Gardening Blog

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

The epic search for puddle boots

My footwear of choice for gardening is a pair of beat up Crocs, but I see rain boots as a stand-by piece of equipment for the dedicated gardener. When you’re digging a big planting hole or fishing something out of a pond, dealing with prickly brush or wrestling with ornery hoses, you want your feet good and protected. My old stand-by black rubber boots got a crack in the heel last fall, so I told Chris I wanted new, fun ones for Mother’s Day. He said, “Great, go ahead and find the ones you want.” Smart man, huh?

So the last couple of times I’ve been in town I’ve looked around a bit (translate: while dashing through the grocery list with the kids I’ve noticed a few), but never took the time to try anything on. But this week I found myself in Edmonton all by myself (!) with a few hours to kill (!!) and decided to find my new puddle boots. Fairly straightforward, right?

Well, let me tell you.

I thought with the old “April showers” saw it would be easy to check a hand full of retailers and be able to peruse a reasonable selection of rain boots for somewhere between $15-$40, depending on the quality. Not so much. Walmart, Old Navy, and Payless had all gotten rid of theirs already: either sold or sent back to the company because the “season is over.”

Excuse me? The runways and window dressers may be switching gears to flip flops, but there’s still plenty of mud at my house. Are we expecting NO rain ALL summer? A lovely lady at the Shoe Company in Calgary sympathized with me: “How come they don’t realize it’s not just about fashion around here, but also nessecity?” She had a great pair of green ones, but they had a fuzzy, winter-minded lining. Pass. The few I did see were either no fun, ill-fitting, or not my size.

I’m kind of picky about my footwear because I have widish feet with high arches (thanks, mom) and fit is tricky, especially with a fairly rigid item like rubber boots. I was against getting anything online for this reason, but since the on-the-shelf retail life for rain boots appears to be 9.3 days, I decided to see what I could find in the web world.

Kamik Janis Plum Rain Boots

Love these, but they're kind of tall and kind of more than I wanted to spend. Also they seem awfully narrow through the ankle = impossible for me to get on.

Gum Drops has a pretty impressive range of choices, but the prices are mostly higher. Sears carries a few, there’s some American retailers, Walmart’s website has nothing but Spiderman…

Sperry Top-Sider® Women's Waterproof 'Nellie' 8'' Fashion Rainboots

These are available from Sears, but I'm not crazy about the colors.

Then I found RainCo — a Ladner, B.C. company that makes their own funky rain boots (and umbrellas!). They have several styles, including a shorter-topped one that seems like it would be more comfy for me, and they have a big tab in the back to help pull them on over my beautiful arches. And they come in my favorite color! After checking the return policy, I think I’m going to splurge on these. I love them, so I’m willing to go a little higher in the price range… anybody want to clue me in on other options?

I think these are the winners.

The wonder of it all

I’m going to stop for a moment from my usual narration of events to draw your attention to the affairs of nature we observe and encourage as gardeners.

Watching seeds sprout and perennial roots send out new shoots, I’ve been thinking – how does this happen? How is it that we take the growth of plants for granted as absolutely normal? Even with the understanding of biology, cell division, photosynthesis, isn’t the the whole process just this side of impossible?

Seeds turning into flower, or food, or tree is simply a part of our lives. We’re surrounded by it. But think for a minute. A tiny 1 millimeter seed. Add water, soil, light, and time, and you’ll end up with a 10 inch carrot. Isn’t that on par with pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Or Scotty beaming us up?

These little packets of cells know entirely what they are doing. They know how to make beautiful, useful somethings out of dang near nothing. And after exposure to cold that would end the life of most respectable living things, many of them come popping up cheerily as if nothing were ever wrong.

I invite you to mentally pack away your spring to do list, your gripes about mud or snow, everything you know about botany and cultivars and fertilizers and landscape design, and go find a crocus or a tree budding. Watch it for a bit. Marvel at the absolute ridiculousness of it all.

And remind yourself–this is reality. And this little bit of reality is a full-on miracle.

How to tell if a tree is dead

Those little plant tags on new shrubs and nursery trees tell you all kinds of things: where to plant, how much to water, even sometimes a primer on hole preparation. But they never say much about what to do if Mother Nature pulls a fast one on you. Same for the magazines (no offence, CG staff): idyllic shots of root balls, mulch, and watering cans, but little mention of how to know if your green thumb has turned black.

I’ve been the death of at least one tree and several tomato seedlings. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that this winter has done under one or two of the plants I’ve put in over the last two years, including my mountain ash that I apparently can’t stop talking about. So I got a quick refresher from my sister Jenni, an arborist, on how to assess the level of life or death in my springtime saplings. (For more mature trees, it really is worth it to bring in an arborist. Really.)

