Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seven things you don't know about me

Garden bloggers Helen and Sarah Battersby of torontogardens.com, who visited my garden last month and posted a delightful slide show of my garden, put me up this blogger's meme.

To participate in the "Meme Award" you need to:

* Link back to the person who gave you the award.
* Reveal seven things about yourself.
* Choose seven other blogs to nominate, and post a link to them.
* Let each of your choices know that they have been tagged by posting a comment on their blog.
* And finally, let the tagger know, when your post is up.

Here are seven things you don't know about me:

  1. I'm the eldest of six children, which is why I decided – very young (as a preteen!) – that I would be child free. I never changed my mind, but was rescued from full childlessness by marrying John, who has four children. (They are now in their 30s, with eldest just about to turn 40.)

  2. As a child, like many young girls, I disliked physical activity, especially phys-ed classes. A loner, I would constantly sneak away to bury myself in books, and try to avoid chores at home.

  3. I hated gardening. My parents had a farm and huge country garden – both vegetables and ornamental. We children were drafted to work in the garden every summer. As a result I vowed that I would never have a garden like that. So what did my husband and I do? We bought a 10-acre property, and created huge gardens. This means that the physical activity never stops, at least during the growing season. Perhaps this is why I've come to love winter a whole lot.

  4. In my late 20s, I became a fitness instructor at the West End YMCA in Toronto. Because I was chubby and non-athletic as a kid, I was immensely proud of this accomplishment. I ran a Sunday morning class, which ensured that I couldn't get too silly on Saturdays nights. (It was the '80s and I was newly divorced and every inch the urban gal with a license to party.)

  5. My dog, Toby, at his drinking fountain

  6. I am a reformed cat person. As a little girl I befriended the barn cats and felt they were the only creatures that really understood me. In my early 30s, I met a little terrier mixed-breed named Oscar, the first dog I fell in love with. When Oscar's mistress moved to Los Angeles for a year and half, I volunteered to take care of him. After she returned and I had to surrender him, I got my own little dog – Teddy, a pup from Oscar's sister's litter. After Teddy came Toby, and after those two, there will surely be another because I can't imagine life without a dog. What do I require in a dog? Non-hyper personality, soft fur, attractive looks and a one-of-kind breeding (not purebred).

  7. In the late '80s, I lived in a cabin in the woods by myself for a year with Teddy, then just a puppy. It wasn't really a cabin, but a well-equipped winterized cottage (I had a phone, computer and fax machine there, so I could work as a freelance magazine writer). To flesh out the story: While living in an apartment in Toronto, we bought a cottage near Bancroft. We enjoyed it so much that we decided somewhat rashly to move there full time. This turned out to be a bad career move for my husband, and he found a job in Fort Frances (in far-off northern Ontario at the Minnesota border). It was a pulp mill town and I was unhappy there, so John suggested I move back to the cottage. I did and we had a long-distance marriage for a year. This was before email and the Internet. I missed John, but I enjoyed the unique experience of living by myself in the woods, especially in the winter when there were few people around. I could only get to the cottage by snowmobile. For the ride, I would tuck little Teddy into my parka.

  8. I'm a recent Bob Dylan convert. Two years ago, I heard a cut from his then latest album Modern Times which intrigued me because it didn't sound anything like the Dylan of the '60s. So I bought it, and then began to work my way backwards through all the Dylan albums – he has made more than 30 studio albums. Until then, I'd never owned a Dylan record, and was familiar only with the songs that got radio play. (As a kid – I was 10 in 1965 – I liked "Maggie's Farm" for obvious reasons. My parents must have loathed it.) I didn't even skip the albums from the '80s, which the critics savaged, or the ones from his born-again period, which most of his long-time fans loathed. Through my "Dylan project," I've immersed myself in the more than 45 years of his music, and now understand what the fuss is all about. I turn 54 next month, and what better role model can you get for aging than someone like Dylan, who just "keeps on keeping on"? Will I buy his upcoming Christmas albumcalled "Christmas in the Heart"? Yes, of course.
So let's see if I can come up with seven Meme Award nominees:

-My best readers and most faithful commenters, Eve of Sunny Side Up and Lene (aka Salix), of the Willows blog
-The prolific Doug Green of Doug Green's Garden Blog, who publishes a whole stable of gardening websites
-Marjorie Harris, the author of many excellent garden books at MarjorieHarris.com
-My new friend Mark Disero of Garden Toronto.ca, the website he launched in the spring
-Anna, who gardens in North Carolina in zone 7 of FlowerGardenGirl, who I've met through Twitter
-Helen Yoest, garden coach of Gardening with Confidence, who I have also been privileged to meet through Twitter

Hey, gang: Doesn't this feel a bit like getting one of those chain letters?

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Colette: on the sensuous pleasures of gardening

I recently finished reading Break of Day by Colette (translated by Enid McLeod from the French "La Naissance du Jour").

It has in it the most poetic description of digging the soil to make a garden that I've read. (Never mind that these days no-till is the prefered solution to starting a new garden bed.)

