30 April 2007

Round two in the hollyhock challenge

It’s Monday evening and I’m actually glad that the weather continues to be grey and wet and generally April-like. Because after the weekend that was the 3rd annual Saltscapes Expo, I’m tired out. Been home for more than 24 hours and I’m still about as energetic as last year’s garden; sort of limp and unenthusiastic. The show was a tremendous success, I think, with great crowds, marvelous exhibitors, lots of interesting people to talk to…although I’m SURE I missed out on talking to some folks, because I couldn’t stay in one place all weekend. I mostly hung out around the Yamaha Do-It-Yourself stage, as promised, but there were breaks to go for meals or washroom breaks or to actually have a look around the show too.

We are very blessed with talent in Atlantic Canada. Never mind what ol’ squinty eyes Harper says about our culture of defeatism. He’s talking out of his butt, because he knows NOTHING about us. Some of the best of the best were at the Expo; marvelous chefs from hotels, restaurants and resorts around the region; artisans and craftspeople who do such marvelous, beautiful work that some of it left me speechless; musicians of every type, informative, knowledgeable speakers and just generally upbeat people all through the three day event.

Overall, the reports I heard from people, both visitors attending the show and exhibitors, was very positive. One thing bothers me, though. There are always a few exhibitors who are never satisfied, who carp and complain about every little thing, and grumble about not having enough sales or being too hot, too cold, too crowded, not crowded enough. These people tend to be seasoned individuals who have been going to shows of various sorts for years. Which always makes me wonder—if you dislike doing shows and dealing with people so much, why bother going?

Then there are the refreshing, upbeat, delightfully talented individuals I met this weekend. Two of my favourites are Jim Chadwick and Carrie Stroms from Metal Petals Garden Art . I’ve mentioned their business before (I just met Carrie on the weekend, though) and that I was looking forward to meeting them…and my goodness but I’m delighted with them. They are two very talented and innovative individuals, doing wonderful garden art from the crows, cats and dog silhouettes that they do to the flower sculptures, ranging from ‘crazy daisy’ style plants that are attractive accents to the big focal pieces like echinaceas, roses, poppies, and oh, yes, my absolute favourite piece.

You may remember my Troubles With Hollyhocks and how the floral fates conspire to prevent me from having most hollyhocks in general and yellow ones in particular. Well, I’ve solved that problem forever. Behold, the only hollyhock I’ll ever need, ever again:

It’s about four feet tall, and it’s the perfect plant. When I spied it, I had to have it. Didn’t ask how much it was. (Jim and Carrie’s prices are exceptionally reasonable, incidentally). They even brought it back to the stage where I was speaking all weekend so I used it as a prop in my talks, and hopefully brought them more business.

So my war with hollyhocks is over. But what do you bet I’ll have yellow hollyhock seedlings popping up everywhere, after throwing all those seeds around the garden last fall?

26 April 2007

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!...she chortled in her joy!

We’re about to plunge headlong into the whirlwind of activity that is the third annual Saltscapes East Coast Expo. For those of you in Nova Scotia, or nearby—if you don’t come see the show, you’re missing a HUGE treat. What a LOT of exhibitors, many there for the first time, many of them related to gardening. I can’t wait to actually MEET James Chadwick of Metal Petals Garden Art, among other artisans, craftspeople, and so on. I’ll have to keep a tight rein on the grocery money, lest I succumb to one of James’ marvelous flowers…though it WOULD look marvelous in the back garden.

Of course I got to see my friends from Blomidon Nurseries, Bunchberry Nursery, Baldwin Nurseries and Springvale Nurseries, and met two interesting new growers from Foggy Hollow nursery in Noel, Hants County. Many people weren’t at the park when I arrived; the show doesn’t open until noon tomorrow, (Friday) and some exhibitors are old hands at coming in to do setup and going out to rest up for the next few days. It will be hectic, but it will be SO worth it!

I got back from Halifax about 1930, and thought I’d take a stroll around the garden, even though a chilly wind is blasting in off the Bay this evening. A few quick snapshots to show just where we are in the scheme of growing things.

First, a little tease: Who knows what these little furry brown things are? (No scrolling down to find the answers, either.)

Those of you who are ardent readers of Kate Smudges know she’s been rejoicing in hepaticas (liverworts) for quite a few days now. Well, I’m really happy about that, though I was somewhat in despair too, because my hepatica were buried in snow until a few days ago. However, to show how far my part of Nova Scotia is behind Kate’s Regina, Sask garden….

This would be one of MY hepatica. Patience, patience, jodi….

There are a happy host of crocus around the garden, and one dazzling yellow iris (Iris danfordiae, one of the miniature/dwarf iris like Iris reticulata, though not as reliably hardy in my garden.). The chionodoxa are popping up nicely, I spied one scilla straggling out from under some mulch, and the puschkinia are definitely happening—plus more (single) snowdrops and some snowflakes, too (Leucojum). And the perennials are popping up where welcome sunlight and warmth is smiling on them. In fact, as soon as the snow came off the pulmonaria, it obligingly shook its leaves and started opening flower buds. Still small, yet, but coming along nicely.

Have you figured out yet what that funny looking plant is? Patience, gentle readers…

A couple of interesting things to tell you about. I had an email from a gentleman from Hants county the other day, telling me about his family business, Lavender Grange. Since lavender is one of my favourite scents/plants, I was excited to read about this. THEN yesterday, in Wolfville, I found some of Rob and Annette’s products; I bought the shampoo and body lotion. Well…they’re going to do SO well with these products. They’re gorgeous—richly brimming with lavender essential oils, lovely quality, no dyes, and wonderful tasteful labeling. I can’t wait to go visit a little later this spring, and to try more of their products.

