Gardening Blog

Searching for signs of spring

img_2654As the song goes, “spring will be a little late this year.” At least that’s how it’s felt to me.

It’s been a dark, cold and snowy and seemingly never-ending winter here in Toronto, but this week we’ve had a few warm, sunny days and brilliant blue skies. It’s a perfect time to walk around the neighbourhood to search for signs of spring. In my garden I can see daffodils poking their way through a mulch of leaves, while the blooms on my ‘Primavera’ witch hazel brighten up the fenceline.img_26552

I walk around the corner in search of crocuses and snowdrops with no success, but notice that buds are fattening up on shrubs and some ground-covering sedum is showing its first signs of life.

img_2664img_26611When the weather is like this, gardeners itch to get out there and start the cleanup. Please resist. It’s much too early to rake off that mulch–winter ain’t done yet and you could give your plants a nasty, cold shock. It’s best to wait until the weather really settles down and warms up to stay.

Next: Adventures in Arizona

What I'm excited to see at Canada Blooms

Last year's gorgeous tulips!

Last year's gorgeous tulips!

This Budding Gardener has never been to Canada Blooms before. I know, I know… what a gardening sin! This is the 13th year of the show and I have to make up for lost time! I was going through the website to plan my day and was overwhelmed with everything there is to see–from the feature gardens to the shopping to the seminars. I will definitely be there on Wednesday shooting some video for CanadianGardening.com and checking out the booths, but I also want to see some of the presentations.

These are some of the reasons I’m excited to visit Canada Blooms:

  • Creating an organic perennial garden of continuous bloom
    (Speaker: Lorraine Roberts)
    Because perennials are my best friends–they come up every year no matter what–and in my quest to be greener, this should be a very helpful seminar.
  • Gardening with Mother Nature the natural way
    (Speaker: Marjorie Mason)
    Because I want my garden to be an eco haven. Marjorie has written a great book called Ecological Gardening: Your Path to a Healthy Garden. It's trade paperback-sized, perfect for the subway, except I also need a pad and pen to take notes while reading!
  • Vertical vegetables
    (Speaker: Kenneth Brown)
    Because I'm planning on planting a square-foot garden and I need all the advice I can get to ensure I actually have something to eat at the end of all my hard work.
  • No more chemicals in the garden
    (Speaker: Jeff Lowefels)
    Because I need to know how to keep my ant population down without grabbing for a can of Raid.
  • Dramatic containers
    (Speaker: Paul Zammit)
    Because I need some fresh ideas for this year's pots. I will be filming a step-by-step video next week of Paul planting his gorgeous containers at the Toronto Botanical Garden! Stay tuned!
  • Since I love to travel, I'm looking forward to checking out the VIA Rail Garden Route and Tourism Ireland's Garden Travel area. Aldona did a portion of the Garden Route out west last fall and it sounds amazing!
  • The City of Toronto's 175th Anniversary Garden — to celebrate my city's birthday.
  • The Heart and Stroke Pulse Garden and the Canadian Cancer Society: Cancer Connections urban gallery for inspiration.
  • Pick Ontario Avenue because I can't resist shopping!

Good eats and cheap retreats

img_2542If you are exploring central Florida’s Polk County, look beyond the usual chain restaurants and fast-food joints to discover some independently owned gems, several of which have been in the same family for generations. Mostly frequented by locals, all these eateries are less than an hour’s drive from Orlando.

Harry’s Old Place in Winter Haven is lively, low-key, unpretentious and affordable, with excellent fresh seafood.

img_22363I tried one of Harry’s signature dishes called Harry in the Bag, which is a succulent piece of pecan-coated grouper (shown left) cooked, as you might suspect, in a brown paper bag and served to me there by Harry himself. One caveat: the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, and it does get busy.

Harry’s Old Place
3751 Cypress Gardens Road, Winter Haven
863-324-0301

img_2299img_23091A charming spot for lunch and a local institution since 1969 is The Barn, the Stable and the Backporch Tearoom. There you can browse through rooms filled with antiques and home decor items, visit the garden shop with its funky yard art, then enjoy a casual, picnic-basket-style lunch that consists of your choice of homemade soup, salad, sandwich and dessert–all for under $8. (Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 4 from October until the last Saturday in May.)

