Gardening Blog

The Ice Hotel and a Nordic spa

For someone who hates the cold as much as I do, the very idea of an ice hotel sent shivers of horror down my spine. But the reality was quite magical and airy, less an igloo than perhaps what the palace of the Snow Queen in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale might have looked like.

A mere 30-minute drive from Quebec City, the Ice Hotel is redesigned and rebuilt each winter, and it’s quite the project. Some 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice are used in its construction, and the process takes about a month. There are 36 rooms where you can stay, a chapel (where some 30 weddings are celebrated each year) and a bar. Fun place. This year, the Ice Hotel will be open until March 29. To find out more, visit www.icehotel-canada.com.

Across the way is the station touristique Duchesnay, not only a hub for many area activities, but also a place where you can enjoy good meals and deluxe recreational amenities. Accommodation is available in cabins and lodges and in the Auberge Duchesnay, with its view of Lac St. Joseph, and you can opt for a combined package with the Ice Hotel. www.sepaq.com/duchesnay.

Nearby you’ll find the Tyst TrädgÃ¥rd (which means quiet garden) Nordic spa. There, dressed in bathing suits and terrycloth robes, with sturdy Crocs on our feet and hats on our heads, the Girlfriend Getaway gang, amid shrieks of high hilarity, gingerly made our way across an expanse of snow and ice to a deliciously hot therapeutic pool. A few steps away was a cold pool, and the idea was to alternate between some minutes in the hot water and a quick, bracing dunk in the cold, to rev up the circulation.

No dice, sister. While some intrepid souls complied, I contented myself with wallowing in the warm, merely standing up once in awhile for good form. I did lean into a snowbank to see what it would feel like (verdict: incredibly cold, followed by a ferocious burning sensation when I immersed myself back into the hot water). Next we went into a dry sauna, with an optional walk through a lukewarm waterfall. I actually braved this, and it really was lovely. Mother would be very, very proud.

Finally, swaddled in thick, polar fleece blankets, we relaxed in hammocks by a warm wood stove. Bliss. Tyst Trädgård also offers services such as massages, facials and lymphatic drainage. www.tysttradgard.com

Tomorrow: romantic Quebec City

Family fun on the Plains of Abraham

Once the site of the eponymous 1759 battle between the French and the British, the Plains of Abraham are transformed during Quebec City’s Winter Carnival into a centre of family-friendly activities. A widely sold $10 pass will let you in on all the action, both there and at other Carnival venues.

The bolder among you might want to have a go at snow rafting and zip-lining. Good luck with that. Timid Tillie that I am, I confess I was content to simply walk around and take in various displays, such as the international ice sculpture competition, and observe people having fun. Other attractions that might tempt you (though not necessarily me) include snow slides, demonstrations of dog agility, a sugar shack, sleigh rides and various competitions such as tugs-of-war, giant soccer and skijoring, which teams cross-country skiiers with dogs.

Later that afternoon, my new pal Mary (one of the journalists on our girlfriend getaway) and I walked down into town and tried poutine at a fast food place called Chez Ashton. This was my first taste of Quebec’s famous comfort dish–french fries with gravy and cheese curds–and it was delicious (the cheese curds were so fresh, they squeaked). Okay, I know it’s not exactly health food, but it is mighty satisfying on a cold winter’s day (the restaurant is also famous for its winter promotion based on the outdoor temperature. It was -19 degrees Celsius, so we saved 19 per cent).

The 55th edition of the Quebec Winter Carnival ends this Sunday. Yet another great experience to cross off my “100 things to do before you die” list. Joyeux carnaval!
Tomorrow: The ice hotel and a nordic spa

Quebec Winter Carnival–part two

I don’t ski, I’m a lousy skater and truth be told, I hate winter. Not only because I love gardening, but also because I really, really, really hate feeling cold. But I loved my visit to the Quebec Winter Carnival as part of a Girlfriend Getaway courtesy of Quebec Tourism, and surprised myself by spending several days outdoors with great enjoyment.

Of course, I came prepared, and ventured forth swaddled in umpteen layers of clothes, thermal underwear, socks and gloves, really good warm boots and a sheepskin hat. In my book, this is basic winter equipment. Properly kitted out, I got completely caught up in the infectious spirit of the world’s biggest winter celebration.

