31 March 2010

Wordless Wednesday: March goes out with hummingbird dreams of summer

30 March 2010

A little Farch denial...

Well. On Friday, the weather decided to throw that Farch snit I've been expecting for several weeks, first bringing us a little snow, then dropping the mercury down well below zero Celsius. I decided to throw an equal though less dramatic snit by getting sick and spending most of the weekend in a befuddled haze, when actually awake. Today, the weather has moderated in temperature though now the snit has converted merely to galeforce winds. I'm over my sicksnit and getting on with the business of well, business.

You may remember I went to an orchid show and sale several weeks ago, as an anodyne to Farch weather, and that a paphiopedilum orchid sort of followed me home. I thought I'd show off some of the incredible orchids AND their amazingly amusing names, just to push back the crabbiness of Farch a little bit more.

I really don't know all that much about most orchids (other than a little about our native species, and a bit about phalaenopsis plants because they keep following me home. Orchids remind me a little bit of cats, purebred horses, or other fancy creatures, in that the naming of orchids "is a difficult matter, it isn't just one of your holiday games..." I'm sure T.S. Eliot wouldn't mind me adapting his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats into The Orchid Fancier's book of Delectable Names.

Anyway. This delightful creature in the top photo is called Cymbidium 'Stonehaven Cooksbridge.'

Meet Vuylstekeara 'Fall in Love'. Well named, indeed because I think it's quite easy to fall in love with something this exquisite.

Oh, this is what followed me home: Paphiopedilum 'Limerick x Greenvale x Cherokee.' I have no idea what any of that means other than it's three crosses of cultivars, and that I decided it was time to take the leap to a paph. So far, Limerick is doing fine in my office.

Now this one I understand. Laelia 'Santa Barbara Sunset' seems a great description to me because although I haven't been there (yet), these colours, I suspect, are similar to those of a dreamy California sunset

Meet Dendrobium 'Crystal Pink.' The cool thing about this plant is that the flowers are small, about the size of a guitar pick. Alas, I didn't have a pick with me, and I don't want to show the photo of my broken thumbnail beside the flower. Just take my word on this, okay?

I have no idea who Andree Millar is/was, but how lucky to have a Dendrobium named after her!

This is Dendrobium aberrans, and again, these are tiny flowers: each one is about the size of a thumbnail. I seem to be drawn to the dendrobiums, but maybe it's because they were faithfully labeled AND I took photos of the labels so I wouldn't just say, "oh, there's a pretty one..."

Here's one where the breeder had a lot of fun with the name. Say hello to Degarmoara 'Skywalker Red Star.' It seems to me there were other 'Skywalkers' there, but I could be wrong about that.

This is a plant that I remember from other years, so obviously its flowering schedule is pretty consistant. This is Cymbidium 'Pelleas Merah'.

Staying with the Cymbidiums (which I dearly love and want to have), this charmer is named 'Ming Pagoda.'

And to wrap up this display of exotic perfection, let's say hello to Slc 'Crown Jewel.' Now. I have NO idea what Slc means, other than it's probably an abbreviation for some kind of crossing of genera. If someone who knows more about them would like to clarify that, please leave a comment, by all means. I don't like being inaccurate with information, but this isn't what you'd call an informative post: it's mostly eye candy to help us get through what's left of Farch, and into what Annie of The Transplantable Rose calls Marpril.

Of course, the coming of April will bring out the T. S. Eliot in me yet again, as I get to quote from my favourite poem ever. And what, do you suppose, might THAT poem be? Dear friends and gentle gardeners, I leave you with that until the changing of the month.

26 March 2010

Skywatch Friday: A bee's-eye view of the sky?

Okay, I confess right now. This isn't what you'd call a conventional post for Skywatch Friday. However, we have come to that time of year when I sometimes forget to admire the sky because I'm too busy looking at things at or near ground level. Soil level. You know what I mean. It's gardening season!

I had to go to Truro on Wednesday and give a little talk to the Friends of the Garden at my first alma mater, the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. (yes, I have several almae matras. You wouldn't really expect me to take the conventional route through academia, would you?) The Friends tend to the incredible Rock Garden at AC, and if you live in this province and haven't been there, you are missing something extraordinary. Even in winter.

