Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bah, humbug

Soft fluffy snowflakes gently falling... evergreens transformed by snow piled on every twig... tracks of a solitary fox down my driveway, already quickly filling in...

Bah, humbug.

Enough with the Winter Wonderland! Except for the times when it's been raining, or the times when the wind was whipping the trees around at hurricane levels, I think it's been snowing continuously since before Christmas. Alright, there was probably some sunshine in there somewhere, but I must have been having a nap just then.

It's hard for this gardener to find much entertainment this time of year. Watering my houseplants takes all of about 10 minutes... alright, maybe 15 if you include putting my small collection of Tillandsias in the sink for a good soak. Add another 2 for reminding my geraniums that they will get sunshine next month and to just hang on until then and that's it for Fun With Houseplants. Actually I spent a bit longer then that on them this week if we count a little event that began with a light-bulb shattering, causing a small piece of glass to hit the glass globe that one of the Tillandsias was living in and smashing it, thus knocking a precariously balanced Fuchsia  over on to the desk, and spreading Fuchsia bits and globe bits and pot bits all over my paperwork, desk and floor. Clean up was interesting given how crowded my office is. If anyone ever wants to inspect my expense receipts for 2016, I Can Explain!

I could order seeds. In fact, I did. I ordered vegetable and annual flowers from Vesey's and fern spores from the British Pteridological Society's spore exchange. My spores have already arrived in the mail, and I'm happy that I got almost all the ones I asked for. This is a totally volunteer-run outfit, so I'm very grateful to them to allowing me to get spores of ferns I might otherwise never get close to. I've requested a second batch of Dryopteris campyloptera, Northern Wood Fern, because the last batch gave my only three plants and they look identical to the D. carthusiana I already have. Either I made a goof, the spore donor made a goof, or I can't tell Campy from Spinulose. So a re-try is in order. I'll plant them up just as soon as I get some potting soil, which I'll do as soon as my driveway is cleared...

Last year I did not order my vegetable seeds from a mail-order catalogue and ended up buying them at a big-box store. Little choice, no clues as to whether the varieties offered were any good for freezing or not, and the Green Bush Beans were anything but. I had some green pods, yes, but they were on long skinny sprawly stems that got tangled up with the nearby basil and parsley. Most of the pods were yellow and only two plants could be called bushes. The worst part was, they didn't taste very good either. This is the times we live in. Every store sells everything... sort of. Back when I was a young gardener, you could think of what you wanted, then decide which store was going to have it, go there and buy it. Now you might as well go to any store and see what they have. Don't bother wanting anything specific, they won't have it. You can then go to another store and they won't have it either in exactly the same way. Try to buy warm black socks, for example. Go ahead, try. Every store you go to will have socks, they will all be different, and none of them will combine the obvious characteristics (desirable for socks) of being both warm and black.

So I guess we had better support the few mail-order seed houses we still have.

Another thing a restless plant person can do in January is read.

I thought it would be fun to find some new gardening blogs to follow. Well, I don't know if anybody else has had the same experience as I just had. Several hours of 'surfing' to find gardening blogs has come up empty. I'm amazed at how many of the results of the search, when clicked on, either came up  'page not found' or led to blogs that hadn't posted in years. I'm also amazed and saddened by how many blogs have become little more than paid advertising. Some of these blogs must have large staffs. They promise hourly posts, links to everything in the world (see my views on today's stores above) and everything is 'Easy', or 'Instant' or 'Exciting' or some other breathless adjective. And, you know what? I hate all the re-directs. Click on a title that sounds interesting and then sit there and wait for 5 minutes while your computer visits every country in the world to follow the chain to whatever bit of prose is at the end. Then of course the prose turns out to be yet another paragraph leading you on to another subject without ever touching on the one you went looking for. All headlines, no content. Five million sites telling you to prune your roses (It's easy, it's fun, just follow the directions) and then no directions. I haven't given up, but it's a scary world out there.

Sort of like this endless snow. And it's not even February yet.

