Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Lessons From My Garden's Biggest Fan

One of the great rewards that comes with gardening is having others enjoy your garden. While my husband and daughter certainly appreciate the lush greenery and blooms in our yard, one family member really knows how to enjoy the garden to the fullest. Mooch.

Let's get some important business out of the way first. Other cat owners will argue otherwise, but I know that Mooch is, in fact, the best cat on the planet. Every night she waits for me to pull up in front of the house on my bike. Then she walks down the path to greet me. How is that not the best?

Mooch enjoys my garden like no one else. On hot days she rolls around on the cool grass. In rain, she shelters under the big fir or yew. She enjoys some alone time amid the iris and sleeps under the winged euonymous. When she's thirsty, a drink from the bird bath is in order. If she's feeling playful, there are lots of good bugs to hunt and snack on. Sometimes, she'll sit on the lawn chair and stare into space. I can always tell where she's been. Inevitably she drags some part of the garden into the house because it's stuck to her fur or tail.

Before you dismiss me as a crazy cat lady (although there's plenty of evidence to back up that characterization), I'm not saying any of this cat behaviour is extraordinary in any way. In fact, as far as cats are concerned, it's downright ordinary. But I see something very special in that behaviour and it makes me appreciate my garden more. Mooch already knows that a garden isn't meant to be admired from afar. It's meant to be lived in.

On a recent trip to the garden centre, my daughter asked if she could pick out a new ornament for our yard. Of course, I said yes. Without any prompting, she decided on a wind chime featuring a happy cat under the moon and stars. I think she made an excellent choice.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Evolution of a Gardener

I'm not the gardener I used to be. The last two days have provided ample evidence of my evolution. If words aren't enough to convince you, then the pictures might. You will notice there is absolutely nothing special about the photos posted today. And that, as a certain maven of house and home might say, is a very good thing.

Living on the "edge" has never appealed to me. Until yesterday afternoon, that is. I snuck into the garden for a few hours late in the day and managed to get in some serious edging. For the first time, I found myself really enjoying the real, hard work of gardening. When I was done, it didn't matter that not a single new plant had made it into the ground. That sharp edge, which now defines a shady corner of my yard, was satisfaction enough.

Satisfaction is a fleeting feeling though. When I woke up this morning, that crisp new edge called out for more plants. I had the day off so getting to the garden centre would not be a problem. But before setting out I did something unthinkable. I made a list! I wanted 3 daylilies, 5 heuchera, 3 golden Japanese forest grass, 3 astilbe and 3 helebores.

A list? What has happened to me? I used to go to the garden centre and snap up anything that caught my eye. It didn't matter that the colours clashed or that the conditions in my yard weren't right. Of course, I ended up regretting most of those impulse buys as they withered away into oblivion. My garden languished even as I pumped more and more purchases into it. Somewhere along the way, I realized the garden books had it right. I needed a plan. My list was the beginning of my plan.

The daylilies were easy. There are so many to choose from but I went with the Stella de Oro. I've heard nothing but good things about this long-blooming variety. I planted them across the path from my existing patch of daylilies, variety unknown. Together, they will soften the edge of the path and provide balance and symmetry to the back of the garden.

I downsized from five to three heuchera. The "Hollywood" variety available was huge. I was only expanding an existing patch of heuchera and decided that three would do. I also decided against the astilbe. The plants available were enormous and, therefore, expensive. I figure I'll divide my own astilbe in the next few years and get more plants that way instead.

While we're on the topic of pricey, how about my three Helleborus "Ivory Prince." $22.50 each! Ouch. But I had a plan. I realized the hellebores had already peaked. I would have to wait until next spring to really appreciate their flowers. They would fit perfectly into my woodland garden area. List in hand, the expense was justifiable.

I was foiled in my attempts to find some Golden Japanese Forest Grass. Only one sad little pot was available. I needed three. I convinced myself to wait until they had more in stock. The disappointment lead to one my impulse buy: tiarella wherryi or Wherry's Foamflower. Like the hellebores, the foamflowers are past their peak. In the picture posted, they look like a complete disaster. But I've done enough research on these plants to know that they too will be a great fit for my woodland garden. I've just got to give them a chance to settle into their new home and then wait for next year's show. more instant gratification for me. No more showy blooms for the sake of showy blooms. No more impulse purchases. The novice gardener in me was gone. I had evolved into a green thumb who researched garden conditions and plants, valued design, symmetry, texture, and fragrance. I was a gardener with a vision.