You’re going to hear me talking about another company now and again, too. I’ve taken on a project as a field consultant for Trail Blazer Products of Dartmouth. Trail Blazer is maybe best known for their outdoor equipment, such as their famous takedown saw…but they’ve developed a whole line of gardening tools too; very high quality, well made, and with a lifetime guarantee! (Though if my longsuffering spouse ran over the cultivator with the tractor lawnmower, I wonder if they’d consider that a valid reason for replacement?) Anyway, I’m going to be fieldtesting their gear in my garden, and letting you know more about it in the coming weeks. I’m really impressed by the company’s integrity and commitment to quality products—and they’re local, proudly Nova Scotian, but selling in 40 countries around the world. Pretty exciting stuff.

Okay…I’ve teased you long enough. Here’s a bit of a hint…

Yup. It’s true. That’s the young growth of a Meconopsis (I think this is grandis rather than betonicifolia, but both are glorious.) In other words…one of my blue poppies is awake—it’s in the warmest site of the four different spots where I’ve got blue poppies happening. Those three furry little creatures are all part of one plant, and this is a very good thing. Some blue poppies are prone to monocarpic behaviour, meaning they flower and die, especially if they only have one crown. I let one plant bloom last year with only one crown formed, just to see whether it would come back or not. This one, I bit my lip and disbudded. The purple Meconopsis, I let flower too, (and I forget its variation) and while I’m not sure, it looks like either seedlings or the crown is awaking from THAT spot.

So, my dear friends who are coaxing/nurturing/bribing/pleading with blue poppies: take courage. All good things come to those who are patient with these lovely, sometimes cantankerous plants.

And I heard spring peepers earlier this evening, and had a purple finch at the feeder this morning. Spring HAS returned to Scotts Bay.

See you at the Expo!

23 April 2007

How to Celebrate Earth Day

How did YOU celebrate Earth Day? We declared a mental health day, and made a road trip across the province and down the south shore in our trusty Yaris. First stop: Ivan Higgins’ nursery, Cosby’s Garden Centre, in Liverpool. Ivan’s had a busy winter, teaching classes, doing commissions, and for the garden centre’s evergrowing display of his artwork, creating a whole series of concrete sculptures, including a set of acrobats—lifesized acrobats, a la Cirque du soleil.

Of course, a trip to Ivan’s means a chance to find a plant that absolutely HAS to come home with me…in this case, it was Hamamelis ‘Diane’; she nestled quietly in the back seat of the car as polite as could be.

Next stop: The Port l’Hebert Pocket Wilderness, owned and maintained by Bowater Mersey, or whatever the company is called these days. Anyway, the pocket wilderness is one of our favourite spots in the province, with wonderful walking trails through pristine hardwoods, along the shore and up to a placid brook. We were hoping that mayflowers would be in bloom, but they’re not quite ready—seems everything in the province, even on the milder south shore, is behind this spring.

Note to flower lovers: PLEASE don’t ravage wildflower plots, especially of lovely and not-that common plants like our provincial flower. It drives me nuts to see people selling bouquets of mayflowers every spring—huge bouquets, which have been pillaged and ravaged from wild stands of these plants. Take photos of them, smell them, enjoy them…and leave them alone for future generations to enjoy, okay?

Next stop was Shelburne, and a quick tour around Spencer’s Garden Centre. A few small perennials needed to get in the trunk of the car, of course. (Blue flower lovers, rejoice: I picked up two Lithadora ‘Grace Ward’, which has lovely blue flowers. We have to treat them as annuals in these parts, of course.

Then it was on to Barrington, Clarks Harbour (Cape Sable Island, home of the famous Cape Island lobster boats—best lobster boats in the world!) and then to stop and take photos of the wind turbines at Pubnico Point…

And the last stop on our Earth Day festival was at Ouestville Perennials, where Mick the cat greeted us at the cash…

And Alice and I had a fine old chat as I drooled over her plants, while Lowell and Julien talked about more manly type obsessions. We’re going to get a couple of her red oaks in about a month’s time. One I’ll plant in memory of Lowell’s cousin Lawrence, who died a couple of weeks ago. The other, I think I’ll plant for all our young soldiers serving in Afghanistan—especially those who have paid the ultimate price.

Now, if only we could get rid of that asinine fool who is the so-called minister of the Environment, and all the others like him who are trying to say Kyoto is a bad thing… (I don't know, maybe we could send them all to Tralfamadore, Kurt Vonnegut's planet of many dimensions... this lot of what one author calls Deniers and Delayers (of global warming) are obviously from another dimension!) maybe our Earth would start to heal. and we could make the spaceship out of Hummer/SUV parts, and fuel it with the hot air out of all these non-green politicos. It's a good thought...

20 April 2007

One Week to Expo, and Spring may be coming

This time next week, we'll be well and truly into the thick of the Saltscapes East Coast Expo, which runs April 27-29 If you're in the province--or even in one of the neigbouring provinces--do come by. This show is like nothing else in Eastern Canada, and it's way, way more fun/interesting/informative than any of those dull trade shows where people stand around like robots trying to sell us plastic siding or carpet or overpriced RVs to add to global warming.

All this is to say, I'm going to be madly busy preparing for the show, where I hope to see many of you and swap gardening stories. I'm doing two talks a day, one on growing annuals etc from seed, and one on shade gardening. So my postings to bloomingwriter may be a bit erratic until the show is over.

For now, I'll leave you with a bit of a photo essay, starting with a view of the Valley

A few miles from our place, there's a spot aptly called the Lookoff. I'm not sure how far you can see from here, but I know we can view three counties: Hants, Kings and Annapolis--and maybe, if we hang over the edge a bit, Cumberland county too. But that's probably better done from Blomidon.

The Valley is the agricultural heartland of Nova Scotia; a lot of horticulture, from blueberries to cranberries to tree fruits to a wide range of vegetables; beef, chicken, eggs, poultry, some dairy; Right now, the view from the Lookoff is all in shades of brown, as the sleeping land stretches under a warming sun and prepares to start feeding new life.

