{ Author Archive - aldona }

Load up the leaves

There’s a park around the corner from where I live, and in it grow a number of big, old oak trees. Although there was a cold drizzle this morning when I took this photo, I did notice most of their leaves are finally down. On the next dry day, I plan to head over there to rake some up into big, clear plastic bags to take home.

People think I’m bonkers when they see me doing this, but I don’t care. And yes, dogs frolic freely there, so I’ll wear my sturdy old rubber gloves just in case I come across any…well, you know.

Some of these leaves will be flung atop the garden beds right now to keep plants cozy over winter. (I’ve often wondered why people scrape every last leaf off their beds. Take a cue from nature–you don’t see any leaf-blower-wielding gnomes in the forest, do you? And besides, would you want to sleep naked and uncovered on a cold winter’s night? Of course not, and neither do your plants.) Next spring, those that haven’t decomposed will be raked up and put into a couple of old plastic garbage cans, where they’ll continue to break down into leaf mould. I’m never too fastidious about their removal, for even if I do nothing, by early summer the earthworms will have pulled most of them down into the soil.

A few bags of leaves will be stashed behind the shed at the rear of the garden, which is hidden behind a partial fence in the no-go zone I call the “back 40.” Here you will also find my composters, some old pots, bits and bobs, this and that and a big pile of discarded flowering plants and annuals–overflow that won’t fit into the composters). It’s a bit like having a very useful, giant junk drawer in my garden. Next spring and summer, a portion of the bagged oak leaves will be trotted out and used as brown matter in my composters and as mulch where needed.

I like most leaves, but I especially prize oak because unlike many other types, such as Norway maple, they don’t get all soggy and matted down when wet. They stay crisp and separate. Some gardeners believe oak leaves lower the pH of the soil, but my feeling is their effect is minimal. Still, the evergreens in my garden do seem to appreciate these leaves piled around their roots, so who am I to argue?

Golden days

Here in Toronto, we’ve been having the most fantastic week of beautiful weather. Blue sky days with wonderful golden light, and foliage colours so radiant and vivid they almost look electric. I took this photo from the deck off my bedroom, which is on the third floor of my house. The neighbour’s silver maple was looking at its autumn best, untouched as yet by the inevitable and cruel November winds that will surely come soon to shake its branches and loosen the leaves. (I had to laugh listening to Tom Allen on CBC Radio Two Morning, who remarked on how it was so Canadian to rejoice in great weather but somehow not to trust it, needing to mutter darkly about paying the price for it later, etc. So true.)

Anyway, I was out there emptying the last of the annuals out of their pots before it got too cold to do it comfortably (the deck faces west and gets great afternoon light, but also the prevailing wind, so it can get pretty darn nippy out there if you leave these jobs too late). Once emptied, the pots were stacked in a corner where I can’t see them through the sliding door, while the potted junipers and cedars were grouped where I can. I lightly bound up the junipers with garden twine to keep their branches from being pulled down by snow, watered the evergreens within an inch of their lives and mulched. If the weather stays warm, I’ll keep giving them big drinks until the cold sets in.

Out in the garden, I planted some pure white bulbs sent to me by my friend Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. In went crocuses, species tulips, hyacinthoides, alliums and more, and the thought of them emerging next spring, joining the plethora of other bulbs already out there, will keep me smiling through another long, grey Toronto winter.

In the front, the autumn pots were definitely looking past their sell-by date, so I yanked out the spent plants and popped fresh dogwood branches in one and curly willow branches in another, then topped things off with moss and stones. Presto! Talk about a five-minute facelift. If only there was something that worked this quickly and easily on humans.

Tips from the pros–part two

As promised, in this post I’ll touch on a few tips for flower arranging and container design given by experts in Canadian Gardening‘s Green Room at the recent Style at Home show.

