{ Author Archive - aldona }

Quebec Winter Carnival–part two

I don’t ski, I’m a lousy skater and truth be told, I hate winter. Not only because I love gardening, but also because I really, really, really hate feeling cold. But I loved my visit to the Quebec Winter Carnival as part of a Girlfriend Getaway courtesy of Quebec Tourism, and surprised myself by spending several days outdoors with great enjoyment.

Of course, I came prepared, and ventured forth swaddled in umpteen layers of clothes, thermal underwear, socks and gloves, really good warm boots and a sheepskin hat. In my book, this is basic winter equipment. Properly kitted out, I got completely caught up in the infectious spirit of the world’s biggest winter celebration.

One of the highlights was the dogsledding race, the Grand Viree. What could be more quintessentially Canadian? As a light snow fell, crowds lined the specially prepared course near the Chateau Frontenac and good-naturedly cheered on their favourite teams. Being used to Toronto’s mostly sombre, monochromatic winter coat uniform of black, brown or sludge, it did my eyes good to see so many colourful parkas and hats, and the smiling, red-cheeked faces of happy revellers.

Although the Grand Viree is over, you can still catch the qualifying rounds for the St.-Hubert Derby on February 14, and the finals on February 15. And the second festive night parade will wind its way through the streets on Valentine’s Day eve as well. Quebec City’s winter carnival continues through February 15 (to check out what’s on, visit www.carnaval.qc.ca).

Tomorrow: family fun on the Plains of Abraham.

Quebec Winter Carnival – part one

A quick post today, as I’m dashing off to the airport again (I’ll be posting a lot of stuff mid-next-week). But I wanted to mention the Quebec Winter Carnival, which I visited as part of a laugh-filled journalists’ tour billed as the Girlfriend Getaway, because there’s still time to get there if you slip away right now (it’s on this year until February 15). It was my first visit, and I had a great time. (I’ll write more in subsequent posts, but to get plugged in right away, visit http://carnaval.qc.ca).

Instead of hibernating, the citizens of Quebec City embrace and celebrate winter (yes, it is possible). The opening night festivities of the Carnaval de Quebec featured lively musical acts, fireworks and a brief appearance by Stephen Harper, though the official mascot, Bonhomme, was received with a lot more enthusiasm.

Palm trees and snow

There’s something very cheering about looking at a miniature palm tree against the background of deep snow in the garden. This little beauty sits on the table in my breakfast nook, snuggled into my vintage iron planter. It’s an elephant foot palm (Beaucarnea guatemalensis), and I picked it up at Ikea last fall for $11.99.

Judging by its name, my little palm is likely more used to the tropical climes of Central America. But it seems quite happy in its new, colder setting–I simply give it lots of admiration and a good, long drink of lukewarm water once a week in the sink, letting the water drain out of the bottom of its pot. I’ve placed moss around the top to add a finishing touch and help keep in moisture.

I have many indoor plants. And as I’m hoping to do a lot of travelling this winter, I’m slowly training them to get used to waiting longer between waterings. It’s working. In fact, many people overwater houseplants–literally killing them with kindness. Mine seem to respond to a certain amount of benign neglect.

And speaking of travelling and palmy days if not palms, I’m off this morning to Quebec City, courtesy of Quebec tourism, to experience the Quebec Winter Carnival and other delights both there and in the Eastern Townships near Montreal. Yippee! I’m as excited about it as a little kid. I’ve packed good thermal underwear and socks and, of course, my camera and notebook. Never fear, your trusty correspondent will reveal all on my next blog posts. Meanwhile, stay warm and keep smiling.

Cheer-you-up exotics

With winter at its height, many of us long for warm sunshine, turquoise seas and long drinks with colourful little umbrellas in them. Sadly, it’s not always possible to take off when you want to, though. So how about doing the next best thing and bringing a touch of the tropics to your home to chase away the winter blues? I’m talking about buying an orchid or two.

