{ Author Archive - April Demes }

What shall I do with the aphids?

I am really, really lucky when it comes to mean bugs. Knock wood. I’ve declared war on cabbage worms, and had flea beetles move in a couple of times, but that’s about it.

This spring however I had a bunch of aphids show up on my lovage plant and nearly destroy it. Having never faced in infestation like this, my guard was down and I didn’t really notice a problem until the seed heads popped up and the whole plant started yellowing. It was pretty bad, so I decided to cut the whole plant back and burn the tops. This seems to have done the trick.

But while doing dishes, I look out on my lovely mountain ash (which is doing very nicely, thanks for asking). I had noticed when we got back from our trip that one branch seemed to have died back–shriveled leaves and all. I didn’t think much of it until this week, when another branch near it started doing the same thing. Having been focused on catching up the veggie patch, the front garden had been neglected and sure enough, when I went to investigate, I found aphids cozied up all over, with ants coddling them right along. Luckily, a few diligent ladybugs had already showed up to do their part, but I doubt they can take care of the lot all alone.

Go, ladybug, go!

This is why the experty people tell you to do a tour of the whole garden once a week, looking for stuff like this, isn’t it? Maybe I should hire someone…

Now, cutting back my tree like I did the lovage is not an option. I sprayed the tree down with a jet of water–I seem to remember reading that somewhere–but what advice do you all have for my entomological conundrum? I’m going to go ask Google, but I’d like to hear from some of you in the trenches–what really works for you?

Worms, worms, everywhere

So here’s my story.

Mid-summer, my brother-in-law Jared sent me a rather cryptic message to “watch the mailbox”. What with postal strikes and summer adventures, it was soon mostly forgotten.

At the beginning of August, my friend Teri also sent me a message, inquiring whether I had ever tried worm composting, and would I like to take some equipment off her hands?

I’m a big believer in composting, and have two healthy piles going in my yard, though I’d never gotten into vermicomposting — having little red wiggler worms help the work along — but I told Teri I’d take some stuff off her hands, if only to help her in her downsizing. I could try it out and always pass it on to someone else if I wasn’t into it, right? If nothing else, it was blog fodder…

The next day she showed up on my doorstep with two Worm Factories, one full, one empty, a big bin of coconut fiber (for bedding), and a binder of information on vermiculture and vermicomposting.

Original Worm Factory - 4 Tray

This is the one Teri gave me; click for the latest model.

“You put your food scraps in the top bin, here,” she said lifting the lid and exposing a melange of vegetable bits, newspaper, and itty-bitty red worms. “The worms migrate up and eat it. Then you harvest the bottom bin of compost and rotate it to the top. That’s basically it!” She seemed a little too excited to ditch this stuff and run. Hmmm… what was I getting into?

I was eager to try something new, not so eager at the thought of worms in the kitchen, Teri’s recommended location for the bin. And I knew Chris would not be into that at all. The timing also sucked: we were leaving on our three week camping trip in three days. Apparently they could eat half a pound of scraps a day: could I load them up before I left? Would they survive? Where would they survive? I debated ditching all the worms into my regular bin and re-purposing all that gorgeous coconut fiber elsewhere in the garden (it’s amazing stuff for soil additive, mulch, growing medium…), but felt I owed it to Teri to at least give it a go. Plus, those worms go for 50 to 75 bucks a pound.

So I cleaned up a little corner of the garage where the temperature should remain fairly even through the summer (winter will be a different story) and got the full bin all set up, thinking I’d tackle the empty one on my return.

That weekend, Jenni and Jared came for a visit, and I showed Jenni my newly acquired castoffs (get it?). Sudden inspiration: Jenni could take the empty Factory, and some of my worms for a starter! Yay! But Jenni got this funny look on her face… remember the cryptic mailbox notice? You guessed it. Jared, in one of his characteristic bouts of generosity, had ordered me a Worm Inn, which was, at that very moment, in the dawdling hands of Canada Post.

WORM INN

The Worm Inn. Hanging contraption not included. I've still got to figure that out.

So, in not so much as a week, I’d gone from zero to three vermicomposting bins. How… interesting.

I filled the bin with as much worm food as I dared, covered it up and left the spigot open so it wouldn’t get to slimy, crossed my fingers, and went on holiday.

We were back two days before I remembered to check on the poor little wigglers– but they were alive. Still some food scraps showing, and not moldy either. Hmmm. Maybe I can do this. The Worm Inn has arrived, and I’ve got Teri’s binder (which turns out to be a full-on manual from the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada). Looks like my kids aren’t the only ones in for learning some new things this fall. I’ll keep you posted.

