The fernleaf peonies are up; the chickadees are nesting

The fernleaf peony is one of the earliest risers in the garden.

The fernleaf peony is one of the earliest risers in the garden.

The mid-spring sunshine illuminates the naked tree in the front yard tracing its shadow on the road that is finally clear of snow. I am raking the leaves that got left littering the lawn last summer when I hadn’t the strength or the time to clear them away. Now they need to go; unmulched they form wet mats that will kill the grass before they can break down.

The air is warm, no hint of the frost that has nipped the tips of emerging daffodils and slowed the thawing of the rivers. Now, with temperatures reaching normal, the rivers are flowing freely, threatening floods and terrifying the privileged, who dare to live on their banks. It’s an empty threat this year. There is no frost in the ground; as soon as the snow leaves the water slips into the private crevasses of the earth. It is ‘instant dry’, so dry that I can kneel on the ground without protection for my knees as I pull out runaway grasses that have crossed the barrier of air I created with my sharp garden edges.

In the sun-sweetened back garden near the house, the plants have leaped from the earth with enthusiastic eagerness. The fernleaf peonies are up a good eight inches, showing brazen red buds already. There are buds, too, on the daffodils and incipient ones on some of the early tulips. As soon as I remove the debris from last year, the plants peep out from their hiding places under the soil.

The little red squirrel is a whirlwind of activity. It has found something of interest to nibble on the underside of a maple branch: maple syrup that seeps from the trees as the sap begins to flow in the warming sun. Squirrels like to sup on bits of sweetness. They will even scratch the tree to release the sap. At this time of year, as winter stores are depleted, the squirrels’ diets are quite varied as they scrounge for what they can find: caterpillars, fungus, moths, grubs, the inner bark of trees – I have even seen the gray squirrel eat a bird. When summer brings forth more sweet stuff, all the squirrels are thrilled to include apples and rose hips and strawberries as treats to their more mundane fare.

The chickadees that were investigating the wren’s house have decided to take up residence. I haven’t the heart to disturb them. Maybe they will be gone by the time the wrens decide to move in this year. Really, though, the chickadees deserve more respect for sticking it out all winter. Chickadees, like hummingbirds, can lower their body temperature and enter a state of torpor, a slowing of their metabolism that allows them to survive very cold weather. While they prefer insects and grubs in summer, they will exist on seeds and nuts in the cold months and love the black oil sunflower seeds that give them energy. They also cache food, hiding it in unlikely places such as knot holes, and in bark and dead leaves and in clusters of evergreen needles.

I hope the new family home will be big enough for their large family of six to eight little nestlings that the parents will quietly tend together.

In the plant world, this is an exciting time in the garden here in Manitoba with profound changes every day. As the thermometer soars to double digits, everything will go into fast forward to make up for the slow start this spring. We will almsot be able to see the small plants emerge and unfurl, reaching for the sun to nourish their still cool roots.

Late springs such as this are part of the magic in Manitoba; the sudden cessation of the cold, the return to warm sunny days, the fattening of buds on trees and early flowers — everything seems to happen at once. Forsythia will bloom with the daffodils and tulips will compete with the roses.

There is a cacophony of colour and  a frenzy of freshness. As Mr. Tomato says, “If you listen carefully on a still night, you can hear the buds breaking.” While my ears aren’t quite that keen, I can see the changes and almost feel a thrumming under my feet as the world wakes up from its long sleep.

Autumn looms and spiders spin

September 8, 2012

It’s a blustery, blowy day today. The wind has knocked over my vase of flowers on the table where I write and there are yellow leaves on the back lawn, blown off the old cottonwood and over the rooftop by the wind. Although the annuals are still heartily blooming, it feels more and more like autumn, with cool nights and an edge to the mornings.

The magic spiders have been busy weaving their webs, some silken, some more like cotton. The webs catch the falling debris as well as passing insects. One on my window has caught a maple wing which looks as though it is floating in the wind. I welcome the spiders to my garden and I admire their industry and individuality. I learned some amazing things about them when I wrote about them in my 10 Neat things About Spiders E-letter a few weeks ago; for example, collectively, the spiders of the world eat more insects in weight every year than the weight of the entire human population!

