Gardening Blog

I “heart” my rain barrel

For a great deal of the summer, I haven't had to worry about watering. In fact, my yard was becoming downright soggy. I think I spied moss behind the barbecue!

However, these past couple of weeks, the soil has become as dry as a desert and by the end of a hot day, things generally look a little wilty. Luckily my trusty rain barrel is almost to the brim from the deluge of rain we've received here in Southern Ontario all season.

Take a look at the guest entry I wrote for CanadianLiving.com's Green Living blog extolling the virtues of my water-bearing rain barrel.

And for those of you who are also going through a wee dry spell, here are some articles with helpful watering advice.

• The best ways to water
• Water update
• Watering wisdom

Journey’s end

Relaxing on the train back to Edmonton, I think back over our journey (and am comfortable now with the train’s rhythm, which, due to the reality of being shunted aside by freight trains from time to time, seems less schedule-driven than destination-based). No matter. I’ve been sitting in the catbird’s seat, leisurely gazing at the beauty that is Canada–by turns rugged, gentle-looking, majestic and surprising, and always, always inspiring; it makes my heart swell with pride.

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to sample part of the Via Rail Garden Route. It’s been so much fun I decide one day I’ll make the time to travel from Halifax to Vancouver by train–from sea to shining sea–stopping off at various locations to see the gardens, get a sense of the cities/towns, meet the people. I reckon that doing it this way and at a leisurely pace would likely take about a month, but that’s okay–what a fabulous experience. In fact, it’s one I would heartily recommend to any Canadian to add to their “100 things I have to do before I die” list; our own Canuck version of the Grand Tour, by train. One thing for sure: getting there (wherever “there” is) would certainly be half the fun.

The hills are alive: Day two

Another beautiful day in paradise. For breakfast, Carol, Shannon and I yum up some delicious spicy sausage rolls from the local bakery, washed down with lattes, then set off to visit four private gardens. They’re very different from one another–one is stuffed full of colourful annuals, another focuses on native plants, a third has charming vignettes and pretty corners galore and the final one is very shady–offering ample proof (as if I needed it) that you can create really lovely spaces even in a place with a really short growing season. Afterwards, we head for the famed Jasper Park Lodge to have a look around its stunning grounds. Talk about picture-postcard perfect.

Many of the lakes up here are jade green or bright, swimming-pool-turquoise in colour. I’m told this is caused by stirred-up sediment in the glacial runoff, which also gives me a clue as to the water’s temperature. Brrr. As someone who doesn’t venture into the water unless I can put my toe in without flinching, you won’t catch me going for a dip anytime soon. Come to think of it, I don’t see anyone else swimming, either.

At lunch, I devour a massive Cobb salad. Where is this appetite coming from? Thank heavens I don’t eat like this at home, for never mind gardener at large–I’d soon be known as the large gardener.

That afternoon, Shannon drives us to an area just beyond town known as the bench, where there are wonderful lookout points and numerous small lakes; even a path that takes us to a little island in the middle of one. Our feet are silent on a soft carpet of pine needles, and the sun-warmed conifers release their resin scent into the air. There are a few other people there, but nobody speaks. Too gobsmacked by beauty, I reckon.

(By the way, Shannon passed along the names of some of the plants that have proven to be elk-proof in her municipal displays. These include snapdragons, marigolds, alyssum, verbenas, salpiglossis [a.k.a. painted tongue], ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia farinacea, bidens, dusty miller, zinnias, gazanias and so far–those gorgeous godetias. Not a bad list for carefree colour.)

Later on, we return to our base and rest up to be ready for that evening’s excitement, courtesy of Jasper Adventure Centre. It’s a wildlife adventure tour, followed by a visit to Miette Hot Springs where we will take the waters–all told, a four-hour excursion by minivan. We see a female elk browsing by the side of the road, a bald eagle high up in a tree, and a little black bear. We don’t see a grizzly, which is another possibility, but that’s fine by me. Nothing scary or dangerous, thank you very much.

At the hot springs, which are sulfurous and smell a bit like rotten eggs, the water temperature is 104 degrees–now THAT’S more my kind of pool. Carol and I gratefully sink into its warmth and have a good, long wallow. It’s a perfect ending to our visit, for tomorrow we head back to Edmonton on the train to catch our red-eye flight home.

