26 June 2009

Letters Across the Pond: Sylvia's spring vacation

As so often happens, life got in the way in recent weeks and I neglected to put up the most recent letter from Sylvia in our Letters Across the Pond series. My apologies to all those who are following our conversation and of course to Sylvia, to whom I think I now owe 2 letters. But she's in good company with other friends I owe correspondence to. Something like the shoemaker's children going barefoot, the writer sometimes runs out of words...Anyway, enjoy!

 Dear Jodi,

Thank you for your last letter. I enjoyed the first picture of a trillium, I have ordered two, T. erectum. Thank you for all the comments that they are not difficult to grow. All I know is they are not easy to buy in the UK and expensive. I try not to acquired plants in the summer but I couldn’t resist, I will keep them really well watered for the summer and fingers crossed.

I am glad your garden is now growing but I can believe after a long sleep it ‘gallops’ away. May is always the month that I get panicky because I can’t keep up with everything that I want to do in the garden. I tell myself next year I will do more before May or I will make my beds and borders so they take less work and I will grow and plant less plants for containers. But the next year… by the end of May I give up and just do what I can!

Our soil is neutral so I don’t grow any rhododendrons but there are a few growing in my neighbours gardens as so I am thinking of giving one a try. I do like shrubs to give the garden some bulk, height and width it helps to divide the garden up and hides some of the views (good and bad).

I love your pictures, your garden is really beautiful – I am quite happy to overlook weeds, especially as some of them are so pretty if only they didn’t try to take over. I planted an amelanchier once but it died on me, I really must try again. Talking of dying our Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ – is definitely gone, I read in the RHS magazine that this variety is dying around the country but they don’t know why. I think the main reason mine gave up is we had a mains water leak very close to its roots, they don’t like being wet!

I grew some yellow violets from seed last year, I wonder if it is the same species, I will try to find a photo or the seed packet. My first rose flowered this weekend, Rhapsody in Blue and I have lots of others just coming out. We do need some dry weather, we are still getting a mixture late April showers I think! Most of my roses are David Austin English roses and they big flowers don’t like the rain, it makes them very heavy and hand down. The photos of my garden were taken on 23 May and give you an idea of what is flowering now.

Your humming bird picture is amazing, I can only wonder at these tiny birds and hope that one day I will be lucky enough to see a sight like this. For now I am grateful for all the photos that you and our friends are showing.

I did promise to tell you about our holiday in North Wales and I started a letter just about that but decided to answer your letter first! We went to 5 different gardens and I took hundreds of photos but thought I would share with you the first two gardens we went to and find room for the others in future letters. That is if you would like to hear more?

We went to Snowdonia, National Park in North Wales which is approx a 5 hour (250 miles) journey from where I live. To give you some idea about 170 miles North and 80 miles north west from home. Wales is another country (I saw VP vegplotting.blogspot.com also referred to Wales as abroad) it really does feel like a different country, because a lot of the welsh people speak Welsh from birth. All the road signs are in Welsh and English and you hear Welsh spoken a lot. Of course it is part of the UK and the scenery is similar (lots of bluebells and ferns) until you get to the mountains. It is really for the mountain scenery that we go to Wales (it is nearer than Scotland) but it is the gardens that I would like write to you about.

The first garden we visited was Plas Newydd on Anglesey, Anglesey is an island at the northern tip of Wales joined to the main land by several bridges. We didn’t explore the woodland or the rhododendron gardens this time as we wanted to look around the house and it was beginning to rain. I did get time to look around the terrace garden, I think this was originally a summer garden when the Marquess and his family built it but the National Trust have planted it for spring, summer and autumn. I think this has improved since I was last here.

The top has a grotto terrace with a spring in and the water trickles down through a feature on each level to a pool. The NT has recently extended this to rill and fall down to the sea. This is the first of the three terraces, not counting the entrance in the first photo. I really liked this planting of Euphorbia and dark red polyanthus with Ajuga and other plants. The third photo shows this planting by the steps and you can see some of the summer flowering perennials at the back.

The views from this garden over the Menai Strait (the strip of sea between Anglesey and the main land), Wales and Snowdonia were beautiful. Having enjoyed our visit we went back across the bridge because we had one more visit planed for the day.

Our next visit was Crug Farm, home to the plant hunter Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones who regularly go plant hunting around the world with Dan Hinkley. This is a treasure trove of shade loving plants and they have a small garden attached. It is amazing what they have managed to get into this small garden, a lot of the plants have large leaves. I only bought one plant this time, Aruncos aethusifolius ‘Little Gem’, I have to restrict myself and there is almost too much choice, most of which I have never heard of.