I went to visit my friend Rob Baldwin in Falmouth this afternoon, and bring him some milkweed seeds. Rob's into butterfly gardening too, and has selected perennials for his nursery based in part on their usefulness as a butterfly plant. He took me into his new propagating greenhouse, where we rejoiced over germinating Japanese maples...

Then watched a host of bees and flies stuffing themselves on the crocus and heath,

and just generally remarked on the marvels of plants, wild and cultivated.

On the drive home, I was looking at assorted yards quilted with scilla and crocus in bloom. This was on the Valley floor, where there is usually less snow, and decidedly warmer temperatures. But then I arrived home, and my long suffering spouse told me I should go for a walk around the nonsquishy parts of the garden.

Well. The snowdrops are quite happily recovered, and flowering joyfully. A few new, single ones have popped up in another bed, and the crocus are tentatively thinking it might be safe to open. The yard is sodden, and there's still close to a foot of snow in some spots; but I figure that will be gone by tomorrow night.

And then this little fellow looked up at me.

Pushkinia. I love their blue and white striped blooms, their brave attitude. They're slow to form colonies (or maybe I dig them up unknowingly...it's been done!
Maybe spring hasn't forgotten us. But until I hear the green frog chorus in the pond, pluckin' their banjos and singing silly frogsongs...I won't feel we've turned the corner.

And the peepers will be right after that.

Bring it on, spring. We're more than ready.

16 April 2007

April showers bring...dreams of better days

Good grief. It’s raining again—but it is so raw outdoors I expect it to turn to freezing rain or worse any time now. The cats and I think we’d best spend the day hugging the stove, so most of us are in the kitchen doing just that.

Yesterday, there was sunlight, and enough warmth that the tide of snow subsided a bit more in the yard. But there’s still plenty to go around…

Although the dear little snowdrops have reemerged, looking a bit bedraggled and wan after an unexpected snooze of a week, but they’re here and they’re valiantly smiling.

Of course, the weather is a perfect topic of discussion among strangers waiting in checkout lineups, at the credit union, just about anywhere you see more than one person. We are reminding each other that it IS, after all, only April, and a Nova Scotian April is one of the most treacherous of creatures, right up there with neocon prime ministers who bully and go back on their word. (Oooops. That was a mini-rant of the political ilk. Must be the weather causing it. That man and his band of pirates are another major topic of conversation among thinking Canadians these days.)

On to better things, as the title suggests. I was looking through some of my photographs last night, selecting a few new ones to update my work website, and I found one that explains a little about where we live. I’ve mentioned Cape Split before, which is the promontory that terminates the North Mountain, a few miles down the hill from here. The Split thrusts out into the Minas channel in a curve like an appendix on the western side of Nova Scotia (if you look at a map of the province.) There are a number of basalt sea stacks that form the Split, broken off from the end of the cliff and catching the whirlpools and eddies of tide with great drama.

From our yard, we can only see Little Split, the end of the sea stacks; but we can watch the tide roaring through the channel, and around the end of the Split. The tide routinely screams through there at 8 knots, and it does make a distinctive roaring sound. Some call it “The Voice of the Moon”, and I have always thought that was the perfect description.

All that water—and all the fog, wind and other weather related to living on the edge of the Bay of Fundy—are partly responsible for our weather, as I’ve remarked before. But the cooler temperatures allow me to have my blessed blue poppies, and also bring on great gardens when the time comes. And the time will come, before too much longer. Last year, things came on a bit early after the weather smartened up in mid-May. They also last longer—this photo was taken on the first of June, and the double-flowered tulips were just nicely in bloom.

So I breathe deeply when I hear the wind screaming, and ice pellets—yes, they ARE pellets now—hitting the windows. Before long, we will be tending our gardens in earnest, even though on days like this we await that time more eagerly than children await Christmas morning.

Next entry, I’ll go back to my top ten (or so) perennials, and regale you with the wonders of sea holly.

15 April 2007

A further weathersnit and wild gardening

Well. What’s a gardener to do, other than mutter? Thursday was a glorious day—sunny, warm, not even that windy. I went to Dartmouth to meet with some work and personal associates, and sat on the wharf eating lunch, feeling warm sun on my face and figuring that maybe, just maybe…we’d broken the back of the weather.

Not so. Woke up in the middle of the night to hear ICE pellets hitting the window. Staggered downstairs and looked out—at another few inches of snow, and then this glazing of ice over top. Returned to bed, hauled covers over head, and grumped my way into sleep.

Today it’s sunny for the first time since Thursday, and I don’t know whether to be glad or worry about what comes next. However..I’m watching goldfinches stuff themselves at the feeders outside the office window. They are definitely turning gold from the tarnished-grey-green they’ve been all winter. And where the ground is emerging from melting snow, it has that lovely warming-earth scent. We’ll be okay.

I’ve got bees and other pollinators on the brain this week, as the stories we’ve been hearing about honeybees with colony collapse disorder has got me thinking about ways to create pollinator-friendly gardens. Ours is such a one, we hope, and I asked my friend and wild gardener Wild Flora for her wisdom and suggestions, which she’s generously been sharing with me—and with readers of her blog. So I’ll be writing an article about how to encourage pollinators to the garden very soon.

I often wonder what visitors to our garden think. Last year when we were part of a garden tour fundraiser for a local youth group, I was away (tee hee! It wasn’t intentional—I agreed to be part of the tour then discovered I had to be in St. John’s Nfld that weekend.) As a result I didn’t get to trail around and listen to what people thought of our yard. Martha-Stewart-perfect, it ain’t. Far from it, actually. It’s a work in progress, and some of the progress is very incomplete, so there are beds that are partially planted, others in need of thinning, borders that need edging, more things to plant, beds to join with other beds (to make mowing the grass easier for my beloved longsuffering spouse, of course). The ground is uneven in places, in part because our property is at the crest of a hill and slopes to the north. It’s wet in spots, especially after a rain. It’s not a formal garden, but one of jubilant growth.

