Gardening Blog

The hills are alive! Day one

The town of Jasper is adorable–a small, sweet, neighbourly sort of place, with just two short main shopping streets that run parallel to each other, set in an immense and unspoiled national park. We disembark at the well-preserved and tasteful old railway station, and look around at the pretty buildings–a number of them lovingly restored–in their soft, natural colour palettes. The town has kept the architecture on the down-low (no highrises, and the very few fast-food joints are discreetly clustered together at one end) in order to let the stunning natural beauty of the setting take centre stage, and does it ever. I half-expect to see a young Julie Andrews whirling down a mountainside, singing “High On the Hill Was a Lonely Goatherd.” So I hum a few bars of it and do a little limbering-up yodel to get into the mountain mood (my travelling mantra, which allows me to great leeway for making a fool of myself, has always been “they’ll never see me again…”).

Carol and I are picked up at the station by Shannon Smith, who works for the Municipality of Jasper and looks after a phenomenal number of plantings around town–displays so lovely, they’ve been Communities in Bloom winners in past years. They’re not entering this year, because they’re short-staffed, so Carol and I especially appreciate the fact Shannon’s giving up a day to show us around–a day she can ill afford, and which will mean putting in extra hours to try to get all the work (and the weeding) done. I only wish we were around longer so we could pitch in and help.

Despite Shannon’s disclaimers, the town’s plantings are over-the-top luxurious and look award-worthy to me. She says another problem is browsing elk that like to come down into town at night looking for a floral feast. I marvel at a particularly effective display of brilliantly coloured godetia, planted en masse in one of the beds, which the elk haven’t yet discovered, and make a mental note to both avoid solitary, night-time walks and watch where I step.

The local merchants have gotten in on the floral act as well, with almost every little shop boasting a humongous hanging basket or overstuffed window box. All this floral splendour is especially impressive when you consider Jasper’s growing season is very short and its planting zones ranges from 2 to 0, depending upon how high up we’re talking. Jack Frost is definitely be making an appearance very soon.

As you might expect, there are lots of various gift shoppes and expedition outfitters in Jasper. And loads of little local restaurants, too (some of them are a tad pricey, but you can find value if you look). I discover that, for a nominal corkage fee, you can buy wine at a local shop and take it into some of these restos. How civilized.

And the air! My city-toughened, oxygen-deprived body gratefully sucks it in, then immediately starts clamouring for food and sleep. Shannon’s friends Kim and Sharon Rands, who offer accommodation in their home for visitors (according to Shannon, some 40 per cent of Jasper’s residents do this), have kindly agreed to put up Carol and me in their pretty, well-equipped and conveniently located home. Our quarters are separate from theirs, and each of our bedrooms has a television, so we can watch a bit of the Olympics, too. Tomorrow we’re off to the Jasper Park Lodge and other beauty spots, but for now it’s lights out and zzzzzzzzzzz.

Rocky mountain high

Heading toward Jasper, the mountains sneak up on us. Flat, flattish, less flat then foothills. The train flashes past deep gorges and gleaming, silvery lakes, my view is intermittently obscured by groves of trees, by hillocks and berms and rusty red freight trains. And then we round another corner and pow! There they are: The Rockies.

Are we almost there yet? Yes!

Alberta-bound

I'd just scarfed down my blueberry breakfast pancakes as the train pulled into Edmonton station, an out-of-the-way outpost with nary a restaurant or shop nearby (apparently, some brain trust decided to move it from town to the boonies). Ordinarily, this would have meant a hefty cab ride in, but John Helder, Principal of Horticulture, Edmonton Community Services, kindly picked us up.

Compared to Winnipeg, Edmonton is a young city. As we got closer, there was plenty of interesting modern architecture. And unlike the railroad station, our host hotel, the Edmonton Delta Centre, can be found smack in the middle of everything, at the edge of a sprawling shopping complex called the Edmonton City Centre West (a great location if you want to take in a movie or do a little window shopping without braving the elements).

