28 September 2006

Live and in colour from Montreal

If you’re going to be in Montreal in the next couple of weeks, you gotta go see Flora. If you’re not going to be there in that time, wait til next spring—then you gotta go see Flora.

Flora who, you ask?

International Flora Montreal This has to be the most amazing garden themed display in the country. Now, I can’t claim to have been to every intriguing garden across the country—not by a long shot—but this is a phenomenal, breathtaking, and FUN exploration of gardening and garden design.
Why am I so besotted with this show?
In the first place, it’s a living, longterm display—this year from mid-June to mid-October—whereas shows like Canada Blooms are short flashes in the pan, here today, gone four days later. Come back to Flora week after week and see how the gardens change over the season.

VIA Rail came up with this wonderful travel theme called the Garden Route There are twelve gardens from Halifax to Windsor, Ontario, all accessible by one train route or another. The marvelous people who put on Flora, and the team at VIA, made it possible for me to go to Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Burlington/Hamilton and Windsor, to visit some of the gardens on the route. Naturally, I’ve already been to Halifax’s Public Gardens, and to Kingsbrae in New Brunswick—another of those “You GOTTA go” places—but I did cartwheels, figuratively if not literally, when I was asked to go. And it didn’t take long to get me packed and into Halifax to meet my train.

I love trains. I despise flying now, especially since Canjet is no more—sure, flying is fast, but it reminds me of moving livestock, crammed into too—small quarters. Give me a train any day of the week, provided I’ve got the time to take to travel languorously across the country to my destination. Happily, in this case, I did. Travelling by train is infinitely civilized…not only are we not racing and crowded and stressed, we get to actually SEE a great deal of the amazing country we live in. Going Easterly class (first class on The Ocean, which sadly is the only passenger train left in the Maritimes) is definitely the crème de la crème of train travel. We had a ‘learning coordinator’, who entertained us in the park car at the end of the train, presented us with complementary champagne to toast the trip’s beginning, and gave us all kinds of insights into what it’s like to live in the Maritimes. (For those unfortunates who don’t live here, of course.) The sleeping cars are comfortable, well lit, with huge windows looking out on the racing landscape; the meals featured maritime flavours and wines from Jost, Domaine de Grand Pre, Gaspereau Vineyards, and other Nova Scotian wineries; the beds, while not huge, are comfortable, and I dunno where VIA gets their duvets, but I want one!

And though the sun sets too early these days, it was still up when we arrived in Miramichi--surely one of the most gloriously beautiful places in the country. No wonder David Adams Richards writes so movingly of that region.

So I arrive in montreal, the city that never sleeps, at 8 this morning—and two hours later, after getting checked in at the Holiday Inn Midtown, I’m en route to see Flora.
Here’s the best description of where the gardens are located, from the Flora website.

INTERNATIONAL FLORA MONTREAL 2006 take place on the Quays of the Old Port of Montreal, at the Lock Gardens in the area between the railway bridge and the Mill bridge. The Old Port is rich in history and culture and is one of the most important recreational and tourist destinations of Montreal. It benefits from a captive clientele of more than 7 million visitors who come every year to Old-Montreal and on the Quays of the Old-Port of Montreal.

Imagine all of these unique, vibrant gardens, planted and thriving along the locks heading down to the mighty river. For a backdrop, the ancient grain elevators brood on the skyline, providing the perfect boundary on more than fifty different theme gardens.

There are tranquil gardens when you can pause and reflect...
...and gardens where you can actually delight in the designer's sense of humour
There are gardens with ecological themes, as with this water-conserving planting,

And gardens that are just plain whimsical
Now, I haven’t had time to review all the literature—or all the photographs I took—because oddly enough, I need some sleep! But on the train tomorrow, I’ll do up the photos from this afternoon’s visit to the next stop on the tour, and let you know more about the trip. This is just a teaser to get you started.

07 September 2006

The Colour Purple...

You know how so many plants at this time of year are in shades of russet, gold, orange, carmine, and so on? These are all splendid colours, but sometimes a gardener craves something to contrast and yet compliment the colours of fall. I think that’s why I’m drawn to plants like flowering cabbage and kale, butterfly bush, purple-foliaged shrubs, and any late flowering plants that come in magenta, purple, mauve…any shade of purple.

