{ Author Archive - April Demes }

‘Tis the season for holiday plants

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 got my poinsettia going, and my baby rosemary plants are putting on new growth. Now it’s time to try something else: forcing bulbs.

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 decided to ditch the coir and pot that came with the kit and do something prettier.

I put a shallow layer of stones in this (plastic-lined) dish, placed the bulbs, then covered them up to their "shoulders" in more stones and added just enough water to keep their bottoms wet.

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.

Rosemary babies in the background!

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.

When a larch isn’t a tamarack

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.

Fall seeding in the sandbox

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.

Replacing the leaves that naturally gather in this corner will add some winter protection.

Protect your plants from winter snow

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.

These were four feet tall. If I had braved the storm, I could have shook them off as the snow came down and saved them. Unfortunately, I slept through most of it.

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.

Poor thing is looking kind of rough, but I'm hoping a little protection might help him through the winter. Use stakes and weatherproof fabric and be sure to leave air space for the plant to breathe.

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.

A rail-style snow guard by Euramax Canada

 

Tree stumps and saltpeter

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.

Step 1: Using a wood boring bit, drill one inch holes in several places around the stump (the deeper the better). Drill similar holes at an angle into the side of the stump, creating vents for the main holes.

Step 2: Pour some of the stump remover into each hole (read the label for amounts). Pour hot water into the holes to dissolve the crystals.

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.

Rotting nicely. When I pulled the grass away from the base of the stump I could see the wood crumbling quite a bit.

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?

I got it started with a few leaves and some dry sawdust; some recommend a few charcoal briquettes or some kerosene (NOT gasoline). Be prepared though: it's a slow burn that must be watched for several hours or even a few days.

I was going to rake leaves today…

Ah! But what about…

I was gonna…

Now I can’t…

Sigh.

Today WAS the day to get going on mulching leaves. And I’ve barely made a dent in my long fall to-do list.

This morning I got a little wound up over this slap upside the head from the elements. A total loss of perspective, you could call it. As in, “That’s it, I’m done for the year. Cue the hibernation.”

As if I don’t live in Alberta and the forecast for the weekend is right back to perfect raking weather.

It makes me think of a turn of phrase oft employed by a friend of mine: “It’s not eternal.” As in, “This can be dealt with, passed through, and forgotten.” Her little phrase has helped me think differently about the daily annoyances of life: the spilt milk, the forgotten backpack, the overlooked phone message.

Frustrating? Yes. Insurmountable? No.

Snow melts. The leaves will be there when I get to them.

The flip side of this truth–and most deep truths do have a flip side–is that some things are eternal. Like the kid who forgot that backpack, and your relationship with him.

And that gardening to-do list. It’s eternal too, as in it will never be done. Kind of like laundry and dishes– but that’s just too depressing. Let’s stick with the garden.

I sometimes seem to operate on an unspoken assumption that one day I will complete everything I want to do with the garden, and that I’d better get on with getting it done. When I spell it out like that, it is obviously a delusion. A garden cycles, evolves, dies and is reborn, but it is never done. Not only that, doesn’t such an attitude suck all the joy out of the pursuit? And isn’t joy one of the main reasons I showed up to this party?

In the snow today, I’m letting go of the hurry and worry, and reminding myself that by participating in my garden’s eternity, I can experience some incarnation of this beauty every year. I can continually create something here as long as I breathe, even with the knowledge that breathing is not eternal.

Keeping retired garden hoses busy

One of my tasks for this week is draining and storing all the garden hoses. (Yes, ALL. An acre of land+no sprinkler system=lots of hoses.)

Often there’s one that I finally decide is beyond repair and needs to be put out to pasture. But what to do with these steel, plastic, and rubber aggregates? Many recyclers won’t take them, landfills hate them. The best thing I can think of is to repurpose them.

First option is to turn a leaky hose into a leakier hose: poke some more holes in it and use it as a soaker hose.

If it’s not up to that task, you can cut it into lengths for all kinds of applications:

For cutting through the tough layers of hose, I like to use an old serrated knife.

