31 March 2008

Bouquets of Heartfelt thanks and Lambish Weather

Listen... Can you hear that?

Exactly so. There's little or no wind. What a concept!

We're having an actual spring-like day today for the last day of Farch, so I'm hoping that this seemingly endless period will go out like a new spring lamb. The snow is gently melting, evaporating rather than just running off everywhere, as the temperature isn't that warm, but the milky sunlight and patchwork sky is promising something else for precipitation in the coming hours. I know that one brief respite does not spring make, and that we're apt to have a session of Farchpril before Nature throws up her hands and lets us have real spring. But I'll take each softer day as a real gift. Just as I take the privilege of reading other blogs, and having you read mine, as a real gift.

It's always hard to know how many people come back to read comments after they've commented, and some posts generate a lot of comments, which as others have observed, can take time to reply to. Because I'm pressed for time right now with assorted deadlines and plenty of research to do, I decided to make a brief post taking off my gardening hat to everyone who visits here, to all whose blogs I cherish and read, to friends across the miles, most of whom I may not ever get to meet.

To answer questions asked in comments: the handsome kitty in the previous post is owned by very nice people who have a large workshop where my longsuffering spouse is working on rebuilding his Cape Islander boat. Tigger Ells is a rescue cat who is neutered, needled and much loved, and he LOVES to hang out in the workshop 'helping' hubby. So though he's gorgeous and adorable, he has a great home...but I have a feeling that one of these days I'm going to go into our no-kill shelter and have a look. The last time I did that, I came home with Mungus...

How lucky we are--blessed, some would say--to be able to play in this great medium of the Internet, to celebrate and rant and teach and learn and just be. At least, that's my feeling. My son and I were talking a week or two back about how we are actually net-veterans, having gotten online first with Bulletin Board systems, then with the early days of the Worldwide Web, back in 93 and 94. We never would have dreamed of blogs, or iPods, or lightning fast computers--my first colour computer, bought in 1994, had a 25 mhz chip in it and 4 MG of RAM, which was pretty speedy at the time.

I've said before that I'm a glass half-full kind of person, and firmly believe in encouraging and helping others. I'm deeply touched by the caring I see, both in comments posted here and on the dozens (possibly hundreds--I don't dare count, now!) of other blogs I read on a regular basis. I take great delight in the varied textures and personalities of the blogs and bloggers; like snowflakes, no two are alike, but each one is perfect in its unique tone and texture. Each one enriches me, whether the writer is talking about something blooming in the garden, trying out a hobby, tempting me to try a new recipe, or having a good chortle or rant over something that's tickled them.

I've shown this photo before, but today, I offer it as a bouquet of appreciation to each of you; the rainbow for hope and peace, and the 1st place ribbon beside it, (no, this isn't my arrangement, I'm hopeless at such things!) to show you that you're all stars in my heart. Thank you to each of you for what you do, and for the sharing and caring you give to others, most of whom are perfect strangers--myself included--across the miles.

Namaste, friends.

29 March 2008

It's Kylee's fault...she said I could!

It's been one of those weeks around here at Sunflower Hill, as the weather tries to play coy with us. And I confess to some decidedly moody moments this week, ranging from angry to discouraged to just plain sad.

Angry because of a new 'gardening blog' that basically wants to take advantage of others' work with no benefit to the participants who join the 'team'. I'm not going to post the link because they'll get no free promotion from me.

Discouraged because winter seems never ending. We got another six inches of snow yesterday, as did some of you in the US and points further west in Canada--talk about being weather-bludgeoned.

And sad because today should have been my parents' 50th anniversary. Would have been, had my father not been taken from us nearly three years ago by Alzheimers Disease.

Normally I'm a glass half-full kind of girl, rather than glass half-empty...but these things have been bothering me. So when the going gets tough, what does the tough do?

Go looking at plants, of course. In this case, the orchids I've been thinking about for the past week or so, ever since I saw a nice collection of phalaenopsis in a farm market/nursery just after St. Patrick's Day. Just walking in the greenhouse, listening to the fountain splashing and the birds chirping and smellng hyacinths and daffs and soaking in the smell of green, growing plants is enough to raise my spirits.

Just why is this Kylee's fault?

Weeeeellllllll....she did a delightful post just yesterday about how we all know that she loves cats and plants. And she was faced with temptation: to choose a pretty cat that has been hanging around her place, or a pretty new orchid she's been thinking about getting. She asked which we thought she had chosen, and many of us, knowing and loving our friend as we do, said, "Both of them, of course!"

And I confessed to having had visions of a new phalaenopsis in my house. And she said
Go ahead, Jodi. You know you want to, and I'm giving you permission. :-)

So I did.

It was hard making a decision for just one; several of the unusual ones had me REALLY tempted, but the greenhouse at this market isn't really designed to be holding plants this early in temperatures this cool. While there is heat in there, some plants are showing signs of distress, and are getting overwatered, over fed, etc to try to snap them out of it. Which we know won't work, so it really was my duty to rescue this beauty, wasn't it?

Now, I realize that in Kylee's case, she opted for both choices, and she did give me permission to do so too. But I avoided our kitty shelter today, just to be on the safe side. When I went down to the barn where my longsuffering spouse is working on his boat, I met this handsome, charming fellow, who LSS has been telling me about for weeks. And it was all I could do not to pick him up and bring him home. Newly neutered, sweet tempered, purrs as soon as you touch him, wants to be held all the time, and a 'talker' too.

I think his parents would object; and I know our catchildren would. So I resisted temptation, halfway, anyway.

This must qualify me for that second orchid, right?

28 March 2008

Our provincial flower: The Mayflower

Larry over at Growing Up suggested that maybe bloggers would like to take part in writing a meme about their provincial, state, or national flower. He kicked off the meme with a nice post about the provincial flower of Saskatchewan (that's one of our Canadian provinces, for those of you from other parts of the world). Since it's snowing here yet again, I thought this would be a perfect project to embark upon, and hope you'll all join in too.

