Gardening Blog

‘Tis the season

This is a painful time of year. There are so many plants languishing in greenhouses and parking lots, begging to be rescued from their uncertain fate. (Is it just me or does every big box store with any connection to domesticity now have a garden centre?) And it's not that hard to do the rescuing; everything goes on sale as greenhouse workers face the reality of overwintering or getting rid of all that greenery. One place I stopped last week had trees on sale for 70% off. Under these circumstances, don't you feel like you could nurse anything back to health? Don't you find yourself tempted to buy entire flats of stuff, and one of every bush you've ever thought about growing? Doesn't reason go out the window when you see those price tags and those drooping but still viable leaves? Come on, I know I'm not alone.

 Some of the sweet potato vines I rescued in my Canadian Tire planter (one of my prizes!)

Some of the sweet potato vines I rescued in my Canadian Tire planter (one of my prizes!)

One of the 70% off trees I saw was a weeping birch. I've always wanted one. My grandparent's front yard had one that was perfect for climbing and hiding in. All kinds of warm fuzzy feelings and happy memories surface at the sight of one or the mention of its name. But I made a $75 mistake a couple of autumns back on a weeping birch–got it too late, snapped the leader off in a moment of idiocy, and a late spring frost nipped the buds, well, in the bud. So I was a little more careful this time. I weighed my options carefully. Dozens of plants were jammed together like the proverbial sardines. I noted the mottled leaves, a sign of something not good, though I'm not sure what. The soil was overly damp and turning green. There were some dead twigs.

But it was a weeping birch. At seventy percent off.

The deciding factor ended up being the hour long highway drive home in our van full of kids. Nowhere to put the thing. Safely distanced from temptation now, I'm very glad I was delivered from evil. I will get my weeping birch, hopefully sooner than later, so that my kids can sit under the waterfall of leaves with a book and avoid their chores just like I did. But I'm determined to be patient and find a healthy one, even if I have to pay full price.

And for now, I'm happy with rescuing a bunch of sweet potato vines and coleus. At sixty percent off!

Tell me about your $75 dollar mistake, or your have-to-have-it plant.

A visit to Nikka Yuko

nikka-1

This fern leaf caragana made me rethink my general disdain for caraganas.

I checked something off my bucket list this week. Chris and I were in Lethbridge for the day, sans kids, and went to the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden. Now that I’ve been, I can’t believe I’ve put it off for ten years! “Beautiful” seems like an obvious description, as does “relaxing” and “inspiring.” But they are all true.

It’s a relatively small garden, but incorporates many views that unfold gradually as you walk through it, leaving the impression of a much larger space. All the traditional elements of Japanese design are used. All the structures and decorations were built in Kyoto, including a huge brass bell that Chris wanted to bring home. As for me, I wanted to bring home the crew of gardeners I met there.

nikka-2

Chris enjoying the dry rock garden.

I found Jeff Quinlan first, pruning a creeping juniper. A graduate of Olds College (which has a great botanical garden in its own right), Jeff seemed about as serene working there as we were visiting. He says he is grateful to have such a place to come to every day, and hopes the garden continues to get the public support it needs to stay open.

He introduced me to Al White, who has tended this garden for 20 years. We chatted for a few minutes about Scots pines and Amur maples, two of the predominant trees in the garden (actual Japanese maples aren’t hardy enough for southern Alberta). It was really interesting to get Al’s perspective, as he has been able to see the garden evolve. It got overgrown in its early years (1960`s), as the Japanese experts advised a natural state and western keepers misinterpreted that advice as “leave it alone.” Al talked about the Japanese ideal being working with nature but with good helpings of shaping. It’s all about “enhancing what the tree is already offering you,” he says.

nikka-3

Me trying to convince Chris that an Amur maple can look great multi-stemmed.

We only stayed about an hour, but it was a quiet, slow hour that offered me a lot of perspective on my “get-it-done” attitude. So Chris didn’t bring home a bell and I didn’t bring home a work crew, but I did bring home a gentle reminder not to fight nature, and to be patient and let my garden evolve. Pretty Zen, huh?

Knowing me, I’ll need another reminder in a few weeks. Guess I’ll just have to go back to Nikka Yuko and see the fall colors.