My mother came over to help me put some of my new purchases into the ground. To my secret delight, she thought the garden looked great. But she worried that my patch of backyard lawn would soon be overtaken by shrubs and trees and perennials. "That's exactly what I want," I told her. "It's all part of the plan."

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Strawberry Planters Aren't Just For Strawberries

Three days ago, I went online and expressed to the world wide web my disdain for container gardening. Three days later, I have to eat my words. It's okay. I'm happy to do it. My recent urn and window box acquisitions made me think twice about dismissing containers. So I hauled myself down to the basement, poked my way through nearly a decade's worth of cobwebs, and found an old strawberry planter I loved for its strawberry design.

I had great aspirations of using this pot to grow, what else, strawberries. The squirrels had something else in mind. For them, this was no strawberry planter. It was a buffet. The planter disappeared into deep storage as did my hopes for a small strawberry harvest. While I've abandoned the idea of berries for now (not forever though, those squirrels will be defeated), I decided it was finally time to put some life back into the planter.

So here it is, bursting with herbs. For the record, it's stuffed with Genovese Basil, Italian Parsley, Sage, Winter Savory, Orange Mint, Ginger Mint, and get this...Curry. I didn't even know that curry came from a plant until today. Of course, I never wondered where it came from before today either. The garden is a great teacher isn't it? Anyway, brush up against the curry just the right way, and the back porch smells like an Indian restaurant. Butter Chicken anyone? Or is Tandoori more your style? I sense some experiments with Indian cooking come mid-summer. All of the herbs smell great but the curry is especially strong. It's so strong that it impresses itself on the memory. I can smell it even now even though I'm nowhere near it. In fact, I can feel its heat. Now that is cool!

When "ooohing" and "aaahhing" over blossoms in the yard, it's easy to forget that there was a time when gardening wasn't a hobby but a way of life. There was a time when humans actually grew the food they ate themselves. When I first started my garden, I dedicated most of it to food. I remember the thrill of my first potato harvest. Turning the dirt to find a treasure trove of spuds. I had a really great tomato harvest one year. I even made pickled green tomatoes. Peppers were never easy but I managed to harvest a few. The garden evolved and soon the vegetables were gone and flowers were in their place. I don't know why. It just happened. But the herbs, their fragrance and their taste, have reminded me that I miss my harvests.

This year will be different. In addition to the herbs, I picked up two tomato plants of the beefsteak and cherry variety. I'll plant them among the flowers. Then one day in late summer, I'll be able to enjoy my blooms in a vase and my tomatoes and herbs on a plate. And as I take in the fragrance and the taste, I know what I'll be thinking: next year, I'm planting strawberries.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Irresistible Iris

Irresistible Iris. I didn't always feel that way about this flower. When my husband and I moved into our home nine years ago this August (wow, time flies!) I inherited a small bunch of tall bearded iris. They were planted in a corner of the yard, under a tree and never performed particulary well. I left them alone for years and years and never gave them much thought.

While I often puttered in the garden, I didn't get really serious about gardening until about three years ago. That's when I decided to give my pathetic little iris blooms a fair shake. I'm so glad I did because they have rewarded me ever since with a stunning display in late spring.

I quickly discovered part of the problem with my existing, lacklustre blooms. Whoever planted them to begin with buried their rhizomes deep under the soil. I don't think the irises appreciated it. The plants were also in a corner that proved to be too shady. I transplanted them to a sunny spot and left the rhizomes exposed. What a payoff! The flowers flourished and have more than doubled in size in the last few years. I'm already planning to divide them for next year (although I'll have to research exactly the best time to do that.)

As a group planting, I like iris best just before they are about to bloom. Their tall, spear-like stems with just a hint of the colour to come just scream "Look at me! I'll be ready for my close-up soon." Once in bloom, a drift of iris looks great too. But why enjoy these blooms from afar? These are flowers that you should get up close and personal with. There's so much to see. First, you've got the Standards -- the three upward-arching petals. Then you get another three petals called the Falls. As the name suggests, they fall away from the blossom. And then there are my favourites: the beards. The fuzzy, brush-like, tickle inducing hairs that sit on the Falls. There's more, but then this isn't a botany class.