After we were done, even though the sky was drippy and grey and cold, I went out to walk around the campus a little. I had my pocket camera with me, a compact and clever little Canon Powershot SX200. I love that little camera. Drop it in my purse along with my iPhone (geek) and I don't need to drag laptop and digital SLR with me if travelling light. It has an impressive lens on it, too, with the ability to focus very closeup to subjects. So I thought about what it might be like to see things from a bee's eye perspective, when it comes to plants. Not so much the actual image they see, but what it's like to see from the ground up, rather than our normal perspective. First stop was the heath and heather bed, which has overwintered magnificently this year.

Then down to the rock garden, where many things are still quiescent, snuggled into their mulchy beds, dreaming of warmth and sunlight and the cue to begin. But these semps were watching me watching them.

And the creeping thyme didn't mind me creeping up on it with my little camera.

Oh, what a surprise. Jodi is still taking photos of snowdrops. Well, yes, I'll keep doing that for weeks yet. They make me happy. And raindrops on snowdrops...well, that's just one of my favourite things. Hmmm. I think someone sang a song along those lines.

It was raining in earnest when I went across the road to the Alumni Gardens (Aggies once, aggies twice...) so I didn't linger. I did, however, want to hang out with this sycamore, because its bark and its funny alien fruit amuse me. The fruit wouldn't co-operate by falling from the tree intact, so I contented myself with admiring the trunk, which looks like a piece of exquisite sculpture.

Enough with the rain. Back to Collins Hort Building I went, and the small greenhouse was open so naturally I went in there to have a look around. I think some of the plants in there may well have been there when I was a student, or are offspring of those original plants. Not the standard poinsettias, though.

I do LOVE succulents, and I keep saying it's time to learn more about them. Well, while I was away, a nice box of books arrived from Thomas Allen & Son, who distribute Timber Books here in Canada. And a nice book by Debra Lee Baldwin was in that box of books. Not her new one--I'm not sure how that happened, unless it's backordered here in Canada, but I didn't have Designing with Succulents, either. So I'll have fun with it while waiting for the new book.

This cactus delighted me, with its furry crown studded with little pink jewels of soon to open flowers. Rant: One of my peeves in life are the plant companies that stick strawflowers to the tops of cacti in an effort to sex them up for clueless customers. The real flowers of cacti are much, much more interesting. So stop doing that, stupid plant companies.

Well I feel better for that, don't you? Let's move on to this tiny, dainty, charming succulent, which I assume is a sedum but I might be all wrong about that. Whatever it is, I love it and want some.

And to wrap up my bee's-eye view, there's a huge, wonderful hoya hanging in the Collins greenhouse. And what do you know but it had a number of clusters of perfectly sculpted, perfectly scented flowers hanging from it. I don't know that this photo will be enough to inspire mine to flower sometime soon, but it's worth a try. The blossoms of hoyas are marvelous. They can fill my sky anytime.

22 March 2010

I may have an ugly garden. Depends on what day you look.

The past few days, there's been a disturbance in the garden blogging 'Force.' It all stemmed from a post made, perhaps with the best of intentions, about ugly unkempt gardens, mostly of the vegetable type. We’ve had a lot of sometimes heated talk in the past few days about ugly gardens, and messy gardens, and gardens with no design to them, and WEEDS, my dears.

There’s been twittering. There’s been blogging. There’s been myriad comments in defense and in umbrage of the original post, and I’m not gonna name the blog nor the blogger, but I am gonna confess my own sins.

Well, to begin I have this thing about weeds. The worst weeds in my estimation aren’t ‘weeds’ at all, but naughty ornamentals gone out of control. Like the bane of my existence, goutweed (Aegopodium). But otherwise...I really like most of the plants that many would call weeds.

I grow milkweed (Asclepias syriaca AND A. incarnata along with butterfly weed, A. tuberosa). I do this to help out the monarch butterflies, which cannot survive without milkweed. I also let a honkin' big patch of nettles grow up by the spruce trees, because there are the food source for red admiral butterflys (in cat form). I let a lot of wild plants--daisies, goldenrod, asters--do their own thing MOSTLY outside the garden beds, but if one or two plants creep into the perennial borders, no biggie. Bees, songbirds, butterflies, and other benign creatures depend on these plants to help them survive.

There are also gorgeous, glorious wild orchids on our property, some species of Platanthera (fringed orchids) and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), a hugely important butterfly plant. And spruce trees, and young firs, and mountain ash, and scubby wire birch, and carex and juncus and many species of wild grasses, many other shrubs and trees, growing in a blissful and healthy riot in the upper parts of the property.

