26 January 2007

More Strip mining in Nova Scotia???

(Yellow ladyslippers on the peninsula. Photo courtesy of Mira McNeil, APWPS)

Nigh on 30 years ago, when I was a student at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, I spent one summer collecting wild plants as a job with a professor in the biology department. We were increasing the number of specimens in the A.E Roland Herbarium collection.

One early summer day, Dr. Bob took me and a couple of other summer student employees on a road trip down to Avondale, outside Windsor in Hants County. We hiked out into wooded areas where for the first time in my life, I got to see yellow ladysslippers in bloom in a natural habitat. I was instantly smitten; both by the plants, and by the natural beauty of the area. Dr. Bob explained that these were calcareous woodlands, with alkaline soil due to the large amounts of gypsum throughout the area, and that these beautiful plants were home only to these sorts of soils.

A multinational company's plans may well sound a deathknell for these woodlands, the watershed of the surrounding tidal Avon River, and for the way of life of those who live, work and play along that watershed.

Here's the situation as described on the website of the Avon Penisula Watershed Preservation Society:

"A foreign-controlled company is currently proposing an expansion of their operation which will include a new strip mine. If it goes ahead, their current operation will extend further into the heart of the Avon Peninsula - the heart of our scenic, farming community, where wildlife lives and unique flora and fauna grow. Where we live.

"The new strip mine will not only be in our backyards, it will be in the heart of our community and our community's watershed. It will prevent our community from growing by destroying our environment, our tourism potential and the opportunity to expand our agricultural sector."

Here we go again. The provincial "Backward-Forward" government, as Allan Fotheringham famously used to call the so-called Progressive Conservative party, is wellknown for turning a blank face and a tacit approval to these sorts of developments. Witness similar anxieties in people on Boularderie Island, where a fight to prevent strip mining has the attention and support of Elizabeth May, leader of the National Green Party; on Digby Neck, at the lower end of this marvelous Bay of Fundy, where another multinational is determined to develop a horrid quarry that will pave roads in the US--at the cost of a lifestyle and an ecosystem unique to Digby Neck.

What can we ordinary people do? There are a few things;

Sign the Society's Petition. There are several options; online, via email, at various businesses in the surrounding area, including at ArtCan Gallery and Cafe in Canning, (one of my personal favourite cafes in the province.)

Tell others. Point them to the Avon Peninsula Watershed Preservation Society website, where there are other actions suggested, including writing to our MLAs (for those of us who live in Nova Scotia). Join the society, and help make a noise so that our various media climb onto this story too. Don't just contact the Tories, either; contact the opposition parties and urge them to challenge the government on this.

And when it finally comes time to vote...send the tories back to oblivion where they so richly deserve to be.

This is about more than yellow ladyslippers. It's about a way of life that is in danger. Please help.

24 January 2007

The Stillness of the Morning

Every now and again, there’s a truly perfect winter day up here on the mountain. Surprisingly, we’ve actually been having winter for five days running now, after the deluges of Friday. Even the gale of wind finally blew itself out sometime yesterday morning, and it’s been refreshingly calm ever since.

Ambling out to the mailbox, still a bit bleary-eyed and lacking that second cup of coffee, a dance of light in the driveway caught my attention. I’d dropped a glove last night getting out of the car; frost had rimed this with silver, and the sunlight was causing a pleasing shimmer. A closer look around the yard, and I darted for my camera. While the bluejays scolded me for having the utter gall to disturb them from stuffing themselves into repletion at the feeders, I had a nice ramble around the garden catching a little garden art—fleeting and ephemeral, as the sunlight has since melted the frost, but pleasant none the less.

An intriguing part about walking the garden and observing is that my mind gets to wander to other topics at the same time as I photograph subjects. For the past several weeks, my mind has been troubled by the plight of Nova Scotian farmers; in particular, the province’s pork producers, but other farmers as well. We have a provincial government that is far more interested in developing Cape Breton tourism (more Gaelic and fiddle music, anyone?) and covering its own excesses and misbehaviour than in tending to the problems besetting our own agricultural producers. Talk about shortsightedness. If our farmers go bankrupt, or sell their prime land to become plastic subdivisions, who is going to feed us? Apparently the so-called brain trust in Halifax fail to understand that when food isn’t produced locally but is brought in from elsewhere—by the greedy big-two grocery stores, primarily—we set ourselves up for problems in what is called food security. I’ve written about this before, I realize, both here and in publications, and it seems I’ll have to do it again. So these thoughts, and plenty more, were rolling around as I snapped garden art. I’m not alone in my concerns, of course. Fellow writers are taking to their pens—or their keyboards—and voicing their worries and support for our farmers. I hope it’s not too little too late.

Back to the garden, while I ponder this further.

