23 February 2006

In Memory Yet Green

Sometimes, being connected to the wired world is not the best thing. I was sitting in a board meeting in downtown Toronto on Saturday morning when my laptop burped to signal an email’s arrival. I looked down, saw the name of my son’s father, (my former husband but always friend) and the subject Requiem. And I knew what the message would say: that his beloved mother had lost her battle with cancer. Or maybe won it, as she is now at peace and pain free.

Tears flowed, to the astonishment of my colleagues. I dashed out to call my former husband, and try to find some words that would be of comfort and support. The memorial service is set for this coming weekend, in a beautiful community on Nova Scotia’s French shore, overlooking the sea. As Pete was there for me and my family when my father died last June, so will I be there for him and his family, including our son. To celebrate the life of a woman who genuinely was just about as close to an angel on earth as I’ve ever met.

On the flight back from Toronto, I mulled over Marilyn’s life and what I could possibly do that would pay honour and love to her memory, and bring some little comfort to those she loved. And then as I sat looking at a gardening catalogue, one with a butterfly on a flower, I knew what to do.

Our gardens here are flung like a child’s blocks around our property, a profusion of colour in various beds and borders. After the death of my much loved cat Nermal 6 years ago, I planted a rose bush in his memory, and buried his ashes underneath it. Then Timothy Findley, the author on whom I wrote my master’s thesis, died. Other cats, other people, friends of friends or family members, each received a plant, generally a hardy rosebush, placed carefully in the garden to honour their memory. For Timothy Findley, the hardy rosebush Franklin; then for his partner, who is very much alive, but who would want to be beside Tiff, Roserie de la Haie. For Tommy tiger the crabby Tabby, my husband’s beloved, obstreperous bobtail, the gloriously fragrant Snow Pavement. For a fellow writer’s cherished cousin Jeanette, the rose Agnes. And on and on. Portulaca for my aunt Joyce, Johhny-jump ups and lupins for my grandmother Chisholm.

And everywhere, everywhere, forget-me-nots for my father, lost in the fogs of Alzheimers.

For Marilyn, a butterfly garden, a dedicated bed with plants relating to and attractive to butterflies, because she so loved these ethereal, glorious “flying flowers.” I’ll get some young milkweed from a roadside spot I know, because it’s the favourite food of Monarch butterflies. And there will be at least one butterfly bush, probably several; the delightful yellow one I got last year at Ouestville Perennials, plus a deep purple variety, and perhaps a softer, pink type. I’ll move a chunk of rosy butterfly weed from the big border out back to this new planting, and add some Russian sage, some echinaceas, some of the deep scarlet bergamot bee balm that looks like roosters in the back garden.

A few fragrant annuals, tall nicotiana, purple heliotrope, phlox and stocks and maybe some wallflowers. Grape Hyacinths for next spring, miniature thalia daffodils too, and perhaps a magnolia, depending on where I site the garden—probably out back, looking down at the Bay. Definitely a fragrant, wonderful rose—one of the heritage varieties, after I see what Old Heirloom Roses has available this spring.

And because they’re everywhere, for everyone who has gone before us—more forget-me-nots.

It won’t bring this remarkable, kind woman back, this floral tribute and memory planting. But perhaps it will bring some joy to her family, and further peace into their hearts. In memory yet green…

12 February 2006

A little winter potpourri

A few random thoughts, swirled around by the nor’easter screeching in off the Bay.
Spent Friday night in the company of a diverse and talented group of people; members of the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association from across Canada, gathered together in Halifax for their national awards gala. There were both nursery operators and professional landscapers, sponsors and lifetime achievement award recipients, all of whom are dedicated to making the world we live in a lovelier place.

I’m the first to say I don’t know a whole lot about landscaping as such—I distinguish it from gardening intentionally, although one is part of the other. I tend to think of landscaping as designed and installed by professionals, or at least people with way more talent in design than I have. I’m a gardener—I understand plants, and usually know where they ought to go in my own yard for the best effect. But like this blog entry, our gardens are a hodgepodge, gradually developing some design and form, but not formal like many properties are. A landscape professional could come here, talk to us, look around our land and existing structures and beds, and design an entire yardscape that could include paths, walls, pergolas, water features, and so on—and then, if I had the money, they could create my dream yard for me. I don’t, however, so whatever happens in this yard will be done by my long suffering spouse and me as we can afford it. That doesn’t mean I can’t talk to and learn from landscape professionals around the region, however.

