30 March 2007

A taste of spring—and wine, and salmon, and veggies—at Kingstec

Well, I don’t know what YOU were doing last evening, but personally, I was having far too much fun. I was at the Kingstec Wine and Trees event that I’ve mentioned several times in recent weeks, and if you weren’t there, you missed a terrific time. This event is a joint project of the Kingstec horticultural program and the Culinary course, both of which are excellent programs with some topnotch instructors and students. The event showcases their talents, as well as those of a number of local wineries, food producers such as Fox Hill Cheese House, and hort-related businesses including Baldwin’s Nurseries in Falmouth
(one of my top ten favourite nurseries), Springvale Nurseries in Berwick, Hammonds Plains and Truro, Atlantic Lighting Studio in Wolfville, and Scotia Slate in Hammonds Plains. I don’t know how many people attended, but the parking lots were jammed and I sure got to visit with a lot of people I know. And we all sampled terrific foods and wines, and admired the skills and artistry of the Hort. students, who pulled out all the stops this year in their design, build and planting skills.

Stepping into the greenhouses was like visiting a miniature International Flora Montreal or Chelsea Garden Show. The students constructed a number of individual projects to be used as retail display areas in garden centres, showcasing the use of small water features, whether in a Japanese meditation garden with fog sculpting its way around the stepping stone pool, in a cascading fountain made of terracotta shards, or in any of a number of other unique water features. The second greenhouse was designed to be landscape showcasing ideas. The most common comment I heard, as I professionally eavesdropped my way around the site? “Oh. My. God. We NEED that in our yard!” I couldn’t agree more.

Whether it was one of the freestanding stone arches (with no mortar used to hold them in place

Or the serene music of a small waterfall tumbling over stone…

Or just a place to sit and contemplate the perfection of a magnolia in full bloom

…There were ideas for everyone. I especially liked the use of a lot of native plants, conifers and grasses in some of the builds, and of course LOTS of rock. Yes, rock is native here, but the students also brought in some select stone from the Stone Gallery, including a pink mica-flecked rock. This gorgeous rock—I’m not a geologist so I don’t know what it was beyond having mica in it—caught the glow of light, whether sunlight during the early part of the evening or the skillful use of low-watt garden lighting—top quality stuff, not the plastic junk you find at the bigboxes—this made for a magical setting.

Everyone put their all into making this project work, and it was a resounding success. Cheerleading goes to Jamie Ellison, Joe Bidermann, and Jane Harrington, the main instructors in the hort program, who inspire and lead their students so well, and to both first and second year students in the program. Bravo, bravo, and bravo.

The hard part, of course, will be disassembling all that hard work. They could disassemble the slate wall/water feature and tub and put it in my back yard, if they wanted to….

25 March 2007

Favourite perennials 2: The silent bells of the garden

The first summer we were here at our new home, I dragged home a bellflower from some nursery. It was unnamed and not in flower—I don’t know what prompted me to purchase it. Perhaps I picked it up at a plant sale in someone’s yard. I planted it out front by the door, along with a host of other things, and promptly forgot about it in the joy of watching a host of new-to-us plants parade through bloom.

Sometime in midsummer, this plant erupted into bloom, with huge purple bells. It was a double-flowered cup-and-saucer Canterbury bell, we know now, but at the time, we were simply awestruck. My longsuffering spouse declared it the most wonderful flower he’d ever seen. He still talks about that plant, because although we’ve had many different bellflowers since then, including Canterbury bells, we’ve never had another cup-and-saucer one. That’s okay though—our love affair with bellflowers had begun.

One of the reasons we love bellflowers is because they are reliable. I have killed many plants over my years as a gardener, and will doubtless continue to do so as long as I’m setting trowel to soil. My philosophy about plants that succumb is that they are simply making room for other plants to take their place. I haven’t killed a lot of bellflowers however, because they’re pretty tough. And there’s one for just about every site, from front of the border groundcovers to mid border beauties to tall performers for the back of the border.

Bellflowers come in shades of blue, violet, purple, and rose, as well as in pure shining white, so they mix well in most colour schemes using cool or pastel colours. They’re mostly pretty hardy; give them compost-rich, decently drained soil and a sunny spot, and they’ll do as well for you as they do for me. I’ve never had to stake any of them, although you may want to stake peachleafed if your site is very windy.

Among my favourites:

C. persicifolia: The peachleafed bellflower is definitely an easy plant to grow, and though it selfseeds, it does so very politely. It grows quite tall in our garden, to 3 feet or more, and the flowers are quite showy and longlasting. My favourite is ‘Chettle Charm’, (above) white edged in cool lavender-blue.