One of my wigglers working on some beet greens.

The pre-autumn slump

I came home from vacation to find more than a bit of a mess in my garden. Three weeks of heat and a temperamental irrigation system meant that things didn’t get watered consistently and all the annuals are dead or flat-lining. I thought I’d gotten the weeds under control, but they were back, seeding their fool heads off. The peas were overripe, the broccoli bolting, the onions flowering. Sigh.

Half of me wants to start a flurry of work and get things ship-shape again (or finally, depending on your perspective), and the other half of me wants (gasp) winter to show up early to hide all my sins, and just start again next spring. (If the “s” word starts falling in the next 48 hours, I guess you can blame it on me.) I’ve spent the week trying to catch back up. Some things have gotten done, but the list is getting longer instead of shorter thanks to the fall chores starting to arrive.

I thought I’d cheer myself up by planting some trees. A neighbor gave us some seedlings he cleaned out of his windbreak: three maples, two ash, and a random crab apple. I got four in the ground, watered and mulched, and then it started raining. While out there, I also realized that four trees at the very back of our property which we were told were baby Manitoba maples when we put them in 6 years ago, aren’t maples at all. They’re ash trees. I’d taken some one’s word and never looked closely again until now.

I feel like an idiot.

And my garden is a mess.

And it’s raining. Okay, that’s actually kind of good, just not what I was hoping for…

Maybe things aren’t that bad. It’s just days like this that make me think I’m a better writer than I am a gardener. At least, I hope I am.

Wow. I’m sure I’ll get out of this funk when fall sets in properly; it’s this in-between that’s getting to me. Anyone want to join me at the greenhouse tomorrow to look at the pretties? Maybe I’ll choose some fall bloomers to disguise the travesties in my front yard. That should get me through until it’s dry enough to work again.

And please forgive me for even mentioning the season coming next.

What to visit in Victoria

I’m home again, but before I return to reality (three weeks can really do a number on a yard, even with the neighbors watering), I must share some of my adventures with you.

Not able to give proper credit to all the beautiful spots, both public and private, we saw, I am focusing here on our visit to Victoria, Canada’s “Garden City.”

The quintessential Victoria garden has to be Butchart, right? I know lots of people who have visited and thought it well worth the price tag. One day, I’ll get there too, but this trip, I was not equipped with the time or the pocketbook to make it happen. Besides, I thought, why not ask around for some of the lesser known spots that are worth a look?

Here’s a short list; feel free to add to it, those who know the area better than I. All of these were recommended more than once.

Hatley Castle, the administrative home of Royal Roads University, has extensive gardens set in the midst of 600-some acres of heritage trees. The pride of the grounds are the Italian, Japanese, and Rose gardens, but really, it all looks pretty impressive with the dramatic backdrop of a real, bona fide Edwardian castle. (Some of the X-Men movies were filmed here, too. I know this because I’m a geek.) There’s a restored 1914 greenhouse, too. Admission is charged; tours are available.

Hatley Park Castle

The castle, a National Historic Site, showing just a hint of the grounds.

Beacon Hill Park, right in downtown Victoria, has 200 acres to explore, so plan to spend all day. It looks great year round. There are water, rock, and alpine gardens; perennial beds and displays of annuals. There’s a petting zoo and a playgrounds for the kids, and lots of ducks, peacocks, and herons. Admission is free; horse-drawn carriage rides are available.

Tucked away on the University of Victoria campus is Finnerty Gardens, a 6.5 acre gem. Highlighted are rhododendrons and azaleas, but a full spectrum of plants are on display, many with identifying signs. We’re told it’s at it’s best in spring, but we thought it was just wonderful in August. No admission; follow the ring road around to the southwest and park at the chapel. While you’re on campus, you may want to wander down into the Mystic Vale, a protected wilderness area to the southeast, full of Big Leaf Maple, firs, and ferns. It’s breathtaking.

gardens in fall

A pond in Finnerty gardens.

The girls enjoying the hydrangeas. I wish I could post them enjoying the bamboo and everything else, but I've already put in too many pictures.

Don’t miss the Government House gardens– I almost did. I heard about them before we left, but saw something online about “tours by appointment only,” so I put it out of my mind as too much trouble for this trip. But we drove right by it while leaving the Craigdarroch Castle (also wonderful, but not much for gardens) and the gates were wide open! We were already late to get to my brother’s house, so Chris dropped me off and I did the five minute walk (gasping, groaning, and drooling as I went). It is open to the public, dawn to dusk, but tours are available, by appointment. See how I got confused? If you get the chance, please visit them properly, for me.