Nova Scotia's provincial flower is the trailing arbutus, more commonly known as the mayflower. A member of the Ericaceae or heath family, its botanical name is Epigaea repens, and it's related to such popular plants as blueberries and cranberries (Vaccinium, various species), rhododendrons and azaleas (Rhododendron), Bog rosemary (Andromeda), and wintergreen (Gaultheria), not to mention of course heaths and heathers (Erica & Calluna). Ericaceous plants like acid soil, which is commonly found throughout much of Atlantic Canada, and certainly here in Nova Scotia. Mayflower is a subshrub, creeping along the ground in woodlands, (both conifer and hardwood), with woody stems and leathery, hairy leaves. Apparently it ranges as far west as Saskatchewan, and as far south as Florida, although it is sparse in many regions and listed as endangered or vulnerable in several American states.

Although we call it mayflower, it usually starts blooming in April here in NS, although bloom time can vary from one county to the next. I have seen it as early as March on the south shore, but around my county it's usually mid-to-late April before the flowers come along. Flower colour can be white, tinged with pink, or very pink, and the flowers are edible too. The fragrance is wonderful, sweet without being cloying, and it too varies in strength, possibly connected to the type of soil where it's found growing.

Despite being related to all those ericaceous cousins mentioned above that we do use in gardening, the slow-growing trailing arbutus doesn't like to be transplanted, and I do not know of anyone who has it growing in their garden, nor any reputable nursery around here that offers it for sale. I've never tried it, because though our soil is acidic, it's also clayey and mayflowers demand humus-rich sandy soil that drains well, preferably around oaks or pines. To me it's a plant to enjoy where it's growing in its natural habitat, to visit and smell and photograph and cherish--and leave ALONE. At one time, mayflowers came close to being exterminated in the New England states because greedy street vendors would tear the plants up to sell posies of flowers. The mayflower is also the state flower of Massachusetts, where apparently it's illegal to pick the plants. We may need to enact similar legislation here, because I've seen people selling bundles of mayflowers in the spring at farmers' markets, and this means that wild patches are being seriously damaged.

So there's a little look at a darling of spring woodlands, Nova Scotia's provincial flower, the trailing arbutus or mayflower. Maybe within a month or so I'll have photos from this year's flowers. As I've said before...hope springs eternal, even though it's snowing again.

27 March 2008

Spring limps slowly towards Nova Scotia

Contrary to the suspicions of those of us who don't lean towards the current provincial government, spring in my fair province hasn't been cut due to budgetary restraints. It's just taking its own sweet time to reach us. Maybe it decided to linger longer in the gardens of some of my blogging friends and comrades, painting their gardens in swaths of freshest green, spangling flowers here and there in lovely flourishes. I know that spring, like a shy maiden, has been playing coy with Layanee, who also is longing for the season to really begin; with Dirty Knees, who claims to be jealous because some of our southerly neighbours are bragging of daffodils while DK can only post photos of last year's flowers due to snow still covering the garden; John at WiseAcre Gardens is experiencing similar snowy gardens, since winter doesn't seem to realize that its best before date has long passed, and so should it.

I sympathize, truly I do. But there is hope that spring is trying to put in an appearance here. Look what I found a couple of days ago (Easter Monday, to be exact); these brave little double Galanthus are scarcely an inch tall but already opening their bundles of delightful joy to the sun. When the sun manages to bludgeon its way through the clouds, that is.

In looking back through previous years, the snowdrops' emergence is right on schedule--that is, in spots where there's no snow. A stroll around our place shows the yard and garden at its very worst, with perennial stalks needing to be cut down and removed to the compost heap, great patches of snow still lingering a foot or more deep in some spots, and the grassy parts of the yard as frost-heaved and hillocky as to resemble a miniature version of Gros Morne. The pond is still full of ice, so no frogs are tuning up their banjos just yet, but the redwing males are calling for females to come-and-greet, come-and-greet, from their sentinel positions on cattail stalks. Yesterday I watched skeins of Canada geese winging their way in from the north and landing in the fields and dykelands around the Habitant river in Canning. To some they may be a nuisance, but they're one of my definite signs of spring's return. In the autumn, their cries sound mournful--in spring, they sound jubilant, even while landing in a snow squall!

We're still weeks from the arrival of the hummingbirds, but in about three weeks time I'll start putting out the feeders in case any early arrivals get blown in by the gentle spring zephyrs that blast in off the mighty Fundy, bless its gorgeous but cold heart. That's part of the reason for our cold springs, being as we have these huge bodies of water almost completely circling our province. Were it not for the isthmus of Chignecto that connects us to New Brunswick, we'd be another island province.

One of the beauties of keeping a blog over several years is that I can quickly find out what was happening at this time in previous years. We have had more snow this winter than last, and I don't think that's a bad thing--except I worry for those areas of Canada and the US that got way more than usual and are subject to flooding. Here's hoping that the snow leaves gradually--I know that you're all impatient for spring, as am I, but we'd like it to gently unfurl, not wash everything away in a torrent of meltwater and rain.

Hope does spring eternal, just like the seasons, in the gardener's heart. Little things like the less-tarnishe plumage of the goldfinches, the profuse shedding of my hairy mudball horse, the swelling of twig buds and the brightening of willow bark, all remind me that the seasons will change, even if slowly. And last night, leaving yoga class in Kingsport, I caught a scent on the air that I hadn't smelled in many months. You all know that scent--the indescribably sweet, (to gardeners) rich, inviting fragrance of the land warming up.

It's coming, friends. Just three months ago, we were recuperating from the indulgences of Christmas. In another three months, we'll be grumbling about too many weeds, hot sunny days, an excess of garden to-dos...but we'll be grinning while we do this, won't we? And long before that, we'll feel the reality of spring energy all around us.