From Break of Day:

To lift and penetrate and tear apart the soil is labour — a pleasure — always accompanied by an exaltation that no unprofitable exercise can ever provide. The sight of upturned soil makes every living creature avid and watchful. The finches followed me, pouncing on the worms with a cry; the cats sniffed the traces of moisture darkening the crumbling clods; my bitch, intoxicated, was tunneling a burrow for herself with all four paws. When you open up the earth, even for a mere cabbage-patch, you always feel like the first man, the master, the husband with no rivals. The earth you open up has no longer any past—only a future. With my back burnt, my nose gleaming and my heart pounding with a hollow sound like a footstep behind a wall, I was so absorbed that for a moment I forgot Vial [an intense young man, perhaps her lover]. Gardening rivets eyes and mind on the earth, and when a shrubby tree has been helped, nourished, supported and cosily settled in its mulch covered with fresh earth, its expression, its happy look fill me with love.

FRANCOISE GILOT – Cat, 1983
Original silkscreen by Fran├žoise Gilot,
for an edition of Break of Day

Elaine Marks, an Assistant Professor of French at New York University, describes the book so aptly here, that I will quote her rather than try to give my own poor description of its theme:
"I am the daughter of a woman who * * *" is the leitmotif of the opening pages, of Sido, an old woman who, in the first letter that begins the book, refuses an invitation to spend a week with her beloved daughter because her pink cactus, which blooms once every four years, may well be about to blossom. The central themes and moral lesson of "Break the Day" is contained in this first letter. Sido states very simply what the narrator will learn in the course of her all-night vigil: that at a certain age, individual human relationships must cease to be the primary focus of our lives and that they must be replaced by a feeling of solidarity with the natural universe, by an attempt to create a harmony between human and natural rhythms. It is not, as some of Colette's detractors insist, a question of preferring flowers or animals to human beings. It is rather a lucid recognition of limits, particularly physical limits, which brings her to the conclusion that both mother and mistress must eventually abdicate their roles, and that in this abdication there is a compensating joy.
© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Friday, August 21, 2009

Introducing my new photo blog

I sometimes want to post pictures without garden articles, so I've started a separate photo blog for that purpose. You can visit it here.

If you're within easy driving distance of Hamilton, there's a two-day garden photography workshop on Sept. 12-13 at Royal Botantical Gardens led by garden and landscape photographer Ian Adams, author of The Art of Garden Photography. He will also give a talk at RBG on Sept. 11 in the evening. There will be wine and cheese and a book signing as well.

To sign up for the talk (An Evening with Ian Adams) and/or the workshop (enrolment in the workshop is limited to 15), visit RBG education.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Thursday, August 20, 2009

One thing leads to another: catbird adventure

One of the chief joys of country gardening is the many birds that summer on our property. I had never really noticed grey catbirds until we disturbed their nest while pruning the lilacs at our side yard entry.

The Palibin lilacs have very dense foliage, so David (my garden helper, who is a great animal lover) had already cut off the branch in question when he noticed the nest and three baby birds.

His quick-thinking solution was to get a fence post into the ground and attach the branch. Mama and Papa bird weren't happy.

The catbird nest on its fence post

Nonetheless, they quickly found their offspring and continued to look after them, even though the dense foliage cover that gives catbirds their feeling of security was gone.

I'm no bird photographer, but I couldn't resist taking advantage of this opportunity to get pictures of both the nestlings and their doting parents.

Bird parents fascinate me because they are so tireless and so protective (at least the ones I know best, the barn swallows, and now the catbirds). Any time anyone walked to the side door, they would swoop in, and we'd hear their characteristic alarm call, which sounds like the loud mewing of a cat. They were not happy when I came out with my camera. They hovered around to make sure I wouldn't get too close to the nest.

All ended well: the little nestlings grew and fledged, and then they and Ma and Pa flew off to find their prefered habitat: dense foliage. Fortunately, we have lots more trees and shrubs on our property.

"I'm keeping an eye on you," this catbird parent seems to say.
"I don't trust you with that long lens."

If you're curious to learn more about catbirds and their habits, Cornell University has great information, and you can play their song and their cat-call too.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A ruthless but necessary lilac pruning job

Would you do this to your favorite lilacs? We did - and we did the deed in mid-July, about a month past the ideal time to prune. The shrubs in question are five Meyer lilacs (Syringa meyeri 'Palibin').

Why? The pictures here illustrate the problem - the shrubs had walled us off from a lovely view of the garden.

Meyer lilacs are supposed to be compact, and I suppose for lilacs they are, but they were easily reaching 6 feet. (Obviously, they hadn't read the nursery catalogue which stated that their mature height tops out around 4 or 5 feet.) Actually, woody plant expert, Michael Dirr, the author of my favorite tree and shrub bible, the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, says they grow 4 to 8 feet tall. I didn't prune them, and so they were headed for 8 feet. Clearly, they were overgrown.

The lilacs and the view four-and-a-half weeks later

The solution: off with their heads. Will the shrubs flower next year? Probably not because we pruned them so radically in mid-July, and they form next year's flower buds shortly after blooming. But I've seen spotty repeat blooming in late summer, so you never know.