C. glomerata: The clustered bellflower does as its name suggests, clumping its blooms togetherat the end of stems. Ours is a deep purple variety, but white is also available.

C. Kent Belle: This is a showy bellflower, with really shiny, deep purple bells that flare sharply outward. It’s a sterile cultivar, but when happy will spread gradually by rhizomes. (photo at beginning of this entry)

C. medium: Canterbury bells are one of the few campanula that are biennial. Not being inclined to grow perennials from seed at present, I simply buy a few now and then; sometimes they selfseed, sometimes they don’t.

C. punctata ‘Cherry Bells’: For something different, try this bellflower, which has pretty pink flowers, long tubular bells flared at the end. It spreads by rhizome or by seeds, but if it’s invasive we haven’t had any trouble with it.

C. carpatica: You’ll see this around many places labeled as the ‘Clips’ series, with white, blue, deep blue and probably a couple of other variations available. Nice groundcover for the front of the border or cascading out of a rock garden.

C. cochlearifolia: Sometimes called ‘Fairy Thimbles’—how charming is that?—this floriferous groundcover type is totally delightful when it starts to flower. ‘Bavaria Blue’ (above) is easy to find.

Campanula garganica 'Dickson's Gold': I only planted this low-growing bellflower for the first time last year, besotted as I am by plants with gold foliage and blue flowers. (For those puzzled by this colour love, I’m an alumnus of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College , which has blue and gold as its colours. ) I was a bit worried about its hardiness so planted it in the protection of the front bed, which has excellent drainage as well as shelter from many of our hateful winter winds. We’ll see how it does.

23 March 2007

Welcome to the swamp…..aiiiiiiy-yeeeeeee!

My socks are wet.

I could take them off, and will in a few minutes, but mostly I’m reveling in the sense of wet socks and soggy sneakers (even though my Merills will not thank me for such treatment). I’ve just come indoors from a stroll around the swamp-that-is-our-yard, looking over things.

It’s wet, for sure. All that clay, all those springs, all that snowmelt and rain, all conspires together with the up and down temperatures to make a mess. The parts of the yard that aren’t yet garden—some would call them ‘lawn’, but I call them garden-in-waiting—are heaved and hillocky, and the grass is flat and matted and just not nice. There’s a scum of bird seeds, cat poo, bird poo, and other detritus here and there in the yard. And although some of the beds are draining and fine, others are swimming in water. We go through this every spring, and at this time of year anyone who looked around the mess would run screaming, never believing that it would look drastically different in even a month’s time.

And of course every bed is filled with twigs, stems, and other matter from perennials that we left standing for ‘winter interest’. They’ve spent their winter interest now, except for a few intrepid teasels, that stand like sentinels in the back garden, regarding their domaine. Some of the plants, like the heucheras and cranesbills and others that have semi-evergreen or evergreen tendencies, look their absolute worst right now, bedraggled like they spent the winter running through a combine harvester. They’ll come around, naturally—they always do, despite looking ¾ dead every spring.

My garden journal is upstairs and I’m too lazy to go get it right now. I’m not even sure that the things I want to check are recorded last year. We have daffodils and crocus up at least two inches in most places; there are primrose leaves showing, looking like little brilliant green romaine lettuces; the Euphorbia ‘Fireglow’ has its funny copper-orange shoots, which always remind me of asparagus, sticking up in the lower garden; a lot of the daylilies have their noses sticking up out of the ground too. The autumn crocus shoots are starting too, and I see the huge thick rhizomes of the darmera poking up out of the soggy ground. It’s way, way too wet, of course, to investigate the garden except from the edges of each bed. That’s okay…what I could see from the margins was enough to make me happy.

I love the way the heaths, heathers and dwarf conifers are looking right now, too. They’re still holding their winter colours, which are quite gorgeous, but soon will start to put on their spring-go-to-meeting clothes, fresh and green and gold and blue…there will be more of all these things planted this year, as I continue to develop my love affair with evergreens. And daylilies, of course. Haven’t made my wishlist up for Wayne and Wayne yet, but I will shortly.

Speaking of wishlists, when I sent out my newsletter the other night, I made a wistful and covetous comment about this incredible new coneflower, Echinacea ‘Green Envy.’ It’s apparently been around for two years, but this is the first year it’s been available around here. I fell in love with it instantly when I saw it in the latest issue of Gardening Life, and was wondering where I might find it. Well…I have two plants on hold with one of my favourite nurseries. They have limited numbers, so I don’t really want to broadcast where they are, but here’s a hint: they’re named after a famous cape in the Valley where Glooscap sleeps. And they’re in Greenwich.

