Gardening Blog

Savour delicious soups and support a good cause at Soupalicious

Last week I was invited to “sip, slurp and savour” a variety of soups cooked up by a medley of Toronto chefs. The event was a preview of what the general public will taste if they attend Soupalicious next Saturday, October 9 (from 11 to 4) at Heritage Court in Exhibition Place. Over 35 restaurants, chefs and local farmers will be stirring local produce into cauldrons of soup for the crowd as well as for various charities. The proceeds from this soup festival ($10 for 10 cups of soup, $15 at the door) will go towards supporting the Plant a Row – Grow a Row program, an organization that encourages gardeners to plant an extra row of veggies so that they can share their bounty with those in need. The program is spearheaded by The Compost Council of Canada and the Garden Writers Association, and supported by local food banks. Visitors are also encouraged to bring a food donation next weekend to help support local food banks.

Here are some of the delicious soups I tasted – I would have like to try them all, but I was full after six!

  • The Annex HodgePodge Bistro & Catering: Curried Carrot & Ginger
  • Arvinda’s: Red Lentil and Carrot
  • Le Papillon: French Onion
  • Torito: The Latin Caldo de Puerco
  • The Gladstone: Cauliflower Soup with Leek Compote and a drizzle of curry-infused cold pressed soy oil
  • Room Service: Red Pea Soup with coconut cream and chicken

Good Grass, Bad Grass

After spending a good deal of the season trying to get rid of grass, I’m planting… grass.

We tore up a bunch of lilacs as part of a big garden overhaul last fall so there’s all kinds of lumpy bits and bare patches in the lawn. Not that it wasn’t pretty lumpy already; I live in fear of one of us spraining an ankle whilst strolling innocently out to the shed, never mind the kids running around. I’ve heard people blame this lumpiness on night crawlers, those big, fat, earthworm look-alikes. I’ve heard people blame it on horses and deer, which I’m apt to believe. I’ve heard people blame it on too much foot traffic in the wet spring. Whatever the reason, I have a very lumpy lawn. If you can even call it a lawn. It’s really what you call “farm grass”– a mix of clover, dandelions, crab, quack, and bluegrass. Everybody around here has it; it’s just one of the facts of life for a rural community. However, I cringe every spring when my lawn turns golden with little yellow mopheads. It wouldn’t bother me that much except I’m upwind from most of town and any negligence on our part will be felt by a lot of neighbors and farmers. And making your grass stronger and healthier is one of the better (and decidedly non-chemical) ways to choke out lawn weeds. So between the lumps, the relocated lilacs, and the dandelions, (and a few bags of free grass seed) I’ve been planning all year to do a little resurfacing and over seeding this fall.

Springtime on the east part of our property, formerly pasture for a couple of lump-making horses, now home to a nice crop of dandelions.

I fully intended it. They say it’s the best time. But a couple of weeks ago, right about when we started getting frost, I heard the BEST best time is several weeks before frost. Maybe the rest of you still have a chance…

So I’m focusing on another grass. I’m going to plant rye. As in, fall rye. My vegetable plot is returning to its clay origins lately and is in need of a good dose of vitamins, and fall rye is supposed to make a great “green manure” and help choke out weeds too. I’ve never tried it before, but what you do is clear the soil of vegetation and sow (“In September”, according to the package… that gives me… tomorrow, right?) the rye shallowly. It grows. Then in spring, you till (or hoe) it under with a little bonemeal, and you have a nicely rejuvinated soil. Rye is an annual grass, so it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come back to haunt you… Considering my history with grass, I’m taking a major risk. Here goes nothing.

An ode to trees

Had to share with you a podcast I listened to this week from CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera. It gets people from all over the country telling their stories about the trees in their lives.

Here’s a few of my stories. What are yours?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was really morning sick, all day. I worked on the north end of Edmonton and rode the bus home to the University area. The driver on the route I took really liked to take the corners tight, and by the time we got over the High Level Bridge, and took that little twist at the end, I was turning green. I would hold it in until I got off the bus, but I would more often than not succumb to the nausea about half a block east. This neighborhood is/was full of mature leafy giants planted in the boulevard that give the streets that lovely canopy of shade. There was one tree I would lean against while… taking care of business. This might sound goofy, but I swear, it held me up. It felt like it was letting me suck a little energy out of it. More than once I saw people giving me funny looks, and I’m pretty sure they thought I was dead drunk at 10 pm, but I’d just hug my tree, say thank you, and carry myself home to bed.

My grandparents’ weeping birch I told you about earlier this summer has lots of memories. We lived with Grandma for awhile after Grandpa died, when I was in high school. That tree had great branches, and I would climb up there and wait for rides. I was totally hidden in the branches. I’d jump down to the ground when my friends drove up, appearing out of nowhere, and pretty soon the running joke was that I lived in the tree, not the house. That was okay with me; I loved that tree. We were buddies.