Once we'd dumped our stuff and gulped down a coffee, off we went to tour some of the municipal horticultural highlights, sweating prodigiously, as it was a blisteringly hot and humid day. Thank God for my sturdy water bottle and large-brimmed hat.

It's amazing how much ground you can cover mostly on foot in four hours or so. To start, we saw tasteful planting beds around city hall close by the hotel and then the handsome legislature building. Unlike many of the modern structures, it's traditional in style, and it was delightful to see families frolicking in the large ornamental pools in front of it.

“This is great. I once tried to dip my feet in a fountain in Boston, and got shouted at and threatened with arrest,” mused Carol.

John provided a wealth of information about many local community initiatives, including Partners in the Parks. The results of those collaborations are evident everywhere in tidy, well-kept grounds, pretty planters and hanging baskets.

Next, we visited the Lois Hole Memorial Garden, then headed off to see a co-op flower and vegetable patch. We also checked out gardens near the River Walk, including the Chinese and hardy rose garden {“just to show Edmontonians you can grow hardy roses here,” said John).

The three of us meandered along a path–part of Edmonton's North Saskatchewan River valley parks system–crossed the river by footbridge and came upon the renowned Muttart Conservatory, which is home to more than 700 species of plants of arid, temperate and tropical climates–when it's open, that is. Unfortunately, it's closed for renovations until next spring, but John managed to sneak us in to see the species orchid collection, which is one of the top 10 in North America. I especially loved the Anacheilium radiatum, whose beautiful, jasmine-like fragrance perfumed the air.

Back at the Delta, Carol and I parted company and headed to our rooms, anxious to jump into a shower, rinse out a few smalls and just relax and read. (Right now it's Elizabeth Hay's Giller-prize-winning novel Nights on Air, and it's terrific–all about a Yellowknife radio station in the 1970s).

The next day dawned much cooler, so the two of us rented a car and headed out toward the Devonian Botanic Garden, a pleasant half-hour drive. We loved the Japanese and the Patrick Seymore Alpine gardens, though a few of the other beds were looking a tad…um…sparse. Drought? Bad soil? Midnight five-finger discounts?

On the way back, we nipped in to the West Edmonton Mall to have a quick peek. Imagine a large shopping centre with a hockey rink, a huge water park, boats you can rent and more, and you get the general idea. Despite the beautiful, sunny day, it was packed. Apparently, some people even spend their entire holidays there.

Am I the only one who finds this odd?

Riding the rails

Some people imagine the Prairies to be flat and uninteresting. More fools them. There's a subtle beauty and a luminous colour to the fields and sky, and a wide horizon. In many places, the land undulates, catching patterns of light and shade, a bit like the sea.

The train chugged along toward Edmonton while I sat in the panorama car and drank in my fill of the view, and then went downstairs to meet Carol and have a drink of another kind. There we struck up a lively conversation with Dave, a good-looking, friendly Brit on the first leg of his round-the-world journey, which he reckons will take about a year (he'd hopped on the train in Halifax and was going to Vancouver en route to points south). We spent the evening swapping yarns and having a really good laugh. Cheers!

That's the thing about train travel–you have the time to get to know all sorts of people if you're so inclined. On this leg, there was also Amy from southern Ontario, a youngish married woman travelling to Vancouver with her spry old granny–both of them heading west for the first time. We heard all about it at dinner (I had butternut squash soup, salad, wild Pacific salmon with a melon salsa, baby carrots and garlic chive mashed potatoes and chocolate truffle cake). And the happy couple from Prince George, who were celebrating their anniversary and had booked the Romance by Rail package to Halifax. This meant two compartments were combined into a single luxurious one, with queen-sized bed, fresh flowers, sparkling wine–the works. Come to think of it, we didn't see too much of them…

While there are many lovely things to recommend traveling by train, there is a caveat: it's vital to leave the rat-race mentality behind. I was told that VIA runs on CN tracks where freight is king, so passenger trains have to give way and delays are common. “Schedules are subject to change,” means just that, especially if, like us, you're planning to hop off and spend a few days at various destinations. My best advice is to get into a slower, gentler rhythm and let your holiday start when you climb aboard. Then, to keep your blissfully zen-like mood, do not under any circumstances schedule any connections you need to make even remotely close to your E.T.A.–in fact, schedule them for the next day if possible so you can truly rest easy.