A quick shot of the herb garden, as I hurried by... There's a sunken rose garden right behind me...

There’s something about the forest…

“What would the world be, once bereft of wet and wildness?

Let them be left.

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

–Gerard Manley Hopkins

Zone envy

In the last week I’ve seen a lot of gardens, from formal to cottage and pond-scape to desert-scape. We’ve crossed through several planting zones and I’ve seen plants I’ve only read about. It’s been fun, it’s been educational, and it’s been downright stressful–at least the part about choosing which gardens to see and which to miss.

And while I do pine for a magnolia hardy to Zone 3, and must lapse into ignorant silence when the conversation turns to rhododendrons, I’m a little perturbed by some of the innocent comments I’ve heard from warmer zone gardeners. They seem to communicate that it is somehow better to garden in Victoria compared to Calgary, that I, in my winter-wonderland region, am to be… pitied.

No disrespect meant to all you lovely people in Zone 5 and higher, but sometimes I feel like a second class citizen. You Edmontonians, Winnipeggers, Saskatchewanians: I think you know what I mean.

You open the latest issue of Canadian Gardening, and get ALL exCITed about a featured plant, let’s say… hellebores, just for example… the array of attractive colors, the siting options. The gears start turning in your head and you’ve half designed a cozy little space for them, only to have your little heart break when you realize every variety listed is out of your league, based on one factor: the location you chose to set up shop.

There’s a few things going on here. I’ll admit, part of it may be sour grapes–I really do want hellebores.

But also, there are lots of things we can grow in colder climes, for instance, I’ve got very happy Munstead lavender in my front garden, despite many experts (not this one) rating it at Zone 5. There are varieties of many plants that will stand up to lower zones if you select carefully and maybe plan for a little extra protection.

And who says “more plants” is the only Ace in the gardener’s pocket? Can you grow a greater variety of plants on the west coast? Indubitably. But guess what? I’m not fighting ivy. On my home turf, it’s only hope is as a houseplant. I’ve got more limited choices, but don’t need to worry about road salt or moss or most fungal diseases.

So while I am drooling out here on the island, I’m still looking forward to going back home. I don’t believe one spot is better than any other; the gardener’s cupid pricks us all with a different thorn. My own little plot, with all its weeds and clay, is still mine. It’s my classroom, my cathedral, and no way would I trade it in.

But I will thumb my nose and plant some hellebores… just as soon as my windbreak is established.

How to garden with kids: Part 2

Weeds.

Just like death and taxes.

The question is not what to do with them so much as it is how.

I woke up early the other morning and decided to get outside before it got too hot. I couldn’t believe how much I accomplished in one hour! Why? No phone ringing, no appointments to race against, not cleaning soil out of anyone’s mouth, or negotiating settlement in custody suits over the best toys. No sun beating down, either.

It was a wonderful experience, however rare. The daytime routine usually involves doorbells, babies eating dirt, and irate Tonka truck drivers.

But daytime also means I usually have at least a couple of helpers of the smaller size.

Again, the question is not what to do with them (teach them the value of hard work) so much as it is how.

Insistence? Indeed. Bribery? Occasionally.

1. I remember my mom asking us kids, as teenagers, to help in the garden for just 15 minutes, a couple of times a week. I and my siblings often ended up staying a little longer than that, just to finish the row we were on, or to pick a few raspberries for dessert. I tried this with my young kids. Well, they’re no dummies. Get the clock running, then go find your sunhat, then chose a different tool, then deliberate over which vegetable needs your attention… 15 minutes is gone in no time! So while I may go back to the 15-minute strategy when they get older, my kids are now each assigned a bucket. Fill the bucket with weeds, you’re free. It’s a visual, finite goal they can wrap their heads around. Depending on their age and the desperateness of your situation, use ice cream pails or half-gallon honey buckets. Try sharing a big trug, but be warned, you may end up with accusations over who’s working and who isn’t. It didn’t take them long to figure out that if they pull the biggest weeds, the bucket fills faster, which is great, because those are the ones I want gone the most!

2. I expect a certain level of help from my kids, but I do offer to pay a specified rate for full buckets beyond the required one.

3. I have been known to offer “today only” specials for kids wanting to earn a little coin: when the dandelions were about to set seed this spring, I was paying a dime per root. I’ve spent ten bucks on worse things. (Don’t do the math, please.)

4. As much as a slave driver as I can be, I try to make the experience as pleasant as possible. We like to do our veggie gardening in the evening, when it’s cooler, and we like to visit while we work.

