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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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!
`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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What’s your favorite berry? How do you eat them?
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.
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.
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.
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!