Elene Nouri and Jennifer Christiani, custom designers at Sheridan Nurseries’ Scarborough store, had some excellent advice on creating winter container arrangements. They securely tape a block of floral foam (such as Oasis) to the top of the soil in a container, which allows them to create a more layered, three-dimensional and fuller arrangement, as they can then insert greens and branches sideways into the foam as well as straight down into the soil. They advise soaking the floral foam in water to which they add a little liquid Sta-Fresh, a preservative, for half an hour before attaching it to the container, as this makes it less brittle and crumbly and easier to work with. After greens are arranged, they spritz their foliage with Sta-Fresh spray to further prevent them from growing yellow and bedraggled-looking. Once temperatures drop, the floral foam will freeze and hold branches securely in place.

Kate Seaver of Kate’s Garden had some great advice for keeping cut roses fresh. When you get your roses home, cut their stems at an angle and put them into lukewarm water with a bit of flower food. An angled (not straight across) cut allows the free circulation of water and nutrients up the stem. Be sure to strip off any foliage that would sit below the water line, as it will start to decay (this holds true for any cut flower). Change the water in the vase every two days, add a bit of flower food and cut the stems a bit each time. Pick off outer rose petals if they look spent.

If your roses’ flower heads suddenly droop, it doesn’t mean they’re dead, it likely means there’s an air bubble in the stem. To cure this, recut stems, lie the roses flat in a sink and add lukewarm water until flowers are covered (if your sink is too small, use the bathtub). Leave roses immersed in water for about 20 minutes, and they should perk right up again.

Tips from the pros–part one

Canadian Gardening‘s Green Room at last weekend’s Style at Home Show was a busy place. The glorious plants in all their autumn glory, lent to us courtesy of Sheridan Nurseries, drew many admirers. And as the organizer of much of the programming and master (mistress?) of ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday, I had the opportunity to listen to some super-knowledgeable speakers. Here are some snippets of good advice they offered. Look for my next post for info on flower arranging and creating winter container displays.

Dugald Cameron (of gardenimport.com) informed us that fall is the best time to plant (or divide) your peonies. The reason? This is the only time of year they show their “eyes”–those little white bud-like affairs seen just below the soil surface when you dig them up. Any divisions must have at least one eye, though several are preferable (Dugald often goes for four). When you plant your peony, make sure its eyes are level and positioned 1 1/2 to 2 inches below the soil. It’s also not too late to plant many spring bulbs. (Of course, this depends on where you garden–here in the Toronto area [mostly Zone 5 and 6] many hard-core, forgetful or procrastinating gardeners don’t even think about planting their tulips or lilies until November.)

Charlie Dobbin demonstrated a lasagna-type layered planting of spring bulbs in a large frostproof container, which then gets buried underground (or stored in a dark root cellar if you happen to have one). Here, you’re forcing the bulbs to come into bloom earlier than they would when planted in the ground, so that in very early spring, you can excavate the pot outdoors, put it in a prominent place in your patio or garden and enjoy waves of spring blooms for six weeks or more (those lucky folks with root cellars need only move their pot up to a bright spot indoors for a grand show). Charlie says, “make sure the container has drainage holes, and use a commercial potting mix. Start with about four inches of soil, then place the largest bulbs at the bottom of the pot and ignore the advice on spacing. Just jam them in, cover with about 4 inches of soil then add another layer of bulbs in the same way until you get near the top, and top it all with four inches of soil. Water, and “plant” into the ground–or store in a dark root cellar.”

Denis Flanagan talked about putting your garden to bed for the winter, and the news is good if you’re a bit lazy. “Basically, don’t do too much,” he advises. Don’t clean up–leave your perennials standing so their seedheads provide food for birds and a place to catch the snow [good advice, too, if you're a novice gardener, as it'll prevent you from inadvertently digging up plants next spring before they show signs of life]. And don’t rake the leaves off your beds, instead, pile more on. Both Dugald and Denis remarked on how handy it was their neighbours put out big bags of leaves for collection by the city–they could go around and help themselves. Water in evergreens well, and use an anti-dessicant spray, such as Wiltproof, on prized broadleafed evergreens–such as euonymus, mahonia and holly–spraying the underside of their leaves only. This is where their pores are, and the spray helps lock in moisture to protect leaves against drying out.

