Sunday, December 31, 2006

No more houseplants, please!

My Jade Plant

You can spend a lot of enjoyable time reading the wit and green thumb wisdom of the gals over at "Garden Rant." (Links below. Warning: serious procrastination destination!) They've got a year-end review up of the hottest garden rants of 2006, and the third hottest (eliciting 27 comments) was the top 10 reasons for hating houseplants.

I agree with every last one of them, especially number 6:
"Houseplants require dusting, washing off, and other maintenance that would not be necessary if they would just go outside where they belong. I can't be bothered to dust a lampshade, so why would I dust a philodendron?"

One comment nicely summed up my main reason for hating houseplants. Having an acreage means that when winter comes, I'm just plain tired and in dire need of a time-out:
"All your nurturing instincts of watering, aphid washing, feeding and such get used up outside. When you are done and it is time to go inside, you do not want a bunch of hungry, thirsty, dirty plants clamoring for your attention."

We don't allow houseplants here, I like to think, BUT there is a two-foot tall jade plant residing in the living room, the only plant I allow there, except for amaryllis bulbs when they come into bloom. The jade plant grew from a single leaf cutting I started about 10 or 11 years ago. How can I not love a big plant I started from a small leaf?

I also had a Christmas cactus for - let's do the math: I got it at age 22, when a friend moved out west and I took over her apartment, and finally let it go to compost heaven when I turned 50. Yikes, that's almost 30 years, 28 to be exact.

I guess the other plants we have indoors aren't really houseplants, but outdoor container plants that we take inside for the winter, chiefly rosemary (several in large pots), tropical succulents, and some fancy-leaved pelargoniums. They are consigned to the basement to eke out an existence under a big mercury vapor lamp. This is so I don't have to look at them. Also: who cares if water spills on the basement floor?

The basement plants

As I don't do houseplants, my coping strategy or cop out, if you will, is that my husband - a gardener in his own right (rock gardening and seed starting are his gigs) - takes care of them. Yes, indeed, and he actually volunteered for this job.

I almost forgot to mention his small collection of phalaenopsis orchids, which, oops, also graces (yup, you guessed it) the living room. He has put their watering/fertilizing schedule into his Palm Pilot, which he follows religiously.

No, he's not for hire. He's the one with the real job, the enabler of my part-time garden writing, photography, and full-time gardening - in season, of course.

So it's the New Year coming up: just three more months of non-gardening. There are plenty of images to process and writing projects to get done, so I better get going. Gotta keep those houseplants from taking over!

Read Top Ten Reasons Why I Hate Houseplants over at Garden Rant. See also HOTTEST GardenRants of 2006.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Spring hellebores in bloom at Christmas

I can't pretend this is any way a decent picture - the wind was blowing and there was a lot of glare - but I put it up as proof that our Hellebores (Helleborus × hybridus) or lenten roses are blooming now.

We have a mass planting of hellebores in our shade garden, courtesy of my husband who grew several dozen from seed a few years ago. Normally, they bloom in April, but as there are few signs of winter here in the Great White North (southern Ontario, Canada), they've been tricked into early budding and flowering.

Let's hope they reserve some flowering for spring. Also putting on a bit of bloom are a few small Euphorbia polychroma.

Where are the snows of yesteryear? Bring 'em on, please!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Who does your garden grow?

Once the Christmas rush is over, there will be lots of time to curl up with the latest gardening books.

If you've ever wondered how plants like the Russell lupines, Shasta daisies, Bishop of Llandaff dahlia, or Shirley poppies got their names, Who Does Your Garden Grow?, by English author Alex Pankhurst (Mackey Books, 2006; $16) helps to answer these questions.

Pankhurst, an avid gardener, began to explore the history of many cultivar names to find out more about the people – some famous, other obscure – commemorated by cultivar names. But when she first approached publishers, they turned her down flat: nice idea, but there's no market for it.

Not willing to take "no" for an answer, she decided to publish and market the book herself, selling more than 10,000 copies in the UK. Now thanks to gardening publisher, Betty Mackey of Mackey Books, this charming book is available in Canada and the US. For more information go to Mackey Books. To order from Canada, click here.

While you're exploring the Mackey Books site, have a look at the excellent rock gardening books Betty has also published. Betty is one of the few independent gardening publishers around, and her company is well worth supporting.

By the way, for more winter reading ideas for gardeners, check out Betty's suggestions.

Happy holidays to all!

Friday, December 01, 2006

The wettest fall in years

It seems appropriate that this morning, on Dec. 1, we are having an intense rainstorm with high winds. It's just after nine in the morning and the rain gauge already reads two inches! Par for the course: the wettest fall we've had in years isn't quite finished with us yet.