Hang in there, fellow gardeners. We'll make it.

25 March 2008

No snackin' on the plants: Cats, toxic plants, and Juno

Would this innocent little face chew on a plant? Well, yes--hopefully, only a non-toxic one.

A couple of times in the past few days, I’ve been prompted to make a note to myself about cats and plants. The first prompt came when I saw Joy’s delightful post about her cat Sophie and the artificial plants she likes to chew on. The second prompt came when a commentor asked if I keep most of my plants in the office, or how do I keep the cats from dining on them. So I figured it was time to return to plant-related posts, before I dive back into the deadline dance tomorrow in my “real” writing world.

I’ve written articles about toxic plants before, for a variety of publications, including a horse magazine, a popular consumer magazine, and a pet magazine. So each piece had a particular angle, of course. Because we have 8 cat-children in the house, and no dogs or small kids or other creatures, I can only talk about cats (and equines) and plant toxicity—and for the purpose of this posting, I’m just going to focus on houseplants and cats.

For those of you who are dog-people, probably most of the plant concerns are similar, but I’m not a veterinarian and not totally versed in this. The main thing for all pet owners to remember, in case of potential pet poisoning from chewing on a plant, is to immediately consult your vet—and take a sample of the plant with you when you go to the clinic, if you don’t know the plant species. Write down the number of your local poison control, or of the ASPCA or SPCA poison control, and keep it where you keep other important numbers. Just in case.

As you know, we have a fully-stocked family of felines, all of whom share the house with us. I’m also a compulsive gardener, both indoors and out. In all the years I’ve been owned by cats, I’ve had to go to the vet exactly once with a case of suspected poisoning from a plant: and that was when Thistle chewed on poinsettia leaves quite a few years ago. At that time, a lot of the literature said that poinsettias would kill children, pets, and other creatures, but the fact is, the sap of the bracts and leaves DOES irritate and can cause stomach upset and irritation in the mouth, but there have been no documented cases of death to a cat from poinsettia poisoning.

That’s not to say that the cats don’t enjoy nibbling on plant leaves! They do, and they also seem to know what they should leave alone and what’s tasty to them (unlike a lot of dogs, which will eat darn near anything, in my experience.) The very naughty Spunky Boomerang, who has never gone outdoors since he was rescued as a wee small kitten, has a thing for plumbago, pruning mine down to a six inch plant before I realized he’d discovered it and moved it again. Plumbago isn’t toxic, and interestingly, he and his cohorts leave alone the amaryllis, which IS toxic. They also don’t bother the large plants in the living room—the jade tree, the Norfolk Island Pine, the succulents and cacti. They’d get at the African violets if they could reach them, I daresay—and saintpaulias are not toxic to them—but I keep their furry little bodies away from my furry-leafed little friends. Cyclamen are toxic, as is crown-of-thorns and azalea, so these all live in my office, where the door is shut when I’m not in; the plants are out of reach, and I do have faith that the cats know what they can dine on, but I’d rather be safe than have a veterinary bill.

You can provide plant matter for your cats, often in the form of catgrass, or catnip; ours love catgrass and I have several pots of it in various stages of growth all the time. Catnip causes a riot as we have at least one hardcore catnip junkie, so growing it indoors just isn’t possible (they’d scale anything to get to it, I’ve discovered.) They also are fond of spider plants, of which I now have none, and true ferns—Boston fern etc, NOT asparagus ‘fern’, which is a member of the lily family and toxic to cats.

That reminds me: both the ASPCA and the SPCA warn cat owners that many species of lilies (including Easter Lilies) are highly toxic, even deadly, to cats, causing kidney failure.

So, how do you know if your plants are toxic to felines or not? What do you do if concerned that Mr. Fluffy or Ms Kitty has chewed on a plant? There are some excellent resources on the Internet, and I’ll list just a few here:

Cat Fanciers Association has an excellent section on poisons and cats, including a long list of plants that are toxic to one degree or another. They also thoughtfully provide a significant list of plants that AREN'T toxic.

The Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System is a thorough resource, not focusing only on cats, but on plants that are toxic in general, at all levels. It also provides both common and botanical names, which is invaluable in narrowing down possible identifications of poisonous plants.

One of my favourite sites for accurate information is Cornell University, and their Poisonous Plants Information Database is easy to use and thoroughly informative.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has its own Animal Poison Control Centre and website, as well as a phone number for consulting: be aware that while the call is an 888 number, you may be charged a consultation fee for calling. They have a nice article on seventeen common poisonous plants on their site, and you may be surprised by a few of the species listed.

I'd rather have cream, please, than ol' plants!

Finally, for the catlovers among us, I found out today about an interesting little blog based in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, which has no pet shelter at this time. A member of the local SPCA took an abandoned, pregnant cat into foster care several weeks ago, and the cat, named Juno, (after the movie by the same name starring Nova Scotia actor Ellen Page), had her kittens a week ago. Juno has her own blog, where we can follow the growth of the kittens and her adventures with them. It infuriates me that someone would abandon a young and pregnant cat in winter, but my cat-hat is off to Lynda for fostering Juno and her babies until they can be adopted out to good homes. When I win the lottery, my plan is to sponsor a local vet to do free spay-and-neuter clinics for the feral cats around my county, plus for anyone who can't afford the fees for neutering. Mind you, I have to win the lottery first.

22 March 2008

Increase Your Blog Appeal #3: Drawing the numbers & Housekeeping

Let’s do the housekeeping first: heartfelt thanks to all of you for your comments, suggestions, and feedback. I finally got Blogger to let me in to edit my site (ever since I upgraded Safari it’s been problematic to access the site editing options) so was able to change my background colour and darken the text font. As I said in a comment, it’s easy to change the font size of a blog I’m reading, as an Apple user. We use Apple/Command and + or – to increase or decrease the size of something we’re reading, and there are also buttons in some programs. Unfortunately, because I don’t use a PC, I don’t know what the equivalent command is, but in Firefox, for example, you should be able go to the menu under View: Text: and find the command to increase or decrease text size.