One thing I do know—there’s a significant difference between those professionals, who are trained and certified and understand all aspects of creating a beautiful living space in a yard from soil and slope and drainage and plant needs and positioning…and those happyjack types with a battered half ton truck, a ride on lawnmower and a rake and shovel. Those aren’t landscapers—they’re jobsters who can mow a lawn, throw some seed or fertilizer around, stick a few tired annuals in the ground, and charge someone an arm and a leg for their ‘landscaping skills.’ They cast a bad light on the true professionals, who are passionate about their trade and skilled and will stand behind their work. I’ve committed myself to learning and writing more about professional landscapers, who are also willing to share their knowledge with people like me and with property owners who just want to do a few little projects themselves. It will be interesting learning about something new!

Only a couple of more days now until a very exciting event takes place in Wolfville. No, not Valentine’s Day—that most guilt-laden of Hallmark Holidays—but the launch of Ami McKay’s brilliant new novel, The Birth House. Published by Knopf Canada, and the only title in this tenth year of Knopf’s New Face of Fiction program, The Birth House follows young Dora Rare of Scot’s Bay as she learns the ways of caring for women from the community midwife, Marie Babineau, during the years around the First World War. When Dora takes up the post of midwife following Miss B.’s death, she finds herself in conflict with a know-it-all young doctor who feels his scientific medical procedures are better for women than a natural birth. I’m not going to go any further in describing this novel right now—my review of it is in today’s Halifax Herald, available online for a week—other than to say that in Dora Rare, we have a powerfully drawn female character as memorable as Morag Gunn of The Diviners, (Lawrence) Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale, (Atwood) Mrs. Noyes of Not Wanted on the Voyage, (Findley) or Deanna Wolfe of Prodigal Summer (Kingsolver).

Ami is a wonderful storyteller, and I hope this is the first of many such works we see from this talented young writer. Yes, she’s a friend too, but it is a rule of mine that I do not review books or products that I am not pleased with. And I’m mighty pleased with the book, and proud of Ami.

Right now I’m working on a few gardening articles to get done ahead of time, as all too often, deadlines collide and arrive all at the same time. One of the stories is about keeping a garden journal, and I’m very grateful to gardeners around the province who have shared their tales of garden journaling with me. I’ve got a beautiful new 10 year journal from Lee Valley here, a marvelous thing, although I wish it had pockets or sleeves, like a scrapbook or photo album, so that I could do like one gardener does, and tuck the tags of plants into the book for a permanent record of what I’ve planted (and where!). Getting the journal isn’t the hard thing—remembering to keep it up is. I’ve parked mine right beside my computers so I can write in it daily, or mostly daily.

Gave a talk the other night to the Ladies Auxiliary of the Pereaux Baptist Church, on the gentle art of forcing twigs of shrubs and trees into bloom at this time of year. Now I have the house full of twigs of bittersweet, forsythia, red osier dogwood, spirea…in a couple of weeks there should be some signs of flowers and leaves emerging, to help chase away the gloom of winter. I love watching coaxed twigs (that sounds so much more peaceful than ‘forced’) erupting into bloom like living fireworks. It’s so easy to do, too, providing you follow a few simple rules. Those will have to wait til next time, however.

05 February 2006

If I had a million dollars...I'd have WAY more plants!

In a perfect world, (meaning one with more money and time) I’d do some serious renovating to our house. We’d have a solarium or a conservatory, or a something with lots of glass and room for even more plants than we have now, where I could go when I'm feeling garden deprived in the height of winter's bleakness. I’d also have one office, or an office in one room, not spread out through three rooms and a hallway. My other have would have a heated workshop in the barn where he could create more marvelous garden furniture, birdhouses, and the like. We’d have a hottub outside where we could rest our aching muscles and contemplate the stars or the fog or the snow. And we’d have the gardens looking the way I’d like to see them.

Of all those things, the garden getting where I’d like to see it is the most likely to happen anytime soon. After all, I’m a writer, a freelance one at that, in Atlantic Canada…not a bank manager, a lawyer, a politician, or a highly paid civil servant. But that’s okay, because I’m also independent, and if I want to take three hours off to work in the garden in the middle of the day, and then work at night…it’s just fine.

And with a garden, you can pick up a few plants here, a few plants there…build a pathway this year, a wall the next, a garden room the next. You can’t put a few panes of glass into a solarium room one year, a few more the next. So I’ll work on the garden. Which is what we’ve been doing, of course, since we bought this place.