Along the lower border, edging the paddock and a swampy ditch, there are willows, which many people decry as being bad plants. They take up some of the swampiness and create habitat for my beloved frogs. There are major numbers of cattails in the pond; perfect hiding places for small reptiles and amphibians, nesting places for my beloved redwinged blackbirds. There are alders all along the edge of our pond, bounding much of our property, and creeping into the lower pasture where we haven't mowed for several years. Alders are despised by many people. But they are excellent plants for securing stream and creek banks, filtering out toxins from water, providing food and shelter for wildlife.

There are dandelions in my lawn. Lots of clover. These both feed the bees, while all the perfect lawns at the McMansions a few miles off with their lethal doses of chemicals don't feed anything except the wallets of lawn care companies and big chemical.

All these things would give the average suburban home association a massive attack of the pearlclutching vapours. I'm blessed, however: I live on 7 acres, with a woodlot to the north of me, hayfields to the south, and a benign neighbour up the road and across about 200 feet. However, those driving by can't see what I'm up to, and you know what? I don't care if they do. (Oh, but Grace, I did finally get the Christmas wreaths and the swagging off the house and arbour. Today. The snow finally was gone from the base of the arbour that we could move it.)

This time of year, everything is a mess. As you'll see from the photos, even today, there is still snow in some areas. As it melts, it makes parts of the yard very squishy. In an effort not to compact things down more, we're only working around the edges of the drier gardens. I test a lot of plants, and so we don't always have big drifts of perennials because I'm trying a new shrub or perennial and things are accordingly spotty. But colourful.

In our family, I'm the primary income earner, which I do as a freelance writer, photographer, editor, sometime speaker. A lot of my income comes from talking about/writing about/taking photographs of gardens and gardening. And my mantra is "We can all grow great gardens.'

What that term 'great garden' means to you may be totally different from what it means to me. Here, my great garden is a mix of natives and introduced, heritage and hybrids, brand new and old faithfuls, trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, ephemerals, annuals, bulbs, herbs, even a wee few vegetables. Yours may be three scarlet geraniums in a clay pot on a deck. They're both awesome, because they bring us joy.

In being a freelancer, rather than working for some company as a writer, things can be challenging. I have one client who is always significantly behind in paying me, and others that are occasional clients, others who are awesome and regular, which help me to build cushions for when I'm waiting to be paid by the big client who likes to hang onto their money til the last moment. So I don't have the spare cash to, say, hire a designer to deal with levelling some of the land or building me the stone wall I dearly want or doing any of a hundred other things that could be done. So we do them ourselves, what we can. This year, I am adding more soil as soon as I find some that is decent. I want to join a few beds, top up some areas, raise one section for an idea I have. Due to health issues, mostly mine, we can't do a whole lot in the run of a day, either. A couple hours for me and I can barely move, and I'm in constant, tedious, pain. But I work away at it, and LSS helps when he's not cutting firewood or doing some odd job elsewhere, or working at his own passions (his boat).

So it's not designer-perfect. But it's ours and we love it. If you don't love it, well, then send me some of your spare cash and I'll hire a friend of mine to improve it. Or, just don't look at it. We won't be offended.

And you, whether you have a balcony of succulents or a 20,000 landscaping job, whether you live on a suburban plot or revel in wide open spaces like we do...I hope you love your garden too. Just as long as it's yours and it makes you happy, it's all good. I won't criticize, but I will cheer you on.

I just want people to plant gardens, and plant things they enjoy, and enjoy what they do. Beyond that, we're learn as we grow together. It's NOT all easy, for sure. It can be strenuous, expensive, timeconsuming, frustrating. It can also be heaven on earth.

So just bloom where you're planted, have fun. If something doesn't work, try again next year, or use something else.

Like me. This afternoon, I go to say my last goodbye to my friend Dick. Tonight, if it's not snowing, I'll plant two American chestnut trees in his memory. That's what he wanted: for people to honour the earth in his memory by planting a tree.

Namasté, fellow gardeners. Onward and upward.

20 March 2010

Spotlight Saturday: Have you visited This blogger? Introducing Cindee

I have endless amounts of admiration for those who have the ability to maintain more than one blog. My brain feels like it's turning to 3 bean salad some days with only ONE blog to maintain, so for those with two or more, wow, my writerly hat is off to you for your dedication. It also gives me two or three times as many posts to read from them, so that's always good.

With that in mind, I would like to introduce Cindee, who writes about gardens past and present, about crafts...and about cats, too. I found her first at Moonstone Gardens, which is, a she puts it, a "gardening blog based from a 17-acre resort garden." The resort is in Oregon, one of those places I dream of visiting because it's home to many great gardens and garden centres/breeders. For now, I content myself with reading about these places via blogs.

