Gardening Blog

Low-maintenance Monday: The blanket flower

Orange is currently a hot colour: orange jeans, tops, shoes and coats—bold, cheerful and friendly. That defines the orange in Gaillardia ‘Oranges and Lemons’.

Also known as blanket flowers, they are super-tough, perfect for benign neglect in heat and drought, and will tolerate poor soil. The daisy-like, tangerine-orange flowers call out for attention with their yellow serrated tips. Downy green leaves have a hairy texture. One of the most valuable features of this cheery plant is its long bloom, from early summer to late fall.

Blanket flowers make a vibrant cut flower. They attract butterflies and can be used in meadow gardens, massed in a border or as an accent. Photo courtesy of Heritage Perennials.

Dugald Cameron, owner of, selected the variety ‘Oranges and Lemons’ as one of his plant choices for the sun in Gardening from a Hammock. This plant provides a show of up to 75 extra-large, yellow-tipped, soft orange blossoms from midsummer on, he explains. If you do a little deadheading, Dugald predicts, they will bloom into the fall. This is a prairie native workhorse that thrives in poor, well-drained soil in the baking sun.

‘Oranges and Lemons’ grow 40 to 45 cm high and spread 30 to 45 cm in zones 4 to 9.  Other varieties come in warm colours of red, orange and gold and may be slightly smaller or larger.

Gaillardia ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Dirt: the book and the movie

At my local library last week I stumbled across a DVD brazenly titled “DIRT!” which I of course immediately picked up, being one of those people who knows I should use the term ‘soil’ but can’t resist the earthy real-ness of the d-word.
It’s a documentary about… well, dirt, and it’s role in farming, civilization, food stability, and the roots of life itself. Before you yawn, I must tell you that this is a funny, engaging movie, as well as being informative a thought-provoking.
There’s cute little animated dirt bits commenting on the scientific stuff, and astonishing news about microbial fuel cells (! I’d never heard of them before either). While it feels slightly soapboxy when it gets into mining and clear cutting, there are wonderful insights into traditional farming in India and digging up concrete playgrounds in NYC.
I found it well worth the watch (as did the people at Sundance) and am now hunting down the book on which it was based, Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, by William Bryant Logan.
Happy Digging!

What to do with zucchini-shaped bounty

A friend recently posted on her Facebook: “Anyone who wants zucchini, come and get it. I have lots.”

I wanted to post back–but didn’t–”I’ll come get some of yours if you come get some of mine.”

Let the jokes, jibes, and ring-and-run deposits begin.

But for all the groans about its proliferious growth and size, zucchini is a great vegetable. No, really. I mean it. I’m not being sarcastic at all. It’s got next to no saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium, but chock full of good stuffs like minerals, vitamins, and dietary fibre. It fills you up quick and takes on the flavour of whatever it’s cooked with, so it’s great for stretching out meals.

But, dang it all, you’ve got to eat that stuff almost constantly to keep up with it when you convince yourself every year that six plants will be about right. (Next year, I SWEAR, I will only have two.) I have tried slicing, blanching, and freezing it, as well as drying it to add to soups and such, both with marginal results. (The exception: shredded it holds up well enough for baking.)

It really is best fresh, that’s all there is to it. And it’s best picked early. Tiny baby zucchini 3-5 inches long tossed in a salad are just lovely, prime 8-12 inch squash are ideal for most other uses. If you see one this size, pick it now. Really. If you leave it, thinking to return at supper time to prepare it, it may have gained 5 inches. Do not turn your back.

In the event you end up with some oversized specimens, do not despair. You can peel them, core them, and shred the remaining flesh for quick breads (or the lovely marmalade included below). I also like to split them lengthwise, core them, and lay the halves on a baking sheet to receive fillings of almost any kind (ground beef and mushroom soup is a stupidly easy one). Throw it in the oven for 45 minutes or so, sprinkle with cheese, and dinner is served.

Not that there is a lack of zucchini recipes out there, but here’s a few more ideas I personally endorse (being quite experienced at getting rid of this stuff):

-add it to chilli, minestrone, spaghetti sauce, lasagne, taco filling even, sliced, shredded, or pureed, depending on preference or how sneaky you are trying to be.

-As a side dish, zucchini pairs nicely with carrots and baby onions. Steam and toss with a little butter, dill, and rosemary. Or try tossing slices or wedges with an equal amount of similarly chopped tomatoes and roasting them. Serve sprinkled with mozzarella or Jack cheese.

-If you like sautéed onions with your steak, add some mushrooms and zucchini too. Don’t forget the pepper.

-Grill zucchini strips and red, yellow, and green pepper strips that have been tossed with olive oil, garlic, oregano and thyme. About 15 minutes will do. Serve over Caesar salad.

-Quick breads hide zucchini very well. Recipes for brownies and spice-type cakes abound, but this is my favourite as it is a little less sinful but still feels like a treat. My kids know these just as “chocolate muffins”. Insert mad-genius laughter here.