And oh my…there are wild areas that are never touched. There are grasses growing 5 and 6 feet tall. There are NETTLES over by the spruce tree hedge that we’re slowly developing. There are THISTLES—all kinds of them—down by the pond, which is full of cattails and edged by some alders and willows and reeds and who knows what other wild stuff. Can’t you just hear some of the perfect-subdivision-patch gardeners? “Whyever would she have THOSE growing there?” “Why doesn’t she spray those?”

The answer is simple, dear friends and gentle gardeners. This is a haven for most all creatures great and small. (except raccoons and coyotes. I don’t like either of them, but we manage.) The cattails filter the pond, shelter wildfowl and frogs and other welcome visitors, and look really nice with redwinged blackbirds sitting on them. Alders filter impurities from groundwater, if there happen to be any impurities (including pesticides) around. Nettles are a food plant for the red admiral butterfly. Thistles feed many small seedeating birds. The tall grasses shelter a host of other things. The burdocks…well, they sneak in. We’re working on getting rid of them, but hey, those big tap roots are very efficient at loosening compacted soil. Likewise with dandelions.

Of course, there are plants that I don’t welcome in the garden. Horsetails are a bit annoying, and creeping buttercups, and ground ivy, and couchgrass. Those would be the worst nuisances. But I happen to like sitting on the ground on a warm day, digging up weed plants and throwing them on the lawn to wilt (and drive my dearly beloved crazy!) before I dump them in the compost heap. I love that we have a full orchestration of insect, bird and frogsong happening here throughout the growing season. We love sitting on the deck out back watching butterflies flit through the yard and pasture, or the swallows teaching their babies to fly. We enjoy the vast variety of plants, both cultivated and native that surround us. And we count our blessings daily.

I always write my articles encouragingly, urging people to bloom where they’re planted, and to plant what gives them joy. I don’t nag excessively about growing organically, even though I think it’s an infinitely more responsible, healthy and wise choice than dumping a gazillion chemicals onto lawn, garden, shrubs and trees. So with that in mind, I tell people: welcome to our yard. It isn’t something you’ll find in the pages of Gardening Life. But it’s happy, it’s ours, and if it’s not to your tastes…no worries here. We love it. ☺

11 April 2007

A book of blue flowers

While we wait for the snow to melt—and it is melting, though perhaps not as rapidly as we’d like—I take great comfort in reading the blogs of other garden-obsessed individuals. There are some wonderful blogs out in the blogosphere, and some marvelous writers, whose prose lifts my soul, makes me laugh, moves me to tears, teaches me all kinds of things…so in honour of those talented individuals, I’ve created a separate set of links for the blogs I love. I hope you’ll visit them all. Like snowflakes, kittens or wildflowers, no two are exactly alike, but each has their charm. Who knows how many of these souls I’ll ever get the pleasure of meeting face to face—we’re flung across this country, and our southern neighbour, like dandelion fluff? But across the miles, we connect and share our gardening victories, challenges, puzzles and solutions.

This morning, following a comment on one blog, I ended up at Our Little Acre, written by Kylee in northwest Ohio. She’s about to embark on adventures with the exalted diva of the garden, Meconopsis betonicifolia. Blue poppies. Yup. Been there, done that, continue to do it, always will, so I share her enthusiasms.

What IS it about blue flowers? I mean truly blue flowers, not flowers that are violet but called blue, or lavender, or mauve, or otherwise not-blue? No slight to them, but those of us who crave blue in our garden get absolutely giddy when confronted with it. Perhaps because, relatively speaking, blue flowers are rare—consider the quest for the blue rose, as nebulous a challenge as finding the fountain of youth. Compared to other colours, it’s not widespread throughout the plant kingdom. And of the families where blue flowers are found, many of the genera are less than easy to grow in any climate.

Consider delphinium. Those tall, statuesque beauties do have some lovely blue cultivars, but can be a challenge to grow in warmer climates. We do fine with them, but invariably when they and the peonies are in bloom, we get clobbered with a real good summer storm that does its best to beat them down. One way to get around that is to grow the Chinese delphinium. They aren’t tall, and their flower spikes aren’t as showy, but they are blue and they won’t break off in a rainstorm.

Likewise, Lithodora is one of those plants with lovely, cobalt blue flowers and deep green leaves; but it’s only hardy to about zone 6a, or 5b if you’re very lucky and have good drainage and protection from winter cold and wet. Happily, it’s not expensive, so my philosophy the past several years has been to purchase a couple plants and treat them as annuals, either planted in the garden or in containers.

Gentians are sometimes tricky, although of the few I’ve tried, we’ve had pretty good success. To be honest, we probably would have had more success in years gone by if I’d realized what was coming up WAS a gentian, and not a weed. They tend to do fine here because they are slow to emerge in spring, and by the time they do decide to come up, the weather has gotten halfway sensible and not so apt to kill more tender perennials. I’m going to try several different ones this year; my favourite for ease and showyness is the willow gentian, Gentiana asclepiadea; it has never faltered since first being planted some years ago.

Those blue poppies..well, I’ve told my tale of woe about them in the past, but we’ve gotten a few established now so we’re blessed with a few stunning blue flowers each year. Last year, I also got a cultivar that has purple flowers, almost the colour of Patty’s Plum poppy. Quite lovely, especially since it was planted near a variegated Japanese Forest grass and the electric blue corydalis, C. elata (hardier and more consistant a performer here than C. flexuousa. And fragrant too.)

In the annual world, there are several blue flowers that I can’t be without. One is the dainty blue woodruff, never a showy performer but a dainty and steadfast one. Another is the Chinese Forget me not, which I understand can be an overachiever in some parts of North America, but has only selfseeded occasionally and a little here. California bluebells, Phacelia sp., are gorgeous gentian-blue beauties that I’m growing from seed this year for the first time; and some of the trailing and upright lobelia make me very happy. Heavenly Blue Morning Glories also make me wander around with a beatific smile on my face.

