Gardening Blog

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

How to keep the bugs out, noise down, and people moving

Ah, the sounds of spring.

Birds chirping, rain on the rooftops, humming bees. But not so pleasant is the equally seasonal racket of lawnmowers chugging back to life, and, at least at my house, the slamming doors as everyone traipses in and out to enjoy the sunshine.

While there’s not much to be done about the lawnmowers (unless the whole neighbourhood switched to reel mowers), my mother-in-law has a genius idea for dealing with the door slamming. She has hung a bead curtain in her doorway, instead of a screen door. It’s dense enough to hold off most of the flying insects, but heavy enough that it doesn’t fly everywhere in the wind like a regular curtain or one made of ribbon. The dogs and/or kids can go back and forth from house to yard without fiddling with handles, wearing out tired hinges, or catching fingers. Also very handy when you’ve got your own hands full of food destined for the barbecue… but now we’re talking the smells of spring. We’ll leave that for later.

 

Bamboo is a common material for bead curtains. I really like this one. (amazon.com) I also found ones made with fibre optic lights in them!

Here's one made of recycled bottle tops. That sounds like a lot of work...

 

Kind of funky, but not so good in the bug department, I'd bet. shopwildthings.com has lots more; check local specialty shops, thrift stores, or even Walmart.

 

Low-maintenance Monday: Paperbark maples

No matter how fast the pace on my morning walk, I always make a dead stop in front of one house–the one that has three paperbark maples on the front lawn. No matter what the season, there is always something special on these small trees: the bark in winter, the flowers in spring, the shape in the summer and the blazing leaf colour in the fall. 


Acer griseum, or paperbark maple, is a real showstopper. It can be the ornamental focal point of a garden and it provides interest year-round.

This paperbark image was taken at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Most striking–and most obvious–is its dramatic, exfoliating bark. It has shades of cinnamon red and brown throughout the year, peels in thin sheets and also looks smoothly polished in other places. This alone would be enough in a plant to make it a star, but there is much more.

In early spring, small yellow flowers appear. The foliage is green in spring and summer, but then it explodes into brilliant orange and red in the autumn, providing dramatic colour in the garden.

That is still not all that makes it a favourite tree. It is a small maple, so it’s ideal for city lots or as an understory tree. It is slow growing, climbing to seven metres (23 feet), but that could take 20 to 50 years. In the meantime, the paperbark maple requires little pruning and is insect resistant. It also has an upright oval shape, which provides a stately architectural detail. Best of all, it can be planted in full sun to part shade. That makes it ideal for a woodland garden. It also makes an excellent specimen plant, focal point or accent in a garden.

Acer griseum 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.

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.

Giving a little back to the kids

This has been a strange week for me. Not once, but twice, I’ve been asked to help teach about gardening and plants.

Me.

Who has managed to kill all the tomato seedlings I planted this year by leaving them in the chilly porch overnight. Who knows the terms pinnate and palmate, but couldn’t define them accurately to save my life. Who seeds her garden beds in such a haphazard way that surely my grandfather rolls in his grave every spring.

To be sure, the teaching invitations did not come because I’m some kind of superstar with green thumbs; I was an obvious choice by association. One was for my daughter’s grade 4-5 science class, the other the local Cub Scout troupe which just happens to be led by Dear Husband.

But despite the low-key circumstances, I was just a teeny bit nervous. Would I be able to get through my presentations without making any obvious blunders? What if someone asked a question I couldn’t answer? (If you think this is a silly thing to worry about, I’m guessing you don’t hang out with a lot of ten-year-olds.) But more than anything, I wondered and worried whether any of them would even care about anything I had to say. What if they all thought it was lame and B-O-R-I-N-G?

Turns out I worried for nothing. In both cases, the kids were fun, polite, and excited to be there. The Cubs started pumpkins in little pots and helped prepare the garden bed they will use this summer. The 4-5 class helped me dissect a just-bloomed tulip, played name-that-seed-and-why-it-looks-that-way, and got very involved in a discussion of how all life on earth is dependent on plants in one way or another. I answered questions left and right. I got my ego pampered as they admired my “talent” (no one tell them about the tomatoes, okay?).