Xris, the affable Flatbush Gardener, also told us about improving blog usability with expandable post summaries (thanks and a tip of the ol’ gardening hat to you). He also mentioned sites that will analyse your website performance and make recommendations. I confess to being essentially a luddite about web-based things—I’m a writer, a quasi-professional photographer, and a rank amateur about web-based design etc, so a lot of this has been utterly new to me—and slightly scarey, too, being new! So once again, a tip of the hat to Xris for sharing these tidbits of info.

So, you’ve done all these things and you’re perhaps wondering about increased readership? I know some people don’t care how many readers they get, but others do. After all, we’re putting our thoughts out there for the world to see, and we want people to see them, right? For whatever reasons. I do my blog in part as a way to give back to the gardening community at large that I learn so much from, and to promote local nurseries and other topics of interest, plus to promote other bloggers that I enjoy. I call it gardening karma, and prefer to be positive and encouraging, except, of course, when growling about the weather, which we all do on occasion, but especially we who are Canadians—it’s a national pastime for us.

Networking: I can’t stress this enough. Read other blogs, but most importantly, leave comments. Comments are the blossoms in a blogger’s existence, even though we sometimes have to put up the word verification exercises to keep out spambots that want to take over the known universe. Take the time to say, “hello, I was here, loved your blog”, and you’ll find the recipient comes to visit—and leaves comments—and before long, you’re back and forth like old friends. My days wouldn’t be complete without regular visits to a number of blogs I especially love, quite frankly. There’s not always time to leave comments, of course, and sometimes, for reasons only known to the blogging sites, it’s a challenge to do so.

RSS feeds: I confess to not being able to explain this real well, but others certain can and have. Having a feed that people can subscribe to lets your fans know exactly when you’ve written a new post, and in some cases emails it to them directly. You can use any number of methods to burn a feed. I use FeedBurner . There are numerous feed readers for every webbrowser too, if you prefer to read your blogs right in the browser.

Get Involved with Blotanical. I’ve extolled the virtues of Blotanical before, and will continue to do so, because it’s an awesome resource for finding new blogs, tracking posts, getting to meet other bloggers, and simply having fun with garden blogging. Yes, you can collect points, (which sadly, aren’t redeemable for mixers or earrings or more plants), but it’s for fun, and I’ve met so many new (to me) bloggers as a result of my activities with Blotanical. Like anything, the more you put in, the more benefits you get out, so if you don’t sign in, send notes, visit other blogs, or otherwise get involved, you won’t see any increase in traffic. But I’ve been tracking my stats for almost a year now, and they have increased significantly by being involved with Blotanical.

One thing I'd really like to encourage: if you're involved in Blotanical, either as a blogger or a non-blogging member (or just visiting) take a page out of Carolyn's book and go visit Blogger # 300--or 200, or 176--in the top 300. Carolyn says it best, but I'll summarize and suggest that you do explore new-to-you blogs whenever you have time and inclination; whether via Blotanical, or via people's lists of blogs on their websites. You'll find an amazing, rich and terrific world of gardeners out there, all crazy about "this thing of ours" called gardening--and garden-blogging.

Answer Your Comments: If you love to get comments, then reply to them, and see how many more you get because you do give feedback. It amazes me that some so-called professional writers find it beneath themselves to respond to comments on their blogs. Others are far more generous and their comments in return are just as interesting as the posts. I cherish each comment I receive (except the spam ones) and do try to answer quickly, but sometimes fall behind. Some bloggers choose to answer comments by going to the commenter’s blog and posting a comment in reply, and that’s a nice idea too. And some have figured out how to answer each comment directly underneath, in italics--perhaps this is a feature of Wordpress or Typepad, because I can't find it in Blogger. Anyone?

Blogging Awards. Some think these are silly, or a waste of time, but I think they’re great fun. What better recognition than to be accoladed by fellow gardeners and bloggers? Some of the awards are memes, where you are awarded a particular accolade and then spread the joy forward—and I confess I was awarded two during a recent busy period of my life and lost the messages as well as neglecting to play them forward, for which I apologize profusely! One really neat set of awards is Colleen’s Mouse and Trowel awards, where you get to nominate, then vote for, your favourite blogs in a whole fine host of categories. So this is a shoutout to Colleen for all the work she’s put into those, and an encouragement to readers to get involved and nominate your favourites in the next couple of weeks.

The most important thing to remember about blogging? It’s all meant to be fun and a pleasure, not a set of tasks. In that way, it’s like gardening, so I’ll wrap this up with a paragraph from a gardening column I wrote early in the year:

• Most Importantly: Stress-less gardening. Repeat after me: gardening is not rocket science. We are gardening for the pleasures of it, not to stress ourselves with growing longer beans than the guy down the road, or perfect roses that are the envy of the neighbourhood, aren’t we? We garden for the exercise, not to wear ourselves out until we hurt all over, but there are things we can do to make it easier for those who are older or dealing with illness or injury. The main thing is to give ourselves permission to not get it all done perfectly.

Just substitute “blogging” for “gardening” and remember not to stress or worry—just enjoy blogging, as I enjoy reading all of you! ☺

21 March 2008

A picture’s worth a thousand words: Increasing Your Blog Appeal, Part 2

From the feedback I’ve been getting, these posts are being useful to some bloggers, and that’s great. The only thing I want to stress is that nothing here is meant to be taken as criticism, merely as observation and suggestion.

Appearances are important with blogging. Most of us know of blogs we read in part because they are simply so beautiful to look at, with clean, interesting design, good use of photographs, and of course, good articles. What’s appealing to look at? Here are some pointers.