Although I sometimes grumble about the seedy abundance of teasels, especially when I’m digging out some of their tenacious offspring, these spiky monsters are actually a favourite plant. They provide food for countless birds, they give winter interest all season long—right into spring when I finally cut down the seedheads—and they are certainly dramatic in the summer garden too. Days like today, they show their artistic side even moreso.

If I were a better bird-gardener, I’d have a heater in this birdbath to keep the water open;

I tell myself the old apples that I put out provide adequate moisture for our feathered friends, and besides that, it could rain again tomorrow. I’ll just enjoy the ice sculpture while it lasts.

This is one reason why I select so many hardy rugosa-type roses for our garden; not only are the fleshy hips loved by many birds, they delight the human eye too. Is this a rose-morel or a piece of modern art? You decide.

It’s hard to believe this is the same rosy milkweed that played host to monarch butterfly caterpillars well into the autumn. It too is a favourite plant because it truly performs all year long. Its only drawback is that it’s difficult to transplant or move unless you find seedlings early in the spring; but it germinates nicely from seed.

And this peaceful shot of a frozen saxifrage rosette—which cultivar, I don’t remember naturally—rounds out this morning’s arty-blog.

One more thing that I couldn't photograph--the fragrance in the air. Maybe it's because the wind has stopped blowing, at least briefly. But I'm sure I can smell spring.

23 January 2007

What's new--or tried and true--under this garden's sun

Gnomey, the garden blogger at Kingsbrae Gardens in St. Andrews, NB, made a good point the other day. How many new cultivars of hostas, heucheras or daylilies do we really need? Every year, there are countless new cultivars of perennials, vegetables, annuals, shrubs…you name it and there’s probably a new cultivar or two on offer. And while this is a very good thing in some ways for us gardeners, on the other hand it can be daunting for new gardeners to deal with. Which of the forty-seven heucheras should she plant in her garden? If there’s only room in his tiny back yard for one hosta, should it be Sagae, Paul’s Glory, Revolution, or Guacamole?

At the same time, many of us get very excited when we read about new and beautiful plants in magazines or catalogues or here on the Web. And believe it or not, while it’s daunting for home gardeners of all abilities to figure out what new plants to try—or even what new plants are out there, it’s even more daunting for those of us who are garden writers, who are expected to keep somewhat ‘up’ on what’s new and hot.

So what I’ve decided to do is pick out ten of my favourite old standards (perennials to start with) and profile each of them; then we’ll move to ten of the newest plants, whether they’re brand new and not even in our home gardens yet, or some that have come out in the past year or so. This should give us plenty of things to talk about over the next few entries…plus, it will make me think seriously about what my favourite plants are, and why; a good offering to suggest to new gardeners when they come to me asking about what they should plant. That’s always a tricky thing to suggest. “Plant what makes you happy” is what I tell people, and if they have specific interests I’m pleased to direct them to growers who specialize in one genus or another; daylilies, hostas, shrubs, heucheras, alpine plants, grasses…but we’ll talk about some general favourites of mine. Including, of course, both pros and cons.

First on the list is the coneflower, or Echinacea. To be technical, there are several different genera that are referred to as coneflowers; Rudbeckia, Ratibida, and Echinacea. While I like the first two just fine, I simply adore Echinaceas, so that’s the one I’m focusing on here.

Coneflowers make me instantly happy when I look at them in bloom. They are so tidy looking, with those striking central cones in various shades (depending on species/cultivar), and their neat, symmetrical ring of petals. Sure, there are plenty of daisy-flowered garden perennials, but echinacea has to be the star of them all. And even now, in late January, there are still cones hanging on in the garden, providing food to some songbirds and winter interest to the gardener.

Coneflowers perform best in full sun in well-drained soil, amended with compost or well-rotted manure. They’ll do okay in part shade but won’t bloom as heavily, and while some of the older species and hybrids usually do fine in my back bed, which is prone to being a bit on the wet side, last year one rotted off due to the excessive amounts of wet and rain. Clay isn’t good for them, and while I work away at adding as much compost and manure to that back bed as possible, it all takes time. The front beds, where drainage is better, is where our coneflowers have done best.

One of the funniest ongoing jokes my longsuffering spouse and I have is about the name “Purple coneflower”. When I was growing one of the white hybrids, he asked me what it was, and I told him it was a ‘white purple coneflower’. Well. He wanted to know how a plant could be purple when it was white. I told him I didn’t make up the names. He then proceeded to declare the ‘Black Beauty’ Rudbeckia a black purpleconeflower. I explained that it wasn’t a purple coneflower, it was a rudbeckia. Didn’t matter. He now torments me about orange purple coneflowers, yellow purple coneflowers, and wants to know when there will be a blue purple coneflower. Okay, it strikes me funny, but maybe you had to be there.!

