Thursday, May 31, 2007

The rock garden with sculpture

It was a lovely still morning with an overcast sky and no wind. John had asked me to take some pictures of his rock garden, and this was the perfect day for that.

We made the troughs in the centre - three of them are hypertufa - and one John made out of limestone, his first stone carving project.

The limestone sculpture in the middle started out as another one of his trough projects, but the stone happened to have a crack, so he carved a sculpture of an embracing couple. Is it us, the two gardeners here? Maybe...

The picture below is of one of his prized Lewisias, grown from seed and planted into the wall.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Perfect spring garden moment: Palibin lilac

Spring-flowering shrubs seem to come and go so quickly that I think of them as fleeting moments in the garden.

Luckily, these "moments" last a week or two. The serviceberry and crabapple moments have come and gone, but now we're enjoying the Palibin lilac moment.

This picture is the scene I enjoy every time I step out the door into the garden. It's a grouping of my favorite lilac, the dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri 'Palibin'), which has a fresh, spicy fragrance and elegant form.

The Palibin dwarf Korean lilac blooms in mid to late May, and grows only about five feet tall. Best of all, it resists powdery mildew and has a neat-looking mounded growth habit. You can also find it at garden centers trained as a standard.

There is more information about growing lilacs at my web site.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Thistle control in our prairie

Planting wildflower meadows - natural landscaping with prairie wildflowers and grasses that are native to North America - is billed as a low-maintenance, earth-friendly way of gardening that doesn't need much in the way of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or watering.

This sounded good to us, so in 2000, we planted a short-grass prairie meadow, shown here four years later. The planting includes perennials - forbes in prairie gardening lingo - and short grasses. Actually, as it covers more than two acres, we didn't plant it ourselves, but hired Wildflower Farm to sow it with a tractor and seed drill.

Our neighbors were skeptical: sure, a city couple moves to the country, wants wildflowers - it's never gonna work. However, I had researched the idea carefully, and found that, besides money for the seeds and planting (it's not cheap!), it takes patience because the real show of flowers from seed takes three years to get blooming.

Wildflower Farm's method included planting a nurse crop of annual rye grass to deter weeds without choking out the emerging native grasses and wildflowers. Doing it this way made a lot of sense to me.

Our meadow is seven years old and quite established now, and it really is a joy and my favorite part of the property. It's an amazing haven for birds all season long, and attracts countless butterflies in late summer.

The classic way of managing a prairie is to burn it in early spring every few seasons to keep weeds and woody plant interlopers in check. We have done a controlled burn twice, and now schedule one every five years or so. Fire regulations - plus plain old safety concerns - don't allow a do-it-yourself burn, so we have to hire pros for the job. This is hugely expensive: the insurance alone costs almost $1,000.

The prairie meadow has done beautifully. However, there have been challenges. After four years we had a severe infestation of Canada thistle, the nasty one that spreads via root growth like a ground cover. (Why it's called Canada thistle is beyond me: the plant is a native of Eurasia, and shouldn't be blamed on poor defenceless Canada.)

When the thistles got really bad, I consulted one of my favorite reference books, Gardening with Prairie Plants and read that "Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), native of southeastern Eurasia, is eventually outcompeted by big bluestem in northern tall grass prairies but ruins short grass prairies."

I didn't want this to happen, so we bit the bullet and began to remove the thistles by cutting them down while they were in flower in mid-summer. The idea was to get them out before they could go to seed. It was a nasty, hot prickly job, relieved only by the lovely scent of the plants. (Who knew that thistles have a lovely fragrance?) We took the thistles away with our front-end loader tractor. Eighteen loads (!) later we were done: the job took three or four of us several days working in plants that were waist-high.

The following spring, we decided to use herbicide - 2,4-D (Killex, the stuff used on lawn weeds) - on the thistles as they emerged early in the season. Obviously, I prefer to avoid herbicides, but we couldn't dig the thistles out as the area was way too big for hand removal of a plant that spreads by root runners.

To avoid getting the herbicide on other plants, we used a sponge applicator, the Weedeezy weeding stickthat you put on top of the plant and press down and twist. Each weeding stick holds about a litre of water into which you mix the corresponding amount of herbicide concentrate.