Meanwhile, I did read several books I enjoyed. Canadian readers are probably familiar with Des Kennedy, he of the wild red hair and the garden on Denman Island in B.C. I picked up a copy of his 'Heart and Soil' (bad pun, Des) at my local  purveyor of un-rare books. Partway down page 2 I realized I already had a copy, but never mind, I read it again and it was a good read. In this book he looks back over a life working not so much in a garden as about a garden, and he is very thoughtful and philosophical. He mentions having recently had a health scare, and it has made him look back over his life from a new perspective. This is not a new book, it was published in 2014, but obviously still available in bookstores. Deeply personal, thought-provoking, engaging. Worth a spot on your shelf.

After reading that, I went back and re-read his 'The Way of a Gardener'. It's autobiography, and written on a more optimistic day. He has a number of other books, all worth a read, but this one is really his best book Get it if you can.

Well, I had better go shovel my steps now. As I said, bah, humbug.

ps. There must be good blogs out there. If you know of one, send me a comment, I'll add it to my blog roll and we can all enjoy it. And if you'd like a practically new copy of Des Kennedy's 'Heart and Soil', let me know and I'll mail it to you.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Pruning Roses

Today I pruned my roses.

You may reasonably wonder why I should be doing that in January. My garden rejoices in the presence of, I think, 25 rose bushes. Some of these are bush roses, such as Fru Dagmar Hartrup and Harrison's Peach, some are species such as R. glauca, (formerly R. rubrifolia), and R. woodsia the native Smooth Rose, but most of the others are David Austin roses. I find them quite hardy here, although in a winters where the deep cold arrives before the deep snow, they may die back to only a few inches above the graft. Most years they do fine.

This year the roses stayed green and even put up the occasional flower well into December. Some of the later canes reached inspiring heights. Mary Rose went up into the crabapple tree and bloomed between clusters of deep red crabapples. An attractive colour combination, but a somewhat absurd sight nonetheless. Gertrude Jekyll, always an original thinker, headed up into the cedar clump nearby and thrust her pale pink double blooms out from between the green sprays at about the 6' level. For once, I had to reach up to sniff.

Which is one of the fine things about the David Austins - their fragrance. Most smell like the roses of old, that is, sweet and fruity. Very few of the modern tea roses have much in the way of fragrance, and if they do it tends to be a muddle of cheap colognes and aftershaves. The shrub roses rarely have any scent, and most of the so-called Explorer roses, such as John Cabot and Champlain, have no scent at all.

There is one of the Explorers that I like very much. It has clusters of small dark red roses, a very lovely rich colour, and a habit of blooming for weeks. It came labelled Heritage but of course it isn't. It might be Champlain but I have no record of having purchased that.  Seafoam, also not an Austin, has no scent but its small white suffused with pale rose blooms, in graceful clusters, come all summer long. It is one of the last to bloom. In fact, some of the canes I just cut back had (frozen) buds on them. Seafoam, at least the one I have, has a very bad habit of growing horizontally. This leads to lots of bloom, but also seriously scratched ankles. I did cut it back severely a few years ago, but it didn't take kindly to this treatment and sulked for a long time. Only this past summer has it started to forgive me and gone back to its usual rampaging approach to life. For a long time, I thought this rose was Iceberg, but some research has shown me that is wrong too, and it must be Seafoam, which is what I thought before someone convinced me it was really Iceberg. Sigh, and big Note To Self, I really must make good permanent labels for my rose bushes.

Normally, I would have trimmed the roses back in November, but this year it was so warm I was afraid it would encourage them into new growth, so I left them. But they looked fairly silly, not to mention reproachful, sticking up above the deep snow.
rose garden in the snow

Not wanting to fill my boots with snow, I got out on my snowshoes and trimmed them all back to just above the snow. Other than the canes getting caught in my wool coat, it was pretty easy. One cane fell rather far from where I was standing and tumbled over the low fence and I thought, 'darn, now I have to walk all the way around' in true post-holiday laziness, but it turned out to be quite possible to use another long cane to fish it back within reach.

First time I ever trimmed roses on snowshoes.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Garden Dreams

In summer we garden, in winter we dream...