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

But I didn’t learn why they are so busy in autum, except that hunting is good when the insect population leaps in fall. In one case, the yellow house spider prefers to weave its web at this time of year. These little guys also bite, leaving an itchy mosquito-bite-like swelling that can last up to ten days. They leave the house in spring. Orb weaver spider also come inside when they get the chance and often weave their webs around lighted windows, doorways and so, on. They wrap their victims in webbing. The cobweb spider is another that likes to come indoors for the winter. They don’t bite.

As I watch the busy arachnids at their work, keeping the insect population in check, I marvel at their abilities. In looking for new territory, some spiders can launch themselves, by means of their spinneret and its silken thread, 50 to 60 miles away and as high as 5,000 feet in the air. This is known as ballooning. They spin as they travel on the wind.

Many spiders do not weave webs to entrap their meals: wolf spiders chase their prey and weave only a silken sac to carry its eggs in. Crab spiders ambush their prey. Jumping spiders leap on their prey.

All spiders have eight legs and a two-part body.

 

September 16, 2012

Suddenly many leaves are golden and fall confronts us with cool reality. In spite of 27 degree temperatures yesterday, it is only half that today at noon. It is 12:02. I picked the last of the cucumbers and the blushing tomatoes today, including those that are light green, because frost threatens us later this week.

Last week was a week of endings. One day, I noticed something floating in the pool and looking closer I could see that it was a little red squirrel, a juvenile. I felt sick at heart and when Ian came over to help with the yard, I asked him to help me retrieve the poor little thing. He got the net and I, cowardly thing that I am, stood with my back to the pool as Ian did what had to be done. As I stood there cringing and feeling very sad, Ian quietly said, “I hate to tell you this, Dorothy, but Mom’s in here too.”

I had a vision of the baby desperately trying to get out with Mama frantically trying to effect a rescue. There was suddenly water in my eyes and I was angry with myself for not reinstalling the chipmunk ladder!

But already there is another little red squirrel running up and down the fence and hiding pine cones in the old water fountain . . . Or could it be the same one who has been scolding me all summer and only two strangers who lost their lives in the pool? Or perhaps it was Little Red’s children, those tiny beings she so carefully moved from one nest to another this spring to protect them from some predator and for whom I insulted the neighbour’s cat when he came bounding into the garden with great enthusiasm as baby squirrel was just finding his climbing legs.

Somehow, sad as this all is, it would be good to think that Little Red is still here. Either way, there is comfort in the fact that a squirrel lives on in the garden. But sometimes it hurts to be a gardener and have to face the unrelenting reality of life, death and rebirth.

 

 

 

Of Moonflowers and baby squirrels

August 28, 2012

The orange geraniums burn in the sunlight, dazzling the eye and etching their image on the brain. They are heavy with blossoms, loving the heat of this tropics-like summer. Even today, the last week in August, the thermometer soared to 32 Celsius (90 Fahrenheit), not bad for mid July, but almost threatening as we slide toward Autumn.

Ian says his moonflower blossomed last night and he brought in a photo to show me. Mine is still sulking. The luminous white blossoms are six inches wide and fragrant, he says. I am so jealous. I bought the original plant for Barb who saved the seeds for me and it seems only just that I should get some benefit. I check and there are still no signs of blooms, but the tree tomato has a heavy crop of very large tomatoes, round and deep red, rather than the black oval fruit that Ian’s research predicted. Every day, there are more ripe tomatoes and I don’t know what I will do with all of them.

Ian is making use of his – he is making tomato soup for the staff tomorrow. I would be happy to contribute.

The container garden is a jungle, but the perennials are panting for water and I have been too distracted this year to keep them properly watered. So the poor things have burned edges and look ill as they lose their gloss and sheen from being parched. I am ashamed of my neglect, but on the bright side, Glenn has completed his chemo this week and now it is all up hill (or downhill? I never know which is best) for us as he recovers. Next year, darling plants, I promise to do better, but even you have to take second place to dearest Glenn.

 

Baby Red
August 30, 2012

Ian came over to mow the lawn for Glenn. It was an unbelievable 35 degrees C and we were resting in the shade when I saw a movement behind Ian’s chair. I thought it was a chipmunk, but no, it was a baby red squirrel.

Soon he was scampering around our feet, growing bolder and bolder, while Mama chattered with great concern from high up in the fir tree behind the chair where I sit and write. Time after time, she nudged him back up the tree and time after time, he escaped her careful concern and returned to the patio where he could get a good look at these strange, two-legged beings.

I was mesmerized but finally got enough sense to run and get my cameras. Mama had finally convinced Baby that she has had enough and had him cornered high up in the tree, but Ian could still see them.  I tossed him the still camera and zoomed in with my video cam to get a good view. Baby wanted a drink, but Mama said No, settle down and go to sleep…

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Oh, my.  My heart is pounding. I just heard a splash and there was Little Red in the pool swimming for all she is worth, desperately trying to get out. We used to have a chipmunk ladder in the pool to allow little beings to escape, but it was gone. I called out, “Hang on. Hang on, I’m coming,” as if the little animal had any clue as to what I meant. I ran frantically toward the pool looking for the net and found it after what seemed forever. Little Red was already tiring, but I was able to get the net under her, only to have her jump out – and right back into the water. This happened three times, then I was finally able to move fast enough so that this time when she jumped, it was onto firm ground.

The poor little thing was drenched, her tail hanging heavy with water behind her as she bounded up the cedar tree and along the fence to wherever it is that she has her nest. I’m so glad I was here to help her.

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Have just filled the bird feeders, Nyger for the finches and a good seed mix for the rest and the special black sunflower seeds that they all adore. I boiled a quarter cup of sugar in a cup of water for two minutes and am waiting for that to cool so that I can replenish the empty nectar feeder for the hummingbirds.

In spite of all our fun together, Little Red and her baby are still banned from the black oilseed feeder – maybe I’ll buy them some peanuts instead.

Pretty striped morning glory

The garden is filled with butterflies today, orange fritillaries and black admirals. I had only one parsley worm this year even though I planted extra parsley – everything has its season and I guess this not a good one for swallowtails – they may need less heat.

It still feels so much like midsummer, but the other night, the night of the blue moon, we saw a flock of ducks heading for the river, flying low and loud.

No sign of the moonflower blossom yet, but a surprise. Over in one of the cone shaped pots, a pretty striped morning glory has unexpectedly appeared, a gift perhaps from a bird, or maybe even the squirrel who often leaves seeds in my planters.

Oh! There’s Little Red. She seems quite recovered from her ordeal! There are gleanings to be had from my feeder filling. And who can resist gleanings?

Gardening dreams and August harvest

The view through my kitchen window

Dreams of gardens go drifting through my head at night; I am filled with flowers; enlightened by landscapes; swooning from scent. It is the overload of a day spent photographing lovely gardens for my magazines. My frustration is boundless – how can I teach that callous camera to see with my eyes, to capture the gardener’s meaning and give it back to her – or him – as a reward for the exquisite pleasure they have given me? Their gardens make my own efforts seem so puny, but I am glad that they have this power. The beauty they coax from the earth proves so much that is fine about the human race at a time when there are so many pressures for evil.

In my little garden, the annuals around the pool are laughing in the sunlight. Some are past their prime, but they had such a glorious youth that it is hard to blame them for feeling their job is done. The lobelia are very easily tired, the more so if they don’t get enough water, and addicted as they are to garden center fertilizing habits I have a hard time keeping up with their needs. The petunias are hardier, not minding the odd drought and the geraniums seem happy as long as there is plenty of room for their greedy roots and no competition from any other than their own kind.

Today is a lovely day, warm but not blazing and with gentle breezes that keep the mosquitoes at bay. I wish you could hear the music of the garden. When the wind blows, the wind chimes answer with tiny notes that suit the flowers around them. They have many voices, some low and cool, some higher and more delicately warm. They add variety to the whispers of the leaves and the rustlings of the smaller plants. Every now and then, there is a deeper creaking of a tree trunk, forced to speak by the pressure of the moving air. But the apples hang round and silent on their tree, concentrating on getting ripe.

Tomatoes are ripening on the vine

Tomatoes are also working toward that end. I see one or two turning red, but it has been too hot for their colours to develop. Tomatoes will refuse to ripen when the daytime temperatures are above 30 degrees C and the nighttimes, are above 20 C. The heat and, inversely, the cold below 10 C, interfere with the chemical requirements of the pigments carotene and lycopene that are responsible for the red colour in tomatoes.

Fingerling cucumbers will soon be 8 to10 inches long

 

 

 

 

Last week I picked two luscious cucumbers, about ten inches long each – they are the long, thin English type. Now I see two more showing promise at the top of the trellis. I give them a gallon of water to help them along.

My August garden would never win any prizes. The front yard is a disgrace – it is impossible to keep up with the watering so most of the perennials are simply trying to survive and don’t have the energy to bloom. This year the daylilies disappoint – even the weedy orange ones have not been spectacular. Ithas simply been too warm.

It is still some time before the faithful Clara Curtis chrysanthemum will appear in her pinkish-mauve dress, smelling somewhat unpleasantly of cat pee, but beautiful nonetheless. Still, the white David phlox is just coming into bloom and some blue allium are also showing. It is the annuals, however, that provide the colour now. This year, the vibrant oranges and reds and purples and yellows have added joy to every view.

Claire has gone home to Toronto but Ian’s mom is here from Jersey – I have promised to make them dinner, so I must fly away to the store. Glenn is still recovering (badly) from his second last bout with the chemo treatments. He wanted salmon for dinner and I am hoping he will feel well enough to eat it. Poor darling. He is so stoic about it all, but one more round then we hope it will be over and he can recover.

Hot as blazes

The pot with the feather reed grass is the same colour as the pool lining. The grass flowers dance in the sun.

“It’s hot as blazes out,” my grandmother used to say. I think blazes was a euphemism for Hell and today her saying would be right on the mark. The little mercury thermometer on the wall, the last of a disappearing breed as the Big Brains in Ottawa have outlawed mercury use in thermometers, says it is 34 degrees C or 92 on the Fahrenheit side. The water in the pool, (the cool, cool pool, since other Big Brains have condemned our pool heater as being within nine feet — 8.5 feet, actually — of the neighbour’s window — this after 30 years of completely safe operation) . . . anyhow, it is shining invitingly and I am ready for it.

There is the occasional blast of furnace warm air, hotter than a baby’s breath and just as sweet here in my flowery retreat. It whispers through the frothy flowers of the feather reed grass that glows in the big blue pot on the pool diving board. The pot is the same colour as the pool lining and it looks spectacular against the bright orange geraniums and chartreuse creeping Jenny that slide down the side and keep the grasses company.

I love how the sun catches the flowers of the grasses and tosses itself back and forth among them so that the fronds look like they are alive or alight or both.

All the things that love heat are happy. Overnight, two incipient cucumbers grew four inches and at least one ripe tomato is beckoning from among the lush tomato leaf foliage. The tree tomato is six feet tall, peeping its way from between the moonflower leaves; I planted them together, not having high expectations for either – they can share the tripod there, I thought. Now they have jostled each other until they are a jumble of green in their eagerness to reach the top and beyond; both tough and determined. Oh well, they are related, after all, and the best fights happen in families, don’t they?

I can’t wait for the moonflower to bloom; it does come late, just in time for the dusky evenings of August when we get to enjoy light in our gardens. The sun is now setting just after 9 instead of close to 10 as in June.

This morning a little dog came to visit the garden. Claire of the tender heart was quite concerned. “I feel so sorry for the owners,” she said. “I can just imagine how I would feel if Penny was missing.” Penny is Claire’s five-year-old dachshund that rules Claire’s Toronto household. Claire is 10, but she speaks like an adult. She came on CJOB with me this morning and held her own with the two PhDs who joined me to talk about insects. The lost dog made her anxious and her anxiety spread to me. We searched up and down the street and at last found a neighbour who knew the dog – what relief as he was handed off to his household.

Claire bought a pepper today. She hides it under the gargoyle to keep it out of the storm.

Claire and I went shopping for plants we didn’t need today. The greenhouse was intolerably hot, but we persevered and Clair bought a puny pepper that needed love; she has lots to give.

The heat today reminds me of being a child and lying in the grasses listening to the hum of all the insects that busied themselves in the hot prairie sun. I drew energy from the heat and the thrum of the earth as it passed though my body. I can feel it even now through the soles of my feet as I sit here barefooted on my patio.

Claire is inside our cool house, resting, as is Glenn. But I think I will get the old plaid blanket and lay my body against the earth for just a little while.

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The earth was hard and poky. The blanket wasn’t big enough. The grass tickled my arms and the cushion I used was too skinny, but still, I dozed and felt better when I arose. Claire came out and I kept my promise to join her in the pool. We examined drowned casualties from the bug world and deadheaded the flowers that insist on dripping over the poolside. The water masks how hot it is outside and we dream away the temperature, floating on our backs – well, I float and Claire tries.

CBC radio says the temperature is now 35 C, but Claire said the house thermostat has declared it to be 42! That is over 107 F, and it feels every bit as hot as it sounds. I have to believe the house. Its very sophisticated mechanism has never lied before!

But I feel a storm stirring.

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The storm sent hail and pounding rain – but little damage to our garden.

The sky turned black with anger and the wind came up violently – 100 km/h in some areas, we heard. There was thunder and lightening and a little bit of hail, but the most ferocious part passed us by. This morning, there were downed trees, one just a block from us leaning on the roof of its owner. City crews are clearing streets of other tree disasters.

But all was serene in my garden an hour after the storm and we cooked outside in the waning light.

Tree tomatoes and blooms

July 8, 2012

A fat robin is perched on the edge of the birdbath, preening itself but not yet daring to take the plunge. I wouldn’t either. There was no time yesterday to clean it and add fresh water. Our birds have been trained to be fussy, so he just sits there, combing his feathers, puffing himself up and looking disappointed. As soon as he leaves, I will take the hose and refresh his bath.

All is noise, not as loud as at 4 a.m. but still loud and melodic. The chorus is almost over, but there are echoes still to be heard in the air at 8:00 in the morning.

Now people are stirring. The neighbour next door peers over the fence and says good morning, startling me as I water the flowerpots there. She tells me of her pregnant daughter, the grown woman who was once the 12-year-old girl throwing chewing gum over the fence and into our pool as she and her girlfriends dreamed of being grown up in the cool of the night. I see them in my mind’s eye as they floated in their pool, just a gum wad’s throw from ours. Now she is lovely, married to an important older man, just as she had always dreamed, and about to be a mother to her own beautiful child.

The daring notes of orange that I introduced to my once pale garden are glowing with a seductive heat in the morning sun. They don’t clash with the purples and wines that adorn the picotee petunias. They don’t fight with the blue (well mauve) wave petunias or the lime coleus, but they outshine their pretty yellow and peach ‘Pink Lemonade’ cousins that I was so wild about this spring. Sad things. They are puny and unvigorous, barely peeping over the edge of their pot even now in mid July. Meanwhile the Papaya petunias of a shy orange are well behaved, leaning sedately over the pool in a tidy fashion that hints of good breeding.

Did I tell you about the tree tomato? Several years ago, a listener to my program on CJOB sent me a small packet of seeds he had rescued from his own efforts after answering one of those “Most Amazing!” ads in some men’s magazine. I meant to plant them but never did until this spring when Ian and the girls potted them up in their early springtime planting frenzy. Now this tomato is a giant, fighting the evening-blooming, but oxymoronic, morning glory for space on the small tripod I put in their pot. It is now about 4.5 feet tall and has happy flowers, ready to set fruit. Ian read that the fruit is black and sweet; people eat these tomatoes with sugar, he says. We shall see if it matures in our short season, although it was planted early in the greenhouse.

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July 18, 2012

It has been cloudy the last few days, the heat slipping away into the atmosphere, replaced by a refreshing 22 degrees C during the day. While I long for the sun, the plants needed this breathing room to recover from all that heat-induced rapid growing.

The pink lilies are lovely right now and the filipendula is just coming into bloom. The hosta are all waving bell-shaped flags. I race around the garden taking pictures in the fading light. Everything is happening so fast in the garden this year that it is hard to keep up. I must be out, camera in hand, every day. Blossoms last a day, then wither and drop.

The bugs, encouraged by a warm, snowless winter are just as busy. The lime potato vine is a lacy, wrinkled imitation of its usual lushness.

We were in a very beautiful garden yesterday, the garden of an artist. Its beauty made my little efforts seem pitiful, indeed. Yet, I can savour every plant as it comes into the fullness of its beauty. May I pity the artist? The huge banquet set before him every day must dull his appetite . . .

How can I explain to you how sweet the air is this evening. It is scented with petunias and lilies and honeysuckle. It is swooningly sweet, heady with tenderness. Every night-flier must be heading this way, yet the mosquitoes are few. Perhaps they are drunk with the nectar of the flowers they eat while they ready their eggs to be nourished by your blood.

It is so hard to say goodnight.

Heavy heat and budworm

The heat is heavy on the air. The humidity is very high; you almost have to wade through the air to do anything. A whiff of ozone hints of a storm. The trees tremble in anticipation, flexing their branches against the wind, testing their strength; they feel the storm nearing. Off in the distance to the West, a vertical cloud menaces.

The mosquitoes are agitated, even in this heat. They prefer it cooler and usually hide in the tall grasses and shadier spots at the end of the garden. Before a storm breaks, they, like horse flies, will take their measure of blood wherever they can find it. (This is an old wives’ tale, we are told. Hmmm. I must be an old wife since I have seen the horses standing in misery before a storm, their tails switching, their heads swiveling to bite at the flies on their shoulders. Old wives are very observant, their tales often true, yet they are much belittled by the inexperienced.)

Here in the city, there are only mosquitoes, and they do bite before a storm breaks.

The garden plants seem to sense a storm as well, but they are not downcast. Perhaps they know they will receive a tonic of nitrogen if there is a really good lightning display. The ground is rock hard, even though it has only been eight days since it last rained; there are cracks in the soil as if Earth is begging for water and opening up channels to quench her thirst when the rain comes.

The rain will be a relief from the 30 degree temperatures for those who have no air conditioning.

The insects are active this year.

Ants have been undermining the bricks on my patio. I saw an army of them moving house across my driveway the other day. Something cataclysmic must have disturbed their former home.

Tobacco budworm c/o Wikipedia

Tobacco budworm seems to have moved into the neighbourhood. It has been attacking petunias and even impatiens and lobelia as I discovered last night when I looked at my once lovely flower box on the garage window. Now the lobelia is a series of naked stems and the double impatiens are looking very unhealthy with bitten blossoms.

This pest is fairly new here. It doesn’t normally survive our cold winters, but since last winter was unseasonably (some would say unreasonably) warm, they seem to have got a foothold, especially in areas around foundations where the temperatures beneath the surface of the earth can be warmer than the –7 degrees C temperatures or lower that generally destroy the pupae.

Their droppings look like small black seeds on the plant and around it. The worms are active at dusk, hiding near the roots during the daytime.

Pesky things. I have a small arsenal of old bug powders that I have seldom used. Perhaps I will give it a try. These caterpillars also go after geraniums, petunias, nicotiana and sweet potato vine, to which my lacy leaved beauties will attest. The leaves are full of holes.

It didn’t storm or rain, after all, but the air is sultry even now at 10 p.m. The storm passed us by to the south and all we got was that little bit of wind blow at noon. It will be 30-plus all week with high humidity in the 80 to 90 per cent range. I used to think that was wonderful. Thank our lucky stars for air conditioning.

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The storm came yesterday, with dramatic flashes of chain lightening across the western sky and a wind that was gale force at times. It lasted only a morning, but it drenched the thirsty earth and now the garden is smiling again. The heavy air has lightened and so has the mood. A sweet breeze moves the prairie grasses in a delicate dance outside my window at the office. Now perhaps we can settle down to summer.

 

July 2, 2012