Friday, September 26, 2008

Fun with Flowers

Garden Lily at Flowers and Weeds has been having some fun with flowers. After coming across a super cute puppy flower arrangement, Garden Lily got creative herself. The next thing I knew, I was poking around in the garden looking for flowers and coming up with my own flower buddy. Here he is. I call him Sunny. The yellow flowers are the blooms of Jerusalem artichoke. The eyes and nose are made from purple coneflower seedheads. The floppy ears are a grass (foxtail, I believe) that grows in my garden despite my loudest protests and efforts to show it the door. And the mouth is a geranium. This project was trickier than I expected. It's not easy getting the flowers to go exactly where you want, but then that's why I'll never be a flower arranger. I know that garden bloggers are a creative bunch. So if you're feeling inspired, check out Garden Lily's original post and then join in the fun. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to walk, uh, I mean water, Sunny.

My Five Gardens: The TBG

On a cold April morning this spring, I showed up at The Toronto Botanical Garden with trowel in hand ready to do what was asked of me. Well, with 12 theme gardens spanning nearly four acres, there was lots to do. At the top of the list: weeding. The garlic mustard alone could take a lifetime to eradicate. Weeding at the TBG really made me appreciate how little weeding there is do in my own garden. I'll never complain about pulling a bushel of dandelions from the yard again because that ain't nothing! Leading the charge against the weeds were three staff gardeners and a core group of volunteers known as the KOGs: the Keepers of the Garden. The KOGs each put in more than 100 volunteer hours per season at the TBG. Now that's dedication and it really shows: the gardens are beautiful, and yes, relatively weed free.

I love the TBG because everywhere you look there is inspiration. I planted my first hellebores last year and witnessed them bloom this spring. I have three plants. One of the first things to greet me at the TBG was a small field of hellebores. Oh the possibilities! These were planted brilliantly in a raised area of the garden surrounding a courtyard. No need to bend down to see the blooms. You could simply stand in the courtyard and look up for a most impressive view.

One of my first jobs was to cut some massive stands of grass down to the ground. Those grasses are now once again almost twice as tall as me and are starting to fade to their familiar golden fall colours. Mornings in the garden were peaceful and often misty thanks to an unusually wet spring and summer. Just a few volunteers with their buckets weeding, fertilizing, transplanting, mulching and chatting about gardens. At the end of the day, I'd stroll casually through the gardens absorbing the atmosphere and making mental notes about beautiful plant combinations. I loved those quiet mornings.

Then just last week, I had a chance to visit the garden on a sunny Saturday afternoon. What a difference from my mornings in the garden. The place was abuzz with activity. There were bus tours coming through, at least three wedding parties posing for pictures, parents chasing their butterfly-chasing children, and gardeners pouring over a big garden book sale (I picked up few great bargains). While I have always enjoyed gardening for personal reasons, seeing so many people enjoying the garden made me realize how important it is to have beautiful spaces that everyone can enjoy. It really invigorates the spirit.

I had great aspirations of taking a million plus pictures at the TBG this summer. As it turns out, I have only a handful. I guess some job or other always got in the way. You can get your fill of eye candy at the TBG Photo Gallery.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Five Gardens: The Woodland Garden

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima formerly known as Eupatorium rugosum) is the star of my woodland garden right now. Standing about four feet tall, it is covered with hundreds of tiny white blooms that give the plant a very airy, delicate effect. I was nervous about planting white snakeroot. Like so many of the woodland plants I've researched, it comes with a warning: poisonous! Because I am a city dweller, and white snakeroot affects primarily grazing cattle and goats, planting white snakeroot did not feel like that big of a risk. I do worry about my cat and neighbourhood pets but so far, with the plant set well back from the street, there have been no problems. I am so glad because this plant has really charmed me. Any plant that blooms its heart out into the fall can't be all bad.

The Woodland Garden was a new addition this year. I tore out a large section of grass along the walkway to the front of the house and installed as many native and woodland plants as I could. The area is anchored by two serviceberry shrubs (Amelanchier Canadensis) and an eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). The redbud bloomed beautifully back in spring as did the serviceberries. I chose them all specifically because they provide early spring colour, just when I'm craving blooms the most after a long, cold winter. They have thrived, especially the serviceberries. One of the shrubs put on what seems to be at least a foot of growth.

