30 November 2009

The End of November Approacheth!

If there has been a defining weather pattern colour for NOvember, it's been grey. Grey skies, often wringing rain out like water from a dirty dishrag, making me feel grey with the blahs. Thankfully, we're into the last gasp of NO(light)vember, and moving on to December and the colourful lights and decorations of Christmas.

I don't need any excuses to go visit my friend Rob Baldwin in Upper Falmouth, but there was also the happy occasion of having to pick his brain for an article I was working on. Not surprisingly, the day I visited was grey, dreary and raining. But it wasn't cold, and we walked around the nursery and winter greenhouses, and Rob's plantings and containerized plants proved a point that he's always maintained: we in Atlantic Canada can plant for brilliant colour in the fall and winter when we most need it.

Rob's a huge advocate of evergreen plants, both broadleafed and coniferous, and all you have to do is walk around the nursery and the rest of his property for a little while to see his point about their versatility and variability in colour, size, shape, texture...and then make your wish list and start filling it. (I have quite a few, but every time I go to the nursery, my list expands. What a surprise that is).

This is 'Sunkist' cedar (Thuja), one we both agree on as a must-have shrub: it holds its golden colour really well, and is a great bird plant, both for them to hide or nest in (larger plants) and for the cones they use as food sources. My own 'Sunkist' isn't huge, but after four years in my garden it's never had any problem with dieback or windburn.

This is a form of Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum) that Rob grew from seed collected on our epic voyage to northern Nfld and southeastern Labrador two years ago with Captain Dick Steele and a dozen or so other intrepid plant hunters. Rob collected the seed for this off the side of a high hill at Blanc Sablon, Quebec, where we took the ferry from Labrador back to Newfoundland. I sat down at the ferry terminal and had a batch of kittens worrying about him climbing that hill after seed, but it was obviously worth it. The seedlings from that site are growing with an odd reflexed habit to their leaves, possibly to shed snow and protect themselves from the bitter winds that would scour that hill face.

This is one of the finest of native plants for a wildlife garden or just because it's gorgeous: northern Bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica. It is fragrant, has this amazing fall colour, holds its leaves for a long time before November winds take them, and has cool blue-grey berries which birds eat. People use it in decorative wreathmaking, too.

"I don't know why more people don't use Russian cypress," (Microbiota decussata) Rob said when we came to this collection of containers in one of the cold frames. "Look at its fall colour!" I totally agree with him (and it's one of the plants on my 'add this next year' list. In the summer, it's obligingly green and creeping and wellbehaved, but its fall colour is as splendid as 'Heatherbun' chamaecyparis, which I do have and love.

I happen to be very fond of native dogwoods like the red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). Its red twigs glow beautifully especially against a backdrop of snow. This is the gold-twigged form, 'Flaviramea', which also works well; and for those of you with a flare for decorating, try adding a few twigs of both the red and gold forms to your winter flower/foliage arrangements. They're awesome.

Many rhododendrons and (especially) deciduous azaleas do really, really well here in Nova Scotia; they like the acid soil, and breeders have been propagating all kinds of good, cold-tolerant forms. This small leafed beauty is R. kiusianum, the Kyushu azalea; I was quite enchanted with the variation in foliage colour, and think I'll try it in the most sheltered part of my garden next spring.

Some of the younger and more borderline-hardy plants are spending the winter in one of the big greenhouses, where they will be protected from winds and snow. The photo doesn't really do them justice, because there are just so many forms and colours.

I've never seen this shrub before, and I want it. It's Disanthus cercidifolium, the redbud hazel, a member of the witch hazel family. Look at that fall foliage colour! Obviously I'll have to cold test this on my high hill, but it's apparently hardy to Zone 5. Want want want.

You can call this Golden fernleaf false cypress. Or Golden Dwarf Hinoki Cypress. Or, if you wanna exercise your tongue, Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Tetragona Aurea.' Just don't call it drab, boring or ugly. Because it's one of those catch-your-breath awesome chamaecyparis. Want want want WANT!

When Rob first moved to his property about 20 years ago, there wasn't much of anything there. He began planting trees and shrubs. A lot of trees and shrubs, especially evergreens, in all sizes, shapes and colours. There's always something to look at there, but this really is when the evergreens come into their own.