Thanks be

The last few weekends have been spent in good company with dear friends, though I must confess they’ve included rather a lot of festive meals and nice red wine (thank heavens for Lycra). Of course, all this feasting was compounded over Thanksgiving, which here in Toronto was graced by spectacular Indian summer weather and last night, an intensely bright full moon that should have kept me awake, but didn’t.

Yesterday as I waddled around my garden (MUST get back to the gym…soon…), I felt a glow of happiness and well-being and yes, gratitude, which was further enhanced by the warm, sunny day and the beautiful sight of some favourite plants that have just started to don their colourful autumn mantles. Looking good right now are my ‘Lady in Red’ ferns, whose fronds have turned a pale gold that contrasts with their stunning red stems. Some of my barrenwort has also taken on burgundy hues, as has the serviceberry. The neighbours to the north of me planted birches along our property line, and these went buttery yellow almost overnight, to echo the leaves of my climbing hydrangea and certain hostas. The blooms of various paniculata type hydrangeas are a stunning cerise right now, reminding me to harvest some for display indoors, and although the Chinese flowering dogwood hasn’t turned dark red yet, it’s thinking about it, as are the oakleaf hydrangeas. I also have a tender euphorbia known as Caribbean copper plant (Euphorbia cotinifolia ‘Atropurpurea’), whose foliage looks for all the world like purple smokebush (hence its Latin name), growing in a planter. Over the summer, it’s reached an impressive size and the leaves have just turned the most vivid shades imaginable of bronze, orange and red. Wow! Gorgeous, but how will I get it in the house? Speaking of which, with a view to the cooler forecast later in the week, I’ve already brought in the New Zealand flax and will soon bring in the agapanthus. My pots of herbs are still going strong, though, and being a glutton, I’m thankful.

The photo I’ve included this week isn’t from my garden; it’s of an arrangement sent to me a few weeks ago by my friend Erin and created by the floral wizards at Teatro Verde. I keep changing the water and it’s still going strong. The main components are sedum heads, celosia and asters, and if you omit the orchids you could have a bash at recreating it yourself, either from what you have in your garden and planters, or what you can find at the local florist shop or greengrocer. First, pebbles were placed at the bottom of the low bowl, which was then crisscrossed across the top with thin pieces of cellotape to anchor the plants (I checked). Then the arrangement was built up with the flowers mentioned and a few greens.

Finally, I’m off tomorrow morning to the Direct Energy Centre at Exhibition Place, to help designer and landscape architect Shawn Gallaugher start setting up The Green Room, which is Canadian Gardening’s large display area at this weekend’s Style at Home Show, which starts Friday, October 17 and continues through Sunday, October 19. Shawn and I spent last Thursday morning at the Norval farm of Sheridan Nurseries, choosing plant material for the display (the generous folks at Sheridan have lent it to us for the show) and I can promise you it is SPECTACULAR. We have terrific programming scheduled for each day, too, with gardening celebrities including Lorraine Johnson, Gayla Trail, Liz Primeau, Charlie Dobbin and Denis Flanagan, to name just a few, giving talks and doing how-to demos. We’ll also have Master Gardeners on hand to answer all your gardening questions, book signings, and daily Make and Take workshops with Kate Seaver of Kate’s Garden. (To see the full schedule of events, go to styleathomeshow.com and click on schedules). I hope you’ll come down and say hello.

The Word on the Street

Last weekend saw me abandoning my garden once again and heading for the West Coast, partly to visit friends and partly to represent Canadian Gardening at Word on the Street, Vancouver. Word on the Street is a free annual event that celebrates reading and promotes literacy in Canada–in fact, it’s North America’s largest literary festival. This year, the celebrations were held on September 28 in Halifax, Kitchener, Toronto and Vancouver.

However, I wasn’t invited to read or even to speak; I’d been asked to demonstrate how to put together a fuss-free container in the Magazines Tent. So not only was I in beautiful Vancouver in perfect, sunny weather, I also had the pleasure of going plant shopping at Art Knapp’s lovely store, which luckily was located just a block away from my hotel. As far as I’m concerned, few things are more fun than buying lovely plants and a nice container with somebody else’s money!