To do the job, my husband and I walk five-foot wide swaths of the meadow hitting each thistle as we see it. We do this in early May just as the thistles start to grow. The first season, we repeated the application three times. Subsequently, we've only had to do it twice, about a week to 10 days apart.

The thistles are no longer over-running the meadow. We'll never eradicate them entirely, but then again our meadow will not be ruined as long as we keep this up. The price is one or two mornings spent applying spot herbicide each season. We put on the smallest amount possible, but this makes all the difference.

This experience - our success controlling a very nasty weed - is one of the reasons that I don't support blanket bans on herbicides. There are legitimate reasons to use them. It's a trade-off: a small amount of herbicide for weed control, with virtually no harm to the environment.

In our situation, allowing the thistles to proliferate would have spoiled the landscape feature that is the biggest draw to wildlife we have on our property. Perhaps an ecological purist would not have used herbicide, but the price would have been high: the ruin of a short grass prairie. I think we made the right decision.

Rock gardening anyone?

I never liked rock gardens much. A fake mountain-side with alpine plants plopped into a suburban yard just doesn't do it for me. To my mind, rock gardening is the purview of finicky gardeners trying to coax itsy-bitsy hard-to-grow treasures into bloom in piles of gravel and rock: fussy, and definitely not my style.

So you can imagine my shock several years ago when my husband John announced that he was going to take up rock gardening. But what could I do? He had supported me in doing my perennials and ornamental grasses thing, and had even approved of planting a native plant prairie meadow on two of our acres (which was very expensive). We had 10 acres – surely there was a spot he where he could do his own thing.

Rock gardening attracted John precisely because it was a bit esoteric. What he really wanted was a part of the garden where he could do his own thing. The fact that I wasn't interested in alpines was actually the point.

When he showed me his design for the rock garden, I was relieved. It was a dry stone wall two feet high creating a raised bed in a formal square. A section of the square would be left open so you could to walk into a courtyard area, which would have a group of alpine troughs. So no jumble of rock – this was actually going to look good.

Once we agreed on a site for his garden, John used every spare moment to build it. He learned how to cut and face rock from the expert landscapers who were building an entry courtyard at the front of the house.

Construction of the raised bed took two years. John used rocks that were on the property, which came from the foundation of a barn that had long been torn down. In the meantime, he joined the Ontario Rock Garden Society and started growing plants from seed. (Most rock gardeners get their plants through seed exchanges and rock gardening suppliers, as alpine plants aren't readily available at your average neighborhood garden center.)

His plants from seed were so successful that by the time his garden was ready to plant, he had enough to fill the space. We spent an afternoon setting 700 pots into place and it took him a couple of days to get them all planted.

Although I'd been doubtful about alpines, I must admit that many of them are fascinating and beautiful. John's only real frustration is that too many of his treasures don't survive our hot, humid summers and strange winters (usually too mild and too wet around Christmas time, followed by too cold without enough snow). But he's still growing new plants from seed, and usually has replacements ready for plants that die.

So, yes, indeed, we have his and hers gardens, and it's worked out quite well.

PS: Last May, John announced that he was starting a new hobby: violin lessons (at age 58!). Again, I thought he was crazy. Now he's been at that for a year, as well as rock gardening, and stone carving, (a whole other story). Is it challenging to live with a spouse who continually reinvents himself? You bet!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Hiring help: the importance of being a blogger...

Last week I realized that I needed more gardening help, as my regular gal is taking some time off this spring and summer. But I never know if I can find anybody because I can't offer a full-time summer job.

Since I'm an internet addict, I bypassed the usual newspaper classified route and tried my local Craigslist. Early in the week, I hired a young fellow, who lasted just long enough to do some overdue weed-whacking and edging before he found a summer job more to his liking.

But then I struck gold: a mature university student who wanted exactly what I had to offer, gardening and flexible part-time. And best of all, she has a full summer of landscape maintenance experience under her belt (working for the city last year), and she has a friend who also wants a few hours of gardening work each week over the spring and early summer.

I'm thrilled because at this time of the year, it takes everything just to clean up and keep up with the mowing and weeding. There's actually precious little energy left for a life (my desk is a mess and the laundry keeps piling up), not to mention doing any real gardening: making changes and refining plantings, or doing up really nice containers. (Did I mention that we have bitten off more than we can chew?)

