{ Archive for the ‘seasons’ Category }

Taking a deep breath and perusing the seed catalogues

I have never started my seeds indoors before. Sure, I've thrown a few in the ground over the years to see what would come up, but I always worried I didn't have enough space or light to sow them inside. I had varied success with my veggies last year, but my sister and I both realized that the long wait for our peppers and tomatoes had a lot to do with planting them too late in the season. This year we're determined to get a head start.

We decided to order seeds together, but plant in our own respective homes. I'm going to sacrifice the windowsill in my home office and the space around it. My sister's apartment is a virtual greenhouse–her lemongrass is a tree!–and her husband built her these awesome shelves for her seed pots. I figure my odds of fresh herbs and veggies increase with both of us planting the same thing. If one of us fails (most likely me), we have backup.

But where to begin? I find seed catalogues so overwhelming–especially when looking at 10 tomatoes with the same description. Cross-eyed and confused, I turned to Anne Marie for some advice in choosing what to plant.

Here are her helpful tips:

• Look for flowers and vegetables listed as award winners. These are some of the best ones to grow.
• Good plants to start from seeds indoors include tomatoes, marigolds, sunflowers, squash, geraniums, lettuce, sweet peas, cosmos, morning glory and basil.
• Sunflowers, squash, lettuce, sweet peas and morning glory are also good to sow directly outside, too.
• Not all plants are worth starting from seeds. Some are better divided or started by cuttings. (Good call, I'll reign in my list!)
• Buy the size of package you can use in one year.
• If packets contain less than 10 seeds then expect to pay premium prices because they have to be collected by hand, the plant is rare, or the plant only produces a small number of seeds.
• Beware of packets that contain 1,000 seeds for a low price such as $2.49.
• After your seed list is assembled a little time searching on the Internet can give you the specific details about how to sow them–when to sow i.e. days before planting them outside, to cover or not to cover (light vs darkness), ideal temperature for germination, days until germination, etc.

Someone recommended a seed company to my sister, so we both compiled a list and our seeds are in the mail! I just have to buy my little seed starting pots and I'm good to go!

Forcing branches and other ways to start spring now!

Elaine working her magic

Elaine working her magic

Sunday morning it was almost as though Mother Nature was mocking me by throwing snowflakes every which way as I headed into the Distillery District in downtown Toronto. How dare I think about spring! But despite the wintry day, spring awaited me inside Tappo Wine Bar & Restaurant. I was there to attend “A Cabin Fever Breakaway: A festival for gardeners longing for spring.” I was invited by Elaine Martin, owner of Vintage Gardener and the organizer of the event.

Brilliant yellow forsythia branches and daffodils, multicoloured primula, deep purple hyacinth and candy-coloured tulips surrounded a table filled with the amazing vintage pots and vases that Elaine sells in her store. I was feeling inspired already!

So what were forsythia branches, one of the first signs of spring, doing inside when it's clearly still winter? That's what Elaine focused on for the first part of her talk—how to force branches (forsythia and magnolia work best) into thinking it's spring. This is something I'm definitely going to try—I have two forsythia bushes in the backyard. And it seems so easy!

With this planter, Elaine explained how to gently bend the pussy willow branches to create a handle!

With this planter, Elaine explained how to gently bend the pussy willow branches to create a handle!

According to Elaine, all you have to do is wait for a sunny day when the temperature goes up by 10 degrees. Cut some branches—longer than you need—and bring them indoors. Once inside, trim about six inches from the bottom and then take a hammer and crush the bottom or make cuts up the stem. Then place them in room temperature water and wait for the magic!

Make sure your branches are in indirect light. Elaine says it can take anywhere from three days to two weeks for blooms to appear.

The next part of Elaine's presentation involved creating planters with the rainbow of flowers she had brought. I took some pics because they were so beautiful and definitely the perfect way to bring spring inside your home during the last days of winter.

Elaine has lots of great workshops coming up in her store. Stay tuned to our events page for details!

Too many cooks?

Days of being cosseted and pampered in Quebec (if I were a poodle, my name would be Fifi) came to an abrupt end at the luxurious Ripplecove Inn and Spa in the Eastern Townships. As we pulled up to the picture-postcard-pretty site, I felt I was arriving on the set of a charming and wholesome Hollywood movie, such as Father of the Bride. General manager Michel Vauclair showed us to our rooms–mine was #36, with a balcony, a pot-bellied stove and a stunning view of Lake Massawippi. (All the rooms in this much-vaunted and very romantic inn are unique, and you can look on their website to choose the room that best reflects your taste.) As beautiful as Ripplecove Inn is in winter, I’d love to come back in the summer to see its English gardens, which were tough to spot under the mountains of snow.

Once we’d freshened up and changed, we were invited down to the library for a glass of champagne. Then Mr. Vauclair led the way down to the dining room and lowered the boom: we had to work for our supper. Chef’s whites were passed out and donned, and the agenda was laid out. We were to eat dinner at a table specially set up for us in the kitchen, but first, we had to help the chef and his assistant by setting the table, announcing the various courses, serving the meal and bussing dirty plates.