Limit the posts on your front page. If every post you wrote for the month of February loads when someone clicks on your site, some visitors are very unlikely to stay. For example, although we have highspeed, it’s sometimes a bit erratic due to our location and our provider’s business having grown faster than anticipated, and our speed drops to nearly that of dialup. For those on dialup, loading a page that is full of posts, each full of photos, is nearly impossible. In Blogger, you can adjust how many posts appear on your front page, and I’m sure it’s the same for other blogging sites. Likewise, if you post archives on the side of your blog, people can easily find earlier posts they may have missed or want to revisit. Personally, I limit my blog’s front page to 3 days worth of posts, which is normally 3 posts, though occasionally—like now—I’ll do more than one post in the span of a day.

Photo use: Photos are the eyecandy that can catch a reader’s attention, and if a fine photo or seven is backed up by interesting text, you’ve got a winner. Just bear in mind to scale your photos so they aren’t too large. Most people know this, but it’s really frustrating for someone on dialup to arrive at a favourite blog only to find dozens of images, each more than several hundred K in size, all of which take time to load. You don’t need to set your photos at more than 72 dpi for computer screen resolution, and a few inches wide and high will give perfectly fine photos at sizes that aren’t unwieldy.

Blog appearance. I love that so many of us are customizing our blog templates and making them totally unique. Two things to check: that whatever colour of text you’re using works on the background colour without causing eyestrain, and that your wallpaper is tasteful but doesn’t offend the eyes. There’s one blog I’ve stopped reading because the background pattern and colour combination literally makes my head hurt, and it’s a pity because it’s a nice blog.

Advertisements: I don’t mind a few Google ads or other ads that are related to gardening, but if a site is so packed with ads that I can’t find the actual post, I don’t go back. Plus I avoid blogs that are blatantly commercial, encouraging you to make money from some homebased MLM or hyping a score of products they’ve probably never seen. From years of reading, however, I confess to having an interesting talent—the ability to read around advertisements and be completely oblivious to them, whether in magazines, newspapers, or websites. I could go to any site right now and read a post, be able to say what it was about and what the photos were—but not what any ads were about. I do post reviews of books and tools that I can recommend, and so do others, and I really appreciate those who review items in a balanced way.

Accessories: Personally—and I stress this is my personal taste—I don’t care for music, dancing babies, flashing gifs, or most videos on blogs. When I’m reading blogs, I can actually switch from my usual music for working—Chopin, Bach, or Mozart, as a rule—to the more contemporary stuff I’ve loaded from my cd collection into iTunes. And strangely, audio files of birds twittering or the computer equivalent of Muzak clash rather strongly with Sonata Arctica, Steve Earle, Damien Rice or Within Temptation. (Yes, I am that eclectic). Videos don’t bother me as much—I like webcam feeds of birds, etc—but I have to switch browsers to look at them, as currently one browser is having a tantrum about some video files, and I suspect this is a problem for others too. Plus these can eat up bandwidth, and as noted before, the whole world isn’t on broadband/highspeed internet yet.

One Important Caveat: This comes from an associate of mine in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: have a care just how much personal information you put in your blog. We hear warnings to be careful of what we post on sites like Facebook, but my associate reminded me about blogging, as did a discussion with a friend who is also a credit union manager. As sad as it is, there are unscrupulous people out there with nothing better to do than prey on good people.

Next time: How about those numbers?

Increasing your Blog Appeal, Part 1: Worthy Words

This being the Easter weekend, which we don’t particularly observe (but we wish those who do a most joyous Easter!), I’ve designated it a time of non-work. Can’t do anything outside (it’s snowing again, giggle giggle—might as well laugh, right?) to catch up on blog reading, as well as other reading done purely for the joy of it, but also thought I’d batch-answer some emails that I have answered privately but which other bloggers may find useful too.

“How do I improve my visitor numbers?” “What makes for a popular blog?” “Can you tell me why I don’t have more readers?” “What’s for supper?” These are questions that I get asked on a regular basis from fellow garden bloggers. Well, okay, except for the last one. That’s from my longsuffering spouse, and the answer is sometimes, “whatever you’re making”; depending, of course, on whether I’m on deadline.

What we like in other gardening blogs is as individual as what we like in our gardens, of course. I can tell you what works for me, both as a writer and as a reader of a LOT of gardening blogs—something like two hundred of them, now, and thanks to Blotanical, probably even more than that. I’ve stopped counting, actually. Rather than overwhelm you by putting all the information in one post, I’ve broken it into three parts for easier reading.

Write well. You don’t have to be a paid, professional writer to write well, as there are dozens of excellent blogs out there written by people who simply have a passion for gardening and for the written word. I love blogs that use humour while they’re also being informative, but I also just enjoy information that’s presented with style, passion, and clarity. I personally prefer posts with some detail rather than the quickie posts of a few sentences that are just done for the sake of posting. Those look obvious to me, and probably to others too. I certainly don’t care if a blogger goes off-topic from gardening, either, although if it’s a topic about which I have no interest, I just skip til next time. Again, it’s each to their own tastes.

One tip I’ll share that I always tell my writing students: go easy on the exclamation points (marks) in your writing. We all use them from time to time, of course, and that’s fine— an occasional ! draws attention to something you want to stress. I tell students that exclamation points are rather like swearing or salt; they season an article if used lightly, but too many tend to overwhelm, distract, and annoy the reader. One of my clients insisted that it was his ‘personal style’ to use two or three !!! in ever sentence in his newsletters and his website, and I finally got through to him by reading his newsletter back to him, shouting at the end of every sentence. He got the point—and removed some of the points. It’s the same with using emoticons or acronyms like ☺ or LOL: too many are distracting, the occasional use tends to highlight a point and cause us to smile, too.

Use titles for your posts. These can be simple “Better Blogging” or humourous “Rabbit Wars: My Rules of Engagement” or very informative Good Friday- “Legend of the Dogwood”, but they’re an important way to catch readers’ attention. If they’re too long, they tend to be distracting but worse is no title at all, because it doesn’t give any indication of what the blogger is posting about.