My Winnipeg: Part 2

The next morning, James Houldsworth, coordinator of downtown maintenance and Bill Ward, marketing technician for the City of Winnipeg picked us up in a snazzy truck and whisked us around to see some impressive and colourful municipal plantings and Kildonan Park, where we met head gardener Jan St. Hillaire and her co-hort Dave Chervinski. Like Toronto, Winnipeg has had an unusually rainy summer, so everything everywhere is lush and green and the plantings are all in very good shape–James informed me the containers are fed every two weeks with a dilute solution of 20-20-20. We also saw some of the interesting redevelopment taking place in historic old sections of the city core, which now has new condominiums, snazzy boutiques and even a fancy and well-used skateboard park. Then it was back to the Delta to pick up our bags and head for the railway station to continue our journey across the Prairies. Next stop, Edmonton.

Click here to read part one of my Winnipeg trip.

Photo: Flower bed in Kildonan Park

My Winnipeg: Part 1

After we arrived at Winnipeg's railway station smack in the centre of town, a $6 cab ride whisked Carol and me to the centrally located Delta hotel, which was hosting our stay. It has two swimming pools, a sauna and a large workout centre–I feel fitter already.

There's nothing like seeing somewhere new to you in the company of someone who knows it well and loves it dearly. On the first day of our visit, Dorothy Dobbie, president of Pegasus Publications, Inc., was that person for us in Winnipeg, and she is passionate about her hometown and lots of fun to boot. I'd never met Dorothy before (though Carol had) and although her magazines are competition for ours, in the small and (mostly) friendly gardening world that matters less than you might think. We took to each other immediately.

Much of my previous, vague knowledge of Winnipeg had centred around three words: “brutal winters” and “mosquitoes.” But my first impression was of a gracious, prosperous city with leafy streets, some lovely old buildings and a well-kept infrastructure (what a joy to ride along roads without potholes). There's plenty of new development, as well, particularly around the forks where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet. Cross the bridge and you're in St. Boniface, the French side of Winnipeg with a vibe all its own. Along that bridge, granite plaques tell the story of the historic Forks in English, French and Cree.

Being plant nuts, we spent a considerable amount of our day with Dorothy in Assiniboine Park, designed some 100 years ago by Frederic Law Olmsted, who also laid out Central Park in New York. It's home to a zoo and a conservatory, the gorgeous English Garden (which was thick with plants in bloom–I especially liked the tall, fantastic-looking golden spikes of a mullein called Verbascum Nigra) and the renowned Leo Mol sculpture garden. Fortified by a delicious lunch (Dorothy's treat), we also took in some interesting art exhibitions, supported the local economy (code phrase for shopping) then wrapped things up with a big East Indian buffet dinner (my treat). Along the way we toured some of the pretty and interesting residential neighbourhoods, with their varied mix of housing, while Dorothy filled us in with a running commentary about Winnipeg's lively cultural scene (which includes the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Manitoba Theatre Company, among others. Good naturedly, she informed us that her city was the centre of the universe for almost everything! You go, Dorothy.

Photos from left: Verbascum nigrum in the English Garden; Dorothy Dobbie and Carol Cowan; a sculpture in the Leo Mol sculpture garden.

All aboard!

We're on our way at last on The Canadian, a historic, gleaming silver train. At first glance, my roomette seems impossibly tiny, but I soon figure out it's designed to maximize every square inch of space. The Murphy bed folds down neatly and is very comfy–a little nest from which you can look out the window (I brought a pillow from home so it's extra cozy). The little sink even has a separate tap with drinking water. There's a basket filled with toiletries and towels, like at a hotel. And although the car has a toilet (with a solid, box-like lid on which you can stash some stuff), I decide I'd rather use the big public bathroom a bit farther down. Nearby, there's a separate shower room as well.