We came across this 'Pink Dawn' viburnum, getting a jump on spring out underneath some hardwood trees. Perhaps it knows something we don't about the coming winter. Maybe it's going to be a mild, open one. But there will still be plenty of grey days that will need alleviating by lots of colourful plants indoors and out.

Or else, like Mungus, I'll have to decide to climb into the duvet and sleep til spring.

22 November 2009

November Potpourri: flowers and friends and other musings

Have I mentioned that despite my best efforts, I really don't like November. Yeah, I know, only every other breath. Today the sun is coming in and out from behind the heavy woollen blanket of clouds, and part of me thinks I 'should' go outside. The other part thinks staying in my office, blasting Bon Jovi and tidying up the chaos, is a better idea. So we'll go with plan B for the time being.

I call this time of year "The Fourth Gardening Season" because now that we're pretty much done outdoors, we turn to indoor gardening, growing houseplants, purchasing flowers to enjoy, and starting to catch up on that huge stack of unread books and magazines (and blogs!) that we've not had time for in recent months.

As a journalist, one of the things I do is review books, including books on gardening. I also review Canadian fiction, and sometimes history, nature, and science books. Occasionally I post a review here, especially if it's a book by an author I know and like, but there are so many books and only so much time to review them here. Happily for gardening enthusiasts, my dear friend Kylee of Our Little Acre has developed a second website reviewing gardening books, which goes by the delightful title "Gardening by the Book". I'm delighted that she's doing this, and wish her huge success with it. Kylee's a wonderful writer and one of those people I'm honoured to call friend across the many miles that separate us. So I hope you'll check out and refer regularly to her new book blog.

Another of my get-me-thru-November coping tricks includes surrounding myself with flowers, both fresh-cut and in flowering plants. They help drive away the greyness of the days, because it's pretty hard to look at a lovely, graceful flower and not smile. At least it is for me.
Cyclamen are among my favourite fall-winter blooms for my office, which is the coolest room in the house. Since these plants prefer cool house temperatures, they do very well for me, so long as I remember to watch the watering. Like African violets, they prefer to be watered from the bottom so as to keep the corm they grow out of from getting too wet and rotting. Besides their gorgeous flowers, cyclamen feature gorgeous green and silvery-green foliage, richly pattered, so they look splendid whether flowering or not.

I found this unusual plant several years ago and had to have it. It's called Ixora, and it flowers from midsummer until nearly Christmas for me. I had a bit of trouble with spider mites on it last year but got them under control mostly by daily misting of the plant, and it's busily blooming its head off again.

African violets can be exasperating to grow well, but when they're happy and blooming they're just so irresistible. Plus what can I do? I go into department or grocery stores, spy these plants quietly flowering and crying for help, and I have to bring them home. The biggest trouble we have with them is that they are like lint brushes, catching every single cat hair that comes near them.

This single, fuchsia-coloured violet reminds me that my next colour in the garden post will be about the colour fuchsia, or magenta. In looking through my photos, it seems to be a favourite, indoors and out, mostly because it's such a cheery, rich colour.

One more African violet. At the moment I only have three, but I also haven't been to any flower shops or dept stores, etc, in the past week or so. Who knows what will come home with me next time I venture out.

I love kalanchoes. Love, love, love them. Their brilliant flowers cheer me immediately, they are tough plants requiring little more than some light and occasional watering, they flower for months on end...what's NOT to love about them?

This bouquet was given to me by my dear friend (and floral designer extraordinaire) Neville MacKay, owner of My Mother's Bloomers in Halifax. Nearly three weeks later, the daisies and heath-relative (I don't remember its name and keep forgetting to ask Neville) have faded but the dendrobium orchids are still going strong. And I do mean strong!

Neville loves flowers, obviously, and brings in some amazing, unique and gorgeous varieties for his Halifax shop. Here he's holding a type of green dianthus, which were just-arrived when I last visited him. Neville has this ability to encourage anyone to do their own floral arranging and decorating, because he has a an enthusiastic, never condescending and positive attitude, telling people "You can do this!" He and I hope to be collaborating on a project together in the not-too-distant future. We've sort of put it out to the universe and whatever will be, will be.