Avoid the temptation to nag or be overly negative. We all know we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and if a blogger is overly preachy, I stop reading. I like to encourage other gardeners/bloggers, and can offer suggestions and feedback in a way that doesn’t discourage them. Likewise, there are a few out there that I avoid completely because they are constantly carping and putting down, either magazines or nurseries or landscapers or other subjects. It’s one thing to rant with good reason, (as well as grace and skill) another to be critical just for the sake of being critical. Putting others down doesn’t make a person look better, and in my eyes discredits them significantly.

Post regularly. That doesn’t mean put up seventeen posts in one day. Quantity doesn’t necessarily equate with quantity, but if you post several times a week, daily, or weekly, or in some other regular manner, readers return eagerly to see what you’re up to. Some bloggers don’t post through the winter months, thinking there’s nothing to write about. I’d say that the hundreds of us who have kept writing and posting since the last fall frost have proved that wrong, wouldn’t you?

Next: Images and other visuals.

20 March 2008

Mother Nature is a Trickster

Okay, so while half the garden blogging world was joyously exulting in the arrival of calendar spring, what did we get in lovely Nova Scotia? Yet another ice storm. Well, we hadn't had one for a couple of weeks, after all, and we apparently needed to have roads, doorways, drives, plants, and anything else possible, covered in a case of finest crystal.

Bah. Humbug.

As if that wasn't enough, the ice on the wireless Internet receiver outside was so thick it blocked our service for a good part of the day...but the good news is that our intrepid service provider--a local company that does care about their customers--fixed the bottleneck of traffic in Scotts Bay so that we shouldn't have any more of the terrible downtimes we've endured in the past few weeks. So two thumbs up to Steve and the crew!

However, the weather, though annoying, isn't that surprising. I heard Environment Canada meteorologist David Phillips interviewed on CBC this afternoon while I was sulking in bed with the heating pad and a cat or two foot-warmers, and Phillips reminded us that we Maritimers have long, glorious, exultant autumns...the tradeoff being our springs, not to put too fine a term on it, suck. While many of you have been laughing in flowers, or at least giddy with spring preparations, for some time now, we have a few weeks of cranky weather left to contend with before we can say spring has arrived. But that's why we are such a stoic, sturdy lot. Or so we tell ourselves.

My coping mechanism this week was to simply get me to a nursery and load up on a few new houseplants. Not that I needed any more, of course, but it's not about needing, it's about coping with spring's tardiness. Most of my houseplants, of course, live in my office because I spend so much of my working life in here, so a few more to add to the atmosphere was a good plan, at least in my spring-starved mind. Since my salmon-pink kalanchoe is still blooming amazingly well...

...I brought a nice happy yellow one home to keep it company. These plants do so well with a minimum of attention; mine sit on the windowledge, where I occasionally remember to water them, and they bloom their heads off for months, and in fresh clear colours, too.

My son asked me, back before Christmas, for a peace lily (Spathiphyllum). I haven't seen one lately, but found something in the same family (Araceae) that I thought might do: an anthurium, or Flamingo flower. In fact, I liked it so much I needed one too. Of course. Big surprise, that. I just love the spathe and spadix that make up the inflorescence of these plants. For those whose botany is a bit shaky, the spadix is that spike in the centre which carry the tiny male and female flowers (the 'jack' in the pulpit) while the spathe is actually a modified leaf, a bract (remember the bracts in the euphorbias, such as poinsettia 'petals'?) or the pulpit part of a Jack-in-the-pulpit. That may have been more than you wanted to know, but it might be handy for playing Jeopardy sometime.

I happen to be extremely fond of succulents, both the hardy sedums that grow in our gardens, and the less-hardy types that we enjoy indoors, in collections or in dish gardens. So I also picked up four different succulents that I was pretty sure I didn't have, just going on the colour and shape of leaves. The problem with some of these garden centre places is that the plants come in from somewhere else bearing labels that say "succulent" or 'cactus', or something else not very helpful. So I'm not sure yet if I got sedum, echeveria, aeonium, semps (pretty sure not) or what. This isn't one of my collections, but was at the greenhouse at Kingstec College, and is a lovely colourful grouping.

This is one of the most gorgeous succulent dish gardens i"ve ever seen, located at the Rock Garden at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. It lives outside all summer, and I assume the staff put it in one of the greenhouses for the six months of winter that we endure. Oh, now I'm depressed again. I had to bring up the lack of spring, didn't I?

Maybe I'll just take a page out of our cats' book of wisdom, and sleep for a few weeks. Wake us up when spring really gets here, okay?

19 March 2008

All-star annuals for Containers

So we've selected our containers, and prepared our soil, and we know where we want to put our containers (maybe). Now comes the fun part: picking out the plants. I happen to really, really enjoy selecting annuals for containers, and yes, I'm going to focus on annuals because that's what I primarily use. I do have one concrete trough of alpines, but I also have lots of room around our place for perennials, shrubs, trees, etc, and I like doing containers of annuals because I can change them up with ease, they flower their little heads off or have sparkling foliage, and I don't feel guilty consigning them to the compost heap at season's end.

You can pick plants with flower colours that match your container colours, or that contrast, whatever suits your tastes. I do some of each, naturally. This big mosaic pot was custom built for me by a local artisan, and because its colours are so striking, I tend to choose annuals with flowers that more or less match; blues, orange, greens, a bit of purple. In this caseI used a brilliant orange gerbera, purple heliotrope, blue lobelia (probably from the Techno heat series, which last really well in our garden even during the heat that we do get in high summer)and a callibrachoa, possibly 'Terra Cotta' or 'Purple Sunrise.

