Gardening Blog

For the love of lavender

 

 

Lavender fields forever

 

 

There’s just something about a field of lavender you have to love.

Is it the intrinsic serenity of a sea of royal purple blooms, with rows upon row of long, thin planting beds undulating like waves? Is it the sweet perfumed aroma that magically mitigates anxiety and insomnia? Maybe it’s just the simple proof that a landscape can, indeed, look as magical as a painting by Monet.

 

Lavandin

 

To me, it’s a combination of all of the above. Whether it’s the colour or the aroma or the taste, I’m often infusing aspects of lavender in my day-to-day. Imagine my excitement, then, when a trip to France took me to the heart of lavender country for a lesson in cultivation history and the distillation process at Musée de la Lavande.

Just outside of Saint-Remèze a quaint town in the Ardèche department of south-central France, this lavender museum sits in a small stone building flanked by fields of lavender harvested for essential oils – three types of lavender, in fact: fine, the most fragrant, is used for the essential aromatherapy oil; aspic, also called spike, is more medicinal and works well as an antiseptic; and lavandin, a serendipitous hybrid of fine and aspic lavender brought to us by the bees, very easily grown and often used instead of fine lavender in essential oils.

 

I can smell the difference. Can you smell the difference?

 

In this Saint-Remèze museum, you’ll learn the history of harvest (from hand to sickle to machine) and essential oil production (how lavender + water in a copper distiller yields our favourite fragarance) through film, expert guides, hands-on demonstrations and interactive displays, but if just one museum leave you craving more, don’t worry! Just slightly southwest of the Musée de la Lavande lies relaxing the Routes de la Lavande, which both boast a sea of blue in a more-than-130-kilometre route – stop along the way for a breath of fresh (fragrant) air, for photo opps against that blue-purple backdrop and, of course, at museums, distilleries and shops for more information.

 

Dry lavender ready for distillation

 

Distillation contraption

The essential oils and lavender water are in the containers at the bottom

Lavender blooms from mid-June to early August, so time your tour accordingly. And, if your schedule permits, hit the Montélimar Lavender festival, Couleur Lavande, on the second weekend of July.

Lavender fields with the ancient palace and city Grignon in the background

Purples and blues and nature, oh my!

 

Feasting in France

France is for foodies – that just goes without saying. So when you visit a country where “gourmet” simply feels like the standard, and tour a countryside famed for its fresh local fare, you may gain a few pounds, but you’ll surely have eaten like a roi.

In France’s Rhône-Alpes region, the vegetation is verdant. From veggies to lavender to olives to grapes, the tradition of cultivation predates the founding of France itself, dating back to Roman times, so the mastery of these ingredients is all but built into the population’s DNA. And it’s evident in the food they prepare, which is served up like art on a plate.

View of the Ardèche Gorge

 

Eating my way from Ardèche to Drôme (considered the gateway to the South of France), I enjoyed food fresh from the ocean and from the land, often prepared at Michelin-star restaurants, but my all-time favourite meal in France was tucked in a tiny 18th-century farmhouse-turned-restaurant/guesthouse called Le Mas des Faïsses.

Le Mas des Faïsses courtyard

 

Using ingredients from their 18 surrounding hectares of gardens, terraces and orchards, Yvette the gardener and Robert the cook create seasonal, original recipes maximizing whatever’s in season, including even edible blooms like daylilies.

 

Chef Robert telling us about the ingredients

 

Yvette the gardener is a bit shy

A floral centerpiece that turned out to be a garden-fresh salad, a pudding of pureed fresh veggies, and a selection of young goat cheese (from local goats) were just some of the stages in this five-course luncheon…

Centrepiece or salad?

Salad! (That's me eating, not smelling)

 

…but most memorable was the beet pancake of the main course. Delicious-looking, no? I had been thinking about it pretty regularly since I returned from France and finally thought to try my luck at obtaining the recipe to share with our gardening readers. And since, in this part of France, they’re as generous as they are gourmet, Robert sent us his recipe and let us all in on the secret to the alchemy of his famous fresh fare.

