Gardening Blog

Spooky Halloween horticulture

With the arrival of Halloween tomorrow, the houses in my neighborhood are becoming ghoulish haunts. Front yards are littered with tombstones and zombies and skeletons are lurking in the shadows. I love when homeowners make the effort to create haunted gardens, even if it’s a traditional jack-o-lantern greeting children as they scream “trick or treat?”

Haunting my front door this Halloween is the Headless Horseman.

Haunting my front door this Halloween is the Headless Horseman.

Have you ever wondered why we crave pumpkins for Halloween?

The tradition dates back several centuries to Ireland, where a lazy farmer named Stringy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. When the time came to pay for his drink, Jack convinced the Devil to transform into a coin, but instead of paying with it, he put it the coin in his pocket with a silver cross to prevent the Devil from transforming back. When Jack finally decided to let the Devil go, he made the Devil promise that the he wouldn’t take his soul.

Unfortunately for Jack, he died the following Halloween (of unrelated causes) and was turned away from the Heaven because of his sinful lifestyle. Turning to the Gates of Hell as a last resort, he was turned away by the Devil because the Devil had promised not to claim Jack’s soul. Poor Jack was alone in the darkness, but the Devil took pity on him and gave him a glowing piece of coal to light his way. Luckily Jack found a turnip and put the burning coal inside. To this day, Jack is roaming the earth, carrying the turnip lantern to find his way in the darkness.

Although there are many different versions of Stringy Jack’s story, all lead to the tradition of carving turnips. Since pumpkins were more plentiful then turnips in North America, Irish emigrants decided to hollow out the large orange gourds when making their Jack-o-Lanterns for Halloween.

To read more Halloween horticulture, check out Charmian Christie’s article ‘Halloween Plant Lore.

Fabulous fall foliage

treeIf you haven’t been outside lately, you’re missing the fabulous fall foliage. As the days get shorter and the temperature drops, trees sense the approach of winter. During the fall, the green canopy of summer transforms into a colourful smorgasbord of reds, oranges, and yellows. Have you ever wondered what triggers the leaves to change colour?


This is the maple tree in my backyard. Each fall, it becomes an incredible shade of golden yellow. When the afternoon sun hits the leaves, it glows!

During my horticultural studies, my ornamental plant professor explained it best. Leaves change colour because of a chemical shift in the foliage. During the summer, leaves produce chlorophyll, which is used to absorb sunlight, which is then turned into glucose in other words, photosynthesis. As the tree prepares to hibernate chlorophyll production slows down and the glucose and nutrients from the leaves are absorbed by the branches, trunk, and roots. Since chlorophyll makes the leaves green, the remaining pigments in the leaves take over. Yellow and orange leaves contain carotene (the same pigments that give carrots their bright orange colour). Red and purple leaves contain anthrocyanins (which give radishes and red roses their vibrant red colour).

Pretty technical, I know, but it does shed some light on the chemical shift that the leaves are experiencing. Of course, there are other factors that influence how vibrant the colours become including temperature and soil moisture. In southern Ontario, our fall colours seem to pop after we enjoy several consecutive warm, sunny days and cool nights. I can’t imagine living somewhere in the world where they don’t experience changing seasons. As we transition into each new season, the garden is filled with new splendors to explore!

Dining between the charcuterie and the olives

Two nights ago I attended the launch of A Taste of Ontario, a cookbook jointly published by the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers and Foodland Ontario. The dinner was hosted by Mark McEwan and held at his new 23,000-square-foot grocery store, McEwan (located in The Shops at Don Mills). Between the European-style meat, deli and dessert counters, we sampled some of the delicious recipes conceived by award-winning chef Anthony John Dalupan.

Besides launching this free cookbook (which you can also download as a PDF here), the event was meant to showcase the fresh local produce from Ontario greenhouse growers. And what a difference the lack of distance between your food and your plate can make. I received an amazing basket of vegetables from local greenhouse growers — the taste and quality are amazing!

So in the dead of winter when you're trolling the grocery store for healthy local produce, keep an eye out for greenhouse-grown produce from a local grower.

