Gardening Blog

Garden inspiration: Fix up an old bird cage

The other day, one of my writers, Signe Langford, sent me a photo of this gorgeous birdhouse with the following note: “A friend [Joy] did this for me. She found a decrepit Victorian bird cage and fixed it all up.” Does it not make you want to head out to the nearest antique market and find your own to fix up? I still dream about these amazing bird cages I saw in the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam. I still regret not bringing one home even though I was not quite sure how I would get it here in one piece.

Anyway, I asked Signe for a little how-to and this is what Joy had to say: I normally work in film doing set dec and art dept. I got the cage from a friend. They had used it as a humane way to catch squirrels. It was in rough shape and they were throwing it out. I knew Signe would like it. I took it home and I had to figure out how to make it look good. I had to repair the top part as the base of it had disintegrated. I ended up finding a piece of bendable wooden filigree that supported the unit and added a nice decorative touch. I decided I wanted to use paint from Restore as I felt better about recycled paint. I wanted a bright color so it would look beautiful in her garden amongst all the green. I found an egg yolk yellow. First I primed and it took 2 coats. Than I painted the yellow. After, I sanded the cage lightly to make it look a little worn, you know that whole antiqued look.

So there you have it, a little garden decor inspiration on this sunny day!

Don't you want to make one yourself?

Wildlife sightings

It’s been a good year for wildlife.

We had a perfect view of this little guy from a hallway window. Watched him for ten minutes before he trotted off.

We watched a fox bury his lunch in our backyard in February, and played host to the deer more than a few nights. There’s been moose up on the hill a lot this year and the guy I get my eggs from has a raccoon giving him grief. I think we’ve got some little yellow finches nesting somewhere nearby, because they are constantly hanging out in the mountain ash even though there’s no berries or anything yet.

We had two really cool visitors this week. A yellow-bellied marmot was just hanging out on the front walk when we saw him; by the time Chris got the camera out he was hiding out under the front steps so we didn’t get a picture. He was pretty amazing. I’ve never seen one in the wild, much less in my yard.

Then we had a tiger salamander drop in. They are common in southern Alberta, but we don’t tend to see them unless it gets good and wet, which it has been the last few weeks.

Salamanders are good luck charms for me. Amphibians are some the of first creatures to be affected when an environment is disrupted or damaged, so seeing this little guy is like a little signal from the universe that things are okay, that our little corner of the world is pretty healthy and happy. Makes you feel like you’re doing something right, you know?

Then doing the dishes here tonight, we saw a big old jackrabbit bound across the road. That’s a little more prosaic–my parents have a warren in their Edmonton neighborhood–but with all these critters around, I feel like our garden has become a veritable wildlife sanctuary. It’s reminded me I’ve been meaning to build a bat house and a mason bee house to add to all the birdhouses Chris and the kids have put up. Heck, I think maybe we’ll build a butterfly house this summer too… the more the merrier. As long as the raccoons stay away from my compost pile.

How to garden with (and around) kids: Part 1

There is no shortage of information out there on gardening with kids. There’s lots of talk about the lessons children can learn and the fun that can be had in the garden. There are lots of ideas, lots of inspiration, lots of encouragement, but unfortunately, not a whole lot of reality.

Don’t get me wrong, I think kids belong in the garden. It can be fun, healthy, educational. I’m a big believer in slave labor… I mean, helpers. And there are some really great books out there (one I’ll recommend for schoolagers: Kids in the Garden by Elizabeth McCorquodale, Black Dog Publishing).

But as a mother of five, I’m here to tell you, the vast majority of the stuff you’ll see about kids and gardens is written through rose-colored glasses (no pun intended). It’s not all about cute little yellow trowels and robust bean vines in terracotta pots. Sometimes you’re cajoling a ten-year-old to pull her share of weeds with a toddler clinging to your leg and soccer practice only half an hour away.

So here’s a few of my ideas, if you’re up for a little reality check:

1. There will be casualties. Accept this. They don’t know they just stepped all over your freshly planted annuals; they’re just chasing butterflies. Not every seed will sprout if planted by a three-year-old an inch deeper than it should have been, but really, is that the point? Resist the urge to redo their efforts. I’ve been known to build little fences out of fallen twigs around newly planted “please don’t walk here” spots. (Actually, this is a great kid job if the ground is soft.)

