This is as close to gardening as I get today. And I’m okay with that.
It’s been a stormy December all across Canada, with heavy snowfalls and frigid temperatures, even by our standards. We’ve had close to hurricane-force winds (110 km/h) here in Southern Alberta a few times in the last weeks, with another blizzard due to blow in today and tonight. It’s not easy on us or on the garden either, though the old adage “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” hopefully applies equally to plants and to people.
Which reminds me of a little poem I heard a while ago, by Douglas Malloch:
Good timber does not grow with ease,
The stronger wind, the stronger trees.
The further sky, the greater length.
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.
Monday night was our community Christmas party, an annual event involving hayrides, hot chocolate, tree lighting, and an appearance by Santa. It’s a fun night, and the kids come home with a paper bag full of tooth-rotting goodness from the Head Elf.
This year, the candy bags included a handful of peanuts in the shell. I remember enjoying just such surprises as a child (long before the days of rampant nut allergies) and was disappointed when all of my children, as well as many of the others, turned their noses up at the nuts. They were all about the sugar.
Not being one to let anything go to waste, I insisted the peanuts be brought home. “If you don’t want them,” I said, “I know someone who will.”
That got their attention.
So we sorted the candy from the nuts, and I set a little container of them out on the front steps (the feeder is under a snowdrift). Sure enough, Tuesday morning the kids found it, tipped over and surrounded in delicate bird prints. I was expecting blue jays, as they go (ahem) nuts over this special treat, but I haven’t seen any yet: it’s a big fat flicker helping himself as far as we can tell.
It seems fitting to pass on these castoffs to the birds, as many European Christmas traditions mention Saint Nick and his various cultural incarnations giving special attention to animals. There’s the whole animals-talking-on-Christmas-Eve thing, too, and in Lithuania, grain and peas scattered on the barn floor at Christmas time was said to ensure healthy, productive animals in the new year. So I’m kind of thinking Santa would approve.
There’s a whole lot of whispering and sneaking and wrapping going on around here, and I can’t help but hope someone heard my loud hints about getting me some new secateurs. However, there’s a piece of me that hopes they didn’t notice. Why the conflict? I want someone to get them for me, so I don’t have to dither any longer about justifying the expense, but I’d really like to pick them out myself.
I’m horrible. I know. I should just be grateful, no matter what. And I’m pretty good about that when it comes to most things– get me a scarf, or a book, some music, or a fairy for my collection, and I am pretty much guaranteed to be genuinely grateful. But garden tools or garden decor can be such a matter of personal taste and needs. Not everyone wants a grinning resin turtle to cavort among the flowers. You’d better know your recipient pretty well before you go there.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d be pleased to receive many of the gifts on this lovely new list, but I’d be just as happy–maybe more–to get a gift card for my favourite greenhouse. They might carry a hint of cop-out, but in this case, and my case, it would be welcome.
If you’re set on giving a gardening gift, but the person “has everything,” is a little picky (like me), or you’re just plain drawing a blank, there’s always the option of a gift in kind: a donation to Plan Canada or World Vision (among others) can help plant fruit trees, start a quinoa crop, set up a family farm, or establish a schoolyard garden in developing parts of the world.
Anything given with love and thought is a great present, right?
I’ve been enjoying all the great ideas for winter planters, holiday flower arrangements and wreaths that have been popping up lately. When we were down in Kalispell two weeks ago, I noticed cute barn wood planters all over the antique shops, stuffed with juniper branches. Some were long and low, some tapered and carved, but they all had one thing in common: they were ridiculously overpriced. I said to Chris, “I bet we could throw one of those together in less than an hour.”
And this morning we tried. And got two done in less than an hour.
Of course, Chris is a confident woodworker, and we have loads of old fence board just laying around. But it’s still an easy project for anyone to try.
Choose wood that has aged nicely, but be sure it isn’t so aged that it is splitting. Interesting knots or grain are a bonus. For easy building, we used plain old but joints, and made the base the width of our board, and the height the same. For the end pieces, we measured the width of our board and added the thickness of each side piece. Use a coloured pencil to mark your measurements–regular pencil disappears on barn wood.