And today was particularly good for dreaming! It snowed pretty much all day, soft fat flakes which fell gently until a gust of wind suddenly blew them all sideways like a curtain. I went out and wandered around, dreaming, enjoying the soft air and the romantic look of the trees half hidden by the falling snow.

And the small trees, so tender, so hopeful, so noticeable now as they never are in the summer.
spruce, pine, beech in snow
 I love how the snow, and it is deep this year, covers the garden and lets me see the shapes and forms around me.

Next year, I must think more about the overall structure of my garden. Should that cedar clump go? Where should I put the yellow-fruited crabapple I absolutely must get... does that level of the hillside need to be a little higher...  can I get used to those grasses that look miserable all winter or is it time for a massive excavation project... ah, the pleasures of dreaming, with none of the actual effort!

I wish you all the best for 2017, and hope you will have time for garden dreaming.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Merry Christmas to All

Christmas greeting with raven and crabapples

I hope you are all enjoying this Christmas season as much as I am! The snow is beautiful, the garden is safely asleep. All my pottery orders for this year are done and I have many plans for next year. While I miss my late husband very much, I am taking joy in the visits of dear friends and much-loved family. As I decorate the house with pine boughs and oak leaves, deep brown cones and Santas collected over the years, I am aware of how blessed I am in my life here in the woods.

I wish I could share it with all of you; meanwhile, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a very Bright and Happy New Year.

Monday, December 12, 2016


On rose hips,

And crabapples,

On fences,

And shrubs,

On Coneflower and

Black-eyed Susan seed heads,
Snow re-writes the story of the garden.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Last (For This Year) Look At Asters

Last Asters... there's a pun in there somewhere but I can't think of it. Never mind, there are some Asters which, while quite common in the Ottawa area, are well worth looking at.

Asters can be very difficult to identify. Several species have very close cousins which look much alike, making them hard to tell apart, and in all cases growing conditions can really affect how a plant looks. Several species can vary from only a couple of inches tall in bad situations to several feet tall in good situations. Flowers can be very variable in colour and size. And to make it even more of a challenge, Asters are notorious for crossing and back-crossing. Hybrids are quite common, often the results of our native Asters crossing with non-native garden Asters. 

short white native aster Symphyotrichum lateriflorum calicoLet's start with possibly the least common, at least in gardens, Calico Aster or Symphyotrichum lateriflorum.  This is one of the earliest to bloom, often showing up in wild places in early July. It isn't very tall, usually less than 18", and the flowers, while numerous, aren't impressive. What is fun about them, though, is that the centres, which in the Compositae are the actual flowers (disc flowers as opposed to the merely decorative ray flowers), start yellow and fade to reddish mauve and then brown. All three colours are on the plant at the same time, giving it a motley appearance and its name, Calico Aster. Calico is easy to cultivate. It develops rosettes at ground level in the fall, which are easily uprooted and moved. It doesn't spread particularly, although it sometimes seeds around. It likes dry sunny situations.
Large-leaved Aster collage Eurybia macrophylla

Slightly, but only slightly, more common in gardens is Large-leaved Aster, Eurybia macrophylla. When it does occur in a garden, it is either a woodland garden or the gardener has some sort of ulterior motive. It spreads a lot and takes serious managing. In the wild it is found in open spots under trees or along verges. It can form large carpets of its dry raspy leaves.

Usually, only a few plants in a patch will put up flower stalks, although this varies according to the clone and the growing conditions. In the woods you might see a patch 50' across with only 5 or 6 stalks. A couple of years ago I happened to be in a campground in Algonquin Park and I was surprised to see a large patch with many flower stalks and nicely mauve flowers. The flowers are more usually white. I later got some seeds and now I have a small patch growing along my fence row which this year produced one stalk of mauve flowers.

Large-leaved Aster spreads by stolons which are right at or just below the surface. You can restrain it by removing these, but be warned, they put out new ones all summer long. No keeping this one down!

native white aster Heath Aster Eurybia ericoides
Another uncommon one is Heath Aster, Eurybia ericoides. Its name comes from the many many small leaves (reminiscent of heather) all along the stems and in among the flowers. Not that it is easy to find them once the flowers open because Heath Aster in bloom is a cloud of white. It is about 2 to 3' tall, bushy and sturdy. Once established, it will be covered in white froth from early September to October. Definitely a late bloomer, but so welcome in the fall border. It spreads like all Asters, but is easily enough controlled. In too-dry situations it is apt to mildew although that never seems to affect the blooming and you won't see it anyway.