But my favourite blue annual, hands down, is the delightfully named Poor-man’s lookingglass, Anagallis, or blue pimpernel. I first saw it in a book a few years back, then got one plant somewhere—I forget where. Then I discovered how easy it comes from seed. It’s a sprawling plant, somewhat messy in containers but because of that deep, gorgeous, intoxicating blue. The flowers close up in cloudy or rainy weather, hence the common name. There’s a cultivar called ‘Skylover’ that I love just for its name, but there are also two ‘Wildcat’ cultivars that are wonderful. ‘Wildcat Blue’ is the rich cobalt blue, while the other is ‘Wildcat Orange’. They look terrific together. I’m serious. Colour theory isn’t my thing, but blue and orange are opposite one another on the colour wheel, so they make a striking study in contrasts. This year I plan to sow orange California poppies with the anagallis, just to make my heart glad.

There actually IS A Book of Blue Flowers, written by Robert Geneve and published by Timber Press, that oh-so-wonderful publishing house for all things horticultural. I bought the book earlier this year—yes, dear readers, bought it rather than requesting it as a review copy—because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to review it, but knew it needed to be in my library. I highly recommend it as a reference book for those who share my love of blue garden flowers. There are well over 100 species/cultivars listed, along with cultivation notes, so that any of us can grow blue flowers, regardless of where we live. True blue forever…

09 April 2007

Where do we file a complaint?

Last Sunday was April Fool’s day, and I expected a weather poisson d’Avril, as so often happens. Well, it was a week late, but it made up for that lateness with great zeal and enthusiasm.

Now, we’re not completely sure how much actual precipitation we’ve received. The wind hasn’t stopped blowing this week, but it ramped up Saturday night with great zeal and enthusiasm, and so we’ve had those ‘flurries where winds blow onshore’ along with the forecasted dumping of snow. Yesterday when we got up, we couldn’t see out most of the windows, because snow had been driven up against them, through the screens, etc. So when we opened the front door, this is what we were confronted with. In some places, it's about four feet deep...in a few rare spots, the ground is bare. Yesterday morning when I consulted the highway cameras around the province, we could see varying amounts of snow--and in some places in Cape Breton, none at all. Given that they got pounded a couple of weeks back while we had none, I guess turnabout is fair play, isn't it?

Today, it’s a bit milder, so that the snow has gotten wet and resists drifting, finally. My best guess is that we got around 9 inches of snowfall, which has rearranged itself into snow sculptures of this sort.

I console myself that it won’t last any amount of time. However, this means we’re going to have a LOT of snowmelt happen all at once. Good thing the sumppump is a heavy-duty one, or the basement would be wet.

The gardens are now back in suspended animation, with all bulb growth come to a complete halt. The snowdrops are buried under about a foot of snow, the hellebores are going to be mush after this, but on the other hand, the weeds also have stopped waking up.

My way of fighting this little session is to go plant seeds. On the weekend we moved the plant stand into the livingroom where it will get maximum light from the south and west windows, and now I’m ready to start planting. Many of the annuals I bought this year are best direct-sown (poppies, nigella) or don’t need to be started just yet (sunflowers), but others are going into the potting mix today. These include:

Cerinthe; saved seed from last summer. Can’t wait.
Rudbeckia Chocolate Orange (for a chocolate-and-wine theme garden I’m planning
Salpiglossis Royal Chocolate (ditto)
Lion’s Ear: often described as looking like a Dr. Suess Plant.
Nicotiana langsdorfii (green flowered species Nicotiana)
Phacelia: California bluebells; curiously, they do best before weather gets too warm, a trait I’d never have expected from a plant bearing that name, would you?
Blue Woodruff (Asperula) I’m very fond of this, and sometimes it does reseed, but I didn’t see any of it last year, so it’s time to start again.
Verbena bonariensis. A favourite of mine, as many readers know. I’m hoping that it will have self-seeded where it grew last summer, but in case it didn’t, I want MORE of it this year. Drifts of it, if possible.
Honey scented alyssum ‘Gulf Winds’. Really doesn’t need to be started early, but I want that fragrance around the deck and front step as early as possible.
Heirloom tomatoes: Summer Feast mixture, featuring Black KRim, Persimmon and Costoluto; Latah hybrids, early season ripening even in Labrador and the Yukon (so surely here!) Indian Moon heritage variety from Hope Seeds in New Brunswick.
Flower of an Hour (Hibiscus trionum.) A delightful relative of hollyhocks and hibiscus and mallows, with gorgeous greenish flowers with deep wine centres.

I learned a wonderful tip from Ron Robertson’s Growing Flowers from Seeds in Canada; start sweet peas in toilet-paper rolls, to allow for good deep root development and then they can be transplanted outside with minimal grief. I got a container-sized variety this year,

Suffice it to say that our little herd of feline family members are singularly unimpressed by this latest weather tantrum. Only four of them go outside—the four senior cats, who also remember to stay away from the road. The younger ones content themselves with watching bird television, as I’ve written before, and taking long exuberant naps.

Not to mention, being very good at helping me at my work. I don’t know what I’d do without Mungus’s able assistance as I write and research. Tigger and SimonQ, on the other hand, just want to sleep and look adoring. They're saving their energy up for later in the evening, when they can hurtle at top speed around the house, shedding hair like fall leaves and acting like they're all little cheetahs.

I just want to file a complaint with the weatherdivas! But I know it’ll improve. And given what Hanna wrote over at This Garden is illegal…we’re not alone in our weatherblues.