You could spend the trip sitting in your roomette and looking out the window, but unless you're anti-social or have a communicable disease, I reckon exploring is way more fun. So Carol and I dump our bags and head for an observation car, which has a second story with a glass-domed ceiling and panoramic views (there were four of these on our train, and they're popular, though so far people seem good about not hogging the seats).

En route we pass a dining car, which looks like it could be a setting in an Agatha Christie novel. Elegant, etched-glass panels book-ended a space with tables set with pink and white linens and fresh flowers.

Following a “welcome aboard” champagne reception, it's lunchtime. I choose the vegetable soup, a pulled pork sandwich with barbecue sauce and coleslaw on a tasty bun along with salad and a chocolate-coconut brownie, washed down with a pot of tea. Yummy. And then I head off to “read my book” (translation: have a little snooze, which I never seem to have time for at home).

Along with Canadians, we have already met a number of folks from England and Scotland and a tour group from Germany. The train seems pleasantly full of travellers, including families with children, and most are making the trek to Vancouver.

The staff is amazingly friendly and hospitable. Faith, the lovely young woman who is in charge of our car, bends over backwards to make us feel at home–you can tell she's proud of “her” train. When we hit Sudbury, she urges me to look out and see how once-sterile land has been reclaimed and is now dotted by healthy young trees. I figure it must be her hometown, but I'm wrong. She's from Winnipeg.

Some things we've observed: if you're used to rushing around on a tight schedule, you have to consciously slow down when you travel by train and get into its slower rhythm. And just like on a plane, there's no smoking on board, so if you need a regular nicotine fix, it can be a l-o-n-g haul between stops, as Carol discovers. Although there's an activity centre with lots of board games and regularly scheduled movies and stuff, I'm glad I have a bag filled with books, but I wish I would have brought some music.

That evening, the train makes a few quick stops in the middle of nowhere to pick up passengers, some of them who board with canoes (apparently, you just need to give VIA 48 hours notice and they'll make unscheduled stops to pick you up–how Canadian is THAT?). The rain glistens on the windows, and once in awhile there's a flash of lightning. Everwhere I look there are gleaming lakes and stands of birch, spruce, pines and tamarack, punctuated from time to time by a lone cabin, or a small settlement of a few homes. I don't see any people or animals. We are deep, deep into northern Ontario and it's vast.

Clickety-clack!

It's 10 p.m. on holiday Monday, and I'm still busily packing for my big train trip to Jasper, Alberta, so this will have to be a quick note. I leave tomorrow morning at 9 for ten days, along with my friend and colleague Carol Cowan, who is our back page columnist for the magazine and also does PR work to promote the Via Rail Garden Route, which is what this trip is all about.

I love the train–it's my favourite way to travel. Our journey will also take us to stops in Winnipeg and Edmonton. We'll be disembarking for a few days in all three places to visit botanical gardens, points of interest as well as some Communities in Bloom award winners.

So what do I take with me when I'm traipsing around gardens for a day rain or shine? A small green knapsack I bought some years ago at a National Trust shop in England, in which I stash a hat with a wide brim, a plastic bag with small containers of bug repellent and suntan lotion, my water bottle, a mini-umbrella, a package of tissues, a black nylon windbreaker, a little cotton scarf to tie around my neck if it's a sweaty day, a small notebook, ballpoint pens and pencils and of course, my trusty camera. With this stuff, I'm good to go. The other key thing is footwear: in summer, it's generally sturdy, washable Teva-type sandals that have rubber soles with excellent traction. Not glamorous, but comfy–vital when you're on your feet from morning to night.

Hasta la vista, amigos, I'll keep you posted!

Adopt a tree in your neighbourhood


My furry grandsons, Boomer and Lindy, are visiting for a few weeks while my daughter and her partner are in Europe. Both are rescued dogs and what I call Bitsas–bits of this and bits of that. Boomer is mainly Pomeranian, but I swear there's a dash of Jack Russell thrown in just for fun, and he's a little scamp. By contrast, Lindy is Mr. Chill–a lovely, laid back dog, possibly a cross between a Malamute and an Alsatian, with maybe a bit of chow. He has a huge double coat like a mastodon that Amy keeps shaved down, which makes him look like a puppy even though he's 12 or more–we think.