Speaking of all those different colours; echinaceas are a plant breeder’s delight. In the past four or five years, there have been a number of different coloured coneflowers launched on an unsuspecting public. Perhaps the first was one of those developed at the Chicago Botanical Gardens: Art’s Pride, or Orange Meadowbrite. It’s truly orange, and its fragrant too. People who know more about plant breeding than I do tell me that many of the funky new colours are the result of crossing E. purpurea and E. paradoxa, and this is why some of the newer coneflowers have more lanceolate leaves and thinner petals than our old standards. Whatever the case, they are marvelous.

I’ve heard rumblings from some gardeners about the newer ones being harder to overwinter. So far, (touch wood) our plants have settled in well and the older ones came through their first winter just fine. To be on the safe side, I did cover the new cultivars that I put in last year with evergreen boughs, just to help them get through their first Atlantic Canadian winter.
From Georgia’s ItSaul Nursery come the Big Sky series of coneflowers, which I have quickly become besotted with. I currently have Sunrise (yellow)
and Sundown (peachy-rose-orange, depending on the age of the flower) and I THINK there’s a Sunset out there too, but you know about me and LoLas…There are more to get my mitts on, including Harvest Moon and Twilight, Summer Sky and After Midnight, all from ItSaul Plants, so I look forward to seeing them in the not too distant future.

But wait, there’s more. Others are breeding coneflowers too, and bringing in interesting variations. I haven’t seen “Green Eyes’ around here yet, a native purple coneflower with a green cone,
but I did see it in Toronto and of course I covet it….(this one was taken late in the season and the green is waning, but you get the idea.) I'm looking forward to seeing it in Nova Scotian nurseries this year, or else I'll have to break down and order it from somewhere else.

From Terra Nova Nurseries out in Oregon comes the pumpkin orange ‘Tiki Torch’. If the photo's colour is accurate and not enhanced, this striking new cultivar should excite those of us who hanker after such beautiful plants. (photo courtesy of Terra Nova)

19 January 2007

And they think there’s no global warming?

Talk about the weather vagaries. First, we had a snowstorm a few days ago; not a terrible one, just your average Nova Scotian winter snowfall with wind, snow, and so on. Then it got cold. Waaayyyyy frigidly cold with blustery winds and drifting snow, compliments of the cold snap that western Canada had been enduring earlier in the week. That was fine with me because I wasn’t planning on going outside anyway except to give a talk, (which didn’t happen due to both the weather and my having some weird flu bug). Our century old farmhouse is well used to such weather and we were kept nicely warm, but the only window in the house that isn’t thermal, an antique ‘stained glass’ window, always provides us with the most marvelous frost art during such cold snaps.

Of course, such cold weather can be hard on plants, which is why we tend to mulch some of the more tender perennials and newer shrubs after we have a freeze. These plants have been snuggled down under their conifer covers (the perfect use for a no-longer needed Christmas tree) for several weeks now and then the blanket of snow further protected them.

However…today we are having a rainstorm. Yes, that’s right, a rainstorm. Wind screaming inspiredly out of the southeast this morning when I went out to check the mailbox was decidedly milder than yesterday, and at that time we were getting the big, wet snowflakes that everyone knows means we could be getting wet shortly. And sure enough, before noon it was pouring in earnest, and it’s continued on throughout the day. So far there’s still quite a bit of snow left around the yard, or there was before dark; but by morning we could well be back where we started.

Still, we’ve had nothing too dramatic one way or the other for weather so far this winter. Lots of wind, but that’s nothing unusual for the Fundy. Whereas our friends on the west coast, and in parts of the US, and now in Europe too, have been receiving one pounding after another. And no matter what Stephen J. Bush and George W. Harper might say, we humans ARE making havoc with our environments and our climates are changing as a result.

I’d like to have decals made up saying “thanks so much for contributing to global warming…” which I would then stick on every Hummer and other obnoxious oversized gargantuan SUV that I could find in parking lots around the Valley. What are these people THINKING??? Who NEEDS something the size of a small tank to run around a city or town? Surely not this simpering, smug bleached blonde botox yuppy mamas that I see so often at the wheel of these monstrosities, driving their pampered children to freearange interpretive yoga or minor-minor-minor-peewee league no-contact no-ice hockey, or advanced geophysics lab classes or whatever else they’ve signed their Nintendo-glazed offsprings up for, all so they can show off more to their neighbours about what THEY have that the others don’t!

Whew. That was a bit of a rant, wasn’t it. On to other topics, I think. Ah yes. Here’s a rare two-headed feline reclining in the chair nearest the woodstove in out kitchen.
I was vastly amused by these two sharing the same chair, because of the herd, they are two who do not get along as a rule. I happen to adore them both and they seem to regard me as their personal person, so they sometimes are a bit competitive. Hence Simon laying as far away from his neighbour as he can, although their hind ends are touching…

To help drive the winter blues or blahs away, it’s always nice to have something flowering around the house. While our amaryllis are some weeks from flowering, they have all sprouted nicely after their time resting in the basement. I neglected to pot up any bulbs to force for the house in the fall, but there’s no worries about that; there are always potted bulbs on sale at grocery and department stores and some nurseries. Last week a pot of dwarf iris pleaded to come home with me, as did a white hyacinth; both are providing lots of brightness in the office window now, with the hyacinth also offering its sweet fragrance.