There are so many shades of purple—some of which horticulturists like to pass off as being blue when describing supposedly blue-flowered perennials—from pale mauve to deep royal purple and every shade in between. One of the stars at this time of year is an annual, Verbena bonariensis. It’s popping up in many fall issues of garden magazines these days, but I first learned about it from the late, much-loved and lamented Christopher Lloyd, the great British gardener whose motto was, “learn the rules of colour so you can break them.” (works for me). This verbena grows very tall—easily to five feet and has lacy clusters of small magenta purple flowers which besot butterflies. It is an enthusiastic selfseeder in many parts so I’m hoping that the few plants I have this year will selfseed into many more, the way the poppies, sunflowers and nigella do.

I’ve also succumbed to the urge to try Caryopteris ‘Dark Knight’ with its dazzling blue flowers; it will probably die down to the roots in our garden, but I’ve got a good sheltered spot for it too, where I can stare at its blue colour and be happy.

The other purple performer that threw itself at me today is ‘Purple Dome’ New England aster; I’ll have to tag it and plant it somewhere where I’ll KNOW I planted an aster, so as not to pull it out thinking it’s a wild one…a mistake I’ve made before. Tee hee.

Also wonderful in the line of purple are some of the heathers that are flowering now. I am fairly new to being infatuated with heathers and heaths, and I blame it primarily on Jill Covill and Jamie Ellison, who founded Bunchberry Nurseries in Upper Clements, NS. Jamie has moved on to teaching young horticulturists at the Kingstec Campus, but Jill has continued to grow the business, for years wholesaling fantastic plants to nurseries around the region. This year she opened a retail business as well, and she was one of the exhibitors at the Saltscapes Expo as well as at Agrifest. Anyway, Jamie and Jill smartly developed display gardens around their nursery, which are an excellent way of showing potential customers what plants will look like after they’ve been planted out for a few years. I challenge anyone to remain unexcited about shrubs, conifers, grasses or heaths and heathers after seeing some of the exciting and unique cultivars of plants available and hardy to our area.

So last year, I bought half a dozen heaths and heathers, some from Bunchberry and several from Dick Steele at Bayport Plant Farm (another individual who has seriously influenced my plant tastes in recent years). I made a dedicated bed for them in the upper end of the yard where the drainage is not too bad, added lots of compost and peat to the soil, and planted them out. They survived, so I added another half a dozen this spring, all of which have settled in and grown nicely. They’re starting to flower now, AND to get their fall/winter colour, which is what really besots me about them. The fall colour of some of them, such as Spitfire, Wickware Flame, Cuprea and Con Brio is enough to send me into ecstacy—without ever even having a flower on the plants. But they’re ALL starting to blossom too, so I’m a happy—and hooked—heather addict now.

One thing I really noticed was how good the garden centre at Bunchberry looked—all the shelves and tables of plants were filled with healthy, well groomed and attractive species of perennials, shrubs and trees.

There was none of the tired, picked-over look that I’ve noticed lately at some garden centres. Here I and my colleagues in the garden-writing world are crowing about how we can still be planting all kinds of things, and then people go out to many local nurseries and can’t find anything worth planting? That’s not a good thing. It’s also, of course, not the case at every garden centre--things are looking great at some nurseries I've visited lately-- and I do know that our local operators are up against the wall having to compete with the loss-leader bigbox bullies…But this is a time of year when nurseries can be making some decent money and gaining new, loyal customers, by having great quality stock and a good variety, because there IS still plenty of time to be planting.

Another nursery that is looking mighty fine, as I remarked in my regular email newsletter, is Cosby’s Garden Centre in Liverpool. Ivan Higgins is another smart nursery operator who is big on planting display gardens, but he also has a secret weapon in his arsenal; he is a concrete sculptor who does amazing, whimsical and unique pieces, both for himself and for commissions. Each year he creates a new sculpture for the garden centre, and here is this year’s:

Ivan’s garden centre is so good, and his selection of unique and exciting plants so delightful, it almost tempts me to pull up stakes and move to the balmy south shore of the province, where I could exercise a lot more zonal denial and plant things I can only dream about now. But I can’t see digging up several thousand plants from here and trucking them all down there…plus my heart really is here. I’ll just have to live vicariously on the south shore through Ivan, Dick Steele, and other great gardeners who live in the banana belt.

01 September 2006

Suddenly September, and Mum’s the Word

Whether I like it or not, we’re being dragged kicking and screaming into the autumn. No matter that technically, there are about three weeks left of summer. This is Labour Day weekend, and that’s the unofficial winding down of summer for many people. Next week, kids will be back to school, students back into universities, those who have such things as vacations will be looking forward to NEXT year’s vacations, and some idiotic merchant will start clamouring about how there are only X more shopping days til Christmas.


