Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Love Song to February

Everybody up here hates February, so on this 28th and last day, let me outline 10 reasons why I've learned love this much maligned month:

1. the days are getting longer and brighter
2. snowshoeing (in bad Feb. there's no snow, this year we got plenty)
3. roaming the neighborhood golf course with the dogs
4. no bugs
5. no weeding
6. no mowing
7. caloric excesses of the holiday season worked off (see number 2)
8. cozy evenings by the fire (or, more often, the computer hearth)
9. it's not mud season (see number 3 – dogs stay clean)
10. we are now four weeks closer to spring!

We had lots of snow this month, so here's to February 2007, one of the most enjoyable in years – despite the cold, which even I complained about.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Winter interest: Cornus 'Midwinter Fire'

A few years back, I attended a gardening talk given by the lovely Lauren Springer, author of The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beautyand Passionate Gardening: Good Advice for Challenging Climates (with Rob Proctor).

A passionate gardener herself – she owned up to being a "plant whore" (her words) – Springer got the biggest laugh of recognition from the Toronto crowd when she said: "Winter interest is a joke." The hort concept of "winter interest" comes from Brit garden designers, who generally have to cope with nothing more onerous than picturesque hoarfrost.

Nonetheless, winter lasts a long time in most of Canada, so it doesn't hurt to plant a few trees and shrubs that look good in the off-season. Certainly, the ornamental grasses qualify in my book, as do evergreens.

One deciduous shrub that I've found lives up the winter interest billing is Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' (bloodtwig dogwood). The cultivar name is a much better descriptor than the common name: the stems and twigs are orange and yellow, not blood-red.

Midwinter Fire dogwood is hardy in Zones 5 to 7 and is said to grow 5 to 6 feet in height and spread. My three plants, shown above, haven't reached anything like that in several years. Each winter the bright-orange stems look great, but by mid-spring they have blackened, so we cut them down to healthy wood. By mid-summer the plants have grown about 3 to 4 feet tall and look quite healthy again. In fall, they color up nicely.

I've sited them in full sun in reasonably moist soil, so I have no idea why the stems blacken each spring. Perhaps the plants get diseased or the cultivar isn't quite as hardy as advertised. I confess that plant pathology is not my strong suit: if a plant is chronically unhealthy, I usually toss it. However, in this case, since radical pruning encourages growth of new young wood, which has the most colorful stems in winter, Midwinter Fire dogwood is a keeper in my country garden.

Here's more on this on this cultivar from the Missouri Botanical Garden, a good source of ornamental plant information:

General Culture: Best grown in organically rich, medium wet, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Tolerant of a wide range of soils. Prefers consistently moist, well-drained soils. Suckers freely to form colonies unless root suckers are removed. Best winter stem color occurs on young stems. Although pruning is not required, many gardeners choose to cut back all plant stems to 1 foot in late winter each year to promote the best winter stem color. Another pruning option is to remove 20-25% of the oldest stems in early spring each year. Any loss of flowers through spring pruning is not terribly significant since the small flowers of this dogwood are rather ordinary.
For more pictures and information on Midwinter Fire dogwood, visit the site.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Road salt: the bane of winter

In my previous post, I wrote about the aesthetic problems of road salt, and how the slush it creates makes winter in the city so unpleasant.

Here's the rest of the story: Road salt came into common use in Canada in the 1940s as a melting agent to clear roads of ice and snow.

Growing urbanization, longer commutes, and the decline in the use of winter tires in favor of all-season radials has led to "bare pavement" policies on roadways, and ever increasing dumping of salt onto our roadways and parking lots.

Road salt is, of course, bad for plants and the soil. Salts disrupt absorption of nutrients by plants and can be toxic to plant cells. High salt concentrations also degrade the soil and can be harmful to micro-organisms and other soil organisms.

Salt runoff from roads, parking lots and salt storage facilities pollutes creeks, rivers and lakes and affects aquatic life. The salt can also poison birds and harm other wildlife.

Our dependence on road salt is rather depressing, but here's a link to an organization working to change things in Ontario:

Monday, February 19, 2007

Dirty secret: Winter is easier in the country

After last week's almost record snowfall, I was stuck by how lovely the snow was on our farm, and how easy it was to manage - and how ugly it was in town.

The big reason? In a word: salt. Here, we simply used the snowblower to clear the lane and now we have nice crunchy, hard-packed snow, which is easy to walk on and not the least bit slippery.

But in town, the post-snowstorm scene was quite different: the parking lots at the grocery store and drug store were filled with nasty, dirty slush because of all the road salt that was spread, supposedly for safety reasons.

Not only does the salt wreck your boots and eat away at cars, ruin plants and pollute waterways and poison wildlife, but I find that the slush it creates actually makes pavement more slippery to walk on. So much for safety!

No wonder most Canadians hate winter. I did too until I discovered that when you live in the country, winter is beautiful, and stays beautiful, even after a snowstorm. It's also way easier to clear snow (esp. with a tractor) because there's lots of space to put it, and you avoid salty, dirty, slippery slush.

Another benefit of country living: Because there's no need to look at all fashionable, you can wear boots, a coat, tuque, mittens, flannel-lined jeans and outdoor protective pants, and go outside and stay toasty warm.

And the biggest reason for country gardeners to love winter? You get a rest from weeding and mowing, and there are no deerflies.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Worth reading - landscape blunders

Man, this guy has a way with words, and I agree wholeheardedly.

He is the Renegade Gardener, AKA Don Engebretson, award-winning Minnesota writer and garden designer.

Here's his latest:
"Americans will spend thirty-four billion dollars this year on plants, gardening products and services, and a growing portion of the industry that sells them to us is convinced that we are a bunch of overworked, stressed-out, attention deficit-disordered fruit baskets who have no time, no desire, and no ability to learn how to garden.