 

Main-course magnificence

Beet Steaks

500g grated beet
1 sliced onion
1 egg
110g flour
1 tablespoon tamari sauce
1 teaspoon of Provençal herbs

Mix all ingredients
Pre-cook the steaks in a blini pan
Put aside in an oven-safe tin to use immediately or wrap in plastic film to refrigerate or freeze for further consumption.
Cook in oven at 250F for approx 30 minutes.
Serve with salad and roasted potatoes, fresh pasta or green beans.
 

 

 

My first holiday urn

A few weeks ago as I was leaving my local nursery, I noticed all their big containers were on sale. I’ve always wanted an iron urn, so I grabbed one before they were gone. It has sat empty and lonely on my porch–until this past weekend. Saturday I went back to that same nursery and grabbed some Fraser fir boughs and magnolia leaves. Then, I took my pruners around the yard and cut some cedar boughs, red berry clusters (I have no idea what the plant is, but it’s thorny like a rosebush) and a little bit of what I think is euonymous. Then I was ready to roll.

Last year I wrote an article about the gorgeous holiday pots Jim McMillen from Landscapes in Bloom puts together for his clients each year. I used his technique of mounding soil in the pot and dampening it a little. The idea is everything will freeze in place (step-by-step instructions can be found here). I added some sticks I had kicking around in the garage in the centre. Then, starting with the Fraser fir boughs all cut to the size I wanted, I started sticking them in the dirt around the edge of the pot, keeping a clock face in mind: 12, 3, 6 and 9. Then I filled in the spaces with the cedar followed by the magnolia leaves. Once I got to the middle, I stuck some branches with red clumps of berries at the end for colour. To fill in the spaces and add some contrast, I added a little euonymous.

I’ve included a couple of photos below. I’m really happy with the results, though because my house sits on a hill, you can’t really see the red berries from the street. But those who venture up to the house can enjoy them up close!

My Christmas urn fits perfectly in a gap beside my front stoop.

Up close you can see the contrast between all the different types of branches. I think I need to turn those magnolia leaves at the front so they're not as bunchy!

Christmas is coming… but so is spring, right?

It’s puking snow outside right now, I’ve got a community Christmas party to pull off on Friday, and gifts to wrap, and what am I doing?

Throwing around ideas for fresh landscaping on the west side of my house.

There’s something dangerously inspiring about this time of year, when no actual weeding, digging, hauling, or paying is required, and the imagination can run wild. You see, ever since the power company removed the three poplars along the front of the house, my whole perspective has shifted.

This is my blank slate: big line of poplars, with a lilac at the front and open space where the stumps are.

The light is different, the view is different, the possibilities seem endless. That, combined with the hurricane-speed winds southern Alberta has had the past couple of weeks and I’m excited to get started on the windbreak I’ve been wanting to establish.

Here’s where I want to start:

 

My sister even ventured to suggest extending the flower bed in front of the house into a bed around these bushes. That made me remember that I’ve toyed with the idea of turning this whole swath of  blah lawn, between the house and the trees, into a meadow. I’ve got plant lists for it already and everything…

I should be shoveling snow and working on this party. I should be singing carols and crocheting the scarf I started in front of the fire. I should be tucked up in bed with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, but all I’m seeing are crabapples and baby spruce. And my Christmas wish list? A new crockpot, a capo for my guitar, more quick connects for the hoses, new garden lights, a forsythia, 2/3 of the Lee Valley Tools catalogue, pasqueflower root cuttings…

I don’t usually start living for spring until at least March. Or February.

I better get back in the moment over here or this is going to be one long winter.

Lessons on worm composting

While visiting with my friend Elisabeth and her family, we helped make taco salad for supper. I chopped up some peppers, habitually making a little pile of the trimmings for the compost pile. I asked her where she was keeping her compost bucket and she answered, a little guiltily, that she didn’t compost in the winter: too much trouble.