The Barn, the Stable and the Backporch Tearoom
I-4, Exit 48, three miles south on Hwy 557 in Lake Alfred
863-956-2227
www.barnantiques.biz (click on Our History)

img_2470Finally, nestled on 140 acres and steeped in ambiance (it’s on the register of National Historic Places) is Chalet Suzanne, a spot voted one of the top ten most romantic in Florida. Since 1931, the Hinshaw family has been welcoming guests (and many celebrities). The decor alone is worth a visit, for the place is jam-packed with beautiful old lamps, antiques, fabulous decorative tiles and stained glass. These were collected from around the world by Bertha Hinshaw, who founded and developed the business after her husband, Carl, passed away at age 47, leaving her with two small children and the pressing need to earn a living. The award-winning restaurant comprises five dining rooms. There are also 30 guest rooms, a landing strip for airplanes and more, as well as a soup cannery, which was begun in 1956 by Carl Hinshaw Jr. in his garage. Chalet Suzanne now produces 13 gourmet soup varieties and three sauces. The soups have been served in many places, including the spacecraft Apollo 13 and two other Apollo flights. To commemorate this honour, their signature romaine soup has been renamed Moon Soup.

img_24882There is also pretty little garden filled with personalized tiles, including some made by celebrities and astronauts. For a fee, you can create your own tile to add to the walls.

Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Country Inn
3800 Chalet Suzanne Drive, Lake Wales
863-676-6011
www.chaletsuzanne.com

Cheap retreats On the last morning of our stay, we were to view a vacation rental property. I have to say my first thought was: “Uh oh. Will this turn out to be one of those swamp-land-in-Florida-type sales pitches?” In fact, we were taken to a very pretty and quiet upscale residential neighbourhood, where we toured a fully-equipped, five-bedroom home with ensuite bathrooms, several family and games rooms (in addition to a large living and dining room), laundry facilities and a good-sized, enclosed private swimming pool and spa. This house sleeps 12, and the cost to rent it per night is $150!

img_2586I don’t know about you, but this seems like an incredible deal to me. Think of the possibilities for a family vacation in the Orlando area (Disney World, Sea World, etc.) or a reunion, or just a nice escape from winter with friends. You can even hire a cook, a concierge, etc. Anyway, there are something like 25,000 vacation homes available in the central Florida area that range in price from $100 to $400 per night. If you want to find out more, you can look on the website of The Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association at www.vacationwithconfidence.com.

Next: Searching for signs of spring

Share your seed storage tips

kitchengardenboxA few years ago I went to PEI and bought a packet of lupin seeds. When I got home, I put them in a “safe” place and couldn't find them for two years. I now try to keep everything gardening-related together in a little desk drawer, but this sweet little box turned up on my desk recently and I just had to share.

The Kitchen Garden Box from Quirk Books is like a recipe organizer, but the “recipe” cards not only hold veggie recipes, there are other helpful seed-planting tips and tricks, as well. There are 10 reusable seed envelopes, but you could also file your own in there and keep everything together in one place.

How do you keep your seeds organized? Post a comment below and you could win a Kitchen Garden Box of your own. I'll randomly pick two winners next week.

Note: Open to all residents of Canada, except those in Quebec. Not open to any Transcontinental Media employees, their families, or any other persons with whom they reside.

My seeds: The chosen ones

My sister and I chose our seeds from the heirloom seed house and plant nursery, The Cottage Gardener in Newtonville, Ontario. It was important to us to choose heirloom and organic varieties.

It would have been easy to go crazy and pick one of everything, but we had to realize that we can't start everything from seed. I simply don't have the space, and as Anne Marie said, not everything does as well from seed. So, I'll be hitting the nurseries, including my usual spots–the heirloom vendors at the Evergreen Brickworks Farmer's Market and Richters–for the seedlings of the veggies I'm not starting early.

But back to my seeds. My choices include cosmos, one of my favourite flowers, and experiments like white-stemmed pak choy and Detroit dark red beet. My sister chose a lot of herbs, which I'm game to try out, as well. Here is a list of what we're planting:

• Dill
• Florence Fennel
• English Thyme
• Black Calypso Beans
• Common Chives
• Roman Chamomile
• Cilantro
• Champion Collards
• Black Hungarian Hot Peppers
• Arugula
• Cosmos
• Detroit Dark Red Beet
• White-Stemmed Pak Choy
• Mesclun mix (a gift from Canadian Gardening writer Lorraine Flanigan)

Citrus groves and grapefruit pie

img_23272Do you ever stop to wonder at the contradictions in nature? For example, why do orange blossoms smell so sweet when the fruit they produce tastes tart?