06 April 2007

My top ten garden centres in Nova Scotia

While I’m including garden centres in other Atlantic Provinces in my soon-to-be-ready reference list, it wouldn’t be fair for me to pick a top ten for Atlantic Canada, because I haven’t been to all of them—well, I haven’t been to most of them outside of NS, except for Cornhill (a top ten on any list) and Scotts in Fredericton. So this list is of my absolute favourites in my province, even if I only make it to them once or twice in a season. (I usually spend enough of my grocery money—whoops, make that disposable income, who needs to eat?—in one swoop to make up for not getting there more often. I’ve put them in alphabetical order so no one can think I like one more than another.

Baldwin’s Nurseries, Falmouth. Rob Baldwin is a growing concern, and a passionate advocate for using native grown plants in gardens and landscapes. This year Rob’s gotten into perennials for butterfly gardening, as he agrees that we need to do more to support the monarchs, tiger swallowtails and other species of butterflies that so add to a garden’s charm. But his shrubs and trees, many grown from seed or cutting by the propagation master himself, are also topnotch, including some that I’ve never seen anywhere else and have now been convinced to try in our yard. Rob will be at Saltscapes Expo with Jill Covill of Bunchberry Nurseries, so come see their booth.

Bayport Plant Farm, Bayport (near Lunenburg). Captain Dick Steele is Mr. Rhododendron to anyone who knows him. This retired naval captain has been breeding rhodos, azaleas and other ericaceous plants for over fifty years, but he also carries a choice selection of perennials, other shrubs and trees. Diana Steele, his daughter, operates the garden centre while Dick holds court over the propagating nursery. The 33-acre site is well worth visiting just to walk the trails and photograph the hundreds—thousands, really—of choice plants growing throughout the farm. But I defy any smart gardener to leave without purchasing plants, too. Just listening to Dick and Diana is an exercise in education, because they know so incredibly much about plants. I hope to someday know even a fifth of what they do.

Bunchberry Nurseries, Upper Clements. Jill Covill and I went to NSAC at the same time, but it was many years before our paths crossed again. Jill specializes in heaths, heathers, native plants, evergreen shrubs, and grasses, and if you live in NS, you simply MUST visit the garden centre in early August during the peak of heather bloom. I always say because of Jill I developed an obsession over heathers and heaths, and now that I know I can grow them….well, you know the rest. Jill’s former business partner is Jamie Ellison, who I blame for my obsession over perennial grasses, and who teaches the hort program at Kingstec.

Canning Daylily Gardens, Canning. I’ve known Wayne and Wayne for a long time, and value their friendship as well as their knowledge and enthusiasm when it comes to daylilies. If you live in Nova Scotia and are a daylily lover, you simply have to come visit the gardens during late July-early August, when peak bloom is happening. The Waynes have some really unusual and new daylily cultivars (some of which aren’t ready to be sold commercially yet) and over 300 cultivars for sale; something like 800 different types in the display garden makes for a rainbow of colour.

Cosby’s Garden Centre, Liverpool: I don’t get down to see Ivan Higgins nearly as often as I’d like to, but a trip to Cosby’s is always a delight. Not only is Ivan a marvelous plantsman, he’s an artist in concrete; his unique, whimsical sculptures are displayed throughout the property, making the garden centre a real destination to visit in Liverpool. Ivan of course lives in the edge of Nova Scotia’s banana belt, and can grow things that wouldn’t do well here, but he likes to push the zonal envelope too, for his own purposes.

Glad Gardens, Waterville: I’m always happy when Glad Gardens opens for another season, because the greenhouses are BURSTING with annuals, some of them so unusual that I had never heard of them before. This is also a farm market and has a nice selection of perennials too, and it’s always a delight to go see the owners; Dana does planter arrangements in hypertufa and driftwood that have to be seen to be appreciated.

Hillendale Perennials, Hilden/Truro Lloyd Mapplebeck teaches at the NS Agricultural College, and grows perennials and cut flowers as a secondary profession/obsession.
He’s a regular fixture at the Truro Farm market on Saturday mornings, but what I like best is to slather on a little citronella (during blackfly season) and go visit his nursery and garden. Lloyd has some choice perennials, and grows them to a significant size, so you get a well-established plant in a gallon pot for a very reasonable price. Lloyd also is a fan of native plants, and a knowledgeable, generous soul always willing to answer questions.

Ouestville Perennials, West Pubnico Alice d’Entremont’s nursery is the furthest away from my house in terms of travel time, located in the beautiful community of West Pubnico, so I don’t get to visit her nearly as often as I want. But when I do, I spend a few hours, because Alice is a wise, knowledgeable plant enthusiast and her display garden and nursery make me intensely happy to visit. Usually Mick and/or Angie, the two guard cats, escort us as we meander around. And I invariably leave with the car full of plants that I simply had to have. You’ll find many interesting and hard-to-find plants at Ouestville, so it’s a collector’s delight, but there’s something for every gardener. Trust me on this….
You know, you can get a LOT of plants into a small Toyota car???

Pleasant Valley Nurseries, Antigonish. I don’t get to Antigonish that often, and last year was the first time I got to explore Pleasant Valley, as well as a few other nurseries between Pictou County and Cape Breton. Only getting to visit a place once makes it hard to call it a favourite, but I decided to include Pleasant Valley because I was really impressed with my visit. There were a LOT of plants that I’d never seen elsewhere, including this amazing perennial potentilla, but what I really liked was that they divided their perennials up into nicely labeled areas according to shade, butterfly gardening, full sun, and other criteria. Staff were friendly (though VERY busy the day I visited) and the annuals in the nursery were healthy, vigourous and varied. All in all, it’s worthwhile driving up there again this year just to visit this centre; (but I’ll stay a while in Antigonish too, because it’s a lovely town.)

Spencer’s Garden Centre, Shelburne: I discovered Spencer’s eight years ago, when my longsuffering spouse was building his last fishing boat and we went into Shelburne looking for something. Since then, I make at least two annual pilgrimages to visit Spencer’s, more if I can; partly because I love Shelburne, but also because I really, really enjoy the garden centre that the Spencer family has been operating for a long time now. As with others I don’t get to visit often, I make up for it by finding all kinds of interesting plants; I KNOW I got a euphorbia there last year that has become one of my favourites, but it’s still suffering from Lost Label syndrome.

