{ Author Archive - April Demes }

A taste of spring

I love watching the birds come back, and the blooming bulbs defying all logic, and turning the soil for new plantings, but really, at the end of the day, spring usually comes back to my stomach.

Radishes. Parsnips. Asparagus. Peas and lettuce and spinach. There’s something about stepping out your door and finding something to eat; something liberating about being independent of the grocery store for tonight’s meal, something energizing about knowing you are eating food that was growing ten minutes ago, growing because of you. This is a huge part of the joy of summer for me: several glorious weeks of choosing my menu based on what’s in the backyard.

Not that I’m quite there. All we can eat right now is some lettuce and spinach I overwintered last fall, making for some very early and no-care salad. I planted the radishes kind of late, but really, at 20-50 days maturity, we won’t be waiting long. Though the peas aren’t here yet, I already have a smile on my face thinking about eating them right off the vine with the kids after a good weeding session.

What we should be harvesting is asparagus. We had store bought for dinner last night. My asparagus patch is dead. The short version of the story: my pregnant brain thought it was a great idea to dig up and relocate the whole patch in late September 2009. Don’t say a word, you.

I crossed my not-so-green thumbs last season that it would come up, but no dice. I planted new crowns yesterday, digging deep with lots of sheep manure so as not to be responsible for any more death. I’ll have to wait at least until next year to enjoy them, but trust me, your own asparagus is well worth the wait, and once it’s established, is pretty self sufficient. I planted parsnips for the first time too, another be-patient vegetable, that will be wonderful to anticipate this winter.

So though the food hasn’t actually made it to the table, I’m already excited about all the springtime bounty. There’s lovage and sage and lavender, broccoli and kale in the cold frame, onions and garlic and chives, rhubarb waiting to be pie… and just imagine the strawberries…

My asparagus before I destroyed it

I’m all about the pansies

I’m not a fan of annuals. Too much work, too much expense year in and year out. I have a few exceptions: cosmos, because it reseeds so readily I don’t have to think about it; calendula, because it’s calendula; and pansies (Viola × wittrockiana cvs.), because they are so early and so pretty.

There’s kind of a dead spot in my garden between the crocuses fading and the daffodils, tulips, and miniature irises blooming. In between, the only color is provided by the first dandelions. While this does mesh with the purple/yellow color scheme I’ve got developing in my front garden, some traditional pansies would perk up the yard in a much less weedy way.

Yesterday, I mentioned this to Chris and he came back from an appointment in town with two flats of pansies–enough to fill my new planters (see below) and tuck in around the still-waking-up plants. (He wasn’t in the doghouse, or anything, he’s just that great.) They’re just the spot of color I was looking for. I have neighbors who are yanking out Johnny-jump-ups constantly (the wild flower, commonly known as heartsease, from which pansies were cultivated), but if I had them volunteering, I don’t think I’d mind at all. I kind of hope these ones go wild and reseed. They make me smile, those little bearded faces, and remind me of a song I learned as a child:

Little purple pansies touched with yellow gold,

Growing in one corner of the garden old;

We are very tiny but must try, try, try,

Just one spot to gladden, you and I.

In whatever corner we may chance to grow,

Whether cold or warm the wind may ever blow,

Dark the day or sunny, we must try, try, try

Just one spot to gladden, you and I.

What can I add to that? Life just seems better with a smile on my face and pansies in the garden.

Let's hope she doesn't drown them with love... bonus points if you can identify the origin of my new planter!

The people who live in my garden

It was bittersweet to pull my edger out of the shed today. I inherited it from Chris’ grandmother a few years back, and she died last week.

Every time I picked up that edger, I’d say, in an exaggerated German accent, “VVan-daa” because Oma had labeled it with her name to ensure its return from the neighbors, and I couldn’t help but think of her as I used it. Today it meant even more, knowing her life here was over, that I’d never eat plums off her tree again, or have zone envy when her magnolia bloomed. But through this tool, I feel like she will stay with us, continue to give somehow.

Wanda helping me tidy up the tulips

My grandfather has always had a presence in my garden too. I spent many summer hours of my childhood alongside him in his patch of dirt, weeding, nibbling chives, eating carrots right out of the ground. He taught me respect for the earth, the pleasure of work. I imagine him now looking over my shoulder, enjoying and encouraging things. I still use many of his tools, too, and plant things the way he did. The peonies and the tomatoes and the cabbage all remind me of him.