"A river runs through it" describes our acreage today. There's water from the neighbors' higher properties draining through the low lawn area that surrounds our house. Luckily our house is on a hill, but on days like this this our basement sump pump kicks in.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

November seedheads

The Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf taught me to appreciate that plants are beautiful in their dying away in the fall.

These "buttons" in our meadow always strike my eye at this time of the year. They are the seedheads of the Monarda fistulosa flowers that grace the meadow in late June and early July.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The best fall color shrub: Fothergilla gardenii

The leaves are now off most of the trees, but there are still a few spots of color, and good ones too.

My favorite shrub for fall color, though it turns later than many, is the dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii), which glows red, burgundy, yellow and orange all at once - and it's doing this right now.

Although native to the Southeast, ranging from the Carolinas to north Florida, and west toward the Mississippi River basin, Fothergillas are not a terribly well-known shrubs.

Dwarf Fothergilla only grows three feet or so tall, which makes it a very practical size for most gardens. In spring it has creamy white bottlebrush flowers that combine particularly well with 'Spring Green' tulips.

For more information on Fothergilla gardenii, and its taller relative, here's a good article from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Wet fall means fleeting color

It's been a lovely year for producing fall color, but not so great for keeping it long. The trees pictured above, Red Sunset maples, now have only about a third of their leaves left.

I can't remember a wetter, colder, more blowy October. In the eight seasons since we started our garden here, fall weather has usually been warm and too dry.

Not this year. We've had weeks of rain. Just last week (on my birthday, as it happened) three inches of rain fell in one day, when the ground was already saturated. Some present! May and June's weeks of drought are now a distant memory.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Frosty morning pictures

No time for words this morning, so pictures will do. It was one of those frosty mornings when getting out the camera is mandatory, no matter what else has to be done. Despite bad weather last week, the fall garden colors are still pretty splendid. I had my Nikon set on "Vivid" today as an experiment, kinda like the old Fuji Velvia 50 film I used to love.

Getting another shot of the sumac at the silo from the farm pond side:

Shooting from the silo side of the pond, showing the plantings beyond the pond:

This is shooting towards the house and barn over the farm pond:

Friday, October 13, 2006

Staghorn sumac in the country garden

We have plain old staghorn sumac growing around our old silo – all that's left of the old barn site – and it's the perfect landscaping for that spot, courtesy of Mother Nature. Before we came, a previous owner had also planted a few Scotch pines around the silo, and the pine/sumac combination looks wonderful. We keep the sumac in bounds by mowing around the silo.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) isn't often planted as a garden shrub because it is one of those great spreading shrubs, suckering from the roots to form a large colony. Maybe the other reason sumac is not much appreciated is that it grows wild all around us.

Woody plant expert Michael Dirr warns that it has to be sited carefully, and that it needs maintenance to keep it in bounds, but he adds: "Europeans have long appreciated R. glabra [smooth sumac] and R. typhina. Perhaps some day Americans will become more introspective and appreciative of our rich woody plant heritage."

That aside, staghorn sumac is a great plant for acreages, where its wandering ways can be appreciated. The cutleaf cultivars are very graceful and have the best orange-red fall color.

Perhaps foolishly*, I've planted the cutleaf sumac 'Laciniata' in a small bed at the corner of the house (shown here). The area is surrounded by an upper and lower patio, which theoretically should keep the plant contained. I just hope it won't damage the house foundation. (Dirr says not to use it as a foundation plant!)

I guess we can always tear it out if it gets to be a problem. For now, I just enjoy the great fall color, and I take heart from the advice about using this plant from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden:

Cutleaf staghorn sumac has ornamental possibilities that go beyond heavy-duty applications like highway landscaping. For large suburban properties it makes a good buffer plant for peripheral areas, where it provides not only summer privacy but food and habitat for animals as well; it makes an excellent "transitional plant" between tamed and wild areas.

With its size controlled by pruning and/or root confinement, cutleaf staghorn sumac can be used in manicured gardens. It can serve as a bolder, textured alternative to the ubiquitous dogwood and Japanese maple when planted off the corner of a structure to anchor a foundation planting. For hot outdoor plazas, it is a rugged survivor and makes a strong "statement."

For a mixed perennial border with a bold texture, try it as a specimen shrub to be cut back to the ground annually. Its wild appearance mixes especially well with grasses, and its spectacular fall color adds beautifully to any display of asters, chrysanthemums or goldenrod.
You can read the full article here.

(By the way, if you're wondering about the metal tower on the silo in the picture at the top, it's for our high-speed internet receiver. High-speed internet, can't live without it, right?)

*Three years on, spring 2009: We pulled that cutleaf sumac by the house out because it was taking over. The main plant was reaching everywhere and going under the patio with its amazing spreading root system. We've had to be vigilant to dig out all the bits all season long to keep at the ones we missed the first time. Lesson learned: this is a plant for the back 40!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fleeting fall color

I love this time of year. I don't think my garden is ever more beautiful than in October. And the same goes for all of nature up here in Ontario.