If you intend to use live plants, you will want to be sure to build your planter to fit your container. I chose to do a dry arrangement, but 3 standard 5 inch pots (or old sour cream containers!) will fit just right when I decide to change it.
Here’s what I did with one of mine. I did resort to using some artificial flowers; it’s protected in the porch and I don’t want to assault my junipers or dogwoods until they get a little bigger.
With Remembrance Day behind us and Halloween firmly in the past, it is time for many of us to get into the full swing of all things Christmas.
I’ve never grown an amaryllis or anything like that, but this year I thought I’d try paperwhites. I’m a die hard daffodil fan, so these cousins (Narcissus papyraceus) aren’t too far outside my comfort zone.
The little gift pack I stumbled across at Walmart for five bucks actually came with a pot and a disk of compressed coir, but many people plant the bulbs in a dish of water topped up with pebbles or marbles for stability. My kit says to plant them six weeks before you want blooms; most people on the Interweb say three weeks, so I’m doing it today and we’ll see.
I did find an intriguing tip for keeping blooming paperwhites from getting top-heavy –get them ever so slightly drunk. But as to why paperwhites are thought of as a Christmas flower, I couldn’t find any clues other than they bloom in December in warm climates. There doesn’t seem to be any special symbolism.
Poinsettias symbolized purity to the ancient Aztecs, and there’s the usual holly and ivy to represent eternity and resurrection. Evergreen trees fall into the same category. But amaryllis? Christmas Rose (Serissa or Helleborus, depending on who you ask)? Christmas cactus? We just seem to be looking for something alive and lovely in the dark winter months.
Fair enough. We were pretty excited when Chris got a zygocactus (Schlumbergera) blooming again.
At least, he’s the one who rescued the poor little guy. It was languishing in a corner after being relocated during the ever-present renovations, and he moved it to his studio where it gets bright, indirect light. He’s taking full credit for the transformation; I think he accidentally did exactly what it needed.
But I’m not complaining. It’s pretty exciting to have so many things growing when there’s carols on the radio and four inches of snow.
One of the bizarre details of my past is that I starred in a filmstrip for Parks Canada when I was a kid. It was called “The Aspen Curtain” and was all about the various species of trees found in Elk Island National Park. My nine-year-old noodle absorbed all kinds of little facts, one being that tamaracks, though a conifer, are deciduous: they turn gold and shed their needles in the winter.
That little nugget of knowledge was sleeping in the back of my brain when we were given a bunch of cast-offs from a tree planting expedition a few years ago. Not being ones to let a tree die without giving it a fighting chance, we put them all in the ground. Many of them died back anyway, turning brown or yellow. But one of these came back in the spring, with healthy, bright green growth. I was mystified. I had assumed all the baby conifers were spruce or pine or fir, and had not taken the time to ID them (and honestly, when they’re that little, they’re a lot alike. At least to me.).
How exciting! A tamarack of my very own!
Then a neighbour happened by and got pretty excited when he saw it. “That’s a larch!” he said, “I love larches. They’re my favourite tree!” We stroked its lovely soft needles and exclaimed about its airy structure. I agreed that it is one of my very favourite trees, and respecting his backwoods knowledge more than my moviemaking memory, mentally christened the little gem a larch. Larches must be another deciduous conifer, I thought, and left it at that. No research, no verification.
I really can be horribly pedantic when I want to, but apparently I wasn’t in the mood that day.
That changed when we went to Kalispell, Montana this last weekend.
As we crossed through the Flathead National Forest, we started seeing brilliant yellow trees dotted amongst the pine and spruce. Disease crossed my mind, but just as quickly I realized I was looking at larch trees. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Being used to seeing my one solitary specimen, this was like a big golden early Christmas present.
I’m sure I’ve been looking at them constantly when I’ve been in the mountains, and just didn’t realize it: this week my timing was right to see their golden colour. When they’re green or naked, they kind of disappear into the forest. Even in the four days we were there, we saw them fade and begin to drop.
But what about the big question: tamarack or larch? The lovely people we asked called it a ‘tamarack larch’ which I found completely unhelpful at the time, but turns out to perfectly accurate.
