Essence of summer and why I’ve been missing

Rudbeckia reaching for the sun.

Gold and yellow and orange, so brilliant the colours burn the eyes — these images fill my computer screen. I watch, photo by photo, as a rudbeckia opens its petals, tentative and sensitive at first, reaching into the sunlight gently, probingly, every hair alert and glistening in the light, then, dancing as it realizes the wonder of the place, and finally, stretching its petals fully to the sun giving itself and its short life in abandon and without compromise to the exquisite beauty of this world.

This is my summer, condensed into tiny intense images through the lens of my camera and then magically reconstructed, larger than life, on my screen. And yet, as glowingly beautiful as these images seem today when all around is dull, gray sky and cold, cold winds, they don’t rival the real thing. I know this because when I take these photos and then review them in summer they never seem good enough. The camera can never capture the soft air and warm sun and lovely fragrance that surrounds us in the garden.

Discovering the sun.

Worshipping the sun.


Just looking at the photos, though, soothes me in this frantic time.

And because it has been frantic is why I haven’t been here. This has been a very packed period of activity.On the good side, Glenn is much better so I whisked him off to Toronto to spend a week with our granddaughters Julia and Claire while Shauna and David trekked off to Washington. It would be, I thought, therapeutic albeit not physically comfortable. But they all have such wonderful personalities that just being with them is balm for the soul.

This happened just two weeks after coming home from the London, Ontario conference for Tree Canada, where I did such a wickedly poor job of filming the Carolinian forest for you.  There was barely time to catch my breath in between, because, although I didn’t tell you this before, we were frantically looking for a place to move our offices. After 13 years in the same location, on September 6, we were given two months to the day, to vacate the premises, The new owner wanted to demolish the building so he could expand his next door business. I won’t tell you all the turmoil we went through upon learning this, but I will say that it carried on right until almost the day we moved; it was a stressful time.Meanwhile, while Glenn was in Toronto, I went to Ottawa. Shall I tell you what happened there? The Cole’s Notes story is that Day One was a meeting of the editorial board for Beyond the Hill, the magazine I produce for the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, followed by briefing for the Arts Summit Day on the Hill. Day Two was a parade of meetings with various political types, among them the leader of the Opposition and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, followed by a reception in the Speaker’s rooms. Day Three was lunch with my executive director of Tree Canada at the parliamentary restaurant, then a visit to our new Tree Canada offices, followed by a submission to the Committee on the Environment about trees (of course) and then the annual fundraising dinner for the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians to listen to the Commissioner of the CFL, this being the 100thAnniversary of the Grey Cup. I must say that he is adorable and a very good speaker.

There are many sidebars to those three days, but you get the picture. On Thursday morning, I caught the early flight to Toronto to meet up with Glenn and the kids and dinner at Il Fornello. They live just off the Danforth, after all. There were more meetings:  in Ajax to talk to my distributor, dinner with my friend Veronica Sliva and her husband in their lovely Scarborough house. I took Claire to the dinner and Veronica and Walter showed us the bones of their garden. I can see that it must be lovely in summer. Saturday was dance class for Claire and coffee at Starbucks with Julia and, finally, I made a home cooked dinner. Sunday, Shauna and David came back from Washington and we all went off to dinner at Dynasty where we had our favourite dim sum, a tradition when I go to Toronto.This is how my life goes at certain times: frantic activity with no breathing space in between. Does it help to explain why I so love the garden? It is my refuge, my place of absolute sanity where I can get away from the insane world I live in most days.

When I came home the following Monday, it was the last week before the move and we still hadn’t firmed up our new location – there were many complications. But on Thursday of that week, we reached agreement and were able to get the key to our new kingdom. The staff, who had been packing all this time, threw themselves into the task and we spent the entire weekend on the move because even with movers, there is much to do yourself. I can never say enough to thank my tireless helpers, but I hope they know I appreciate and love them dearly.

By Monday at noon, we were fully settled into the new quarters, which are really quite lovely. And, as Lloyd Robertson used to say, ‘that’s the kind of (month) it was”. So I hope you will forgive my absence from these pages.

Clear blue tinged with violet.