A simple guard for the blade of our bow saw.

The old rubber handles went the way of the earth long ago; now we use these for grips on the wheelbarrow. Also try slipping them over the wire handles of buckets.

Or if you’re feeling crafty:

Mark Kintzel's old hose repurposed as a doormat (click the pic for how-to)

Jill Fritz's fresh invention (click for the how-to)

And if you just can’t get enough hose-related goodness, have no fear, Pinterest is here.

Attention poinsettia keepers

I am embarking on a test of concentration and dedication.

I have kept my poinsettia going from last Christmas, and it is now time to help it “flower” again. This requires keeping it in the absolute, uninterrupted dark 14 hours a day, and bright sunlight at least six hours a day. As suspiciously as this sounds like a schedule, I, the queen of distraction and misplaced to-do lists, am going to attempt it.

I first learned the ins and outs of poinsettia keeping from a column Karen York did in the 2013 Annual edition of Canadian Gardening. It’s true, I may have neglected a few of her well-explained steps (such as monthly fertilizing and cutting it back in early spring), and I never did take it outside for the summer. But it’s stayed a happy houseplant in spite of me, and I figure it’s worth a shot to get those red bracts back.

Karen’s tips specify starting this controlled light regimen October 1, so I’m right on time! Yay me! I’ve put an alarm on my iPad for every morning so I’ll remember to get it out from under its cardboard box in the closet. I think I’ll remember to put it away at night if it’s smack in the middle of the kitchen counter…

On second thought, I’ll set an alarm for evenings too.

Bringing in the tomatoes

The time has come, I’m afraid, to end the tomatoes.

We’ve had a few frost warnings already, and I’ve been dutifully covering and uncovering my plants accordingly. But this is not my reason for giving up.

Someone else has discovered that tomatoes will actually grow in my yard. Someone with teeth and very bad manners.

Very suspicious.

They’ve been stealing the nicest, biggest fruit–red or green–eating half of it, and leaving the rest strewn about. Raccoon? Fox? Young deer, possibly?  Anyway, I’ve decided that between the frost and the thief, I might as well bring what’s left inside.

Which leaves me with a bunch of green tomatoes to ripen. Some are too small to mature of course (time to look for some green tomato recipes) but most of them should be perfectly happy to turn red over the next few weeks: they have a little tinge of colour and aren’t rock hard. I’ve got them in a cardboard box in a quiet corner of the pantry. If I get impatient I might throw a banana in there–bananas are super-producers of ethylene gas, which encourages ripening.

I’ve heard you can actually pick your whole plant and hang it upside down, and the tomatoes will ripen nicely on the vine, but I don’t really have anywhere to hang mine that won’t bring me dirty looks from my husband or eye-rolling from my kids. So I went for the middle road: I’ve left pieces of vine attached to the tomatoes in my box, being sure to leave them enough space that nobody is getting poked.

Mostly I’m just relieved that my tomato curse has been lifted. Not sure why I’ve had so much trouble with what is supposed to be an easy plant, but at last, I can hold my head high.

This lovely mess of fruit was all crowded together on one vine, flopped over and unnoticed near the ground. All that red/orange is one tomato!

 

 

I think a garden exploded in my kitchen

Ah, the beautiful, bountiful, overwhelming grasp of harvest time.

It began, for us, when a neighbour begged us to come take the last of her ever-bearing strawberries (and some runners while we were at it). Then the squash arrived from another neighbour, along with some overgrown cucumbers, which I quickly dispatched into relish.

Then came the apples. And more cucumbers.

Pickles and applesauce waiting to happen.

Then I brought in beets, and more zucchini–which I thought I was staying on top off but apparently wasn’t– and look! Tomatoes, which I thought hated me, are growing for me this year in abundance.

 

Oh, did I forget to mention I have four cases of pears ripening slowly in the corner? Well, I do.

She loves 'em, but even she can't eat them all.

The canning jars are filling and the dehydrator is running.

Tomorrow, I’m picking chokecherries and my four cases of peaches arrive.

I need my head examined.

 

 

 

 

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