From there, I traipsed over to the wonderful and whimsical Our Grandmother's Gardens, where Cindee celebrates not only gardening but a variety of crafty endeavours, some of them based in garden-inspired art.

And how lucky are the cats who share life with Cindee, because they have their own blog at The Cat House! This one isn't updated quite so often, but it's lovely to visit Cindee's feline friends. My only worry is that OUR cats will demand their own blog. You know what Mungus is like. And Spunky too. I'd have to create a blog for each of them, and put little kitty cams on their heads, and they'd want to write the blogs themselves, and I'd have to share my laptop with them...

Whew. Like I said, one is enough for me.

So that's a bit of a look at Cindee's blogs, and you can see how they'd appeal to me. I think they'll appeal to many of you as well, so I hope you'll pop by one or more of them and say hello!

19 March 2010

The Bee-loud Hamamelis: Gardening Gone Wild Picture This Photo Contest

Today is the last full day before official spring turns over on the calendar. I spent a good part of it sitting in the sun watching honeybees hanging out in an 'Arnold Promise' hamamelis. Then I thought that all this bee-watching might result in a fun entry for Gardening Gone Wild's Picture This Photo Contest for March, where the theme is "Awakening'.

Not only are plants showing decided signs of waking up and getting going, my friends the bees have woken up and man, are they hungry! They're also amazingly tolerant and gentle creatures, because I sat with both my cameras beside this witch-hazel, patiently following the busy little bees flitting around from flower to flower looking for nectar, and they didn't get at all offended. I think they know a bee lover when they see one. I know I'm very glad to see them.

So, even though I'm a Canadian outcast, up here beyond the confines of the contest boundaries...I'm tossing another photo into the competition, just for fun. There are some amazing entries again this month, so best of luck to all who have captured a glimpse of spring's awakening, and thanks again to the good hosts at GGW for helping us to become better photographers.


Skywatch Friday: Skies, snowdrops and supervisor Spunky

I keep thinking we're going to pay bigtime for this almost two weeks of fine weather. Daylight Savings Time always scrambles my circuits a little bit, but it's also so gratifying to walk outside in the morning and not need seven layers of clothes. The plants are responding to the sun's welcoming rays, as my Corylus avellana 'Contorta' shows off against a perfect blue sky yesterday morning.

We're still a long way from being frost free, of course, but that lends its own particular charms to morning walks. These snowdrops look like they're dipped in a bit of ultrafine sugar.

Meanwhile, back indoors, my supervisor Spunky Boomerang thinks I really should stop procrastinating and either get some more writing done, or have a nap with him...

But somehow, I don't want to miss a moment of clear, springlike skies, so I'll wait til well after sunset before I turn in.

I hope your Skywatch Friday is as perfect as the past few days have been for us here in Scotts Bay!

16 March 2010

"The Plant Does all the Work!" Remembering my friend...

This is the blog posting I hoped I wouldn’t have to write for a long time yet. But the day has come, and my heart is heavy. I’m taking a break from Wordless Wednesday this week because plant lovers in Atlantic Canada are feeling a loss tonight.

It has been almost a decade since I met the famous, formidable and funny plantsman Captain Richard (Dick) Steele. Our meeting was happenstance: Longsuffering Spouse and I were out driving around on the south shore of Nova Scotia in late spring. He, of course, had one eye peeled to the water, looking at fishing boats: I was looking at gardens. We came around a curve in what was a particularly twisty road, and I saw wooden racks of interesting plants, and a modest sign: Bayport Plant Farm. “Stop the truck!” I hollered.

LSS, being an agreeable sort, piled the binders on. At my urging, he backed us up and pulled in the parking lot. I clambered out to examine the plants, and he ambled up a path beyond a line of large yews. Moments later, he came bounding back and grabbed my arm. “You HAVE to see these!” he announced, grinning from ear to ear. I followed him, and stopped in my tracks. Blue poppies. In bloom. Around them, dozens of rhododendrons filled with silken blossoms, irises flinging their fascinating flowers skyward, a joyful riot of evergreens and perennials, foliage and flowers. I was in love.

