Three for a day of flowers and happiness

View of the Peace Tower from the fountain near the gate.

View of the Peace Tower from the fountain near the gate.

We went to the International Peace Garden today, my granddaughters, Holly and Claire and I. It is a three-hour drive from Winnipeg, a pleasant journey at this time of year as the road winds between field of sunny canola and blue flax and stately sunflowers. The crops are ripening, changing from green to gold and creamy yellow. We talked, the three of us, about everything and nothing, just sailing along on the smooth and almost empty highway, enjoying a sense of adventure.

We stopped in Boissevain for a giant lunch of poutine, a luxury I allow myself when on Manitoba rural jaunts, and it didn’t take any arm twisting to get the two girls to collude with me in this sinful behaviour. We rolled ourselves out of Veva’s, a friendly and very nice restaurant, 45 minutes later and hit the road for the last 30 klicks or so to the border, happy until . . . it suddenly occurred to me to ask 13-year-old Claire if she had her passport with her.

No. Holly did have her license, though.

My fault, entirely. I forgot to tell either of them that they would need ID and preferably a passport to get back across the border – you can go in without any checks, but getting out is different. We all felt a little sick, although we vowed to explore the park on the Canadian side if we couldn’t enter the garden. The only thing to do was to pull up to the Canadian Immigration office and explain our predicament.

It was a great relief when a very understanding officer said we would no doubt be able to get back in after we had been appropriately grilled to ensure that Claire really was a Canadian. We decided, amidst much thanks, to take our chances.

It was a wonderful day. We explored the garden, lingering to look closely at the flowers, while Holly asked the names of her favourites. Claire was politely interested. It was a long walk from the parking lot of the Interpretive Centre up towards the gate, then back down the other side, through the fence and up towards the still-standing Peace Tower. The plantings are lovely just now and the vistas are incredible. I kept stopping to take photos – the girls were very patient.

Holly and Claire.

Holly and Claire. There was a cool wind for part of the walk, but the sun soon took over.


IPG flower display.

The flowers are at their best, especially the annuals.

I happen to know that the entire walk, up one side and down the other is about 10,000 steps, and we did most of it, crossing, though, and turning back at the 9/11 memorial girders from the Twin Towers. IN the centre of this walk, a man-made water course flows down the boundary line, tumbling from time to time over little ills and waterfalls. The carillon was marking the time with ringing bell tones, the sun was shining, and happy people were strolling, gazing, and running, sitting, and one even dipping her tired feet in the stream.

When we got back to ground zero – the misnamed “Interpretive Centre”, which is really now the conservatory — we stopped for ice cream in the café, then proceeded to take in the greenhouses and the cactuses (yes, cactuses is correct – we are dealing here with Greek, not Latin) and succulents. Now Claire came alive. Out popped the cell phone camera, which clicked away with joyous abandon as we meandered through the marvellous collection.

She announced that she would like to have all of them. They are really glorious with their varied and amazing forms and flowers.

We stopped by the gift shop and bought a keepsake – earrings for the girls, made locally – right in the garden actually by the wife of the succulents collection curator. Exhausted but happy, we finally made our way back to customs, relieved to find the same helpful officer ready to “grill” us as we entered back into Canada.

How can you be anything but supremely happy when days like this pop up in your life? Flowers and grandchildren. How could anything be better?



The new garden with its crooked stepping stones that the deer love.

The new garden with its crooked stepping stones that the deer love.


August 1 and summer is fully dressed.

We built a new garden last fall—we did it the easy way by laying down wet newspaper and covering that with a foot of topsoil. This spring, I scoured the garden centres for grasses because Glen had a hankering for their tall stately forms. He thought we should move the roses and have this space filled with waving grass. I didn’t move the roses, though. Now we have a grasses-and-roses-and-everything-goes kind of garden that you can meander through, walking along a badly laid set of stepping stones that I could barely lift—but I did!

The deer, that have recently taken to coming by for a visit and a bit of a nibble, love that pathway and they tread it nightly, stopping by to sample my coveted hydrangea blossoms – they even eat the lupins and have nipped off and stunted the phlox. I can deal with this, but we put a stop to their molestation of the columnar apple tree that was valiantly striving to survive these nightly raids. Glenn built a fence around it and the little tree is starting to recover.

hydrangea, basil

A pot of little leaf basil set among the hydrangeas to fool the deer. They don’t like the smell.