Now, I turn back to the photo files from summer. I see a borage flower, perched like a tiny bird, on its slender stem. And there is the Philadelphus, smothered in sweet smelling mock-orange flowers and the clear blue delphinium, its petals tinged with violet. And there is the yellow foxglove, the only perennial foxglove in this part of the world, its mottled yellow throat inviting passing bees . . .summer is suddenly with me again and all my cares melt away in the garden.

Adventures in the Carolinian forest

October 4, 2012

I used to be the chair of Tree Canada because I have a passion for trees. I love them in every season although I feel most closely in touch with them in winter when they lose their fancy dresses and reveal themselves so eloquently against the sky. I don’t do anything weird like talk to them or hug them, but I feel their presence as an easing of the heart.

So this week, I have been off to London, Ont. to attend a meeting of the board of directors and have a presence at the biannual Urban Tree Conference. I had been especially looking forward to a field trip to the Carolinian forest, a little corner of Canada where quite tropical varieties grow.

The meetings were held and then the big moment came to grab a box lunch and board the buses. My staff had encouraged me to take my video camera to share the experience with you, so camera in hand, with an extra battery in tow, I set off with great expectations. Nor was I disappointed. There was a magnificent black maple, standing all orange and fiery reds right at the outset. There were hazelnuts, spice bushes, unusual oaks and a venerable and gigantic black poplar. As we walked through the woods, with me bringing up the rear and using my camera as an excuse for not being able to keep up the pace of the guide, I paused and took great shots of the multi-coloured leaves waving in the warm October breeze, of the shaggy bark of a shaggy barked sycamore, of the tough and craggy skin of the ancient poplar.

As we walked down, down, down, I pretty much kept up – staying within hearing distance of the guide when he stopped to identify and point out a special species. The afternoon was humid and warm, the tawny October sun painting the falling leaves on the forest floor with spangled light.
Giant beech leaves mingled with maple of equal size, red and gold. Then suddenly, the species changed and the leaves became small, the maples like coloured stars in an upside down world.

I could hear the tour in the distance. They had picked up the pace and now we were on the penalty side of that downhill stroll. I trundled along, ever upward, not sorry to be alone surrounded by tall straight trunks in an obvious plantation, much like the forests in Germany where order prevails – how dare it not? – among the trees.

I could feel my breath becoming laboured; the humidity triggered a bit of asthma and I regretted leaving my purse with its rescuer back in the bus. But mind over matter, I counseled myself, pausing to point and shoot videos less often now. I too tried to pick up the pace. I hurried along, eyes on the ground to watch for roots – I had almost taken a tumble at the outset. The air was very warm now – we had been following alongside a river and the humidity was stifling.

At last, the terrain leveled out and coming into a clearing I could see the bus in the distance across an open field. A very young parks person was waiting patiently for me in case I had somehow taken a wrong turn. It’s only 10 more minutes, he encouraged.

I was hot and tired, but smug with the thought of all my great movies to share with you. As soon as I boarded the bus, I called them up to relive the experience… but all I found was a group of images of my own feet hurrying along! I had mixed up the camera signal – counter-intuitively, green meant stop and red meant go!

Oh dear! Here is a tiny bit of what I salvaged. . . .

Trees in winter… and in summer, and…

In winter, trees take on urgency in the landscape, looming larger than they ever do in summer. They stand so still and stoic against the bitterest winds, patiently waiting until the sun warms them out of their stupor and allows them to breathe and bend again.

They are not sentient, we are told, and we are lectured against the personification of non-human life forms, but I cannot help feeling a twinge of anxiety when I see a tree in distress.  It’s a physical thing with me. I feel the same way I do when I encounter a person or an animal in pain.

I know I am not alone in this somewhat irrational attachment to trees. There are many people like me who just plain like trees.

I am the immediate past president of Tree Canada, a foundation that was started over two decades ago to plant trees where people live in this vast country, and I know that there are many tree lovers out there. Among them is my tree-loving friend, Bill Vander Zalm, the former premier of British Columbia, who recently quashed the HST in that province. I mention Bill and his recent doings to illustrate how tree fanciers come from every walk of life.