We hired an arborist in the spring of 2009 to rescue our mature poplars (been topped one too many times). He gave us a free estimate, worked fast and neat, left us loads of wood chips to use, and came in under his quote. Then this spring, after they’d leafed out, the same poplars were attacked by the power company’s “arborists.” It looked like one side of three of them had been shaved. I think they’ve killed one; they took probably 60-70% of the growth off of it. I swear, give me a bucket truck and I would have done a better job. Don’t get me wrong, I have a very healthy respect for the situation–my sister is an arborist and she’s married to a power linesman, so I’m pretty well educated. But I was raging for weeks. I want to hire my guy back and bill the power company. How do you think that would go over?

Anyhow… trees. Love ‘em. This podcast also helped me commit: I am going to quit threatening and actually plant an apple tree this spring. I’ve had my eye on a Prairie Sensation…

Frozen pesto cubes for winter pasta

Last weekend I had a tall, beautiful columnar basil plant (courtesy of President’s Choice) nestled beside my tomato plants (to help their flavour). It was almost up to my waist. Rather than let it go to seed, which hadn’t happened yet thanks to my consistent pruning, I decided to make pesto.

I found an easy pesto recipe online from Whole Foods and then did a little research to see how to preserve it. The easiest way I found was to freeze it in an ice cube tray, wrap it in saran, being sure to let out all the air, and then pop the frozen cubes into a freezer bag (again, letting out all the air). I left out the cheese from the recipe because I wasn’t sure how it would freeze.

Now throughout the winter, when I want to make a quick weeknight meal–say shrimp with brown rice pasta fettuccine–I can just grab a cube or two, let it thaw a little and then stir it in! No more jars of store-bought pesto required.

I’m feeling ambitious about my herb saving, so this weekend I intend to clip some tarragon, oregano, sage and thyme and dry it out. Charmian Christie wrote a great article for the site that I posted this week called 5 ways to preserve your herbs in 5 minutes. If I get the time, I might also try to create some herb-infused vinegars.

Unexpected surprises in the garden

After another little round of rain I went out to investigate the yard and found a few unexpected things. We grabbed the camera to document them for you.

-A Boreal Chorus frog (or possibly a Western chorus frog) in the driveway. The kids pulled out the field guide and identified him before setting him loose in a puddle. Every time this happens I start thinking again about putting in a pond. Because I’m keeping up so well with the rest of the place, and I don’t have any half finished projects.

-At least five different types of mushrooms growing in the lawn and (what was supposed to be) the fallow section of the vegetable garden. If these ones are edible, I’ve probably got enough to stock the freezer for the year. Where’s a reliable mycologist when you need one?

-The peas going to town, blooming like there’s no tomorrow, which there might not be for them–we’ve already had our first snow! I don’t normally grow peas, so this is an extra special treat for me, and makes me wonder, why don’t I normally grow peas?

-The tops chomped clean off one patch of beets. I assume the deer are coming through again; they seem to change their route a couple of times a year and I haven’t seen much sign of them since late winter. I’d have a picture for you of that travesty except meine Kamera ist kaput. (The final unexpected surprise. Boo.)

This weekend: Learn about ikebana

One of the things I love about my job is learning about something that inspires me to try it. This week on CanadianGardening.com, I posted an article about ikebana, the Japanese style of flower arranging by Suzanne Hartmann. I find the whole discipline so fascinating and was interested to learn that ikebana featured prominently at the recent G8 and G20 summits. Then, I got a note from Suzanne informing me about the 42nd Anniversary Floral Art Show of the Hamilton Chapter International Ikenobo Ikebana Society. It is this Sunday (September 19) from 1 to 5 at the Royal Botanical Gardens. At 2 pm there will be a demonstration by Prof. Masakazu Nakamura from Kyoto, Japan. I’m bringing my sister, who taught in Japan for three years, and look forward to learning more about this floral art form.

A new blog beginning

Even though our growing season can seem rather short, the Canadian Gardening team has gardening on the brain all year long. We are constantly writing, shooting and editing stories for both the magazine and the website that we hope will inspire you to plant and grow, whether it be a few pots of herbs on a windowsill or an ambitious perennial garden. That’s why we’ve got various editors from the magazine on board to bring you tips and advice for all abilities, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at how those breathtaking pages of blooms are created.

Check here for a list of who you’ll start to see on our blog in the coming weeks!

The philosophy of undoneness, or how I stopped worrying and enjoyed my yard

Yay! We got through August without snow!

Why are you laughing? I’m serious.

This has been a year of absolutely abysmal weather in southern Alberta. Rain, rain, and more rain, and next to no heat to get anything growing. We got our first frost last night, though it didn’t kill anything, but the mountains out my window are dusted with white. I’m trying to count my blessings, but at this point it’s easier to count the things I was hoping to have done before the snow flies. It’s a long list.