I took the above picture two days ago, but now the leaves on the 'Autumn Purple' ashes in the background have already been blown off. I've learned the hard way (many times!) that if you don't get out there with your camera the moment you see those "oh, my God shots", they're gone.

The weather is turning fast. After an achingly beautiful and very warm Canadian Thanksgiving weekend (Oct. 9th this year), we had pelleting rains all day yesterday, and there's frost and even a few flurries in the forecast for tonight, with tomorrow's daytime temperature in the single digits, around 8C! (That's 46F.)

Nyssa sylvatica - amazing fall color

We've planted a lot of trees on our 10-acre property, but the most impressive one for fall color is Nyssa sylvatica, also known as sour gum, black tupelo or black gum.

Our tree (shown above and below) is still quite small, less that five feet tall, but certainly nicely established after planting two or three years ago.

Although Nyssa sylvatica is a North American native - it grows in Maine, Ontario, Michigan and ranges south to Florida and Texas - it is not easy to find at garden centers. This is mostly because the tree is hard to propagate from cuttings and has a tap root that makes transplanting larger specimens difficult.

The best way to get it established is to buy a container-grown plant in a small size and site it in a moist area. But you do have to hunt around: I managed to get one at the University of Guelph Arboretum plant sale.

Nyssa sylvatica will reach 30 to 50 feet in height, and grows 12 to 15 feet over about 10 to 15 years, so one needs a little patience, but its glossy leaves and outstanding fall color make it worth growing.

Here's a link to a good article about Nyssa sylvatica with lots more growing information.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Gold Medal Plant: Tiger Eyes Sumac

I notice that Tiger Eyes sumac, officially Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger' Tiger Eyes®, has been given a Gold Medal Plant Award for 2007 by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

I planted Tiger Eyes a couple of years ago in my front garden, amid ornamental grasses and Russian sage. It was an impulse buy at the nursery, one of those plants with such gorgeously colored leaves that it was simply irresistible.

My picture shows it in August when our Russian sage was in full bloom.

This sumac is supposed to stay relatively compact, growing about 6 feet tall and unlike other sumacs, it's said not to be invasive.

So far, that's true here in my Zone 5 garden. If my plant is anything to go by, it's a slow grower. Mind you, I planted it on a hill in full sun in one of the few sandy soil spots on our property – which is mostly clay – during a dry summer. It was all I could do to water it enough to keep it alive.

The shrub is still compact - just about 3 feet tall - after its second season, but I suspect that it might just take off and put on some height next year.

Here's the description of Tiger Eyes sumac from the PHS site:

"This unusual Sumac has purplish-pink stems displaying exotic cut-leaf foliage. Changing with each season, Tiger Eyes® starts out chartreuse in spring, turns bright yellow in summer, and blazes scarlet-orange in the fall. Tiger Eyes® is more compact than the species and is not considered invasive. It prefers well-drained soil but adapts well to poor soils and urban situations, exhibiting good pollution tolerance. Great for the foundation, as a specimen, in mass, or in containers, it grows about 6 feet high and wide in full or part-sun. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8."

For more information on the other PHS Gold Metal plants, click here.

Note: As this post is almost 4 years old, I will not publish any more comments or questions regarding about this topic here. If you have a question or comment, please use the contact form at my new blog.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Still in bloom: Sonata Cosmos

I don't grow a lot of annuals, but I do have a few long-blooming favorites that I think are perfect country garden flowers, among them 'Sonata' cosmos.

Mine have been blooming since June, and even though we've had a couple of light frosts they haven't been hit yet. I just love going out every morning to be greeted by their cheerful faces.

You can simply direct-seed them, but I like to start them in containers and plant them as seedlings in any bare spot in my beds. I do hope they self-seed next year, as they used to do in my city garden.

I generally buy the mixed seed packet because I love all the colors they come in, from light pink and white to the darker pink shown here.

For more on easy self-seeding annuals and how to direct seed them, click here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Hydrangeas in the fall

The best thing about hydrangeas in the fall is their long-blooming flowers. I have several Pee Gee hydrangeas in bloom right now, and the cultivar that looks most impressive is 'Limelight', shown here.

I remember not liking this plant much when I planted a pair of them a couple of years ago. At the time I found the flowers too big and heavy for the size of the shrub. But as the plants have grown – they're now about five feet tall (and they got there very quickly) – their flowers look just right and in scale with the size of the plant.

When ‘Limelight’ comes out, the flower heads are lime-green, but they gradually fade to a pinkish and then tan hues, like most hydrangeas.

My ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea, planted a couple of years ago, is still a tiny thing. First, it suffered in a spot that was too sunny and dry. Then my garden helper pulled it out by mistake and threw it into the compost pile.

