way, allowing a stream of consciousness to influence my decisions? I’d only gone in the store to buy screws; at least that’s what I told myself. Oh well, regardless of how I got there, I came home with a packet of seeds to add to the pile that I’m already coaxing into life, but I can always squeeze one more columbine into my garden.

When I left the store, clutching my packet of seed, it was snowing again and the summer images quickly dimmed, except for the sizzling burger. Just had to make one more stop before heading home.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Getting closer but not there yet

Imagine, lying in bed nice and cozy then suddenly the duvet is whipped off. That’s bad enough, but then the window is thrown wide open and an icy blast flash freezes your tender bits. If this is repeated enough times, those bits will fall off. This is exactly what happens to plants in the garden when the snow melts quickly, as it has this week.

Snow is an insulator, the deeper the better. It keeps plants in a comfortable state of dormancy. Even in winter, soil is giving off heat. Deep down, soil temperature is around 10 degrees or so, summer and winter. Where there’s a deep layer of snow acting as insulation, the surface temperature of the soil may be barely frozen. A study from the University of Delaware showed that for each centimetre of snow cover, the soil temperature will increase by roughly half a degree Celsius. 

Being suddenly exposed to icy blasts won’t bother tough plants, especially native ones, but any tender ones will suffer. And if the icy blasts don’t get them, the soggy soil will. The ground below may remain frozen, but nearer the surface it will be waterlogged. This happens in spring, but the ground soon thaws and normal drainage is resumed. When it happens in the middle of winter, that soggy ground refreezes. Repeat a few times and the expensive, borderline hardy perennial that you planted with care last spring will quietly succumb and no amount of coaxing will revive it. The same conditions can easily cause plants that aren’t well rooted to be heaved out of the ground, dead or alive.

I haven’t reached the point where I’m pushing wheelbarrows full of snow to the backyard to cover tender plants, but I have on occasion tossed a few extra shovelfuls over one or two. I usually mulch around the special ones in fall to help them resist the effect of winter thaws.

There are places in my backyard where the snow drifts deeper, and consequently, plants below are less prone to being prematurely exposed. The same occurs in sheltered areas, usually in shade and out of the wind. It’s worthwhile to note these places as they are in effect, micro-climates. A tender plant may require other specific considerations — soil type, sun or shade etc. — but it might just stand a better chance by being planted where it won’t be subjected to harsh conditions too early in the spring.

It’s also worth noting where the opposite occurs — areas in the garden where wind consistently whips snow away to expose the soil. This happens around the base of shrubs, posts, and against a fence, or building.

The snow is often scoured away along sides of buildings, depending on the prevailing wind, although the soil may be warmed by heat loss from the house, counteracting the effect of the wind. In fact, tender plants often survive well here. For instance, spring bulbs planted close to a sheltered, south facing wall will flower days or even weeks earlier than those in the middle of a garden.  Against a fence there’s no extra heat in the soil and though the fence may cause snow to drift deeply as you may see on a leeward flowerbed, the space closest to the fence is left exposed.

It may not be immediately obvious that a change in the weather is impacting the way a garden will look in summer, but it certainly does. Ahh, summer. Brrr — hang on to that the duvet. Winter isn’t over yet.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Groundhog Alternative Predictions

If you’ve ever had a groundhog eat a swath across the lettuce patch in your veggie garden, you probably won’t be appreciating all the attention that will be given to Phil and Willy on Groundhog day. Regardless of what they predict about spring — which any gardener will tell you doesn’t arrive until at least a month after the first garden tent goes up at a shopping plaza —  I don’t think we’ll be out in the garden anytime soon.

No, gardeners are not groundhog groupies. As far as we’re concerned, a groundhog (Marmota monax) is nothing more than an overweight vegetarian rat with a bushy tail that will clean out a garden faster than a wheat combine. They’ll eat tender green plants, alfalfa, clover, roots, bulbs, tubers, and even seeds as they gorge their way through summer and fall in preparation for their long winter sleep.

I still haven’t forgotten the pair of young groundhogs that showed up in my backyard one June. They piled on the pounds so fast that within a day they couldn’t squeeze out through the hole in the fence they’d arrived through (not that they’d any intention of doing so).

Since the last thing I wanted was word getting about that my garden was a summer resort for groundhogs, I tried to be less than hospitable by forcing them to participate in a daily exercise program. Every evening I chased them around the yard, hoping they’d climb the fence (as they are well able to), but it soon became a game of catch as catch can and I was losing.

Even though groundhogs can’t match the speed and evasive tactics of a rabbit, they can run at a loping gallop of about ten miles an hour. That doesn’t sound very fast, but when I had to leap shrubs at a single bound while they were darting below, there was no way I could keep up, and besides, I’m not sure what I would have done if I had caught up with them.

I finally gave up and borrowed a live trap. I baited it with lettuce because it was obvious they were hooked on the stuff, and as there was no longer a single leaf left in the garden to satisfy their addiction, they couldn’t resist the crisp head of iceberg I bought for them and they were collared.

A quick trip to a groundhog sanctuary and that was that. I’m sure that wherever they are at this moment, unlike Phil and Willy, they’re fast asleep, no doubt dreaming of my lettuce patch.