Woodlands and Meadows Perennial Nursery Clifton/Truro Jane Blackburn told me she never met a plant she didn’t like (even goutweed, so she’s a better person than me.) She’s a regular at the Truro Farm Market, but if you get a chance to visit her nursery, GO. It’s located at her home just outside of Truro, and the display gardens around her home are awesome; especially since her husband Andrew is a train memorabilia enthusiast, so they have unique garden art in the form of train cars (I mean this!), and other antiques and artifacts. Jane is especially skilled with plants for shade gardens, including many natives, but she carries a wide and delectable range of perennials, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Notice a key to each of these reviews? Knowledgeable staff. Whether they are the actual owners of the business (in the case of smaller nurseries that are family businesses) or staff of larger facilities, these people know their stuff. They know the difference between a daylily and a dahlia, and they’ll help people with their gardening questions, whether a plant problem or when trying to decide what to plant in a new garden bed. Generous souls who take the time to deliver customer service. You don’t get that from the bigbox bullies.

Notice something else? My top ten is actually eleven. I tried, people, I really did. But I look through my journal, and realized that I wanted to be geographically diverse as well as share some of my favourites. I could have easily made this the top twenty…because I did leave out some that I visit and recommend to others. Maybe I’ll do a second report later.

A Poisson d'Avril and climate change

It seems that April Fool’s arrived a bit late in much of the Maritimes this week with the presentation of some obnoxious weather the last day or so. It was a reminder to us not to get too excited; this IS April, TS Eliot’s cruelest month, and we’re not going to see any lilacs breeding out of the dead land any time soon.

In fact, this afternoon as I watched SNOWBALLS fall out of the sky, hitting the rhododendron and the ground and my office windows with impressive splats, I fancied I could also hear the robins complaining, drawing their little scarves closer around their throats and rebuckling their galoshes… “We came back here for THIS?” Probably any worms they were expecting to dine on had turned into wormsicles.

Those brave green shoots of bulbs, poking their heads up out of the ground, are in suspended animation, although the snowdrops look unperturbed by this most recent change in the weather.

Ironically, during this week of cold and now damp weather, I find myself with a pile of books on climate change to read over the weekend, for an omnibus review I’m due to write for Earth Day. They’re a diverse lot:

Wild Weather: The Truth Behind Global Warming by Dr. Reese Halter
The Rough Guide to Climate Change by Robert Henson
The Ten Minute Activist; Easy ways to take back the planet by the Mission Collective
Hell and High Water and what we should do by Joseph Romm

I’ve also been reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s brilliant and disturbing Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which will get a standalone review. It reminds me, as I’ve observed elsewhere, of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, because it’s not a comfortable read. I suspect none of the above volumes will be easy or comforting reading, but I’ll tag Kolbert’s as one that I hope will do for climate change what Carson’s book did to shift complacency about pesticides. I read Silent Spring while still a teenager, and that fashioned my outlook on gardening forever--even though I then went off to Agricultural College and clashed with professors and agronomists who thought Big Chemical would be the saviour of farming. Guess they were wrong, maybe. Guess more of them are realizing that, slowly but surely.

Let me stress, I am not a scientist. I have some science background, and I don’t flinch from multisyllabic words or concepts--so long as they don’t have to do with physics or calculus, that is…a story for another day. But I am a gardener, and an observer of nature, and we are seeing things that indicate we humans ARE messing up this island Earth bigtime. What boggles my mind is the utter complacency of most of us. Every day or two there’s another letter to the editor, claiming climate change science and modeling and prognostications are all fearmongering. Uh huh. The skeptics said the same thing about Rachel Carson’s work; just as there’s a faction out there that insists smoking won’t hurt people. Of course, there’s also a flat-earth society, isn’t there?

One of my favourite passages in Kolbert’s book relates when she went to visit a climate specialist. On his office door, he had a sticker, designed to be pasted—illicitly, mind you—on SUVs. “I’m changing the climate! Ask me how!” Wouldn’t I LOVE to get a few hundred of those, and festoon them around town on some of the yuppy-mama Hummers, etc? Tee hee.

Being dogmatic isn’t my style. Preaching at people isn’t my style either. I’m no perfect gardener in any of my practices, but I do my part, and hope that will help encourage others to do the same. My aim is to (usually) gently exhort people to support their local nurseries, and practice organic gardening as much as possible. There are some people who aren’t going to change their ways, of course. The old guy who has to have his feednweed for his perfect sterile lawn, the purist who must douse her roses in seventeen chemicals to make them look perfect…they’re set on their path and nothing any of us say will change their outlooks.

I worry about those people, though, because they’re often the same ones who figure climate change is all a conspiracy by some do-good greens. That a few jobs from a gypsum mine are more important than a threatened watershed and extirpated endangered plants. That that squinty eyed man in Ottawa is doing a great job, even though he lies and cheats and is a powerhungry control freak.

Maybe tending an organic garden and ‘lawn’, planting more trees and native plants, and encouraging wildlife—including beneficial insects—isn’t much more than a finger in the dyke holding back climate catastrophe. Maybe writing letters to government officials asking them to rethink asinine ideas like letting a multinational company burn tires for power or pillage our natural resources for a pittance isn’t going to change a lot. But it’s better than sitting here doing nothing at all to stem such actions. I’ll keep on keeping on. And THAT is no April Fool’s joke.