I found a way to fool the deer into leaving one of the hydrangeas alone: I placed a pot of strong smelling basil among the blooms and it worked! They have a yearning for hosta, too, and nibble on their favourites, leaving the one right beside untouched. They love the blossoms so hosta deadheading was off the to-do list this summer.

It’s not that I don’t love the deer, it’s just that I love my garden more.

It is a glorious summer – hot during the day, raining at night. The cucumbers are growing so fast I can’t


The cucumbers are getting away form me.

harvest them on time. Even the Empress Wu hosta that I thought was dead finally emerged, very late but fully intact. I am so looking forward to her reaching her mature four feet height. Many plants were affected by the late frost this spring; our 15-year-old tree peony didn’t show any signs of life until almost the end of June and brown leaves are hanging off the apple like tawdry remnants on a handkerchief tree. It dropped hundreds of tiny apples, too, but the crop is still heavy enough to bend the branches.

I am impatient at the computer this morning. The outdoors is calling; the sun is beckoning from a brilliant blue sky. I want to be among the daylilies (all the real lilies have succumbed to the dastardly red lily leaf beetles). I am itching to take the spent blossoms away from the patch of crazy daisies that makes me so happy. I need to fertilize the pretty container annuals – all red and orange this year – and give them a trim so they can continue to bloom. There is so much to do in the garden. The weeds are on steroids.

Tomorrow, I will take my granddaughter to the International Peace Gardens to revel in the work that Connie and Rodney and Keith and Johannes and Kathy have done there this summer. It is truly lovely. Claire will get to see the amazing succulents garden, wandering through the greenhouses to marvel at their myriad forms and shapes. Succulents are so other-worldly; we have an amazing collection there — world class.

And along the way, we can marvel at the golden fields of canola and the odd acreage of blue flax. The drive is a beautiful adventure all on its own. I love this province.



Sunny day, magic day, rainy day

The wind is doing its best to blow the new gazebo and fence right over.

The wind is doing its best to blow the new gazebo and fence right over.

It was a brilliant day in early spring, just what I needed to get my garden renovations under way. We were installing a new pergola, a new back fence and at the same time, I decided I’d like a little stone patio to house a fantasy chair I discovered in a local garden centre.

What a job – the guys pulled down and discarded the old fence and I got busy redirecting the garden stepping stones, resetting them, digging and levelling the earth in which to set them. It wasn’t so much the lifting of the pavers as it was the digging of the grass and weeds by hand, but at the end of the day, I was pretty well done in. I came into the house exhausted  but exhilarated.

Glenn designed and erected a fence that lets us see into the park behind our house and Friday, a wonderfully warm and sunny day, our reward was to watch a young man try out his new drone in the park. I went out to chat with him about this marvellous device  that I had written about but never seen up close. Distracted by me, the poor kid let it run out of power and its homing program kicked in. Unfortunately, the GPS setting was lightly off and it crashed in some trees. But it was that kind of evening, full of light and magic and with a pair of blue jays darting in and out of the garden looking for the peanuts that the squirrels keeps stealing and hiding, while we sat in the waning sun and admired our handiwork in the back garden.

Then yesterday, up at 6:00, out in the garden by 7:00 and a full day of digging and planting and weeding and wonder — at both the garden and the fact that I felt great with no body aches or pains supposed to be associated with my age. I planted about 30 perennials in the new garden that we made last fall out of newspaper and topsoil so that Glenn would not have to mow between the roses.

Today is a different story.

It's windy and wet, very wet and very windy.

It’s windy and wet, very wet and very windy.

It is wet. Very wet. The wind is gusting up to 84 kmh. A friend just emailed and said that in addition to being the only non-staff person at the local garden centre, the wind almost blew her off the Perimeter Highway. And it is relatively cold at just seven degrees.

It rained — hard — just two days ago, too, but in spite of that, the ground when I knelt on it yesterday was already dry enough not to wet my knees. Although we have had no snow since mid-march and some 20-degree-plus days already, many of the perennials have been reluctant to show themselves. A few of the hosta have poked up their noses, but most are still in hiding.