Won’t this plant look splendid with Echinaceas ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Sunset?’

(photo from Pride of Place Plants, who developed this beauty)

Currently, there’s an ongoing dialogue in my head. The garden-devil wants the evergreen mulch pulled away from the more finicky plants now, so that they can rejoice in the sun and warmth. The garden-angel is dancing up and down yelling “NO DON’T DO IT!”, knowing full well that we’re going to have very cold days yet this spring. I know that too, so I am ignoring the seductive sunlight and the warming breezes for a while yet.

Joy of joy, I even have the first dirt of the gardening season under my fingernails and in the skin of my fingers, from succumbing to the need to pull up a few perennial weeds that were yawning and stretching and preparing to break into a tentative gallop. The ground ivy will be first out of the race chocks, but I depressed quite a bit of it by hauling it out and flinging it into the paddock for the donkey to stand on.

All in all, it was a pretty heartening stroll around the yard. Yup, it’s a mess. Does this every year. And to finish off the surprises—that looked like a large-tailed grackle in the spruce trees near my woodland garden, royally telling me off. It wasn’t a starling, and it wasn’t a redwing blackbird…and I’m sure they weren’t back this early last year. Maybe they do know something we don’t.

20 March 2007

Snowdrops keep fallin' on my head..

Okay, we're about five hours to the beginning of spring, when the sun crosses the line and we have Equinox. Woke up this morning to a gale of wind and wet, soggy, cold snow falling. Since then, we've had the gamut of weather from rain, fog, drizzle and more snow to brilliant sunshine for about half an hour to more snowfluffies to more rain. And of course, all this has meant excessive water so that the yard looks like a wetland and the garden areas are just soggy messes.

But then there are snowdrops.

Sunday morning, my long-suffering spouse accosted me as soon as I stumbled into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and in need of coffee, not conversation.

"You gotta get dressed and go outside!" he announced.

"Why? Is the house on fire?" That seemed a reasonable question, given that Sunday morning is my "Leave me alone til I've had coffee and done Kathleen's O Canada crossword " time, and you tamper with it at your peril.

"No....you have flowers in bloom."

Oh. That sort of erased the peril. I hauled on some clothes and Lowell's size 13 rubber boots and squished my way out to the lower front garden. And there, in all their pearl-like, shining glory, they were--about a dozen and a half snowdrops, not quite open yet but definitely up and opening. They weren't there yesterday (after the monsoon washed away the snow from the previous night).

And to top that off, a male redwinged blackbird landed in the birch tree and announced Poo-too-weet! before heading down to the pond to scout out nesting sites.

It's still plenty early, of course. But I'll take these little gifts for what they are. We're gonna make 'er.

16 March 2007

Old favourites or new divas?

Before I start rambling about plants, a little commentary on the weather this week. On Tuesday afternoon, I sat out on the back deck soaking sunlight up like a plant coming out of dormancy—it was mild, mild mild, although the next day it was milder yet—62 degrees F in midafternoon. By that point, the drifts of snow had all but melted, which led me to remark that watching ice melt can actually be quite exciting…when it’s melting at as prodigious a rate as it was. We had a bit of a stream running through the yard and into the rockwall basement of our century old farmhouse, but no harm was done—that’s why we have a real good sumppump. When we win that lottery I’m always gonna win, there will be some drainage solutions around here, believe me!

Today, however, we’re back in the fro-zone… the rhododendrons look like they’ve been doing aerobics the past few days. Leaves up…leaves down…leaves open…leaves furled again. And while others have reported snowdrops in bloom, it’ll likely be a couple more weeks before we see the dear little things trying to pop up around here. Although on Wednesday, we saw a bat—yup, a little brown bat—fluttering around the yard for a bit, before he went back into the bathouse where we assume he’s been spending the winter. Since rabies isn’t an issue here, I wasn’t worried that he was a mad bat—just an early riser. I’d seen a (sadly) dead skunk on the road earlier that day, so a lot of the sleepers were awakened by the mild spell.

There has been discussion on various garden blogs lately about new plants, as well as old favourites. Some want to try all the latest, to see if they’re also the greatest. Others are content to stay with their tried and true faithful plants.
I fall right into the middle on this discussion. My theory is, of course, to bloom where you’re planted, and plant what brings you joy. Orange-red geraniums aren’t my thing—I prefer hot pink. Impatiens make me impatient, at least in my own yard, but I’ll happily enjoy them in yours. I’m not crazy about penstemons, I never plant a begonia, and of course everyone knows how I feel about goutweed. JUST SAY NO!