The more I think about it, the more people come to mind that have a place in my garden. There’s Rob and Margo, who laid the groundwork for the land I work today. There’s Phaedra, who gave me Chinese lanterns. There’s Patsy, who gave me lilies and irises. There’s Heinz and Lisa, who inspired me with fresh greens (and morels and fiddleheads too). There’s Ralph and Brenda, who tackled the weeds with me. There’s our neighbor Bob who kept our lawn mowed when Chris was sick. There’s my sister Jenni who designed the new flower beds and built me stone steps. There’s Jay, who inspired a couple of new planters this year (I’ll show you when I get them planted up). There’s my brother Ben, who has been the muscle on more than one occasion.

I could keep going. Yup, I’m working alone right now, with just the two little girls playing in the grass. But it sure doesn’t feel like it.

My garden is pretty crowded.

Who’s hanging out with you?

The epic search for puddle boots

My footwear of choice for gardening is a pair of beat up Crocs, but I see rain boots as a stand-by piece of equipment for the dedicated gardener. When you’re digging a big planting hole or fishing something out of a pond, dealing with prickly brush or wrestling with ornery hoses, you want your feet good and protected. My old stand-by black rubber boots got a crack in the heel last fall, so I told Chris I wanted new, fun ones for Mother’s Day. He said, “Great, go ahead and find the ones you want.” Smart man, huh?

So the last couple of times I’ve been in town I’ve looked around a bit (translate: while dashing through the grocery list with the kids I’ve noticed a few), but never took the time to try anything on. But this week I found myself in Edmonton all by myself (!) with a few hours to kill (!!) and decided to find my new puddle boots. Fairly straightforward, right?

Well, let me tell you.

I thought with the old “April showers” saw it would be easy to check a hand full of retailers and be able to peruse a reasonable selection of rain boots for somewhere between $15-$40, depending on the quality. Not so much. Walmart, Old Navy, and Payless had all gotten rid of theirs already: either sold or sent back to the company because the “season is over.”

Excuse me? The runways and window dressers may be switching gears to flip flops, but there’s still plenty of mud at my house. Are we expecting NO rain ALL summer? A lovely lady at the Shoe Company in Calgary sympathized with me: “How come they don’t realize it’s not just about fashion around here, but also nessecity?” She had a great pair of green ones, but they had a fuzzy, winter-minded lining. Pass. The few I did see were either no fun, ill-fitting, or not my size.

I’m kind of picky about my footwear because I have widish feet with high arches (thanks, mom) and fit is tricky, especially with a fairly rigid item like rubber boots. I was against getting anything online for this reason, but since the on-the-shelf retail life for rain boots appears to be 9.3 days, I decided to see what I could find in the web world.

Kamik Janis Plum Rain Boots

Love these, but they're kind of tall and kind of more than I wanted to spend. Also they seem awfully narrow through the ankle = impossible for me to get on.

Gum Drops has a pretty impressive range of choices, but the prices are mostly higher. Sears carries a few, there’s some American retailers, Walmart’s website has nothing but Spiderman…

Sperry Top-Sider® Women's Waterproof 'Nellie' 8'' Fashion Rainboots

These are available from Sears, but I'm not crazy about the colors.

Then I found RainCo — a Ladner, B.C. company that makes their own funky rain boots (and umbrellas!). They have several styles, including a shorter-topped one that seems like it would be more comfy for me, and they have a big tab in the back to help pull them on over my beautiful arches. And they come in my favorite color! After checking the return policy, I think I’m going to splurge on these. I love them, so I’m willing to go a little higher in the price range… anybody want to clue me in on other options?

I think these are the winners.

The wonder of it all

I’m going to stop for a moment from my usual narration of events to draw your attention to the affairs of nature we observe and encourage as gardeners.

Watching seeds sprout and perennial roots send out new shoots, I’ve been thinking – how does this happen? How is it that we take the growth of plants for granted as absolutely normal? Even with the understanding of biology, cell division, photosynthesis, isn’t the the whole process just this side of impossible?

Seeds turning into flower, or food, or tree is simply a part of our lives. We’re surrounded by it. But think for a minute. A tiny 1 millimeter seed. Add water, soil, light, and time, and you’ll end up with a 10 inch carrot. Isn’t that on par with pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Or Scotty beaming us up?

These little packets of cells know entirely what they are doing. They know how to make beautiful, useful somethings out of dang near nothing. And after exposure to cold that would end the life of most respectable living things, many of them come popping up cheerily as if nothing were ever wrong.

I invite you to mentally pack away your spring to do list, your gripes about mud or snow, everything you know about botany and cultivars and fertilizers and landscape design, and go find a crocus or a tree budding. Watch it for a bit. Marvel at the absolute ridiculousness of it all.

And remind yourself–this is reality. And this little bit of reality is a full-on miracle.