It used to be orchids were considered luxury plants, slightly mysterious and a bit daunting to grow. These days, all kinds of mom-and-pop corner stores and big-box behemoths carry them, so with a bit of luck, you can pick up a nice plant for under $20. And guess what? Many of them bloom for ages and ages and are an absolute cinch to take care of. Take the beauty shown here: it’s a Phalaenopsis cultivar I scooped up for $16.99. It’s already been blooming for several weeks, and shows no signs of slowing down. I trimmed down the edge of its clear plastic pot, plopped it into an old grassy-looking Ikea container and dressed it up with a bit of moss to hide the edges.

Here’s a tip: When you’re shopping for an orchid, try to find one with lots of buds and not just open flowers; also, look for a plant with several flowering stems and not just one. I rootled around until I spotted this shy little beauty toward the back of a welter of lesser-quality plants.

As for care, I give mine a good long drink of lukewarm water under the tap, being careful not to wet the base of the leaves or let water sit in between them (this promotes rot and, according to some people, may even retard future blooms). Once the water runs out of the bottom of the pot, I slip it back into its container.

I let the plant dry out a bit between waterings–though not completely dry–generally it gets watered every five days or so, but it all depends on the conditions of your home. My phalaenopsis thrives in indirect light on the stone peninsula in my kitchen, and I keep my house fairly cool. You can feed your orchid and do extra stuff if you want, but I’m pretty lazy. And by the way, I have several orchids that have rebloomed for me with no fuss on my part–I don’t trim down the stems after they finish flowering (except for any truly dead, dry, brown bits) and the new flowers have set on the old stems.

If you want to know more about different types of orchids–including fragrant types–and their care, check out my colleague Stephen Westcott-Gratton’s excellent article on this website at canadiangardening.com/plants/indoor-plants/growing-orchids-indoors/a/2474.

How to become a citizen-scientist

Winter is tough on gardeners, who itch to be outside, getting their hands into the soil. It’s still a bit early to start seeds, and houseplants and catalogues can only take you so far. Sigh.

But it’s a grand time to learn more about your passion, if you’re so inclined. When it’s cold and snowy, you can sit through a day of lectures with equanimity.

Last weekend, for example, I attended the Toronto Master Gardeners technical update, which was a day-long symposium dedicated to The Global Gardener: Gardening in a Changing Climate held at Toronto Botanical Garden. I trotted along to several seminars (on bio-intensive gardening and backyard greenhouses), hobnobbed with more than 200 fellow gardeners from around Ontario, ate a delicious lunch, then listened to a fact-filled and thought-provoking keynote address given by Natalie Iwanycki and Alex Henderson of Royal Botanical Gardens.

One of the things Natalie and Alex touched on was Plant Watch, a volunteer monitoring program designed to help identify changes that might be affecting our environment. The way it works is gardeners across the country help record flowering times for selected plant species in their area, in effect becoming citizen-scientists. The program is a joint venture between the Canadian Nature Federation and Environment Canada’s Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network Coordinating Office (EMANCO). Check it out at www.plantwatch.ca–you can get your kids involved as well.

A fresh start

As the old year limped to a close, many looked ahead to 2009 with either trepidation or hope.

The scary global economy is something to give everyone pause, especially if you’ve lost 35 per cent or more of the value of your investments, as so many people have. However, we’ve all taken the hit in one way or another, so I guess it’s a level playing field of sorts.

You see, I definitely belong to the hopeful group; an incorrigible Pollyanna, the original cup-is-half-full kind of gal. And I’m looking forward to this year, which I know for me will be filled with new adventures. On January 22, I’m leaving my job as editor-in-chief of the magazine and striding forth into the great unknown.

But meanwhile, there’s the post-Christmas stuff to face. I need to start thinking about taking down the tree and putting away the colourful ornaments for another year. And after the reds and bright lights of the holidays, this is a time when I crave not more colour, but white. Perhaps it’s a symbol of purity for the as-yet blemish-free new year. I especially love to buy white amaryllises–I’m not quite ready for fragrant spring blooms, but the stately, scentless white blossoms of amaryllis feel just right–almost like trumpets to herald in the new year. There’s a little flower market not far from me that carries them for just $6.99; a real bargain, for just one plant brings pleasure for weeks.