The week of berries

This has been the week of the berries. We spent last week in the Slocan Valley in B.C. visiting Chris` family. All the way there and all the way back there were fruit stands full of blueberries, cherries, and the first of the peaches. There's nothing like getting your fruit straight from the grower, except maybe getting it yourself.

Cathie picking Saskatoons, wishing she had a bucket or two!

Cathie picking Saskatoons, wishing she had a bucket or two!

The hill behind Uncle Heinz's house at Winlaw is covered in blackberries. According to him, back in the day there was a Doukhobor farm on the hill, and when they abandoned it their berries just kept on growing. So these aren't really what you'd think of as “wild” berries, small and hard to find. They are ridiculously overgrown and brambly, and competing with the ferns, but they are the biggest, tastiest blackberries I've ever had. And so thick on the bushes! We could stand in one spot and get a pint, even popping the best ones in our mouths as we went. And there are lots more coming in the weeks ahead… too bad I'll be back in Alberta. Uncle Heinz and his neighbors (Hi Lily!) will get them all.

But berry season is going strong here too! We spent the day christening our new kayak at Police Outpost Provincial Park. While hunting a geocache on the island on the lake, we came across Saskatoon berries thick on the bushes. We picked and ate and carried home what we could with makeshift containers. Uncle Jared reduced them down to a gorgeous sauce for our ice cream. What a way to finish the weekend.

Then, back in “work” mode Monday, I toured the yard to see how things had fared in our absence and found the raspberries ready to pick! We moved the whole patch out of the veggie plot to its own spot last fall. We tilled it last spring, dug out the clumps, and cleaned it out again, but we're still thick on thistle and clover. Probably should have left it fallow one more year, but they'll be okay. Raspberries are my personal favorites, and I'm glad to see our transplants have taken hold, though we won't get the gallons we usually do this year. Maybe we'll hit the huckleberry festival at Castle Mountain too… if we're not sick of berries by then. Like that will ever happen.

 Jenna and some of the blackberries

Jenna and some of the blackberries

What’s your favorite berry? How do you eat them?

Good neighbours make great gardens

I've probably spent at least an hour in the garden every day this summer. Most days more, some days less. My kids are pretty good about helping, and Chris does the mowing and his fair share of the heavy lifting. But life is busy, and it's summer! Some days we went to the lake, or the library reading program. Eventually I've had to clean the house and do some laundry. And you know that a certain percentage of my time in the garden I was teaching someone how to pull a dandelion, reminding someone else to keep their hat on, or getting dirt out of the baby's mouth. I should not be surprised when 1.4 acres gets ahead of me, but here we are. The weeds and the undone jobs are winning. By a pretty good margin.

Rhiannon's version of thinning carrots.

Rhiannon's version of thinning carrots.

Despite it all, I am feeling pretty good about my garden today. Not because of something that's blooming, or any veggies I'm harvesting, or because it's ready for a photo shoot (that's a laugh). I'm feeling good about my garden because we put a huge hole in the weed population today. When I say “we,” I mean me, my kids, and two wonderful neighbours. Ralph and Brenda, both retired school teachers, quite literally drove up and dug in. We worked and chatted in the mud for the better part of two hours (well, the kids didn`t, but we did). No judgements implied on the flowering sowthistle, no comments on the lawn in need of a haircut. Just helping hands and good company. Praise for the children's efforts. Enthusiasm for mine. We're not done, but I feel so much further ahead… and not just with my to-do list.

A friend of mine, a single mom stretched on many fronts, has trouble keeping up with her yard too. She complained to me a few weeks ago about feeling judged by her neat-as-a-pin neighbours. They seem so ready, she said, to point out all her shortcomings, and less ready to offer to babysit. I wish I could send Ralph and Brenda her way.

From grass to garden: Part 1

This spring, my husband and I contemplated turning our front lawn into a garden after an ongoing battle with grubs decimated our grass for the second time. Warm spring evenings were spent wandering through neighbourhoods looking for ideas–and furtively taking the odd photo. But a busy schedule and the sheer enormity of the task–ripping up all the grass (for the second time in five years) and then finding plants to fill this bigger space gave us pause.

Then an emergency sewer pipe repair saw half our lawn being dug up leaving a pile of sand in its wake. This bigger mess overwhelmed us into inaction as we struggled to figure out what to do and where to start. We were so embarrassed by the state of our yard, we left the Roto Rooter sign up for longer than we would have so anyone walking by would take pity on our pipe repair and not judge the disaster zone.