How to tell if a tree is dead

Those little plant tags on new shrubs and nursery trees tell you all kinds of things: where to plant, how much to water, even sometimes a primer on hole preparation. But they never say much about what to do if Mother Nature pulls a fast one on you. Same for the magazines (no offence, CG staff): idyllic shots of root balls, mulch, and watering cans, but little mention of how to know if your green thumb has turned black.

I’ve been the death of at least one tree and several tomato seedlings. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that this winter has done under one or two of the plants I’ve put in over the last two years, including my mountain ash that I apparently can’t stop talking about. So I got a quick refresher from my sister Jenni, an arborist, on how to assess the level of life or death in my springtime saplings. (For more mature trees, it really is worth it to bring in an arborist. Really.)

First things first: every plant is different. Peeling bark could be a warning sign on some plants, but for ninebarks it’s totally normal—actually, a feature.

Have a close look at the object of your concern. If it’s deciduous, are there buds on the branches? Are they soft and full? Your tree is probably still sleeping. Be patient. If they are shriveled and dry, check all the branches. Are they all like that, or just a few? It’s not unusual for some branches to die off from stress or exposure over the winter, but the rest of the tree can bounce back. If the plant has already leafed out but got zapped by a cold snap, or if the buds all spell doom, try snapping off the tip of one of the twigs. Does it crack easily, or is it bendy? Bendy means there’s still life in it.

If you’re really worried, and not in the mood to wait and see, here’s something you can try. Scratch into the bark of your tree just a couple of millimeters and hopefully you’ll see a soft, moist, green layer of tissue. That’s your cambium, the life-giving part of the tree, where all the other cells are produced. If you’ve got healthy looking cambium, there’s hope. Remember though, not every tree will have a really obvious green cambium. And even a little scratch is still a wound, adding stress to an already stressed tree. Consider yourself warned, but it’s an option.

Here's my mountain ash, showing a bright green cambium. Try a twig or branch before the trunk.

Junipers may look awfully grey, but if you can see some green in the leaves and they are still relatively pliable, they are likely okay.

It’s normal for conifers to lose some needles, so don’t be too alarmed if you see some bronzy ones dropping to the ground. The ones to watch are the needles at the tips of the branches. If those are dropping, you may have a Code Blue. Evergreens continue to transpire (lose water) over the winter, so even with melting snow they could be feeling pretty dry by now. Some judicious drinks of water may rescue them.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce. I'm worried about this guy. Gave him a nice big drink today.

Now, with all that said, I’m a big believer in giving any plant a full season to show itself. Give the poor guys a chance before you rip them out of the ground. I had an Amur maple I was sure was toast (the deer certainly thought it was food), but it came back from the root and (with some love) is now a healthy four-foot tree. There’s a bittersweet vine I never got around to pulling out last year, and in September I noticed leaves on it.

Never give up. Prune back dead bits so the plant can focus its energy on the healthy parts, bring on the water, and – like a good gardener – cross your fingers and hope.

Cold frame lessons

It’s done!

The newest addition to my "tool" kit--a cold frame with booster frame. This will be more or less its permanent home.

While I decided to use the plans provided on CanadianGardening.com, we (meaning my wise, more experienced husband) made a few changes based on our needs and site.

We chose to make the lip for fitting the booster frame to the top 1/2 inch instead of 1/4 inch. It just didn’t seem deep enough. We also decided to put a bit of a top on the back to make the back of the frame stronger and to allow a different hinge attachment.

A bit of the hard-won wisdom I’ve gained this week:

Me cutting the posts for the corners.

Chris nailing the top on. He says this will make it stronger and help keep it square.

Choose the widest board you can find for the angled side pieces. I wasn’t thinking about this when I chose fence board (5 1/2 inches). I was limited to a smaller angle for my window than I would have been if I had used the 8 inch boards recommended. This, of course, means I won’t get the same solar gain I could have.

Measure twice, cut once. And think it all the way through: the measurement of the side of the cold frame will not be the same as the side of your window. Window on angle = shorter side measurement. Duh.

Cedar is a very soft wood. It will split on you. It’s a very good idea to use an awl to make your holes for the screws (or pre-drill), and go slowly. Chris actually used a brad nailer to put the frame together with the glue, and then we followed up with the screws.

In preparation for actually using my new toy, I put down a double layer of weed control fabric inside the finished box, just in case any dandelions get any bright ideas. I’m planning to set pots in the frame rather than filling it with growing medium, so with some shredded leaves on hand for extra insulation, I think it’s ready to go!

Makes me want to start more seeds… cukes, more tomatoes, and it’s about time to get the squash going…

Building my cold frame

Well, it’s not built, but it’s ready to be built. Do I get an ‘A’ for effort?

After studying up on the basics again, I think I’m ready to begin.