When out doing some things around the yard last week prior to writing an article about how this weather is or isn’t affecting our gardens, I took the secateurs to the forsythia, one of the honeysuckles, and the bittersweet vine. I clipped off a few twigs, brought them in and put them in a vase with a couple of inches of warm water, and let them sit for a few hours. Then I filled the vase with clean water and put it in the kitchen window. Two days ago, I was rewarded with the first forsythia buds:

Which are now already opened, with more to follow. The honeysuckle is sulking, mostly because it was showing some leaves and buds when I cut it, I think, but the bittersweet is showing nice green buds too. Forcing twigs is just SO easy with some plants. I’ve never tried our magnolia because it’s still too small, and the same with the two quince shrubs. The warm smiling yellow of forsythia, and the exhuberant growth of bittersweet, and even some twigs of red osier dogwood, never fail to produce smiles throughout whatever kind of winter we’re having.

05 January 2007

Watching the sleeping garden

It’s a new year…

…and as Babe Ruth would say, it’s déjà vu all over again. One of the earliest entries to this blog (now celebrating its first birthday) was a lament about the weirdness of the January weather. Well, on this day, 5 January, the temperature outside at noon (Atlantic Standard Time) is 48 degrees. Fahrenheit, not metric. Although today is overcast and there’s a suggestion of rain to come, there’s also some golden light in the sky, where the sun is struggling to pierce the clouds and bathe us in more warmth. Yesterday was a textbook January thaw-day; not quite as warm as today, but sunny, crystal blue skies, and the seemingly inexhaustible wind finally had blown itself out and was quiescent. When I went for a walk, I was intrigued by the waves of scent on the air; scents we don’t expect to be able to pick up just yet. The smell of earth warming up; the tang of manure from barns, of hay in the pasture for the horses, of ice melting back into water…these are things I don’t expect to really notice at this time of year—unless of course I’m in the barn cleaning out the horse’s stall or throwing down hay. But normally, the cold seems to freeze scents as well as water and ground and such, and it’s not until a February thaw or later before we get that first warm bathe of scent on the air, promises of spring.

We need to have winter before we have spring! The whole continent is in some sort of weather crisis, of course, as if our seasons have twisted. The west coast is alternately getting pounded with snowstorms and rainstorms. We’re having spring in January. The Midwest (well, Colorado anyway) is seeing snowstorm after snowstorm. A humungous piece of the glacial ice pack fell off the edge of Ellesmere Island a week or two back…meanwhile, our various not-so-glorious leaders hide their heads in their butts and deny that there’s any global warming going on. I won’t rant though, not about those jokers and losers. Not today.

Just two days ago, when the ground and the air were of equal frigidity thanks to that wonderful west wind screaming in off the Bay, I put the Christmas tree to the second-last of its really good uses. After standing for nearly three weeks in the house, festooned with ribbons and bows and balls and ornaments from all over, this mountain-grown tree from a local man’s tree lot has turned into mulch for the somewhat fussy plants of the garden; perennials that REALLY don’t appreciate freeze thaw cycles, some plants that were newly put in last year and haven’t gone through a Fundy winter yet, especially young shrubs like the Callicarpa and the Pyracantha and the ‘Bluebird’ hibiscus. I also put some boughs down around the bed where the heathers and heaths are, because they too are still young and establishing.

That as-yet unidentified euphorbia in the front garden is still holding its leaves but looking more bedragged now after the all-but incessant winds of the past couple of weeks. The hellebores seem to be doing just fine under the spruce trees, but that first real cold snap finished off the cyclamen that I’d planted out; houseplant type cyclamen mostly aren’t hardy here, but they will keep on growing and flowering until a hard freeze. For now, though, I’ll have to content myself with indoor flowers.

And indoor flowers we have only in small amounts, right now. The other day while getting groceries, my attention was caught by several stands of fresh, locally grown plants in the floral department. A small yellow primrose, with its spicy-lemon scent that instantly makes me happy, clambered into my grocery cart beside the salmon and the granola bars. Then a deep-rose cyclamen, reminding me how much it likes cool rooms like my office, followed the primrose. Finally, one of the compact, birds-nest type of sanseveria, a wonderfully variegated one, hinted that it should be included too. So these three small plants are relaxing in the office window, where the cats have shown no interest in snacking on any of them, and where their happy colours bring me instant spring—regardless of what the weather is doing.

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