What constitutes a fuss-free container to me? The plantings should require minimal maintenance, look good together and happily co-exist. That means avoiding thugs and wimps in equal measure. I think fuss-free also means something that has a fairly monochromatic colour scheme. Even if you’re no genius with colour combinations, choosing toning shades and pleasing textures and leaf shapes will result in a good-looking design. Think of these as your background pots; foils for the showier prima donnas that might require more cosseting and primping.

When planning your fuss-free container, In terms of shape and structure, it’s helpful to remember the phrase “thrillers, fillers and spillers.” To condense container design into a nutshell, what that means is choose a focal point plant or even some branches (in the case of my Vancouver demo, it was an ornamental millet in lovely shades of copper, burgundy and wheat), then opt for a variety of plants in colours that echo and complement those of your thriller plant–these are the fillers. Finally, the spillers–plants that trail over the edge of your container to soften it and add a lush fulness to the arrangement.

Once your plants are snuggled into the soil, give them a really good long drink of lukewarm water, then top things off with some mulch to help retain moisture. I find moss works well and gives the soil a finished look; sometimes I add a few small stones for more texture.

Consider, too, that perennials and small shrubs are often a great choice for fuss-free containers, and then instead of being tossed into the compost, can be planted into the garden before freeze-up to be enjoyed for years to come. In my garden at home this year, I’m experimenting with a purpleleaf sand cherry in a pot–this ubiquitous, inexpensive plant looks great in a container because it has a graceful form, showy leaves and pretty pink flowers in spring, yet is not too bushy so you’re able to pack in plenty of things around it. My container is quite large, and I’m leaving the sand cherry in it over winter to see if it will survive–it’s a Zone 3 plant and I garden in Zone 6, so with a big of mulch and a sheltered spot, fingers crossed it should do just fine. I also have four evergreens–two cedars and two junipers–on the third-floor deck off my bedroom. These were bought cheap and are planted in ridiculously small, square plastic planters, not double-walled. Believe it or not, they’re going into their fourth winter with no problem. My secret? I water like mad right to freeze-up, and mulch. That’s it, that’s all.

Hats off

A helpful friend just reminded me that fall is officially here. Go tell that to my summer containers, which are still blooming their hearts out. No need to go rushing out to pick up pots of mums or asters for the front steps, when my tuberous begonias continue to put on such a glorious show (they’re a lot more sturdy than people give them credit for, by the way).

With the advent of fall, some things do need to be changed, I guess. Take the straw hats on my hallstand, which scream of summer garden parties and a minty, fruit-and-cucumber-filled glass of Pimm’s. Two of them are vintage–my favourite one has strawberries both on and underneath the brim; very Carmen Miranda. Another is covered with pansies and black tulle–definitely not a mucking about in the garden kind of hat but just right for an outdoor soiree.

Underneath the hall stand is a basket filled with the more prosaic fabric hats and gloves I wear in the garden when I’m out there working. (With my fair skin, I’m vigilant about sunscreen and covering up in the sun–the doctor has already sliced a pre-cancerous chunk out of my chin, and it doesn’t look like a cleft).

I suspect, however, that just like my sandals, which also have yet to put away, I’ll drag my feet on stashing the hats. For once they go, it means I need to pull out and display the winter ones, which of course also means acknowledging the beginning of six months of largely grey and often dreary days, few of them spent in the garden.

Stan’s Jade Plant

Some 20 years ago, my friend Penny’s mother, Jean, gave me her late husband’s jade plant for safe keeping. She was moving from her bright apartment into another with less natural light, and had no room for it. I’m not sure how long Stanley had been growing it, but it was quite a size when it came to me and it’s gotten bigger ever since.

Anyone who has grown a jade knows their branches are very fragile and break off with the slightest nudge. So this one has never been repotted, and lives in a surprisingly small plastic container with little soil (jades like to be potbound). This pot rests in a large terracotta one to give the plant stability. I water it when I remember and feed it very seldom.

The plant has become a behemoth–its wingspan is about four feet, and its height a good three. I used to be better about pinching it back and moving the pot around so it grew evenly, but I’ve become less attentive so its a bit misshapen. It’s too heavy and cumbersome to move outdoors anymore, so it lives, summer and winter, on my sun porch, where it gets plenty of light and copes with extremes of heat and cold. It’s never flowered–my porch faces west, and maybe the sun just isn’t intense enough through those windows.