Citrus is big business in central Florida, so a visit to the groves was a component of our tour. We were shown how oranges are washed, dried, polished and waxed before being packed for shipment. I was surprised to learn 95 per cent of Florida’s harvested oranges are earmarked for juice. However, enterprising Floridians figured out a use for all that leftover pulp and peel–it goes into cattle feed. I guess Florida cows don’t suffer too much from colds and flu.img_23331

One of the many interesting stops we made was to the Citrus Research and Education Center of the University of Florida. It’s been around for about 90 years, with a citrus library that’s open to the public. In addition to an overview of projects being carried out by graduate students and other young scientists, Wendy Meyer (with magnifying glass, right), an entomologist and research biologist, told us about some of the pests that are plaguing crops. One of the most serious of these is the Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri), an aphid-like insect that is a vector for the Liberobacter asiaticum bacterium, which causes deadly greening disease that can kill a tree in just five years.img_23141

Since its initial discovery in Florida in 1998, the Asian citrus psyllid has spread throughout the state. Dr. Meyer reviewed various methods that are being used to monitor this pest, including putting out pheromone-laced yellow panel traps. Controls being tried include interplanting citrus with guava, which seems to act as a natural repellent. At present, there is no cure for this devastating disease. Greening could spell big trouble for the industry in the years ahead.

img_2409Next, we headed off for lunch to Lang Sun Country Groves in Lake Alfred, a family-run business since 1951. The massive Florida flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) in front of the building dates from that time. Not only does Lang’s grow, pack, ship and sell oranges, grapefruits and other citrus varieties, but they also have the Taste of Florida Cafe, where they serve freshly squeezed juice, homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and especially, desserts. I sampled the signature grapefruit pie shown here (you can find the recipe on their website, below).img_2414

After lunch, we toured the packing facility out back, where fruit is sorted by size and packed by hand. It seemed a surprisingly small, low-tech operation for a company that ships citrus fruit far and wide. Lynn Miller, a second-generation member of the Lang family, proudly showed us a box of honeybell tangelos, a runaway Florida marketing success story. When I told him their shaped reminded me of the mineolas I bought at home, he grinned. It seems they are indeed the very same. The difference is they couldn’t give away mineolas in the U.S. until an enterprising grower changed their name to honeybells to reflect their bell-like form.img_2426

www.langsuncountry.com
www.visitcentralflorida.org

Next: Good eats and cheap retreats

Taking a deep breath and perusing the seed catalogues

I have never started my seeds indoors before. Sure, I've thrown a few in the ground over the years to see what would come up, but I always worried I didn't have enough space or light to sow them inside. I had varied success with my veggies last year, but my sister and I both realized that the long wait for our peppers and tomatoes had a lot to do with planting them too late in the season. This year we're determined to get a head start.

We decided to order seeds together, but plant in our own respective homes. I'm going to sacrifice the windowsill in my home office and the space around it. My sister's apartment is a virtual greenhouse–her lemongrass is a tree!–and her husband built her these awesome shelves for her seed pots. I figure my odds of fresh herbs and veggies increase with both of us planting the same thing. If one of us fails (most likely me), we have backup.

But where to begin? I find seed catalogues so overwhelming–especially when looking at 10 tomatoes with the same description. Cross-eyed and confused, I turned to Anne Marie for some advice in choosing what to plant.

Here are her helpful tips:

• Look for flowers and vegetables listed as award winners. These are some of the best ones to grow.
• Good plants to start from seeds indoors include tomatoes, marigolds, sunflowers, squash, geraniums, lettuce, sweet peas, cosmos, morning glory and basil.
• Sunflowers, squash, lettuce, sweet peas and morning glory are also good to sow directly outside, too.
• Not all plants are worth starting from seeds. Some are better divided or started by cuttings. (Good call, I'll reign in my list!)
• Buy the size of package you can use in one year.
• If packets contain less than 10 seeds then expect to pay premium prices because they have to be collected by hand, the plant is rare, or the plant only produces a small number of seeds.
• Beware of packets that contain 1,000 seeds for a low price such as $2.49.
• After your seed list is assembled a little time searching on the Internet can give you the specific details about how to sow them–when to sow i.e. days before planting them outside, to cover or not to cover (light vs darkness), ideal temperature for germination, days until germination, etc.

Someone recommended a seed company to my sister, so we both compiled a list and our seeds are in the mail! I just have to buy my little seed starting pots and I'm good to go!

Hollis Garden, Lakeland, Florida

Once the third largest city in Florida, Lakeland is a quiet, pretty place with three lakes within its downtown core. This is a college town, home to the University of Southern Florida and Florida Southern College, where the latter’s campus boasts a number of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. It’s also been the spring training camp of the Detroit Tigers baseball team for 70 years.

Known as the “city of swans,” Lakeland is also home to Hollis Garden, a formal, neoclassical-style beauty spot located on the shores of Lake Mirror and a very pleasant place to spend a few hours.