Well, yes, the Halloween junk IS already out in the stores, as is the Thanksgiving detritus. But we’ll ignore all that in favour of what’s popping up in the garden centres. Fall foliage favourites, fall blooming annuals, and in just a couple of weeks, bulbs. For now, let’s consider the plants that are available for our enjoyment as we do wind down the summer.

There IS still plenty of time to be planting perennials, shrubs and trees—most plants need 6-8 weeks to establish themselves before a hard freeze comes along, and we’re not apt to have one of those before mid-November. That being said, however, it does seem like the weather has been hopelessly out of joint this past year, and who really knows what we’ll have for a fall, let alone a winter? Be that as it may, I’m gonna keep right on working away in the gardens.

Last week my longsuffering spouse and I went on a bit of a road trip, and ended up on the south shore of the province. We dropped into an interesting garden centre I’ve only visited a couple of times, The Village Nursery, just outside of Bridgewater. The nursery’s famous Dazee Dome, the greenhouse where they display and sell their huge selection of annuals, is closed, of course, but the areas where the perennials normally are housed were home to row on row of fall mums. These aren’t hardy chrysanthemums—in this neck of the woods, I don’t know how well even the so-called hardy mums are about overwintering, because I just don’t bother with them.

In fact, I’ve never dealt with chrysanthemums since 1980, when I was a new graduate of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and worked for a few months at a greenhouse that grew hothouse tomatoes and chrysanthemums—poms, they called them—for the cut flower trade. We spent hours working among those poms, planting the transplants, pinching them out, disbudding them, cutting them…and before I quit the greenhouse to go farming, I used to see the damn things in my sleep. I can still smell the hideous chemical that we had to use to fumigate the soil, which sent me home feeling sick more than once. Small wonder I started leaning towards organic gardening in earnest back then!

Despite that long-ago misadventure with chrysanthemums, I do enjoy them outdoors for autumn colour. Every year, I buy a couple of richly coloured varieties in large, 8 inch pots, and these will do yeoman’s service out in the front yard for weeks to come. This year, the offerings seem to be better than ever—some nice, rich colours are on offer, much more interesting than the dandelion yellows, insipid whites, muddy purples of years ago. There are rich burgundies, lovely russets and coppers, and dazzling oranges, all of which complement the autumn foliage palette.

However, permit me a little bit of bragging rights…our container plantings are mostly still looking really great, and I give the credit for that to Seaboost, the liquid seaweed fertilizer I use indoors and out. When I planted the containers I threw a handful of seaweed meal into the potting mix, and every other week I’ve been watering really well with Seaboost in the water, and the results are obvious/ The calibrachoas are still flowering their heads off, the nemesia, heliotrope, portulaca and helichrysum are all looking fine, and even the annual lobelia, which usually is spent and gone by now, is still sending cascades of rich blue out of several large containers. The only annuals that are looking bedraggled are the plantings of cerinthe, or honeywort, which I neglected to cut back after they flowered, so they’ve gone to seed and are starting to die back. That’s okay, though, because I’ve got a nice stock of seed for next year.

Though many perennials are winding down their bloom, there’s still plenty of colour in the yard. The tall phlox David, Bright Eyes and another unnamed magenta variety have been intoxicating us with their fragrant clusters of blossoms, and the last of the bee balm and daylilies are wrapping up their display. The perennial blue lobelia (which also has a white form) has been doing very nicely, AND a red perennial type, which I thought had died, burst into splendid flower a few weeks ago, delighting me and the hummingbirds alike. The coneflowers and seaholly are still doing their thing, though most of the globe thistles are beginning to decline. And there are still things yet to flower—the tall perennial silvergrasses, Miscanthus Silberfeder, Graciella and purpurea, are forming flowerheads, and likewise our lovely clumps of Helenium, an underused and marvelous perennial. All in all, there’s still plenty of summer colour left, although the segue to autumn flamboyance has certainly begun.

We had a nice surprise last week—the swallows that nest in our barn hadn’t gone—they had hatched a second set of nestlings, which they were proudly teaching to fly last week. We sat all one afternoon watching the junior zoomers darting and swooping and fluttering, pausing to rest on the ridge of the house roof, while their parents exhorted them to ‘come on! You can do it! FLY!” Now, however, they have left, and yesterday was the first day I didn’t see a hummingbird, so I think they too have departed. There are mourning cloak and fritillary butterflies around, among others, but the monarchs too seem to have left. Fly safely, all of you, and see you in the spring.

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