I rescued it later that day and kept it very moist in a pot until it recovered. Then we planted it in a shadier spot and it's alive, although still very small, but flowering nicely, (shown here). Will it thrive? The jury is still out on that one.

Anyway, moral of the story: don't be too quick to judge a cultivar. It often takes a couple of seasons for plants to come into their own.

I have more information about hydrangeas here on my website.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fall in the country garden

I've long been enchanted with the autumnal country garden look pioneered by garden designers Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden in the United States, and Piet Oudolf, in Holland.

One of the reasons we moved to the country was to have the space to grow many late-season perennials and the big swathes of ornamental grasses that look so good with them. I took the picture above one morning early this month looking down at the garden from my front door.

I notice that a lot of gardeners seem to miss out on fall. By late summer, they're ready to throw in the towel. I understand being tired of gardening by August (I know I am!), but it's still a shame to miss out on the beauty of fall.

For the most part, plants that bloom in late summer and fall are tough, drought tolerant and many of them grow tall and dramatic. Another interesting fact is that many of them are North American natives, which accounts for their toughness: they shrug off the drought, heat and humidity of our summers because that's the very climate that shaped their evolution.

For us northern gardeners the growing season is short enough so if you have the space, why not extend the flower show well into fall with some lovely late-bloomers and ornamental grasses? (I have lots of information about fall perennials and ornamental grasses on my web site here and here.)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Want butterflies? Try meadow blazingstar

We have a two-acre meadow that was planted from seed in spring 2000 by Wildflower Farm. It's a mixture of North American prairie natives, both flowers and grasses. Why a meadow? As I said to my husband when we were in the planning stages: there is no way we're going to mow 10 acres.

The meadow required a good deal of patience. It took three years after sowing for the plants to get blooming. Of all the garden areas we have, I enjoy the meadow most because it attracts masses of birds and butterflies and it doesn't have to be weeded.

The wildflower meadow is at its most beautiful in July (as in the picture below), but there is a meadow plant that comes into its prime in late August into September: meadow blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylus), hardy to Zone 4.

Unlike the single flower spike of most blazingstars, meadow blazingstar is branched and has numerous individual flowers that bloom over four to six weeks. The plant grows three to five feet tall and thrives in rich, loamy soils.

In Canada, you can get seeds from Wildflower Farm or buy plants from them in spring. US sources include: Prairie Nursery and High Country Gardens.

To grow meadow blazingstar from seed, follow these instructions from Wildflower Farm:
Use cold, moist stratification. Mix seed with moist but not wet, sterile growing medium. Place mixture in a labeled, sealed plastic bag and store in refrigerator for six to eight weeks. Note: Some seed may germinate in the storage bag if moist stratified too long. If sprouting occurs, plant immediately. Another method is to sow seed outdoors in late autumn so that they may overwinter.
More wildflower meadow information is here.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Photographing three sleepy bees

Sunflowers are a lot of fun to take pictures of. You can play with them in so many ways - up against the blue sky, as in my previous post, or really close up.

The other morning I saw three bees snoozing in a sunflower. They had arranged themselves neatly side by side and they looked so sweet that I just had to photograph them.

Unfortunately, it was getting a bit late for morning shooting. A breeze had started up and the sunflower was moving around too much. I knew I had to use a macro lens with an extension tube to capture any detail in the bees, and that nothing would be sharp with all that movement.

Using a flash is not one of my strengths - in my experience flash ruins most pictures - but this was definitely a time to use it. Without it there was no way of getting the shot.

Generally flash blows out all the detail, so I dialed back the flash power using the flash compensation control, and the shot worked out very well.

The beauty of digital cameras is that you can take the shot, review it and then dial in some flash or exposure compensation.

Before digital, you had to be very experienced and knowlegable about flash to get a shot like this one right. With digital, you still have to know how to make exposure corrections, but being able to see the results right away makes it so much easier.

No wonder I'll never go back to slides.

Bird-planted sunflowers

Another one of the "happy accidents" in our garden are sunflowers planted by the birds. They pop up in many spots, particularly mulched areas around trees, where birds perch to eat the seeds. It's always fun to see them show their heads and start blooming.

I've grown many different hybrid sunflowers, but when they go to seed and come up on their own, they tend to revert to giant plants with big yellow heads that produce a lot of seeds.

Before I came to my senses, I had a huge cutting/vegetable garden about 25 by 50 feet. There I would always grow about 15 or 20 sunflowers of different kinds at the back. (I gave it up because it was too much work: by June it was always the straw that broke my camel's back.)

From this start, thanks to birds dropping the seeds, we now have sunflowers in many spots on our acreage. Usually they grow where the self-sown plants were the year before, but often appear where I don't expect them.