Also, stay tuned as I will be posting an excerpt from the cookbook on our site!

It was pretty neat eating dinner in a grocery store, especially McEwan - I will definitely be going back to treat myself to some of the amazing cuts of meat, salads and produce!

It was pretty neat eating dinner in a grocery store, especially McEwan - I will definitely be going back to treat myself to some of the amazing cuts of meat, salads and produce!

I'll be cracking open A Taste of Ontario to use up some of these delicious peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes I received!

I'll be cracking open A Taste of Ontario to use up some of these delicious peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes I received!

Mum-ma mia!

I can't take credit for planting them, but I love the dependable, gorgeous colours my chrysanthemums bring to the yard each fall — white, pink, yellow, orange. Still covered in bees, these are not delicate flowers. The frosty temperatures we had last week didn't harm their little faces at all! I haven’t done it yet this year, but I love to snip a short stem full of blooms and place them in water, low to the vase. It’s like a ready-made, elegant bouquet! Just make sure they aren’t covered in little bugs. I made that mistake last year!

Bulb planting made easy

4-001I finally managed to find some time to play in the garden on the weekend. Although my gardening to-do list wasn’t completed, I did manage to plant all my tulip bulbs. Every fall, I wait till the bulbs are on sale by mid-October they’re normally reduced by 40 to 60% off the regular price. This way I can buy more bulbs, while sticking to my gardening budget.2

When I worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Burlington as a student gardener, I had the pleasure of planting tulip bulbs in the Rock Garden. Each year, the Spring Bulb Display showcases over 100,000 bulbs, which are brought in from growers in Holland. After they bloom, the bulbs are dug up and sold at the RBG’s bulb sale. Now consider planting 100,000 bulbs each and every September….now that’s a lot of bulbs.

4Instead of using a trowel to plant the bulbs, we used a bulb planter. Now this handy little tool saves a lot of time. Basically you rotate the handle as you push it into the soil. Once you’ve reached the specific depth, you pull it out. The soil is securely grasped in the cylinder, leaving a perfect hole to plant your bulb. Once you’ve nestled the bulb in its new home, you squeeze the spring-loaded handle, and it releases the soil, tucking the bulb in for the winter. If you’re wondering how far to dig the hole, the cylinder has gradation marks on the side for easy measurements.

5This handy device makes bulb planting a breeze. I spent 20 minutes planting 40 bulbs on the weekend and that included watering the bulbs and cleaning up. Now all I have to do is wait for spring!

A bumper crop of teeny tomatillos

The tomatillos that managed to escape my broiler and blender last year reseeded themselves and produced three plants this spring. There could have been more, but I think I inadvertently pulled some out. Anyhow, they are finally ready and survived this frosty week. They are much smaller than last year, but made a delicious salsa verde last night. Last year I mentioned a recipe I found on, but I also really enjoy the variation I’ve created with a recipe from the old Wish magazine site because it calls for honey. A delicious addition to the tacos I made last night… yum!

My garden's report card: the annuals

In a recent column, Canadian Gardening magazine’s editor-at-large, Stephen Westcott-Gratton, wrote up a report card for his garden. The recent change in the weather from mild and pleasant to downright frosty has inspired me to reflect on what worked — and what didn’t — in my own garden.

Now I definitely need to practice my botanical photography, but here are some photos of my favourite plants this year. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to take a photo of some before they started going downhill, so those I’ve just listed at the bottom.

I planted my Picotree Cosmos around the edge of my vegetable garden to create a lovely, tall border behind my veggies. Now I suspect some of the seeds were carried off by the squirrels because I didn't end up with much of a border, but nonetheless, I'm very pleased with the fuchsia and delicate pink blooms that are still gracing my garden.