Right now, like many of us, I’m dreaming my way through magazines and catalogues and websites, looking at plants both new and old that I simply can’t live without. Today’s column in the Halifax Herald includes ten plant genera that I really like and feel are underused; but I have a wishlist of plants that I plan to get this year.

Last year, I bought an Orange Meadowbrite echinacea from a local nursery. It was expensive, and it wasn’t in good shape, but I’ve coveted that plant since first reading about it several years ago, and I had to have it. I hope it pulls through this winter, but if it doesn’t, the nursery has a year-long guarantee on its plants. I’ve returned at most half a dozen plants over the past half dozen years. So there will be no problem if it did succumb to whatever. There are more new echinaceas on the market now, too, in shades of orange, yellow, deep carmine, and even green—or rather, greenish. Probably I’ll add one or two of those, if I can find them locally.

Here are some other plants I intend to have more of:

Heaths and heathers. Blame it on Bunchberry Nurseries; at their open house several years ago, I became utterly besotted with heaths and heathers—not so much for the bloom, which is great, but for the foliage colours. The display gardens around Bunchberry, in Upper Clements near Annapolis Royal, are phenomenal; Jamie Ellison and Jill Covill have collected and propagated some unique and choice specimens over the years, not only of members of the Ericaceaous family of plants, but also of sempervivums and other alpine plants, evergreens both broadleaf and needled, grasses…problem is, I want one of everything and two of some! I’m starting out small, testing the drainage and protection from wind they might need—my friends Ami and Ian McKay have some delectable heathers in their back garden, growing to nice size now, here in our community so hopefully the half dozen I have planted out back will also thrive and grow.

Grasses. Yes, I’ve seen the light where grasses are concerned. And I’m sure, with the mild fall we had, many of you have also gotten the grass bug. Where we had next to no snow or frost leading up to Christmas, plantings of perennial grasses have stayed tall and gorgeous this year. Some of them have also been planted now for three or four or more years and are really getting some size to them too. Last year we put in probably a dozen different grasses, (I’m including sedges in the catchall term grass), including a gorgeous Bromus Skinner’s Gold purchased from Hillendale Perennials near Truro, and both a bronze and leatherleaf sedge from Springvale Nurseries, and several Miscanthus varieties from Blomidon Nurseries. I can’t wait to see how they do this year.

Trees. My friend Paul Grimm of Springvale Nurseries says, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the next best time is right now.” Well, I’ll wait for spring, but on my wish list are the Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostrobioides, which Captain Dick Steele first told me about 4 years back. Also needing to come and live with us are a Japanese Katsura, a Devil’s Walking Stick, (Aralia elata) a couple of lindens and several amelanchiers (shadbush or chuckley pears). This doesn’t include the shrubs that I’m planning to add…I promise a blog entry on shrubs soon.

Foliage Perennials: What I’ll probably avoid are hostas and heucheras, at least til the ones we have now get well established and I see whether I like them where they are. Last year we added about a dozen hostas from various nurseries and fellow gardening enthusiasts, and three heucheras—Obsidian, Lime Rickey, and Marmalade, for a nice colour range. I really like perennials with interesting coloured foliage, including those that flower, but I don’t care if they flower or not if I like the foliage. Last year at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, I saw this marvelous Stachys, a softly variegated green and gold variety. I resisted the urge to snip a piece…and it was hard…but now I’ve found someone who both knows what it is and has a couple of plants. So hopefully I’ll get my hands on Stachys byzantina ‘Primrose Heron’ come spring.

Flowering perennials. Oh, where to start? More euphorbias; more verbascums; more campanulas; (different ones, not more of what we already have!) More Oriental poppies; and at least three plants that I’ve never grown before. I’ll let you know what those will be when I figure out for myself.

Bulbs: More lilies, especially fragrant ones, definitely! I need to divide those we have now, which are mostly Asiastics, lovely but scent free. Non-hardy bulbs and tubers I don’t tend to grow a lot of, because of course you’re supposed to lift and store them. Well, I’m away so much in the fall…but Carol Cowan of the Netherland Bulb Information Centre told me over lunch to stop feeling guilty. “You plant annuals and let them die back at summer’s end,” she pointed out. “do the same with your tender bulbs if you want.” Good point, Carol. Maybe this year I’ll do just that.

01 February 2006

Milk comes from a box, carrots come from the store?