Can you imagine growing up, then, in a cityscape of concrete with no trees? It must be so de-humanizing. Yet for years, it was the fashion to strip schoolyards of their trees and fill in the playgrounds with asphalt. When Tree Canada discussed the schoolyard greening with one reluctant Ontario school trustee, he responded with the excuse that trees were dangerous because, he said, they provided a place for kids to hide!  I have a vision of a kid playing hooky, pasted up against the off-side of a tree, rigid with the fear of being discovered.

It seems that for all those who love trees, there are others who, just as irrationally, hate them. There was the case of the Vancouver miscreant who systematically poisoned a boulevard tree in front of his condo because it obscured his view of the ocean. There was the Winnipeg man who destroyed a boulevard crabapple because it dropped its fruit on his lawn.

These vandalisms happen all the time, sometimes even on private property. Case in point was the elderly Winnipeg woman who, with her much loved husband, had planted a lovely birch some 30 years ago. The tree was at the height of its beauty and maturity when he died and she took her grief to the west coast. She returned some months later to suffer a second bereavement. While she was away, her next door neighbour had called in a tree service which topped the tree to just above eight feet off the ground. Imagine how this woman felt when she returned to find nothing but a tall stump, a remnant of the tree that symbolized her happiness with her just-deceased husband. The neighbour felt no remorse. The tree was dropping leaves on his property.

These stories break my heart, but there are many other stories that do just the opposite. For example, in the playground of a school in a downtrodden part of Winnipeg, there is a tree that was planted in 1881. It was an accidental tree, brought there by a young girl who heard about a tree planting taking place at her school and thought she would help. She found a wild tree and dug it up, arriving at school only to learn that the tree planting was for dignitaries only. An understanding teacher observed her heartbreak and arranged a private ceremony to plant the child’s tree. It still grows there today, 131 years later.

Why do trees matter so much to us? Who knows? But I delight in the artistic way the white pine thrusts its limbs into the air of the Canadian Shield and I mourn the loss of the hundreds of thousands that were stripped away across the land in the building of Canada’s railways, shipping industry and cities. (I know. It’s stupid. They will grow back, given a chance.)

I have to pause in awe as I travel under a cathedral of interlocking American elms that shelter many of the streets of Winnipeg, and I am thankful that we still have these elms unlike Truro, Nova Scotia. There most of their beloved elms fell to the scourge of the Dutch elm beetle. The people of Truro, though, so loved their trees that rather than burn them when they died, they stripped off the bark and carved the likenesses of their pioneers in the standing wood.

I remember my thrill on seeing for the first time, a handkerchief tree in Malaysia and then learning that there is actually one of these growing in Vancouver and several in the Carolinian forests of southern Ontario. It gave me a special sense of connection with a county half way around the world.

Handkerchief tree (c/o Google)

You’re being maudlin, I tell myself when I start to speak of these things, but there’s a part of me that whispers back, “Who cares! I love those trees.”

Winter Dreams and Ten Neat Things…

The morning sun on the cottonwood outside our house.

I love the sky in winter. These December mornings are so brilliantly pink as we approach eight o’clock and then, for a brief moment just before 4:30 p.m., a rosy glow lights up the western sky.

A rosy sunrise from my kitchen window, with the ceramic wrenhouse that waits for those busy little birds to bring it back to life next spring.

It is only days now until we reach the bottom of the year, not Dec. 31 as you might think, but Dec. 22. This day will be eight hours, five minutes and 21 seconds long, the shortest day of the year. (The winter solstice occurs Dec. 21 at 11:30 p.m. in Winnipeg this year.)

Now the days slowly start getting longer, picking up momentum as time goes on and lengthening faster and faster. By New Year’s Eve, we will already have gained four minutes and 32 seconds.

Somewhere between March 16 and March 17, we will reach the moment when there will be equal number of hours of sunlight and darkness, not counting predawn and twilight, even though the vernal equinox does not occur here in Winnipeg until March 20 at 12:14 a.m. When that happens, you can almost hear the breath and pulse of all the sleeping animals and plants beginning to quicken ever so slightly.