I planted my Picotree Cosmos around the edge of my vegetable garden to create a lovely, tall border behind my veggies. Now I suspect some of the seeds were carried off by the squirrels because I didn't end up with much of a border, but nonetheless, I'm very pleased with the fuchsia and delicate pink blooms that are still gracing my garden. Grade: A

Lantana from Home Depot

I bought this Lantana (a Lucky Red Hot) from Home Depot on a whim one weekend and it took over! You can see it shading my ornamental grass. But the flowers were lovely and it didn't require much water to survive in my dry, sunny front garden. Grade: A+

Other successes:

  • My herb garden. Most of my herbs came from the President’s Choice Lawn & Garden Centre at my local Loblaws and a PC event I attended. For the first time I used almost all my fresh herbs in my cooking (which is incredibly satisfying)… the only ones I didn’t use were my lemon thyme and my sage. Grade: A+ (I give my cilantro a D because both the plants started from seed and the plants that just appeared in my garden died)
  • My Red Antirrhinum majus Snapdragon. This one flowered on and off throughout the summer and was a little finicky, but well worth it for the gorgeous crimson blooms. Grade: B+
  • Kong Rose Coleus from Pape Garden Centre. This lovely plant drew my attention because of its lime green, fuchsia and purple foliage. I planted it beside an Irish moss I bought at Sheridan Nurseries. The squirrels carried away the moss, but left my lovely Coleus behind. Grade: A+
  • Begonias – I had a peach and a fuschia and both were gorgeous! Grade: A

Will my new pen biodegrade as I’m writing my to-do lists?

papermate-blogDespite working on the web, I'm still a paper person. I keep lists and notes in more than one notebook, I'm forever jotting things on Post-its and I still keep track of my life in my daytimer. Not particularly eco-friendly, I know, but at least my pen now is! A few weeks ago I was sent a Paper Mate Biodegradable — a nifty new pen made of parts that will decompose in soil or compost.

So maybe next spring after all my note taking, my pen will be inkless (though you can buy refills!) and I'll be able to bury it and see how long it takes to biodegrade — right alongside my Cargo PlantLove lipstick case. It will be like a little bioplastic graveyard in my garden!

Spectaular ornamental grasses

grass22One of the first gardening projects my husband and I tackled when we first moved into our house was dig up an old Privet hedge in our backyard. The hedge grew between the upper and lower patio I think the original homeowners wanted a screen between the house and pool, but when we moved in, it was unkempt and burly. I had thought we could salvage it, but my husband wanted to remove it (Yes, honey. You were right!)

It took a whole weekend to dig out the bushes and deep roots. When we were done, we were left with a sloping L-shaped bed. Once I saw the blank canvas, I envisioned a small rock garden. I built up the bottom of the slope with rocks to create a foundation and then amended the soil with compost and topsoil. The next step was deciding what to plant. Aside from a variety of succulents planted in the rock crevices, I also added a bunch of perennials including sedum, lamb’s ear, coreopsis, creeping phlox, and Scotch moss. To add some height, I decided to plant a few ornamental grasses. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Goliath’, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Titian’, Carex pendula (Drooping Sedge), Carex flacca (Blue Sedge), grass333and Festuca amethystina.

Two years later, the ornamental grasses have stolen the show. They’re not that showy in the spring, but by midsummer they’re quite impressive. By early fall, they skyrocket and bloom, and are quite spectacular. During the winter months, they create interest in the garden when everything else is hidden underneath the snow.

If you haven’t tried growing ornamental grasses, I highly recommend adding them to your garden. They’re easy to grow, versatile in the landscape, and incredibly showy. I’ve become addicted to ornamental grasses and have dabbled with a few in the front yard. I also want to design a new bed under a huge maple tree at the back of our yard. Ornamental grasses are definitely a good thing!

Don’t forget the flowers!

happy-bunch-227If you’re attending Thanksgiving dinner hosted by friends or family this weekend, don’t forget the flowers. Cut flower bouquets make a great hostess gift. You can either stop off at your local florist to choose a lovely arrangement or you can create your own. Either way, they’ll make a lovely addition to your Thanksgiving dinner table!

For a few ideas on festive arrangements you can make yourself, check out these bouquets.

A lush fall centrepiece

A happy bunch of fall flowers

Three fall centrepieces for the harvest table

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