I used to save my amaryllis bulbs and try to get them to reflower, but I had limited success with this (despite my cosseting, too many of them came up blind). So now, most of the time I enjoy them, then toss them into the compost. Happy New Year.

Festive special

Last week, I wrote about a cheap and cheerful way to fill up containers for winter. In case you had trouble visualizing what these branches look like decorated for the holidays, here’s your answer. We had a fresh snowfall this morning here in Toronto and I went outside to do some shovelling before heading off for work. I took this photo at first light (I’m an early riser).

I spent maybe 15 minutes, tops, festooning the red dogwood branches with an old string of white lights (must replace these with LED lights, which I’ll buy in the post-holiday sales), some unbreakable ornaments and a few garlands of unbreakable red beads. Maybe it’s not the most elegant container in town, but I like it.

If you’re planning to shop for a fresh-cut Christmas tree, you can prolong the life of its needles by spraying the tree with an anti-dessicant spray (several brands are available at nurseries and garden centres) before bringing it indoors. Ditto for your wreaths and swags. What this spray does is help seal the needles to retard evaporation of moisture.

I no longer get a big, fresh-cut tree–partly because the most misshapen, woebegone, Charlie Brown tree on the lot was the one I’d invariably choose to buy. One year, the poor thing was so crooked and bare on one side, I literally had to wedge its stand under the baseboard to keep it from toppling over. It looked as though it was bowing to everyone who came into the room.

These days, my tree is a sculptural affair fashioned from brown twigs. Each year I haul it up from the furnace room, put it on a table and decorate it. But I do buy fresh-cut boughs and put them in a big pitcher for their lovely smell.

We’re due for more snow tomorrow. Maybe it’ll be a rare white Christmas after all.

Cheap and cheerful winter container

Creating a winter container design can be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. If you go the full monty with both broadleafed and evergreen boughs, magnolia leaves, eucalyptus, cones and assorted bits, bobs, bows and berries, you can very easily drop three figures on just a couple of pots. And if you have lots of pots, you might as well take out a mortgage.

So recently, after years of trying to outdo myself with increasingly elaborate container displays, I came up with an idea that’s simple, inexpensive and quick.

I now buy plenty of the prettiest, most colourful branches I can find (such as red, orange or yellowtwig dogwood, or perhaps really fresh, yellow-green curly willow). Then I push loads of these–but just one type per pot–into the soil of each container until a full and pleasing shape is created (do not skimp on the branches; cram them in). Next, for a more finished look, I top the soil with moss (a greengrocer near me sells huge boxes of the stuff for $15–plenty to do all my containers). If moss is unavailable, you could substitute leaves, straw, tiny pine cones or whatever mulch-like material comes to hand. The whole lot is then anchored with river stones, which I buy at Ikea for about $2 for a generously sized mesh bag (I figure on one bag per large pot).

And that’s it. Estimated cost per container? Well under $20 (and if you have shrub trimmings you can use, almost nothing).

During the holidays, I dress up the branches with a string of plain white lights and colour-coordinated ornaments. This year, to go with my red dogwood, I bought a large box of red ornaments from Ikea for around $5. They look like glass but are some sort of unbreakable stuff. These will be hung with good old gardener’s twine, which is both sturdy and attractive.

I’ve had a lot of compliments on these pots which, I’ve been told, look really festive and pretty. Best of all, after the holidays, removing the lights and ornaments is a snap. The pots keep their clean good looks all winter long and don’t look too Christmassy after the fact, either.

(Tip: if you haven’t put together your winter container yet and the soil in your pot has frozen, don’t do what my neighbour did and try to soften it up with a hair dryer. Best to lug it inside overnight, where it will defrost and be easy to work with the next day. Put it on a mat or some newspapers so it doesn’t make a mess.)

Window dressing

My kitchen has a little breakfast room with a skylight and a big sliding door overlooking the garden. Apart from that there’s just one window, with a panoramic view of my neighbour’s brick wall and into their kitchen window.