The other day, Penny was over for a visit.

“Hey, is that my dad’s old jade plant?” she asked.

“Yes, it is,” I replied, thinking she might ask to keep it.

“Kinda ugly, isn’t it?” she remarked.

Uh huh. And I guess it’s mine until further notice.

Journey’s end

Relaxing on the train back to Edmonton, I think back over our journey (and am comfortable now with the train’s rhythm, which, due to the reality of being shunted aside by freight trains from time to time, seems less schedule-driven than destination-based). No matter. I’ve been sitting in the catbird’s seat, leisurely gazing at the beauty that is Canada–by turns rugged, gentle-looking, majestic and surprising, and always, always inspiring; it makes my heart swell with pride.

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to sample part of the Via Rail Garden Route. It’s been so much fun I decide one day I’ll make the time to travel from Halifax to Vancouver by train–from sea to shining sea–stopping off at various locations to see the gardens, get a sense of the cities/towns, meet the people. I reckon that doing it this way and at a leisurely pace would likely take about a month, but that’s okay–what a fabulous experience. In fact, it’s one I would heartily recommend to any Canadian to add to their “100 things I have to do before I die” list; our own Canuck version of the Grand Tour, by train. One thing for sure: getting there (wherever “there” is) would certainly be half the fun.

The hills are alive: Day two

Another beautiful day in paradise. For breakfast, Carol, Shannon and I yum up some delicious spicy sausage rolls from the local bakery, washed down with lattes, then set off to visit four private gardens. They’re very different from one another–one is stuffed full of colourful annuals, another focuses on native plants, a third has charming vignettes and pretty corners galore and the final one is very shady–offering ample proof (as if I needed it) that you can create really lovely spaces even in a place with a really short growing season. Afterwards, we head for the famed Jasper Park Lodge to have a look around its stunning grounds. Talk about picture-postcard perfect.

Many of the lakes up here are jade green or bright, swimming-pool-turquoise in colour. I’m told this is caused by stirred-up sediment in the glacial runoff, which also gives me a clue as to the water’s temperature. Brrr. As someone who doesn’t venture into the water unless I can put my toe in without flinching, you won’t catch me going for a dip anytime soon. Come to think of it, I don’t see anyone else swimming, either.

At lunch, I devour a massive Cobb salad. Where is this appetite coming from? Thank heavens I don’t eat like this at home, for never mind gardener at large–I’d soon be known as the large gardener.

That afternoon, Shannon drives us to an area just beyond town known as the bench, where there are wonderful lookout points and numerous small lakes; even a path that takes us to a little island in the middle of one. Our feet are silent on a soft carpet of pine needles, and the sun-warmed conifers release their resin scent into the air. There are a few other people there, but nobody speaks. Too gobsmacked by beauty, I reckon.

(By the way, Shannon passed along the names of some of the plants that have proven to be elk-proof in her municipal displays. These include snapdragons, marigolds, alyssum, verbenas, salpiglossis [a.k.a. painted tongue], ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia farinacea, bidens, dusty miller, zinnias, gazanias and so far–those gorgeous godetias. Not a bad list for carefree colour.)

Later on, we return to our base and rest up to be ready for that evening’s excitement, courtesy of Jasper Adventure Centre. It’s a wildlife adventure tour, followed by a visit to Miette Hot Springs where we will take the waters–all told, a four-hour excursion by minivan. We see a female elk browsing by the side of the road, a bald eagle high up in a tree, and a little black bear. We don’t see a grizzly, which is another possibility, but that’s fine by me. Nothing scary or dangerous, thank you very much.

At the hot springs, which are sulfurous and smell a bit like rotten eggs, the water temperature is 104 degrees–now THAT’S more my kind of pool. Carol and I gratefully sink into its warmth and have a good, long wallow. It’s a perfect ending to our visit, for tomorrow we head back to Edmonton on the train to catch our red-eye flight home.

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