One of the highlights was the dogsledding race, the Grand Viree. What could be more quintessentially Canadian? As a light snow fell, crowds lined the specially prepared course near the Chateau Frontenac and good-naturedly cheered on their favourite teams. Being used to Toronto’s mostly sombre, monochromatic winter coat uniform of black, brown or sludge, it did my eyes good to see so many colourful parkas and hats, and the smiling, red-cheeked faces of happy revellers.

Although the Grand Viree is over, you can still catch the qualifying rounds for the St.-Hubert Derby on February 14, and the finals on February 15. And the second festive night parade will wind its way through the streets on Valentine’s Day eve as well. Quebec City’s winter carnival continues through February 15 (to check out what’s on, visit www.carnaval.qc.ca).

Tomorrow: family fun on the Plains of Abraham.

Quebec Winter Carnival – part one

A quick post today, as I’m dashing off to the airport again (I’ll be posting a lot of stuff mid-next-week). But I wanted to mention the Quebec Winter Carnival, which I visited as part of a laugh-filled journalists’ tour billed as the Girlfriend Getaway, because there’s still time to get there if you slip away right now (it’s on this year until February 15). It was my first visit, and I had a great time. (I’ll write more in subsequent posts, but to get plugged in right away, visit http://carnaval.qc.ca).

Instead of hibernating, the citizens of Quebec City embrace and celebrate winter (yes, it is possible). The opening night festivities of the Carnaval de Quebec featured lively musical acts, fireworks and a brief appearance by Stephen Harper, though the official mascot, Bonhomme, was received with a lot more enthusiasm.

And the winner is…

I drew a name this afternoon to win a pair of Gloveables and the winner is Brenda! Thank you to everyone who entered. I wish I had a pair for all of you. Please check in once in awhile as I’ll be doing more giveaways throughout the spring and summer months.

Brenda, please email me at hgwebeditor@transcontinental.ca with your mailing address.

Diva-worthy gardening gloves

On Monday, a package arrived on my desk that brightened my day. I got these amazing pairs of multi-coloured gloves from Gloveables. These cheerful, waterproof gloves are similar to what you'd use to avoid dishpan hands, but with a fashionable twist. They come in several colours and have a lovely cuff detail in a variety of designs, including polka dots, gingham, leopard and lace. I've posted a photo from the website for you to take a look.

Now they may not be suitable to tame my rosebush, but these will definitely come in handy in the garden for most other tasks that don’t involve sharp thorns — they're so pretty I won't want to get them dirty! My favourite pair is pink with zebra cuffs and a cute bow.

Suddenly I’m inspired to trade my normal grubby garden gear and dress instead like Bree on Desperate Housewives, who has worn Gloveables on the show. What would the neighbours say!

Furthermore, while flipping through the catalogue, I learned that Gloveables` parent company, Grandway, built a wooden fabrication facility and a sewing factory to employ residents in Cholutecca, Honduras, a rural city with few employment opportunities. So by purchasing these gloves, you are helping to support the community where they are made.

Just another reason I can't wait for spring!

I have a pair to give away to one lucky reader. Tell me what you'd use your Gloveables for by posting a comment and I'll randomly choose a winner!

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.

Palm trees and snow

There’s something very cheering about looking at a miniature palm tree against the background of deep snow in the garden. This little beauty sits on the table in my breakfast nook, snuggled into my vintage iron planter. It’s an elephant foot palm (Beaucarnea guatemalensis), and I picked it up at Ikea last fall for $11.99.

Judging by its name, my little palm is likely more used to the tropical climes of Central America. But it seems quite happy in its new, colder setting–I simply give it lots of admiration and a good, long drink of lukewarm water once a week in the sink, letting the water drain out of the bottom of its pot. I’ve placed moss around the top to add a finishing touch and help keep in moisture.

I have many indoor plants. And as I’m hoping to do a lot of travelling this winter, I’m slowly training them to get used to waiting longer between waterings. It’s working. In fact, many people overwater houseplants–literally killing them with kindness. Mine seem to respond to a certain amount of benign neglect.

And speaking of travelling and palmy days if not palms, I’m off this morning to Quebec City, courtesy of Quebec tourism, to experience the Quebec Winter Carnival and other delights both there and in the Eastern Townships near Montreal. Yippee! I’m as excited about it as a little kid. I’ve packed good thermal underwear and socks and, of course, my camera and notebook. Never fear, your trusty correspondent will reveal all on my next blog posts. Meanwhile, stay warm and keep smiling.