Now this is only a brief glimpse of these garden and it is my view. I will try to share some of the other another time, the others were very different. The forecast, as I write this, is for a sunny weekend so I hope to get some (all!) of containers planted. I hope you have a lovely weekend.

Best wishes Sylvia

20 June 2009

Inside Memory: Timothy Findley, My Father, and the Memory Garden

"People can only be found in what they do."
  Timothy Findley, October 30, 1930-June 21, 2002.

As we roam toward solstice/midsummer, I'm flashed with a bit of elegaic, bittersweet memory. Last week, June 11, was the 4th anniversary of my father's death from Alzheimer's, one of the most hideous of diseases. Tomorrow, June 21, is the 7th anniversary of my favourite author's death: Canadian novelist and playwright Timothy Findley. 

I was very sad when Findley died. I'd written my masters' thesis on his fiction, and had correspondence and several meetings with him over the years. It says a great deal about his work that I continue to love it even after having studied it somewhat exhaustively for several years at Acadia University. In fact...I think it might be time for a Findley read-a-thon here. 

What's this got to do with gardening? A lot, actually. For Timothy Findley, I planted the first shrub in honour of someone who had passed: at the time, a rosebush, and then one for his partner to keep his company. However, I don't trust rosebushes to be longlived (except for rugosas), so I decided to plant a tree instead. So for Findley and Bill Whitehead, his partner of nearly 50 years, I put in a Japanese Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). 

Findley wrote a great deal about memory in his various works of fiction and nonfiction. The first of two memoirs is called Inside Memory, and remains one of my favourite of his writings. We all use memory daily for a thousand myriad things, of course. Until we can't. Like an Alzheimer patient. So for them, we plant forget-me-nots. Not surprisingly, there are literally thousands of Myosotis around our place, and they're still festooning the yard with a sea of blue lace reminders as we head towards summer. 

It's funny how some plants instantly remind us of other people. In my case, they remind me and I plant their plants in their memory and honour. For my mother's twin sister, I have lots of portulaca every summer. She loved their brilliant colours, their silky petals and fleshy leaves. I just have to see the word portulaca and I see my aunt. 

People can influence us in subtle ways we don't realize until years later. Both my grandmothers were gardeners; my father's mother a pragmatic kitchen-gardener, with beans and strawberries, sugar maple and apple trees all to help feed her family of five children. My mother's mother was more of an ornamental gardener, and there are plants from her garden that carry forth into mine (indirectly, because she died when I was a teenager and not yet a compulsive gardener). Nannie would have been fascinated by the new colours of Johnny-Jump-Ups that are available today, and she might have had some. But for me it's the traditional colours that freely seed around my garden that remind me most of her.  

Perhaps my huge love for poppies comes also from her, because I remember silky-petalled poppies, nestled in among exuberant plantings of lupins, in her Berwick, NS, garden. So it's small wonder that all kinds of poppies find their homes here in our garden. 

I began planting shrubs in memory of people, of cats we'd loved and lost, of people I never met but who were dear to people who are dear to me. Then my former mother-in-law, a woman I loved and admired, died, her body riddled with cancers. Marilyn loved butterflies, yellow roses, sunflowers, all kinds of flowers. So I drew these loves together and amalgamated them into an entire memory garden, well populated by butterflies and bees and birds and other living things. 

One of the plants in that garden is a pink-flowered potentilla shrub, for those who have been claimed by breast cancer. 

For my friend Ladny, who had befriended and rescued many cats and humans alike, a linden tree is growing in the back yard.

Brain cancer has become a noticeable blip on my radar in recent months. A colleague's best friend succumbed to it. A friend's young nephew is fighting it. A former professor and friend died of the disease in February. My favourite musician, David Cook, lost his brother on May 2; and ran a 5 km race to raise funds for ABC2, Accellerate Brain Cancer Cure, the very next day.

I can't run marathons, but can donate to them. And can plant trees in honour of heroes of all kinds. So for Hilary, and Janet, and Adam, and all the others...a flowering apple tree.

The June my dad passed away was a harrowing one, and I turned time and again to the garden for comfort and peace and a kind of support. I always feel like Dad is right there when I'm puttering, cracking jokes about me and the mint plantation I inadvertently created years ago; commenting on my lack of talent in growing tomatoes, where he excelled. And the June he died, my blue poppy bloomed for the first time: on Father's Day.

This year, the weather or fates or something conspired to have it bloom on the anniversary of Dad's death. And I was home, fighting that virus I had last week, so I got to see it both preparing to open and in its pure jubilant glory. It's still flowering, as the secondary buds are opening, and it makes my heart lighter to watch it.

The whole yard is now a memory garden, I realize in walking around it. And I'm all right with that. It brings me solace. I hope it brings solace to those who visit, by blog or in person.