3/4 cup butter or margarine

3/4 cup applesauce

1 cup white sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 cup plain yogurt

3/4 cup cocoa powder

2 1/2 cups flour (I use half white, half whole wheat)

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 cups grated zucchini

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Beat together first 5 ingredients until light and creamy. Add the yogurt and cocoa powder and beat until smooth. Stir in remaining ingredients except zucchini until just combined, then fold in the zucchini. Fill muffin cups, and bake 25 minutes. Nutella is the perfect topping. But that kind of goes without saying, doesn’t it? Makes 20-24 muffins.


-Zucchini Marmalade

This is an old recipe from Chris’ grandmother that has stood the test of time. I’m not that crazy about marmalade, but I love this.

Put 5 firmly packed cups peeled, grated zucchini in a heavy pot. Add the juice and grated or finely chopped rind from 2 oranges and 1 lemon, 1 small can of crushed pineapple (drained), and 5 cups white sugar. Bring slowly to a low boil, and cook until thick, stirring often. Pour into hot, sterilized jars, and process for 10 minutes to seal (or just stick them in the fridge). Makes about 5 500mL jars.

Garden eye spy: Lovely lilies

Orange blooms are one of those things in nature that I am always immediately attracted to, which is curious really considering I pretty much ignore it in every other form. There is something about the rich burnt shade that captivates me. It is warm, strong, reassuring and strangely soothing all at once. So imagine my delight when July at last arrives and with it hundreds of gorgeous orange lilies.

Whenever I photograph a fabulous flower or plant I like to try and look at in a different way, as though I am seeing it for the very first time. This became especially true as I set about capturing an orange lily on camera, as they are seen everywhere and all too often classified as ‘ordinary.’ In my mind, however, orange lilies are like miniature sunsets, bursting with vibrant character. How can that possibly be ordinary?

{Laura L. Benn is the Multi-brand Web Content Editor at TC Media.  Follow her writing, photography and other creative ventures on her self-titled blog or via Twitter.}

Rescuing garden centre orphans

The height of summer hits and it’s inevitable: heat ravaged, root bound annuals get deeply slashed price tags. And I, being me, can’t help but take a quick gander through the rows of pallets and flats at the local big box.

This year I scored: a few weeks ago two plants from my wish list, wood forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) and an all-yellow Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule ‘Pacino’), were languishing away hidden among the dried-out grasses, begging me to take them home for a buck a piece. How could I refuse?

Back home though, reality set in. How would I keep this poor things from going even further downhill when I added transplant stress and a heat wave to their list of complaints?

Well, they lived for me to tell the tale, so I’ll tell you what I did: after transplanting them I top dressed them with a couple handfuls each of worm compost and watered them in well. Then, for about the first week, in addition to keeping them watered, I covered them with milk crates I have kicking around.

This is a trick taught to me by an old friend, now gone. It keeps the airflow at maximum while keeping the transplants in the shade while they get the feel of their new home, and is heavy enough that it doesn’t blow away like a cardboard box might.

After that first week, I took the crates on and off randomly for a few days to expose the plants gradually to the sun. They’ve been unprotected (but still watered well) now for a good five days and here they are:



They need a little clean up, but lots of happy growth going on. I’d call this rescue successful… do you think it counteracts the sow thistle I can’t seem to catch up with?


Low-maintenance Monday: The toad lily

Although it looks as if it could have been Photoshopped for a sci-fi cartoon, the toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta) actually comes from moist woodlands and high elevations from Eastern Asia to the Philippines. Its unfortunate common name, the toad lily, refers to the frog-like blotches and markings on the flowers. This is misleading, since the bright purple markings on the flower are intriguing rather than toad-like. The funnel-shaped white flowers are spotted with vibrant purple spots with matching centres. The stems are leafy and arching.

Despite their exotic look, toad lilies are easy to grow. What makes them a special perennial is not only the bright, unique flowers, but also their ability to bloom in shade from late summer to early fall. Not too many plants provide bright colour in the shade this late in the season.

The toad lily grows 60 to 90 cm high and 45 to 60 cm wide in zones 4 through 9. They can be used as an accent, a cut flower or in a woodland garden. Gardeners note that Tricyrtis hirta should be planted where they can easily be seen.

Master gardener Merle Burston chose the specific variety Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’ in Gardening from a Hammock. “The starry, burgundy-spotted white flowers of the toad lily bloom down its stem in autumn,” she explains.

‘Miyazaki’ is a slightly smaller variety, 45 to 60 cm high, with a 45 to 60 cm spread. It grows in a compact green mound. 

The flowers of the toad lily have both male and female organs and are pollinated by insects. The clumps can be divided in early spring.

Tricyrtis hirta is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Lost and found

I’m forever losing things in the garden. I can spend ten minutes going back and forth the yard trying to locate the trowel that I just had in my hand. And despite owning three good pairs of secateurs, I’m pretty proud of myself when one is where it belongs in my apron.