I've read in several gardening books that irises aren't worth the trouble. They get attacked by iris borers and their foliage turns brown by midsummer and needs to be plucked away. Bah-humbug I say to those gardener writers. You've got it wrong. I've heard the tall bearded irises described as queens of the iris world, and I for one, am delighted to be in the presence of royalty.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Who Says you Have to "Urn" Your Garden?

I consider myself a dedicated gardener. I'm committed. I'm ready to weed. I spend hours in the dirt. I'm in it for the long haul. But even a committed gardener like myself deserves a little instant gratification. That's what I got today. Upon my arrival home from work, I came upon my brand new window box and two beautiful backyard urns.

If there's anywhere my green thumb fails me, it's in the container garden. I just don't have the magic touch. I pick the wrong plants, place them poorly, and then promptly neglect them. My desire for a beautiful window box and urns is unrelenting though, so I get some professional help.

The folks at Pink Flamingo Garden and Urn Design Inc. have done an amazing job yet again. The proof is in the pictures. Last winter, they did some jaw-droppingly awesome holiday designs too. Hands down, we had the most gorgeous Christmas window in the neighbourhood (but, of course, I am biased.)

I'm determined to water these beauties, watch them grow, and study their designs in the hopes that one day I'll grow to love container gardening too. I doubt it, but that's okay. At least I've got the pros to help me out.

Monday, May 21, 2007

At Your Service

Good garden help is hard to find. Luckily, I've got my almost four-year old to lend a hand. We spent a fabulous Victoria Day Sunday together walking to the garden centre, picking out a tree and some garden accessories, dragging them all home in her wagon, and then placing said purchases in the garden. Of course, my daughter was more interested in making mud pies and squishing them in her toes than in any actual planting activity. Even though our interests in the garden differ, they are compatible.

The big purchase of the day was a serviceberry. I'm very excited about it. It's my attempt to introduce some native Ontario plants to the garden, attain some shade and height, and attract some wildlife in the process.

My purchase came too late to experience the flower show the serviceberry delivers in spring. It produces white blooms in April before the leaves appear. I'm already looking forward to next year. Right now, the berries have already formed. If I'm lucky and the birds don't get to all of them, I might even try my hand at making some jam or pie once the fruit is ripe. Come fall, the serviceberry provides yellow to yellow-red foliage that promises to look spectacular against the backdrop of the yew. As a bonus, my husband really likes its funky shape.

All of these plant details are lost on my daughter who is nevertheless fascinated by berries, and birds, and dirt. When I look out at the serviceberry years from now as it towers above the garden, I'll remember what a wonderful day we had planting it -- especially washing the mud from between our toes.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Garden Update #2

I finally got the chance to do some serious garden work this weekend. Here's an update.

For years, a small rose of sharon languished in my front yard. It would do well in spring when it got early morning sunlight. But as the giant maple next door filled in, it was plunged into dense shade. It never amounted to much. Last year I got around to moving it to a sunny section in my backyard and it has bounced back quite nicely. I have two rose of sharons. Both produce giant purple flowers late in summer. And the flower display lasts a really long time. Here are some before and after pruning pictures.

One of the things I love about this shrub is that it's a great practice ground for pruning. I feel like a real pro while trimming them. It's as if the shrub has a built-in how to guide. Find the top of the branch, find the leaf bud nearest the top, and snip just above it. Also, eliminate any branches that cross or rub against each other. Easy, breezy pruning. The way it should be.

I have underplanted one of my rose of sharons with ferns. It was an accident really. The ferns were already there, I didn't bother to touch them, and they grew in to make a lovely effect. I pulled out a few ferns that were crowding my astilbe and moved them to this fern corner. Transplanting was not easy. The ferns are so delicate. Their branches snap at the slightest touch. Next time, I'll move these plants before they unfurl.

The heuchera, my red coral bells, are about to open. The red tips look quite dramatic against the dark green of the yew. I need to find these guys a new home. I put them under the yew as a temporary holding spot. But, I can't decide yet where they would fit best.

The first columbines have bloomed. Like my coral bells, the columbines deserve a better spot in my garden. They're growing through the gravel of the driveway. They're hidden behind the winged euonymous, daylilies and lilac and can't be seen from the deck or yard. But it makes for a worthwhile walk to the back of the yard.

I'm not sure if these are violets or violas but I love them either way. I've planted some under my giant fir where they are happliy blooming. I'm hoping they will naturalize and spread blanketing the area in a carpet of blooms.