The gorgeous one shown above popped up this summer in one of our shrub borders, which is quite a distance from where sunflowers grew the year before. It's about 9 feet tall (I went out and measured).

When I gave up the big cutting/veggie garden, I regretted losing space for sunflowers, but I need not have worried. As long as we don't weed them out, we will always have a lots of cheerful sunflowers around.

I leave the plants up well into fall until the birds have eaten most of the seeds, and that seems to ensure their spread. When they come up in late spring, I sometimes I move one or two seedlings into gaps in the garden.

If you've never grown sunflowers before, they are quite easy from seed and great for kids' gardens.

Previous happy accident posts: Gladioli - Dahlberg daisy

Sunday, August 13, 2006

My gladioli just keep coming back

I enjoy glads as cut flowers, so each season I have a few growing in the vegetable patch.

I've always read that gladiola isn't hardy for northern gardeners, and that you have to lift the corms each fall, store them in the winter and replant in spring.

That hasn't proved true in my Zone 5 (Canadian Zone 6) garden over the past five years. When I first planted my gladiola corms, I dug them up in the fall and went through the whole business of storing them in the basement and replanting.

Then one year I decided not to bother - if I wanted them again, I'd just buy them. It was a very cold winter, and so I was surprised to see glads come up where they had grown the previous season.

That particular batch kept going until we finally grassed the spot over. It was the mowing that finally did them in.

I planted the ones I have now three years ago. An apricot cultivar whose name I don't know is shown here (I've had a most enjoyable weekend playing with my camera). Each spring I wonder if they're toast, but at least so far they have just kept on keeping on. Chalk up another happy accident in the garden!

I've love to hear from northern gardeners who have had similar experiences. We don't have reliable snow cover where I live in southern Ontario, so I wonder if they're surviving because of deep planting. I dig a trench when planting, so the glad corms go in quite deep - about 8 to 10 inches. Our soil is amended clay loam that's well-drained.

By the way, I buy my glads through Vesey's Seeds. They ship to customers in Canada and the US.

More on happy accidents next time.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dahlberg daisy and happy accidents

I love happy accidents in the garden, especially when they're self-sown annuals that I don't expect to be hardy in my USDA Zone 5 garden.

Several years ago, I planted a little annual called Dahlberg daisy in a corner of the bed that lines our driveway.

I grew Dahlberg daisy from seed when I was in my mad seed-growing phase. It's a bushy, branched little plant about six to 10 inches tall with lots of small yellow daisy flowers and threadlike leaves that have an aromatic, citrus-like scent. I intended it for containers, but had a few plants left over and put them in the ground along a low stone wall.

To my delight, these daisies have been reappearing in the gravel driveway below the wall each summer. It takes until mid-July for them to get to blooming size and then they cheerfully bloom their heads off for the rest of the summer.

In reading up about Dahlberg daisy, I found that it thrives in sunny, well drained, sandy soil with a pH of 6.8 or higher and that it is quite drought tolerant - no wonder it loves growing in the gravel here.

This year, the plants started to grow during a period of drought in May and June. I'm amazed at how tenacious they are - I didn't expect them to do as well as previous years because of the dryness. (The drought broke with lots of thunderstorms, but that is another story.)

Dahlberg daisy isn't readily available in cell packs at garden centers, so if you want it, you need to start the plants from seed. This isn't hard, but it's a good idea to start the seeds indoors as it takes about four months from sprouting to blooming. (Tips on how to grow from seed are here.)

I think of Dahlberg daisy as a great rock garden plant for mid-summer when most of the alpine perennials have finished blooming. Stick in a few Dahlberg daisies, and your rock garden will come to life again, just like my driveway does.

With its self-seeding tendencies, you'll probably only have to grow it from seed once. Even though Dahlberg daisy reseeds, I don't find that it gets weedy - and if it grows where you don't want it, well, the seedlings are really easy to pull out.

By the way, Thymophylla tenuiloba is the botanical name and the plant is native to south central Texas and northern Mexico. Seed companies offer it under the name Dahlberg daisy or Golden Fleece.

Find Dahlberg daisy at Stokes Seeds.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Favorite gardening footwear

Some gardeners swear by slip-on clogs, others wear old sneakers or a favorite pair of boots.

I can't live without my trusty Australian-made Blundstone boots.

I was introduced to them by a garden designer friend who spends a lot of time on landscape construction sites.

The best thing about them is this, and it comes right from one of their advertising slogans: "No damn laces!"

My Blundies are light enough take me through the summer's gardening and dog-walking.

We walk at the neighboring tree farm behind our farm, kind of a rough place of dirt roads and tall grass – definitely not sandal territory.

That's my dog, Toby, happily nosing around.