My lonely Christmas cactus bloom

One of my favourite holiday plants is the Christmas cactus. When in full bloom, they are an absolutely gorgeous contrast of colour and interesting leaves. I've had mine now for a few years and the last two, I got one lonely bloom. So I asked Anne Marie what I can do to bring back that riot of colour next year. Here is what she had to say:

Christmas cacti are plants that respond to cooler temperatures and the length of the day (short days and long nights) to trigger them to flower. Keeping them slightly dry in the fall may also help, too.

To get them to form buds in early winter or late fall, put them where they will get night temperatures near 15 deg. C (55 F) and day temperatures below 18 deg. C (65 F). After about six weeks at this temperature, buds will form at the end of the branches. Placing the plants where they can get 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness each night also helps bring on the flower buds. Once the flower buds are formed, the cooler temperatures and long night darkness can be stopped.

But, don't let the plant get too hot, too dry, too cold or experience a sudden change or else the flower buds might drop off.

It's going to be a long wait, but I look forward to the challenge to bring on the blooms!

Cheer-you-up exotics

With winter at its height, many of us long for warm sunshine, turquoise seas and long drinks with colourful little umbrellas in them. Sadly, it’s not always possible to take off when you want to, though. So how about doing the next best thing and bringing a touch of the tropics to your home to chase away the winter blues? I’m talking about buying an orchid or two.

It used to be orchids were considered luxury plants, slightly mysterious and a bit daunting to grow. These days, all kinds of mom-and-pop corner stores and big-box behemoths carry them, so with a bit of luck, you can pick up a nice plant for under $20. And guess what? Many of them bloom for ages and ages and are an absolute cinch to take care of. Take the beauty shown here: it’s a Phalaenopsis cultivar I scooped up for $16.99. It’s already been blooming for several weeks, and shows no signs of slowing down. I trimmed down the edge of its clear plastic pot, plopped it into an old grassy-looking Ikea container and dressed it up with a bit of moss to hide the edges.

Here’s a tip: When you’re shopping for an orchid, try to find one with lots of buds and not just open flowers; also, look for a plant with several flowering stems and not just one. I rootled around until I spotted this shy little beauty toward the back of a welter of lesser-quality plants.

As for care, I give mine a good long drink of lukewarm water under the tap, being careful not to wet the base of the leaves or let water sit in between them (this promotes rot and, according to some people, may even retard future blooms). Once the water runs out of the bottom of the pot, I slip it back into its container.

I let the plant dry out a bit between waterings–though not completely dry–generally it gets watered every five days or so, but it all depends on the conditions of your home. My phalaenopsis thrives in indirect light on the stone peninsula in my kitchen, and I keep my house fairly cool. You can feed your orchid and do extra stuff if you want, but I’m pretty lazy. And by the way, I have several orchids that have rebloomed for me with no fuss on my part–I don’t trim down the stems after they finish flowering (except for any truly dead, dry, brown bits) and the new flowers have set on the old stems.

If you want to know more about different types of orchids–including fragrant types–and their care, check out my colleague Stephen Westcott-Gratton’s excellent article on this website at canadiangardening.com/plants/indoor-plants/growing-orchids-indoors/a/2474.

Can you use sawdust as mulch?

While looking through reader comments in articles recently, I saw that someone had commented on Lorraine Flanigan’s article Blanket your garden with a cosy winter mulch. The question was whether or not you can use sawdust to cover your bulb beds. I wasn’t sure how to answer this question, so I consulted Anne Marie. Here is what she had to say:

The sawdust will add another layer of insulation in addition to the soil and protect the bulbs during winter. However it should be removed or amended in the spring. Sawdust is a high carbon source (almost 40%) and when it decomposes in the garden it can divert microorganisms from helping plants obtain valuable nitrogen fertilizer. It can easily cause a nitrogen deficiency when it is breaking down as a result. This can be compensated for by adding additional nitrogen from fertilizer (for the plants) while the sawdust decomposes. The estimated carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio for sawdust and wood chips is 500:1 while composted manures are usually in the 17-50:1 range. A C:N ratio of 30:1 is considered ideal. Sawdust can be used in the garden, but after it has been composted. Use it in a compost pile with lots of “greens” to provide the offsetting nitrogen source. The nitrogen sources can be lawn clippings, vegetable kitchen waste, garden refuse but not leaves which are another carbon source. Some gardeners just pile the sawdust in the back corner of their yard and let it sit for a year and then it should be safe to use. So, remove it before it robs too much more nitrogen from the soil, put it in a pile in an out of the way place and add a high nitrogen fertilizer throughout to help with the decomposition process.

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