(Dick Steele with "Other Jodee" on the Great Plant Hunting Expedition of 2007, en route to Battle Harbour. He had two Jodis, both left-handed, a tad mischievous, and besotted with him, among the pilgrims on this voyage. )

A few moments later I was taken to meet the owner of all this beauty, a dignified gentleman I assumed to be in his mid-sixties. (He was actually in his mid-80s). Snow-white hair and beard, glasses smudged with some potting mix from the plants he was transplanting, firm handshake. A retired naval captain, he had a stern countenance until you saw the twinkle in his eye and heard him laugh. If he liked you, he liked you forever, and treasured you as his friend. If he didn’t like you…my understanding from others is that he was exquisitely polite, or else not to be found. For some inscrutable reason, (inscrutable on his part--I was smitten immediately) we hit it off very well, and I owe so much of what I know about plants to having learned from this enthusiastic and generous man. To many people, he was Captain Steele. To those who had the honour to call him friend, he was just ‘Dick’.

Dick has been working with plants, especially rhododendrons and azaleas, but also many other plants that caught his eye, for well over fifty years. I know of exactly two types of plant he heartily despises: goutweed (Aegopodium) and Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). A man after my own heart! He has developed countless hundreds of cultivars, which he has been cold-testing at his farm on the south shore of Nova Scotia and at his home farm in New Brunswick, and has donated who knows how many plants to public gardens and parks, to his beloved Atlantic Rhododendron and Horticultural Society, to friends near and far.

“Take this home and see how it does for you on that damn windy hill of yours!” was a regular comment when I came to visit. A visit with Dick usually started out with a tour around the 30 acre property known as Bayport Plant Farm, and wrapped up with tea in the shed/office where countless visitors had come to talk plants, buy plants, bring plants, ask questions. Although he wasn’t the best email correspondent I have ever encountered, he thought nothing of picking up the phone and calling to tell me about something that had struck his fancy. If he was praised for his plant breedings, he would wave it off, saying, "I don't run around taking credit for breeding this plant or that. The plant does all the work, but I had a lot of fun with helping them."

It was from Dick I learned about the amazing dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and how one of the oldest specimens in cultivation is right in Halifax. From him came a cutting of the huge, magnificent wisteria from his property that he insisted would grow in my garden as well as it did his. The pieris in my front garden, covered in buds and quivering in anticipation of its bloom period ss one he said I couldn't go wrong with. He always teasingly scolded me that I didn’t have nearly enough rhododendrons, and I always said that the garden wasn’t quite ready to take on too many, because of my wind and clay and and and…

This year, however, I’ll be adding a number of rhododendrons and hardy azaleas.

Every late summer for the past number of years, Dick has led an annual plant-hunting expedition to north-western Newfoundland and southern Labrador, culminating at Battle Harbour. I had the privilege of being one of about a dozen on that trip in 2007, having him blaze past me on the Labrador Highway in his new Honda, listening to his stories in the evenings as we gathered the group together for supper, watching him charge up the side of the hill on Battle Harbour—charge along, with two canes, two artificial hips and one replaced knee. Or maybe it was two knees and a hip. Whichever it was, he put people half his age to shame with his enthusiasms and his energy, and his boundless curiosity about plants.

In 2008, I was too unwell to go; in 2009, there was no trip. And now, there will be no more trips, at least not with Dick as chief expeditionary leader and plant hunter extraordinaire.

(Yellow rhododendron, 'Nancy Steele', bred by Captain Richard Steele. Photo from Atlantic Rhodo Society website)

Our last conversation was before Christmas, and it was no good to ask how HE was, because I knew the answer would be an amused but pithy, "I'm old!" as he always replied when asked how he was, and then he'd change the subject. I knew from talking with his daughter Diana in January that he was slowing down, but given that he had celebrated his 91st or 92nd or 93rd--no one seemed exactly sure--birthday with us in Labrador in 2007, we weren’t all that surprised. Then he went into hospital, and a niece who I have known for years gently explained to me that he wouldn’t in all likelihood be getting out again. And our formidable plantsman slipped off to the great greenhouse beyond on Sunday evening, March 14th.

To say I’m tremendously sad at his passing is an understatement. Look at me sideways, and pass me the tissues. The sadness is shared by any number of family members, friends, fellow gardeners, horticulturists, plants people around Atlantic Canada, and beyond. Yet beyond the sadness, I’m also determined to honour his life, and his legacy, by remembering him and his passion for plants, and following in his footsteps, at least a little.

Dick always believed that if we would put our energy into growing beautiful plants, there would be less unhappiness in the world. I can do this.

I read a quotation on Monday by Sharon Lovejoy, in which she says, "I grow gardens for my life and my soul." So did my friend Captain Dick Steele. We’ll not see his like again any time soon, but we will carry on his work.

And you know who my next book will be dedicated to. My teacher, my friend. Fair winds and following seas to you, dearest Dick.

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