{ Author Archive - Tara Nolan }

A preview of Toronto Botanical Garden’s annual garden tour

Garden tours are such a wonderful way to a) gather ideas for your own garden and b) snoop around in some pretty amazing backyards. Last week, I had the opportunity to sneak a peek at five of the 19 gardens that will be open to those who purchase a ticket to Through The Garden Gate. (One- and two-day passes are available.) This is the 26th annual fundraiser for Toronto Botanical Garden’s popular tour, which takes place June 8 and 9. This year, you get to traipse around Forest Hill and South Hill – not a bad way to spend a weekend. And, new this year, a couple of food trucks will park themselves outside tour headquarters (at Bishop Strachan School, 298 Lonsdale Rd.) to feed hungry guests who need a break.

More details and ticket information can be found on the Toronto Botanical Garden website.

Here are some highlights from the gardens I previewed:

This was the first garden on our tour. It was such a private, tranquil yard. I loved the seating area on the other side of the pool, a perfect place to curl up with a book.

There were some beautiful gardens ringing this arts-and-crafts house, but the greenhouse was the star of the show!

This was probably my favourite garden. It was just so unique, filled with various art pieces, and with a really interesting planting style.

I love how the steel rods mimic a fence here. There is space between the "fence" and the real privacy fence that hides the yard from the street.

This yard was another treat. The owner led me into the back garden and explained how she's been at it for about 19 years. The garden has evolved and now includes a small patch of grass for her grandchild.

Gettin’ figgy with it at the RBG

Last year, as my husband and I were exploring our new area on a Sunday drive (we had moved the previous fall), we drove by a non-descript house that had a cardboard sign out front that read: Fig Trees for Sale. “That’s interesting,” I said. “I didn’t think you could grow figs in Ontario.”

Shortly thereafter, I ran into a fellow garden writer, Steven Biggs, who told me he had written a book called Grow Figs Where You Think You Can’t. A copy of the book showed up on my desk one day when I was at the office (thanks, Steven!). I looked through it right away, excited at the prospect of growing such a seemingly exotic edible.

Fast forward to this spring when Steven mentioned he was going to be giving a talk on growing figs at the Royal Botanical Garden. My husband and I registered and showed up, notebooks in hand. It turns out we weren’t the only ones intrigued by fig trees. Steven spoke to a captivated and engaged audience who asked him questions throughout. Steven is very knowledgeable and passionate about his topic, so we really enjoyed ourselves. After the class, we stuck around so I could tell him so, and he gave me one of the fig cuttings he’d brought along to show the class. It’s a Verte, also sold under the name Green Ischia. My husband decided to name it Wilbur.

When we first brought a dormant Wilbur home, it was still pretty cold out, so we kept him in the garage. At that point he looked like a twig (see below).

Here's a pic my husband took of Wilbur. It doesn't look very exciting, but we were tickled that we got to bring a fig tree home.

Then when the weather finally started warming up, he grew a couple of leaves. This past weekend we repotted him in a nice container that we’ll display out front of our house where there’s lots of sun. You see, fig trees also make really nice ornamental plants. Steven says he plants his all around his patio.

Wilbur looking happy in his new pot. We've staked him to a dowl to straighten him out. But don't worry, it doesn't hurt!

If you’re looking to grow a fig tree, there are a couple of places where you can buy them. Steven recommended a nursery in the Niagara area called Grimo Nut Nursery. President’s Choice is also offering a hardy Chicago fig tree at their garden centres this season.

Previewing President’s Choice plants

When the outdoor garden centre suddenly appears in my local Fortinos parking lot, I know that it’s time to plant (or almost time). Last week I got to preview what these garden centres (Fortinos, Loblaws, etc.) will be selling at an event to launch the garden edition of the President’s Choice Insider’s Report. By the way, the report officially comes out today!

I’ve had some great luck with President’s Choice plants over the years. Favourites include the Gigantico columnar basil, which keeps me well-stocked with pesto through the winter, a strawberry hanging basket that produced strawberries for me all last summer and the dahlinovas, which are stunning in containers.