Among the other natives in the garden are some Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis). This plant has lived up to its reputation as an aggressive spreader. When I purchased them, the plants were only about an inch or two tall. Well, they have filled in very nicely, providing a carpet of green under one of the serviceberries. I have even had to weed some of the anemones to prevent them crowding out other plants that are still establishing themselves. The anemones produced only a few blooms this year. I attribute that to the timing of the planting and the young plants. I am already dreaming of the blossom show come next spring.

Another native that is doing well is the wild geranium (Geranium maculatum). Like the anemone, these plants were wee when I put them in the ground. They have filled in beautifully forming mounds of foliage about a foot across. The wild geranium did not provide a single bloom this year. I'm still hoping (September and October are both supposed to provide summer-like conditions) but if it doesn't happen, I'm sure the spring display will be fabulous.

This lone bloodroot (Sanguineria canadensis) leaf is still hanging on although its dry, brown edges suggest it has seen better days.  I planted eight bloodroot plants in spring and almost all went dormant a short time later. Like the redbud and servicberry, bloodroot feeds my need for early spring flowers. I saw seed pods on the plants and lots of ants earlier this spring (ants disperse bloodroot seeds) so I'm hoping to have a few extra next year. Colonize.  Colonize.  Colonize.  Go bloodroot go!

While the foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia ) didn't produce any blooms either, I am especially pleased with how their section of the woodland is looking. Aren't they so cute, all cozied up to each other? They've even welcomed a wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) into their circle (The wild columbines, by the way, are naturalizing very well. But then they are columbines, I should have expected that.) I fell in love with foam flower last year after planting two in a shady section of the backyard garden. I have five plants in the woodland garden (I started with eight but three didn't make it thanks to evil squirrels and a few too many heavy downpours). I want more of these woodland beauties, a whole field of them.  

There's lots more in the woodland garden including ladyfern (so beautiful), wood lily (no blooms), toad lily (i'm in love), solomon's seal (very reliable), bugbane (can't wait for this one to reach six feet tall), wild ginger (it's really struggling despite what I thought were suitable conditions), starry false solomon's seal and running strawberry bush (haven't developed a smidge since I planted them), sensitive fern (great performer), phlox (I wish I knew what kind), blue cohosh, red baneberry, and plantain leaved sedge (I thought this would never grow but then it really took off). Like the foamflowers, I want more of all these plants. It'll take some time. One thing I've learned as a gardener is to have some patience. The payoff is almost always worth it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Five Gardens: The Backyard Garden

If I had given the "My Five Gardens" series a little more thought, I would have named it "My Six Gardens." While the Backyard Garden exists in the backyard, qualifying it as one garden, there really are two gardens back there. The perennial borders have been a work in progress for about a decade. The vegetable patch, or the potager, was a new addition this year. The semi-shady border and potager (right next to the car) are visible in this bird's eye view. However, the giant balsam fir obscures the view of the full sun border. As much as I love that tree, it is terribly placed, offering no shade and blocking the walkway. I can't imagine getting rid of it though. Would removing some of the lower branches of a fir make it look too weird?

At this time of year, I let nature take its course in the full sun border. The purple coneflowers and cranesbill are still blooming profusely. A lack of weeding on my part has resulted in some grasses poking through the perennials giving the whole thing a bit of a meadow effect. I can't complain (if I do, I'll be forced to weed!) There's also some calamint and catmint in there, holding their own against the grasses.

One of the last things to bloom in the backyard garden is the Jerusalem Artichoke. The plants reached an astounding eight (maybe even nine) feet tall this year, the tallest they have ever been. I suspect that the wall of the neighbour's home expansion had something to do with it, creating a most hospitable micro-climate. I always feel that the incredibly cheery blooms are a most fitting way to end the summer: in a blaze of glory. Even so I have a deep, dark secret to share about my full sun border (please don't tell anyone): I'm a bit bored with it. Now don't get me wrong. I mean how could coneflowers and iris and globe thistle and delphinium and sedum and cotton lavender and english lavender and lilac ever be boring? They can't. They are and always will be beautiful. But as a gardener I find my interests are shifting. The first time I saw a purple coneflower I was in awe. Now I find myself in awe of shade plants and vegetables.