The description of Heath Aster in the field guides makes it hard to identify, but once you have seen a plant you won't have any more trouble with it. Its overall appearance is very distinctive.

Lance-leaved Aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum, sounds very similar in the books, but is quite different in the field. It is taller than Heath Aster, going up to a good 3', spreads to form a patch rather than a large clump, and blooms quite a bit earlier. The stem leaves are long and narrow, hence the name.

S. lanceolatum is useful in the wild garden. It fills its space, mingles with whatever is around it, and looks healthy all summer long. You can keep it in its assigned space by pulling the stems you don't want, they come right up and you can either start more patches or add to your compost collection. It likes a fair amount of sun but isn't fussy.

Different clones of this one can have slightly different appearances, some taller, some shorter, the occasional one pale pink or pale mauve, some stems soft and 'bendy' and others very stiff and straight.

Now let's look at a pair of Asters, one of which is very common here, and the other which is more common than you might think.
native aster symphyotrichum cordifolium
Heart-leaved Aster, Symphyotrichum cordifolium, is probably the Aster you will see the most of if you hike in the woods in the Ottawa area. It starts blooming early and continues late. The heart-shaped leaves in rosettes pressed to the ground are everywhere it can find some sun, openings in the woods, along driveways, roads, fields, even our gardens. You have probably pulled it as a weed!

In the pictures above, note the heart-shaped leaf partway up the flowering stem. Only the leaves right at the flower branches are oval, all the others are clearly heart-shaped.

It us usually a soft blue-mauve, but can be white and occasionally, pale pink. It mixes well in the border, and like all the Asters, is much appreciated by the bees and wasps. A large plant can be filled with happy buzzing from several species of bees.

Close in appearance, but a different species, is Symphyotrichum ciliolatum, Lindley's Aster or Fringed Blue Aster. At first glance you might think it a slightly bluer, slightly 'looser', slightly more spreading Heart-leaved Aster, but look again.
The leaves partway up the stems are pointed oval, not heart-shaped, and have winged stalks. Leaves near the ground, while still clearly oval, will not have the 'wings'. S. ciliolatum gets a bit taller than S. cordifolium, maybe 3' to its 2 1/2', and the flowers are held farther apart, giving an airier and more graceful effect. In the garden it behaves exactly the same as its cousin.

Last, but absolutely not least, this is New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Yousee it, lots of it, every fall, in every old field and neglected edge in the Valley.

native aster New England Aster

Easy to grow, a nice 'presence' in the wild garden or even the traditional border, and you can find a number of colour forms for sale in the nurseries. Some of the varieties sold in the nurseries were developed in Germany, which means that they may not bloom here until very late in the season. The only one of these that I have is called 'Andenken an Alma Potsche' which mouthful I usually shorten in my mind to 'Alma'. She is an unusual deep coral red. Not an easy colour to mix into a garden, and she blooms so late there is little to accompany her. If it is chilly enough, Alma is quite red, otherwise she comes out deep coral.  The colours shown above all appeared naturally at my place and I am trying to preserve them. The white one in particular is gorgeous. This year it bloomed spectacularly behind a patch of deep pink Turtleheads. It would have been a garden triumph except that I also had a tall white-blooming hosta there and the hosta flowers threw everything off. Next year, somebody is moving.

Another clone I have, which has fine amethyst-coloured flowers, blooms very early. It opens its first blooms in July, and continues through until well into September. It too will have to move next spring as it is at the very edge of the garden and keeps getting stepped on, but it is definitely a keeper.

So, some of our native asters. There are more, but they are fairly rare and some of them are not very impressive, garden-wise. All are beloved by the pollinators, all help give a garden a sense of 'place', all are excellent plants for slightly back in the border, and all bloom late when you really need them. Asters, frustrating but wonderful!