Here are some of the plants I’m looking forward to trying in my garden this year:

PC Gigantico Begonia, Go-Go Rose Bicolor: These two-toned beauties are destined for my containers!

PC Campanula Purple Get Mee: The purple blooms on this perennial are supposed to come back until the fall. I'm hoping to create a lush carpet of purple in one area of my garden.

PC Heuchera Amber Lady: This is my first heuchera. I love how all the rich colour is in the foliage - no blooms required!

PC Miniature Fountain Grass - Burgundy Bunny: I can't wait to see how this grass turns to a rich burgundy shade later in the season.

PC Pixie Grape Pinot Meunier Hardy Vine: I'm curious to see how many grapes this dwarf grapevine will produce. Not enough to make wine, I'm sure, but hopefully enough to eat!

PC Might 'Mato: What I'm probably most curious about planting is the Mighty 'Mato, a grafted tomato plant that will likely grow to be taller than me. The one at the preview was enormous. I brought home three to try.

PC Shrimp Braid: I probably won't get one this year, but I'd be remiss if I didn't show this intriguing tropical plant. You can display it outdoors over the summer and then bring it inside come winter.

Win tickets to Canada Blooms

I can’t believe Canada Blooms is only a week away. Where has the winter gone? I’m not lamenting that it’s almost over, that’s for sure, but it went by pretty quickly. I posted a wee preview this morning just to highlight a few of the gardens I’m looking forward to seeing.

This was one of my favourite gardens last year: "The Rebirth of Roncy" by Sara Jameson of Sweetpea's.

I have two pairs of tickets to give away. They get you into both Canada Blooms and the National Home Show, which are co-located at the Direct Energy Centre in Toronto from March 15 to March 24. To win, please leave a comment below telling me what you’re looking forward to seeing at Canada Blooms. Two responses will be selected at random Monday, March 11, 2013.

Contest closes March 11, 2013 at 12 p.m. EST. Open to all residents of Canada, except those in Quebec. Not open to any TC Media employees, their families, or any other persons with whom they reside. 

Good luck!

A quick and easy bird-feeder post

When I was a kid, the bird feeder, seen from our large kitchen window provided endless entertainment. Chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, nuthatches, doves, juncoes and woodpeckers (to name a few) were all frequent visitors. A number of birdfeeders have come and gone over the years and all of them used to sit on a metal pole with the requisite squirrel guard that did absolutely nothing to deter the acrobatic squirrel population. I love this bird-feeder post (and its squirrel-proof feeder) that my father made last year. I thought I would share it to commemorate National Bird-Feeding Month, established by the National Bird-Feeding Society.

A closeup shot shows off the fancy bracket.

The instructions are quite simple. Add a post bracket to the bottom of an eight-foot-long 4×4 post (paint it first, if you wish) and pound it into the ground. My dad says you could also use sono tube and concrete post holes depending on how soft or firm your ground is. Screw on a bracket (from which you’ll hang your feeder), top with a fence post cap and voilà. An attractive bird-feeder stand.

Oh, deer!

If anyone happens to let a herd of deer loose on the fourth floor of TC Media, they won’t be coming near my area. It’s not because I’m hiding a stash of deer-resistant bulbs amongst my gardening books and back issues of Canadian Gardening magazine. Rather, our web editorial director, Cath, had a container of Bobbex deer repellent under her desk that was accidentally kicked over by a colleague. The area is awash in eau de putrescent eggs, fish meal, fish oil, meat meal, garlic and clove oils, among others—all very effective, I’m sure, at repelling deer from a large backyard. A backyard full of fresh air that would help the odour to dissipate. That is not the case here.

Cath is stoically working at her desk, but it is pretty stinky over there. We thought we’d ask if anyone has advice on eliminating the bog-of-eternal-stench smell from carpet. Febreze and baking soda have failed miserably. Any advice is great welcome!