Established in just 2000, the garden has matured well and packs some 10,000 plants on its 1.2 acre grounds. There you will find Florida natives, as well as annuals, fruits, vegetables and herbs in some 16 garden rooms, along with water features, grottoes and more.

The garden has other, quirkier, charms. A number of offbeat sculptures keep the space from looking too prissy. And I was especially enchanted by the historical Trees of America section. There, pollarded to maintain a manageable size, are trees with a direct connection to their famous owners–some of them come from seedlings or the original trees found in their gardens. You can admire the Abe Lincoln overcup oak (Quercus lyrata), the Elvis Presley weeping willow, the George Washington tulip poplar and the Patrick Henry osage orange, to name just a few.

Seldom-encountered curiosities, such as this Buddha’s hand (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus), above left, from China may also be seen. Yes, it’s a citrus and loaded with Vitamin C, but according to our guide Stacy Smith (shown in middle photo, above, with sugar cane) it must be cooked before it’s eaten. Another interesting plant is the popcorn cassia (Cassia didymobotrya), above right. Native to South America, it’s so named because it really does smell like buttered popcorn.

Once you’ve strolled around the garden, you might want to head over to the nearby Hotel Lakeland Terrace, which also overlooks Lake Mirror, for some refreshment. Originally built in 1924, the hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. Its impeccably restored interior, including the beautiful pecky cypress ceilings, makes it a fine spot for a relaxing drink or a full meal.

Some gardens need more space than a mere blog can give them. To explore central Florida’s historic Bok Tower Gardens, view Lorraine Flanigan’s slideshow.

(www.terracehotel.com)

Next: Citrus groves and more

Into the wild

Lying about 45 minutes or so equidistant from Tampa and Orlando airports, not far from well-known, man-made attractions such as Disney World, is the “other” Central Florida of Polk County–a place of pretty little towns, rolling hills, myriad lakes, orange groves, astonishing public gardens and mysterious natural habitats that are little known to the casual visitor. And that’s where we’re going on the next few posts of this blog.

Our comfortable hotel, the Holiday Inn Winter Haven, is the jumping-off point for our adventures. Although I’d be a liar if I didn’t tell you there’s the usual share of what our “Gardens and Groves” tour leader Georgia Turner dubbed “Generica” here–that endless permutation of suburban strip mall/big box store/motel-and-fast-food-joint that seems to be found most anywhere you land–it’s well worth looking beyond that to discover what’s special, such as the Circle B Bar Reserve located between Bartow, Lakeland and Winter Haven.

A long allee of live oaks, beautifully festooned with Spanish moss, line the road to the newly opened Polk’s Nature Discovery centre at the edge of the reserve, where we learn more about the area and pick up our two volunteer tour guides, Ray and Herman. Then off we go into the wild.

It’s hard to believe that prior to 2000, the Circle B Bar’s 1267 acres of marsh, cypress swamp and oak hammock were mostly a working cattle ranch. Since that time, wildlife and nature have been allowed to take over and it’s now a haven for some 172 species of birds and numerous plants, many of them unique to this part of the state. Neither the lake nor the land have been stocked in any way, and Herman and Ray explained that wildlife and plants came back on their own after just five years.

A breeze ruffles my hair and the spring sun feels warm on my back. I am in heaven. The silence is broken only by the cries of birds and the rush of their wings. Wild turkeys, bald eagles, palm warblers, moor hens, pie-billed grebes, coots and especially the famous rare white pelicans (seen at the top of the page) are just some of the species to be found around Hancock Lake.

A big green water snake and a couple of alligators glide by. (The big old fella seen here smiled obligingly for my camera–or maybe he was just sizing me up for a snack.)
www.visitcentralflorida.org

Next: Hollis Garden

Seedy Saturdays heads-up

The days are getting longer, there’s new warmth in the sun and soon it’ll be time to start a few seeds indoors to get ready for the gardening season ahead (hooray). So before I embark on writing about my Florida trip (the first post will be online later today and I promise there won’t be even a whiff of winter), I wanted to give you a quick heads-up about Seedy Saturdays. These offer gardeners a chance to exchange or buy seeds–often heirloom or hard-to-find varieties. Even if you don’t have any seeds to swap this time, it’s perfectly fine to go along and see what’s what and a great way to connect with other plant-mad folks in your community.

A number of events are taking place tomorrow (February 28) with more to follow. To find information on what’s going on near you, contact your local garden club or the Master Gardeners group in your area, or log on to the Seeds of Diversity website at http://www.seeds.ca/ev/events.php

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