Rather than create privacy with curtains or shutters, I fill the deep sill with a motley assortment of plants. This has the same effect and gives both of us something nice and green to look at year-round.

My kitchen window faces north, so the light isn’t terrific for sun-lovers, but less fussy plants survive just fine. So what grows there at the moment? In the black, wrought-iron pedestal pot is a ‘River Nile’ begonia–a showy beauty whose leaves have maroon-coloured edges. Next to it on the right is a slipper orchid that has quadrupuled in size and has bloomed twice for me–it really needs to be transplanted, but I’m not that confident with orchids so I’ve been putting it off. And to the right of that is a crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), which has grown quite tall and rangy because it would really, really appreciate more light, thank you. Even so, it does manage to push out a few red blooms from time to time, so good for it.

At the back left is a coffee plant that was sent to me some 18 months ago. This hasn’t grown too much, but at least it hasn’t died. (Still, I don’t think I’ll be grinding homegrown beans anytime soon.) Next to it and partially hidden from view is a floppy aloe vera, always a must in my kitchen because I often singe my arm or burn a finger as I’m pulling stuff out of the oven. I simply break off a bit of the plant and rub its sap on the ow-ow, which immediately soothes it.

Alongside these and thankfully hidden from view is a truly scraggly looking bit of lucky bamboo rooting in water. This was also sent to me and though I really should, I’m just too darned superstitious to put it in the compost. Last but not least, in the front left is a sulky African violet I’m nursing along. My house really doesn’t have great light for African violets, but I’m ever hopeful and keep buying them anyway.

What’s growing on your windowsill?

The first snowfall

The first snowfall caught some Torontonians by surprise. The garden next door is still littered with colourful plastic toys, now dusted with snow, while a forlorn-looking garden umbrella sits at half-mast in its holder.

“Geez, I didn’t think it would snow so soon,” my neighbour ruefully admitted, as the two of us shovelled our respective walks this morning. The weather is supposed to be warming up next week, so likely she’ll still have time to gather up everything before serious winter bites.

I took this photograph from my back deck, which gives you some idea of what I look at from my breakfast room. Not bad, eh? When I was a young gardener, I grew loads of flowers and little else. As a consequence, in winter my backyard looked flat, bald and blah. A depressing sight for a housebound young mother with two babies, which I was back then.

But the longer you garden, the more you learn.

Now, there’s plenty to gaze at year-round. There are loads of shrubs and small trees for visiting birds to perch on, and quite a few evergreens of various kinds, which tend to take a back seat in summer but come to the fore when the snow flies.

I really like broadleafed evergreens, too, and in this climate (Zone 6) they look good throughout winter. Sarcoxie euonymus (the plain green kind–my favourite) cloaks my fences. This plant takes a while to get established, but once it starts climbing it’s great. (In summer, vines such as clematis clamber through it.) And the neighbour whose house is joined to mine has a massive Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) that sits on our property line and lends its imposing leafy presence all year.

Some of my deciduous plants keep their foliage for a long time, too, such as the columnar beech halfway down the garden and my bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), which has taken on an impressive size.

There’s lots to love about the winter landscape.

The white stuff aside (the first snowfall of winter is always a joy), it’s been a rather unsettling week. Last Friday, I found out our major competitor, Gardening Life, is folding. Contrary to what you might think, I am saddened by this, and especially for Marjorie Harris, whose baby the magazine has been since Day One. Ironically, Marjorie and Liz Primeau, our magazine’s founding editor, are coming to my house for lunch on Monday. We try to do this once a year, and the date was decided long before this bad news broke. This time, there’ll be champagne for sure. I think we’ll drink to resilience.

Incidentally, Liz has just written her memoir. It’s called My Natural History: The Evolution of a Gardener and is published by Greystone Books. I’ve reviewed it in our winter issue, and it’s a cracking good read. And some of you may not know that as well as being a journalist and author, Marjorie is also a garden consultant. I reckon she’d be a fun person to have advise you on your patch. If you’d like to know more about the services she offers, you can check out www.marjorieharris.com/Flyer/index.php.

Pages: Prev 1 2 3 4 5 Next