28 November 2006

Sunlight and the gardener's soul

During a marathon garden cleanup over several of the few sunny days we’ve experienced in November, I’ve managed to get two beds more or less cleaned up, and about 90 percent of the bulbs are now tucked in the ground too. Of course, at the time I thought I had them all in…but then Blomidon Nurseries put their bulbs on sale, and I was in there looking for something else, and some more species tulips, crocus and alliums looked pleadingly at me…whatever could I do?

And even though a lot of the real showy tulips can only be treated as annuals in our climate, I have planted a lot again this year. Some of them are Triumph and Darwin tulips, which do come back for a few years; others, I simply must have because they are good for my gardening soul. Apricot Parrot is one of them. I was hooked instantly on this tulip when I saw it grown in a pot at Ouestville Perennials
in the spring of 2005; I’ve planted a dozen together with Spring Green tulips, which are a refreshing white and green combination. This will give me something very nice to anticipate for next spring.

I’m a bit late in putting entries on bloomingwriter because I was away working last week; spent a couple of days in New Brunswick, including a wonderful stay at the Inn on the Cove & Spa.

If I could swing it, I’d go there overnight at least once a month because this is most decidedly an escape from the ordinary and hectic demands of life. Located, as its name suggests, right on a quiet cove in Saint John, it’s the ideal stress reliever. From the kingsized bed and Jacuzzi tub in my room—with its own patio looking out on the Bay—to the marvelous meals prepared by Ross Mavis, the owner and chef, to the utter decadence of a treatment at the spa, it was an exercise in pure relaxation and restoration. I left feeling most decidedly like a better person—or at least, a person who was feeling much better! And yes, even in November, it’s a gorgeous spot. I took a stroll on the stony beach and picked up a couple of lower Bay of Fundy pebbles for the garden here, and at night, turned off the heat in my room and opened the window so I could listen to the most beautiful music in the world—the sound of waves tumbling in to shore.

Back to reality and my own yard, however, is always pleasant. We’ve finally had a couple of hard frosts but despite that, some annuals close to the house keep right on growing—and even flowering, in the case of one enthusiastic snapdragon. One of the pot cyclamen is blooming out under the spruce trees, an amazing splash of fuchsia among the deep rich greens of hellebores, wild ginger, and slowly winding-down ferns. But the plant that has most caught my love this fall (other than the heathers, about which I’ll say more later) is this wonderful euphorbia that I planted last spring. I’ve extolled its virtues before, but as the autumn stretches towards solstice and it still is gorgeous, I grow to love it even more.
Unfortuntately, I still don’t know which one it is—as it’s suffering from LOLA syndrome—Lost Label. I do know that I got it at Spencer’s Nursery in Shelburne, so perhaps some kind soul will set me straight on its species and cultivar. Whatever it is, it’s a winner in my books.

11 November 2006

The continuing tale of hollyhock woe

Confession is good for the gardener’s soul, and I’m never one to shy away from admitting my gardening mistakes—whoops, that’s supposed to read experiments. Real gardeners have experiments, not mistakes, right?

Well, whatever the case, here’s my ongoing tale of woe regarding hollyhocks.

I love hollyhocks. Their old fashioned beauty makes me very happy, and I keep having visions of having a great host of them, up against the house, blooming in all kinds of colours, but especially yellow. I crave yellow hollyhocks, whether single or double.

Trouble is, the garden fates don’t seem to want me to have them.

It’s true that growing hollyhocks is a bit of a challenge in our garden. Oh, they’ll germinate well enough, and grow the first year; but that heavy wet cold clay soil of ours does them in after one too many freeze-thaw cycles, or one too many monsoons in early spring. The hollyhocks generally turn to slimy mush underground, and there we have it. I’ve even tried buying them as transplants, and occasionally have had successes, but usually only with plants that are potbound and prepared to flower because they’re stressed.

However, I’m nothing if not stubborn, and keep trying different areas in the garden. I finally hit on two beds that drain quite well and have tried seeding and putting in transplants in these beds. Last year, a spectacular plant developed and grew with vast amounts of enthusiasm…but bore white flowers.