I was surprised, as she and her husband are probably the thriftiest, low-impact kind of people I know, but I understood completely. Who wants to trudge outside through the snow? And really, who can call that frozen pile thawing to sogginess in spring a pleasure?

Coming home, I realized I should have told her about the worm composting I was trying out. Or, was supposed to be trying out but in reality was repeatedly forgetting about and then trying to repair the neglect. And then I remembered that I had promised you, dear reader, an update on my progress! Well, here you are. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I have two worm composters: a Worm Factory and a Worm Inn. My second Worm Factory went to my sister Jenni. In retrospect, I probably could have kept it to keep up with the volume of kitchen waste around here (assuming I could find a place for it). As it is, I am still taking some larger loads outside to my regular bin, especially during harvest and canning. But Jenni finds the Factory to be a good size for her household of 2.

My set up. Worm Inn above, Worm Factory on table, blue bin full of bedding, bucket of finished compost behind.

When I say I need to “repair the neglect,” there really is more guilt in my heart than travesty in the bin. My worms don’t mind being fed once a week, though I try to give them little bits, more often, rather than lots at once.  It definitely makes a difference if you chop up stuff into smaller pieces. This improves breakdown in regular composting, but it’s doubly true for the worms. They say you can feed worms anything as long as there’s no grease, but I’ve found a couple of exceptions in practice and reading: they don’t seem to eat seeds. I’ve had several sprout on me, including cantulope and pumpkin, and my otherwise finished compost is littered with them.  They leave tougher stuff like stems from squash alone, and they don’t like raw potatoes. Go figure. And no matter what you feed them, always bury it with some bedding to discourage flies and mould.

Speaking of, the “ick” factor is much lower than I thought it would be. There is no smell (unless I over feed and under bed), and the worms keep to themselves. I had some fruit fly trouble once, but a trap placed nearby took care of them within two days. My biggest mess factor: bits of shredded paper or coconut fiber always on the floor. It seems impossible for me to get a handful into either bin without scattering a bit.

I did break down and bring both units into my back entry for the winter. Once the temperature started to drop, they just weren’t eating in the garage.

As far as the bins themselves, I think I prefer the Worm Inn for design and ease of use. It’s easy to add material to the top, and harvesting is as simple as opening the bottom and draining it until you see bits of unfinished food or some worms. I also love the space-saving hanging design, and it holds way more than you would imagine. The major drawback for me is how good the airflow is, meaning, I actually have to remember to check the moisture level. Dry worms=dead worms.

This is the big plus for the Worm Factory. Moisture loss is not a problem; however, too much moisture can be. I leave the drainage spigot open with a bucket under it all the time to try to help the airflow, and I definitely use more bedding compared to the Inn to try to absorb the moisture. I have to be sure not to add too much food at once or it goes slimy before the worms get to it. (I should mention the Factory I have is an older model, and the newer ones look like they are designed for better aeration.) Also, the trays are pretty heavy when full of damp material, and the finished compost always seems to still have worms in it, so you have to sift them out or help them migrate by placing the tray in bright light.

Dig around a little and you’ll find many other composter designs, including ones you can make yourself. But the basics are the same: Keep them aerated, keep them damp, keep them bedded and keep them fed. Is it more work than traditional composting? Maybe, but I don’t have to trudge through the snow, and I’ve got fresh compost all winter long. Whatdayathink, Liz?

 

Paying less than a pretty penny for a pretty garden

Looking back over the season, I’ve added up all I’ve spent on plants, tools, and soil, and it’s a lot more than I expected. I’m not giving you an exact number, because some of you will think it’s a drop in the bucket compared to yours, and the thrifty among you, well, I don’t want to risk any heart attacks.