Now with more help, we can actually redo parts of a border that's gone too wild and get those extra large clumps of daffodils dug up and divided - all those jobs that I think, "It would be nice if we could..." So welcome Laura and Sarah: I think we're going to have fun.

PS: Laura said that she felt good about the job when she discovered that I was a blogger too...

It's Sugar Tyme

I have a thing for crabapples, especially white flowering ones. My favorite is this beauty, a good disease-resistant cultivar sold as Sugar Tyme (Malus 'Sutyzam'), which is in bloom right now.

What makes it great is masses of gorgeous, fragrant flowers in May, followed by long-lasting red fruit, which persist almost into winter until flocks of migrating cedar waxwings swoop in to clean the berries off.

I'm a fan too of 'White Angel' and 'Donald Wyman', also white-flowering crabs. Aside from the white ones (I have a spot between our old silo and the farm pond that I call the crabapple orchard), I planted a number of purple-leafed, pink-flowering 'Thunderchild'. Unfortunately, they've been duds, producing fewer flowers than the white cultivars and losing their leaves half way through the summer. I've had them for three years now.

My husband is quite ruthless about turfing under-performing plants - maybe rock gardeners are less tolerant - but I like to give them a sporting chance, especially trees. But if the Thunderchilds don't improve this year, I'll bite the bullet and pull them out. There's always another tree to try out...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Raspberry sundae anyone?

As a garden writer, I often get bulbs sent to try out. Here's one I planted a couple of years ago: the parrot tulip Estella Rijnveld. To my mind, she looks more like a raspberry sundae than a spring flower. Plant breeders gone overboard for sure!

When I get bulbs like this, I'm usually at a loss as to where to plant them. They don't mix well with other spring flowers, and I don't feel they look at home in a country garden. What goes with raspberry sundae, besides whipped cream?

My solution is to line them out in the vegetable garden and then enjoy them as cut flowers.

My verdict on parrot tulip Estella Rijnveld? Thumbs down as a garden flower, but really yummy as a cut flower - fun to photograph too.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Seize the moment: Serviceberries in bloom

May is a crazy month: everywhere I look, there are jobs to do. Divide this perennial, remove that shrub, replace that dead tree, weed, mulch, water (it's been dry very early), mow, plant, and weed once again.

That leaves precious little time for photography. Of course, the spring problem is that if you don't get that shot now, you'll miss it, and it won't come around again for a year. "Seize the moment" is the operative principle. So I'm glad that I set everything aside one evening last week to get a picture of my line of 10 serviceberry shrubs (Amelanchier canadensis) in full bloom.

We planted these shrubs as small bare-root plants about seven years ago, and with annual pruning and shaping, they've matured into beautiful multi-stemmed specimens.

It's been several days since I took these pictures, and the flowers are already fading, which means berries are on the way. Next month, I'll be competing with the birds for a taste. I try to harvest at least couple of cups worth of berries to enjoy with plain yogurt – what a yummy treat from the garden!

Out west, a serviceberry cultivar they call Saskatoonberry produces much bigger fruits, which make great pies. In the past year or so, I've seen these offered in Ontario markets for the first time.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Our weeping willow: gorgeous prima donna

We've planted a lot of trees on our little farm, but the most gorgeous tree of all was already here. It's a huge weeping willow that dominates our yard as you drive up the long lane toward the house and barn.

I don't know how old it is or who planted it, but we're glad it's here, despite the piles of twigs, leaves and branches that it's constantly shedding.

Clean-up underneath the willow after a winter's worth of storms takes three of us several hours, and that isn't the only maintenance it needs: we've had an arborist cable it and have it professionally pruned every two or three years, depending on how many branches get ripped off high up.

In mid-summer, I give it a pruning to lift its skirts, so we can get the mower underneath without tripping over its weeping branches. I've got it down to an art, clipping the hanging branches at different lengths so it doesn't look like a bad haircut.

Our willow is in flower right now and set off against the blue skies we've enjoyed this week, it looks about as magestic as a tree can be. Is it worth all the effort and care? You bet. Would I plant one if it wasn't already here? Hmmmmm....