I took a 'before' photo after the dirt was delivered. The end of the lawn is where we started to dig up. Crab grass obscures much of the sandpit that stretches from the middle of our lawn up towards the windows on the right.

I took a 'before' photo after the dirt was delivered. The end of the lawn is where we started to dig up the grass. Crab grass obscures much of the sandpit that stretches from the middle of our lawn up towards the front of the house. Two junipers were pulled out during the sewer pipe repair leaving an empty front garden.

We were tempted to hire a professional to sketch out a garden plan, but our creative side wanted to see if we could do it ourselves. And so we looked through magazines and websites, I read through Liz Primeau's fantastic new book called Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass and we finally sat down together one night to sketch out what we each envisioned.

It turns out we both had similar ideas in mind, so a plan started to take shape. We decided to cancel our long weekend plans and devote our three days off to our garden redesign. And my sweet parents–Sensei Gardener (Mom) and Sensei Landscaper (Dad)–were eager to help out.

Our first step was to order triple mix to enrich our soil and a nice dark cedar mulch. This was delivered on Friday afternoon by Arnts Topsoil: The Landscape Supplier. During the week we had started tearing up the grass and worked at finishing this Saturday. We also managed to get our hands on some fabulous big rocks left over from a neighbour's project. My husband used these to separate our side garden from the new one we were going to create. We took an afternoon break to meet my dad at Arnts and haul a load of stone back to our house. This would be used to replace a rotted wooden retaining wall and create a bigger wall that would separate our garden into two tiers. We also picked up a bag of multicoloured pebbles to experiment with a garden path.

With a house full of refreshments and our tools gathered and ready for action, we awoke on Sunday morning ready to tackle our plan. It’s not quite finished, but wait and see what we came up with!

Decisions, decisions

Okay, people, I need help.

Photo #1

Photo #1

Last fall, my sister Jenni built some stone steps from our gravel driveway down a short slope, and then a little bit of a walkway curving around a flower bed, as shown in photo #1. They look pretty good, no? Jenni did 99% percent of the work because I was eight months pregnant at the time. That was my excuse anyway; the reality, frankly, is she knows what she's doing, and I don't. At least when it comes to this.

Jenni only had a couple of days to help us, so she got the steps built and got the walkway kind of planned with randomly placed stones (photo #2), and left the finishing to us. The plan was to put the sod back in around them and cut the edge of the bed spring and fall to keep it neat. Well, the kids went back to school, I had a baby, winter set in… and now I have the mess you see in photo #3.

Photo #2

Photo #2

So here's my problem: I started thinking. (Uh oh, right?) Could it not be grass on one side of the path, flower bed on the other? Wouldn't it be nice to plant thyme and creepy things amongst the stepping stones? How would I keep the grass out of them? Can I afford (in time, money, and back muscles) to run the path solid the rest of the 12 or so feet I want it?

You must understand, I have spent a lot of time getting this flower
bed cleaned out. I have pulled a lot of grass out of here. I have done
the layered newspaper thing with very good success, but quack grass does not
give up without a fight. I do not want to open the door to re-invasion.

Photo #3

Photo #3

So, what do you think? Is Plan A still my best bet?

My priorities are:

1. Ease of mowing
2. Looking nice
3. Not cost the earth in the aforementioned currencies
4. Death to quack grass.

Purslane taste test

This morning while I was out weeding, I decided I'd set aside some purslane and try it with my lunch before serving it to my unsuspecting husband as I mentioned I would do in yesterday’s post. As I washed my weeds, I chewed a couple of leaves. I detected a hint of that lemony flavour John Kallas talks about in his book Edible Wild Plants. They tasted very similar to my mesclun mix that I planted this spring.

I added the ends of the stems and their leaves, which are supposed to be the sweetest, to a mixed greens salad with cherry tomatoes and my homemade balsamic vinaigrette. With all that company, I didn't really taste the purslane, but felt good knowing I was getting an extra dose of omega-3s.