01 April 2007

Stumbling through the gardening landscape

The other day I was out in the yard, poking around investigating what is coming up in the garden. Along with the usual buds and sprouts of things we like, there are things we aren’t so crazy about. We refer to them as weeds: ground ivy, buttercups, couchgrass, horsetails. I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once wrote a weed is any plant growing where it is not wanted. In that philosophy, a rosebush in a broccoli field would not be wanted. Fair enough. I don’t want groundivy, etc in our garden beds. But being a peaceable gardener, the only thing I will use as a weed killer is a mixture of vinegar, salt and baby shampoo, or else straight horticultural vinegar if I happen to have any. And we only resort to even using organic chemical warfare (is that an oxymoron? Probably) where we want to kill creeping grass and weeds, and in walkways, etc. I’ve taken glyphosate to the evil goutweed in the past, but found the horticultural vinegar worked just as well. Other weeds like those I first mentioned get pulled out, left to wilt in hot sun, and then composted.

On the other hand…I encourage milkweed wherever it wants to come, and we allow comfrey, nettles, and thistles to grow in certain parts of the yard. People might think that is curious. But as I’ve written in the past, we encourage beneficial insects, wild birds, and other native visitors to our yard. Especially beloved are the butterflies, including a lot of monarchs that visited us last summer, as well as tiger swallowtails, red admirals, and a whole host of butterflies that I don’t know the names of. We love seeing ladybird beetles around, knowing that their little dragonlike larvae are munching on aphid colonies. We have nests of hummingbirds, swallows, redwinged blackbirds, and who knows what other birds on our property. And we have hordes of happy frogs in the pond, from the tiny spring peepers that we expect to start hearing any time now, to the glunking green frogs, to the occasional big bullfrog. We wouldn’t have any of those if I attacked things with chemicals.

Recently I had a note from someone who was crowing about a way to control moss in the lawn. It’s always puzzled me that people regard moss in the lawn as a Bad Thing. Moss is lovely; soft, green, polite. It doesn’t need mowing. It doesn’t need dethatching, fertilizing, liming, reseeding…it grows where it will and spreads politely. It signifies a happy ecosystem to me, far more so than the sterile monoculture that is most lawns. I’d be delighted if moss would take over where the grass is growing, everywhere in our yard. Walking on soft green velvety moss is one of the pleasures of summer, isn’t it?

You may wonder what these musings have to do with the title of this entry. Well, I’ve mentioned StumbleUpon in a previous post. StumbleUpon is an extension that can be added to most webbrowsers (the exception currently seems to be Safari, which is why I’ve made the leap to Firefox. ) It gives you the ability to surf all kinds of websites that have been discovered by other web-surfers. You can customize it according to your own preferences, and you have your own SU user blog, where you log your likes and dislikes and interests. You can meet others who share similar interests, and people have developed all kinds of friendships and found countless fascinating sites by using StumbleUpon. I use it for websurfing primarily, finding it a terrific source of websites on things of interest to me; gardening, of course, nature and environment, photography, cats (of course!)…The extension gets embedded in your webbrowser’s toolbar and you can either randomly ‘stumble’ to a website, or track sites from other stumblers…it’s an ongoing adventure where every day is different. (my website reviews and blog can be found here.)

Anyway; I also belong to the Garden Writers Association, which has a private listserv. Another writer posted a note yesterday about the Royal Horticultural Society’s policy on using peat in its operations, and I went off to have a read. Peat’s one of those things that polarizes some gardeners, much in the same way that chemical versus organic gardeners are polarized. Despite what the peat industry would have us believe, it’s not a strongly renewable resource. Read the RHS findings and policy here.

I can’t claim to be peat-free, yet. What we did a couple of years ago was buy a dozen bales of peat, which I then used as the base for bedding in the horse’s stall. Now that peat, along with manure, shavings, sawdust and hay, is happily turning into compost and composted manure, which will be far more useful in the garden than straight peat, which holds no nutrients and does very little to improve soil friability or drainage/water retention. But as more and more people become aware of peat’s non-sustainable status, more and more renewable peat alternatives are coming on the market, and finding favour with gardeners.

Then I stumbled across a website with a newsstory about how French scientists are asking people to leave patches of wild plants in their yards to encourage butterflies.

An unusual SOS that has gone out from French ecologists may not initially go down well with gardeners, who are being asked to leave weeds well alone.

But it's all in a good cause -- to save disappearing butterfly species.

Having set up the first butterfly 'refuges' in northwestern France in 2004, a Brittany-based association is now urging gardeners to do their bit for butterflies and biodiversity by not cutting back their brambles or nettles.

"We are asking people to leave several square metres of wild grass, brambles, nettles in their garden... which caterpillars love," Jeremy Allain, of the Vivarmor association behind the initiative said.

Garden-lovers are also encouraged to put down "plants which are rich in nectar like clover, sage or daisies to feed adult butterflies," he said of the project, which has prompted interest across France.

"'Spotless' gardens with a well-mown lawn are true deserts for butterflies which lack refuges, while wild gardens can also be very pretty," he enthused.

I was pretty pleased to read this, particularly as there was a newsitem earlier this week out of the US, about how bees are disappearing from beekeepers colonies in the millions. Read an indepth story on the New York Time’s website.

You don’t suppose that might have anything to do with the gazillions of pounds of chemicals that are dumped on gardens and crops every year, do you?

And finally, two terrific websites for those who want a more natural, native/wild garden. Wild Flora’s Wild Gardening is a delightful blog written by a fellow writer and gardener who has lived in various locales across North America but now proudly calls Nova Scotia home. She’s into wildlife friendly gardening and the use of native plants and sustainable gardening practices, a fount of knowledge—oh, and a terrific writer.

And thanks to the GWA, I discovered Wild Ones, a terrific resource for environmentally sound landscaping and gardening. Currently there are chapters only in the United States, but wouldn’t it be great to see similar organizations and chapters everywhere in the world?

I’ll never stop trying new perennials, shrubs, trees, annuals, etc. But I’ve always loved using native plants in the gardenscape too, and it’s exciting to see that so many others feel the same way—and are gently encouraging others to try native plants and kinder, gentler gardening practices.

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