For those who love blue, and who are frustrated by lobelias, try anagallis. It comes easily from seed, or you can purchase the various cultivars such as 'Skylover' or 'Wildcat Blue' and it works reasonably well in a container. I normally shear mine back when I first get them as they do get leggy in a nursery setting, and they tangle their stems with other plants nearby. But anything this blue can be naughty if it wants--all is forgiven when it flowers.

This African daisy is a Venidium, sometimes called Venidio, that I wouldn't be without. I find them in red, rosy pink and coppery orange at a couple of local nurseries, and they are great with that silvery grey foliage. Deadhead them, and they will go until the hard frost of November--really! I have photos from last year, and you may remember me extolling this plant's virtues in the past.

Obviously I have something about African daisies, or just daisies in general, because this is Osteospermum 'Astra Pink Yellow', definitely a star performer last year. I've read that some people don't like pink and yellow together, or find them problematic to match up--this plant solves that, and provides a colour combination that I found I really liked. Hopefully I'll locate this plant this year, because the cuttings I took didn't root.

I fell in love with Torenia, or wishbone flower, a couple of years ago when I saw this colour combination, so different from the usual purple-white or blue-white combinations. Maybe the wishbone doesn't show up as well--but I'm smitten with 'Yellow Moon' very much so!

Portulaca love the heat, and they will take it a bit drier than my climate gives them if planted in the ground. The solution has been to plant them out in containers; some go in a large hypertufa trough, others into terracotta containers along with annual ice plant (Mesembryanthemum) and still others get put into small black metal planters I picked up a few years ago. They bake nicely in these containers, and flower like maniacs, and I'm reminded of my mother's twin sister, my late aunt, whenever I see them, as they were a favourite flower of hers. And that's why I plant them and mollycoddle them a wee bit. This is 'Yubi Rose' at least I think it is!

While I LOVE Steve Silk's recipe for planting containers with Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers, I don't always follow that recipe, although this is a plant that I consider a thriller: Agastache, or Hummingbird Mint, in this case 'Acapulco Orange'. Everything about this plant makes me happy, from its lemon-minty scent to its floriferous, easy care nature, to the way it DOES act like a magnet for hummingbirds and other pollinators. I generally have it in rose as well as the salmony-orange, and several different companies have their own versions in shades of salmon through to magenta. This may well be perennial for others with better winter drainage or slightly less hostile winters, but I haven't overwintered it outside--so far!

Bacopas bored me until two years ago, when some savvy breeder produced a couple of cultivars with gold-green variegation in the foliage, as well as lavender flowers. This is Copia Golden Leaves, and I know I've raved about it before, but it truly was an outstanding annual, as you may remember from this first post on containers, where the snow-covered bacopa/sutera was still flowering in November. I've already sourced it for this year, and I'm not telling where--til I get mine home, of couse. Bwah hah hah!

It's been probably a decade since I first discovered lantana and was besotted with it. Not with its scent, that's for sure, which I find very unpleasant, but it sure is a butterfly magnet and does especially well in containers for me. It does need to be deadheaded, and although this is a photo of one of the Sorbet coloured types, I really like the stronger, hot-coloured ones. The problem I find is that each company has its own names for the various colours, and yet there's not always a lot of difference between the offerings of one company and another, so I get confused and forget ALL the cultivar names. Must be my age.

I was never a fan of ageratum until a couple of years ago when I discovered a deep wine coloured variety, (One was called Island Mist Magenta, but there was one with wine in the name, too. Same problem as with lantana). Then I discovered that I rarely use white in my containers, and the purity of the white ageratum really delighted me, so now I do at least one container in red and white, for the Canadian flag, or Red, white, blue and a splash of yellow, for the Acadian flag.

Don't forget foliage is a really important part of great containers, both in terms of colour and texture. Of course I've gotten fond of the brilliant sweet potato vines in their fiesta colours, and the newer coleus (despite their new genus name which sounds like sneezing) but there are a host of other intriguing plants, including Helichrysum (especially, for me, the Lime/lemon-lime types), begonias, Swedish ivies, oxalis and lysimachias. My favourite lysimachia is the deliciously named 'Walkabout Sunset', but the only photo I could find is below, with the container in the very back, full of nemesia I grew from seed and an orange callibrachoa that I loved. If time permits this week and I can find some of the missing photos (don't ask...), I'll do a second post on interesting annuals. Hopefully I'll discover some new annuals this year (or some old ones) that also make me happy. If spring ever comes, that is...

17 March 2008

Containing yer gardening enthusiasms Part 2: Tips for Success

Last time, I promised we’d have a chat about some tips for container successes, so here we go:

Containers: You can use just about anything you want for containers, and people do! I’ve seen wonderful planters made with old shoes, tea kettles, vases, baskets, purses, as well as the dizzying array of containers that are actually designed for plants. The main thing to make sure of is that they have drainage holes. Don’t bother with the ‘layer of crushed gravel’ or other supposed helpful options for drainage: if Jeff Gillman says that this doesn’t work, that’s plenty good enough for me. A pot shard over large drainage holes will keep the soil from coming out the bottom, but that’s all I bother with. If you buy a fabulous container that is lacking drainage holes, you can either drill holes in it (with the proper drill and bit) or do what I do: plant into a slightly smaller, plastic container with drainage holes in it, and slip that into the more ornate planter. Larger containers are heavier, but they have more room for multiple plants. I'm very partial to terra cotta, and to brightly coloured, glazed pottery containers in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Soil: use the best quality potting medium you can afford. You can make up your own mediums or purchase pre-made, but one thing I don’t recommend is using garden soil. Not only is it full of weed seeds and living creatures that might not appreciate life in a container, it’s generally heavier which makes containers that much harder to move around. You can make up good potting medium using a mixture of screened compost, sand, peatmoss or peat substitute (I’m not weighing in today on the peat argument) and perlite or vermiculite.