I keep checking the weather on-line to see if anything has changed in the forecast because I don’t like the bad news we’ve been getting. Snow is threatened and the temperatures are supposed to drop below zero. I think of all those perennials that I planted yesterday — fortunately they have been outside hardening off the for past two weeks, but I hope they survive

The 80 kmh winds blew the new gazebo off its pins and  pulled the fence away from its post.

The 80 kmh winds blew the new gazebo off its pins and pulled the fence away from its post.

(I just went outside to get you a few pictures and the wind blew the gazebo off its pins — I righted it but have little hope that it won’t happen again. The wind is forecast to stay steady from the north at 50 with gusts as high at 90 for the next 18 hours or so.)

The thing is, the ground here has been so desperately dry that this rain can only do some g. Perhaps all the rain will help keep the plants from freezing when the temperature drops below zero as it is expect to do this evening.

(Oh, no. the gazebo and fence have been hit again).

Glenn and I just went out and this time we shored the thing up form the outside, opened the gate to let the wind blow through and Glenn has tied it down, using some rope and tent pegs. We will hope for the best.
Stay tuned. I’ll update you when I know if the perennials have survived — not to mention the fence!

Glenn tied the gazebo down and I tied the gates open. Here's hoping for the best.

Glenn tied the gazebo down and I tied the gates open. Here’s hoping for the best.

Confining cities: a giant falls

Cedars covered with snow

Snow flowers on cedars.

There is a hole in my garden this morning. When I look out the window in front of my desk, missing in the scene are the strong arms of the old cottonwood tree. It was felled this past week.

It was not an easy departure for this giant; It took two days and six people to bring it down, but at last it surrendered with a heart-felt thud as the huge trunk hit the ground. You could feel it all through the house which shook with the impact. It was only 43 years old.

Sadly, that’s the way with hybrid cottonweeds. They grow quickly, live vigorously and die early. Out in the open, without the restrictions of city life, native poplar trees can reach 100 years or even more. But in the city, the hybrids face all sorts of impediments to their growth and they become susceptible to disease, soil compaction and limitations on their root growth. In the case of our cottonwood, it had vastly outgrown its living space; it was beginning to drop twigs and branches at an alarming rate and my husband had to make one too many calls to the roto-rooter-type people to clean the sewer lines of its adventitious roots.

We don’t look forward to coping with those live roots over the next summer as they will continue to spring up throughout our lawn, but that too is the nature of this wonderful tree. With a short lifespan, you need additional survival methods and, with a root system that sends up suckers even after the main stem has been removed, chances for rejuvenation are that much greater.

I don’t want to think how the birds will mourn him this summer, though.

Poplar being felled.

The poplar coming down.

Poplar felled.

The poplar comes down with a thud.

Nobody talks to the crossing guard

It’s a beautiful winter so far this year. White flowers of snow have fallen every other day, cleaning up the  landscape and hiding the dirty sand laid down by the City. Of course, we need the sand, especially after the ploughs have polished up the streets and removed the soft snow cushions at the curb edges that helped us to stop at corners.

I shouldn’t complain. It’s probably that I have a bias against high-density cities and I have never been an acolyte to the June Jacobs school of thought. Her anti-utopian vision of bee-hive living is in complete opposition to the Cities Beautiful way to which I am passionately committed. While proponents claim that the “economics” of high density living offer advantages, I have severe doubts about this over the longer term and I worry about the stress such an environment must ultimately take on citizens. I shudder to think what those towers of glass and cement will look like 50 years from now — but anyone who has seen the wasteland of downtown Detroit will have some idea.

And now there is a new threat to the City Beautiful concept: artificial claddings made of a styrofoam-type material that has a lifespan of about 15 years — what happens when this material gives out? The mental images are not pleasant.

As for me, I hug the edge of the city and would move outside if I had the choice, but businesses and personal economics keep me where the streets are paved. If it were up to me, I would spread the city out even further, with lovely parks and treed spaces to separate neighbourhoods — sort of like Charleswood, where I and my neighbours live in harmony with trees and breathing space. In my small subdivison built in the 1970’s, there are seven parks. People walk all the time and they get to know one another. They leave their porch lights on at night, a habit I find wonderfully warming and welcoming.

