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Spooky Halloween horticulture

With the arrival of Halloween tomorrow, the houses in my neighborhood are becoming ghoulish haunts. Front yards are littered with tombstones and zombies and skeletons are lurking in the shadows. I love when homeowners make the effort to create haunted gardens, even if it’s a traditional jack-o-lantern greeting children as they scream “trick or treat?”

Haunting my front door this Halloween is the Headless Horseman.

Haunting my front door this Halloween is the Headless Horseman.

Have you ever wondered why we crave pumpkins for Halloween?

The tradition dates back several centuries to Ireland, where a lazy farmer named Stringy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. When the time came to pay for his drink, Jack convinced the Devil to transform into a coin, but instead of paying with it, he put it the coin in his pocket with a silver cross to prevent the Devil from transforming back. When Jack finally decided to let the Devil go, he made the Devil promise that the he wouldn’t take his soul.

Unfortunately for Jack, he died the following Halloween (of unrelated causes) and was turned away from the Heaven because of his sinful lifestyle. Turning to the Gates of Hell as a last resort, he was turned away by the Devil because the Devil had promised not to claim Jack’s soul. Poor Jack was alone in the darkness, but the Devil took pity on him and gave him a glowing piece of coal to light his way. Luckily Jack found a turnip and put the burning coal inside. To this day, Jack is roaming the earth, carrying the turnip lantern to find his way in the darkness.

Although there are many different versions of Stringy Jack’s story, all lead to the tradition of carving turnips. Since pumpkins were more plentiful then turnips in North America, Irish emigrants decided to hollow out the large orange gourds when making their Jack-o-Lanterns for Halloween.

To read more Halloween horticulture, check out Charmian Christie’s article ‘Halloween Plant Lore.

Fabulous fall foliage

treeIf you haven’t been outside lately, you’re missing the fabulous fall foliage. As the days get shorter and the temperature drops, trees sense the approach of winter. During the fall, the green canopy of summer transforms into a colourful smorgasbord of reds, oranges, and yellows. Have you ever wondered what triggers the leaves to change colour?

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This is the maple tree in my backyard. Each fall, it becomes an incredible shade of golden yellow. When the afternoon sun hits the leaves, it glows!

During my horticultural studies, my ornamental plant professor explained it best. Leaves change colour because of a chemical shift in the foliage. During the summer, leaves produce chlorophyll, which is used to absorb sunlight, which is then turned into glucose in other words, photosynthesis. As the tree prepares to hibernate chlorophyll production slows down and the glucose and nutrients from the leaves are absorbed by the branches, trunk, and roots. Since chlorophyll makes the leaves green, the remaining pigments in the leaves take over. Yellow and orange leaves contain carotene (the same pigments that give carrots their bright orange colour). Red and purple leaves contain anthrocyanins (which give radishes and red roses their vibrant red colour).

Pretty technical, I know, but it does shed some light on the chemical shift that the leaves are experiencing. Of course, there are other factors that influence how vibrant the colours become including temperature and soil moisture. In southern Ontario, our fall colours seem to pop after we enjoy several consecutive warm, sunny days and cool nights. I can’t imagine living somewhere in the world where they don’t experience changing seasons. As we transition into each new season, the garden is filled with new splendors to explore!

Celebrating 175 years!

Last night The Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto held a gala reception to celebrate their 175th anniversary. Speakers included Mayor David Miller; The Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario; Paul Zammit from the Toronto Botanical Garden and Marjorie Harris, author of my fave gardening book this season, Ecological Gardening.

The event was held at Allan Gardens, this gem in the middle of the city that I didn't know existed! I had to Google-map it before I left. The reception began in the Palm House, (a structure built in 1910 that was modeled after similar buildings from that era in the United States and England). Afterwards, you could stroll through the six greenhouses that play host to different themes and plant life. Right now there are displays of colourful mums for their Chrysanthemum Festival and I was told there are some beautiful holiday blooms around Christmastime.

You can get to the entrance from the south side of Carlton Street between Jarvis and Sherbourne. According to the website, Allan Gardens is open from 10 to 5. If you live in Toronto, I encourage you to check it out! I've heard that it's really neat to go in the dead of winter when you're longing for signs of life and greenery.

Here are some photos I took of the event.

Me and The Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. I used to be a guest from time to time on his show, Homepage, when he was still at CityTV and CP24.

Me and The Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. I used to be a guest from time to time on his show, Homepage, when he was still at CityTV and CP24.

Walking into the Chrysanthemum Festival greenhouse.

Walking into the Chrysanthemum Festival greenhouse.

100 oil lamps were positioned throughout all the gardens creating a warm ambience.

100 oil lamps were positioned throughout all the gardens creating a warm ambience.

I'm clearly not a botanical photographer, but I loved the rich, buttery yellow of this flower and the curly petals.

I'm clearly not a botanical photographer, but I loved the rich, buttery yellow of this flower and its curly petals.

Cool gadget – time lapse garden camera

I stumbled upon this nifty garden device the other day while I was surfing the web. The GardenWatch Cam is perfect for gardeners who love gadgets. Maybe this is something you’d like to add to your wish list for Santa I know, I shouldn’t be thinking about the ‘C’ word already, but Santa’s elves needs time to build all the toys you know!

be41_gardenwatch_cam_ingroundThe GardenWatch Cam by Brinno is designed to be placed outside in your garden to take photos at specific predetermined time settings. Simply put, you can record your flowers blooming, speed it up, and then watch it on your computer. It’s not like sitting on your deck watching the grass grow in real time. The time-lapsed images are sped up so you can watch seedlings sprout, a morning glory climb up a trellis, bees pollinate flowers, or capture the sneaky garden gnome who mysteriously manages to be in a different spot in your garden every morning.