2. When you’ve got a wandering toddler who’s as likely to yank up a lily as a dandelion, getting much of anything done can be frustrating. You can wait until nap time or trade babysitting, but if you can shift your mindset away from accomplishing one particular task, a great strategy is to wear an apron with hand tools in it. Then just follow your little person around as he explores, digging a weed, pruning a limb, tying a floppy stem as you go. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done this way. (You can also use a bucket or tote of tools, but watch out: Murphy’s Law says Baby will find the scissors or knife as soon as you look away. Not that this has ever happened to me. Ahem.)

3. It’s true that having kid-size tools and gloves helps make it more fun and easier for kids to help. It’s harder than you think to use a full size (and weight!) rake when you’re only four feet tall. But just as important: some toys, games and space for them to play. Kids have short attention spans. Inevitably, you will want to work longer than they will, and it really cuts down on the whining if they’ve got a sandbox or a hammock to retreat to as a reward or break. And for the smaller ones, it means you can keep an eye on them without having someone hanging out in your lap.

4. For you it might be about color schemes and cultivars, but for kids it’s about being there. Weeds are pretty; dandelion seeds are meant to be blown. Don’t kill their joy with your vision or schedule. I’ve been that yelling mom and I can tell you two things: one, it doesn’t change the situation, and two, it’s detrimental to the kid’s attitude. You’ll still have unpicked weeds and they’ll not be in much mood to help the next time you ask.

5. Mulch is your friend. It is every gardener’s friend, but especially to a gardener with children. It buys you time and saves you work. Make the investment.

6. Never say the words, “Let’s plant some seeds today” to a three to five year old until you are absolutely, entirely, earnestly, ready to get them in the soil.

7. The things you hear about ownership are true. Once a kid has “her” tree, or “his” tomato plant, it will be watered and weeded proudly with only occasional gentle reminders (especially if there’s a lingering lesson from last season of something that died of neglect. Just saying. Not from experience or anything.). We have a “kid garden” where I’ve done some structural planting and they get to plant whatever else they want. Each of my older girls has a rose bush that they do everything for (including the pruning, with some pointers). My six year old plants sunflowers every year. He keeps track of how tall they grow and which one gets the biggest flower. And you won’t find any weeds surviving at their bases.

8. A watering can in the hands of a three year old is a powerful weapon. Direct it well, and you’ll lighten your load. Allow it to be unleashed on the unsuspecting though, and you may have some flood victims.

9. Patience. Cultivate it along with your plants. It takes a seed time to germinate, flower, and set fruit. A child is no different. Don’t expect fruit when he’s just learning how to flower.

Through the Garden Gate: A peek at Swansea Village gardens

Tuesday morning, I discovered a gorgeous pocket of Toronto: Swansea Village. I’m not originally from the city and I live in the east end, so I wasn’t familiar with the streets that have homes perched above the shores of the Humber River and Grenadier Pond. That’s the beauty of the Toronto Botanical Garden’s annual “Through The Garden Gate” garden tour. You get to discover magical little neighbourhoods in the city and see how people style their yards (or how their gardeners style the yards depending on the home).

A dedicated group of volunteers and the Toronto Master Gardeners, led by co-chairs Carole Bairstow and Eleanor Ward, have worked throughout the past year to make this fundraising event possible. It takes place June 11 and 12.

I got to preview five of the homes that will be on the tour. On the tour bus, the inimitable Sonia Day, who writes a popular column for the Toronto Star, provided some colourful commentary about this quaint area that until 1954 was an independent village—and apparently many of those who live there still fancy it so. Speaking of colourful, Sonia will be displaying some of her paintings of Bloor Street Shops at tour headquarters, which is at Swansea Public School. For $10 you will be able to purchase a poster with some of the proceeds going to the Toronto Botanical Garden. Full details on tickets, prices and everything else you need to know can be found on the Toronto Botanical Garden website. Tickets sell out quickly, so be sure to get them soon if you plan to go.

Here’s a teaser of what you’ll see. But it’s only a small fraction of the gorgeous gardens that await!

Stunning views. Stepping into the backyard of 4 (top) and 19 (bottom) Woodland Heights is like entering cottage country. Both these homes feature gorgeous gardens sloping down toward Grenadier Pond.

Hopefully the peonies will still be as showy for the garden tour! This one is at 19 Woodland Heights.

Interesting art, water features and sculpture. Clockwise from top left: 27 Woodland Heights, 19 Woodland Heights, 4 Woodland Heights and 14 Riverside Crescent.

A view from the deck at 4 Woodland Heights. I loved this boxwood knot garden with the stone bird bath in the centre. If you peek over the hedge, there is an herb garden.