Most of all, though, it reinforced a truth I’ve always believed in: giving something back to your community, no matter how little you might think it is, pays off for everyone. So I challenge you this week to think about how you might give a little of your garden back: Is there someone you could teach something? Did you plant trees for Earth Day? Can you plant an extra row of veggies to donate to the food bank? Volunteer in a community garden?

While you work on that, I’ll concentrate on keeping the Cub’s pumpkins alive…

 

Walking through and flying over Floriade

Unfortunately, I’ve been without wireless for the last few days, so I was unable to post. But I’m back! Last Friday was all about Floriade. One full, magnificent day that took my mom and I through hectares of gardening innovations and design. A quick shuttle bus ride from the Venlo train station took us right to the gates. There are five distinct areas to see: Environment, World Show Stage, Education & Innovation, Relax & Heal and Green Engine. We plotted an efficient route, using the cable car with its amazing 360-degree views of the whole expo to take us from one side to the other. (Warning: Whatever you pack, be sure to include comfortable shoes! You will be doing a lot of walking.) Each zone provided fresh inspiration, some of which we hope to bring to our own gardens. We also saw some amazing plants that we’ve never encountered in our Canadian nurseries.

What’s crazy about this gardening village with its multiple restaurants, buildings and gardens is that much of it will be dismantled at the end of the year when Floriade is over. The cable car has been sold to a ski resort in Austria and the land, apparently, will be used as a business park.

The exposition runs until October, so there is still plenty of time to book a plane ticket to Holland. We were lucky to be there to see a rainbow of bulbs and spring-flowering trees. But each month will bring new blooms and a lot of the plants that were teeny tiny in some of the gardens will have filled in nicely by the summer.

Our last stop of the day was the nursery and garden store. It was hard to resist some of the amazing bulbs that were for sale! My mom and I aren’t the smuggling types, so we resisted. I’m hoping we’ll be able to track down some of the bulbs for the interesting blooms we saw from bulb companies at home.

I have included a few images here, but there is so much to share, I will be creating some slide shows over the coming weeks showcasing all the interesting sights and ideas that we saw.

Towards the end of our day, still with smiles on our faces! Some of the people we encountered in Venlo couldn't believe we came all the way from Canada just to experience Floriade! It was worth the trip.

Seriously, how amazing is this tulip?

Floriade is a feast for all five senses!

Touchdown in Venlo, ready for Floriade

This afternoon, my mom and I arrived in the town of Venlo. We’re here because we decided on a whim a few months back that we really wanted to see Floriade together. So we planned a trip around it. Despite being a bit weary and jet-legged, we spent the afternoon exploring the town. There are lots of signs and planters (like the one below) welcoming people to Venlo and the once-a-decade horticulture event! There is lots of shopping in the downtown area (including some cute home and garden stores), as well as quaint little bars and cafes. Despite the chill to the air, we enjoyed a cup of tea in the sunny town square, watching the world go by. Resting up now since tomorrow is going to be a big day. Stay tuned!

There are signs all over Venlo--even on the planters--welcoming people to Floriade.

Venlo has some cute home and garden stores. This is some inspiration for a future project. They were displayed outside of Fiore a Voi

Inspiration for a future project!

We sipped tea in the square in front of the town hall (on the left).

Are you a garden geek? Come on, admit it

By all current social measures, I can safely be placed in the category of “geek.”

I’m a librarian.

In junior high and high school, I was a “drama freak.”

I have won Star Wars Trivial Pursuit and have been known to wear a Princess Leia T-shirt.

I can fix your average computer.

I have played D&D and Magic, and read the entire Dune series.

And yes, I know what a tribble is.

In college I would still get sucked into heated discussions debating the finer points of cataloguing books. Then I’d mentally step back for a moment, listen to myself and my classmates, and think, “This conversation would make no sense and hold absolutely zero interest to anyone outside the library community. What a bunch of geeks we are!”

Since then, my geekdom has been laying somewhat dormant, only showing itself amongst trusted friends and family. I thought I had mainly gotten past it. I might never be “cool,” but maybe I could be “normal.”