We – the plants and animals and those who garden – won’t care, as our internal clocks will be already have been rousing us from our deep winter torpor. Each day after the shortest day, we feel the thrum of the earth slowly stirring and begin to look forward to spring. I used to get such spring fever as a child.

Still, there are yet many beautiful days of winter to come. We have had only two mornings of hoarfrost, when fog dissolves into a world of crystal and white. We have seen only two brilliantly sunny, but icy, days to showcase twin sundogs.  We have not yet seen the northern lights this year. There is yet but a thin layer of snow, and it is threatened by a warm front and treacherous freezing rain.

I have known it to rain on New Year’s Eve here one year then plunge to -40 C the next.

The real time for savouring winter is January when the temperature plummets to -40 C. (This is where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet on the bottom end of thermometer). The intense cold releases the music of snow, when it is crunched underfoot. That squeak, squawk, creak happens when the temperatures fall below -10 C. Then the display of diamonds, reflections of sun on the simplest of snow crystals that form when the thermometer drops, litter the earth and light up the day.

We have yet to be heartened by the “bonspiel thaw” in early February, when an annual warm spell melts all the carefully cut snow sculptures created for the Festival du Voyageur.  The thaw seems ironic, when this festival is our annual celebration of winter.

Finally, just as we are longing for the winter to pass at last, fickle March blows in and often brings heavy snow dumps and alarming but exciting blizzards in one last battle with the lengthening days and the returning strength of the sun.

And through it all, we rest warm and cozy, before our fireplaces or television screens, flipping through garden magazines and seed catalogues or searching the net waiting impatiently now for it all to begin again.

Ten Neat Things…

Three weeks ago, Shauna, my youngest daughter, and I published our Book of Ten Neat Things. This is a collection of the e-letters about neat things in the garden and the wide wild world around us: it could be Ten Neat Things about spiders, or owls, or petunias or even snow. We look for things that make us go Wow! I didn’t know that! Or that make us laugh or fill us with wonder.

Shauna and I like to say we often think with one brain. She would be writing about something in Toronto and I would be writing about the same topic in Winnipeg. It’s weird, but kind of marvellous at the same time. Shauna has stopped writing now because she is going back to school to learn fashion design, or some such thing, but I carry on because it makes me happy.

We have written more than a hundred of these e-letters over the past three years. People were telling us that they collected them and passed them on to friends, so a book seemed a natural extension.

Now The Book of Ten Neat Things is on our local newsstands and hopefully, when I have more time, we will extend distribution to newsstands in other areas of Canada. You can see a sampling of these e-newsletter HERE. You can even order a copy through our website at or by calling us at 1-888-680-2008. Sorry folks, the toll free-number only covers North America.



Lovely, Lovely Wales

Now that the days are getting colder and the world is turning browner, I close my eyes and see the green, green hills of Wales, dotted with sheep and divided by low stone fences decorating the landscape like stitching on a quilt. The sheep keep the hills cropped close and clover keeps them brightly emerald.

Although the air is clear, it hints of mist, adding mystery to the ancient landscape.

It is breathtakingly beautiful; abandoned castles and fortresses are common, venerable trees are magnets for the eye, and the gardens are stunning: plants placed against stone walls and low divisions; arbours and changing levels; water features and green lawns dotted with statuary are exotic to Canadian viewers.

Hydrangeas of every colour grow like weeds, taken for granted and used as backdrop shrubs surrounding parking lots and farmyards. The giant flowers vary from bright blue to violet to magenta and wine, some fading to green or standing out in white or burgundy.

Espaliered fruit trees, thick with apples and pears and apricots cover brick garden walls. There are medlar trees, those beige-fruited trees that predate the apple as the eaten fruit. Everywhere is the evidence of the tree pruner’s art. Cedars and boxwood are trimmed to perfection. Yews are large and luxurious. In one garden, there was a variegated pagoda dogwood that stood out beacon-like in the morning mist.

Ancient stone and slate, quarried at the expense of many lungs, provide the hard features that are such an important part of the landscape in any garden. There were even slate fences in one part of the country.