Here's the first mountain bluet of the season. They always put on great show. I cut way back on the number of bluets I have though. Their post bloom appearance is a bit straggly and they seed like crazy, popping up just about everywhere.

Here's a picture of my yard at my favourite time of day. It's a pretty relaxing scene if I do say so myself. The perfect place to sit and reflect on the day's work.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Urban Garden Critter

When one lives in the heart of the city, one can't be too picky about the type of creatures that come to the visit one's garden. Last weekend, I was very lucky to have a blue jay drop by on my back porch to investigate some berry decorations left over from winter. And two cardinals make an appearance every now and then. I consider those bird sightings a real treat, rare as they are.

Read all the garden magazines and they'll tell you that providing food is key to attracting wildlife to the garden. That would explain the regular nightly visits I get from raccoons. Clever creatures. They have discovered my City of Toronto Green Bin and knock it over nightly to feast on my family's scraps. I've tried various things to discourage them: bungee cords to tie the lids down, a brick on top of the bin, and even relocation. But the raccoons have been undeterred.

It's a nuisance to have to clean up the mess they leave. It often leaves me muttering under my breath. When my husband is the one to discover the tipped over bin, I secretly heave a sigh of relief. We've got an unwritten rule in our house regarding our cat: if you find the cat puke, you clean up the cat puke. That rule now applies to the green bin too. But even as we grumble, we have to admit that raccoons are pretty cool.

Last night I heard a crash outside our door. When I went to investigate, I caught one of the green bin tipsters in the act. But my reaction wasn't to try and shoo it away. I didn't get angry. Instead, I called to my husband: "Come quick. Check this out." There we were, two adults, standing on the steps at midnight, watching a raccoon eat garbage. Wonders never cease.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Garden Centre Withdrawal

May 18th and I have yet to make a trip to the Garden Centre. I'd like to think it's because I'm a disciplined gardener. I buy only what I need after careful consideration and planning toward a well thought-out garden design. Yeah, right. Who am I kidding?

I love garden centres! I make dozens of trips over the course of the summer and spend hundreds of dollars. It's my favourite way to kill some time, no purchase necessary. The fact that I have yet to make it to the garden centre is a sad commentary on how busy I am. Work sucks up way too much of my time (but that's another story.)

Anyway, at long last, the Victoria Day Long Weekend has arrived. It's the traditional planting weekend in these parts I'm determined to spend some dough and get my hands dirty.

I've got a few things on my wish list: solar lights, another birdhouse, a serviceberry or two, maybe an evergreen in a shade of blue and some of those neat Japanese grasses with the names I forget. But most of all I just want the time to enjoy the experience.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Garden Update

A second straight day of rain. My plants are loving it. Here are just a few photos and an update of how my garden is growing. The tall bearded irises are looking great.

The fir tree buds are a bright, light green and soft to the touch.

Always one to keep me guessing, the hibiscus is finally showing signs of life. The leaves on this shrub are always the last to appear. But what a showstopper late in the summer. I'm setting aside some pruning time this weekend.

My chives look like they are ready to put on the next spectacular bloom show. As a bonus, chives are one of the few "greens" my daughter enjoys.

The giant hostas are well on their way to dominating the shadiest corner of my garden. At their peak, these beauties easily measure four feet across.

Where did all these daylilies come from? I swear these plants double in size every year. I love them. Here's to waiting for them to bloom.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Little Rain Must Fall

At long last, the spring rain has arrived. It's a good thing too. The garden can use it. This afternoon, a big storm blew through Toronto. If I may reference the comedy classic "Bowfinger," this storm dropped some "chubby rain." Big fat raindrops and lots of them.

I raced home, trying unsuccessfully to stay dry. Since I was soaked, I decided to get some storm pictures of the garden. None turned out except these two of my birdbath. I love it when I look like a professional photographer without even trying.

I was already thinking of maybe adding a water feature or two to my garden. A small fountain perhaps. Seeing these pictures makes me think I should accelerate those plans. Not only do water features look great but they sound great too. There's nothing like the relaxing pitter-patter of rain or the trickle of a flowing stream. Water features are great for attracting birds and useful insects too. And if my birdbath is any indication, a new water feature would be happily welcomed by my cat Mooch. She prefers drinking in the great outdoors to drinking from her kitchen bowl.