It took about six months to grow this red pepper from seed. My goodness what a journey. Buying the seed, starting it indoors, transplanting into larger pots, hardening off, transplanting into the garden, and all the while nurturing, nurturing and nurturing. In the end, the pepper was consumed in under a minute. Some garden magazines would have you believe that vegetable gardening is all the rage these days. Maybe so but I didn't simply latch on to a trend. I see my newfound interest in veggies as a natural evolution of my gardening. When I wanted more from my garden than perennials, I expanded it to include edibles. This year I enjoyed radishes, carrots, onions, leeks, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, serviceberries, potatoes, and beans with brussel sprouts still to come.

That is the beauty of gardening. There's always room for more. I found a spot for these beauties (garlic chives, I think) under the dappled shade of a Japanese Maple. And I can always carve up some more of my lawn (that's some prime garden real estate.) I'll always keep at least one purple coneflower in my garden, but I can give away the dozens of others to make room for something new and exciting. I can grow my own food. When the season is done I can plan to do it again so that all of next year's crops are new and exciting. There's always room to try something different or to squeeze in one more plant. And that's the beauty of my backyard garden.

Monday, September 15, 2008

My Five Gardens: The Community Garden

Not all of the five gardens I contributed to this year are a source of joy or pride. The community garden is an eyesore. It's a tangled mess of cosmos, morning glory, and weeds. The garden was started last year by a neighbour and I was more than happy to pitch in. After an initial group effort by about five of us, the community gardeners all sort of went their own way. There were no further group efforts to weed or plant or plan this garden. It shows. Yuck.

I did a fair bit of weeding in spring and have planted purple coneflower, sage, liatris, hosta, yarrow and iris in the plot (impossible to tell from the picture right?). Plants alone won't make this community garden click. It needs people coming together to get the job done. Nobody has taken the initiative to get people involved since that first garden gathering. So maybe it's time to put up a poster for a Weeding Sunday or Bulb Planting Monday. When I first put the shovel into the dirt at the community garden I was so excited. That excitement has turned into disappointment. The only option is to do something about it because there is no way that a garden should be less valuable to a community than a patch of grass.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

My Five Gardens: The Teaching Garden

The summer is taking its time winding down. Late August and now early September have offered up some of the best weather of the season so far. There's lots still going on in the backyard garden including a colourful display from the sedums and a fresh planting of radishes and lettuce. But as autumn nears, I find myself reflecting on the garden season that was. For me, 2008 has been the most garden-intensive year ever. In all, I had the great pleasure of working in five very distinct gardens. I began the season as a volunteer in The Teaching Garden at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Here's what things looked like back in April. Straw paths separated the newly prepared beds. In the coming months, school kids from across the city would come here to spend a day in the sunshine, planting rows and rows of seeds and learning about nature.

This is what the garden looks like now, just a few days ahead of the annual Harvest Day Festival. Not bad for little kids, huh? I did my bit by spending a few hours each week doing what needs to be done in any garden: watering, weeding, staking, hoeing etc.

One of my earliest tasks was to transplant more than a dozen volunteer tomatillo plants. Here they are caged in their new bed.

The tomatillos were apparently deliriously happy with their new location because they have been growing like mad ever since. This bed has become my most favourite part of the garden.

Working in the Teaching Garden made me appreciate vegetables I had never tried before. After harvesting bushels of Swiss Chard with its colourful stems, I gave the leafy green a try. I found a great recipe for chard wrapped in sole filets. I even tried it braised and served it as a side dish. Now I'm a big fan. The Swiss Chard has been producing non-stop since spring. I may have to make room for some in my own garden next year. It may be tough to squeeze in next to the purple beans, bok choi, parsnips, beets, and eggplant. So many things to try.

As the summer wore on, harvesting became a bigger part of my job. There's something inherently satisfactory about picking vegetables you have helped to grow. It's even nicer when all that produce goes to a good cause. All the teaching garden vegetables go to the North York Harvest Food Bank for use in nutritional workshops or to be distributed to families in need. It feels good to know that doing something I love can make a difference to someone even in a small way.

In a year where I ventured into some serious veggie gardening at home, the Teaching Garden was the perfect companion garden. I learned a lot and that helped my own raised beds do well. My work in the Teaching Garden continues until Halloween. That's when the garden will be put to bed for winter and the wait for the first signs of spring will begin once again.