June Jacobs and compact cities fans claim that high density living promotes a sense of neighbourhood. Hmm. When my youngest grandchild was born in Toronto, I stayed for some weeks with my daughter while she was recovering from the birth. Every day I would walk six-year-old Julia to school and, when we crossed the Danforth, I would always say good morning to the crossing guard. She would say good morning back and one day even spent enough time to tell me that she was originally from Winnipeg.

But one morning, Julia floored me by asking in a six-year-old voice full of censure, “Why do you talk to the crossing guard, Grammy?”

“Shouldn’t I?” I asked, mildly amused.

“No,” she replied, emphatically. “Nobody talks to the crossing guard.”

It made me think about the alienating impact of population density where people seem to need to protect whatever diminishing space they have by not speaking with strangers.

I compare that with going to our local garden centre yesterday to buy a Christmas tree. Children were running about, admiring the plants and soaking up the atmosphere. They talked to strangers and strangers talked to each other. What a lovely freedom from fear.

Note: The above was written December 1, 2013, and just never got published. The hole left by the cottonwood is now filled with perennials on a temporary basis while I decide what new tree to plant. The promised sprouts did spring up and kept Glenn and I pulling them all season long. But the grass, no longer quite so out competed, is making a comeback.

And I still feel the same way about density in cities.


The Christmas tree

I believed in the magic of the Christmas tree and would gaze into its depths for hours.

I believed in the magic of the Christmas tree and would gaze into its depths for hours.

When I was a child, Christmas always held a special magic for me. I would get a warm feeling of anticipation near the beginning of December, dreaming of the good things to come – the Christmas tree, the presents, the fruit-filled cakes and puddings. The very air seemed to twinkle with possibility, the house ready and waiting with an expectant feeling. Everything would be waxed and polished — I loved that smell of floor polish; it spoke of order in a chaotic world.

When I was 11, chaos visited.

We lived then in a small mining town in the East Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia. It was a good life – people were making a lot of money and it was easy come, easy go – that was B.C. in the latter half of the 1950s.

My parents were young and full of hope for a wonderful life. We were a tight knit family of eight, with six kids.

Then, in early November, my father was in a car accident and broke his ribs. He contracted an infection, followed by a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics that put him in the hospital for several weeks. In those days, there was little to back up a family of six when the dad was off work, so things were not easy. To make matters much worse, just when he was ready to go back to work in early December, there was a massive layoff at the mine. By the time Christmas drew near; we were very, very short of money. No Christmas tree, this year, said my mom. And my heart sank. I didn’t care too much about the presents or the cakes and puddings, but I did care about that magic tree. And I believed in its magic.

Mom did her best: the house was clean and polished; it smelled of floor wax and expectation, but as the last few days of school passed and nothing changed, I sank into a pit of gloom. My pessimism may have been abetted by the fact that there was not a lot to eat – a deer my dad had shot in the fall was nearly all gone – we had been living on deer meat and porridge, a dreary diet, but it would be even drearier when the meat ran out.

Still suffering the pain of slowly healing ribs, Dad was out every day looking for odd jobs, but the whole town was depressed with so many out of work and there was really very little to be had.

The last day of school before the Christmas break, I was given the task of taking down the class Christmas tree. As I lifted off the ornaments, I got an idea and, even though I suffered terribly from shyness, I mustered the courage to ask the teacher, “What are you going to do with that tree?” I waited for her answer with my heart throbbing in my throat.

“Throw it out,” she replied. “It’ll be all dried out before we get back to school.”

“Can I have it?” I asked. I thought I would faint before she answered.

She looked at me dubiously, but shrugged and said, “Sure. If you want.”

I dragged that skinny little thing home in the darkening day, tugging it up the hilly streets to our house in Upper Blarchmont, the new subdivision where we were the proud owners of a brand new, but Spartanly furnished, house. At last I was at our front door, shouting for my mom to show her my prize. It didn’t occur to me that we were surrounded by evergreens – the mountainsides were full of them for the taking with a saw and a bit of energy.

She came to the door and hid her look of dismay. I remember her hesitation before she smiled and helped me bring it in. “But,” she said gently, “we don’t have any decorations.”

She must have seen my face fall, because she got that look of concentration she assumed when she was problem solving and then she said, “But let’s see what we can do.”