Like many gardeners, I have some old trusted and true plants that I wouldn’t give up for any reason, things that have been in my garden for ages and that aren’t going anywhere.
Orange oriental poppies, for example, make my heart exceedingly happy. Well, okay, I admit I never met a poppy I didn’t love, of course, but those big crepe paper orange ones just shout summer joy to me.

There are a few unnamed daylilies in the back garden that may not be as fancy or unusual in colour as newer ones, but they just flower their little heads off with little attention from the sometimes overworked gardener.

The writer and curious, compulsive gardener in me also needs to be able to try out some of the new plants so I can tell other people about them, but also some of the newer plants just make me glad to be a gardener. Black Negligee cimicifuga, for example (now classified as Actaea by those taxonomists who love to tease us), is a beautiful plant, and one that has never given me even a moment’s trouble since I first planted it three seasons ago. There may come along ‘blacker’ variations any day now, but I’ll stick with this one, thanks. This year, I intend to try some of the fancier new daylilies that Wayne and Wayne will have available at Canning Daylily Gardens especially any that are fragrant. It may be a couple more years til their Frank Smith collection of cultivars is really to sell, but I’m patient…and there are plenty of others to choose from.

And while I haven’t started making this year’s list of things that I really, really want to get my hands on—other than that blue-flowered hellebore—one of the greatest pleasures I know of is arriving at a garden centre and finding a plant, be it genus, species or cultivar, that I either didn’t know about (and there are a gazillion of those) or hadn’t thought about (ditto.) Of course, that’s why my grocery budget seems to dwindle some weeks, while the ‘garden groceries’ seem to take up much more room in the back of the car.

If you browse a variety of nursery websites, you’ll find that they often have a top-ten list of annuals, perennials, shrubs, etc for the coming gardening year. Some of them have a mix of old favourites as well as new plants. For example, Burpee lists both Echinacea ‘Sundown’ (a recent new beauty from the Big Sky series of echinaceas) and the proven performer Jacob Cline monarda (bee balm), which would definitely be on my list of top ten perennials. Canada’s Heritage Perennials, on the other hand, don’t have any truly new plants on their top ten; most have been bred in the last decade or so, and are definitely top-performing perennials—Hosta Patriot is one, as is Goldsturm rudbeckia, but there’s certainly nothing that would cause me to search nurseries tirelessly until I found it. Most of these plants I’ve seen growing quite nicely here in Nova Scotia for some years.

A while ago I started writing entries on my favourite plants, old and new. I got somewhat derailed because I was busy worrying about the Avon Peninsula Watershed Preservation Society and a few other things, plus doing my regular deadline dance, but I will get back to them now that gardening season is really approaching. For now, here’s my list of top ten perennials. I won’t go into cultivars or species right now: we’ll just name the genus and I’ll go into detail on each one as I can, okay?

And the top ten perennials that I simply can’t be without are:

Lindelofia (in photo to right)

Yes, I know that adds up to thirteen. It’s my list, however, and I can break my own rules, right?

07 March 2007

Lambs to lions to downright frigid

Well, March is a week old, and we’ve had a whole year’s worth of weather in that time. After that lamblike entrance, we had admonitions from the weather-sages about a big storm on Friday…well, what if they gave a storm and nobody came? Suer there was wind, and about an inch of snow…then a weekend that was decidedly springlike at times, with a total lunar eclipse and a thunderstorm—yes, a thunderstorm—thrown in for good measure. The past couple of days we’ve been back into winter in earnest, with cold wind and lots of blustering and flurries, but these ARE things to expect during winter, so to my mind it’s no biggie.

Readers may notice a little bit of a change in the way this blog looks from here on in. That’s because I’ve gone over to using Firefox as my webbrowser, rather than Apple’s native app Safari. I’ve used Safari for several years, but I’m finding it crashes far too often of late, and some features of some websites are non-usable. Plus I’ve discovered the wonderful world of StumbleUpon, thanks in part to a nice note from Contrary 1, the host of www.frugalgardening.com. You gotta have Firefox or similar browsers in order to romp properly around StumbleUpon, and I’ve been finding all kinds of great gardening sites as a result. I’ll let people know about some of those whenever I have a chance, of course.