A tamarack larch, or American larch (Larix laricina), is likely what we were looking at in Montana, which is a species of the genus Larix, which includes several European and North American species. So all tamaracks are larches, but not all larches are tamaracks.
Kind of like all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
As for exactly which larch mine is, I’m done with being pedantic today. I’m just enjoying the colours.
Late this summer, my friend Halli led me through her fading garden collecting flower seeds for me to bring back from my visit. Many of the plants she showed me were planted by her grandmother, self seeding annuals that have thrived for years outside the family home. There were nasturtiums, poppies, blanket flowers, sweet peas, and bellflowers. Some were familiar, some were new, and all got me excited about adding them to my own garden.
Then I got home and life took over.
I took the seeds out of the plastic I brought them home in, but the plate where I spread them to dry got knocked over, and the little slip of paper where I had noted the description and identity of each seed went missing. I moved the seeds to a safer location, and forgot all about them.
Now, here we are, the beginning of November, and I’m feeling guilty. I can’t waste this gift, but we’ve already had a couple of snow falls. The ground is starting to freeze. Should I hang on to them until next year, and hope they are still viable? Shall I give them an artificial winter in the fridge?
To the rescue: what I call my “sandbox” (an idea I think I gleaned from Marjorie Harris)–a little spot of ground specifically left empty for playing, experimenting, and housing the random plants that jump into your hands at the greenhouse. Mine is in a little corner of the front flower bed, out of immediate view, but close enough to where the action is that it doesn’t get forgotten. I think it will make the perfect way station for Halli’s seeds. Loosely sown on the soil surface, scratched in just a little, they should ride out the winter in the way they were meant to, and in the spring (hopefully) I will have a riot of new faces to sort through.
We got our first big snow of the year this week–a good six inches of heavy, wet stuff. It is melting and blowing away as we speak, but it has already done some damage: my ninebarks are flattened.
I’m not overly worried about most of my perennials; they don’t care about some broken end-of-season stems. Even the ninebarks will likely come through not much worse for the wear. My young Medora juniper, however, took a beating last year and kind of languished through the summer. It is getting a burlap teepee this year to protect it both from dumps of snow and the wind: conifers continue to transpire moisture throughout the year and so are particularly vulnerable to drying winter winds.
The other thing I’m looking at is installing some snow guards on our metal roof. Snow comes sliding off in huge hunks sometimes, and one of my cold frames got smashed pretty well to pieces by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One of the great advantages of gardening out in the country is being able to do large scale projects.
One of the great drawbacks of gardening out in the country is finding professionals willing to travel to your residence to help you with large scale projects.
After having the power company remove three poplars from the front yard (due to their proximity to a power line), I spent some time trying to get a hold of an arbourist to come and grind the leftover stumps. No dice.
As much as my kids wouldn’t care if the stumps stayed (play value=very high), they’re a nuisance to mow and trim around and they’re constantly sprouting scraggly growth. And they’re just kind of ugly.
They are rotting away a bit, but not fast enough for me. I’ve decided it’s time to give up on the professionals and help Mother Nature along myself. I bought some stump remover and applied it several weeks ago.
It’s a pretty simple process. The stump remover basically just speeds up decomposition. You can help it by keeping the stump damp, even going so far as to cover it with plastic to hold in moisture. The label advises allowing at least 4-6 weeks for the process to work. This is what one of my stumps looked like after five weeks of intermittent rain and my total neglect.
While doing some research on this whole process, I stumbled across an interesting fact: potassium nitrate, the active ingredient in this stump remover product, is also sometimes called saltpeter. If that word conjures visions of pirates and cannonballs, there’s a reason. It’s one of the main elements in gunpowder. That’s right, gunpowder. Which made the final step in the stump removal process seem suddenly much more exciting.
You can just let everything rot and then hack out the debris, but the manufacturer recommends starting a fire on the stump to burn out the remaining wood.
That’s right, fill your stump with saltpeter, then light it on fire.
Am I a pyromaniac, or does that not just sound fun?
The science behind it is the absorbed saltpeter allows the fire to burn right through to the roots of the stump, whereas a normal fire would burn only until it ran out of oxygen–pretty fast when you’re underground.
How can I not try this?