My mother was a creative and resourceful person. She made some paste out of a bit of flour and water and then we tore old magazine pages into strips which we fastened into round circles to make chains. The chains were a blend of interesting bits of story mixed with the jewel-like colours from the photo spreads. The more we worked – all the kids got into the act — the more enthused we became and soon we were laughing and having fun, coming up with other magazine paper designs for our tree. Mom even pasted together a star for the top.

It was a beautiful tree. For the next several nights, I sat in front of it, gazing into its depths, discovering possibilities and miracles that only I could see. At last it was Christmas Eve. Dad had explored every avenue to make a little money, but there was simply nothing to be found. Every door was closed. We went to bed that night, a gnawing in our stomachs that came from more than just the tiny dinner we had eaten.

Christmas morning dawned, very white and cold. The furnace was coal-fired but it would burn wood, a good thing since there was a whole world of wood outside, but the fire had died down in the night. I remember shivering under the covers when my sister and I woke, listening to Dad downstairs stoking up the coals. “Stay in bed till it warms up,” he shouted, and when he had it roaring, he bounded upstairs and back into bed himself. We were only too glad to obey.

Suddenly, there was a mighty banging on the front door. Terror froze my heart. Who could it be? All sort of evil possibilities presented themselves. I cowered under the covers beside my sister, listening to Dad go to the door.

Then we heard it. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” The voices were ringing, a smile hidden in the sound. There were happy, stomping feet. There was the noise of things being carried in.

“What a beautiful tree,” said a female voice. “Bring that in here, John.” We didn’t need Dad to invite us to come and see. My sister and I crept downstairs and what we saw was quite wonderful: gaily wrapped presents under the tree. Boxes full of something on the kitchen table. Two warmly dressed people just leaving, saying again, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”

We felt Mom’s presence behind us. She wrapped her arms around our shoulders and together we went into the kitchen where dad was standing, looking stunned. We’d all forgotten to be cold. On the table were two huge boxes stuffed with food – and the prize was a giant turkey. But there were practical things, too: sugar and flour and potatoes and cabbage and carrots and lovely, thoughtful things: syrup and a big tin of Malkin’s strawberry jam. The list went on.

At the very bottom of the box was an envelope that said, “Merry Christmas from the Ladies of the Purple Heart”.

“They should call themselves Ladies of the Golden Heart,” said Dad in a wobbling voice. Mom simply wept, silent tears that she wiped away with the sleeve of her bathrobe.

I don’t remember the presents. My sister and I were just glad that the little kids: my six-year-old brother, five-year-old sister and the three-year-old twins, found those gifts under the tree when they came downstairs.

I was filled with a boundless joy that day. It seemed to me to be a miracle – we had not asked for help – had not told anyone of our need, but somehow, they had known and responded.

I gave the credit to the tree.

We learned later that the ladies were part of an auxiliary to the local Elks lodge. They gave up their own Christmas morning to go from one house to another, filling the Christmas wishes of all the families that had been hit by the layoff.

Knowing this didn’t spoil the magic for me, though. What mattered was their kindness and the cheerful, matter-of fact way they dealt out their charity. They will live forever in my mind as the Ladies of the Golden Heart.

And I still believe it was the tree that told them.

I still believe in the magic of trees.

I still believe in the magic of trees.

Of remembering, the first snow and christmas trees

Dave Lutes of Treewise hangs lights in our 35-foot blue spruce.

The first snow of winter, November 11, 2014 seen though the screen from my office window.

Now it’s November and the mercury, if we still had mercury in our thermometers, reached a high of only -9 C today. The wind is sharp. It cuts through fall clothing like shards of glass, seeking out seams to slice between. It’s not that -9 is that cold in Fahrenheit — only just under 16 degrees — but the negative numbers send psychological chills to our bones.

There is no snow, only skiffs sometimes in the morning. It fills driveway cracks and teases small insects into to hiding under garden debris. I make an absent-minded note to cut off the ugly stems of the globe thistles, but I know it won’t get done, and what does it matter, after all? The stark bare stalks, now standing sentinel-erect, will finally bow to the will of winter and, just like the rest of the perennials, return their borrowed nutrients to the earth.