The point is, it’s a lot for me. For us, our household. What’s a great buy for one person is frivilous for another, and one gardener’s money-saving measure is a time-wasting annoyance for his neighbor. Everyone has different priorities. But I want to be a little smarter about my garden budget in the coming year. Charmian Christie has some good ideas, and here’s a few of mine:

1. Never underestimate the power of a sale. Watch your stores for discounts throughout the season. Buy your mulch, stable fertilizers, etc. in the fall, when many stores would rather sell them off than ship them back to storage. Assuming you have somewhere to store it.

2. Many trees, shrubs, and perennials are happy to be planted in the fall, when many greenhouses and big box stores sell them off for as much as 50-80% off. Just watch out for stress and disease before you buy.

3. My favorite greenhouse has a customer appreciation day the first Thursday of every month. If I can time my visits for these days, I get 15% off.

4. Plan a plant and seed exchange in the spring or fall (or both!). Free plants! The selection might not be what you’d find in retail, but you might be surprised. Bonus: meet fellow gardeners you may not have crossed paths with yet. Or, if you’ve got some hutzpah, put on a sale.

5. This is something new I’m trying this year. Every time I get a little windfall of cash, I’m putting it into a seperate savings account (free from my bank). Fifty bucks here, five bucks there, but by spring, I’ll have a few hundred set aside for the new hoses I need, taking the pressure off our April/May household budget. Wage earners could do the same, transfering a set amount each pay cheque. We do it for retirement and insurance, why not this?

6. Compost.

7. Reuse… all kinds of things. Egg cartons for starting seeds, milk jugs for drip irrigation, mason jars for cloches. Save your money for the tools and gear you really need or love.

8. Think outside the box on hiring help. A neighborhood work party, moving from house to house and spending an hour on each one, can get a lot of spring or fall cleanup done in one Saturday. Is there a landscape designer you know who you could barter services with?

That’s about all I’ve got… how do you keep your gardening passion from draining your pockets?

In with the new, with some help from the “Old”

I was waiting in line at the grocery store the other day, trying to avoid learning anything about Kim Kardashian, when I spotted it: the new edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac: that little magazine everyone’s heard of, and lots of people refer to, but few, including me, had never actually read.

Well, no time like the present.

Who couldn’t use a few time-honored tips for the garden? I know I’m not the only one already thinking about next year…

$5.99 later, I flipped through household tips, moon phases, an article on hydroponics and one on a hockey hero… so much more than the weather forecast and planting calendars I was expecting. Granted, I’m still learning to interpret the charts, and I’m not convinced I’ll actually put into practice all the tidbits available to me in the Almanac, but I can tell you this: the full moon is on the 10th this month, will rise at 4:22 p.m. Ottawa time (local time available), and is known as the beaver moon because it was the time to set beaver traps, before the water froze. I can also tell you that this edition of the Almanac is the two hundred and twentieth, contains several macaroni and cheese recipes, and taught me the word halfalogue: half a cell phone conversation, heard involuntarily. I now have it on Facebook, and I’m sure my paper copy will be dog-eared by next fall.

“Useful, with a pleasant degree of humor,” the Almanac proves to be, to me. And for those who might think all this miscellanea silly, I quote William Van Horne, from the title page: “Nothing is too small to know, and nothing is too big to attempt.”

Gift-wrapping workshop: Pretty packages for botanical gifts

Let’s face it. Anything that doesn’t have hard edges can be a challenge to wrap. Which is probably why gift bags became so popular. But what if you have, for example, a pretty potted plant? You don’t want to risk spilling soil or crushing precious petals by shoving it in a bag. This is where Corinna vanGerwen comes in to save the day. Next Wednesday evening (November 16) from 6 to 9, Corinna will be hosting Paper & Petals – Holiday Flowers Workshop at RE:Style Studio here in Toronto. She will share her ideas on how to pretty up those potted plants or packages of bulbs with fine Japanese paper (an example is shown below). Participants will also get to create a medallion floral pick to take home and add to their own gift–one they wrap using Corinna’s tips, of course.