I lost all hope, however, this last weekend at the Calgary Horticultural Society Garden Show. I was choosing some wildflower seeds from one of the booths and found myself gushing over the discovery of prairie crocus and shooting star seeds. I mentally observed myself spouting Latin with my fellow attendees, and imagined the eye-rolling that would occur if my brother were present. “That’s it. I thought. I am truly a geek.”

But then I had an “ah-ha” moment: we’re all geeks about something. We’re just used to using the term only about certain “somethings.” Think about it for a minute. Do you know someone who gets teary-eyed looking over the shiny chrome of a souped up car or motorcycle, and roll your eyes when they start listing off details of its construction and styling? Do you know someone who can rattle off baseball or hockey stats faster than his own Social Insurance Number? Would you call them geeks? Or someone so deeply versed in rock music they can identify a song, with artist, by it’s first riff? Do you dare use the label on them?

Simon Pegg, a guy who knows a little something about being called a “geek,” had this to say:

“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”

Hmmm. What’s that you say, Simon? I have a license?? Why thank you, I believe I’ll use it. I’ll spout Latin, and babble to my baby seedlings. I’ll drool over new tools and ask for compost for Christmas. I will embrace my inner geek, and, I’ll wager, be the happier for it.

Besides, normal is a setting on a washing machine.

Live long, and prosper.

Geeking out about fruit trees with the lovely Bylands Nursery people at the Calgary Hort Show.

Geeking out with Gord Koch of Olds College over green roofs, or vegetative roofs, as us geeks are calling them now…

Even if you're not a garden geek, cauliflower and olive sheep are pretty cute. "Bahay Kubo Farm," by Laura Chomyn, an entry in the "Edible Container" competition.

 

 

 

Countdown to the Calgary Hort Show

Five sleeps until I slap down a measly ten bucks (twelve at the door) and enter my first-ever, real-deal, not-just-a-trade-show, horticultural fair! Out East, everyone’s done with Canada Blooms already, and out West you’ve been enjoying the dirt for weeks now, but here on the Prairies, we’re just getting started.

A shot of last year's exhibition hall.

Looking over the lineup for the weekend, I’m thinking I could spend all day just sitting at the speaker stages: so many good professionals, and so many topics I’m interested in. That might be for the best if it keeps me from spending too much time (and hence, money!) with the many vendors, although I will make time to go see the children’s activities. I want to see the beehives from the Chinook Honey Farm in action, and find out what a seed bomb is. And I can’t miss the competition gardens. Hmmm…. I’m going to be very tired on Sunday.

I know it's geared for kids, but I wanna see too!

 

Residual Income

They say one sure-fire way to really get ahead financially is residual income: get something done that will continue to earn you money even when you have moved on to the next project. Like writing a bestselling novel or Top 40 hit and letting the royalties roll in while you focus on the next masterpiece. Or getting paid every time your movie reruns on TV, or dividends from investments, or a share of the profits from the well you let the oil guys dig in your back yard.

None of which have happened for me. Nor am I getting into network marketing: been there, done that, not going there again, thank you very much. But I did get a pretty sweet payoff this spring from some long forgotten work.

I’d been craving something fresh to eat, like not-from-the-grocery-store’s-cold-storage fresh, like peas or radishes straight out of the ground, but I knew they’d still be a few weeks away, at least. Just as a began to grumble, I remembered I had actually done something about this annual hankering: I planted parsnips last year! So out I went to the sleeping veggie patch with my dearly missed garden fork, moved aside some leaf-filled garbage bags, and dug in. Guess what? There they were!

I steamed some that very night, with just a bit of butter and nutmeg. Oh. My. Everything I’d been hoping for.

We’ve had three meals with parsnips, and there’s enough still in the ground for a couple more. Plus the spinach and lettuce planted in the cold frame one mild February day should almost be big enough to start doing their job in my kitchen.

It almost feels like cheating, getting fresh veggies out of the ground this early, but you better believe I’m doing parsnips again, and leeks this year too. I’m happy to do a little more work this spring. This kind of residual income is almost as good as money in the bank.

Almost.

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