I’m probably the only one this happens to. Maybe it’s just another symptom of my slightly scatterbrained existence. It’s usually harmless, at most mildly frustrating. I generally find what I’m looking for. Eventually. Even if it’s next spring.

But last week I lost something I don’t want to wait until next spring to find: my wedding band. It slipped off at some point, I’m pretty sure while I was in the garden. I’ve sifted through the piles of pulled weeds; nothing turned up. My usual patience with lost items is gone. I want to find that ring.

Chris has offered to track down a metal detector so we can keep up the hunt. It’s a great idea, but I do wonder what else will be found, once we actually go looking? Our house sits on the same land as the original community school did back in the day, so every once in a while we dig up a little piece of history, like this 1941 Canadian penny that recently turned up in my yard, King George and all. How many horseshoe nails will we find before my ring turns up?

I suppose it’s the unexpected finds–the things you weren’t looking for–that are the most fun, from volunteer plants and unusual wildlife, to coins and bits of farrier miscellany. I could wax philosophical here, about finding pleasure in the unexpected, taking life as it comes, not stressing out about things that don’t go according to your own little plan…

All true. But I really want my ring back.


Status report, post-storm

Thank you, hail storm.

Siding: intact.

Windows: intact.

Shingles: not so much.

Car: dented.

Van: dented. No broken glass. <relieved sigh>

Corn: surviving.

Broccoli: untouched!

Pumpkins: assaulted, but redeemable.

Trees: ripped up, leaves strewn over the lawns and streets; carrying on admirably.

Flowers: surprisingly, unsquashed! Floppy comfrey and Rudbeckia, but stems intact.

Nieghbors and friends: many much worse off.

Insurance claims: large.

Local glass companies: in for a busy week.

Gratitude: grown.

Respect for Mother Nature: intact.

Low-maintenance Monday: Purple coneflower

When I was so much younger than today, I used to jump into projects two feet forward, head a little behind.  The purple coneflowers that are rising so regally in this hot, dry summer remind me of one of those days. The purple coneflower, or echinacea purpurea, was one of the few hardy, robust, blooming plants in my small, neglected garden when I read an article about how powerful the it is at boosting the immune system. Ever the Earth Mother, I dug up a giant clump and took the roots for a tonic. I followed the recipe and let the roots sit in an alcohol-based concoction for six months, after which I drained the liquid. The only problem was that none of my children or my husband would go near the muddy, foul-smelling tonic. Only later did I learn how to properly wash and cut up the roots.

Medicinal lore is only one of the reasons that the purple coneflower is one of our most popular native wildflowers. It gives in so many ways. Drought tolerant, it provides a show during hot, dry summers and blooms longer than most perennials, from summer through autumn. It can be used as an accent or a cut flower.

The purple coneflower is ideal for the middle or back border as it grows from 75 to 120 cm tall and spreads 45 to 60 cm wide anywhere from zones 3 to 9.  The purple, daisy-like flowers rest on coarse dark green leaves with an orange-brown central cone. The Latin name, echinacea comes from the Greek echinos, meaning hedgehog as the flowering heads are cone shaped. Petals often droop down in a graceful pattern.

Master Gardener Susan Lipchak, one of the many gardeners featured in Gardening from a Hammock, explains that there are now many hybrids of Echinacea available in orange, pink, yellow, white and lime green, and different flower shapes, but she prefers the tried and true native.

Photo courtesy of Heritage Perennials

Bees and butterflies are attracted to the Echinacea purpurea, and the seed heads are attractive to American goldfinches during the fall and winter. “The sight of snow capping the seed heads during the winter is an unexpected bonus,” she says.

Aldona Satterthwaite, executive director at the Toronto Botanical Garden, also selected Echinacea purpurea, but the ‘Vintage Wine’ cultivar. This species has large purple-red flowers with a reddish-brown centre cone and non-drooping petals.

Echinacea purpurea is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.

Dear deer:

Hello. I don’t know if you remember me; I’m the lady you’ve dodged on the highway numerous times, the one who lives in the big white house you mosey past on your way up into the hills behind town.

It’s been lovely to watch you wander through over the years, and I don’t mind you bedding down in the back pasture from time to time. I have not even begrudged you the chomps taken out of some of the beets last fall. Overall, the unspoken understanding between us has been honoured: I leave you alone, you come and go with a minimum of disruption.

Until this year. I don’t know why you have broken our peaceful truce, but it is clearly over: every single one of my pea plants has had the top neatly munched off. Every developing pod is ending up in someone’s stomach, and it’s not mine.

I haven’t offended you in some way, have I? Is it repercussions from the collision two years ago? Are you against the lilac hedge we put in? Is this a protest?

I know you need to eat. I’m perfectly willing to feed you. There is grass, and buttercups, and lamb’s quarters… heck, have some stork’s bill! It’s abundant, and I have no plans to eat it, as opposed to the peas.

I bear you no ill will, but you must identify the offending Bambi and get him in line or I will be forced to take action. I have netting; don’t make me use it.



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