This is the marketing monster behind the great dumbing down of gardening in America that began ten years ago, and gets worse and worse every breath I take. We are exposed to a multiplying plague of insipid plants, products, and procedures designed to convince consumers that gardening is easy, that it takes little time, and that you don't really need to learn all those fussy minor details such as soil preparation, planting procedure, pruning, propagation, pest control, watering, winter care, botanical Latin names of plants or, lord help you, design."

One notable blunder, according to Engebretson is using too few containers, structures, art, accessories, and other types of non-plant materials. That should be easy to fix, but make sure those containers are big, and you have lots of them.

I've noticed that the blunders Engebretson outlines - a biggie is planting a circle of bitsy annuals around a shade tree and outlining this with black plastic edging - aren't only found south of the border. They're typical of landscaping in Canada too. Bad landscaping with zero design sense must be a North American plague.

If I had a nickel for the number of times I've been asked what to plant in that circle bed under a tree (mind you, most of those inquiries do come from the US), I'd have a lot of nickels! Next time I get this question, I'm simply going to send the link to Engebretson's excellent article. If I learn anything from him, it will be not to mince words.

Read the full article, Top 10 Gardening & Landscaping Blunders — and How to Avoid Them, at his site.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

First real SNOWSTORM of the season...

This was my job late this afternoon - clearing our 250-meter laneway so that my husband could drive in coming home from work. Even after the snow-clearing, it's still necessary to use four-wheel drive as there is a slight rise near the garage.

There is a right way to do this job: blow the snow with the wind, which is easier said than done, as we don't want to shoot the snow or the odd piece of gravel into the windows at the house. The tractor doesn't have a cab, so I looked and felt like a snowman after the job was done.

It's supposed to snow and blow all night, and I can't wait to see what it will be like in the morning. Already we have several feet of snow and they're saying that most schools and the university will be closed. Reminds me of my childhood near snowbelt London, Ont. Yippee! Snow day!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Orchid foster home

We seem to have become a foster home for orchids that family and friends press on us after they've finished flowering.

I guess that's because everybody thinks you have to be a horticultural genius to take care of them. But I know better: all you need is a husband who has the watering/fertilizing schedule in his PDA, and who actually follows it.

The secret is a north-east window light and once-a-week watering with a weak soluble fertilizer. Just pour the water through the orchid pot twice - catch it in a pail or saucepan - and let it drain thoroughly. (This is done at the kitchen sink, usually while I'm trying to start dinner.) I get drafted to do this job when the official caretaker is away, but I get my computer to remind me.

The picture above is of an orchid stem that began to flower last week. The blooms were so beautiful that I had to spend an afternoon photographing them. The plant is a Phalaenopsis or moth orchid, but I don't know the cultivar name. Around here, we call it 'Anne's Orchid' - after the neighbor who left it on our metaphorical doorstep.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Chill factor - to the bone

Predictably, the mild winter I wrote about in early January didn't last and we are now enduring daytime arctic cold with wind chill factors around minus 24 degrees C. For you Fahrenheit folks, that's minus 11 degrees.

Keeping warm when walking the dogs - now on snowshoes - means layering like crazy. I wear two pairs of socks, flannel-lined jeans under outdoor protective pants, a turtleneck with fleece sweater over top, my usual dog-walking winter coat, plus heavy mitts, face mask, hat and hood.

The dogs (my Toby, the white one, and his Buddy, who belongs to my neighbor) are happy, but I've shortened their outings, as they're dressed the same as always.

There's not a ton of snow, but with all the blowing what there is has drifted deep in many spots. The snowshoes make walking a lot easier. I'm a convert to Mountain Pro snowshoeswhich are really easy to use. You slip them on over your boots, fasten the clips and start walking.

It remains bitterly cold, about 10 degrees below normal, but is expected to warm up a bit by the weekend. That's good: the most worrisome scene I saw yesterday was half a dozen robins scrambling for food at the side of the road. What are they doing here already? Perhaps they were fooled by the mild January and never bothered leaving.

Kudos from Nature's Garden magazine

Out of curiosity I bought the premier issue of a new magazine from Better Homes and Gardens called Nature's Garden.

As I leafed through it last night, I came to "The Green Pages," a section at the end they call a round-up of "eco-friendly resources for the green-of-heart" and there under web resources was this:
This delightful, well-written blog from Yvonne Cunnington, a gardener in southern Ontario's USDA Zone 5, conveys her desire to work with nature, not against it, because "Nature tends to win anyway," she writes. Gorgeous photographs of her garden accompany each entry.

I had no idea: the mention certainly made my day!

The theme of the first issue is creating a backyard haven for birds and butterflies. There's a story about different butterflies and their life cycles, which I found interesting as we get a lot of butterflies here, but aside from monarchs, I didn't know all that much about them.

There are instructions for building a bluebird house, which I'd like to try, as well as a story on how to create a backyard pond that's wildlife friendly. All in all, the magazine looks like a welcome addition to BHG's stable of gardening books.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The four-square garden revisited

Last May, I posted about making some adjustments my four-square garden, Country gardener: Seven-year-itch.

I had discovered that my laissez-faire style of minimal deadheading was letting too many thugish plants take over. We pulled out a lot of plants last spring, and in going through my pictures this winter, they really show that our work achieved the result we were looking for.

We will be doing some more plant rejigging this spring, as I think the Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' that are here also have to go now too. In the end, rather than the Piet Oudolf or Oehme van Sweden style I've adopted in the rest of the property, this four-square garden with its boxwood hedge (which got its first clipping last summer) will have a real English garden look.

It remains the most high maintance of all the garden areas we have, although I concede that my husband's rock garden is pretty heavy on the care budget too, but it, fortunately for me, is his exclusive domain.