Move over birdbath. A new water feature will be joining you before the summer ends.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Accidental Gardener

I can't take credit for some of my greatest garden features. You see, I inherited them. When my husband and I moved into our home in August of 1998, the backyard was covered in grass with the exception of an interlocking brick walkway and a sad little corner set aside for flowers. I would eventually (and very slowly) transform the space to include two large borders on the north and south sides of the yard. A few of the original plants have endured and thrived, much to the delight of my green thumb.

First up, the columbine. They have made themselves right at home in the gravel of my driveway. Columbines are truly spectacular plants. They are super easy to grow. The flowers are complex and fabulous and come in a deep, dramatic purple. Once the blooms have faded, columbines are more than happy to seed themselves, ensuring that I'll always have some. I've often wanted to pick up a few extras at the garden centre but couldn't justify the purchase. Why pay for a plant that is only too happy to propagate itself. As a bonus, the columbine's mounded foliage remains gorgeous for the duration of the summer.

My patch of tall bearded irises has become so large that I think I'll have to divide it after the summer. I inherited a small bunch of irises that never seemed to perform especially well. For years, I was lucky to get one or two blooms. But upon relocating them to a sunnier location and planting them so that their rhizomes were exposed, these beauties really came into their own. They are easily the highlight of my spring garden. After blooming, I cut the stems to the base. The strap-like foliage looks good well into late summer. When it starts to get brown, I just yank the leaves or cut them away.

There's one shrub in the garden that inspires me to proclaim "Yew're terrific." A small yew planted in the south-west corner of the yard has grown into a majestic hedge that blocks the view of our parking spot. Nothing ruins the ambience of a garden like a car. But thanks to the yew, our VW is almost entirely obscured. The yew stands nearly six feet tall and at least that wide. I have never, ever trimmed it. It's got a naturally pleasing form.

I've also got a towering fir. It was a signficant tree when we moved in nearly 9 1/2 years ago. Now it's that much more signficant. Its branches have blocked part of the pathway that cuts through the yard. Everyone has to step off the path to get around it. But rather than touch the tree, I think I'll reroute the path. What a great excuse to finally get rid of the interlocking brick that I have grown to loathe.

And let's not forget the ivy that spontaneously sprouted and started climbing up the side of the neighbour's house. Instead of brick, I get a view of a living wall. The ivy is especially spectacular in fall when it turns a fiery red. I secretly hope the neighbours don't know or care about. They are not plant people (don't get me started about the disaster they call a front lawn) and I fear that they would hack the ivy away.

I consider these the happy accidents of my garden. They're the plants I never got around to yanking or trimming or carefully placing. And what a lucky thing that is.

Tiptoe Through the Trillium

I woke up this morning to much secretive activity by my husband and daughter. Lots of whispers, the crinkle of tissue paper, the clanking of spoons and pans, and one very adamant order from my three-year-old. "Don't come downstairs Mom. We're not ready for you yet!" I drifted back to sleep and heard the front door close as they set off on some adventure.

A short while later I awoke to the gift of a picture frame made in pre-school, a pancake breakfast and a beautiful pot of unknown purple and white flowers purchased at the local flower shop. It was, of course, Mother's Day and it couldn't have started in a nicer way. The morning spilled into afternoon with lunch at my mother's place. I have to credit her with planting the seed that started my gardening obsession. She's a green thumb who's been planting whatever she wants wherever she wants it for as long as I can remember. Dinner would be at my in-laws' place near Waterdown, Ontario. That's where the gardener in me finally got my fix for the day: a walk through the woods to check out the wildflowers.

A gardener must take inspiration from wherever it appears, and nature serves it up like nothing else. Just look at this field of trilliums. I don't think I've ever seen so many in one place before.

In fact, I never thought much of Ontario's official flower because I've usually seen only one or two growing at a time. My reaction: "Oh, yeah. A trillium." My reaction today was decidedly different. More along the lines of "Wow!" The trillium had won me over.

If you've ever wondered about the effectiveness of mass plantings, look no further than these ferns. They are proof positive that just one type of plant placed in large groupings can be jaw-droppingly dramatic. I like ferns but am generally less excited about them than flowering perennials. But now I realize that the shady parts of my garden could look really awesome with just a few extra ferns.

Got swampy land? No problem. Try some Marsh Marigolds. I never even knew this plant existed until today.

It was a great Mother's Day that started with flowers and ended with flowers. In between, my daughter sang me a song about how much she loves me and then topped it off with "Roses are red, violets are blue. Sugar is sweet and so are you." What more could a mother ask for?