An edible weed discovery

Out of all the weeds I have to pull, I didn’t realize I was composting a nutrient-dense super food. Purslane is a succulent with a reddish root and little shiny green leaves with more omega-3s than kale and lots of antioxidants. It also happens to love my yard. Apparently purslane is very popular in the Mediterranean, but here in North America we haven’t quite gotten used to eating this weed that likes to pop up in dry places like sidewalk cracks. After reading the chapter on purslane that we’ve excerpted on the site from the book Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas, I pointed out the weed to my husband. He seemed a little dubious about eating something that doesn’t come from the boundaries of our vegetable garden, but I might sneak it into a salad this week. Shh, don’t tell!

All or nothing

The corn is coming along nicely so far.

The corn is coming along nicely so far.

My husband Chris is an all or nothing kind of guy. He's an artist. A big idea man. And that includes his thinking about our yard. He didn't build the kids a play house, he built a play castle. He hasn't moved that metastasizing pile of building materials, because he's waiting to have a full day to tackle it. He hates mowing unless he can finish the whole place at once. But I digress.

In Chris's world, there's no point growing corn unless you grow a whole batch of it. As in half a dozen 100-foot rows. That would take up pretty much all of our current veggie patch, which I'm not up for. Also, as a big idea man, he tends to move on to the next big idea, leaving the last one for me. I know I'm the one who would end up doing most of the work weeding, watering and pollinating. And with our short growing season, you've got to be pretty on top of it and the weather has to cooperate just right if you're even going to end up with any edible corn. Take up all that space and invest all that energy, in a crop that might happen? So I told him, go till up a new patch and you be in charge of it.

Our not quite enormous, yet giant pumpkin

Our not quite enormous, yet giant pumpkin

Hasn't happened. Mission accomplished.

This year he came home with giant seeds a friend had given him. We have always grown pumpkins, but Chris wants to try the “grand-daddy” pumpkin–Dill's Atlantic Giant. I smiled and nodded and rolled my eyes internally. Scanning the seed packet, I realized maybe I should have been more supportive of the corn–these babies need their hills spaced 15-20 feet apart, and need a soil pH of blah blah fertilizer blah blah. My laissez-faire garden mind tuned out. At least hundred-foot rows of corn might give us something to eat other than bragging rights.

His excitement, as usual, was contagious, and the giant seeds got planted. They've had a late start because of our weird spring (the first flowers are just coming now) so we'll see how giant any pumpkins get. And we'll see how much space they actually take up as they wind their way through the rows of (sigh) corn.

Lest you think me a shameless husband basher, here's the upside to having an artist around the house. Chris built these steps and I'm getting a trellis to match this fall!

Lest you think me a shameless husband basher, here's the upside to having an artist around the house. Chris built these steps and I'm getting a trellis to match this fall!

Garden bugs!

My two-year-old Izah has two categories of bugs: “ewww” and “helper.” She likes worms, ladybugs, and bees, because she knows they have jobs that make the garden better. Pretty much everything else is an “ewww.” I hate to admit it, but mostly I agree. I know they each have a role to play, I just wish they would do it somewhere else. Preferably out of my sight.

Gardens have bugs. This is an inescapable truth, in the same category as death and taxes. Some we appreciate, others we tolerate. Then there`s the cringe-inducing annoyances: aphids, grubs, cabbage moth larvae, beetles of various stripes–we all have our personal nemesis.

I`ve had the odd problem with insects over the years. I`ve poured boiling water on inconvenient anthills, hung those fake wasp nests (which I endorse, by the way), and been infested with earwigs. But for the most part, their activity has been akin to punk teenagers egging the neighbour`s house on a Saturday night, and I`ve shrugged it off accordingly and carried on. This year, for whatever reason, the bugs have gotten organized. We`re talking Mafia tactics worthy of Al Capone.

There are hornets finding their way into my enclosed porch, at least one a day. There are suddenly ant hills all over the yard, with scouts all over the house. There are spiders everywhere in and out, big nasty ones too. I`ve got aphids on my broccoli and kale, and I`ve noticed more than one six-legged critter I`ve never even seen before. And don`t get me started on the mosquitos.
I`m chalking it up to the overly wet spring we`ve had. We move every ladybug we find to help with the aphids. Borax and peanut butter seems to have gotten the ants to behave, and we plugged some holes in the porch. All told, we`ll get by. But these mobsters aren`t scoring any points with me and Izah. –April Demes

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