In short, we had become waitresses. But luckily, only for each other.

Of course, my tongue is firmly in cheek as I write this, for it wasn’t an ordeal at all. It was all great informal fun, and involved minimal effort on our part. Sommelier Patrick Jackson joined Mr. Vauclair at our table, and we had a wonderful time sampling various delicious Quebec wines, as well as delectable food from a special menu fit for a rajah. Chef Maxime Theriault tempted our taste buds with locally cured smoked salmon, followed by medallions of rabbit in a port wine sauce with cipollini onions, and a beef filet so tender you really could cut it with a fork. This meat was enrobed in a very thin pastry crust with a side of celeriac puree and wild huckeberry. Dessert consisted of various takes on maple and all thoroughly delicious, somehow made even more so by the fact that we were eating it in the kitchen.

Afterwards, sommelier Jackson led us on a tour of his wine cellar, and showed off his most expensive bottle–a 1957 number that sells for $1000.

It was a memorable evening punctuated by much laughter, and the seven journalists who had started out on this getaway together as strangers had become friends. And so to bed, knowing the next day we would be leaving the Eastern Townships and Quebec and returning home. (www.ripplecove.com)


Next: fabulous gardens and more in surprising central Florida

Alphabet soup for gardeners

We had a faint whiff of spring a couple of weekends ago–it was sunny and mild, the snow disappeared and there was that amazing dirt smell you get when the ground is wet and things are ready to bloom. I felt so hopeful, but alas this budding gardener had to talk some sense into herself. Spring does not begin in February in Southern Ontario. I will not be able to head outside in my old clothes and new Gloveables to spring clean my garden.

However there is lots still to do indoors–I need to order my seeds already (which I'll be doing with my sister), plant those seeds and start planning what I'll do in the garden when spring finally does arrive.

Looking for planting inspiration? Our shutterbug forum members have been busy posting photos in their annual Alphabet Soup. Started a few years ago by forum members Patty and Jean, users can post up to three photos that correspond to a new letter every other day. We are currently at the letter “N” and you can even go back and post on the other letters if you want to share your snaps.

Quebec Winter Carnival – part one

A quick post today, as I’m dashing off to the airport again (I’ll be posting a lot of stuff mid-next-week). But I wanted to mention the Quebec Winter Carnival, which I visited as part of a laugh-filled journalists’ tour billed as the Girlfriend Getaway, because there’s still time to get there if you slip away right now (it’s on this year until February 15). It was my first visit, and I had a great time. (I’ll write more in subsequent posts, but to get plugged in right away, visit http://carnaval.qc.ca).

Instead of hibernating, the citizens of Quebec City embrace and celebrate winter (yes, it is possible). The opening night festivities of the Carnaval de Quebec featured lively musical acts, fireworks and a brief appearance by Stephen Harper, though the official mascot, Bonhomme, was received with a lot more enthusiasm.

The first snowfall

The first snowfall caught some Torontonians by surprise. The garden next door is still littered with colourful plastic toys, now dusted with snow, while a forlorn-looking garden umbrella sits at half-mast in its holder.

“Geez, I didn’t think it would snow so soon,” my neighbour ruefully admitted, as the two of us shovelled our respective walks this morning. The weather is supposed to be warming up next week, so likely she’ll still have time to gather up everything before serious winter bites.

I took this photograph from my back deck, which gives you some idea of what I look at from my breakfast room. Not bad, eh? When I was a young gardener, I grew loads of flowers and little else. As a consequence, in winter my backyard looked flat, bald and blah. A depressing sight for a housebound young mother with two babies, which I was back then.

But the longer you garden, the more you learn.

Now, there’s plenty to gaze at year-round. There are loads of shrubs and small trees for visiting birds to perch on, and quite a few evergreens of various kinds, which tend to take a back seat in summer but come to the fore when the snow flies.

I really like broadleafed evergreens, too, and in this climate (Zone 6) they look good throughout winter. Sarcoxie euonymus (the plain green kind–my favourite) cloaks my fences. This plant takes a while to get established, but once it starts climbing it’s great. (In summer, vines such as clematis clamber through it.) And the neighbour whose house is joined to mine has a massive Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) that sits on our property line and lends its imposing leafy presence all year.

Some of my deciduous plants keep their foliage for a long time, too, such as the columnar beech halfway down the garden and my bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), which has taken on an impressive size.

There’s lots to love about the winter landscape.

The white stuff aside (the first snowfall of winter is always a joy), it’s been a rather unsettling week. Last Friday, I found out our major competitor, Gardening Life, is folding. Contrary to what you might think, I am saddened by this, and especially for Marjorie Harris, whose baby the magazine has been since Day One. Ironically, Marjorie and Liz Primeau, our magazine’s founding editor, are coming to my house for lunch on Monday. We try to do this once a year, and the date was decided long before this bad news broke. This time, there’ll be champagne for sure. I think we’ll drink to resilience.