10 June 2009

Feeling the love for Orange...a horti-political commentary

Orange is such a bright, cheerful colour, isn't it? Don't you just love to see it everywhere? (Geum 'Cooky')

It's a funny thing about orange. I don't wear it or have it in the house anywhere (except on flowers that are blooming) but in the garden, it makes me instantly happy. (Callibrachoa 'Terracotta')

There are so many awesome shades of orange, aren't there? (Fireball Azalea)

I especially love orange blossoms punching up their brilliance in the spring garden, as an anodyne to the more tepid pastel colours (no diss meant to those who like pastels, but as I've said before...here in the fog, we need bright colours in our gardens) (Lantana Landmark Citrus)

Okay, maybe this is more PORANGE than true orange...but it's a great hummingbird magnet, and smells divine to boot (Agastache Acapulco)

I love how orange can go from being a nearly-salmon colour (Diascia Orange something or other, suffering from lost label syndrome)

Or a more cheddary colour (Trollius Orange Queen)

It can be jaw-droppingly awesome and vibrant in colour (Euphorbia 'Fireglow')

Or more subtle, although paired with Chameleon Euphorbia brightens it even more. (One of the Lights series of azaleas)

There's a particular reason for my glee about orange today. (yes, I'm slowly feeling better, thank you for all your get well wishes). Orange happens to represent my provincial political party of choice...and the New Democratic Party made history here in Nova Scotia last night by electing its first majority government. Whoooo hooooo! They can't fix everything overnight, of course, but I have long been impressed by the integrity of premier-designate Darrell Dexter, and was thrilled to do my small bit to help elect an NDP Member of the Legislature in my riding for the first time ever, too. 

I hadn't been out of the house much in the past couple of days except to go to the doctor...and so I almost missed the beginning of the highlight of my gardening season. What colour is the perfect counterpoint/complement to orange? 

Blue, of course. Blooming a week earlier than usual. I'll have more to say on that in my next blog post, though. 

09 June 2009

Interview with a Mailorder Specialist: Dugald Cameron of GardenImport

I've had a few emails wondering where I've been the past week or so. The short answer is work and health clashed and I've been knocked flat by some sort of gastro-intestinal bug. Maybe it's goutweed, finally taking root inside my innards, but I've been very unpleasantly sick.

So in lieu of a post about my garden, here's an interview I'd planned to get up on bloomingwriter quite a while back but am only just now doing. Dugald Cameron is owner and operator of
GardenImport, a very good mail order company based in Richmond Hill, Ontario. I had asked Dugald about some new plants for an article I was doing for the Halifax Herald, and he graciously replied and sent photos; that got my curiously whetted and I thought it would be fun to talk to him about garden mailorder in these changing times. So here's my interview with him:

1. Tell me about your background; how you became interested in gardening. What prompted you to take up having a nursery? A mail order nursery?

My earliest gardening memories were helping my Dad weed my English Grandmothers garden in Thornhill. Probably remembered more for the superb Tea as reward for my modest efforts than the gardening. My interest flourished when my wife Lynn Pashleigh and I got our first garden. Dad had a greenhouse supplying many plants and seedlings that, with the addition of bulbs, vegetables, annuals, fruit and shrubs we quickly filled a large downtown backyard. Like many gardeners, we were avid readers of gardening magazines, books and longtime members of the RHS. We read about all sorts of plants and bulbs but couldn't find them here. Our "wish list" of plants and bulbs grew ever longer. Some of you may remember that perennial gardening was just starting way back in 1982.

Both of us bought many of our plants, bulbs and seeds from catalogues but there were many we couldn't find. We thought there must be others looking for the same and decided there was a market worth pursuing. Besides, a side benefit was that we'd finally get the plants we'd been looking for.

I'd worked in the advertising business and new how to produce a catalogue. My Father had been a copywriter and new how to write so; together with my wife Lynn Pashleigh we started Gardenimport way back in 1982. Our catalogues are written and designed by us and, pardon my bias, they are the best in Canada.

We've also had a website since 1996 fully illustrated and includes growing information, special offers and a larger selection of everything.

2. What's your operation like? How large, (acreage), what sort of facilities (greenhouse, cold frame, etc)?

We aren't big. Our greenhouses are north of us while our office & warehouse are in Thornhill. We have yard next to our warehouse for our outdoor plant production. Here we harden off plants prior to shipment and pot new plants for growing on and future seasons. Hardening Off is an important, seldom practiced part of plant growing where spends some time outdoors adapting from greenhouse to outdoor conditions. This takes time but the plants love it and are in top shape for shipping. Many of the plants we offer grow best under different conditions and take different times to mature.