For the time being, however, let me extol the virtues of frugalgardening.com. I like this site because it makes serious sense; my philosophy is whenever I can save money on certain aspects of gardening, it means I can indulge in a new plant or three. Of course, sometimes the best way to get new plants is to swap with fellow gardeners. I’m looking forward to spring, when I know some of the perennials will need dividing…and I know of some gardeners who are looking for new plants, plus have interesting things of their own to share. Gardening is for sharing, after all…

I wrote a review in last Sunday’s Halifax Chronicle Herald of a new book that I’m really impressed with. It’s Katherine Whitelaw’s The Way We Garden Now, and it ought to be a bestseller and on every gardener’s bookshelf. Her philosophy is simple, and one I can embrace wholeheartedly:

“This is not your mom’s garden book. Nothing against your mom, but just as we have changed the way we arrange our homes, do our work, cook our meals, imagine our families, get our exercise and spend our spare time, we nesters have changed the way America gardens. The unattainable goal of “perfection” is a relic of the past, and I am here to yell ‘Whoopee!’”

I’m with her on that one! Our garden will never be perfect, not unless I win a lottery and have the means to haul in major amounts of soil, have large equipment to add drainage tile and level areas and build up other areas and bring in every bit of hardscaping and every single plant I’ve ever wanted to try. Oh, note to self…remember to BUY a lottery ticket if you want to win. No matter. Our garden may not be perfect, but it’s built with love.

Another thing about Whiteside’s book is she’s a smart, conversational writer. At the beginning of each chapter, she answers the question, “What’s the Payoff?” After all, if we’re going to take on a project, whether it’s creating a gardening journal or building our first compost pile, it’s always a good idea to know why we’re launching into this. And Whiteside’s payoff reasons are smart; these are not projects to give ourselves more to do (or more to feel guilty about not doing), but practical, delightful and even fun to begin—and accomplish.

It’s almost time, however, to start a few seeds—mostly the Nicotiana, which takes so long to get to any size. My talks at the Saltscapes Expo this year will include video displays of plants, rather than trying to grow a pile of seedlings on to flower on schedule for that weekend. So I’m in no real rush to sow seeds just yet. But I know others are starting: what have YOU sown on your windowsill so far?

01 March 2007

A lamblike March entry, and some gardening gems

March has arrived, gamboling in like a spring lamb, first casting flurries around this morning like confetti, then bringing on a pristine blue sky and sunlight with real heat to it. The cats are shedding more than usual, but the horse has also begun to lose his thick winter coat--there are hairy patches of snow in the pasture where he's getting down to roll whenever possible. And can it be the chickadees have begun to change their song?

Tomorrow, of course, could be a nor-easter howling down at us, but we’ll take this fine day as a promise of things to come.

What would the world look like if we suddenly planted a billion new trees? It would be wonderful if we could drop seeds or seedlings into the ground, and then the next day witness a miracle like the Green Morning of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. “Before [Mr. Benjamin Driscoll] woke again five thousand new trees had climbed upward into the sun.” I have to thank the wonderful garden writer Doug Green for reminding me about the Billion Tree Campaign being encouraged by the United Nations. Doug asked how many trees we as individual gardeners plan to put in this year. I figure I’ll get at least half a dozen in—a mountain ash, an oak for my grandchildren, maybe a couple of maples and I’m not sure what else—plus of course some shrubs. My few trees might not seem like much when balanced against the massive clearcuttings going on. But every tree helps!

A couple of really NICE things to tell you about now. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Tracey Martin’s new business
Lilies From the Valley ; well her website is up and going full tilt and she’s taking orders for her fine selection of oriental and Asiatic lilies (with some of the new hybrids also available). Tracey sent me a few photos of herself with her lilies, and told me she’s soon going to be qualified as a flower and vegetable judge for garden shows. This girl has a LOT of energy—she’s also president of her local garden club (Mt. Denson), which is a happening group of gardeners, let me tell you! She also does flower arrangements for weddings and other special events, often supplying the flowers from her own garden. She’s got me excited about trying some new lilies in our garden this year, including a couple of orienpets. I put in one orienpet last year—the name since forgotten, naturally!—and was instantly besotted with it when it bloomed. (Note to self—find the photos you took of it, and key it out!).

Back in the fall, a neat little book arrived in the mail for me, with a note from its author. Ron Robertson lives in Truro, and has been growing flowers from seeds for more than twenty years now. His garden is a wonder to behold, and he’s the kind of garden writer we all love—the kind that takes the time to explain things and never, ever talks down to others. He’s put his collected years of seeding wisdom together into the delightful Growing Flowers from Seed in Canada, which you can either order as a hardcopy book from Trafford Publishing or phone (toll free) 1 888 232 4444 (ISBN 1-4120-9406-2) or buy as a downloadable pdf file here. This is a dandy book, and one I’ll recommend wholeheartedly to everyone who’s ever contemplated starting their own seeds—or to those who have tried and succeeded, or tried and been less successful at growing their own transplants. Follow the sage advice of Ron, and your flower garden will be turning heads too, of that I’m sure!

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