Incidentally, Liz has just written her memoir. It’s called My Natural History: The Evolution of a Gardener and is published by Greystone Books. I’ve reviewed it in our winter issue, and it’s a cracking good read. And some of you may not know that as well as being a journalist and author, Marjorie is also a garden consultant. I reckon she’d be a fun person to have advise you on your patch. If you’d like to know more about the services she offers, you can check out www.marjorieharris.com/Flyer/index.php.

The last of my tasks

The weather has just not cooperated this fall. Granted my schedule can be a bit hectic, so I can't just expect Mother Nature to conform to MY timetable, but seriously, does it have to rain every time I have a free moment? It poured this past weekend, so I didn't get the opportunity to do any raking, but I managed to sneak out today for an hour before work and get some of those leaves up in my backyard before the snow flies.

The one thing I've neglected to do is trim back some of the lily and iris foliage around my yard.

I asked Anne Marie if I can cut it back before winter and here is what she had to say:

  • If your iris and lily foliage is ready to be removed (i.e easily pulled out) go right ahead.
  • Lilies: After the foliage has naturally died down, remove all but 4 cm of the stem so you know where the plant is next spring.
  • Bearded iris: Do not mulch, cut foliage down to 15 cm.

And alas, as I'm about to post this, it's starting to snow.

The #1 fall task gardeners should do

As the weather has not been particularly cooperative on the days I'm available to clean up my yard, I asked Anne Marie what the one thing is that all gardeners should do. Last year it snowed before we go all our leaves up!

Here is what she recommended:

  • Water your evergreens well
  • Prune your hybrid tea roses to knee height and mound with soil for protection
  • Tie cedars and junipers that might be damaged by ice and heavy snow loads

Ok, that's three things, but all very helpful if they apply to your yard. Oh and she recommended that I empty my rain barrel because the water will expand when frozen and could damage it. That's one thing I have managed to do.

So my mint is nestled against the house, all my pots and garden knick knackey things have been put away along with the patio furniture and the barbecue, the birdfeeder is out…

And this past weekend it rained–again–meaning my backyard is still an ocean of leaves. If I can just get home before dark one night I'll grab my rake!

Golden days

Here in Toronto, we’ve been having the most fantastic week of beautiful weather. Blue sky days with wonderful golden light, and foliage colours so radiant and vivid they almost look electric. I took this photo from the deck off my bedroom, which is on the third floor of my house. The neighbour’s silver maple was looking at its autumn best, untouched as yet by the inevitable and cruel November winds that will surely come soon to shake its branches and loosen the leaves. (I had to laugh listening to Tom Allen on CBC Radio Two Morning, who remarked on how it was so Canadian to rejoice in great weather but somehow not to trust it, needing to mutter darkly about paying the price for it later, etc. So true.)

Anyway, I was out there emptying the last of the annuals out of their pots before it got too cold to do it comfortably (the deck faces west and gets great afternoon light, but also the prevailing wind, so it can get pretty darn nippy out there if you leave these jobs too late). Once emptied, the pots were stacked in a corner where I can’t see them through the sliding door, while the potted junipers and cedars were grouped where I can. I lightly bound up the junipers with garden twine to keep their branches from being pulled down by snow, watered the evergreens within an inch of their lives and mulched. If the weather stays warm, I’ll keep giving them big drinks until the cold sets in.

Out in the garden, I planted some pure white bulbs sent to me by my friend Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. In went crocuses, species tulips, hyacinthoides, alliums and more, and the thought of them emerging next spring, joining the plethora of other bulbs already out there, will keep me smiling through another long, grey Toronto winter.

In the front, the autumn pots were definitely looking past their sell-by date, so I yanked out the spent plants and popped fresh dogwood branches in one and curly willow branches in another, then topped things off with moss and stones. Presto! Talk about a five-minute facelift. If only there was something that worked this quickly and easily on humans.

Can you pick veggies after a frost?

As you may have read, I had a real problem with my tomatoes this past season…they were so late! I managed to pick (and eat!) a few juicy, delicious beefsteaks and plums, but there were still some pretty green ones hanging out on the vine.

Then we got a sprinkling of snow and a few days of frost here and there. What to do?

According to Anne Marie, some of the slightly cold-tolerant vegetables can be picked after a frost. Apparently some even taste better (parsnips, rutabaga, kale, chard) if they are harvested after the first light frost (or two). Other cold tolerant veggies include carrots, cabbage, turnip, leeks, spinach, some lettuce, kohlrabi, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Others, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash, do not tolerate a frost and should be picked before the freezing temperatures.

When I was out raking this weekend, I grabbed the last of my tomatillos (which still seemed OK) and a promising looking tomato, which I'm happy to say is turning a happy shade of red on my windowsill.

For the rest, I'm going to try my luck at wrapping them in newspaper as Anne Marie suggested to see if they ripen on their own. Hopefully it's not too late!

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