What's on my tomatillo?

I planted a few different peppers this past spring, but this little orange and black critter seemed only to have eyes (or fangs) for my tomatillo plant. I tried the soap and water method and I even picked some off and squished them myself, but the next day there was always one of their friends munching away at the leaves.

According to Anne Marie Van Nest, the insect looks like an adult three-lined potato beetle that migrated to my tomatillo to feed. “They probably didn't find their first love–potatoes–nearby and decided to try your tomatillos, she explains. They are in the same Solanaceae (potato/tomato/nightshade) family.

So how do I ultimately get rid of them?

Van Nest recommends looking for neat yellow/orange rows of eggs on the underside of the leaf and removing them to help control this pest. The even more voracious larvae cluster on the leaves munching everything in sight and are a disgusting soft-bodied eating machine.

The best way to control them is to remove the eggs, handpick the larvae and adult beetles and dump them into a bucket of soapy water. Spraying with soapy water is somewhat effective on the ones that actually get sprayed, but it doesn't work on those that arrive later.

Will I have tomatoes before the snow?

tomatoes

Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver's ambitious planting of 14 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I set off for my local farmer's market this spring to seek out my own little fruit bearers. A couple of months later and my plants are tall and thick enough to form a nice privacy hedge. However three were very slow to bloom and the fourth stands tall and proud, but with no yellow petals in sight.

Anne Marie Van Nest, Canadian Gardening`s horticultural editor, has reassured me that there is still hope. Here's what could be wrong:

1: Fertilizer issues
If a little too much nitrogen is suspect from a rich soil high in aged manures or from the addition of a high-nitrogen fertilizer, then change fertilizers to one that has a higher middle number. Reducing the nitrogen (first number) and increasing the phosphorous and potassium (second and third numbers) will encourage more fruit and root growth and cut back on the foliage growth.

2: Late bloomers
Tomatoes (depending on the type) can take from 45 (Sub Arctic Plenty) to 85 days (Evergreen) to produce fruit and ripen from the time they were transplanted into the garden. Check the seed package or plant label for this date to harvest number. There are still plenty of weeks for today's flowers to form nice fruit.

3: The weather
Another aspect to consider is the excessive rain in Southern Ontario this summer that has drastically cut down on the amount of sunshine that the tomatoes have received to produce fruit.

I'm going to place my bets on late bloomers and the soggy weather and find the patience to wait for my beefsteaks and Brandywines.

And if I end up with some green tomatoes, Anne Marie suggests picking them before they get frosted so I can use them for pickles, chutney or relish. Or, I can wrap them in newspaper and store them above freezing in single layers on a shallow tray to finish ripening. They will slowly ripen over the subsequent weeks or months. Some people have even enjoyed ripe tomatoes in December that were picked green in October. Now that is great news!

Disclaimer: Sadly, the photo shown above does not in any way accurately depict the current state of my tomatoes. My fingers are crossed I will at least get a few juicy tomatoes before the first frost. Stay tuned!

Welcome to The Budding Gardener!

Three years ago I bought a cute little bungalow (I like to refer to it as a cottage) with a pretty decent front and backyard–my own little paradise in the city. Since we moved in winter, my first summer was a game of waiting to see what sprouted up–and then trying to figure out if it was plant or weed. What a learning experience it has been–and sometimes an overwhelming one–as I often look around my yard trying to figure out what area needs my TLC first! I've discovered that puttering around in my garden is so calming and a nice retreat from my busy life–when my busy life (and the weather) don't interrupt my plans to garden! Though I wistfully aspire to perfection, I am comfortable with the fact that my gardens are a work in progress–they inspire me to learn more about gardening techniques and plants–and how not to kill them.

This blog will allow me to share my gardening adventures–trial and error, successes and disappointments. And because I am still a newbie, I have enlisted Canadian Gardening's horticultural editor, Anne Marie Van Nest to help me out with my gardening dilemmas from time to time. I hope to inspire other budding gardeners to grab a pair of gloves and start playing in the dirt!

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.

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