When I revamped my front yard in 2009, I planned this spot (where you see my materials waiting) with a cold frame in mind. It’s a south facing wall, out of the worst wind, with full sun exposure. There’s gravel to walk on, as my yard is known to be a mud hole in the spring. Also, it’s about four feet from a tap for quenching thirsty seedlings.

We’ve had this old window sash hanging around since we bought our house (this is where it pays to have a pack rat around). It’s old and worn and absolutely gorgeous. The glass is all intact, but it does wobble just a wee bit. We will probably reinforce it some so it will stand up to being raised and lowered, not to mention kids trying to sit on it, and cats laying on it to bask…

For the box itself, I bought cedar fence board. It’s rougher than your nicely planed boards sold for decking, but I’m not going for any woodworking prizes here. With bottom line in mind, I paid $3.80 each for 6 six foot lengths, a total of 22.80. The 2″x2″ post for the corners I found with the decking stuff; one eight foot length was $4.28. All the hardware I’ll need is kicking around the garage, so all told I’ll pay just over $27 for this project (plus a little sweat and maybe a few splinters).

Next step: power tools!

From seed to sprout to… cold frame?

Despite my seed buying frenzy of February late, I’m not really a seed starter. Most years I just pop a few squash seeds in pots a few weeks early and direct seed the rest of my veggies. Any other flowers, shrubs or trees I want I’ve either had given to me or I’ve bought from the nursery. I’ve had a few ambitious years where I’ve started the odd thing, but that’s hardly normal.

This year I’m bound and determined to really apply some things I’ve learned about seeds. Last week I realized it was almost the full moon, so I got it together and planted:

- tomatoes: ‘Roma V.F.’ and ‘Beefsteak’ for sauce and eating, ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Earlianna’ for the kids to snack on in the yard. I’m not very experienced with tomatoes in general, so this is a grand experiment.

- peppers: I found ‘Little Blue‘ because a neighbor grew some last year and they looked so fetching in their pots. Also a ‘California Wonder’ for your basic green pepper.

- broccoli: I’ve never grown broccoli from seed (other than for eating as sprouts) but I came home with a packet on my shopping spree, so here goes another experiment. ‘Green Sprouting’ is what this is; I expect I’ll still buy a few ‘Green Goliath’ or ‘Packman’ plants because I know I like them.

Broccoli babies

Izah labeled this "Tiny Tim" with a strip of styrofoam cut from an egg carton.

They’re all up except the peppers; not a peep from them yet.

I plan to start a few plants of different varieties every couple of weeks, so that, for instance, one batch gets scorched or drowned, I’ll have back up.

The flaw in this plan, of course, is my distinct lack of counter space. I would hate to annoy my wonderful dishwashing husband by eating up all his workspace with flats of baby greens, so the other part of my plan is to build the cold frame I’ve been thinking about building for the last three years. (See the to-do lists piling up? It must be spring!)

I hereby promise to tell you all about my cold frame adventures next week. Maybe that will mean it actually gets done.

So is it spring or isn’t it?

I woke up at 3 am this morning to a baby fussing. I rolled over, and thought, “Just a few more hours, little girl, it’s not time yet. If you wake up now, we’ll both be miserable for the rest of the day.”

She settled down on her own, and slept until 7:30, but I found myself repeating similiar words as I looked out my window at breakfast.

“Just a few more weeks, little tree, it’s not time yet. If you wake up now we’ll both be miserable, and you’ll end up dead.” The object of my mother-naturely concern: the European mountain ash I planted in my front garden last year.

The poor dear is so confused. Between the chinooks warming everything up and blowing away his nice chilly blanket of snow, he’s convinced it’s spring. We had a warm spell a few weeks back, and I had to bring snow from the drifts around the yard over to his base. I covered his toes while mumbling (yes, out loud), “Go back to sleep, you silly thing. It’s February.” No matter what the ground-hog may guarantee, I’m an Alberta girl. I’ve seen one too many April snowstorms. Around here, you don’t plant anything tender before the May long weekend any more than you’d give chewing gum to an infant. I’m not that worried about the big old poplars; they’ve seen more winters than I have and will hardly wilt at a late frost. A young tree budding in early March is doomed.

Or is it? Driving around on the highways today, the Canada geese are everywhere and the gophers are running around getting themselves run over. There was frost on the windshield this morning, but my tulips (and the shepherd’s purse) are showing growth. Maybe it is spring, and I’m being overprotective. Maybe I need to let my baby tree out on its own — sink or swim — just like a toddler learning to walk is going to get a few bruises. But I can’t help wanting to coddle him just a little this first year. I know spring and its fickle nature can have too many casualties.

On the top of my priority list for this year: start a shelterbelt to protect my little mountain ash and all his friends (as well as eliminating the snow drifts across the driveway. Hopefully.)

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