Here's a link to the boots: Canadian site.
For the US site, click here and
here for the Australian site.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Barn swallow babies

Over the past couple of weeks, our barn swallow babies have learned to fly and have discovered the big world out there.

Having barn swallows around is a bit like expanding one's pet population by a dozen or two. Each morning we wake up to very clear demands to open the barn doors. When we do, a number of parents fly out and others fly in. The flights continue until dark.

Our "barn" is a drive shed which houses our mowers, garden tools, my husband's stone carving studio (off limits to the birds) and a two-car garage. Usually the swallows build their nests and lay their eggs up high near the top of barn, well away from the garage part of the building, which has a very low ceiling.

But some summers, the swallow "condos" up top get filled up fast by several nesting pairs, leaving the pair that's lowest on the totem pole to nest in the garage. This makes taking the car in and out a bit of an adventure after the babies hatch and Mom and Dad get very protective.

With a long lens and flash, I was able to take pictures of the garage swallow babies at feeding-time without upsetting them too much.

The swallow parents are tireless when feeding the little guys, and they're great fun to watch as they buzz and swoop by the nest to encourage the babies to try their wings. The little ones grow to flying stage astonishingly quickly.

We enjoy our swallow flock, but we're always relieved when we can walk by the barn without being buzzed by fly-bys - and when we can finally clean up the bird droppings.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

When it rains, it pours

When it's hot and dry, plants suffer. But even gardeners get drought-stressed: I'm a bad case – drought makes me cranky and anxious, even questioning my commitment to gardening.

This happens despite the fact that I grow mostly plants that can tolerate a lot of dryness. I get drought-stressed because I'm a perfectionist. My garden hasn't a hope in heck of looking its best if it never rains – a big concern when there are garden tours coming.

I also hate having to drag hoses around, trying to remember which plants need watering. (Anything recently planted that hasn't had time to develop good roots needs attention.) Not only that, I worry about running cisterns dry and burning out pumps. And if it doesn't rain, I have to buy extra water, as our well water has to be reserved for the house.

This year we had very little rain in May and June, which worried me because that's when most plants make their annual growth spurt. May brought less than 3 inches (2 inches and 8/10ths to be exact) and June was even drier (only an inch and three quarters). Luckily, temperatures stayed on the cool side, a big improvement over June 2005 when we had both drought and an early heat wave that lasted for days. Talk about high anxiety!

Last year, thunderstorms finally came to the rescue in July, and so it was last week too. We finally got rain – in buckets. It came down three times, twice torrentially: The week's total was - insert drumroll - 5 and ¾ inches!

The picture below shows the flooding down at our creek after the last bout of rain brought one-and-a-half inches overnight when the ground was already saturated.

That was in the morning. By afternoon, things were still soggy, but the flood waters had receded.

The rain was exactly we needed and it came in the nick of time to help the garden (and the gardener) weather the current heat wave. Thank you, thunderstorms! Sometimes you just get lucky.

Garden mulching survey

I've always strongly advocated garden mulch, especially for people with big country gardens. (We buy wood chip mulch by the dump-truck load.)

So I was interested to read what perennials expert John Valleau, the chief horticulturist for the wholesale grower Heritage Perennials, had to say recently about the results of a reader survey he did on garden mulching techniques.

In his May 2006 newsletter, he had given the standard advice to always taper the mulch down to nothing immediately around the crowns and stems of perennials to avoid problems with rotting.

Then Quebec-based garden writer Larry Hodgson wrote in to say he thought that was all a garden myth. So, John asked his newsletter readers for their observations.

Here's what he had to say about the results in his July newsletter:

I was literally flooded with responses this month. Wow! Mulching must be a very hot topic, and here I was anticipating only a handful of entries.

I've taken some time to analyze the data, and the results for the #1 question on whether to taper the mulch or to pile it evenly around perennials worked out this way:

• 85% — spread mulch evenly over the bed
• 7% — doesn't matter, or depends on the particular plant
• 8% — taper the mulch or rotting may be a problem

BENEFITS of mulching you mentioned included: reduced watering, because the mulch holds the moisture in the soil; cooler roots during summer heat; greatly reduced weed seed germination (figures in the 80% fewer weeds were mentioned a few times); mulches add beneficial organic matter; mulches encourage plenty of soil microbes, worms and other beneficial critters; mulch looks aesthetically pleasing.

The most important thing you reported over and over again is that mulching seems to make your perennials grow better!

Read the entire mulch article. It turns out that you can spread mulch a lot thicker than many experts tell you without doing harm to your perennials.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Snappy crossing

I was out one evening recently taking flower photos, when I noticed something on our laneway. When I went to investigate, I saw that it was a huge snapping turtle headed towards our farm pond.

It took me a few minutes to realize that this was a "photo opportunity." It's odd how once your head is in one mode (flower photography) that it takes a few minutes to realize that a turtle in the laneway would be interesting to photograph too.