Housed in a weather resistant plastic case, the GardenWatch Cam blends into the garden so you won’t even notice it’s there. At the end of the season, you can download the images and play it back to watch your garden bloom all over again. Take a peek at some of these videos filmed with the GardenWatch Cam.

Seedlings sprouting

Hyacinth blooming

For bird watchers trying to catch a glimpse of visitors to your bird feeder, be sure to check out the BirdWatch Cam.

Urban activism: Greening Toronto one plant at a time

posterplantpotsHere’s another cool example of guerilla gardening. The creators of these ingenious little plant pots, Toronto residents Eric Cheung and Sean Martindale prefer it be called ‘urban activism.’ Either way, I love how they have set out to add a beautiful, living element to poster-plastered spaces. Read about their project and find out how to download their free templates on the green design blog Inhabitat.

Have you seen any in the city?

Photo courtesy of Michael Chrisman/Torontoist

Bountiful beets

3-1611My vegetable harvest from the garden is slowly winding down. I’ve enjoyed radishes, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, and beets.

This is the first year I tried growing beets, and they did amazingly well. I started them from seeds in early April and they exploded. Unlike my radishes, that were infested by root maggots, nothing attacked the beets.

I had planned on pickling some of them, but they never made it to the Mason jars. Instead, they were barbequed, baked, roasted, and made into delicious salads.

Next year I’ll have to grow more of these scrumptious root vegetables.

Autumn inspired planter

I hate to admit it, but it’s feels like autumn is approaching. The days are getting shorter, the temperature is dropping, and my annuals are looking rather weary.

Autumn is actually one of my favourite seasons, and since we didn’t have much of a summer, I’m welcoming fall with open arms. Last night I decided it was time to give my front door planter a makeover, especially since it was looking pretty sad. The bacopa had become stringy, the shasta daisies were spent, and the potato vine was flopping around. After a few minutes the container was transformed to a cheerful fall planter filled with mums, icicle pansies and ornamental kale.

fall-planter1

For more inspiring fall containers, check out these articles:

Fabulous fall containers

Plant a fall container with punch

Perk up a sleepy fall container

Sucker for succulents

chicks-and-hens2Most people choose plants for their garden because of the showy and colourful flowers, but I love plants with unusual foliage, especially succulent plants with cool foliage. Hens and chicks are one of my personal favourite foliage plants in the garden. chicks-and-hens

One of the reasons why I love hens and chicks (Sempervivum) is because of their fleshy rosettes of leaves. Did you know that their botanical name Sempervivum means ‘always alive’. These hardy little perennials are drought tolerante and love full sun. In my rock garden, I have a dozen or so mature plants and two of them currently have flower spikes thrusting into the air. I’m always amazed at how sturdy they are. The top heavy spikes look like they could fall over at any moment. I love how unusual the flowers are. The cluster of starshaped flowers look like something out of a sci-fi movie.chicks-and-hens-close-up

If you’re looking for more information on how to grow your own hens and chicks in garden, check out some of these great articles at CanadianGardening.com.

An ingenious example of guerrilla gardening

guerrillagardening2If you can find them among the ever-growing piles of garbage in Toronto, abandoned newspaper boxes can be an unsightly blight on our street corners. Karina at Canadian Gardening magazine forwarded me a link yesterday afternoon to a local blogger’s attempt to beautify our city. ‘Blade Diary’ actually built wooden flower boxes this past spring that fit perfectly inside some of these abandoned, tagged garbage targets. I guess once some of the owners found out they gave the flower boxes the boot and starting using them again. Too bad…I like the petunias better.

You can find more photos of Blade’s gardening project here. He even shows sketches of his project plans!

Did anyone see these boxes in their urban habitat before they were taken away? Have you seen other great examples of guerrilla gardening where you live?

Welcome to a Gardener’s Playground

I've spent most of life playing in one garden or another. Both my grandmother and mother nurtured my green thumb from an early age. My Oma could make anything grow and she happily shared her gardening secrets with me as we puttered around her garden. I remember spending warm summer afternoons picking red currents for jam or munching on cucumbers freshly picked from the veggie patch. My mom's garden was always brimming with colourful blooms and she was never upset with me when she caught me stomping through her flowerbeds to pick the tulips, peonies, or dahlias. Instead, she gave me my very own garden where she encouraged me to explore and get my hands dirty.

It seemed only natural to study horticulture, landscape design and then publishing. During my summers and school holidays, I worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario as a student gardener. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to play in a public garden, where so many experienced gardeners have left their own `gardening fingerprint` by nurturing the vast collection of plants. I also worked at a few local garden centre where I played in the production and retail facilities. I did everything from working as a cashier and customer service rep, to drawing landscaping plans, to hosting seminars, but what I loved most was working in the greenhouse. I never truly appreciated how much time and effort was spent growing the plants behind the scenes. The whole process is very complex, from ordering the plugs, to planting, pinching, watering, fertilizing, replanting and then watching the swarms of gardeners scoop them up on the May long weekend. What an incredibly rewarding experience. Each season brought a new crop to nurture–annuals, mums, poinsettias, hydrangeas, Easter lilies–the list goes on and on.

From my first garden as a child, to an apartment filled with houseplants and a balcony brimming with containers, to a postage-sized townhouse plot, I've continued to play and learn. Today, I garden on a mature 75×175-foot lot an hour west of Toronto, which I share with my husband, daughter, dog, and four cats (much to their dismay, my feline friends are only permitted to admire the garden from indoors). Although it's a work in progress, it truly is my gardening playground! A little fun in the garden is good for your soil!

If you've got a thought or question to share, please post a comment!

Anja Sonnenberg

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