3. What are a few of your favorite plants? Are there plants that simply defeat you personally?

I hate this question :-). My favorites change from year to year. We trial numerous bulbs and plants every year. Many of these often become favorites. My current passions are Blackmore & Langdon tuberous begonias, Narcissus, summer flowering bulbs and Clematis. My wish list grows ever longer so there will hopefully be many interesting new introductions in the future.

Personal defeats are everything I've killed. All the garden experts I respect have killed or tossed far more plants than I and I've killed my share. An unfortunate part of trialing new bulbs and plants. Almost all our staff are gardeners and in their opinion the ultimate trial at Gardenimport is for me to grow it. Apparently my specialty is the lavish neglect of trial plants.

4. With spring so staggered in this sprawling country of ours, how do you time shipments and plant growth so that customers can order no matter where they live? Did you design the mailing containers?

In the early days, we were primarily a bulb and Suttons Seeds supplier and offered a selection of bare root perennials and peonies. We also learned that there is a limited range of plants that can be shipped bare root and grown on successfully by our customers. Most bare root perennials are bulbous or thick rooted which left out almost ALL the plants we wanted. Besides, it was often hard to tell dormant roots from dead and we had our doubts about their future success for our customers. Besides, there's a universe of other plants that could be shipped potted if we could figure a way to ship and have them arrive in good shape. To do this we need well rooted plants.

We chose a 1 litre; 11cm (4") square pot for the plants, grow them and harden off prior to shipping. Each pot is placed in a poly bag with a moistened paper towel and rubber bands to hold it all together. This is packed in our custom designed carton that holds the pot firmly but also allows free room above the pot for stems and foliage. These have air holes and are shipped single or in larger cartons with airways connected throughout the parcel. We've learned that no matter how you pack or label, they often travel upside down or experience a rough trip.

5.  What's the biggest challenge facing you as a mail order nursery operator? 

The greatest challenge of all is to have all the plants in perfect shape, hardened off and ready at the same time as early in the season as possible. We are also at the mercy of the weather.

Nevertheless we do our best but sometimes we must wait for the sake of the plants. The major advantage of our plants is that they can be shipped throughout the spring, summer and fall. We publish 2 catalogues a year Spring and Summer/Fall.

Perhaps and even greater challenge is to offer exactly the right quantity and variety of everything our customers want. An impossibly elusive dream that will never be realized. Plants don't always cooperate. How many to grow is always a guessing game when we offer new plants that few gardeners have ever seen or even heard of. This is not a business for the faint of heart!

6. What do you see as being the new and hot plants this year? 

Boy oh Boy is this a good year for great new plants! We've too many to list this year (over 100 new introductions) but here are some highlights. 


Brunnera KINGS RANSOM: A new foliage combination of silvered green and gold.

Coreopsis verticillata MOONRAY: A new creamy lemon colour form of the famous Coreopsis MOONBEAM. Blooms all summer. 

Coreopsis SIENNA SUNSET: A gorgeous salmon-orange Coreopsis that begins a burnt sienna colour. Blooms all summer. 

Hakonechloa: We have 4 varieties, 3 of them new ALL GOLD, NAOMI and NICHOLAS.

Ashwood HELLEBORES: We have 6 varieties including the very choice DOUBLE PINK and DOUBLE WHITE


Buddleia Low & Behold BLUE CHIP

Hardy, no spray Roses 

Dwarf Lilac BLOOMERANG: Only grows to 4 - 5' and blooms all summer (heaviest in the cooler weather of spring and fall but they do always have flower)

Hydrangea macrophylla Let's Dance MOONLIGHT and STARLIGHT: Hardy macrophylla that bloom on new wood as well as old.

Hydrangea INCREDIBALL: A larger flowered AND STURDIER form of the beloved ANABELL.


We have 34 Clematis this year. Most of them new, some of them old and all of them great. There's a range from the 12" tall FILLIGREE from Raymond Evison through our selection of 3 - 4' Patio varieties; also from Raymond as are 3 double flowered varieties CRYSTAL FOUNTAIN, EMPRESS and FRANZISKA MARIA. Clematis in containers is soon to become big. They don't don't take much space and bloom a long time.

7. How do you go about advertising your business? 

We've had a site since 1996. Many customers now place their orders online. To help this we run a Google campaign and send friendly, informative newsletters.

8. How about the future of Mail Order plants & bulbs?

The future for gardening is bright. I feel that concerns for the environment, global warming and our carbon footprint were first embraced by gardeners. It's all part of being a gardener. Gardeners will save the world.

And thank goodness more people are finally discovering the great taste of home grown produce. Like me, new gardeners are starting with vegetables.

We will travel less and harkening back to the old days, catalogues may become important sources of many things besides bulbs and plants. The Web will evolve and paper catalogues will ultimately be replaced.

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