In the meantime, looking forward to more blooms as the season turns from fall into winter, I planted a few amaryllis bulbs, which are just starting to get going with their growth. Come the Christmas season, I'll gussy them up a bit (Neville says 'tart them up') with a few sprigs of gold-sparkled curly willow, a bow or maybe some decorative stones in the pots that show the bulb, and voila: instant holiday-cheer.

With good friends, family, great books to read and a profusing of floral splendors...I'll make it through the season. If I win the lottery, though, we're heading for warmer climates for a week or two, that's for sure. Note to self: buy winning lottery ticket.

17 November 2009

Colour in the Garden: Orange You Fond of orange?

Being as how NOvember is living up to its reputation as being a long, grey month (at least the cloudy days seem interminiable), I thought it was time to have fun with colour again. The colour du jour: Orange, in its various manifestations.
Orange: It’s a mixture of yellow and red, a secondary colour, named after the fruit by the same name. It’s a curious colour, because it’s been my experience that people either love it or hate it. I’m firmly in both camps. I wouldn’t paint my house that colour, or buy a burnt orange car (like my longsuffering did with a muscle car he had in his youth), and the only orange I willingly wear is blaze orange during the very occasional day during hunting season when I’m out riding my horse.

But in the garden!? Oh, jubilation. From the arrival of those yellow-orange crocus in spring (and that unique coral hyacinth, ‘Gypsy Queen), through the tulips and azaleas to the annuals and perennials that dance through the season, I have yet to find an orange I don’t like. Granted, I don't grow orange marigolds, dahlias or canna lilies, but only because I don't choose to grow those plants in any colour. There's only room for so much, after all. Even in my jungle.

I fell in love with Euphorbia 'Fireglow' the first time I saw it, down at Bayport Plant Farm, and had to have it. It does roam a bit but nothing like other rhizome-bearing plants. The bracts just get more and more spectacular in colour, and often we'll find a second production of flowers and bracts later in the season, possibly because I do let this plant spread in a controlled manner.

One of the new annuals I field tested this year was Proven Winners 'Flirtation Orange' diascia. It has been a fabulous annual, flowering its head off profusely all season. I remembered to shear it back a couple of times when it was getting a little scraggly, as they do, but this one stayed much more compact and floriferous than older cultivars. Plus I love the colour, of course. So in my books, we have a winner!

Because of course as with any colour, there are variations on the shade of orange. Amber, peach, pumpkin, carrot, coral, salmon, rust, vermillion…some have pink in them, some yellow, and all work amazingly with the opposite colour on the wheel, blue. The rich orange of this Mimulus aurantiacus, Orange monkey flower, with a blue lobelia hovering nearby, was a star all summer.

I love the colours blue and orange together;they bring out the best in each other, I find. Again, what I do in the garden I wouldn't necessarily do in putting clothing colours together, or painting my house, but the garden colours just work for me.

I was besotted by lantana years ago, and plant breeders just keep considerately creating more new, delicious colour variations. These plants aren't a problem here because they're only annuals; they don't selfseed, and the first real frost will take them out. But they are glorious while they're blooming, and butterflies flock to them despite the (to us) unpleasant smell of foliage and flowers.

The top one is Cherry Sunrise, and this is Tropical Fruit. I think.

Another plant that has entranced me in recent years is the Geum, with its blaze of yellow, scarlet, red, and orange flowers on various varieties. The plant at the top of this post is my favourite 'Cooky', while this 'Mango Lassy' comes in a close second. Both of my clumps have put up occasional sprigs of flowers since the main season passed, and 'Cooky' even obliged me with a few flowers as late as a couple of weeks ago.

This is a flower stalk from the well named 'Hummingbird Mint, Agastache 'Acapulco'. Everything about this plant makes me happy too--the way hummingbirds, bees and butterflies flock to it; the incredibly floriferous nature of the plant; the lovely lemony-minty fragrance, and oh yes, the fact that I overwinter the plant indoors so I'll have it up and blooming first thing in the spring.

As some of my readers know (I'm looking at you, Anna! ) I'm not crazy about petunias, but I love callibrachoas, or million-bells. They flower their heads off all summer, don't need deadheading, hummers love them, their colours are brilliant...is that enough reasons? This is 'Terra Cotta', which also comes now in a Super-Cal, a larger than callie, smaller than petunia, hybrid.