Still, it is a different picture that springs to mind as I look back, not seeing a particular garden, although there are achingly lovely gardens etched in my mind forever. It is not the house and garden that Queen Victoria once owned, nor is it the garden that inspired Beatrix Potter.

This picture is of a sea wall at Aberaeron, where I took a foot-weary walk by myself after a long day of touring. It was early evening; the shops were closing and overhead you could hear the seagulls call. A few couples were taking desultory strolls, some hand-in-hand, along the wall, but it was a quiet time. The little inland harbour was filled with resting boats, only the sound of their anchor ropes creaking and squawking broke the stillness as they drifted gently on the out going tide.

Then I saw two children with an elderly couple clamber over the wall, and pick their way down the rocks to the beach; looking for something? Or just for the sheer adventure of it all. The children, a boy and a girl of about five or six years old, maneuvered the rocks with great confidence; granddad and granny, with a little more hesitance, but they followed the kids quite gamely, granny, in her white trench coat, quite a ways behind.

There was quiet happiness in their careful movements and perhaps it was infectious because a feeling of well being overcame me, something that I always seem to encounter on the Atlantic (although not on the Pacific), even in Canada.

Across the bay, the tower of an old church pierced the air. It drew me on and I discovered a humpbacked bridge over the river leading to the harbour and taking me back to the main shopping street, now closed and quiet as the sun sank lower in the sky. I ambled happily home to the Feathers Royal Hotel, past the rows of coloured houses and their genteel door knockers and lace curtains. I felt a curious oneness with the town and its unseen people.

Moments like these moments are etched against the backdrop of loveliness that is the country. They will keep me warm through the long cold nights of the coming winter.

Wales has character along with gardens and it is too often overlooked as a destination in favour of Ireland or Scotland. Too bad. Keep it in mind for a beautiful tour if you have and appreciation for lovely landscapes steeped in history.

A Week In Wales

I am just back from a lovely trip to Wales with my garden writer friends, including Veronica Sliva and Donna Dawson, both of whom conduct garden tours on a regular basis. Donna runs the ICanGarden website that is such a favourite with Canadians from coast to coast.

Landing in Manchester, we were picked up by tour guide Donna Goodman, and her “coachman” Hugh Burnell. (“A bus,” Hugh informed us, “is something you stick your hand out to catch. This is a coach!” That signaled the kind of royal treatment we were to receive throughout the entire trip.) Donna also guided CTV’s Seamus O’Regan when he was in Wales leading up to the royal wedding.

Donna and Hugh whisked us off to Wales where we visitied gardens and estates. We stayed the first night at Bodysgallen Hall, which can trace its origins back to the 17th century. I loved its garden.

Knot Garden at Bodysgallen

We travelled from north to south, stopping at Anglesey and shopping in the same Waitrose supermarket that the newly Royal Kate shops in. We were told that if we took out our cameras, we’d be asked to leave!

Janie Smith

We stayed at many lovely manor houses and old estates and visited fabulous gardens as we made our way down the coast. One of these was Gwaenynog Hall in Denbigh, the garden that inspired Beatrix Potter to write the Tales of the Flopsy Bunnies and we talked with her great grand niece, Janie Smith. We went to Portmeirion, where the 60’s TV series, The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan, was filmed. We also toured the gardens at Ynyshir Hall, once owned by Queen Victoria.






Rhonda Gardens

Terry Walton

But a highlight of the trip was the allotment gardens at Rhonda.

In Wales, there is a certain group of gardeners whose triumphs and tribulations, are shared with the listeners of BBC Radio 2 as part of the Jeremy Vine show. Periodically, Terry Walton, an allotment gardener on the Rhonda hillside in South Wales, is a guest on the show. He has become a bit of a celebrity with an almost cult following throughout the country for his wit and wisdom in regard to the garden.

We had a chance to meet Terry at the allotment and talk to him and his fellow gardeners. It was pouring rain when we arrived so all seven of us crowded into a shed with Terry at the bottom of the hill until the downpour let up enough to at least let us use our umbrellas.

A garden allotment is a public space set aside for gardening by those who don’t have access to land in town. This allotment has been in use for many years, certainly since Terry was a boy of four, in 1950, when he learned to garden with his dad. By the time he was 11, he had an allotment of his own.