Anyway, I ran to get my telephoto lens, so I wouldn't have to scare the turtle by getting too close, and here are the results. Is this a face only a mother could love?

Poor turtle. She froze while I took pictures of her. After I stopped taking pictures and returned to the flowers, she finally felt safe enough to continue to the pond.

We have a south-facing hill around our house that would be perfect for turtle-egg laying. Perhaps she laid her eggs there.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Mulch by the dump truck

This week we got another dump truck load of wood chip mulch. We seem to go through one dump truck load each year. We top our planting beds with a three-inch layer of mulch, generally straw or wood chips. We do it to control weeds and keep moisture in the soil.

We also like to mulch our trees with leaf mould and wood chips to keep the grass mowable around them. (Otherwise, it's easy to get too close to a tree and injure the bark.)

We buy the composted wood chips cheaply from a tree service, and we get straw for the vegetable garden from a local farmer.

We find that mulch is a godsend for country gardening for these reasons:

• It keeps weeds down, mainly by blocking out the light they need to germinate – and if a weed manages to poke through, it's easier to pull it out when rooted in a layer of mulch than in the soil.
• Preserves soil moisture by reducing evaporation, and helps prevent erosion caused by rain and wind. Bare soil often gets a crust on it that prevents rain from penetrating easily.
• Keeps soil temperatures cool in summer and helps to reduce the risk of damage to plant roots in winter.
• Helps keep soil from splashing onto leaves, which keeps plants looking neater and helps prevent soil-borne fungal diseases.
• As mulch decomposes, it adds all-important organic matter to the soil and keeps the top layer of soil loose and airy.

You may have heard that mulches high in carbon — anything brown — can steal nitrogen from plants. Instead of being there for the plants, soil nitrogen gets used up by the soil micro-organisms in the process of breaking the stuff down.

But this isn't a problem if you layer wood chip or bark mulch mulches on top of your soil. Just avoid mixing them into the soil.

Some people add fertilizer to make up for any nitrogen used to break down mulches. I rarely bother with added fertilizer. I garden in rich clay loam, which seems to grow plants just fine without it.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Peony plant combo

June is peony month, and the first peony that comes out in my garden is this luscious Japanese peoney. Unfortunately, I have lost the tag and so I have no idea what the cultivar name is.

Japanese peonies are actually a double form made up of five or more petals around a centre of stamens with non-pollen bearing anthers that look like a soft mound of small petals. They are sometimes called anemone-flowered because the stamens in the centre look like narrow petals.

Anyway, all that technical stuff aside (which I learned when I wrote an article on peonies for Canadian Gardening magazine), this is a sensational peony. Its bloom time is perfectly co-ordinated with 'Purple Sensation' alliums and I love the two together. What a great garden duet!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Favorite shade plant combo

A yellow, gold and burgundy grouping for shade that I love is the vigorous small ground cover Hosta 'Golden Tiara' teamed with variegated golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureloa') and purple shamrock (Oxalis regnelli), often sold as Oxalis triangularis. The oxalis is not hardy, so I used to lift them in the fall and store them over the winter.

I use this combo to great effect in a narrow bed alongside the house. Because the surrounding plants have doubled in size over the past four years (I really must split those hostas), there's not a lot of space left in the ground. My solution: I now grow the oxalis in containers.

In the fall, the pots go into the basement and without water, the oxalis goes into dormancy and overwinters in an unheated room.

Every March I repot them in fresh container mix, and put them into our polyhouse to start growing. By May they're ready to spend the summer outside again. It's a bit of trouble, but the lovely purple leaves and soft pink flowers are definitely worth the effort.

And did I mention that they increase every year? If you grow oxalis, you'll have twice as many each year - which means lots to share with your gardening friends.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


When we first moved to our country property eight years ago this month, the place had been rented out for years, and what wasn't a rough hayfield was a tangle of burdocks, buckthorn, poison ivy, thistles and rusted farm detritus.

That first season, aside from growing a few tomatoes and annuals in what passed for a front yard, we didn't garden: we just cleaned up big time. Bulldozers were involved.

In our second spring here, we laid out a four-square garden divided up by paths, which began as vegetable garden with wood-chips for the paths. The garden turned out to be too big for vegetables - there are just two of us to eat them - and so I planted it full of bulbs and perennials.

A couple of years later, we added compacted stone chip paths edged with pavers, and the next season planted boxwood around the edging beds, which we might (or might not) train into a proper hedge one day. The picture above was taken the year we planted the boxwoods. Looks neat as pin, doesn't it?

And now only seven years after planting, the four-square garden is having a mid-life crisis. I noticed last season that my laissez-faire style of gardening – minimal deadheading, allowing self-seeding – had resulted in a lot of thugs taking over.