Speaking of tips, Corinna shares all sorts of fabulous advice and inspiration on her blog Corinna Wraps. She’ll even show you how to pretty up a plain gift bag in a pinch! And, she’s whipping up a little something special for CanadianGardening.com, so stay tuned for a holiday step by step!

photo courtesy of corinnawraps.wordpress.com

Rethinking how we do food

Here’s a news article that caught my attention this weekend: a Dutch architectural firm has plans to construct a supermarket in Rotterdam where everything is grown on site, from avocados to fish. An interesting take on the concept of urban farming, it’s intended to be totally sustainable, and save all kinds of resources (including money) because of the virtual elimination of packaging and transport, as well as providing public green space.

Ambitious? Oh yeah. Will it actually happen? We’ll see.

But beyond the possibility and plausibility, what I love about the idea (and I don’t love everything) is that it’s another attempt to think outside the box and recreate our food system. We’ve hit 7 billion humans on the planet now, and it’s going to take some creativity to feed them all. Big scale projects like the Rotterdam supermarket, high-rise greenhouses in our downtowns, and stashing heirloom seeds in Scandinavian caves are likely going to be key to making a real difference, but it gets me thinking about all the things each of us can do to make our personal load on the system as light as possible.

People do try to grow everything we are accustomed to eating on their own land, though few of us have the space, time, resources, or motivation to pull it off. Nor is it always terribly efficient. But, in your own yard, is there a vegetable or two you love that could cozy up with your prize perennials? Do you really need all that lawn? Or even like taking care of it? Why are our public parks full of ornamental trees and annual flowers? Why aren’t there apple trees and annual vegetables in the mix? Would it be more maintenance? Could the food be harvested by food banks and soup kitchens?

Okay, I know, I’m a new-age hippie who wants to save the world. Maybe I’m crazy. But how about just letting some of these ideas settle in the back of your brain for the winter? Think about it as you daydream about planting for next year. Keep it in mind when your community is looking for projects. Maybe you’ve got a little save-the-world streak too.

New garden, new mission to outsmart the squirrel population

I think my problem with squirrels is pretty well-documented throughout the archives of this blog. They changed me from an optimistic gardener into a hand-waving, cayenne-sprinkling lunatic. I think my green thumb is in for an even ruder awakening. Two weeks ago I moved from my little cottage with its modest yard to a much larger property in the town of Dundas. The yard, with its well-established cedars, peonies, rose of Sharons (roses of Sharon?) and other well-pruned shrubs, is an amazingly blank canvas. Moving in the fall means I have the whole winter to start figuring out what I want to plant, landscape, etc.

In the meantime, I picked up a few bulbs the other day from my new local nursery, the Holland Park Garden Gallery, and planted them on the weekend. As I was digging my holes, one new neighbour stopped on her way by and warned me about the squirrels and chipmunks. She was told that shaking the bulbs in talcum powder helps to remove the human scent. I tucked this bit of advice away, but unfortunately I didn’t have any powder on hand, so I kept digging.

Next, our neighbour on the north side of us gave my husband and I a tour of his garden and his wife warned me that despite buying bulbs squirrels won’t like, I had better lay down some wire mesh to keep them out. Apparently they’ll still dig up the offensive bulbs, but toss them aside and move along. So, I found a roll of some sort of synthetic mesh in the garage (I can’t recall why we would have bought it in the first place, but thought it would do the trick). It’s about a foot wide, so I cut it in strips, laid it over where I planted and secured it in place with old metal tent pegs. I’ve included a photo below.

It's not very pretty, but hopefully it will keep the squirrels away from my daffodil and hyacinth mix!

I also planted some tulips and daffodils in my front garden. They’re in kind of an awkward spot for the “mesh” treatment, so I’m hoping they’ll be okay. (Note: I just glanced outside and there are a couple of freshly dug holes. Drat!)

Well, I’m sure I have plenty of lessons to learn in this new garden of mine besides having to put up with a rampant squirrel population. Did I mention there are also rabbits and deer to contend with?

 

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