It's a treat having dogs in the house again (it's been several years since Star the wonder dog went to that big doghouse in the sky, and I still miss her). But I like being the grandma–having them over for visits, spoiling them with extra doggy treats, then giving them back. I'm not ready yet for another full-time commitment to a dog and all that entails, though I will be one day.

Having the furries here also means I have a perfect excuse to go for nice long aimless walks again in the morning and evening. These jaunts give me the chance to be nosy and look in people's gardens (and windows) as we go past. It's a great way to get ideas.

Happily for the three of us, there's a pretty park just a few minutes` walk away that has morning and evening off-leash hours. Strolling along this morning, I was admiring the beautiful trees in my neighbourhood. Here in Toronto, and despite all the long-range predictions for very hot weather, so far it's actually been a pretty cool summer with a fair bit of rain–lovely for the garden and for gardening, too. I'm especially pleased for the trees, which look particularly healthy and perky. In past summers, long dry spells made them look dusty, faded and sad; some distressed maples dropped their leaves early. This year, it's so far, so good. (There's an old Lithuanian saying, though, which roughly translated means “don't praise the day before the sun sets”–there's plenty of summer left and we ain't done yet, folks.)

If it's hot and dry in your neck of the woods and no rain in the forecast, please remember to water the trees, especially those that are a couple of years old or less. They need a good deep drink at least once a week just as much as your other plants do. If you see trees that are planted by the city or your municipality that are being neglected, how about adopting one and watering it until it gets well established? Even a bucket of water or two a week would really help. It makes me sad to see poor saplings make a brave start, only to struggle then give up the ghost through ignorance or neglect. Especially since it's so easily prevented.

A big welcome and watering wisdom

This is the first post on my new blog on our brand-new website. A blank slate. An empty page.

Luckily for me, I never suffer from writer's block. Not ever. Quite the reverse. Yee ha, blah blah blah and rein me in! So it should be easy to keep this up. Especially as this will be an off-the-cuff, anything-that-comes-into-my-head type of thing. Sometimes about gardening, and sometimes not. But let's at least start with a bit of gardening.

This morning I was up extra early to water my umpteen containers, some of which are in my shady rear garden and some on my sunny deck. In case you think I do this every day, let me put you wise. When it comes to my plants, I firmly believe in easy does it by getting the upper hand. It's a bit like having a child. Start them off right, treat them well, but establish a routine that suits you. At least that's my theory, and most of the time it does seem to work.

Because I have neither the time nor the inclination to water daily, I start the season by putting my plants in good soil mixes with a moisture-retaining product such as Soil Sponge (there are others), then mulch the pot's surface like mad. Though I create most of my own container designs, I also love to buy a few ready-planted hanging baskets at the supermarket for instant colour and effect. These are transplanted into slightly bigger containers topped up with really good soil and get the mulch treatment, too. I find this helps keep their closely packed, mega-fertilized plants from drying out too quickly, which in my experience the store-bought containers do.

In general, these few extra steps help me keep the (thorough) watering down to a couple of times a week, unless it's brutally hot and dry. Of course this doesn't mean you should let plants suffer and droop–but don't mollycoddle them with nervous little dribbles of water every day either. Instead, give them a good soaking with lukewarm water until it runs out of the bottom of the pot (drainage holes for the pot are an absolute must), then wait a few minutes and do it again. And don't forget to deadhead and add a weak solution of plant food every couple of weeks to keep blooms coming.

If your containers start to look straggly or a rambunctious plant is getting the upper hand, cut it back. I also find certain annuals, such as lobelia, pooch out fairly early in the season and aren't worth rescuing (or really, growing in pots, for that matter, no matter how pretty they may start out). Scaveola gives me a big beautiful jolt of purplish blue, too, and takes an awful lot of punishment without going all pouty and high maintenance–try it.

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