14 Riverside Crescent: This is my dream. A little potting shed tucked away in the corner of my yard.

Things to do while it’s raining

Day 1

-Grumble about wishing I had more planted before the weather changed.

-Resolve to be productive anyway.

-Enjoy the smell of spring rain.

-Tidy up the shed.

-Read gardening magazine/books.

Day 2

-Grumble a bit; then think positive.

-Edge a flower bed, careful not to step in the bed.

-Clean some tools that got missed in the fall.

-Measure the rainfall.

-Watch birds.

-Read more.

Day 3

-Sigh.

-Do top-to-bottom organize of shed.

-Repair and prepare hoses (meant to get that done ages ago, three points for me!).

-Watch grass grow in front of my eyes.

-Inventory seeds that could have… I mean, will be planted.

Day 4

-Go to greenhouse for sympathy and support.
-Update garden scrapbook.

-Count worms.
-Tidy up houseplants.

Day 5

-Watch dandelions go to seed.

-Lose boot in mud after attempting to “check on things”.

-Consider collecting stamps with flowers, trees, and vegetables on them.

-Retire to couch with scrapbook and magazines.

-Give up and actually get something done inside the house.

At least I am well prepared with my new boots!

A taste of spring

I love watching the birds come back, and the blooming bulbs defying all logic, and turning the soil for new plantings, but really, at the end of the day, spring usually comes back to my stomach.

Radishes. Parsnips. Asparagus. Peas and lettuce and spinach. There’s something about stepping out your door and finding something to eat; something liberating about being independent of the grocery store for tonight’s meal, something energizing about knowing you are eating food that was growing ten minutes ago, growing because of you. This is a huge part of the joy of summer for me: several glorious weeks of choosing my menu based on what’s in the backyard.

Not that I’m quite there. All we can eat right now is some lettuce and spinach I overwintered last fall, making for some very early and no-care salad. I planted the radishes kind of late, but really, at 20-50 days maturity, we won’t be waiting long. Though the peas aren’t here yet, I already have a smile on my face thinking about eating them right off the vine with the kids after a good weeding session.

What we should be harvesting is asparagus. We had store bought for dinner last night. My asparagus patch is dead. The short version of the story: my pregnant brain thought it was a great idea to dig up and relocate the whole patch in late September 2009. Don’t say a word, you.

I crossed my not-so-green thumbs last season that it would come up, but no dice. I planted new crowns yesterday, digging deep with lots of sheep manure so as not to be responsible for any more death. I’ll have to wait at least until next year to enjoy them, but trust me, your own asparagus is well worth the wait, and once it’s established, is pretty self sufficient. I planted parsnips for the first time too, another be-patient vegetable, that will be wonderful to anticipate this winter.

So though the food hasn’t actually made it to the table, I’m already excited about all the springtime bounty. There’s lovage and sage and lavender, broccoli and kale in the cold frame, onions and garlic and chives, rhubarb waiting to be pie… and just imagine the strawberries…

My asparagus before I destroyed it

Sweet salad from my back porch

Last Friday I went to the annual President’s Choice Lawn & Garden event at the Toronto Botanical Garden. I look forward to this event every year because it’s a great way to preview all the exciting new plants that will be at my local Loblaws store. Plus you usually get to meet some of the growers who make the magic happen. Another bonus? You get to take home some of the fabulous new flowers, herbs and veggies that are on preview to try in your own garden. Since I’m moving sometime this summer, this year I was looking for things in containers that I can easily take with me.

The first thing that caught my eye was the Simply Salad Bowl. Filled with the most enticing-looking, fluffy salad greens, these bowls are such a handy concept whether you’re in an apartment building or steps from a backyard garden. You just snip what you need and it keeps growing back (they also need plenty of water). Mine is on my back steps and I’ve already made two huge, delicious salads from it! I predict that they’ll be selling out of these pretty quickly. I got the Alfresco Mix, but also available is a Global Gourmet bowl and a City Garden bowl. Bon appetit!

PC Simply Salad Bowl Alfresco Mix, $9

I’m all about the pansies

I’m not a fan of annuals. Too much work, too much expense year in and year out. I have a few exceptions: cosmos, because it reseeds so readily I don’t have to think about it; calendula, because it’s calendula; and pansies (Viola × wittrockiana cvs.), because they are so early and so pretty.

There’s kind of a dead spot in my garden between the crocuses fading and the daffodils, tulips, and miniature irises blooming. In between, the only color is provided by the first dandelions. While this does mesh with the purple/yellow color scheme I’ve got developing in my front garden, some traditional pansies would perk up the yard in a much less weedy way.