This would have been okay but for the fact that yes, it was supposed to be yellow.

Before that plant showed its treacherous self, I bought a few transplants that were labeled as yellow, and put them in for this year in several different areas of the garden. When the white ones appeared, I was nonplussed but hoped that the labeled yellow transplants—bought at a garden centre, even—would survive the winter and finally give me my yellow hollyhocks. I wasn’t greedy. I figured if I got one to come into flower, I’d simply keep its seed and put them everywhere.

This year, the first plants to wake up grew enormously—they’re currently about 11 feet tall—and produced all kinds of marvelous, fat buds…

which opened up pink. Very pink. They are delightful, single flowers, and have charmed hummingbirds and butterflies and visitors alike. But they are most certainly pink.

In fact, I checked that plant today, and while one of the spires has toppled, there are all kinds of new leaves, and yet another flower spike is starting to grown. Apparently this plant doesn’t realize it’s November. I figure it will cast seeds everywhere and I’ll be overrun with pink hollyhocks for the next zillion years.

Another plant plant, off by itself in another bed, sheltered somewhat by shrubs. It was slow to get going, and I wondered if it was a seedling…except there was a tag beside it proclaiming it to be a double yellow hollyhock. Eventually it had a cluster of buds, about which I grew excited as they grew in size. They were showing yellow—definitely yellow. I thought victory was finally mine.

Until the day my longsuffering spouse came in the house and announced, “Your hollyhock is open…and it’s peach coloured.”

No way. I flew out the door, scattering cats and plant pots, across the yard to the plant. The buds were still showing distinctly yellow, but the half-opened flower wasn’t really yellow. It wasn’t really peach, either. We argued about it, and finally, out of desperation, I proclaimed it to be orange.

“There is no such thing as an orange hollyhock,” my spouse reminded me.

There is now. At least, in our garden.

Now, it’s entirely possible that this is an apricot hollyhock, because I know that such a colour does exist. And transferring the photo I took to the Web doesn't even do the colour justice--must not be a web-happy colour! But I’m in such a snit, even a month after that plant finished blooming, that I’m hoping it sheds a few seeds and presents me with more orange-flowered plants next year. Then at least I’ll have something interesting and bizarre.

Of course, many gardeners have already heard my tale of hollyhock woe in the past, and have been very encouraging, although occasionally a bit smug too. Even my own mother gleefully reported having a gorgeous double yellow plant in her garden. However, gardeners are also a generous lot and have started giving me seeds of yellow hollyhocks. They mail them to me, give them to me when I visited them, even drop them off at our house with a flower to prove that they came from a yellow flowered plant. I’ve planted them all, but I’m beginning to think I’m destined to never have one.

Or maybe we’ll develop a blue one.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

05 November 2006

Flurries where winds blow on shore...

That’s an often-heard prognostication made by Maritime weather forecasters, trying to justify all the science and computer generated models and other gadgetry used to tell us what we’re going to have for weather. Consulting the entrails of a chicken might be just as effective, given the accuracy of weather forecasts around here.

It’s hard to make judgment calls about weather systems overall when there are such a variety of microclimates, even in one part of one province. In summer, the Annapolis Valley may be shimmering with heat, but come up over the mountain to the Fundy shore, and you may find yourself wrapped in fog, with at least 15 degrees (Fahrenheit) difference in temperature.

In fall and winter, we’re often subject to that curious phenomenon of flurries where winds blow on shore—and those flurries can accumulate to serious inches of snow. So when I looked out the window this afternoon and saw the flurries, I grabbed my camera and took a picture of a typically bleak Fundy day in the NO month of November.
Then something caught my eye in the garden, something I hadn’t noticed when I was doing a bit of much-needed cleanup the other day. I pulled on a sweater and boots and traipsed out to have a look.
Yup, your eyes do NOT deceive you. This, dear friends and gentle gardeners, is the bud of a Golden Wings rose. There are actually two of them on the same branch, shimmering bright against the dying of the light, and the coldness of the Norwest wind coming in off the Bay.