The peonies huddle in the cold. I don’t cut them back in deference to the advice of an old gardener who would know much more than I. He says leaving them standing will protect their hollow stems from carrying rain water and snow melt down to rot their roots. Yet . . . I find myself sometimes doubting old-timer advice — it often doesn’t correlate with the logic I have learned. After all, the winter-broken stems will still be open to let snow melt in come spring, cut down or not.

Another local garden guru advises me to fertilize my Christmas cactus when it is in bloom. This makes no sense to me when I know that plants need sunlight to photosynthesize and use up fertilizers, yet Christmas cactus blooms in the darkest days of late autumn or early winter. Seems to me the time to fertilize them is before they go into semi-dormancy with the darkening of the days which stimulates the output of their flowers.


Poppies in a summer garden not far from here.

Poppies in a summer garden not far from here.

I awake this morning to find that the snow has slipped silently over the land through the night. It’s very quiet now at day break, the usual sounds hushed by a thin white blanket and the world seems clean and calm.

It is Remembrance Day, November 11, 2014, 70 years after D-Day, 100 years after the outbreak of the first Great War. It is odd how this day stands out in my memory over the years. I think of a day back in school, a warm sunny day in November, when a girl suddenly fainted at a ceremony as we stood silently remembering those who had died. One moment she was standing straight and rigid beside me, the next, she was flat on her back, not crumpling the way you would think one would fall, but falling backward and landing with a thud.

I think of the five Remembrance Days that I served in Parliament, each of them solemn and heavy with feeling as we laid wreaths in darkened rooms and took part in the great theatre of official remembering.

November 11 has also been a joyous day, celebrating the birth of my first daughter, Lori, who is as perfect and as pretty as the poppy that commemorates this day.

Ah, that poppy, Papaver rhoeas, the field popy, the poppy of Flanders Fields, the poppy that is one of the seed bank plants whose seeds can lie dormant for many years until the soil is disturbed by some physical event. During the war, artillery falling in the fields of Europe caused the poppies to spring up, staining the landscape red and inspiring Colonel John McCrea to write the poem whose words are etched in my brain:

In Flanders Field, the popplies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks still bravely singing fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

A shiver runs down my spine as I read. In my mind, I can see what McCrea saw — the scarlet flowers, the white crosses, the birds winging overhead against a cloudless blue sky while the booming of distant guns bears testimony to death and destruction.

At 11:00, I will take that two minutes to reflect, thinking of my father and how the war killed him although he returned physically unharmed. He was just a child when they sent him off to the front, only 18, and what he saw and experienced never left him. My father had a poet’s soul. The horrors of war gouged out deep furrows of sorrow that no amount of singing or playing or reciting nonsense poems could ever erase.


But today, thanks to my darling daughter Lori, is also a day of rebirth and celebration, so after the sorrow at 11, I will go on to celebrate the lovely part of life; that it renews itself, just as in a garden the plants re-emerge each spring from their own particular type of dormancy, whether it be from seed or bulb or from sugars stored in roots. The sun will spread its warmth again. Tender leaves will spring on delicate stems from trees suddenly exhuberant, released from their long winter sleep.The beauty will return.

And yet, in its way, this first day of snow is also welcome, bringing calm, quiet and repose swathed in gentle folds of white. There is a time for waking and a time for sleeping and both are lovely.


Dave Lutes of Treewise sends a “thumbs up” signal from the top of our 35-foot blue spruce. The wind was blowing, the tree swaying, but the intrepid Dave hung the lights and the tree smiled.

Last weekend we asked Dave Lutes of Treewise to help us put up the Christmas lights on our blue spruce tree. It had grown too tall for Glenn to reach the top with his makeshift tool fashioned from a pool brush with an extension and a hook. We expected Dave to arrive with a truck and a cherry picker. Instead he arrived, well-covered, and shimmied up the centre of the tree like some overgrown cat.

Dave is a tree man, extraordinaire. His view is a lofty one from the tree tops, his preferred perch. His affinity for trees is natural and unbreakable. As he climbed our tree, he dislodged insects nesting in its centre and broke off dead branches, removing these irritating things from the tree’s trunk. I imagine it sighing in relief.

We thank you, Dave. And our spruce thanks you, too.