The worst of the lot have been Verbena bonariensis (Brazilian verbena), Knautia macedonica and drumstick alliums, (which look like grasses in the picture, above).

I still love all these plants, just not the pushy way they take over if they're not deadheaded.

Lesson learned: although this is a country garden, deadheading isn't out - it's going to be IN this year big-time.

A couple of days ago, we tackled the many overgrown masses of drumstick alliums in the four-square, and dug in and pulled them all out. They were mostly lined up near the front of the beds between clumps of lavender (last spring's replacements for an edging of unruly catmint, which I'd pulled out the year before).

Now, the lavender can breathe and grow, and the garden is starting to regain shape and a measure of grace.

Until now, much of our gardening here has been filling the space with plants. We have planted scores of trees and shrubs, and hundreds of perennials (many of those grown from seed when we were first starting out and needed masses of plants cheaply).

A part of me is taken aback that radical editing is necessary so soon, but I shouldn't be surprised at all: plants grow. Gardening once you've got something going is actually the process of controlling growth. A good gardener edits - a lot.

All of this has me reaching for my well-annotated copy of the book Growing Pains by Patricia Thorpe, which I intend to re-read immediately. It appears to be out of print, but you can find copies on for a song.

Here's are a couple of samples from the book:
"Remember those early days when you carefully set out three of each perennial in the border? How did those three suddenly become fifty?"

"There is the disconcerting sense that the garden, something we once thought of as our creation, is evolving in unexpected ways, growing beyond some of our aspirations while coming up woefully short with respect to others. … We may notice definite changes in our gardens before they reach the end of their first decade. For some gardens it will be a seven-year-itch. Others may be faster or slower to mature to this dangerous stage."
If you're in the same boat and need help, I highly recommend this book. There's plenty of solid advice and best of all, Thorpe gives you permission to rip out those daisies or irises or alliums or overgrown shrubs that are giving you headaches.

My gardening motto for the seven-year-itch: more control, less chaos. The trouble is this all translates into a four-letter word: WORK!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Weather-crazed gardener

One of the things that first struck us when we moved to our 10-acre country property was the big sky. Although we don't live in western Canada, which really is big sky country, our southern Ontario sky can be pretty impressive.

It certainly was a couple of nights ago when a major thunderstorm with golfball sized hail swept through our region. The storm missed us - we had sunshine all the while - but the dark, almost black, sky to the east was amazing to see.

As I always do when interesting weather comes, I took my camera (I use my digital Panasonic point and shoot for this sort of thing, one of the newer models with virually no shutter lag) and managed to capture lightning, just visible in the picture above our barn.

Like most avid gardeners, I'm an obsessed weather-watcher, and only truly content when what the weather is doing is good for my plants.

So give me just enough rain - an inch a week during the growing season, please. And I want decent snow cover all winter, long cool springs, summers that are warm, not hot, and gorgeous autumns with just enough rain and that wonderful coolness in the air.

Ah, dream on, gardener: The reality is weeks of dryness, or so much rain that you can't keep up with the mowing. In winter, (at least lately) it's been too mild, alternating with too darned cold. And don't get me started on summer: heat, humidity and drought are the bane of my gardening existence. So pat me on the head, bring me a tall, cool Vitamin G (gin and tonic with lime), and make me to sit on patio with a book.

With regard to nature, gardeners and weather, here's how garden writer Henry Mitchell, once put it:
"There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get one with the high defiance of nature herself, creating in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises."

Exactly right, now where's that G&T?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Book with sample garden designs

Looking for sample garden designs or garden layouts on the web? Well, you don't find too many. That's because garden designs are time-consuming to prepare and tailored to suit a given property and the gardener's personal preferences. There are, of course, garden designers you can hire to help you, but most homeowners don't have the budget for that.

However, an excellent guide to garden design comes from the Rodale Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials, which includes good sample design layouts and lots of tips on combining plants effectively, as well as an easy-to-use basic perennial encyclopedia.

It was my favorite garden design book as I was learning about perennials and garden design. I liked it so much, I wore my copy out! Here's more information about it and another of my favorite garden design books.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

It's spring

It's mid-May, and my house is a mess, the piles on my desk are frightful and the laundry needs doing. But the garden looks heavenly, especially when I look beyond the dandelions. Rain finally came after three weeks and all looks lush and right with the world again.

Spring is a bit of a race between the gardener and the weeds, between chaos and control, from one flower to the next. I have to remind myself to stop every day to simply appreciate the succession of flowers - from snowdrops and crocuses to daffodils, tulips, magnolias, serviceberries and (almost here) the crabapples.

The barn swallows are back, swooping and chattering, ordering us to open those barn doors every morning. My dog, Toby, once again is outnumbered and gets dive-bombed as he walks across the yard.