First things first: every plant is different. Peeling bark could be a warning sign on some plants, but for ninebarks it’s totally normal—actually, a feature.

Have a close look at the object of your concern. If it’s deciduous, are there buds on the branches? Are they soft and full? Your tree is probably still sleeping. Be patient. If they are shriveled and dry, check all the branches. Are they all like that, or just a few? It’s not unusual for some branches to die off from stress or exposure over the winter, but the rest of the tree can bounce back. If the plant has already leafed out but got zapped by a cold snap, or if the buds all spell doom, try snapping off the tip of one of the twigs. Does it crack easily, or is it bendy? Bendy means there’s still life in it.

If you’re really worried, and not in the mood to wait and see, here’s something you can try. Scratch into the bark of your tree just a couple of millimeters and hopefully you’ll see a soft, moist, green layer of tissue. That’s your cambium, the life-giving part of the tree, where all the other cells are produced. If you’ve got healthy looking cambium, there’s hope. Remember though, not every tree will have a really obvious green cambium. And even a little scratch is still a wound, adding stress to an already stressed tree. Consider yourself warned, but it’s an option.

Here's my mountain ash, showing a bright green cambium. Try a twig or branch before the trunk.

Junipers may look awfully grey, but if you can see some green in the leaves and they are still relatively pliable, they are likely okay.

It’s normal for conifers to lose some needles, so don’t be too alarmed if you see some bronzy ones dropping to the ground. The ones to watch are the needles at the tips of the branches. If those are dropping, you may have a Code Blue. Evergreens continue to transpire (lose water) over the winter, so even with melting snow they could be feeling pretty dry by now. Some judicious drinks of water may rescue them.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce. I'm worried about this guy. Gave him a nice big drink today.

Now, with all that said, I’m a big believer in giving any plant a full season to show itself. Give the poor guys a chance before you rip them out of the ground. I had an Amur maple I was sure was toast (the deer certainly thought it was food), but it came back from the root and (with some love) is now a healthy four-foot tree. There’s a bittersweet vine I never got around to pulling out last year, and in September I noticed leaves on it.

Never give up. Prune back dead bits so the plant can focus its energy on the healthy parts, bring on the water, and – like a good gardener – cross your fingers and hope.

A colourful nesting box for bees

After the recent Garden Writers Association luncheon at Canada Blooms, I came home with new books to read, new products to try and new plants and seeds to plant. However one of the items I was most excited about was this:


Except mine is pink and white. The reason I’m excited about it is a few weeks ago I watched a documentary called The Vanishing of the Bees at the Evergreen Brickworks. It was followed by a panel discussion by three bee experts. I had a great chat afterwards with J. Scott MacIvor, a PhD student studying wild bees. He’s set up nest boxes like this one all over the city so that he can monitor wild bees for a research project. Because I’m moving, I couldn’t really commit to being part of the project, but I’m excited to put this little guy in the garden where I end up. The pollen bee nest shown here is available at Armstrong & Blackbury Horticultural Products. The website explains quite thoroughly how to put it in your garden and maintain it.

Cold frame lessons

It’s done!

The newest addition to my "tool" kit--a cold frame with booster frame. This will be more or less its permanent home.

While I decided to use the plans provided on CanadianGardening.com, we (meaning my wise, more experienced husband) made a few changes based on our needs and site.

We chose to make the lip for fitting the booster frame to the top 1/2 inch instead of 1/4 inch. It just didn’t seem deep enough. We also decided to put a bit of a top on the back to make the back of the frame stronger and to allow a different hinge attachment.

A bit of the hard-won wisdom I’ve gained this week:

Me cutting the posts for the corners.

Chris nailing the top on. He says this will make it stronger and help keep it square.

Choose the widest board you can find for the angled side pieces. I wasn’t thinking about this when I chose fence board (5 1/2 inches). I was limited to a smaller angle for my window than I would have been if I had used the 8 inch boards recommended. This, of course, means I won’t get the same solar gain I could have.

Measure twice, cut once. And think it all the way through: the measurement of the side of the cold frame will not be the same as the side of your window. Window on angle = shorter side measurement. Duh.

Cedar is a very soft wood. It will split on you. It’s a very good idea to use an awl to make your holes for the screws (or pre-drill), and go slowly. Chris actually used a brad nailer to put the frame together with the glue, and then we followed up with the screws.

In preparation for actually using my new toy, I put down a double layer of weed control fabric inside the finished box, just in case any dandelions get any bright ideas. I’m planning to set pots in the frame rather than filling it with growing medium, so with some shredded leaves on hand for extra insulation, I think it’s ready to go!

Makes me want to start more seeds… cukes, more tomatoes, and it’s about time to get the squash going…

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