My problem with purslane and my new favourite weeder

While some of my vegetable plants have been looking a little sad in the hot, humid weather we’ve had of late, one plant that seems to be thriving in my garden is purslane. I know, it has more antioxidants than kale, but I’d much rather it grow in orderly rows like the rest of my garden. So instead of eating it, I decided to wage war on it. The problem was, that instead of pulling out big wads of purslane (which is quite easy when the plants get to a certain size), there were little, individual shoots everywhere! I remembered that I had a WeedComb in the shed and dug it out to try.

My WeedComb was the right tool to tackle an overabundance of purslane!

By scraping it across the soil, the WeedComb lifted each individual piece of purslane up and out of the soil by the roots. On a hot, sunny day, it made my job much easier. You need a different type of weeder to conquer dandelions and other deeply rooted weeds, but for annoying weeds that have shallow roots and spread, like creeping Charlie and purslane, I’ll be using my WeedComb.

Pretty in pink with a dash of yellow: My 2012 containers

The weather was so perfect in early May, I got to plant my containers much earlier than in previous years. I had the urn I bought before Christmas to fill, a gorgeous, turquoise, printed pot I got as a birthday present and a couple of rustic, terra cotta pots that I bought from a yard sale. These are the decorative ones. I also filled an old whisky barrel with some herbs.

I thought I’d share the results as I’m quite happy with how things turned out. I went with a pink theme this year out front and reserved a big yellow dahlia for my turquoise pot, which sits atop my new patio table out back.

All of the plants, with the exception of the gerbera daisy, which was an Easter present from my parents, are from President’s Choice. Some I bought on a grocery store outing, some I received at a President’s Choice preview event to try out.

Pot number 1, clockwise from left: Gerbera daisy (you can just see the leaves, but its blooms are pink), 'Cotton Candy' dahlia, lemongrass, 'Wasabi' coleus, Lanai Twister Pink verbena, 'Goldi' creeping Jenny

Pot number 1: This one was really fun to make because I needed lots of plants to make it lush and full. I chose all pink flowers, but I like how the verbena has the white to break it up. I also repeated the contrast foliage of the lime green coleus in the creeping Jenny. The lemongrass I will be able to harvest and eat throughout the summer. I learned that trick (of adding edibles to pots) from Paul Zammit, director of horticulture at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Pot number 2, clockwise from left: Dahlinova Alabama dahlia, spearmint, 'Star Dust' White Sparkle euphorbia

Pot number 2: If anyone asked what I wanted for my birthday this year, I replied: “Pots or anything for the garden.” I got this amazing turquoise pot from my sister, brother-in-law and niece and I knew exactly what colour would look fantastic in it: yellow. I added some spearmint to enjoy as a tea and in summer desserts. And I fell in love with the delicate, barely-there white flowers on a wee euphorbia.

Pot number 3, from left to right: Dahlinova Lisa Dark Pink dahlia, Baby Tut cyperus

Pot number 3: For this pot, I ignored the rule that things look better grouped in odd numbers and simply planted this stunning pink dahlia and the swirly, curly cyperus.

Pot number 4: Hot pink petunias and blue mystery flowers.

Pot number 4: I can’t take credit for this one, it all came planted together in on pot. But it carried on my pink theme, and I wanted to show how effortless container planting can be if you’re not sure what to put together. Sometimes the nursery does all the work for you!

Previewing plants from President’s Choice

The annual President’s Choice Lawn & Garden Insider’s Report luncheon is a hot-ticket event for garden writers, because we get to turn our plots into trial gardens. This year, a room at the Toronto Botanical Garden was turned into a greenhouse so we could preview all the hot new plants that we’ll find at garden centres this spring. And let’s face it, most of us will make it to one of Loblaw’s parking lot nurseries at least once. Who doesn’t love buying a chicken, a Joe Fresh T-shirt and a dahlia or two in one shopping trip? Plus, I have to say their plants are always top-notch and affordable. I was able to chat with some of the growers, as well as listen to them tell the whole group of us about their breeding programs and their latest innovations.