Yesterday, I mentioned this to Chris and he came back from an appointment in town with two flats of pansies–enough to fill my new planters (see below) and tuck in around the still-waking-up plants. (He wasn’t in the doghouse, or anything, he’s just that great.) They’re just the spot of color I was looking for. I have neighbors who are yanking out Johnny-jump-ups constantly (the wild flower, commonly known as heartsease, from which pansies were cultivated), but if I had them volunteering, I don’t think I’d mind at all. I kind of hope these ones go wild and reseed. They make me smile, those little bearded faces, and remind me of a song I learned as a child:

Little purple pansies touched with yellow gold,

Growing in one corner of the garden old;

We are very tiny but must try, try, try,

Just one spot to gladden, you and I.

In whatever corner we may chance to grow,

Whether cold or warm the wind may ever blow,

Dark the day or sunny, we must try, try, try

Just one spot to gladden, you and I.

What can I add to that? Life just seems better with a smile on my face and pansies in the garden.

Let's hope she doesn't drown them with love... bonus points if you can identify the origin of my new planter!

The people who live in my garden

It was bittersweet to pull my edger out of the shed today. I inherited it from Chris’ grandmother a few years back, and she died last week.

Every time I picked up that edger, I’d say, in an exaggerated German accent, “VVan-daa” because Oma had labeled it with her name to ensure its return from the neighbors, and I couldn’t help but think of her as I used it. Today it meant even more, knowing her life here was over, that I’d never eat plums off her tree again, or have zone envy when her magnolia bloomed. But through this tool, I feel like she will stay with us, continue to give somehow.

Wanda helping me tidy up the tulips

My grandfather has always had a presence in my garden too. I spent many summer hours of my childhood alongside him in his patch of dirt, weeding, nibbling chives, eating carrots right out of the ground. He taught me respect for the earth, the pleasure of work. I imagine him now looking over my shoulder, enjoying and encouraging things. I still use many of his tools, too, and plant things the way he did. The peonies and the tomatoes and the cabbage all remind me of him.

The more I think about it, the more people come to mind that have a place in my garden. There’s Rob and Margo, who laid the groundwork for the land I work today. There’s Phaedra, who gave me Chinese lanterns. There’s Patsy, who gave me lilies and irises. There’s Heinz and Lisa, who inspired me with fresh greens (and morels and fiddleheads too). There’s Ralph and Brenda, who tackled the weeds with me. There’s our neighbor Bob who kept our lawn mowed when Chris was sick. There’s my sister Jenni who designed the new flower beds and built me stone steps. There’s Jay, who inspired a couple of new planters this year (I’ll show you when I get them planted up). There’s my brother Ben, who has been the muscle on more than one occasion.

I could keep going. Yup, I’m working alone right now, with just the two little girls playing in the grass. But it sure doesn’t feel like it.

My garden is pretty crowded.

Who’s hanging out with you?

What did you think of the royal bouquet?

Well, I rolled out of bed at 3 a.m. and curled up on my couch to watch the Royal Wedding. I wasn’t one for listening to the exhausting round of predictions of what Kate might carry down the aisle, but I was still interested in the real deal. I was pleasantly surprised by the bouquet’s subtlety and simplicity. Sure it was a little old-fashioned, but I like that it wasn’t dripping in excess, which suits Kate’s understated style. And the size was perfect because it didn’t take any attention away from that stunning dress.

Earlier I retweeted Frank Ferragine aka Frankie Flowers’ description of what was in the bouquet. Later on he mentioned that a do-it-yourselfer could easily put it together for about $100 to $250. Of course Kate didn’t have the time, but for you crafty DIYers out there who are getting married this summer and want to add an auspicious dash of fairy tale magic, here are the details.

According to the official Royal Wedding website, the bouquet was designed by Shane Connolly. I like that it’s layered with meaning from both sides of the family and the couple:

  • Lily-of-the-valley: Return of happiness
  • Sweet William (cute!): Gallantry
  • Hyacinth: Constancy of love
  • Ivy: Fidelity, marriage, wedded love, friendship and affection
  • Myrtle (stems were used from a myrtle planted by Queen Victoria in 1845): The emblem of marriage and love.

I don't have a close-up shot of the bouquet, but a big thank you to Adrienne Brown at our sister site Homemakers.com who was live-blogging the event as she watched it online (I've included a link below) and captured this image that she shared with me.

What did you think of the bouquet? Share your thoughts below!

Adrienne’s live blog with Royal Wedding highlights at Homemakers.com

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