5. If you’ve got more than one kid, like me, experiment with working either all together or one on one, taking turns. You can get a lot done together, but it’s easier to teach one on one without distractions and you can give that child some special attention while the others play.

6. I know a woman who told her kids, “Go pick green beans/peas. Each bean/pea you pick earns you one minute at the dam (the go-to beach two minutes from town).” They were set on earning at least an hour.

7. I learned a lesson from six-year-old Avery this week: he was messing around, not helping at all, while we were cleaning up some suckers around mature trees and the grass around some newly planted ones. He said, “I wish I had a forest right here that I could play army in.” I said, “That’s what we’re working on, Avery. These trees will grow up into a forest if we take good care of them.” Darned if he didn’t dive in and get to work.

A Victorian garden party

I’m headed off on holidays tomorrow, and part of our trek will take us through Victoria. I’m already drooling at the thought of all the gardens I’ll be seeing… as we drive by… *sniff*.
One stop we are making is at Craigdarroch Castle, a real, live, historic castle! (My little girls are thinking princesses, my boy is thinking storming the gate.)
As luck would have it, we will be there August 13th, the day the Castle is holding a special (and free!) Victorian garden party to mark the completion of their restored grounds! I’ll let you read all the details, and maybe I’ll see some of you there!
(That’s more exclamation points than I usually use in a month…)

In which I plant some healthy ideas and reap some better health

This spring I was having some nasty headaches, which seemed to be developing from my constantly tense shoulders. I was climbing into bed aching and exhausted almost every night, but my life was busy with kids and home and garden and community, and I didn’t take the time to get any help other than having Chris rub my back as I washed supper dishes. I got good and fed up with it one night a couple of weeks ago and called my brother, a chiropractor in Calgary. I told him my symptoms, and he asked me a bunch of questions. He told me his over-the-phone diagnosis boiled down to lousy posture. My back went up immediately – in the figurative sense – but then I realized he was I right. I have pretty horrible posture. I’m a sloucher. He ran through a few stretches I could do, and admonished me to see a massage therapist and a real live face to face chiropractor. I thanked him and went to bed.

The next morning, while digging in the garden planting some very, very, very late potatoes (a girl can dream, right?), I realized I was totally hunching into myself over the shovel, giving what I thought was my all my strength into each step. I stopped, tried to recall what my brother had taught me the night before, and corrected my posture, making a conscience effort to roll my shoulders back and down. I immediately felt a difference. I was actually getting more power with each dig, it took less effort, and was not at all uncomfortable. I realized my gardening habits were likely contributing to my miserable body.

Life hasn’t slowed down any, but I’ve been paying much closer attention to my posture, and I’m already reaping the benefits: no more headaches, fewer body aches, more accomplished in the garden (and the house) because I’m not wasting so much energy. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m making my inconsistent yoga practice more consistent, too. I haven’t fit in a visit to the chiropractor or for a massage, but the minute I find one willing to do house calls at 7 a.m. or 10:30 p.m., I’ll book ‘em.

Here’s a few resources to help you in your efforts to stay healthy.
-Maintaining your core muscles will help your whole body, and protect it from injury. Contracting your abdomen before lifting, bending, etc. will protect your lower back.

-Cultivate healthy gardening habits. Remember, your body is a tool as well. It needs care and proper use.

-A wall angel is the first exercise my brother recommended for my tense shoulders and neck. A great stretch to train your shoulders to a healthier position. Focus on bringing your shoulder blades down and together.
-Yoga Journal has lots of great resources, including a list of positions to target different parts of the body, even to target chronic issues.

-If you’re new to yoga, here’s five great simple stretches for gardeners. (the descriptions are to the right of the pictures.)

-Prevention is always better than treating an injury.

Jenni’s tree chair

With my landscaping overhaul two years ago and various articles this spring, I’ve been thinking a lot about garden furniture this year. It’s a major element missing in my yard.

Being of humble means, and not into grabbing the cheapy trend-of-the-moment patio set from the big box store, (translation: picky, but not rich enough to be) I’ve been biding my time until the right pieces come along. This approach to shopping problems has always served me well. (Pair of black dress boots, my size, exactly the style I wanted but couldn’t find, mint condition, for free, at a garage sale. Oh yeah.)

I’ve thought a lot about the style I would like, and I’m leaning towards rustic without being too stereotypically “cottage” style. (See? Picky.)

I think my sister Jenni is right on the money. And this chair suits her, being an arborist. Custom made by her husband, I’m seriously debating commissioning a couple. With my riches, you know.

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