They gave me hope, as blooms always do, that we’ll yet have a few nice days. In fact, Friday was a decent day, when the skies were blue and the light golden and the play of light on larch and pine made me intensely happy, if only for a few hours (while the sun was out.) And looking at this photo again, my heart with pleasure fills, just like William Wordsworth. True, there are no daffodils to dance through at this time, but still and all…there is beauty around us to lift the heart.

One of my favourite autumn sights is looking down from the Wellington dyke towards Blomidon, across cornfields, apple orchards, the dykelands around the mudflats, with the brooding edge of Cape Blomidon in the background. I’m always struck with wonder whenever I look at the dykelands that hold back the Minas Basin from flooding huge sections of the Annapolis Valley. The sense of history catches me, every time, as the dykes and aboiteaux were initially built and maintained by the Acadians who farmed and developed this land beginning 400 years ago with the establishment of Port Royal further down the valley and the Bay. The dykes and aboiteaux, or sluiceways, that work on the tidal rivers are maintained today by different methods and with different materials, but still they hold back the waters, claiming thousands of acres of arable farmland that would otherwise be underwater.

And I hear, too, the whispers of ghosts, the ghosts of Acadian settlers long gone, expulsed from this their homeland and scattered in their own Diaspora. And though I’m not Acadian, I pause to give respect to those first settlers, farmers, woodsmen, craftswomen, families…always remembering them, in sun or in snow.

01 November 2006

Requiem for a mentor

Well. After four days of gale force winds shaking the house and stripping most leaves from trees and shrubs, the wind finally exhausted itself last night. A gentle calm descended....

...and so did the fog. An interesting way to start November.

I got some sad news last week, and am just finding time now to write about it. One of my professors from my days at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, Dr. Lorne A. McFadden, passed away a couple of weeks ago in Truro after an apparently fairly lengthy illness.

Lorne was directly responsible, along with his colleague Albert E. (Doc) Roland, for my development as a plant nut. He taught botany and plant pathology at the AC, and while he was on sabbatical when I took botany in first year, he became more than a professor to me--he became a mentor who encouraged me, and almost a friend. When he wasn't teaching and I wasn't in class, we would spend long periods of time talking about plants, plant diseases, treatments for diseases, weed control....all things to do with the mysteries of plants.

Even then, I was interested in organic gardening/farming, biological control, native plants and such. When in our plant pathology course we had to write a paper on a disease of a crop, I asked "Dr. M" if I could do an essay on biological control of plant pathogens--a topic scarcely discussed back then. He was totally agreeable, and I got an A on the paper--it was actually a mark, and I forget the mark, but an A for sure.

He always encouraged such thought and study in me, and when I decided to leave one program and transfer into plant science, he wrote a very supportive letter to the dean asking that I be allowed to change programs. He got me summer employment at the College, and put in a word for me for parttime work during the class year. He lent me books, answered questions, and was one of the two best teachers I had in my assorted years of post secondary study. (the other one was an English professor at Acadia)

And I'm only one of thousands of students he taught over the years, and one of many who he inspired and encouraged on to bigger and better things.

Lorne was a prodigious gardener, as I got to see once when a fellow professor, one I worked for as a summer student, was leaving to pursue Ph.D studies at Guelph. There was a going away party for Bob at Lorne's house, and I remember spending more time out in the garden looking at plants than with people.

It's been years since I've seen Dr. M--after he retired, I don't know that he ever visited the biology department, and on my infrequent trips to Truro, I wasn't inclined to visit a professor's home--even though several professors have become friends of mine over the years. The details of his illness are unknown to me, and in fact I missed his obituary when it ran in our newspaper; I only found out when my mother mentioned it to me on the phone a week ago.

I haven't decided what shrub I'll plant in his memory next spring, but there certainly will be one. Goodbye, Dr. M, you were one of the best, and i'll ever be grateful for your enthusiasm and encouragement.

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