Terry is not alone up there on the hillside. It’s a whole community of avid gardeners who populate this place and garden every inch of the 20 allotments. We didn’t meet them all, but we did run into Pete the painter, Keith, Brian, and the man at the top of the hill, Roger.

Albie in his Greenhouse Cafe

Albie runs the cafe, a greenhouse, perhaps six by eight feet, in which is lodged a gas stove and a kettle for tea and strong coffee. Albie hauls water from home and always has a tin full of biscuits for favoured guests.  He’s had a bit of trouble with his health this past year, but that doesn’t keep him from coming to the garden every day and he is already looking forward to next year’s crop of runner beans.

The guys grow lots of runner beans and cabbage and peas and some potatoes in the ground. The more tender plants such as tomatoes and peppers are grown under glass because of the rain – fungus is a constant threat. I saw carrots growing in big bags, something I’ve been encouraging folks to try here. There are flowers here and there to attract the bees for pollination.

It rains a lot, but because the hillside is so steep, the water quickly runs off and in no time at all, the ground is workable.

The allotments are small – just 300 square yards each – long and narrow, extending from either side of a long pathway up the hill. It’s like a little village, dotted with a variety of small homemade greenhouses and garden sheds, each reflecting the personality of its owner, and every inch of ground is planted with something.

Wales is a country of many moods and terrains, but always green, green, green thanks to the rain and the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. There is something dreamy about the landscape that catches the heart. And gardening is not a pastime here, it is an ingrained way of life.

Yet, back here in Winnipeg where the air is now crisp as a fresh apple and the leaves are turning golden in the sunlight, it is not hard to choose my home. I love this land. Still . . .

Wildlife In The Garden

The yard is alive with birds: sparrows, finches, even a big black crow. They are eating voraciously at all the feeders. The finches are feeding on nyger, on sunflower seeds, on regular birdseed. The sparrows are not that picky; they’ll eat just about anything they can get their beaks on.

There were hummingbirds in the garden earlier, too, even though the honeysuckle is sulking by refusing to put out blooms. I can’t decide whether this is happening because of the dry hot summer or if it’s due to competition from the oak tree sapling that the squirrel planted right beside it. (I really should take that out.) Regardless, the honeysuckle has not bloomed since spring time.

The birds must be starving. I am sure wild fruit and seed must be very scarce in the woods. I am glad that I didn’t have much time to deadhead the perennial beds this summer. The birds will have something to raid all winter.

The second batch of swallowtails is ready to emerge from their parsley worm cocoons, too. There were 30 parsley worms on one plant two weeks ago. They literally ate themselves out of house and home and many of them starved when they had finally stripped the plants clean of all their greenery. I have only seen one swallowtail, however.

Last night, we watched a whole army of ants moving from one nest to another. They were marching across the pavement from one part of our garden to another, eggs in tow, clearly looking for another home. I wonder why?

The garden still looks lovely. The white phlox are all in bloom and this is where the hummingbird is feeding – not their favourite colour, but any honeypot in a drought, I guess. The purple fountain grass is in full bloom, too, rising above the blue wave petunias and the lime green sweet potato vine. My cherished purple smokebush is seven feet tall this year – it dies back every winter in this tough climate.  Lime, yellow and burgundy are keynotes in the garden this year. It just sort of happened as it always does, when a greater consciousness than mine takes a hand in putting together my garden colours. But I get all the credit.

It’s a noisy yard: the squirrel is quite perturbed and is scolding something with great emphasis. The birds are proclaiming their territories. CBC is droning away in the background. I can hear the sizzle of the neighbour’s dinner on their barbecue. The sun is low on the horizon, it’s evening glow kissing everything it reaches with gold. We can feel the cool breath of autumn on our cheeks even as the radio predicts temperatures in the 30’s C next week.

Claire goes home to Toronto on Tuesday. I will go to Wales the following week. The WSO opens its season just after I return. We went to the lovely Barge Concert (no barge this year – the river is too high) and lost ourselves, Clair and I, in the lovely music and the magic of the late summer air.

It feels to me as though fall is already well underway.