Meet 'Fireball' azalea, which stopped me dead in my tracks at a local nursery and demanded I bring it home with me. I can't argue with plants when they talk to me like that, and now it's out front near the echinacea collection, and with 'Kent Belle' Bellflower nearby to provide a punch of royal purple to the display.

Asiatic lilies have no fragrance, but they sure have brilliant colour. This is 'Cancun', which has been flowering carefree in our garden since the first year we moved to our house. I have another variety, currently without name, that is deep orange without spots, and another that is melon-orange; all of them are eyecatchingly lovely, especially planted near Purple ninebark (Diabolo) or deep blue delphinium.

That's probably enough for this post. Speaking of blue delphinium, there's a solitary, scraggly spike of sky blue delphinium blooming valiantly in the back yard, but it's too cold, grey and windy for this fair-weather gardener to go outside and photograph it today. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

02 November 2009

From Imperfection, Beauty: Wabi-sabi in November

It's not a secret to anyone who knows me or who follows bloomingwriter that autumn is not my favourite season. The vanishing light does bad things to my moods although I do cheer myself with the thought that as soon as we make it past Solstice in December, the days will be lengthening again.

Usually autumn in Nova Scotia is a thing of wonder and glory, especially in September & October. This year, not so much, especially October. For many of us, what is usually a golden month felt uncomfortably like November, with a seemingly endless repetition of rain, cold, wind, dreariness, cloud, repeat as necessary. And now, abruptly, we're in November.And so many garden to-dos haven't yet been to-done.It could be cause for guilt, panic, frustration and I-give-up-itis. Could be, but isn't.

A couple of things happened that helped to adjust my attitude. A week or so back I was squishing my way around the yard, complaining about the mess and begrudging the disappearing of beauty & stressing over the to do list. Then I came indoors for coffee and took a few minutes to catch up on some blog reading. My friend Kylee at Our Little Acre had written a post about what the Japanese call wabi-sabi, and it pulled me up short. She was following an exercise challenge put out by fellow garden writer Debra Lee Baldwin at gardeninggonewild.com, also talking about this subject.

Wabi-sabi, Debra writes, is “the Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection and transience. In seeking wabi-sabi, one cultivates an appreciation for the ordinary and becomes aware that age offers its own poignant beauty.”

Hmmmm. Beauty in imperfection and transience. That really resonated in my soul. We’re a culture that seems to seek perfection, though what defines perfection varies with each of us. I thought about this for a while, and went back outside to look at the garden again with more open and less critical eyes. There is a lot of beauty out there, when one takes time to look at things a little differently.
We can fixate on the fading roses (which indeed hold their own beauty) and while brooding about the dying blossoms fail to see the valiant late blooms still coming on.

Such blossoms are unexpected gifts that we sometimes forget to appreciate, just as we fail to appreciate friends, family, the daily blessings we have.

So you know what happened next, don't you? I turned off the critical gardener who sits on one shoulder, listing all the to-dos that need to get to-done. And went back out into the garden.

Turned off the eyes that are mourning the winding down of summer and opened the eyes that rejoice in late season flowers like widows tears.

Saw the dying foliage and denuded stems as just the prologue to a new chapter, not the end of the story.

Instead of being sad because the hummingbirds aren't here to enjoy their feeders, I was glad that the calibrachoa was still flowering its head off, seemingly unscathed by the frosts.

Seedheads of this exuberant clematis look like cheerleader pompoms or floral fireworks, celebrating the season's finale. The way they catch and reflect light when the sun deigns to find us makes me deliciously gleeful.

We’ve had some frost, but not enough to do in all the annuals, and some are still valiantly flowering, like the verbena and lobelia (yes, lobelia!) and alyssum and osteos. They may not be as profuse as they were in July, in most cases, but that means we can focus in more closely and celebrate one single flower or cluster as opposed to being overwhelmed by a wash of colour.

And suddenly, with a shift in my thinking about the garden, everything seems to be all right, even if the beds and borders aren’t perfectly tidied and weeded. They never are. But they’re beautiful anyway.

The bulbs that I don't get into the ground outdoors can do their bit to remind me that they are "another season's promise", in the words of the late great singer-songwriter Stan Rogers, by catching winter light and turning from promise to blossom.

I’m sure most of you are already quite able to celebrate the beauty in imperfection and transience, but if not, that’s my wish for you as we go forward into November. Regardless of the weather.

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