The reason for our late pruning is that I changed my plan of attack. I was actually planning to rip the lilacs out and replace them with peonies and boxwood shrubs, both of which are lower growing. But that would have been a lot more work, and we would have missed their lovely scent in spring.

So when master pruner Bob May was here working on the boxwood hedge, I asked his opinion and he suggested cutting them back radically. "They'll be fine," he assured me. "You're a couple of weeks late to prune, but they've got enough time to grow leaves and recover."

Four and a half weeks later - nicely leafed out

The lilacs have grown new leaves and they look like they are recovering well - and we have our garden view back. Thanks, Bob, for suggesting this solution. I have more of these lilacs in other parts of the garden, and I'm going to be more diligent about pruning them to stay more compact.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wildflower meadow has never looked better

There are lots of flowers blooming in our gardens around the house, but for this Garden Blogger's Blooms Day* I'm going to feature our wildflower meadow, which has never looked better.

It's been a strange summer with far too much rain and low temperatures (until it got hot this week). The effect on the meadow has been to slow the blooms down, and keep the flowers fresher for longer. I think the cool nights have contributed to this in a big way.

Echinacea and Ratibida with Monarda in the background

As a result, we have flowers blooming together that normally would not be there at the same time. This is especially noticeable with bee balm (Monarda didyma). In a normal, hot summer, it would be going to seed by now. So when photographing, we have these lovely soft lilac-mauve tones through the meadow, which is dominated by the yellow of the ratibidas and rudbeckias at this time of the year.

Liatris has become well-established in the meadow now

Together with camera club friends, I spent many hours photographing in the meadow this week. We try to start at sunrise and go until 8 or 9 a.m. and then have coffee. Our photographic goal is to try to create some visual order out of the profusion and chaos of the wildflowers. It's a fun challenge.

My crew and I also weeded this past week (mostly my crew, I have to admit). The meadow, which is made up of native flowers and grasses, was getting overrun with non-native Queen Anne's Lace, which takes over and gives us white blobs in the background when we photograph.

It actually wasn't too bad a job because the wet ground made it possible to pull them out - tap root and all. By not allowing this biennial weed to go to seed this year we've cleared up the problem for a couple of seasons. (The other weeds we remove from the meadow are Canada thistle and sow thistle.)

Queen Anne's Lace is pretty, but like all weeds, it reproduces excessively, and ends up dominating parts of the meadow.

Many gardeners imagine that you don't have to weed naturalized plantings, but it ain't so, I'm sorry to say. If you want a wildflower meadow to look its best, you have to control unwanted plants. I find that it always seems like a much bigger job than it turns out to be. In fact, removing the Queen Anne's Lace only took a couple of mornings and part of two afternoons, thanks to David and Shelly, my invaluable garden helpers. (I did a short stint too, but mostly, I've had to stick to the mowing, which never seems to end.)

More blooms:

Echinacea shot with a portrait lens
that allows for lovely soft backgrounds


Meadow blazing star beginning to bloom

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Monarda still in bloom in mid-August
Ratibida pinnata, the yellow that dominates the late summer

More information about our meadow and how we established it is at my website.

*Thanks to Carol at May Dreams garden blog for the opportunity to share with other gardeners. Be sure to visit her blog to see many more August Blooms Day offerings.


© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Scenes from a meadow

The conditions very early in the mornings have been exactly perfect for meadow photography. Here's how our meadow looked to my camera eye at sunrise a couple of days ago.

A heavy dose of Echinacea

Up close and personal

Monard didyma, usually finished blooming by this time
but extended by cool, wet season

Liatris and Ratibida coming on strong
with Monarda in background

Ratibida with soft Monarda colors in background

More information about our meadow and how and why we planted it is at my website.

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener

Monday, August 03, 2009

Hello August: Will you be as soggy as July was?

My husband said yesterday: "I'm so glad it's August and the beginning of the end of summer." A minority opinion, I'm sure, but we both prefer the fall over summer, that is, a normal hot and humid summer. This season it's hardly been hot at all. We've had only one day over 30C (86F).

Click on photo to see it larger

The Agriculture Canada map of Ontario's precipitation since April 2009 tells the story: except for maybe a week or two in June, it's been wet all the way. (That area of deep blue denoting "extremely high" rainfall amounts at the tip of Lake Ontario is where we are located.)

I have never seen the gardens and lawn areas here so lush at the beginning of August. I have also never had to mow as much. Last week I mowed the lawn around the house on Friday night, and it needed cutting again on Monday night. That's just three days - during which we got almost four inches of rain.

How green is my lawn? After last weekend's torrential rains,
this little flood pond appeared and disappeared in a few hours

Aside from fungal diseases showing up on the leaves of some plants, peonies and serviceberries, for example, and tomato plants that look pitiful and are bearing hardly any fruit, I don't have much to complain about. I don't even mind that the meadow flowers are a week or two late - that just extends their beauty. This is not like a drought season, when I question whether gardening is even worth the effort.

The meadow last week - Monarda didyma (in the background)
is still in bloom. Normally it would be finished by now

Here's a hilarious picture that my neighbor sent me yesterday. How do you like these new shoe styles for a wet summer?


© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener