Foiling little red

The neighbour’s maples are turning red.

“Glenn,” I called down to his family room lair in our split level bungalow. “Where do you keep the bird seed?” I felt guilty. The birds had been popping by only to be disappointed by empty feeders. Glenn hasn’t been up to his usual self and the feeders needed attention.

Male-like, he said in his why-are-you-disturbing-me voice, “Never mind. I’ll come and fill them later.” And so he did: nyger for the finches, a nice millet mix for the seed lovers and black sunflower seeds for everyone.

But it was the black sunflower seeds that drew the squirrel away from his perch in the fir tree behind my chair where he sits all day eating fir tree seeds and raining their hulls down upon our heads. I guess he’s getting ready for winter and his appetite is huge.

No sooner had Glenn turned his back than Mr. Squirrel was on the feeder – he’s so greedy; he leaves nothing for anyone else. I shooed him away, and he scurried off. But I think he was basically just laughing at me and the minute I turned around, he was back at it.

The squirrel is foiled

Now earlier this year, Glenn had rigged up a tinfoil foil which, for some reason, he had taken down. I decided to reinstall it, taking one of those aluminum pans and simply puncturing a hole in it and drawing the feeder hanger through the hole so that it has a kind of roof.

Mr. Squirrel was not amused. He must have remembered the previous one of these impediments because the last time, he just kept sliding off. This time, he didn’t even try to jump on it. Instead, he sat on the nearby bench, looking at it and clearly calculating his chances of clinging to the narrow metal bird perches on the bottom of the feeder. Apparently he calculated that this wouldn’t work, because next he climbed the tree and tried to approach it from the top, turning back before he ever hit the tin foil. He studied the thing from this angle and that and finally gave up – his disgust evident in the way he left the scene.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love that squirrel and his little red brethren. A couple of weeks ago, Glenn and I applauded as he took on a much bigger grey and chased him away, right over our feet. But we love the birds, too and fair is fair. Mr. Squirrel is quite fat and has piles of food in his territory while the birds need to start putting away fuel for their long autumn journey.

Two hours later, I feel that I am being punished by friend squirrel. He has not shown his cheery little face for the last several hours. I haven’t even had a single fir tree cone nut land on my head!

Harvest time

The cucumber has grown over the week.

Creative cucumber trellis. It’s the only sunny place the gardener has.

It’s a lovely time of year – those tiny cucumbers I showed you last week have grown! You can see them here. They grow very fast as long as I give them their gallon of water a day. They like rich, well-drained soil. I am growing my cucumber up a tall iron trellis. Another local gardener has created a ring of fencing wire around a tree where the sun shines all day and he has a lovely plant.

Tomato hornworm

This week I can barely keep up with the ripening tomato crop. Lucky Ian, who has a long row of happy tomato plants, saw a hawkmoth in his garden last night. Of course, at first he thought it was a hummingbird because hawkmoths do resemble them so much. I told him to look for the caterpillars, which are huge – as big as a man’s finger.  They are called tomato hornworms and we seldom see them here in Manitoba, so we treasure their appearance. But I am sure they are much cursed in areas where they are more common because they will defoliate your tomatoes and occasionally will even take a bite of the fruit.

Elsewhere in the garden, the apples are ripe, ready for Ian to come and pick some for his pies and other bakery wonders. I am happy to see someone use them.

The garden is still lovely, but you can feel autumn in the air at evening even though the days are still hot. The view from my kitchen window shows that the seeds on the Amur maples in the neighbour’s yard have ripened and turned red. Soon I expect I will see the Virginia creeper beginning to turn. The annuals that have bloomed their hearts out all summer long are starting to look a little spindly. They would benefit from a severe trimming and some fertilizer, but at some point we have to recognize the inevitability of the season’s change.

Hearing plants grow

April 29 2012

Yesterday was lovely. The sun was warm on my back as I worked to clear last year’s debris from the front garden, but today the wind has returned and the sky is frowning on the world. We could use rain, but it doesn’t rain; it is simply bleak and blowy.  It is so dry here this spring. There is none of that brilliant green lushness we usually see at this time of year. A good pelting rain would be so welcome and satisfying and I know the earth would drink up every drop in gratitude.

The rabbits have been dining on my tulips.

In the garden, though, plants are growing and the rabbits are flourishing. They have been dining in my tulip patch in the front yard, pruning them to within an inch of their lives. I will be lucky to get any blossoms.  But in the back yard, the tiny blue scilla, so pretty and so delicate, are struggling through the debris.  My friend, Mr. Tomato sent me photos of his thick patch of scilla – his are way ahead of mine.

Mr. T’s yard is covered in scilla. (Photo by Mr. Tomato)

Mr. T, as I call him, is a wonderful gardener. And he’s an interesting person. When he isn’t in the garden, he is posing as “Ivan Bigg”, the spokesperson for our local horse races at Assiniboia Downs. But while he may speak Horse, I know his native tongue is Plant. It is Mr. Tomato who says that on a clear, still night in spring, you can hear the plants growing. He hears the whispers of green tendrils curling around a trellis, the pop of a tulip piercing a fallen leaf, the snap of a bud opening on the trees. He hears the fern unfolding with a swish and the crack of the earth as the hosta pushes through. He swears that anyone can hear this. I think we should all try.

I have to go to Ottawa tonight and be away from my garden for another day. I really hate travelling at this time of year because I feel I will miss something, even if I’m only gone for 48 hours. Spring is the magical, mystery time when all good things are happening and usually so fast that we miss much. This year, spring is slow and leisurely and we have been having the pleasure of actually seeing the trees flower, one by one, not just the showy fruit and other blossoming trees, but the ordinary maples and willows, which are both in bloom now, the willows yellow and heavy with pollen for the fat bumblebees that have emerged and the maples, red with sticky promise.

Our TV show progresses

Dr. Ian Petunia and his Petunia-ettes!

Yesterday in the morning, many of my staff members were at T & T Seeds, where dear Kevin and Brian Twomey have allowed us to set up a planting demonstration for the community television show we are working on.  They call Ian, their gardening leader, Dr. Petunia, and they follow his instructions to the letter (perhaps I should say to the “T” in honour of our hosts). They have enough seeds planted to start their own garden centre, but they are happy in the learning and are soaking up happy bacteria by the shovel full! Dr. Petunia is another interesting fellow – he is also a very good chef and in addition to being the lead salesperson for my magazines, he writes a cooking column for my Lifestyles 55 publication. However, his native tongue is also Plant and he loves the garden with a deep and instinctive passion. He is originally from the semi tropical Jersey Isles and is learning how to garden here.

He is a fast learner and a good teacher.

Giant fleeceflower

Giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha) is a gotta-have! Psst! They have it at Dutch Growers in Saskatchewan.

I have just introduced Ian to the giant fleeceflower, Persicaria polymorpha. This is an amazing shrubby perennial that gets very large. I saw one in Edmonton last year that was ten feet tall and just as wide, but I understand that they normally grow in this part of the world to be just around six feet tall and wide. Giant fleeceflower gets masses of creamy, white flower  plumes, reminiscent of goatsbeard flowers, that bloom from early spring to late summer and, while it loves moist soil, it will tolerate drought once it is established. Nor does it wander, staying in its spot, although it will get bigger and bigger. And it lives 15 years!

Spring rain

I awoke to the sound of the rain this morning, just a few musical drops at first and then a hearty splash as it rained in earnest – for all of 15 minutes. Now it has stopped.

I worry about all the living things beneath the grass, only a little damp from the fast melted snow. The plants and the animals down there need rain; a good deluge lasting a few hours would soak the ground and clean the dusty trees.

It is very dry. Already this year, there are wildfires sweeping across the prairies and destroying homes and machinery. One man, 72, who lives near the peat bogs of eastern Manitoba, lost his 100-year- old home and outbuildings. He had no insurance because who would insure property beside a burning peat bog? And yet, the farm was fine for a century. Now he is homeless. The land that nurtured him for so long turned against him. It is that kind of year.

I gaze out the window above my desk. Raindrops cling to the window and to the leaf bud tips of the old cottonwood. And now – how lovely – the watery benediction has started again in a nice steady, gentle way, so good for the earth. The grass is flushing green in the dawn light and the earth is black with gratitude.

Teeming with life as it is, the rain must send shivers of delight deep beneath the surface, waking up the dormant bulbs and teasing into action the hair-like feeder roots of the trees and perennials. There are 600 million microorganisms in one gram of soil; what a party must be going on right now. All the tiny voles and moles, the snails and slugs and sleepy beetles, the worms and grubs coming out of their estivation will be stirring with a tingle of excitement, like a small electrical shock waking them from their long rest.

The frog-sicles, the frozen wood and tree frogs, will be thawing and the male frogs will be urgently looking for females.  In Manitoba, a whole list of frogs – the boreal chorus frog, the gray tree, the spring peeper, to name some – overwinter above ground and freeze into these frog-sicles each year.

It is quite an amazing thing: the heart slows, the blood stops flowing, there is no breathing, the eyes turn dead white, little frozen marbles in the frog’s head; 65% of the water in the body becomes ice. They start freezing, thanks to the aid of special ice nucleators – bacteria or blood proteins – before it even reaches 0 degrees C (32 F). This slow freezing gives the metabolism time to adjust. At the same time, high concentrations of sugar alcohol are forming in the cells. It works like antifreeze, creating a syrupy solution in the cells, which, surrounded by a protective layer of ice, do not completely crystallize.

Procreation is their first urge after the big thaw, coming even before food each spring. The urgency of this need has them singing now in ditches and other wet places, a sure sign that spring is here to stay – the frogs seldom get it wrong.

We are doing a television show

This spring, we will be starting a garden television show on our local community access channel. On Saturday, we filmed the first segment of the first show. We went to the garden center of our friend and client, Kevin Twomey of T & T Seeds and explored his seed catalogue operation. We also planted the first few trays of seeds that we will grow in his greenhouses and which will become part of the show.

Both the show and the planting party this weekend were spearheaded by our sales leader, Ian. The camera work this time was done by our manager, Steven. The planting was being done by members of the staff and Steven’s daughter, Kate. Several of our other staff was there for the planting and many of them will be part of working on the show – editing, filming, and setting up venues as we explore some of the city’s loveliest gardens during our 13-week season.

We’ll share some of the segments with you here. We hope we can capture the magic that makes Manitoba such a special place.