Watering: This is definitely one of the secrets to container success: making sure that you don’t let your containers dry out. This means watering daily, in most cases, depending on the time of year and the climate. Come autumn, when the plants have slowed down growing and days are cooler, you might not have to water daily; it just depends. Grouping containers together helps to keep moisture in the containers so you might not have to water quite so often. Some gardeners recommend adding those moisture-holding crystals, but they’ve been shown not to be particularly useful, so I don’t bother with them anymore.

Fertilizing: You can mix slow release fertilizer, organic or otherwise, into your potting mixture before planting, but you’ll still need to fertilize later in the season. I usually toss bonemeal and seaweed meal into my container mixtures along with some compost, and then water with liquid seaweed fertilizer once every two weeks. When you do fertilize, make sure that you have watered the plants well before fertilizing, or you can burn your plants roots.

Plant selection and care: as hard as it is to do, the theory goes that we’re supposed to select young, healthy plants that aren’t yet blooming for our containers and gardens. The theory makes sense, of course: plants that aren’t yet blooming tend to settle in to new conditions (whether in gardens or containers) because they aren’t focusing their energy onto creating flowers and seed. But when we’re starved for colour, it’s hard not to buy the plants that are already putting up flowers, isn’t it? Well, you’ll really thank yourself if you do buy plants that aren’t yet flowering, or if you disbud those that are forming flowers. Trust me on this. Within a couple of weeks, those new plants will have settled in and be flowering nicely. This is where it helps to have a greenhouse or other place to hold your containers for a couple of weeks while you are waiting. And you can always buy or create a couple of planters already in flower, just to help you get through the early weeks. I’ve been known to do that, too.

Deadheading is vital for prolonged bloom; after all, annuals are programmed to flower, set seed, and die, so if we prevent them from setting seed, they’ll keep flowering, determined to have their progeny live on after them. While you’re deadheading, you might also remember to cut container plants back a bit every week or so to encourage a new flush of growth and keep your plants looking lush and healthy. Somewhere, someone told me to use think thirds: cut back a third of a plant to a third of its height every three weeks. I might not get the every three weeks part right, but I remember to trim plants a third at a time, and they seem to do quite well. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Next time: some tempting plants I love in containers. But first, since it's now St. Patrick's Day, at least in Nova Scotia...

16 March 2008

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day--Orchids to get through Farch

As we lurch, mutter and whimper through the interminable days of the latter part of Farch, some of us have finally hit the bloomin' wall, so to speak. You've seen my one outdoor 'bloom' in my previous post; I've shared most of the indoor blossoms with you in the past few months (and most of them are still, remarkably, blooming. But this time of year is most assuredly the dark night of the Nova Scotian gardener's soul, because it's still a bit early to start many seeds, unless you have a heated greenhouse, the houseplants are looking a bit spent, and since we're supposed to have more of the white stuff outside over the next couple of days...whatever on earth is a garden blogger supposed to present for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day?

Well, thanks to the local orchid growers, all is not lost. As they did last year, the Valley orchid enthusiasts had a show and sale at Acadia University's KC Irving Environmental Sciences Centre, in the wonderful conservatory. And while the weather didn't cooperate in providing brilliant sunlight like last year, it was still wonderful to see the exotic, exquisite blooms of orchids, and talk to plant people who were equally longing for spring.

Let me stress: none of these are mine. I have exactly ONE orchid (still resisting); a phaelenopsis which has resisted my attempts to kill it, and I am going to invest in another one or two one of these days. Just not yet.

There are a few things that really annoy me (plastic siding, tacky garden geegaws from Wallyworld, canned peas) and one of the things that irks me most is when people paw at other peoples' plants. I wouldn't touch any of these plants without their owners right there to bless that, not even to turn a pot or look at a label. This all goes back to one day years ago when I had picked out a lovely sanguinaria in bloom at a nursery I like and was heading to the cashier with it. This dumb-as-a-stump customer ahead of me turned and looked at my plant, said, "Ohhhhh, isn't that pretty", grabbed at the flower...which promptly dropped most of its petals. If looks could kill... So at this display, I craned my neck and peeked between leaves and sprays of flowers, looking for labels if they weren't clearly showing, but I wouldn't move stems or leaves to take photos of the names. These are some plants that I did manage to get the names of. Meet SLC 'Frolic'; SLC, I have learned, stands for Sophrolaeliocattleya...whew! Are orchid breeders related to plant taxonomists? Say that name five times quickly!

Ah, this is easier. Zygocolax 'Judith Phillips', anyone?

Bealara marfitch 'Howard's Dream' had several large sprays of most marvelous blooms.

I think this may have been my favourite, or at least in the top three: IBLC 'Lone Pine'. Isn't she lovely?

And this is Laelia Santa Barbara Sunset 'Showtime', another of my top three favourites.

This moody looking beauty is Lycaste 'Terry Kennedy'. I find that the really fluorescent and the really deep colours are the ones I like best.

A nice basket of orchids...I would have happily bought that and taken it home, except it wasn't for sale, not surprisingly.

I've also discovered I really like cymbidiums and this will probably be the species I try next. This elegant beauty is Cymbidium 'Pelleas Merah'.

This Cymb. 'Bold as Brass Flash' brought me to a halt. It smelled divine, though not overwhelmingly so, and the colour just said spring, spring, spring. This rounds out my top three.

On the other hand, this Crackerjack Midnight Magic cymbidium was deeply mysterious and also one that was fragrant, at least I think that was where the scent came from. The plant was a little taller than me, and I wouldn't haul the spray down to smell it, like one rude woman did.

Since we need a bit of a colour shakeup, here's Phragmipedium besseae,

Rounding out our romp through the orchid display is Cymbidium 'Lipper Leo', easily the most floriferous of the collection. I stayed in there for two hours, talking to some of the enthusiasts I know, and to others who were lured out with the promise of spring. We all told ourselves and each other we'd make it through winter, and we will. Displays like this are like instant sunshine to a gardener's soul, aren't they?

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