I got some inspiration and perspective from an unlikely source this week though. Being inside (as there wasn’t much chance to be outside) I caught up on some of the podcasts that have accumulated on my computer. While listening to an old one from CBC’s Ideas, I was introduced to the sociologist and urban planner Richard Sennett. He articulates thoughts about different parts of a system working together like instruments in an orchestra. I imagined the different plants in a garden placed to create a cohesive picture. He advocates craftsmanship; my time spent arranging flowers just how I want them seems less frivolous. He talks of a city being a growing thing, unfinished, not static, and this is a good thing, because it allows room for growth, opportunities for the people residing there to contribute their talents and energies. It means the city is dynamic and alive. As he spoke, I pictured my yard, with areas on every point of the spectrum between undone and finished. Indeed, my garden is very much alive, waiting to be worked and enjoyed. I kind of hope it never is “done”, I guess. What a revelation! Of course, he’s talking cities, and I’m just talking about my little corner of the world. Maybe I’ve got gardening on the brain, but I’ll take truth where I find it.

Latin, shmatin. It’s pretty.

My garden is inherited from a wonderful woman named Margo. When we bought this place she toured me around and identified most of the plants growing here. Some she didn't know, several I've forgotten, as I had too much faith in my used-to-be-good memory and never wrote any of it down. Over the 8 years we've lived here I've stumbled into identifying most of them–none of them are anything really fancy (a clustered bellflower, a couple different sedums, an ornamental hops vine, some lupins). As a self-educated gardener, I feel I have progressed from that naive tourist to a middle-weight who can make a pretty good guess on many things.

 Happy bee on Mystercus planticus "Tall Yellow Stuff" with Echinacea looking on.

Happy bee on Mystercus planticus "Tall Yellow Stuff" with Echinacea looking on.

But escaping my casual attempts to name it is a tall, fluffy golden-flowered perennial, affectionately known as “the tall yellow stuff.” Every once in a while I've flipped through a few guidebooks and gone in circles on horrible plant identification websites. I have seen it growing here and there and have always asked the gardener in question if they knew what it was. Each answered with some variation of “don't know, it's always been there; I call it the tall yellow one.”

When I was in Slocan Valley, Uncle Heinz took us to a neighbor's garden. While touring Susan Appleby's beautiful yard (which really deserves its own post) I spotted the unknown plant again. She had already proved her mettle to me, and so I had high hopes she could solve my mystery. But: “Oh, I dunno, I just call it the tall yellow stuff. Been there for years.”

Dang.

Then, whilst going through old gardening magazines discarded from our local library (I glean them for information and ideas and collect the cuttings in a scrapbook/plan book) I found an article on sunflowers (Heliopsis, Helianthus, and Helenium all) and there it was! A picture of what looked a great deal like my tall yellow stuff!

This photo shows the immature blossoms as well as a full one, and the upper, single, leaves.

This photo shows the immature blossoms as well as a full one, and the upper, single, leaves.

`Flore Pleno` perennial sunflower, said the caption. I scanned the text for more and found a pretty accurate description of my John Doe. But, wouldn't you know it, even the venerable Patrick Lima wasn't completely sure of its identity.

The lower leaves. It splits in three at the left, and then the center part becomes three-lobed.

The lower leaves. It splits in three at the left, and then the center part becomes three-lobed.

My plant's leaves don't quite jive with most of the pictures I've been able to find, but it's hard to see detail and I've yet to find a description that goes into leaf shape and position. So I could be on the completely wrong track, but for the first time I have a little something to go on. Not that I'm overly worried about it. It would be kind of fun to nod sagely at some other gardener's question and grace them with my wisdom, but I'm not going for the championship in botany. I'm just curious. Those unknowns kind of pester me. But even if I never find its true identity, experience has taught me that if I call it “the tall yellow stuff,” most people pretty much know what I'm talking about anyway.

Can you identify my mystery plant? Do you know of a good plant identification website?

My blog drought is over and garden beasties

I've been terribly remiss in my blogging this summer. I blog a lot in my head as I'm gardening, but that doesn't always translate to publishing my thoughts. And so, these next couple of weeks I'll be catching up on what I've wanted to say about my garden. Let's start with the interesting population of bugs. See exhibits A, B and C below.

Exhibit A: I spotted this bug hanging out in the dirt by my garage about three weeks ago. What the heck is it?

Exhibit A: I spotted this bug hanging out in the dirt by my garage about three weeks ago. What the heck is it?

Exhibit B: I nearly jumped out of my skin (ha ha!) one day when I went to pick a pepper and spied this on a leaf. Like a snake or a dragonfly, this beastie also sheds his outer layer. I've found a few throughout my garden this summer!

Exhibit B: I nearly jumped out of my skin (ha ha!) one day when I went to pick a pepper and spied this on a leaf. Like a snake or a dragonfly, this beastie also sheds his outer layer. I've found a few throughout my garden this summer!

Exhibit C: This spider took up residence between my tomato plants. Sometimes she's not there, so I feel all crawly coming inside as I imagine her hitching a ride into my house on my back.

Exhibit C: This spider took up residence between my tomato plants. Sometimes she's not there, so I feel all crawly coming inside as I imagine her hitching a ride into my house on my back.

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