Yesterday I stopped at a local farm to buy some chickens. Not live ones; big, tender, wonderful chickens, grown to beyond the tiny size that grocery stores demand of farmers, processed at a local, inspected meat plant. I’ve been buying chickens from this farmer for years. Likewise, we get a quarter of beef from a pair of brothers who farm and also operate a sawmill, honey from a local beekeeper, vegetables and fruits from local farm markets (except for things like oranges and other non-local produce.)

We get excellent quality food, and at an excellent price; in some cases maybe slightly more than you’d pay in a grocery store, but it’s local, and the money is going to the farmer, not to Wal-Mart or Costco or superstore or whatever big box store is gouging farmers these days.

Now, I get very cranky at anyone dissing farmers. I'm not a farmer, and not from a farming family, unless you count the family farm my grandparents had while raising their kids in the thirties and forties. I went to Agricultural College--proud to be an Aggie!-- and I write about farming when I can, even having one of my stories on the family farm nominated for a journalism award. But I'm proud of farmers and protective of them because they are the people who grow the food we eat. Despite the fact that it seems a whole sector of the populace thinks that food just spontaneously generates in supermarkets, prepackaged, prepared, de-nutritionalized and with enough chemicals and additives in it that it should be glow-in-the-dark, nope, that’s not how a carrot is made. A farmer of my acquaintance told me about a visitor to his dairy farm who got QUITE indignant when it was explained to him that milk came from cows. Seems he thought that was obscene, or something. Bet he climbed into his 8 cylinder 451 SUV and stormed off to McDonalds for a Mcburger to calm his nerves.

Why am I talking about this? On a blog mostly dedicated to gardening? Because it’s my blog and I can—but mostly, because I really, really care about the welfare of our farms and our rural, farming communities. Because of something I read just the other day, about the income of farmers in our country. According to the National Farmers Union, in 2005, average farm income, before any sort of government payments, was negative 12,000 per farm. PER farm. Imagine if you worked your guts out day in and day out, paid all your expenses and bills and taxes and more expenses, and at the end of the year had a 12,000 negative income to show for all your labour! Is it any wonder so many of our farmers are discouraged, selling out, working two jobs as well as trying to farm?

Why is this happening? There are many reasons, but right here, I put a lot of the blame on the supermarkets. Never mind that one of them is based in Atlantic Canada and brags about how it buys local products. “Local” can mean up to 24 hours trucking time away, apparently. But the real deal is this: although the price of everything, from seed to fuel to fertilizer to feed to tractors to plastic bags for bagging crops, has gone up drastically—fuel prices alone about 30 percent in the past year—the farmer is not getting any better prices for the food they produce. Oh, the price of food is going up all the time in the stores—blaming it on the high cost of trucking, partly—but that extra money isn’t going to the farmers, but to the middlemen.

So, what do we do to help? Buy local food. Go to your local farmers markets, and to farm roadside stands. Get to know the beef farmer down the road, the beekeeper, the apple grower. Ask them questions. Buy their products. Savour the flavour. That chicken we roasted for supper tonight was delicious, moist, full of flavour, not overly fat, and it’ll last for three or four meals, just like a turkey. And it helped out my neighbour, who in turn buys feed from the local mill, and fertilizer from a local farm supply store, and does his banking at the community credit union…

One of the nicest things I’ve seen a magazine do to help out farmers is the Buy Local Beef Directory that DvL Publishing puts out in its magazines as well as posting online. While not exhaustive, it gives a good number of farmers who sell their own beef, including some organic producers. This directory was born after the BSE crisis of 2003 threatened to destroy many beef farmers in our country. Somehow, many of them have hung on, mostly because they raise other crops or livestock and work off farm as well.

What’s the future for farmers in Atlantic Canada? Unless something changes dramatically, I wonder if we’ll even HAVE any farmers in another twenty years.

I’ll do what I can to spread their message. Support your local farmer. I don’t care if you buy conventional or organic foods, just buy them locally. Get out to your local farmers market or roadside stand. Get to know the farmers who produce your food, and ask them questions. They’re not trying to hide anything. Canada has one of the safest food supplies in the world, and also one of the cheapest. But when the last farm has been turned into a subdivision, and the last farmer’s child has gone to work in a city somewhere, and we’re paying 27.00 a litre for milk coming from China, maybe we’ll realize just how important local farmers were to our economy.

Like the sign says, If you ate today, thank a farmer. Better yet, buy some food from him.

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