Here are just a few of the plants I’m excited about. I’ll be including others in a “Hot plants for 2012″ piece premiering next week! Also premiering next week is the Lawn & Garden Insider’s Report. Keep an eye out for it in stores!

1. Haskap berries
To be honest, I had never heard of these little gems until Signe Langford wrote about them in her 2012 “new edibles to try” piece. Apparently they taste like a cross between a raspberry and a blueberry. Apparently you need two different varieties to get adequate pollination. I got ‘Indigo Gem’ and ‘Indigo Treat’. Excited to see how they grow–and to taste the berries!

Haskap berries

2. Brunnera Jack Frost
This will be one of my first purchases from the nursery this year. Named “perennial of the year” for 2012, brunneras are deer-resistant and shade-loving. This will be a perfect plant for the back of my lot where the tree canopy casts a giant shadow for most of the day, and where the deer enter the yard if they’re in the neighbourhood!

Brunnera 'Jack Frost'

3. Suncatcher Pink Lemonade Petunias
Last year it was the black petunia. This year, it’s all about pink lemonade. The colour on these blooms is just so unique and pretty, and they’ll contrast nicely with most other hues.

Suncatcher Pink Lemonade Petunia

4. Lanai Verbena Twister Pink
This pretty little number is so unique with its ring of miniature, two-toned blooms around a hollow centre. These will be fantastic for pots. I have a cone-shaped bamboo wall planter that I bought at the Ideal Home & Garden Show in Hamilton. I think one or two are destined to be included in it!

Lanai Verbena Twister Pink

5. PC Vegetables in a Cage
President’s Choice always has great edible plant offerings for both small and large spaces. A couple of years ago it was the upside-down, hanging tomato basket, last year it was the salad bowl garden. This year they’ve introduced vegetables all potted up with a cage around them. All you need to do is add water!

PC Vegetables in a Cage

The elusive white asparagus

On a high school trip to France, I spent a few days in Lyon, billeted by a local family. My first night at the dinner table, I was passed a plate of what looked like thick, albino asparagus. I had never seen such a thing! I don’t recall being much of a vegetable eater back then, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I put a couple on my plate. I tentatively tasted a small bite, worried that I’d hate it. But I didn’t. It was delicious, even though it was served cold—and it would be years before I’d get another taste.

Just as we anticipate the green asparagus season here in Ontario, Europeans await the spring window when white asparagus becomes available. My mom and I recently travelled to the south of Holland (to visit Floriade), Brussels and Dusseldorf where white asparagus season was in full swing.

At Floriade, there was a whole exhibit devoted to growing white asparagus (and preparing it)—with samples! My mom and I chatted up the sample lady, who was representing Teboza, a Dutch company that specializes in asparagus cultivation and research. Our little cup of peeled, boiled and buttered white asparagus was so delicious we vowed we’d find a restaurant that served it before our trip was over.

Opportunity knocked at Brasserie du Jaloa in Brussels, where a prix fixe menu offered white asparagus as an appetizer. Sold! I think the waiter thought my mom and I were crazy because we were so excited about it. And we weren’t disappointed. We each got four juicy stalks, covered in fresh herbs and egg salad. I know that sounds a little weird, but it all worked together! It was so incredibly delicious.

I love green asparagus season and I always get my fill of local stalks each spring. White asparagus, however, is like the Polkaroo. Some supermarkets have started to carry it, but it’s still rather elusive. Even the Canadian Food Inspection Agency doesn’t have grade standards for white asparagus. A little Google search turned up a couple of Ontario growers: Mazak Farms in St. Thomas and Janssen Produce & Specialties Inc. in Simcoe. Perhaps a little road trip is in order once the asparagus is ready sometime in May!

Are you able to find white asparagus where you live? And does anyone know why white asparagus is not more popular here in Canada?

White asparagus at Floriade. Apparently the small ones are more tender and considered restaurant-grade.

Success! We finally found white asparagus at Brasserie du Jaloa in Brussels, Belgium.

White asparagus is so popular, they make it in chocolate form, as seen here at a department store in Dusseldorf, Germany.

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